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.
S4. EPISODE 15
How to Be Optimistic About America
Featuring John Avlon
What road is hyperpartisanship taking us down? Can we learn from our history? And is the current state of American politics worse than ever before? Today, we talk with CNN’s senior political analyst and author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace,” John Avlon, to discuss how the past can inform our understanding of and response to current political conditions.
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 on this podcast by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we talk to people who are animated by a spirit of how do we solve the problems we have rather than wallow in them? How do we deal with our dysfunctions rather than assume that we are stuck in them in perpetuity? And clearly, one of the things that society is most dyspeptic about is political partisanship. Political divisions are nothing new, although I think our sense that there is no mid ground has become increasingly acute. But some of that is based on a degree of historical myopia, failure to recognize that we’ve been here before, that we’ve muddled through. And as they say in finance, while past performance is no guarantee of future results, the fact that we have indeed been mired in intensely animosity-driven politics in the past should be some indication that we may not be as in bad of way as we think we are today.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna talk to John Avalon, who’s a senior political analyst and fill-in anchor at CNN. Before that he was editor-in-chief and managing director of The Daily Beast. And he’s also the author of a book called Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.
ZK: So we’re gonna turn to politics and culture and history. And I think, I think, I think, we’re gonna have a really, really good conversation.
EV: Fingers crossed.
ZK: Mr. Avlon, so good to have you here.
John Avlon (JA): Good to see you.
ZK: Let’s start in the past before we make our way to the present and speculate about the future.
ZK: You and I have talked about this a lot over the years, and so I’m gonna just posit the following, that people’s negativity about the current state of American politics in particular is if you peel back some of the assumptions predicated on a belief that things used to be— there used to be some sort of bipartisan consensus where everybody obeyed Marquess of Queensberry Rules and said, you sir, I may— and it was always men, so in this case, the sir makes sense. You, sir, I may disagree with, but you are a true American and I shall work with you even as I object to your inherent political beliefs. And they would nod, genuflect genially in the direction of—
JA: Yes, your obedient servant, yes.
ZK: Yes, exactly, right. So tell us, having written about a period of time where I think at least most Americans recognize things got pretty bad pretty quickly in the Civil War.
JA: Yeah, that’s one way to say it.
ZK: How things were compared to now, and if in fact this belief of, oh my God, things never been so bad, is based on kind of a misread of how bad they have been and could be.
JA: Yeah, that’s a literal fundamental misread of American history. And that’s one of the many reasons to read about the Civil War and its aftermath that definitively has been worse than it is today. You don’t get any worse than a civil war in which three quarters of a million Americans died. But it’s also a warning about the forces that lead to deepening division that spill over into violence, which is primarily the dangers of tribal politics. What I’ve spent a lot of my writing, both as journalist and in books warning about, which is the dangers of hyperpartisanship and polarization. But it does no good to catastrophize the present or to be pessimistic. In fact, I think that’s a perfectly useless way to meet the challenges that we all inevitably face. There is no perfect past, this mythologizing of this idea that the past, America in the recent past was better and simpler and more united.
There are ways to measure, for example, congressional bipartisanship, and there was a period of broad unity from roughly the Second World War through the early 1960s that was about a lot of different structural factors. In fact, there were liberal Republicans, conservative Democrats. There were a lot of steering experiences like the Second World War that brought people together. But when people get overwhelmed by the challenge of the present, I lose a lot of patience because the future is always uncertain because it’s unwritten. And the idea that you are going to think so highly of yourself to say that you live in unprecedentedly terrible times, that’s just being part of a doomsday cult. It does nothing to actually solve problems. It doesn’t take any of the advantages of being alive into account. So buck up and deal with the difficulties we’ve got. They’re serious, but they’re in no way, shape, or form worse than anything we’ve faced in the past.
EV: Okay. So how would you recommend bucking up and dealing with the realities? For some reason, when I was preparing for this episode, I kept on thinking of like the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, and just like, how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? And so I’m gonna pose it like that [laughs].
JA: I would counter with the Leonard Cohen, everything’s broken but that’s where the light gets in, or various Japanese poetry or pottery metaphors.
ZK: I mean, I wonder whether the whole— you mentioned the 1950s and sometimes it feels like there’s this odd cultural— like 1945 is America’s Thermidor year one, the French Revolution where just everybody— reset history from now forward as if we created this marker of the greatest generation and people came back from the war and everybody had a college education because of the GI Bill and everybody had a home because of Levittown in suburbs and a car. And, look, the United States was 50% of global manufacturing in 1945, an inordinate percentage of political coherence just because of the devastation that World War II had on the traditional centers in Europe and certainly in China and Asia. It’s not the right starting point for the conversation, and yet, it seems to inform the left and the right. I mean, we’ve talked about this on the show before, Emma and I, that the left mythologize the ’60s, the right mythologizes the ’50s, and everybody mythologizes something that is no longer real and wasn’t even what we think it was then.
JA: Yeah. This is part of my impatience. You have whole political movements about taking America back to where it was, usually, as people word it, sometime in their childhood. And the world wasn’t simpler then. You were. Trying to recreate some idealized America reflects your own childhood, literally childish perceptions of what the world was like when you were a kid. To the adults then, it was actually completely imbued with uncertainty and difficulty. And you’re right, there was a highwater mark 1946, I would mark it, 1947, we were making the world anew. The US was in [inaudible] position because we had cobbled together a winning coalition of allies, but the war had not been fought on our soil. But by the 1950s, there was broad dissatisfaction reflecting on the Beat Generation. And obviously, there were whole areas where segregation, lack of fundamental civil rights, lack of fundamental ways that people would work together and enjoy the kind of striving for the equality and liberty that we have achieved since. So idealizing the past is always wrong. I mean, there was 90% taxation in the 1950s, one of the many reasons the conservative fascination with that time, I think, is fundamentally misplaced.
ZK: Although no one paid those rates.
JA: Nobody paid those rates. But I mean, this is one of my— when I wrote Wingnuts in . . . out of reporting of the early days of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010, it’s a book about extremism in American politics. Out of reporting at that time, but looking at the echoes and the antecedents, right? So if you wanna understand Glenn Beck at that time, you need to understand the John Birch Society. Obama’s policies were not that far off from Eisenhower’s in many respects. And that’s where, I think, history becomes a really useful [inaudible]. I’m really passionate about applied history, but I think it’s about applying it, useful wisdom that we can apply to the present. And one of the things that history teaches us is don’t give up, don’t catastrophize, think practically, try to figure out the larger trends, figure out what’s really worked in the past to help us be our best selves and continue that process of forming a more perfect union. The idea that we somehow are entitled to a perfect present is totally ahistorical and nonsense.
EV: I mean, I think the elephant in the room for a lot of people when they listen to a conversation like this about don’t catastrophize, is like, but Trump, you know, like Trump-
EV: -is the big galactic warship coming to wreck democracy. And for some-
EV: -people, what I just said is overstated, and for some people it’s completely not, right? Yeah. I mean, what do you do with him?
JA: We never had anyone— well, the future is, is as yet unwritten, but I’ll— so a couple things. Look, Donald Trump is unlike anything we’ve dealt with at the level of the presidency before. We’ve hadn’t demagogued before in American history, but they’ve been governors or senators. Donald Trump is a classic demagogue. He’s a professional divider driven primarily by his own ego. And the thing that should be indelible is he tried to overturn an American election on the basis of lies solely to stay into power. If that’s not disqualifying nothing, and yet as we speak, he should be recognized as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, which is insane from a patriotic principles above party, country above party perspective. I mean, George H.W. Bush couldn’t get a second look from the Republican party in 1996. That wasn’t on the menu, just to use one example of a one-term president. And this is the problem hyperpartisanship and polarization that I think is at the root of a lot of the rot we’re dealing with right now. That is a really serious problem without any clear historical precedent. So I’m not minimizing that at all. And I think we all need to think differently about how to confront it, but we also need to think systemically and structurally, by which I literally mean rules of the game.
Two books ago, I wrote a book on George Washington’s farewell address. And his farewell address is he’s writing a letter to future generations of Americans warning about the forces that have destroyed democratic republics in the past. And the one he spends the most time on is what we would call hyperpartisanship, what the founders would call faction. That’s the number one thing that had destroyed democratic republics in the past. I get fired up about the fact that this is dangerous. This isn’t just some playful narcotic or teamism politics. This is exactly what the founders warned about. And so that’s an example of applying history and carrying it forward. In terms of a president wielding the power of the presidency and the checks and balances the founders set up breaking down because people were willing to— in Congress, they were willing to put the interests of this one person over their own institutional loyalty as a balancing power. That’s a very different problem. And while the founders did contemplate, how do you deal with tyrants? How do you constrain power? That was a lot of their thinking. They didn’t quite anticipate this flavor. And so we should feel an enormous amount of urgency around that. Don’t get me wrong. But we should also say, for all our difficulties, this is not as bad a time as the founding era. It’s not as bad a time as the Civil War.
In the 1930s, people doubted whether democracy would hold. That was part of the large conversation in the 1930s before our involvement in the Second World War. We weren’t only dealing with the first America First Movement, isolationist, but there was a broad question about whether free societies could compete with the alleged efficiency of totalitarian nation. That was like [inaudible] conversation for over a decade. And then we belatedly found out that back to the wall, three people can draw on strengths that totalitarian nations can’t. And we shouldn’t have to relearn those lessons, but we shouldn’t also overestimate the strengths of our opponents, either.
Audio Clip: With every ounce of heart and mind and sweat and soul, we’re going to keep making America great again, and then we will indeed keep America great. And that is why tonight, I stand before you to officially launch my campaign for a second term as President of the United States. Thank you.
ZK: You said earlier quite eloquently, and certainly I agree with, ’cause I’ve tried to say some of the same things less eloquently, that the future is unknown territory, and therefore, we shouldn’t be so certain about its outcomes. But if Trump is the nominee, which it would seem likely, but who knows, right? Things could intercede.
JA: There’s a long time between then and now.
ZK: I am wondering, given your perch as a card-carrying member of the current mainstream media, whether—
JA: I don’t even think that’s a thing you carried a card for.
ZK: There’s no card. I get that.
ZK: There’s a metaphorical—
JA: I’m a card-carrying—
ZK: My card has been— I don’t know if I’ve renewed my current card.
JA: No, I think you’re in arrears. We were gonna talk about that.
ZK: I think I’m in arrears, so I’ll have to take that up with the appropriate authorities.
ZK: Have we learned anything from the way that Trump was covered, in that— I believe, honestly, there is a legitimate backlash in many parts of the country that basically held their nose and voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. You know, they’re given two choices. Now, from the perspective of people who think Trump is kind of the clear and present danger, there is no excuse to vote for him. Right? There’s sort of an absolutism around that. But for the 70 plus million who voted for them, there clearly had to have been tens of millions of people who did so for all sorts of reasons that were basically in spite of him, not because of him, but who also felt like that viewpoint had no purchase, was completely dismissed. And then you add to the mix the degree to which Trump gets ratings. So I guess I’m wondering what can one learn from what has been about how to do this again?
JA: From a coverage standpoint? Look, I think that was a question that I think the media wrestled with in the wake of 2016 as well, right? I mean, one thing I think you learned is how not to do balanced coverage, is to put two people on. You have to insist on a fact-based debate, right? You can’t have one person saying fact, the other person spouting non-fact and then say, you decide. That’s not actually adding— that may add heat. It doesn’t add light. And the reason there’s a deeper civic purpose to all this is, as Washington said, enlightened opinion is necessary to a self-governing society. Enlightened shouldn’t be taken with any sense of congratulation. It’s simply fact.
The Moynihan quote that I consider the key quote of our time, even though it was uttered decades ago, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own fact.” And so, A, that’s essential. Understanding why people voted for Donald Trump the first time in 2016, and then to some extent in 2020, realizing that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million the first time, a relevant point, it seems to me, yeah, everyone’s got their reason. And some of them are predicated upon fear of the far left. I think the far left has a certain blind spot about why— at any given point, there are twice as many self-identified conservatives in this country as self-identified liberals, right? The number of people who identify as very liberal is a fraction of the people who call themselves liberal. And one of the things about asymmetric polarization is that the far left has cultural influence. The far right has very real and tangible political influence. They’re different. But pumping up fears about the far left as a cultural irritant is enormously effective at galvanizing folks ’cause a lot of times, folks from the far left seem utterly out of touch with what most Americans would regard as common sense reality. And that is a recipe for political backlash, even if it doesn’t actually represent the actual policy beliefs of people at the top of the Democratic Party, the presidency, et cetera, et cetera.
So that requires a degree of humility. It requires a degree of empathy. That’s one of the many things you can learn from Lincoln. And the ability to retain empathy in the middle of the Civil War is one of the magisterial things about his reconciliation oriented leadership. But you also have to look at, for example, I think the hollowing out of the middle class, the middle class being squeezed for decades in this country has led to a hollowing out of the middle of our political spectrum as well that I think has given us as much [inaudible] we had in the past. The Republican party RINO hunting its way into having very few moderate Republicans also means that party is more susceptible to being taken over by its more extreme wings, compounded by media fragmentation, the rise of hyperpartisan media, the rigged system of redistricting, which means that there are only 35 to 40 genuinely competitive seats in Congress, which means that extremes are always gonna have the edge in these closed partisan primaries. All those things conspire to electing a Donald Trump or having a Donald Trump-like figure get the nomination. And you see people who want to replace him playing to the base with policies that are probably unpopular in their state, that they think will give them an edge with the activist class. And the disproportion influence of those special interests is what I think frustrates so many folks. But it’s legitimately dangerous in terms of creating representative government.
The larger stakes, I think, to draw a circle around the two topics you raised, is that— one thing Biden’s absolutely right about is that the defining struggle of our time is pre-democracies and autocracies. And one of the things that autocracy has tried to do is delegitimize democracy by making people think there’s not that much difference and it’s dysfunctional, that it doesn’t get things done. And whenever we undercut our own democracy or dismiss it, or people sow doubts about its honesty or polarization means we can’t address problems in a proactive manner, that ends up feeding right into that larger geopolitical narrative that we absolutely, positively have to stand up and push back against.
EV: John, can you tease out a little bit, I think, the tie or the tension or the confusion between empathy and tolerance, meaning that it seems to have been popular, particularly in the Trump area, that showing empathy to people that have a different political opinion to you is somehow okaying their stance or you’re being tolerant in a bad way. There was that, you know, Tucker Carlson being out of Fox News was huge news not too long ago. And one thing about some of the texts that were leaked, there was the highly racist remark, right? Which was gross, like, white men don’t fight like that. Okay. Nasty. And then the whole rest of his text was weirdly empathetic, right? That it was—
JA: Yeah. That’s very fair of you to put it in the larger context ’cause it was actually interesting.
EV: Yeah, because I think people didn’t expect that from Tucker Carlson, right? Like the whole rest of his text was like, I saw this antifa guy and he shouldn’t have been beat up like that, and, you know, aren’t we all human beings? And it seemed to me like maybe this is the height of Pollyannish or naivete to think like, wow, okay, if even Tucker Carlson thinks like that, we do have some hope for proper empathy returning to the American public and it actually being okay to express empathy towards people that don’t think like us.
JA: Well, it’s essential because, I mean, democracy depends upon, well, an assumption of goodwill among your fellow citizens, even the people you disagree with, right? I think that the problem with Tucker’s sort of stealth check in the back half of that text or email was that it was at odds with what he did on air, as we saw was a pretty consistent theme with his text and email. And particularly if you’re in the media and if you’ve got a perch like that, number one primetime show, you are 100% responsible with what you say when you have the microphone. And I’m not talking about the inevitable stumbles or— live TV is full of people choosing an infelicitous word. No, I’m talking about the consistent theme that you hit, especially if they are at odds with what you actually believe. That is a really deep civic . . .
But ultimately, what he was expressing is, I started to feel myself falling in with the mob and that’s bad for my soul and for society. And that’s obviously right. One of the things I think that true liberal values, not in a partisan sense, the impulse should always be to stand up against the mob and to defend individual rights and to do so with a degree of empathy. The other point I think you make in the distinction empathy and intolerance, is our empathy has been strained. And it’s very difficult to do in a situation where people are being motivated by fear of different groups that is impervious to fact or bad faith, right? They know they’re lying. That’s very, very difficult to deal with. And yet if Lincoln was able to retain that degree of empathy in the middle of a civil war, we can at least try. But people are being fed an enormous amount of bad information.
Audio Clip: There’s no question and it’s been widely reported that there was widespread fraud and irregularities across this country. We never had the opportunity to have common sense hearings on that or any evidence that we could actually see because it was swept under the bus.
Many of us were warning about the fact that the Democrats unilaterally fundamentally altered our voting system inside 90 days. We warn that the state of Nevada was just simply not ready to give us a fully fair and secure election.
If I was a United States Senator on the day of the certification, I would’ve stood with Senator Cruz and Senator Scott and that small handful of senators who had the courage to stand up and say, wait, let’s hold up on the certification of this election.
JA: And at this point, if anybody still thinks there’s— so forget the 63 court federal judges that said the election wasn’t stolen or tampered with in any way. The text message and emails by the people pumping up this stuff on air, the audits paid for by these folks, including the Trump campaign, that said there was no there there. If they still believe that, they have been willfully duped by someone who has a vested interest in spreading that lie because his ego is more important than America or the Constitution, or fact-based reality. That’s a really challenging situation.
And I’ve looked a lot at— [inaudible] programming is difficult to do— or deradicalization is more an accurate term. It’s difficult to do at scale. It’s easier done one-on-one where the general path is you form a bond, you remind people, you get them out of that immediate feedback loop, you remind them of their alleged values, and then lead them to recognize the contradiction between their alleged values, ’cause everyone needs to think they’re good on some level, and what they’re actually doing or what the people they’re actually following. But that’s hard to scale in a very real sense.
But I think that’s why ultimately, this isn’t a situation that’s gonna be solved for us by a single leader. It’s gonna take more people to step up and as citizens, as lower level political leaders, we have a— the Republican Party has a unique responsibility right now, I think, to do that. Senators, governors, mayors, some people are stepping up and speaking out, but the stakes are much bigger than the future of the Republican Party, right? I mean, they’re as big as they get for a democratic republic. And let’s be honest, people— the power of fear and greed, which is the heart of all of this, is much more powerful than we thought. By fear, I mean fear of Donald Trump, fear of the base, fear of being rebuked, fear of being cast out if you speak truth to power, and greed because a lot of people, the partisan economy is massive. It’s how they make a living. And that’s a deeply corrupting factor. They’re afraid that if they speak out and tell the truth, they will burn their bridges and they will be functionally unemployable. But [inaudible] are sort of biblical admonition. Don’t let fear and greed make decisions for you. It never ends well. But that’s what we’re facing. It’s not difficult to see how history will look at Donald Trump.
ZK: I mean, the question about hyperpartisanship is that it does go both ways. Now, one of the things that we look at in terms of the Civil War-
JA: It’s a feedback loop.
ZK: -because the north won, is we treat the hyperpartisanship of the south, defending slavery is morally wrong, and we treat the hyperpartisanship of the Republican Party determined, at least in 1860, to halt the spread of slavery. There was no actual determination in the mainstream Republican Party in 1860 to abolish slavery
JA: By Lincoln’s part. There were-
JA: -leaders in the Republican party who wanted to.
ZK: Correct. But I mean, that was not the governing platform at the time. It was to halt the spread.
ZK: It was not to abolish.
JA: That’s right.
ZK: So we treat that hyperpartisanship as legitimate and moral and kind of on “the right side of history”, right?
JA: Mm-hmm. Okay. I’m grudgingly going along with you for the point of argument. Go on.
ZK: I think the challenge today is, again, I’m gonna push you on this, distinguishing people who vote for the Republican Party and for Trump, of which there are tens of millions, from fully endorsing the viewpoints of the people they’re voting for because in many of these places, there’s not a lot of optionality and there’s not a lot of— the partisanship of policy has become significant, right? I mean, there are plenty of people who will vote for the Republican Party. I mean, look, even the fact that I’m talking about it this way, clearly, we know where we line up politically, the three of us, who will do so because they are deeply unsatisfied with immigration policy that they percieve the Democrats of having done. Immigration has been morass for decades. There was one brief moment under Obama that there was gonna be a grand bargain about immigration. That fell apart. Obviously, the country would’ve been better off.
JA: Yeah. Okay.
ZK: Again, there’s gotta be a way of like— it’s like the art from the artist kind of thing. There’s plenty of people who are terrible human beings whose art I appreciate. I mean, I wrote a piece, I think at one point in early 2020, saying, you know, if Trump says it, does that mean it’s wrong? Right? Meaning there’s plenty of things that are animating legitimate debate in this country, including immigration, that lead people to vote certain ways.
JA: Yeah. Okay. So there’s a lot there. But let’s break it down. First of all, I think it’s really important to put things in perspective so that we don’t fall into what— my fellow centrists should often criticize that doing sort of a both sides moral equivalence deal, which is exactly what I’m saying in particular we shouldn’t do with democracy on the world stage. One of the stats that I crunched a while ago that I like a lot is, I think there were seven members of the current Democratic caucus and the House last session who supported the policy known as defund the police. It’s the world’s single dumbest policy branding ever or most self-defeating. And, what, 167 Republicans who voted to overturn the election after the attack on the Capitol. Right? So that’s useful, it seems to me, just statistically [inaudible].
Now, of course, you’re right, people can have honestly policy differences. And too often policy differences get demonized in our conversation. I happen to be a big believer that broken windows theory of policing and as understood by James Q. Wilson, and civic order is enormously important. And I think a lot of the decay in studies is what’s causing a lot of popular and populous frustration that I think is understandable. And saying that no, broken windows theory is a good idea. Some people will be quick reflectively to say, well, that’s a racist policy. Well, it’s not. And calling people racist when there’s a policy disagreement is fundamentally not useful, it seems to me, an ad hominem attack. American politics works best when we debate different approaches to solving the same problem, right? We have common problems in the country, urban and rural areas, there have always been cultural and political differences about the challenges that they face, but okay. And let’s debate that. Let’s, again, have an honest debate about, say, immigration.
So Ronald Reagan was the last person to sign a comprehensive immigration plan into place. And it offered amnesty for existing undocumented workers, but it didn’t sufficiently stop the flow, which is a geopolitical problem as well as a US border problem. Under Obama, as you say, I mean, there was a gang of 12 senators who knew that there was a comprehensive package that needed to be done to deal with this. You needed increased border security, you need E-Verify, you need a pathway to citizenship, on and on and on. Then you could tweak that. You could tweak that about incentivizing assimilation in a way that we’re perhaps not doing that I think’s at the root of a lot of popular frustration. And wanting to control your border is not a wacky idea. And indeed, you can go back and look at past democratic presidents. Bill Clinton’s, I think, ’95 State of the Union where “he sounds like a Republican today”. But what happened is, is that Boehner wanted to do that, the immigration deal, and then Eric Cantor, his deputy, lost a primary and they blamed it on immigration and the entire party got cowardly and ran the other way. And a lot of people would have an issue— would rather demagogue issues than deal with them, even if everybody actually knows what needs to be done and could be done. And Biden himself has basically said, I’m happy to be much tougher on border security with dollars if we can come up with something comprehensive, which is actually needed to solve the plan.
So yeah, as long as we can have a fact-based debate, I think that policy empathy is a lot easier. I wrote a column Christmas, I think, probably year two or one of the Trump presidency, where I said, look, here are five issues where I agree with Donald Trump. Policy that he’s put in place. They’re relatively small targeted things, but I thought that was an important gesture, right? To make the exact point that I think you’re making.
JA: They’re very small in the grand scheme of who Donald Trump is, but now you’ve got a larger binary choice. You can’t say I like low taxes because individual tax rates haven’t been rated . Therefore, I’m going to reelect someone who tried to overturn an election on the basis of a lie. There’s a limit to which that policy rationalization works, it seems to me, because the larger challenge to basic, really basic patriotic principles are so stark in the form of that person.
ZK: I agree with the presumption, except for the fact that 72, 73 million people did— I can’t remember the exact vote count. 74? Was it 74? And—
JA: Democrats— okay,
JA: I wanna be clear. That was before he tried to overturn an election on the basis of a lie, although he was telegraphing that he would do that.
ZK: I mean, look, we’ll see if he gets the nomination, but one of the things I think we have not adequately dealt with is how do you grapple with what seemed to be completely opposed perspectives in a democracy, right? Abortion rights clearly is a huge issue in this ’cause there’s an absolutism about-
JA: Good example.
ZK: -women’s rights. And to some degree, Donald Trump has become that. It doesn’t seem fully reconcilable to most people on either side of that. And so I guess what I find to be our failing democratically is confronting what feels to be irreconcilable differences. And you’re right to point to the Civil War as a moment where maybe there was no way to reconcile the morality of slavery, the immorality of slavery, the untenableness of slavery as both an economic and human system with a open democracy. And therefore, either that was gonna be peacefully abolished, as it was in Britain and a lot of European countries, or it was gonna be forcefully abolished, one of the two, right? There was no pathway of half free, half slave. So maybe rights is one of those, but I don’t—
JA: But no. Again, first of all, I mean the problem of slavery was much bigger than anything we’re dealing with today, right now. And remember, you know, the international slave trade was abolished in 1808 by agreement of the founding fathers. They have notes in the articles, the notes of the constitutional convention come out in the 1840s, I believe. And people are able to see that the founders basically said, okay, we’re not gonna be able to get agreement past the constitution, so we’re not gonna be able to deal with slavery. We recognize that it’s a fundamental problem existentially for the nation [inaudible] contradiction that all men are created equal, but we’ll put it on a pathway towards extinction.
So then after the Mexican-American war, when there’s structural shift and all of a sudden you have new slave states being added, that upsets the apple cart, right? That’s a structural shift, and it was an alleged compromise at the time. And that’s what elevates the issue and brings it to sort of a boil, so to speak. And the boil occurs when southerners, southern states proactively secede because they don’t recognize the legitimacy of Abraham Lincoln’s win. And you go back and read the first inaugural address and he said, look, I am not trying to abolish slavery. I might like that personally, but I don’t think I have the constitutional right to do it. Our only disagreement is about whether it should be extended. We must not be enemies, we must be friends. Right? Go back and read that whole speech. So it’s the preemptive fear that he is going to try to end slavery because he’s an abolitionist candidate of a new, moderately progressive third party in effect that creates the proactive secession and rebellion of the south. So that’s really important historical context in the understanding how that came about. And then of course, the war creates the context in which Lincoln can, from the first Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the 13th amendment, to actually end slavery. And Americans’ attitudes change over time in large part to the example set by 180,000 black Union soldiers.
So that’s important because I think it takes it away from the only way to end it was through violent abolition of slavery. There were off-ramps all along the way, but it was the people who were attributing false motivations and didn’t recognize the legitimacy of that election that got us here. So if that framing is resonant, it should be. That’s not to say there’s a parallel. Also, individual states don’t have armed militias in the same way that can be said against each other on conventional battlefields. But lost cause mythology is a really pernicious thing. Tribal politics is a really pernicious thing, particularly when you’re dealing with something that I write about in the book called aggressive defensiveness, right? Which is where people are [inaudible] and said we have to kill them before they kill us, some variation of that theme. That’s one of the really dangerous things. And the great replacement theory, for example, feeds right into that.
There are any number of reasonable good Republicans who could run or a handful who are running, who’ve got deeply conservative beliefs. That’s the ironic thing. And Donald Trump is not conservative by any ideological standard, only by a culture war standard. And those conservative alternatives would presumably answer those policy preferences by people who have, and those policy preferences are totally legitimate whether you agree them or disagree. Of course we can have debates on policy. That’s what democracy’s about. But you don’t catastrophize losing an election. And yes, because of what Trump did after the last election in particular, which validated all the worst fears and concerns about him from a follow the constitution fitness for office standpoint. That I think puts him in a different category, it seems to me. But that doesn’t delegitimize any of those positions that people may have.
And Democrats need to do a much better job, in my eyes, of reaching out to voters in rural areas and in red states. Both parties need to be competing. I like it when there are urban Republicans and red state rural Democrats. I think that’s healthy. But remember, during the Trump years, the three most popular governors in the country by polling were blue state Republicans. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Phil Scott of Vermont. And in a functioning political system, those would be the world’s most obvious political nominees. If they’ve shown an ability to have super majority support in states controlled by the other party, and indeed, the residents, citizens of those states are saying, you know what? We need to check on the political culture [inaudible] not be all from one political party, which is itself a healthy recognition of that ballot. But none of those humans have [inaudible] of getting the Republican nomination. And that speaks to something that’s broken structurally.
But it can be fit, right? Change the rules, you change the game. You wanna stop Donald Trump right now, you have more proportional allocation to delegates, not winner take all. Republican Party is trying to have— it currently does have more winner take all [inaudible]. It’s a glide path for Donald Trump winning the renomination. You wanna stop hyperpartisanship in Congress and polarization, you have more competitive district by ending the rigged system of redistricting. You can have open primers, ranked choice voting. There are structural things you can do to change the incentive structure. The incentive structures right now are really out of line with our best traditions and the way that liberal democracies function best. And so that’s why we need to be laser-like focused on that.
EV: Do you see any spots or places in the US where we are seeing movement on that front or at least focus?
JA: Well, no, no. I mean, in New York City, for example, we have ranked choice voting. In Maine, there’s ranked choice voting, right? It creates a disincentive. Alaska just passed it. We’ll see if it sticks in Nevada. But it creates an incentive in primaries at which, ideally, you want to enfranchise independent voters, where you’re trying to win over the supporters of your competitors. So you’re not trying to destroy them. You’re trying to appeal to them with reason. That’s a good thing, right? For example. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a red state, blue state dichotomy on redistricting. And, again, you can’t overstate the importance of people trying to rig it. Have unrepresented elections ’cause that’s how they feel like they can come into power, right? So in New York, in Maryland, Republicans successfully said these map that Democrats are putting forward are two partisan. It’s unfair. And democratic judges in the case of New York overturned it and they put a special master map in place for the last election that may get adjusted this election.
In Texas, all the growth and congressional seats and population comes from primarily urban areas and voters of color, but they have fewer seats for African American and Hispanic members of Congress. That’s being charged in the Voting Rights Act. It’s very unclear whether that will go forward. Ron DeSantis pushed through his own plan to maximize the number of seats. You have states where the registration is roughly 50/50. In Ohio, voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2017 by over 60% saying that we should have basically nonpartisan maps and contiguous maps, and Republicans overwrote it and then ran out the clock. So a state with actually close to 50/50 registration will— I like to be really accurate, independents, so we’d say third and third and third roughly. I think it’s a 13/2 map. That’s a real problem. We don’t talk about that.
ZK: So what could we talk about more that we’re not talking about? I mean, is there like a place for good news on major networks? Do people tune out? Does it have to be— I mean, the joke used to be that local news would be, you know, fire, murder, death, weather, sports, and then like cats and trees the last minute, right?
ZK: And you don’t even get the cats and trees on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.
JA: First of all, don’t lump all those networks together. It’s— I think does a disservice [inaudible].
ZK: Well, meaning they’re representative of where many— and you don’t— I mean, you still do, unlike— I don’t know anyone who watches ABC, CBS, NBC news at night anymore. It’s a different cohort. You still do get that last 92nd hit of the good news at times.
JA: Look, I think it’s enormously important understanding that news is what’s new and people don’t cover trains that arrive on time in stations, and the line that most news organizations don’t have a liberal or conservative bias as much as they have a conflict bias, which social media algorithms amplify to our collective detriment. I think there’s an enormous need and thirst for good news to remind us that we’re not as divided as we sometimes feel that we are. Most people are basically good. That’s important. The thing I’m really evangelical about within the context of news, you just heard my evangelical rant about the need for election reform so that we have representative elections, so that the exchanges don’t disproportionately dominate the debate.
There are studies that show that what I call solutions journalism is a way to regain trust. I think a lot of people are exhausted by this [inaudible], it seems to me. People are exhausted by this fixation on problems quizzically described without ever offering solutions to how to solve those problems. And I think if news organizations put more emphasis, yes, accountability journalism, but solutions journalism, not saying that any of us have all the answers, but here are some possible solutions. [inaudible] people with ideas on how to solve problems, elevate those solutions, have a conversation about how you solve problems. That’s what democracy should be much more focused on. It’s empowering, it’s hopeful. And I’ve been quietly, maybe not so quietly, trying to advance that idea because I think it helps restore trust. But I think it’s incredibly important.
And I think a lot of journalists are reluctant to talk about solutions because they feel it’s overstepping bounds or they’re uncomfortable, frankly, talking about policies so you get horse race political coverage too much. We should be talking about solutions. I think that’s enormously empowering and hopeful, and I think that’s what a lot of folks are missing. And in the absence of that, I think folks tune out because it all feels overwhelming and despairing. And that means you’re not playing an active enough role as a citizen of a democratic republic.
EV: I mean, what’s your own personal strategy for not getting overwhelmed by despair? I mean, even just in the conversation we just had now, I keep thinking like, how does he keep all this stuff straight in his head? Number one. Number two—
JA: Yeah, I’m a puzzle. I don’t know.
EV: [Laughs] I mean, is that just a personality trait of yours that you can look at all these things and say, but we’re not gonna give up, or is that something that you’ve cultivated over time with intention?
JA: Oh, I think it’s cultivation over time, but it’s also about a reading of history, that I think anyone would recognize or any narrative structure. Of course, you don’t give up. There’s no points for giving up. But, look, I am a determined optimist, and it’s probably partly my general perspective. A lot of our greatest and most determined leaders, they fluctuate between sunshine and shadow, Lincoln among them. One of the things I love from my book is his faith deepened in the presidency after the death of his son, Willie, and he’s seen occasionally going to a room and reading the Book of Job for comfort, an emerging quote, oddly cheerful [laughs], which is kind pf extraordinary.
So I’d say there’s a certain degree of cultivation from sort of a conscientious nihilism to a determined optimism. But there’s a unfortunately apocryphal Lincoln quote, it’s one of my favorites, but it’s unfortunately apocryphal, where he says, allegedly, “I’m an optimist ’cause I don’t see the point in being anything else.” That seems sort of fairly stable ground, it seems to me. Get out of your own way. Don’t wallow in your own indecision. The future is always uncertain. It has always been uncertain. That’s one reason to read history. It gives you courage and comfort, not least because we know how it turns out, but then look for the opportunities in our time. Look for the areas of need. Try to figure out what needs to be strengthened, what are the big issues of our time. Don’t preoccupy yourself with small issues except as they apply close to home, you know, children in your home and your community.
And there’s a lot to be optimistic about. I would love to spend more time talking about the prospects of, for example, nuclear fusion or any of the extraordinary things that are happening in health, in science, in space exploration that could transform humanity. That is not to be Pollyannish at all about the challenges we face, whether they’re domestically from hyperpartisanship and election denialism and all that stuff, or the geopolitical challenge from authoritarian leaders that range from China’s surveillance state to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Those are all real, but look at the galvanizing effect it had. Putin thought he could get away with dividing Ukraine at the very least through a brutal invasion that would be over quickly and that the will of the west would evaporate. And it was supposed to be a brushback pitch against the expansion of NATO. Well, look what he got in return, an expansion of NATO. The NATO alliance is stronger now because of that challenge. That’s a good thing. But I think that’s actually a metaphor for how we should all respond, seems to me.
ZK: Well, clearly, we could continue the conversation and probably should at a later point, maybe in 2024, we can circle back and see how this conversation ages.
JA: See how we’re doing.
ZK: Exactly. I think the idea—
JA: And I do not proclaim to have a crystal ball. I wanna be clear.
ZK: No one does, although lots of people proclaim to have one.
ZK: No one has a functional one. Lots of us have just like a little crystal ball, some paperweight.
ZK: I like your sensibility. The historical framework, I think is important to inform particularly the maelstrom of contemporary news, which can be consumed by the present as if the past doesn’t exist and the future is unknown, which it is. So I think it’s great that you are both at the heart of that and bring to it that sensibility. I mean, whether that makes its way explicitly into how you think about and talk about things is constantly-
JA: Try to.
ZK: -part of who you are and how you think about things. And that, I think, is vital and would be good if everyone had some of that. So keep doing what you’re doing and we will keep talking about it.
JA: We will. And I really appreciate what you guys are doing here. I mean, focusing on the glass half full and the opportunities and not catastrophizing the inherent uncertainty of the future. That’s really good. We need more people talking positively about potentials for the future, not in a Pollyannish way.
EV: We’re doing our best.
JA: So thank you.
EV: Thank you, John.
JA: Fun talk with you guys. I appreciate it.
JA: All right.
EV: Thank you so much.
JA: Be well.
ZK: So I’m just gonna echo what I said at the end, which is I do think having a degree of historical sensibility that you bring to your view of the present is really vital, not because— I think the past repeats itself mantra is incorrect. Historians repeat each other more than the past repeats itself. But it does give us an awareness of what humans have grappled with and a degree of offsetting this belief, which is, I think, pretty ubiquitous, that the moment that we’re living in is unprecedented and unique. I mean, it is unique, right? Nothing really is the same, but the idea that human beings haven’t grappled in the past with similar confusions and similar questions, whether that’s new technologies, no one has grappled in the past with the rise of artificial intelligence but people have grappled with new technologies and how have those been integrated or not integrated or resisted or created confusion. Our political moment is different. And as John talked about, there were things that have gone on during the Trump presidency that haven’t really gone on at the center of American politics, but a lot of other things have gone on that are incredibly contentious and incredibly destructive. And how do we meet those? And I think that that gives one a degree of perspective.
And if anything about The Progress Network that I’ve tried to do is it’s take a step back and take a breath. And Emma, I mean, you’ve been all over that in terms of Buddhist practice, right? Take a moment, take a breath, take a step back, don’t become so consumed in the fear and the agitation and the hysteria of the moment because that clouds our ability to recognize what moment we’re in and grapple with it.
EV: Yeah. And in terms of taking a step back, I like taking the literal step back through history. I think there is some confusion about low points, right? Like there’s an assumption that we’re in the lowest point of American history when we’re very clearly not. That being said, I’m sure people would respond to that as like, okay, well if you’re gonna take the Civil War as the low point, that’s a really low standard. But [laughs] we have not devolved into Civil War— yet is what some people would add to that.
But as we’re talking, I kept thinking about also just what standards we apply, right, to the present versus the past. There was this really interesting Democracy Index that came out, I can’t remember when, but it was recently, and it rated, mostly because of Trump, the quality of United States democracy as lower than it was in the times that women didn’t have the right to vote. And you’re kind of just like, how could that be possible, right? That the US is being graded now as a lower quality democracy as when not the entire population, half of it, half the genders didn’t have the right to vote. So that kind of perspective is crucial, that things may be bad and unique and uniquely bad, but they are not insurmountable and they are not the absolute worst.
ZK: And the more people, I guess, are able to toggle between the very real issues of the present and an awareness of where people have or have not been able to navigate and also where their reactions to past problems have aggravated the situation rather than ameliorated it is also kind of vital. And we’ve tried to do that in a series of conversations. We’re gonna keep trying to do that in a series of conversations.
Given that we have spent a lot of time talking about kind of a political news, we’re gonna eschew our usual news of the week for this one. And not that there isn’t our usual stories of things that we haven’t been paying attention to that should, which are all in our weekly newsletter that Emma writes, What Could Go Right?, which you can sign up for at theprogressnetwork.org or click on a link in Twitter or Facebook. It’s free. It comes to you once a week. And it highlights a lot of things that are going on in the world that we may not have paid attention to or just may have missed in the contemporary fray. So urging all of you to sign up for that if you’re not already. And thank you all for your time today, and thank you, Emma, for co-hosting as always.
EV: And thank you, Zachary. And yep, we’ll be back with the news next week.
Meet the Hosts