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.
S2. EPISODE 9
Race in America, 2 Years After George Floyd
Featuring Theodore R. Johnson
How do we grapple with the most challenging issues surrounding race, political division, equality, and more? Theodore R. Johnson, author, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and retired commander in the US Navy, joins us to make a compelling possibility for a national solidarity necessary to mitigate racism and fulfill the American Promise.
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 we are having an ongoing series of engaging conversations with engaging people. And none are more engaging than the person we are going to speak with today, who has made a career and a life’s work of grappling with some of the most contentious, difficult, acrimonious issues in our society. Particularly race and the role of race dividing us politically, dividing us culturally, economically, socially, voting rights—you name it. And yet he has brought to these issues—which people literally in the United States have gone to war over—but Ted Johnson, who we’re going to speak with today, has injected into that endless dark pool of acrimony a level of hope and respect and measured calm. So Emma, why don’t you tell us a little bit about his background before we dive into a much warmer pool of conversation with him?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Sure. So Theodore R. Johnson, or Ted, is the director of fellows at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. His work, as Zachary was just saying, explores the role that race plays in electoral politics, issue-framing, and disparities in policy outcomes. Previously, he was a national fellow at New America and also a research manager at Deloitte, not to mention also a retired commander in the US Navy following a two-decade career that included service as a White House Fellow, military professor at the US Naval War College, and speechwriter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You can find his writing on race, politics, and society across many publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and most recently The Bulwark. His book, When the Stars Begin to Fall, is coming out in paperback in June.
ZK: So let’s talk with Ted.
EV: All right, let’s do it.
ZK: So Ted, it’s wonderful to have you today. Thank you for being part of The Progress Network. One of the first events we did about bridging our political divides, we did with you and with David Brooks at the end of 2020. In the interim, we’ve all lived our 18 to 20 months of life. You’ve published a book. You’ve been lauded and recognized for a lot of the work that you have been doing and presumably are doing now and will continue to do until you can draw breath, which I hope is the same for all of us. And you’re a really unusual voice in the pantheon of voices, particularly given that you take on some of the seemingly intractable divisions within American society. Race and the court and law and voting rights and you name it, and you do so with the remarkable amount of grace.
And I say that because—or I’ve tried to draw attention to that because—part of what I’ve been trying to do with The Progress Network, but part of what I think is so sadly lacking in our contemporary political public debate, is a sensibility. It’s very hard to preach that, it’s very hard to inculcate that, but if you don’t start from that, it’s really hard to get on the right track. And in my experience of listening to you and observing you, you’ve been really adamant in your own way about a sensibility of grace, of humility, of trying to communicate, without which it’s almost impossible to then communicate. So I guess my softball first question to you around all that is, do you feel that that works? Or do you end up feeling like you’re just this lonely voice, not crying at all or shouting in the wilderness, just trying to say, “hey, everybody let’s sit down and, you know, break bread and have a conversation”? Do you feel that it works?
Theodore R. Johnson (TJ): Yeah. Great question, and always good to be with you. I guess it depends on… So it works for me. There’s no doubt about that. And what I am less sure of is if it works as a way of spreading a message to many folks in the same way that, if I were angry or very emotional in my writing, it would spread similarly, Especially talking about race, if you are pissed off at the world, there are lots of ears. There’s a big audience for your anger. If you approach people who might be racist with empathy and grace, there’s less of an audience for that. Because it requires you to be vulnerable. And we have a society, frankly, that doesn’t appreciate vulnerability in the public spherethat rather rewards sensationalism and emotions.
And I think you need both. I think you need folks that are very passionate about the thing they care about and bring that passion to the forum, but then you also—I hope—need folks that are willing to take a breath and be graceful to the people on the other side of the table that you need for democracy. So, you know, I’ll say two things about this. One is that almost all of my writing, especially around difficult topics around race or hyper-partisanship or inequality, I often lead with a vignette of some sort, autoethnographic, something from my life or a historical example to bring the humanity to the problem first. I think people are more likely to connect to stories and then find an insight in those stories than they are to believe the data, or believe the logical, philosophical argument about something. And that then changes their hearts and minds. So I lean heavily on personal story, on narratives.
The second thing is that the old maxim in public policy that you are hard on institutions and soft on people, I firmly believe that. And so if we are to have a democracy of 330 million people from different customs and cultures, different races and ethnicities, religions, languages, regions, et cetera, then we can’t look at half the country as being anti-American, undemocratic, unworthy of the experiment. We have to look at them as our partners in this thing, or else democracy doesn’t work at all for any of us. And so I spend a lot of my time making the case to people that folks wouldn’t suspect someone like me would talk to. But I want to talk with the right about racial inequality and structural racism. I want to talk to the left about forbearance and incrementalism because I think this is the way societies work, that you have to find some kind of middle ground—principled middle ground—but some kind of middle ground to move forward. And I think you do that by putting flesh and bone on ideas instead of just relying on frameworks and theories alone.
EV: I’m really glad that you brought up the “be hard on structures and easy on people” line because I wrote it down from your book. I’m staring at it right now in my notes because I liked it so much. So given that one way you might characterize the national conversation around race, around equity, around inclusion would be “easy on structures, hard on people” [laugh]. So tell me if you agree with that. But also, if that’s true, do you see the national conversation advancing, or are we going in circles? Because there are certainly people out there, you know, we’re two years on from the George Floyd protest now, and there doesn’t seem to be like a whole lot of action, and there are people who are saying like, “we’re not going anywhere.” So is that how you see things? Or how do you see things?
TJ: Yeah, So, okay, I think we are operating in a political environment that incentivizes conflict. And we have too many politicians who, instead of finding areas for compromise and then being brave and principled to fight for progress, they see their prospects as tied to their ability to demonize the other. So they are hard on people, and they are hard on people that have a different letter after their name, whether it’s D or R. They’re hard on people in a different class, hard on people of different races and ethnicities, because they are rewarded for that harshness.
If we look at the primaries happening around the country right now, the pragmatists, the centrists, the moderates are not the ones that are on the headlines. It’s the folks that are to the poles, to the left or the right, that are getting all the attention. And oftentimes those folks tend to be very uncompromising in their views. Not because they’re married to some principal around like taxes or energy or something, but because they’re anti- the other side. The other side being not the other side’s view of how an institution should be structured, but the people on the other side. And all the polls bear this out. In Pew, Gallup, YouGov, et cetera, they all show that partisans are more likely to view their partisan opponents as existential threats to democracy, as bad for America, as evil and unprincipled. So being hard on people is politically advantageous, but it’s terrible for our society, and it’s terrible for building a democratic culture. Meanwhile, the institutions don’t change at all. And so we are stuck with the status quo. No one is doing better by not addressing the reforms these institutions need. And meanwhile, we’re being spooled up to hate one another more.
And so it’s discontent with the system, increasing discontent with one another, and nothing being done about either of those problems by those in the main. But I would like to point out, just to suggest that I’m not completely pessimistic here, there are some bright lights in journalism, in the academy, in government, in regular public life who are bucking the expectation that they’re supposed to demonize other folks, that they’re supposed to tow the party line no matter the issue, that they’re not supposed to have nuanced and detailed views about things. And hopefully we will create some sort of framework that rewards those folks for standing on principle instead of rewarding those folks who are just looking to make enemies of their neighbors.
ZK: Part of it is the absence of equally compelling platforms for non-outrage. You know, we created The Progress Network to sort of be that. But in no way is this platform in any way commensurate with platforms of outrage in size, scale, or reach. And no matter how well it does, it’s unlikely that it ever would be, right? Because it lacks those key ingredients for immediacy. Nor is it about fame and celebrity, right? That’s a whole other track of American society. That’s not really about outrage. It’s just about the fame machine, which is its own beast that needs to be fed with a similar sort of immediacy right? You can’t stay famous for long unless you feed the fame machine. And sort of on the “cup half empty”—I try to make sure I’m looking at both cups, as it were—two years on from Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd, which were by most accounts the largest public activation of energies demanding both awareness and change that has ever happened per capita in American history, right? Far more than assembled at any point during the 1960s, either protesting the Vietnam War or agitating in favor of civil rights and voting.
But two years on, it’s almost impossible to show much in the way of constructive action. And with fear clearly rising in most urban centers in the United States about rising crime—and we can talk about whether or not that fear is itself fueled by a political perspective, as well as a media perspective that loves stories of “oh my God, someone just got X, and X is really bad.”—what do we make of that? I mean, it seems like it was such an intense moment of “now is the time,” and yet two years on, it seems much more ephemeral, and much more hard to grasp what changed other than maybe more intolerance on both sides.
TJ: Yeah, there was really a moment after George Floyd’s murder—certainly June through, I’d say, late August, early September of 2020—where every state in the Union, for weeks on end, every day there were Black Lives Matter, racial justice sort of marches in places where there are no black people. You know, like Idaho, they’re having racial justice marches. And not just one, multiple. Mitt Romney is taking selfies in the middle of DC saying Black Lives Matter, which would’ve been unthinkable just four or five years ago. So it’s undeniable that the movement changed the culture.
What is also undeniable is that politicians seized on the moment and weaponized it to turn us against one another. I do not believe that there were folks who fed the division because they held deeply principled views about the need to address rioting or the agents of the state before we talk about racial justice. I think most folks… The provocateurs saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the chaos to push their worldview to the exclusion and to the detriment of others. And so it’s too bad that in such a moment, there wasn’t a leader that arose from the moment, or leaders, that had a message of unity, and that insisted that our government do what the Declaration states: derive its power from the consent of the governed. Heed the will of the people.
And the other thing about this moment in the summer of ’20 is, before then, before Floyd is murdered, Ahmaud Arbery is killed by vigilantes in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor is killed by police in a no-knock raid. There’s a global pandemic that is that happening. People are trapped in their homes, social distancing. Restaurants are closing. You can’t go outside. There was just this plea, I think—and the economy had collapsed. There was a real moment for maybe the next Lincoln, the next King to emerge from this chaos and help usher America into its 250th birthday in, what, four years from now. And instead, immediately, the pandemic is politicized and used as a cudgel to beat each other with. Immediately, the deaths of Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are grounds for whether or not we need to address demonstrators and protestors or whether we need to talk more seriously about racial justice. And then after this “Summer of Solidarity,” which is what I call it, we have an election where the loser doesn’t concede, where there’s lies about voter fraud and election fraud, and even an attempt to overturn the election results from the states all the way to Congress. And then January 6th. Insurrection.
And so, in a moment that should have been the thing that brings us together—most political scientists will say the things that unite nations are often when you go to war, because everyone knows who the bad guys are. But if a pandemic isn’t enough to unite us. If agents of the state conducting a public execution of a citizen isn’t enough to unite us. If having the highest participation in a presidential election in 120 years isn’t enough to bring us together over the need to protect democracy and be proud of what we accomplished in a pandemic, and instead leads us to a capital insurrection and a doubling down of our entrenched positions on the polls, I don’t know what to make of the various movements and the various issues that have arisen in the country, except to say that we have a crisis of character. We have a crisis of leadership that needs to be filled before institutions or people follow.
EV: So Ted, I’m wondering, given everything that you just said, and also what you mentioned about, you know, there are protests in Idaho where there aren’t any black people, I’m wondering about the way that the protests, regardless of the, you know, ephemeralness of all of this and how it seemed to kind of disappear two years later, even in Greece, where I live, you can walk around and there’s BLM graffiti on walls. And there are not a lot of black people in Greece. So I’m wondering about like, if the causes and conditions are slightly changed in the future, maybe if we have a little bit of a better leader in the White House, could you see a way that the protests have hopefully maybe burned themselves into and are resting in our collective consciousness in a way that, with another flashpoint, something could actually happen?
TJ: That’s a good question. I mean, I would like to think so. It’s undeniable that the world has changed. Not just America as you mentioned. I mean, the world has changed because of Black Lives Matter, that movement, in much the same way that the world changed because of the Cold War slash civil rights movement between the thirties into the sixties. And so, that’s meaningful. And I do think that there is more of an appetite to discuss maybe racial inequality today because of Black Lives Matter than there was a few years ago. What I don’t think is resolved is what to do about it. And I think the “what to do” about the inequality that maybe more people accept is now… That’s the new arena. Or maybe it’s the arena that it’s always been, but it’s now, okay, so what’s the policy, what’s the law, what’s the Supreme Court holding, what’s the executive order that we can weaponize so that we can make the other side seem like they’re not as dedicated to the cause.
I mean, after several of these incidents—the shooting of the nine black parishioners during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina and other kinds of things—both Republicans and Democrats took to the floor of the Senate and Congress to talk about the role that racism is playing in society. The only black Republican in the Senate, Tim Scott, spent three days talking about what it’s like being a black man in the Senate from South Carolina and the racism he experienced. But then as soon as we start talking about police reform after George Floyd’s murder, Democrats and Republicans can’t get it together.
If someone on the progressive side brings up reparations, then all-out warfare between the parties. If we talk about affirmative action, that’s going before the Supreme Court in the next term despite just having been there, you know, a couple terms ago. So the policy fights remain the grounds, or will become even more so the grounds for partisan conflict even if the culture has accepted that racism is real.
The last thing I’ll say on this is—and here, with all the school board fights around like critical race theory, whether it’s being taught or not—I live in Virginia, and the polling shows that something like two thirds of Virginians actually want their kids to learn about the civil rights movement, about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the Holocaust. They want to them to learn history, but they also voted in a governor who immediately signed an executive order saying critical race theory should not be taught in schools. Our kids shouldn’t be taught that they’re inherently racist or something like this. And so there’s this passion around critical race theory, but there’s a thirst for an accurate telling of our history that’s more inclusive. And so, in this way, the civil rights movement won because now people don’t think it’s good to avoid talking about slavery. But then once that was converted into the political arena, we are more divided than ever. Because now, if we talk about it in this particular way, that’s critical race theory, and that is no longer allowed. Something like a dozen states have passed laws that forbid the teaching of critical race theory. At the same time, the public wants more conversations about our history and race.
ZK: The pushback against the defense of critical race theory as a way of saying, look, you can’t understand American history, just like you can’t understand multiple countries’ history, like Brazil and Europe, without understanding the profoundly racial dimensions, the impact of slavery, the way in which that was woven into capitalism and social structures. And that wasn’t just true of the slave-owning south. It was true of the entire economic system of the United States before the Civil War. And in many ways, partly true of the economic system in the United States in the 20th century. The pushback, though, is that it’s the totalizing lens, right? It’s saying that this is the fundamental truth of society that all other things have to be viewed in the context of, that it has to be the overarching framework, that people then do push back on. They’re like, no, no, it’s a framework. And so, we’re having this discussion around the time when the leaked potential decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Justice Alito’s decision, was leaked. And we don’t know yet what the outcome of this is gonna be in the weeks ahead and whether or not by the time people are listening there’ll be a new turn of the wheel and a new plot twist in this, let alone what the actual decision’s gonna say.
I’m raising this in the context of the critical race theory question because, you know, we pivot from two years ago, where Black Lives Matter was the fundamental organizing principle of a lot of social justice movements. And now we’re kind of thrust back into a Roe v. Wade, abortion, women’s right to choose—which is a whole other lens, right? It’s gender and who controls and who decides autonomy of women’s bodies versus rights of fetuses. And yes, there’s a whole academic world called intersectionality, which tries to say, “oh, they’re all sort of true. It’s all about gender, and it’s all about race. And we have to find a way in which it’s all about all those things.” But it does raise this issue of like, unless you’re an academic intersectionality as an idea is not a winning political theme, right? It’s not like… No one’s gonna go to the polls voting for their intersectionality candidate.
So how do you respond to this? Because you look at all these things. You wrote a lot about Ketanji Brown Jackson and the hearings—whether or not she was on the court at the time of this decision wouldn’t matter given the political dynamics of the vote. So how do you approach this issue of like, suddenly people are gonna be not only leaving aside Black Lives Matter, but if this continues, we’re gonna be entering this period that we really haven’t been in in the United States since the seventies, where kind of gender and women’s rights or whatever we decide suddenly becomes the thing?
TJ: You know, I don’t know. Right after Trump was elected, the women’s march—I forget the formal name—that was like a massive… With like the pink hats and everything.
ZK: January 17th.
TJ: That’s right. Yeah. I think that was maybe the largest demonstration in the nation’s capital ever. And so we actually have already done this oscillation. It was sort of Black Lives Matter. And then Trump is elected. And then there’s women—and franklythe immigration policy community was very fired up about some of the immigration policies, especially around like separating kids in cages and stuff—that took attention off of the Black Lives Matter movement, I think. And then of course there’s another set of killings that moves the attention back. And so we are in a culture war of sorts. We’re trying to determine what it means to be American, who qualifies, and the extent to which inclusion socially and protection legally, that these things are extended to a very large nation.
I think Ketanji Brown Jackson is actually a good… I mean, talking about intersectionality, I think she’s symbolic of the meeting of the two. The reception… One, the political decision for Biden to say that he was going to name a black woman to the Supreme court should he be elected was a political and a social decision that had cultural effects. The hearing that she received that was extremely contentious at points accusing her of being soft on child porn offenders and being unable to tell the difference between a man and a woman, or being unable to define a woman these were political and social decisions that have cultural effects. The fact that it looks like Roe is going to be overturned and that come July, a month or so after the decision is out, the progressive wing of the Supreme Court is going to be three women—a Hispanic woman, a black woman, and a Jewish woman—in a court that has just overturned Roe, will probably revisit maybe Obergefell and same-sex marriage, will definitely take on affirmative action. And the face of the progressive movement on the court again is going to be intersectional. It’s going to be women and racial slash ethnic minorities. So that has, you know, the way we got there is both political and social, but that is going to have tremendous cultural impact when the vanguard of the progressive side and the judicial branch are women who are racial or ethnic minorities. So I think this is the heart of the question. What we’re seeing are spinoffs of this culture question that fall into our laps in politics around CRT or around the Second Amendment or, you know, you name it. But the political fights or the fights about how our society should be structured, I think are really cultural fights that are grounded in an identity crisis that the nations is going through.
ZK: You know, it does raise this uncomfortable thought experiment of, would these dynamics be better served if part of that progressive wing of the Supreme Court was represented by a white man as well. Meaning, you know, I mean, to be fair, you do have one of the most conservative justices as an African American man in Clarence Thomas. So you have a little bit of breaking down of the familiar or easy categories, right? But part of the issue is, you know, you’re all about kind of the communication and the dialogue—when those dynamics exist, it just seems to reinforce sort of preexisting, almost prejudicial structures, right?
TJ: Absolutely. Again, the symbolism of it is easy to weaponize. When you say, if you are a conservative who looks at the court and says, you know, we’re just looking to protect the Constitution make America great again, reestablish the American identity, and not surrender to these identity politics or identity attacks from the other side, the other side looks very different from your side. Not just on the Court. If you go into Congress, I think something like, you know, over 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress are white. And on the Democratic side, I think like nearly 40 percent are people of color. The number of women on either side is unequal, more female Democrats than female Republicans. So our representation in Congress and the highest court in the land are… There is a racialized and gendered version of the ideology, such that when we have political battles over healthcare, one side is going to be heavily white, male, and Christian, making an argument for one thing, and the other side is going to be people of color and women making an argument for something very different from what we have now. And that’s not good.
The ontology of race and gender on these political issues would suggest that real Americanism is protected by a very certain kind of person on the right. And those who don’t appreciate the country, or those who want to fundamentally redesign it are represented by a different set of groups on the left. And very quickly, if you, again, go back to the polling, most Americans on both sides of the political aisle want democracy reform. Most want a better version of our current country. But we don’t trust the other side to be able to be part of the delivering of that better version. And that is having disastrous consequences on both our ability to establish social trust and the ability to ensure our democracy works for everyone.
EV: So this brings up the question of solutions for me, because on the one hand, I hear and appreciate what you guys are saying about the weaponization of symbolism. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be beyond our creative imagination or creative empathy. I’m not black, but I look at Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court, and I’m like, yes, you know? I have a really strong memory—In 2011, I went to Sierra Leone. It was the first time I had traveled to the African continent. And I was shocked and so into the fact that there was Obama artwork everywhere. Because he was such a powerful symbol of success and progress and, you know, “look, a black man in the White House as president.” So there must be some way, and I feel like it can’t be that hard to have people extend a little bit of, you know, creative imagination—I don’t know what to call it—to the project of equality, to the project of, you know, let’s get everyone onto an equal page here. I mean, Ted, how do you see solutions to that? Because there’s gotta be some to this intractable problem.
TL: Yeah. So, I mean, I think the lower-hanging fruit, which is still very high, it’s still a high bar for folks to reach, is institutional kinds of things. Is there a way that we can craft a system that accounts for the distrust in the system from the public and the distrust among the public with regards to one another. If we’ve become so partisan that primaries gerrymandering, and election outcomes are pretty much predictable before anyone casts a vote, then either we can make the people better so that they vote according to the policy preferences and character and these sorts of things, and they break the system because they’re not voting according to party, or we can make it more difficult for parties to rig the system such that they actually don’t have to fight very hard to keep seats. And the latter version is an easier course of action to take, as we’ve seen with some of the fights in this Congress around voting rights legislation.
But I do think there might be a place for ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts and reforming the Electoral Count Act. Like, all of these procedural, statutory kind of actions we can take to ensure that our democracy mitigates the ill intent that democratic actors bring into the system. And we’ve been successful at that. We passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War that got rid of slavery, made formerly enslaved people citizens, and then at least gave the men the right to vote. And then within a couple decades, literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses took that right away through Jim Crow.
And then we passed the Voting Rights Act of ’65. And then, 2013 the Supreme Court decides in Shelby v. Holder that the teeth of the Voting Rights Act were no longer constitutional. And we saw a range of changes to voting laws. So there is the necessary work of changing our laws and policies to create a fairer America. But that work is wholly insufficient to ensuring that better America endures. And here is where I think that we go back to the culture. We need to reform our democratic culture more than our institutions. And we need leaders who will insist on this and a system that rewards their courage instead of their sort of partisan sensationalism. Very easy to say. But I think you’re right. The message is there. The symbols are there. But the messengers are not people that are… There is no single messenger that is widely respected in our country. And I don’t think there has been one since maybe Colin Powell left the military in the mid-, late nineties. And even he within… Certainly the moment he met Trumpism and Obama and the sort of far-right conservative movement in the mid-2000s or latter part of the 2000s, even he was deemed persona non grata. Never mind the Iraq War and some of the UN stuff. So again, crisis of leadership, crisis of character. And without the right messenger, the message alone I don’t think is… Gettysburg Address without Lincoln? I Have a Dream without King? Same words, but the messenger matters.
EV: Can I ask you quickly if there’s anyone you see in the political landscape right now that you think has potential, anywhere you’re like, “that guy’s cool” or “that woman is cool”?
TJ: You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And I’ve come up empty. Not because I’m not inspired by folks in Congress or elsewhere, but because I don’t know if those folks will have the wide appeal necessary to bring cross-ideological, bipartisan coalitions together. But there are absolutely principles like, you know, one person that maybe most of your audience has never heard of is Lauren Underwood, a Congresswoman out of Illinois, a former nurse in a purple district, a black woman, young, under 35 or so, and just does the work of like trying to make life better for her constituents and voting her conscience whenever issues arise. And I have zero confidence that she could be a figure that the nation would rally around despite the fact that she, in my view, models much of what it means to be a good American. I think Ketanji Brown Jackson models good Americanism, in her patriotism, love of Constitution, reverence for institutions and structures. And yet her ability to identify with her heritage and her gender, et cetera, and we saw how she was treated. So I haven’t given up the project yet of taking a look at who’s out there to see who might have that potential. But unfortunately when we look through American history, the people that have been the most important to the country are folks that we didn’t recognize their importance until after they were gone. And you know, Lincoln is another example. King is yet another example. And so, I’m not sure.
ZK: I wonder about this quest for leaders and the way in which it can be somewhat in tension with the change in culture you talked about. Because some of the change in culture that you write about and speak about is all of us individually taking some responsibility for the society in which we live, whether that’s local or more national. And there is a tension in that and leadership. So there’s a hope for there’s gonna be a great leader, and that person is gonna change the tenor and the tone. Certainly in the left, or even the center-left of the Democratic Party, the belief of, you know, had Hillary Clinton been elected, the pathway of our country would’ve been X, and X would’ve been so much better than the current pathway. And on a not inconsiderable part of the right, there’s a sense of Trump may have been flawed morally and personally in all sorts of ways, but the directionality that he was leading in terms of policy was one that a lot of people wanted to go toward.
I think it’s important to push against some of that leadership quest. I mean, yes, it would be wonderful if we lived in a world where there were multiple people who were embodying some of the sentiment and approach and culture that you talk about. But I don’t know that the absence of that is nearly as much of an issue as the hope for it, or the feeling that it’s an imperative, right? Maybe it would be better if we all just embodied some of the cultural realities—literally, the Rodney King school of American history: we all just have to get along—and just elected some very boring, pragmatic leaders, right, who just got shit done, right? They weren’t full of rhetoric. They weren’t florid. They weren’t Obama on the one hand or, you know, Reagan on the right on the other—a lot of people loved Reagan’s flights of rhetorical fancy. They just were people got stuff done. But the cultural hard lifting was us. You, me, everybody.
TJ: I would love for it to… I think you’re right. So I think the first thing I will say is we now have a society that doesn’t create heroes in the same way. I think we’re still very much a hero culture. Anytime something terrible happens, first thing we do is identify like, who is the hero in the situation? Or if something beautiful happens, like who’s the person responsible? I don’t know if it’s an American thing or if it’s human nature, but we look for the person that embodied the incredible thing we just saw, or who we aspire to be. And sociologists have written about this, but they’ve suggested that today, the path to heroism, national heroism, is not what it used to be. It’s not politics. It’s not military service. But it’s celebrity. Because there’s less appetite for people who strive to be great and make mistakes. And so we’re less forgiving, which was typically the path to heroism in the past. And instead we’re infatuated with people who continue to make mistakes, incessantly. And we can’t turn away from them. And suddenly, their name recognition, we’ve sort of become obsessed with this person because of their imperfections and their norm-breaking and their inability to stop making mistakes. And that celebrity status leads them into the world of politics, where lots of times name recognition is half the battle. So there is a real question, to your point, that maybe we don’t have a society that is ripe for a hero, because the way heroes ascend these days aren’t the kind of people we want leading us.
But to your main point about maybe the hero just doesn’t play the same role, maybe we’re looking in the wrong place, I think that’s actually right. And my tendency is to think that the hero is the national figure that people around the country can look to and draw inspiration from and model in their communities. And I think in 21st-century America, we are more likely to see heroes at the local level, sort of a grassroots heroism that bubbles up. But the tension that you mentioned is that these people do exist, they always have, and they exist today. But as their heroism at the grassroots level is bubbling up, their leadership is moving upwards and outwards, it’s being met by a very divisive kind of politics nationally. School board races [are] nationalized. Candidates for the school board are saying how much they love Trump as a way of suggesting that Trump cares about their 6,000-student school district.
But claiming fealty or loyalty to the party, that’s the best way to do so in a very tight area. And so now, every mayor’s race, every governor’s race, every school board race is like Trump versus AOC. Pick your team and vote up and down the ballot for your team. And that’s advantageous for the parties because it makes the messaging very clear and makes the choices very clear. But it’s horrible for the country. And it actually doesn’t create conditions for leadership, principle of leadership, anyway, to arise.
So the tension, as I see it, is between local heroes and leaders, [who are] trying to make their community stronger and live up to the principles of our country, being met by a very divisive hyperpartisan kind of politics that our system incentivizes. And they are sort of meeting in the middle. And it remains to be seen which side prevails.
ZK: Trump versus AOC sounds like a great pay-per-view event.
TJ: [Laugh.] That’s right.
EV: [Laugh.] I was gonna say, I got a really freaky image in my head when he started talking about, you know, “celebrities are our heroes now” of like some Lincoln-type figure married with a Kim Kardashian-type figure. And on the one hand, I was like, this is horrible. On the other hand, I was like, maybe this could work?
ZK: Well, there was that bizarre moment, right, where Kanye West was gonna run for president.
TJ: That’s right.
EV: Oh, that’s right.
ZK: You might have had your moment there, Emma.
EV: Okay. Kanye is no Lincoln figure, but okay [laugh].
TJ: And I think the Rock is polling maybe like fifth among potential Republican 2024 candidates, like fifth or six or so. But he’s not way out of there. And look, Reagan was a celebrity before he… I mean, granted, he like was a governor and had done some things in government, but you know, we made a celebrity out of John F. Kennedy. We made a celebrity out of the Obamas. And even Bill Clinton, you know, playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall. There’s a celebrity quality to the presidency that is becoming more common over the last 40 years than was maybe the case certainly in the 19th century, but even in the first half of the 20th century. And I think there are good, principled celebrities who could probably… You know, Schwarzenegger, he was reelected governor of California. So people must have liked him to some degree. But if celebrity is now the path to political leadership and national heroism, I don’t know if that general pathway is the best one.
EV: So Ted, I have a very specific question from your book that I’m sure relates somehow to the conversation we’ve been having; I can’t quite pull that thread right now. But it’s about sacrifice. Because you write in the book that part of the solution to all of this is solidarity, right? Like that everyone—I’m gonna quote from the book—”needs to view racism at as fundamentally at odds with the core of the American idea and the wellbeing of the United States.” And then you also write that you can’t exercise solidarity without sacrifice. On the other hand, you also make the point that there are a lot of institutions that have racist structures, that if we did away with those kinds of things, if we had reform on housing, healthcare, college tuition, et cetera, a lot of people would benefit of all races and ethnicities across the United States.
So I was wondering, because I don’t think you get into this in the book, what exactly you’re picturing when you say that it requires sacrifices. On the one hand, like sure, yeah, that sounds right. And on the other hand, I’m like, I don’t know, does it though? Like, does it? Because I feel like I certainly know people who have gotten more on board the project of this conversation on race in the United States, and I don’t see that they’ve had to sacrifice anything to do it. So I’m just curious your thoughts on that.
TJ: Yeah. So especially the point about sacrificing the book, I’m kind of talking about like a social sacrifice and not so much an economic one. I actually think ridding our structures of racism has a net economic benefit for all of us, no matter your race or ethnicity. So I’m not expecting people… You know, there’s probably a class aspect of fairness in America that will require, you know, those who make the most money to pay more taxes or whatever. But what I’m talking about in the book is, if you live in a society where there is a social hierarchy, where there’s a racial hierarchy and you set about making that hierarchy go away, leveling the playing field so that we’re all on the same level, those who used to be at the top of the hierarchy will sense the leveling as loss.
And instead of rejecting that loss or taking that loss as punishment for something they didn’t do, they have to accept that loss as part of the sacrifice toward the broader good of the American project. And so if things like affirmative action maybe a different tax scale or college tuition or whatever, these have economic impacts. But the reason they’re resisted so much is because of the social signal they send that, oh, these people get help and you don’t. Those folks who have all this college debt, they get help. But you who paid it as you went or didn’t go to college, you don’t get any help. And it’s the sense of fairness that’s connected to status that makes these policy things, political things, so difficult to achieve. So the idea of sacrifice here is that those who will sense the leveling of the playing field as a loss of social status need to be okay with that sacrifice.
But I also say, after you have to be willing to sacrifice, I also say forbearance, which means that those of us who historically have been at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, as we are brought to level, we have to be very careful about insisting that the leveling not only just be level from this point forward, but you have to account for all of the wrongs done to all of the people and all of the time before today. And at some point you have to say, we are going to start anew. We’re going to start afresh. And that means you have to practice forbearance. You have to let some things go and not insist that you be compensated or get retribution or even vengeance for the wrongs that were done to the folks in your group in decades, centuries past. And so, that meeting in the middlesacrifice on one end, forbearance on the other, difficult for both, but I think absolutely necessary again to the product of a liberal, egalitarian, multiracial democracy.
ZK: Essentially that at some point, we all have to allow the past to in fact be the past. And the rub is, what’s the dividing line between the actual past and the past bleeding into the present. But as a general operating principle… You know, we all know this from relationships, certainly we live in a culture of massive amounts of introspection and psychotherapy, which do rely a bit on coming to terms with our personal past, but it’s also at some point becoming whole with that personal past and not carrying it as a constant millstone. And the same thing I think is true for social collectives. And those that have a hard time doing so, you know, it’s not a happy pathway. Bosnia–Serbia in the ninetiesIsrael–Palestine Russia–Ukraine. I mean, holding onto the past as an ever-present is rarely a healthy formula for cohesiveness.
TJ: I agree. And especially if you carry the past as like a backpack. If it’s like a burden that you’re demanding someone help relieve you of, as opposed to carrying the history in you, which I think is something that all of us must do. Not forget history, but carry it with us. But have our eye on, like, where we’re all trying to go, instead of insisting that people pay attention to the burden you’re carrying and fix that before we can take a step forward together. So I do think there is a way history can be a burden. And then there is a way history can be fuel, energy for progress. And how we use our history towards the project of our country is just as important as which histories or which stories about ourselves, we tell ourselves. Because I think that that either fills our hearts and allows us to walk with it, or it fills the knapsack and weighs us down.
ZK: That’s a wonderful metaphor. Don’t forget it, but don’t fuel it. So Ted, we look forward to subsequent books, to your voice being an antidote to so much of the relentless, shrill, hysterical negativity that is in our world. You have a way of both articulating acutely our challenges, our problems, but without the rank bitterness that is so prevalent in discussing those problems, particularly about race, particularly about law. And again, that way in which you articulate [that] we need to remember our past, but not necessarily carry it as an ever-present burden, that sensibility amongst others is, I think, as much a way out. And while it is true that we are not replete with heroes in our political life, we certainly have voices like yours, which come awfully close. So thank you for joining us for this conversation.
TJ: Thank you, both. I really, really enjoyed it.
ZK: And thanks for being part of The Progress Network.
TJ: Absolutely. My pleasure. Love it.
EV: Thank you, Ted.
ZK: So Emma, we’ve had a lot of stimulating and I think moving conversations. But that, along with the conversations that we had with Arthur Brooks, a little bit with John Wood last year, really filled me with a degree ofI guess, hope about where we’re going.
EV: Yeah, I know. And I think one thing that really works as a method for that, and we talked about this in the beginning of the episode, which is hard to illustrate in a conversation, is the power of storytelling, and the power of narrative. I can say having read Ted’s book that the strategy that he employs, that really works, hearing about his own personal life experiences and the life experiences of others. For me, it’s like travel, right? It has that same educational component of opening your eyes, seeing things in a different way, and pulling you in—although it’s educational—not on your mind, but through the heart. So I just wanted to mention that.
ZK: Yeah. And I think that’s something that you experience in the doing, right? Or you experience what you’ve just said in reading his book. It’s harder to do in a 10-minute conversation. But bringing to life that there’s a way to live these ideas, it’s just very hard to show evidence of that in the political realm. It’s very hard to show evidence of that working as a campaign trope, right? Although, certainly moving individual stories are often useful for people when they’re in the political arena. I guess I’m left with what I’m left with with a lot of these voices and individuals, which is this way of approaching our conflicts, and the way of conceiving of our solutions is absolutely the right way to go. Even though it’s hard to find traction within a public arena. Even though, in the moment, it has the same challenges and the same question that I’ve been going over and over again in my head for years: Can you stand on a soapbox and say with any urgency, “everybody calm down,” right? And the reality is, when people are hysterical, no you can’t. Or rather you can, but nobody will hear it. But over time? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. And Ted is living that, living that in his work and finding real traction. I mean, he’s had some significant both accolades and support, as he should. So I take some comfort from that.
EV: Yeah. And I think that the more touchpoints people have, the more felt experience, or felt sense is what they say sometimes in Buddhism, all of that sensibility in action, the easier it is to understand what we’re talking about, right, when we’re talking about this on a conceptual level. Because it feels better. Like, in the body, it feels better to go with the approach that you just outlined and not the approach that we’re kind of stuck in right now in terms of polarization and intense demonization of the other.
ZK: All right. On that note, thank you for having these conversations with me, Emma. Thank you all for listening and getting the newsletter, What Could Go Right?, and checking out The Progress Network. And please keep joining us.
EV: Thank you.
If you wanna find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, please visit our website at theprogressnetwork.org. And if you want something other than gloom and doom when you open your email in the morning, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’S a roundup of progress news from around the world, and that’s at theprogressnetwork.org/newsletter. And please, if you like the show, if you could tell a friend, share an episode, leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, that would help us out a ton. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas. The show is produced by Andrew Steven and edited by Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thank you so much for listening.
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