Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 2
A System Under Stress: Lincoln and Today
Featuring Steve Inskeep
What does it take to create great compromise? Can Abraham Lincoln’s method of talking to people with opposing views work today? And are we really on the brink of a second civil war? Steve Inskeep, host of Morning Edition and Up Next on NPR, and author of Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America, joins the show to break down Lincoln’s political battles and the historical moment we find ourselves in today.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our new season of What Could Go Right?, our weekly podcast where we talk to various and sundry people, some of whom are members of The Progress Network, some of whom are not, and all of whom are animated by or at least willing to engage a sensibility of what could go right. What if we are looking too much at all the ways in which we are delete word here and not looking at how we may be collectively solving problems underneath the radar of our dyspeptic dystopian dialogue? Yes, I like using the word dyspeptic. I like using the word dystopian, but I think it actually describes a lot of our contemporary society and how we view the world.
The lens that we look at the world through is a dark one in our time today. And it has not always been so dark. In the 1950s, in the 1990s, there was a kind of a euphoric lens about the possibilities of the present and the prospects of the future. And much of those rose tinted lenses of those periods were insufficiently attentive to all that was going wrong. And I think in an adverse flip side, we are insufficiently attentive in our dark lens day to those things that are going right or at least have the potential to do so and we are insufficiently paying attention to voices and sensibilities that could otherwise uplift us and create a future that is more of our dreams and less of our fears. So on that note, Emma, who are we gonna talk to today?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today we’re talking to Steve Inskeep. He’s the host of NPR’s Morning Edition as well as NPR’s morning news podcast called Up First. He’s known for doing high level interviews with presidents and congressional leaders, as well as talking to people who are less famous from Kentucky firefighters to Yemeni refugees.
Like many of our guests, he’s also an acclaimed author, and his latest book is called Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America. And of course, the parallels today are obvious. We are very much so in a divided America, between coastal elites and rural communities, people who are awoke and people who are proponents of traditional values. And in the book, he unearthed stories about Abraham Lincoln that show how he approached such division with political acumen, how he listened to his critics, but he also maintained his moral compass and became the president that united a very divided nation.
ZK: Well, I am looking forward to this conversation.
EV: Me too. Let’s go talk to Steve.
ZK: Steve Inskeep, what a pleasure to have you on our program. You’ve written a few books now about the mid-19th century United States, so this is not a leap into the unknown fray for you. You did a book about John Fremont and the creation of celebrity. You did a book about Andrew Jackson. I guess just as a broader question, why is Steve Inskeep so fascinated by and focused on this let’s say 20, 30-year period of the 19th century?
Steve Inskeep (SI): I guess that it’s grown up organically. I’m remembering that I first found the subject of the first of these three books, the one about Andrew Jackson and the removal of the Cherokees from the Eastern United States and the Cherokee Chief John Ross, because I knew that I was obsessed with history, that I wanted to write about history, but I wanted to get beyond the history that everybody knows or feels that they know, the kind of baby boomer history of World War II and the years after World War II and so forth, which is amazing stuff that I’ve also read about and might write about sometime. But I just wanted to go farther back, farther back. And Jackson emerged for me as this really important and also really complicated and in many ways very dark figure. And then I’ve kind of built from there.
I mean, I’ve ended up with this book on Lincoln and I was, as you would imagine, maybe a little afraid to even take on the topic. Like, what do I have to say that hasn’t been said by thousands of other writers? But having written the previous two books, I felt that I had something, that the topic had grown on me, that I had marinated in a little bit, and that I understood a little better. And each of these three books has effectively led to the next book by creating questions that I wanted to go on and answer.
ZK: So you spend most of your days immersed in like the desiderata of what’s going on, micro tuned in daily politics. And we did an episode last year with John Avlon, who’s also written a bit about a similar period in the 1850s. And he too, with CNN, is immersed in the fray of the daily. So does writing about history also help you as kind of an antidote to the insanity of the now?
SI: Oh my gosh, yes. Yeah, and it also works the other way. The news that I cover now helps me understand history a little better because my operating assumption is that human nature hasn’t changed all that much. And so the people operating this republic that we know will have— not exactly the same, but they’ll have some similarities to the people who were operating it then.
EV: So I think we’re definitely gonna delve into some of those similarities between the time of Lincoln and today. So I’m gonna leave that for Zachary to pick up if he wants, but I wanted to follow up on what you said about writing books that go beyond the history that people feel that they know. So for the Lincoln book in particular, what do you feel that that includes? What new did you end up adding I guess?
SI: I think that I am able— well, you’ll tell me when you read it. I aspired anyway to show Lincoln as a political figure, as a politician, as a figure in the middle of conflict. And not only a conflict with the Confederates on the other side of the Civil War, but often with his own political allies or the so-called loyal opposition, somebody who was having to have arguments all the time and somebody who was trying to gain advantage from those arguments and disagreements.
Noel King, a former colleague of mine at NPR, who now has an excellent podcast at Vox, read some early chapters of this as I have some of my friends do, and she summed it up, I think, better than I could myself. She said, I came into this thinking that Lincoln succeeded because he was good. I now think it’s better to say that he succeeded because he was smart. He was trying to figure out how to build political coalitions and move the country in the proper direction, even though people had enormous differences of opinion about what that proper direction should be.
EV: It is really striking in the book how strategic Lincoln comes across. He’s making really calculated decisions.
SI: I like that. My mom’s word was shrewd. My mom, who [laughs] gave me a copy of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln, and it’s still on my shelves over here, said that when she read the galley— you get your mom to read the galley. Your mom agrees to read the galley. It’s a kind of a cool thing about doing a book. She said that she found Lincoln to be really shrewd, and that was a different picture than she had. The picture in her mind was an average man who was thrust into extraordinary circumstances, which is also kind of true, except I don’t think that we would say that in his mind he was average, in his humble beginnings, he was average.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: You write about the 1850s in this book. I mean, you write about 1850s in your Fremont book as well, but this is more in the partisan fray of the ’50s and Lincoln’s rise obviously about the presidency as well. And I think over the past few years, the 1850s has become the preferred decade of comparison to the 2020s insofar as it’s the thing that people now raise as a period of hyperpartisanship that ended really badly. And the fear that we are in one form or another in a similar morass, although only a very few scattered voices I think are predicting something like an armed civil war in the United States in the late 2020s. But what do you make of those comparisons? Are they overwrought? Are they overfraught? Are they eerily, scarily, prescient? Where are you on that particular spectrum?
SI: I think they’re really valuable in that in each of those decades, hours in the 1850s, you see Americans in the basic system of our republic struggling with big differences as the system is under stress. And so there’s something to learn. I don’t think at this moment that we’re heading for a civil war, I don’t see how that would happen. The reason being is that I don’t really understand what it would be about.
In the 1850s, there was this dispute over slavery, which was not only human bondage for 4 million people, as if that wasn’t enough to argue about. It was really an entire economic and social system of a large part of the United States, an economic and social system that the rest of the United States benefited from in different ways, even if they didn’t participate in it. And so there were enormous, enormous questions about who belonged in society and who didn’t, how the economy should be organized or not, who should call the shots or who not there. There were enormous questions to wrestle with.
And even though we have profound differences today, it’s hard to see them as that same kind of division just because so much of it is propaganda and performance and attitude and cultural touchstones and preferred media, all of which become real in a sense. I mean, they mean something to voters and they drive elections and they drive our divisions and how we feel. But would that many people really take up arms, millions of people take up arms to fight about them? I don’t see that yet. I mean, the possibility of political violence. Yes. I mean, that’s always with us. And in fact, some kind of political violence is— almost any given year you could find something that would fall into that category in America. There could be more, there could be less. I’m not worried about a civil war in that sense.
EV: Steve, maybe you can talk a little bit about, pulling on that thread, just how animated people were to be fighting in the Civil War because there is some striking examples of women signing up, a big question of whether Black people could serve. Yeah. I wonder if you could draw that contrast a little bit more between then and now, because it’s really interesting.
SI: I believe Lincoln referred to it as a people’s war, and that was a bit of rhetoric on his part, but it was also kind of true. Millions of people felt a personal connection to this conflict. There were even people on the northern side, and I’m sure on the southern side as well, who didn’t feel they had particularly strong views about slavery even, which was the central issue of the war. But they were called to arms, they were called to defend something. They were called upon to leave home and to get an opportunity to get out and see the world and be part of something larger than themselves. And millions of people did sign up for that.
Eventually, after many thousands died, they began to run out of people who were willing to have that experience and they had to impose a draft first in the south and then in the north. But it’s clear that this was a conflict that touched many homes, that touched many hearthstones, and that many people found a personal reason for, Whether it was slavery or defending the country or defending your home state in the case of some southerners or just an opportunity to prove yourself as a man, or, as you point out, as a woman. Not a huge number, but it’s believed that at least hundreds of women disguised themselves as men and enlisted
EV: Mulan style. We like it.
ZK: [Laughs] you called the book Differ We Must as a way of, I think, articulating the imperative in a divisive democracy. And I suppose one would say that a democracy of 300 million people, if it’s vibrant and healthy, should be divisive. Meaning there are gonna be intense disagreements and intense moral disagreements about-
ZK: -the shape of society. And the Lincoln you bring forth, which to some degree, Doris Kearns Goodwin did a bit in her Team of Rivals, is that you have to be embracive of that difference and therefore, differ we must, as in we will, we should, we’re going to, what do you do about that? It also strike me, you could have done a double entendre book and called it Defer We Must-
ZK: -and that at some point you have to give way to other people’s views, right? Talk a little bit about that, just how consciously did Lincoln adopt that versus pragmatic or falling into it? Was this a philosophical stance or a pragmatic practice?
SI: Really, I should disagree with your question to go along with the theme of the question, but I really agree strongly with it. And also the idea of defer we must. One of the things that I think Lincoln did a lot was recognize I can get this much progress today, and I still believe in 90% more progress and I’m not changing my belief, but I’m gonna let go of that progress today and we’ll see if we can get it another day. We’ll defer it for another day. That was a lot of his approach to slavery and a lot of his approach, his explicit approach to equality in the United States. All men are created equal. It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. They didn’t fully have it then. We don’t have it now in 1858 or 1860 or 1864, but we’ll get all that we can today. And I think that that was something that he did think about to the extent that it was a philosophical belief. It was also tactically necessary. It was a practical, it was a pragmatic viewpoint, but he talked that way and wrote that way all his life.
EV: Steve, what do you think about that philosophical belief being the opposite of the hallmark of today? There’s the theory out there that these days you really don’t need to deal with people that you believe to be wrong even if it’s a moral failure.
SI: Yeah. I think it’s true. And you would even say that you can’t deal. The idea today is you can’t deal with people that you believe to be wrong because they’re hopeless, they’re stuck in their ways, they will not change, they’re enthralled to this propaganda. And some people, as I say that, listening to this may be thinking of Trump voters, but somebody else listening to this very same conversation might be thinking of the radical left or whatever. And the problem with thinking about things that way is that that person that you believe you can never persuade still has a vote, still has the same power that you do in a democracy. And if there are a lot of them, they have a lot of power. And so you have to see what you can do to deal with that reality.
The people around you who disagree with you in a democracy are almost like the weather. You can’t just ignore the weather nor can you necessarily hope to suddenly change the weather, except inadvertently through climate change, I guess. But in any case, it’s something you have to deal with and factor into your thinking and see if you can make progress anyway. And I think that was Lincoln’s approach. He didn’t necessarily succeed in persuading the other person to fundamentally change their view of the world. I think Lincoln himself hardly changed his fundamental view of the world. But he was always asking that in this free country, full of free citizens, who are the individuals I can pick out to work with in some limited way that will make us a majority?
ZK: So Steve, you mentioned the word progress a few times in our conversation so far, which of course is near and dear to our heart. We started The Progress Network as a way of pointing out to people that even in a time that feels dystopian and dyspeptic and hopeless, that not only is progress possible, but it’s probably happening in ways that we don’t always identify.
The challenge, of course, with Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War is all the cliches, right? The darkest before the dawn, the warfare, the death, the feeling of dissolution, not the feeling of coming together. I suppose that’s been true in human history forever and anon, right? The Bhagavad Gita is a paean to detachment, peace, and love as a prelude to the most violent battle anyone could have imagined. So it’s not as if human beings are unable to conceive of alternates even in the midst of carnage and chaos. But does Lincoln strike you as someone— because there’s also been a whole corpus of Lincoln as a melancholic person, right? Depressive, deeply kind of soulful in a sad way. Do you think he maintained that view that this was a fire that one had to go through in order to achieve progress on the other side?
SI: I think that he literally said something close to that in the second inaugural when he spoke of the Civil War as something that must needs come to address a great wrong that needed to be addressed. And you know all the language about if every drop of blood drawn by the lash is paid by another with the sword, well, it’s fair payment. He is often described as a fatalist. I think I even used that word once. He had complicated and idiosyncratic views that can seem kind of strange about destiny, about everything being foreordained from the beginning. And I think he was actually thinking of human life almost like physics. If you have a series of objects and they begin striking each other and each object strikes the next object, it’s probably predictable where the reaction will end. I think he was thinking about human life that way. And so some tragedies were inevitable and some pain was inevitable in life.
It’s hard to say that he was an optimist. In fact, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, said after his death, he had no faith in the usual acceptation of the word. I think she meant he did not necessarily expect to go to heaven or be raised up by God or anything like that. But he had the optimism that is inherent in continuing to try. He had the optimism of seeing the United States as a great long-term multi-generational project that had started well and that had an opportunity to continue getting better.
It is possible to think about the Civil War with cliches like darkest before the dawn. We can also just avoid that cliche, I guess, and say that there was a great wrong in America, a great problem in America, and the United States was finally facing it after years and years of deferring that confrontation. And that was the cause of the difficulty. In other words, the cause of the difficulty was a good thing. It was the confrontation with slavery.
We could argue that that is one of the sources of our problems today. Maybe not the only source, but one of the sources of our problems today is that we are a big, diverse, powerful, wealthy nation that has needed for a long time to answer questions about who’s in, who’s out, who’s included, who’s not. What is our culture? What does it include? What new strains are we going to tolerate or not tolerate in that culture? And it is arguably good to be facing those questions, even if it’s painful along the way. We may look back at this period of history, which feels so awful to be in, and have a different perspective on it 20 years from now, [laughs] maybe that everything has gone downhill and we say this is the moment, but maybe also we’ll say that this was a period which, difficult as it was, we grappled with some real issues.
EV: So would you take it as self-evident then? And we’ve approached this question in different ways on the podcast that it is possible to include everyone, like we could succeed in the project that you just described?
SI: It’s probably not possible for everyone to agree that they’ve been equally included. I don’t think the argument would ever be over, and that’s the nature of democracy. Someone is always gonna say, you’re too far on top, you’re being unfair. I am pushed against. And sometimes the rest of us will agree that they obviously have an argument and sometimes we wouldn’t agree about that. In many ways, of course, we are a far more equal society than we were.
The recent Supreme Court ruling about elite universities in affirmative action was a ruling about a handful of the very top most influential universities in America and whether they’re admitting the right very large percentages of women and people of color. And I think in some cases, people of color now may have a majority of those student bodies.
So in a way, whether you agree with that Supreme Court decision specifically or not, the actual argument we were having is a very refined argument and a very different argument from the question of should a Black person be admitted to this university at all? Which is the question that would’ve been asked in a different generation. Should a Jewish person be admitted in this university at all? How about a Catholic? Would we take a few Catholics? What about a bunch of Catholics? What if it’s a majority of Catholics? Do we have a problem with that? Those would be the questions of a different generation. And so I do think that you see evidence there that we’re moving forward, even if we look at the specific decision and either you think that that decision is itself a sign of discrimination or you say that decision uncovered and called out discrimination. But in either case, it’s a much more nuanced point than what we used to be arguing over.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: You know, I was struck in the book as much by the— I mean, maybe it’s ’cause it’s stuff I didn’t know as well, but Lincoln appearing with the head of the Know Nothings or what became the American Party, the willingness to work with what would have been a pretty antithetical set of ideologies in kind of the pragmatic view. Now we’ve talked about on the podcast, and I think you are aware just in the day job of what you do, that there is a lot more actual bipartisanship in contemporary Washington than gets reported in the news as such. Meaning if Republican X and Democrat Y pass a bill that has overwhelming support in both houses, and there are bills that are passed even in 2023 like this, we talked to Eric Swalwell last year, that rarely becomes news because it was not adversarial, it didn’t lead to hyperbolic rhetoric. It wasn’t a talking point.
ZK: So in that sense, I think, we have the historical fallacy as well too, that hyperpartisanship periods like the 1850s were devoid of partisanship, were devoid of bipartisanship, right? And I think you point out, well, actually no, there was lots of people willing to work across whatever ideological divides they have. So it always raises this question, and you talked about this in answering my initial question about how does history inform your sense of the present and your sense of the present inform history. Are we just not doing a good enough job in our present to identify the many and manifold ways that people are indeed working together even as they then appear in front of the cameras and act like they hate each other?
SI: Oh, I’d say that, yeah, we’re guilty of that. I mean, I think that we in the media can be blamed a little bit for that, broadly speaking. Stories are about conflict. News stories are about conflict, and I have heard people defend that kind of news judgment, which I understand. I mean, the defense is that the news is there to tell you what’s going on that you need to know that’s urgent where there’s an issue, and there’s no issue if everyone agrees. But you’re right that there is a lot of bipartisanship even now in Congress. It is interesting when it happens. Sometimes it happens on big divisive things.
I was driving through Pennsylvania a few weeks ago and we were stuck in traffic because there was construction going off this exit ramp. And we were finally completely stopped in construction on this newly paved ramp. And I looked off to my left and there was a blue sign that said, “Paid for by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2022”, which is a bill that would not have passed Congress had it not had some Republican support, even though the Democrats were in the majority and President Biden signed it. It was a bipartisan measure that in fact was changed and cut down and crafted so that it would get sufficient reasonable amount of bipartisan support. And that’s a success story of the kind that you’re talking about.
If you’re in partisan media, particularly, your business is making people angry. I mean, I don’t mean completely. I’m sure there are people who feel they’re doing a very honorable thing, and I’m sure that anybody in partisan media, many people in partisan media, feel that they’re fighting for the right cause. But anger and division is what drives people to your story. Anger and division is what drives people to click on the story. And it’s harder work to get a story out of the other thing. But bipartisan things can be really important.
I think all the time about something called the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was a bipartisan measure signed by President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s that is effectively responsible for most of the handicap ramps, wheelchair ramps that you see across America and the way that a lot of buildings have been structured and the accessibility for people with all kinds of different, like neurological differences, neurodiversity, a million different kinds of differences are now respected because of the overall principle of what was a bipartisan law that was passed over time a long time ago. And these laws remain around for a long time.
I mean, that’s the other factor. It’s not just a matter of bipartisanship, it’s a factor of time. We want instant answers to everything about what is right and what is wrong. And we often don’t really even know what is truly important until time has passed. And I think we in the media could do better at that also. Don’t just focus on what is the very latest, but what is something that matters and how can we follow up on the story from last week, last month, last year, or last decade, or last century to see how things are going now.
EV: Steve, as you were talking about the partisan media hacks or partisan media participants driving people with anger and division, I think there’s this way that sometimes people feel like, oh, if only this X, Y, Z thing about human nature didn’t exist, things would be okay. I mean, you made this excellent point in the beginning that history changes, but human nature stays the same. And I wanted to ask you about Lincoln’s view of this because another thing that struck me in the book was that he never seemed to expect humans to be something other than they are. It seemed like they’re motivated by self-interest and he seemed okay with that. And he was like, okay, I’m gonna work with this. So can you talk a little bit about that?
SI: Yeah, that was one of my favorite things that I learned from the book is how Lincoln thought about other people and he was okay with self-interest and he didn’t expect people to be otherwise. We remember him for these soaring words, calling us to a higher purpose, and he meant those. But he understood that in order for that message to be politically successful, it needed to align with people’s interests, including their self-interests, which is why he was okay with the spoils system where the winner of an election got to hire who was brought into the government, they could bring their political supporters into the government. And it influenced the way that he talked about a lot of issues.
I did a count in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and found that he used the word interest far more than more inspirational words like liberty or freedom or moral. He talked about interest more often, and I think that’s telling of his political style. When he thought about slavery, for example, the fundamental injustice of slavery, obviously, is to the person who is enslaved. But as a political problem, Lincoln needed to explain to a non-enslaved, not entirely but overwhelmingly white electorate, why this practice mattered to them and what they had at stake. And so he would remind them that they were in a system of free labor that was in potential competition with slave labor and that slave labor could come into their very state at some point and harm them, that a Black man or a Black woman was simply deserving to be paid for their labor, which is something that a white worker could understand because that white worker wanted to be paid for their labor.
He supported the right to strike. There was a shoemaker strike in New England in 1860, and he said, I’m glad that we have a system of labor where people can strike when they want to. That really mattered to him because he believed in free labor. And I think that was a way of telling the ordinary white voter in Connecticut or Massachusetts or wherever else it might be, you have a stake in a free labor system and you know because you like it, because it’s the way that you want your life to be. He was constantly thinking about how he could present his policies in ways that were satisfactory to the audience in front of him, rather than scolding them or telling them that they should just be other than what they were.
ZK: So when you think about these questions in our contemporary context, there’s an old canard around historians that history doesn’t repeat itself, but historians repeat each other.
SI: [Laughs] I hadn’t heard that variation. Thank you. That’s great.
ZK: There you go. Well, that may be why I never actually became a historian professionally. That the present may have echoes. There are rhymes with the past. But back to what you said and what Emma highlighted, the human nature is human nature, but the present and the details of the present change radically and in ways that are confounding. Meaning if we could find the secret key to the past that would solve the problems of the present, we probably would’ve done that long ago, just the perfect template.
Barbara Tuchman wrote about this, the dangers, or when we think about the ways in which people use history. So I’m, I guess, personally very mindful of and wary of too much what did we learn from the past and how do we apply it to the present because, again, human beings may be the same, but the circumstances that we confront in the present are unique and are always unique almost by definition.
That being said, do you feel like you come away from looking at these periods with a degree of hope about our capacity to muddle through? I guess the negative version would be, yeah, we can muddle through after a Civil War kills what was then 900,000 people. I think the population equivalent would be 3 to 5 million today. So we probably don’t want that as a muddle through, like we’ll do a little bloodletting and then we’ll be fine. But I don’t know. Do you feel like we are capable of resolving this particular moment of high fevered animosity bordering on lack of any comedy about where we go, who we are, and what we’ll be?
SI: Yes, I think we are capable. I should pause just to say I also find this moment disturbing. It keeps me up at night sometimes. It’s very difficult. But my study of the past does give me some hope that things can work out over time. I’ve had a weird experience when people ask me questions like you just did, and I say how difficult this moment is, but I don’t think it’s utter doom. And at that point, someone says, man, you seem like really, really optimistic. And the funny thing is, I didn’t feel like I’d said anything particularly optimistic or cheerful at all, but some folks have a very dark concern about the moment that we’re in. But the past does give me hope. It’s not the same. The circumstances aren’t the same. The stories are not the same. Anyone who says that is surely wrong.
But we’re not only the same human beings, we are also operating in the same basic system. You know that saying about where you stand is determined by where you sit. Well we, like our predecessors, are sitting in this big diverse republic and trying to figure out how to run it so we can maybe learn something from what people have done and said in the past. And we’re also operating within a political tradition.
May I bring up, this is a very important political commentator of the present day, Olivia Rodrigo and Johnny Cash, another important political commentator of some time back. Johnny Cash has a song Kris Kristofferson wrote— no, he didn’t. Shel Silverstein wrote, A Boy Named Sue. And there’s a line in there, “I tell you, I’ve fought tougher men, but I really can’t remember when.” And then, the radio was on in my car the other day ’cause I have daughters and they wanna listen to the hot music station. An Olivia Rodrigo song is on, and she sings, “I’m sure that I’ve seen hotter men, but I really can’t remember when.
SI: So it’s like its own line. It’s kind of funny. And it also obviously refers back to this totally different song of a different generation. And the serious point, semi-serious point, that I’m making is that we pick up on what has gone before us and we make it our own and we add to it and we change it, but we’re working in the context of what came before us. And I think that our politics are that way. Our political rhetoric is that way. Our anxieties and concerns are that way. And so it is really useful to know what our predecessors were worried about and how they talked about it because sometimes we realize we’re kind of copying them across the generations without even knowing it. And just knowing that I think is useful and helps us to be a little bit less divided.
ZK: We’ve gotten into the Johnny Cash School of History here, and of course Lincoln is the hottest man in that particular patois.
SI: There you go. Yeah, without a doubt.
EV: Steve, do you think that Lincoln or a guy like Lincoln could be elected in today’s climate?
SI: Oh, wow. It depends on how he could do on TV.
SI: That would be an important thing. He would have to change his political style. He would’ve to adapt to the media of our time, just as I think he adapted very well to the media of his time. He was very clever and innovative. He did interviews with reporters, which other presidents hadn’t necessarily done. He was very good, as some other presidents were, but he was particularly good, at writing a letter to somebody that explained his thoughts and making sure that that letter got to the newspapers so it became a statement of his opinion. He was thinking a lot about how to communicate with the public.
I mean, just the very fact of him growing a beard as he was being elected and preparing for his inauguration is a remarkable thing that affected his appearance and the way that people approached him and saw him. So he was a very savvy figure. He was a very pragmatic figure. I don’t know if he could have been elected president or not, just because I feel that that is far more a matter of chance than any presidential candidate would like to admit. It was chance almost that he was nominated in 1860. Who knows what the chance would be? But I think that because he was pragmatic, because he understood people, and because he responded to circumstances, he would’ve done well in life in one way or another.
ZK: And of course, I mean, he only wins in 1860 in part because there’s an incredibly divided field of four different major candidates.
SI: Yeah, he didn’t get a majority of the popular vote. Right.
ZK: That too is in his favor. I guess final question here is, as we head into 2024, a bonanza period for the news media writ large, and I don’t mean this as a loaded question, I am genuinely curious, how will you bring the sensibility of more balance as a counterbalance to just the imperatives of not just the horse race, but the what will be inevitably an increasingly acrimonious public dialogue over the next year?
SI: I think that’s a constant struggle. I’ve been in my current job almost 20 years and I’ve never fully figured it out. You just do it day by day. A few basic principles apply. I think you try to interview everybody, including people that somebody else thinks is awful. Donald Trump has been on our program and AOC has been on our program. I mean, people farther out on either direction have been on our program. And you continue interviewing them, but you ask them real questions. You don’t just let them spout off. You check their facts. You try to give lots of context. And you’re continuously aware that whatever you did manage to get on the air today is probably not the whole story ’cause everything’s complicated and you’ve got a few minutes and it’s just not possible. But the saving grace is you have another program tomorrow, and another one the day after that, another one the day after that, so you keep trying to add.
I think that we also need to keep a level head. We, I guess, I’m talking about the media generally. Whatever in the heat of a presidential campaign is the hot story that everybody is talking about is real because it’s a hot story and it’s a democracy and everybody’s talking about it, but often it’s not the most important thing or the only thing going on in the campaign or the only thing going on in the world. And so we need to be willing once in a while to turn our gaze direction that’s different from the rest of the pack.
And I guess I’ll conclude this lengthy and abstract answer by making an analogy to Lincoln. He talked about equality being a work in progress, that the founders laid out that principle, didn’t fully follow it, approximated it as best they thought they could, I guess. And then his generation’s job was to get better at that. And they wouldn’t get it right either, but they would get a little better. And that our generation’s job is to get a little bit better. I think the same thing is accurate about news coverage day by day and about the truth. We will never get everything. We’ll never get all the way there, that’s a humbling thought, but we can keep working at it and get a little better every day.
ZK: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Steve, and good luck with the book. Good luck keeping a level head in a cacophonous unlevelheaded period of time that I’m sure requires a degree of yoga breaths on a daily basis and what would Lincoln do on a semi-daily basis. But thanks for your work, and thanks for your voice, and thanks for being a guest today.
SI: Well, I’m glad for what you guys are doing, and I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you.
EV: Thank you, Steve.
ZK: So, Emma, I was struck in that conversation, as I occasionally am. We’ve talked about this a few times over the past couple of years as we’ve been doing this, that every now and then there will be a note of pragmatic hopefulness that enters into our conversations. And then suddenly I’m reacting to the way I think vast numbers of people are probably reacting to me and to us insofar as going, hey, I don’t know, that seems a little too optimistic or a little too hopeful.
It is funny in that when you do the devil’s advocate position of can we get through our current moment and what does the past teach us about that? And how does the Civil War and the lead up to the Civil War, what lessons can that provide for us? You still are sometimes left with this present overwhelming tsunami of, oh boy, things are bad and getting worse. And it does require, I think, kind of a constant, almost a daily practice, of taking a deep breath and reminding oneself that the noise that fills our present, much of it negative, is not the only noise to be heard. It’s not the only story to be told, even though it seems relatively all encompassing to the point where it makes its way all the way to Greece.
EV: Well, I actually am wondering sometimes if we’re doing ourselves a disservice by constantly hearkening back to the Civil War. Like you said, there seems to be a theme right now that people love to talk about the 1850s in relationship to what’s going on now. And I really liked Steve’s answer because it’s kind of like, do we want to keep on saying that we’re on the cusp of a civil war, and is that really an accurate comparison? And are we, per The Progress Network’s sort of like philosophical approach to things, ushering in that potentiality if we continue to talk as if these two things are in parallel? And I’m not sure they are, like Steve said.
ZK: And then there is that challenge, right? I mean, I noticed this for years in the financial world doing more financial commentary that no one ever comes back at you when you have forecasted really bad things like doom-
ZK: -and they don’t happen. Meaning if you say, oh, I think the market’s gonna crash, and then it doesn’t, yes, somebody will say, hey, what about your predictions? You’re like, well, thank God that didn’t happen. Isn’t that great? Whereas people do I think often find that you sound foolish or naive if you don’t adequately highlight the impending risks or the impending doom so that there is a degree of no one gets criticized for highlighting the negatives.
And we talked about this a little bit. There was a month before Congress in the spring in the United States agreed on a debt ceiling resolution such that the United States didn’t default on its debt. And there was weeks and weeks and weeks, if not months, of increasingly shrill political speeches and commentary about how this was gonna be a disaster and the United States was gonna ruin its credit rating and on and on and on and on. And then at the end of the day, the Congress and even McCarthy as the speaker of the house, agreed that the alternative was not thinkable, i.e., defaulting on the debt, so we’re just gonna raise the debt ceiling. And if that meant working with the Democrats and the Republicans together to do that, so be it. And it happened relatively quickly, relatively painlessly when all was said and done. And that story wasn’t a story. I mean, a few days later, it just wasn’t a story, the lead up to, oh my God, this is gonna be terrible.
And that’s the problem with, back to what you said before about human nature, how human beings deal with narrative. No one ever wrote a heroic epic about a war that was avoided. There would not be a thousand books on Abraham Lincoln if the Civil War hadn’t happened. There might be a bunch. But Bill Clinton once lamented, man, I don’t get to be a great president ’cause I’m serving in a time of peace. Now, that might’ve been a narcissistic comment, but.
EV: Boo-hoo, Bill. Yeah [laughs].
EV: So sorry for you.
ZK: But that was like, I don’t get to be a great president because there’s no war.
ZK: Again, I think this conversation sort of highlights those conundrums.
EV: Yeah. And it’s interesting that it’s the smart thing to presage doom because I think the argument for that is like, we’ve gotta be prepared, we’ve gotta be aware. But I feel like when we go back to the conversation of like, are we really revving up to get into a civil war right now, or are we revving up for some kind of intense political violence? I don’t really see anyone around me except for people who are super on the fringe element doing that right now.
EV: And I think that that kind of narrative actually probably led to things like the January 6th insurrection. So I’m not sure what good we would do to echo that kind of atmosphere.
ZK: Absolutely. And now I’m stuck on is it presage or is it presage? Who knows?
EV: Oh my God, you said, prescient earlier and I thought that was pronounced prescient. So I mean, who knows?
ZK: There’s gotta be a Google search thing where you get the right pronunciation down. So I think that was a great conversation, kind of the look back to look forward thing. And not all of our conversations will be political. We promise you, those of you who are listening. Some will be political, some will be apolitical. But this is a year where these questions are gonna loom ever larger just because election years bring that out and we are now plunging into election season in the United States and this is gonna be an intense part of our contemporary mix.
EV: We can’t avoid it and run away from it any longer.
ZK: So let’s look at the news of the week that is more uplifting.
EV: All right. So let’s talk about type 1 diabetes, which I’m kind of excited about ’cause I think it’s the first time we’ve mentioned type 1 diabetes on the [laughs] five seasons of the podcast. I thought this was so neat. Scientists had already invented cells that produce insulin on behalf of people with type 1 diabetes that can’t. They implant them into the body, and then the body is able to produce insulin. The issue with these implanted cells is that they need oxygen and they can’t produce it on their own. So they eventually run out. So they have solved this problem now.
They’ve made this new device. It’s kinda like when you pull out your sim card on your phone and it’s like that thin rectangular shape and then that sort of chip thing, kind of looks like that. It has the cells that people need to produce insulin and a system of producing oxygen inside this device. This is beyond my scientific knowledge, but it somehow produces oxygen by splitting water vapor in the body. So in theory, people with type 1 diabetes can get these implanted, and that’s it. They’re good to go,
ZK: Good to go forever?
EV: So the answer is we don’t know yet. This is one of those things that’s in the beginning phases of testing. So they tested it on mice, good to go. Now they’re testing on humans. Part of the issue with these implantation devices is that the body’s immune system builds scar tissue around it ’cause they’re trying to reject it ’cause it’s a foreign object in the body. So it probably can’t just be like they put it into the body, even if— Let’s say, optimistically, it works in humans. They can’t just put it in the body and then they’re done. However, it can be, it seems like, potentially put into the body for a decently long period of time. So this is one of those things. This happens a lot when we talk about science and tech on the show that it’s in its early stages, but it seems very interesting.
ZK: Sounds quite cool.
EV: Yeah. And I got another one about that for you, which is that a Japanese startup is the first to develop a drug that lets you regrow teeth.
EV: Yeah. So, again, this is another one that’s in testing. It was successfully done in mice. Imagine how like your daily life is in this lab of seeing if the mice are growing teeth from this drug. Anyway, the mice did grow teeth, and now they’re gonna test it in kids actually that have a condition where they are born without the ability to grow all of their permanent teeth. So they’re gonna try that and they’re feeling very optimistic about it. They’re hoping that it’s going to be on the market by 2030. And I don’t know, I just thought it was really cool probably ’cause I had to get veneers when I was younger because my teeth got ruined, it’s a long story, and how cool would it have been to maybe like take a drug and just regrow a tooth?
ZK: It’s funny, one of our sons was very late to have teeth come in, like well past year one. And I would have these nightmares about them never getting their teeth, that they would just be toothless at age 10 or something. But had I known this drug was around, I of course would’ve been much more chill about the prospect. Not that that ever actually came to pass. They just were late teeth developers. And I’m sure if you can figure out how to grow teeth, you could figure out how to grow other things like cartilage or bones or something. Once you’ve been able to turn on that particular gene or that particular protein or that particular switch, presumably, that switch works for other calcium or other tissue or other bones.
EV: Yeah. Potentially, right? And then we might be having nightmares about things growing too much like à la Hermione in Harry Potter. I don’t know if you’re a Harry Potter fan.
ZK: [Laughs] yes.
EV: That’s what came to my mind [laughs].
ZK: That’s right. That’s the flip side of like there’s too little and there’s too much. We want the Goldilocks solution to these issues.
EV: Yeah [laughs]. But keeping our eye on these crazy scientists that do crazy stuff on mice all the time and then just come up with amazing solutions.
So moving off the science stuff, Bloomberg came out with a very interesting report at the end of September that shows— well, I mean, let’s just flashback for a moment to the Black Lives Matter protest. And at the time, there was a lot of lip service paid by companies that they were going to have better diversity hiring, they’re gonna diversify their workforce. And I think there was a lot of cynicism around that at the time because no one really expected them to put their money where their mouth was. It turns out they did, which is neat and unexpected. Bloomberg did this report that showed that the S&P 100, so some of the biggest public companies, think CVS, in the year after the protest, so I believe they’re talking about 2021, those companies in total added over 300,000 new jobs. Zachary, do you wanna guess what percent of those new jobs went to people of color?
ZK: Oof. Wow.
ZK: That’s a lot.
EV: Isn’t that crazy?
ZK: It is.
EV: So obviously, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. A lot of these jobs were at the lowest rung of the pay scale. It wasn’t a ton of managerial or executive jobs. So these companies as a whole, white people are still disproportionately holding the highest paying jobs, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. And the report says that even at the executive level, more than half of the added jobs went to workers of color. So yeah, it’s just a very interesting change that seems to have gone undetected until now. I mean, clearly, I don’t work at a really large company. Maybe if I did, I would’ve noticed this, but.
ZK: Yeah, I mean the cynical view is the one thing that clearly did happen in a lot of large companies is that they hired more DEI officers, diversity, equity, and inclusion administrative staff to say that they were addressing these issues rather than actually addressing these issues. Those stats suggest that they were actually addressing more of them, although, as you put it, the lower end of the pay scale part raises its own questions. And I wonder what those are for 2022 and 2023. So it’ll be interesting to see whether or not that was sort of a short term knee jerk we’ve gotta do something reaction that was sustainable or not. It’s provisionally certainly pointing in the right direction.
EV: And to Bloomberg’s credit, they do say that in the report. Obviously, we don’t know yet if this is going to be indicating a lasting change or not. I mean, I would guess from the cynical part of my brain that if a lot of those people were getting hired at the lowest rung, like service workers and things like that, then those are gonna probably have higher turnover than jobs at the managerial or executive level. But we’ll see. And it does lend a little bit of credit or it lends more— I don’t know, maybe people can have a little bit more faith in some of these really big companies that it’s not all just a grift.
ZK: Yeah. Although, to be fair, on the flip side of this is the amount of pushback. And for those listening, that might be you going, hey, wait a minute, racial categories should not be a criteria for hiring, merit capability. This is just a covert way of doing quotas. It’s exactly the issue that the Supreme Court ruled against in the case against Harvard and admissions, using race as a factor, saying, no, that’s discriminatory on the face of it. Companies shouldn’t be doing this. Universities shouldn’t be doing this. We should live in a merit-based society irrespective of the color of your skin or your ethnicity. And the very fact of this is a negative, not a positive.
And look, these debates are pretty intense right now within the United States. I think it’s legit to say to those who think race should never be a factor, that the pushback should be it clearly is a factor and often a negative one in how many people function, that there is de facto discrimination that ends up being a weight upon people who are not in a privileged racial class within the United States. And that doing something to offset that, either structural or individually is one way of dealing with that rather than just letting the chips fall where they may, which doesn’t necessarily lead to change at exactly the pace that we think is imperative.
So we will continue to have that kind of difficult discussion about how you deal with inclusivity and race. Hardly the last word on it, the one we’ve just talked about. I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Steve Inskeep. We certainly did, and we’re looking forward to inviting you in for the next weeks ahead. So please let us know your thoughts, comments, criticisms, urgings, hey wait a minutes, whatever it is. You can go onto the website, www.theprogressnetwork.org, and any social media channel you choose. So we welcome the feedback. We want the feedback. We wanna hear what you’re thinking, not just what we’re saying.
EV: Your opinion matters to us [laughs].
ZK: Exactly. Stay tuned. All right, we’ll talk to you all next week. Thanks.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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