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 7
How to Create Positive Change
Featuring Danielle Moodie & Wajahat Ali
How does change actually occur? And what are the best tactics for bringing large coalitions together? Hosts of Democracy-ish, Danielle Moodie and Wajahat Ali, discuss the balance between angry revolution and individual hope, and what ultimately gets people on board with a movement. Plus, we take a look at the World Happiness Report and the college enrollment drop.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is What Could Go Right?, our weekly podcast on season four, talking to people about what is going on in the world through a lens that should be unfamiliar and that we hope is not unfamiliar for very long, namely a lens of what could go right in the world and not framed, as it usually is, with all the things that are going wrong. And we are having conversations with people often who embody a similar sensibility. They’re not ignorant of or blithely dismissive of the many and manifold problems that animate our world, but they are willing to think about what can we do to make sure that things go right and not simply revel and get mired in all that is going wrong. Now that doesn’t mean that we also do not try to engage people who might not entirely share the same sensibility. Even though they may be passionate about change, they may be more focused on problems, they may be more angry, they may be more agitated by what is going on politically, and they may actually believe that is a better mechanism to force change than a more sanguine approach to our problems today. There’s always this tension between the radical, the revolutionary, and the change over time between those who believe that when there is an urgency of the moment, what Lyndon Johnson called in passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the fierce urgency of now that there is an incentive and a demand that we define things in terms of black and white. And if outrage is part of the mechanism of change, so be it. Part of the point of The Progress Network is to say on the whole, that often simply creates more fight and more flight and more fright and not the change that we want or believe in. But I think that’s a debate. And we’re gonna today talk with two people who may embody a somewhat different sensibility and see out of that discussion where all of us come out and whether we learn something and they learn something or you learn something or none of us learn anything.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re gonna talk to Danielle Moodie and Wajahat Ali. They’re the co-hosts of a podcast called Democracy-ish, which is dedicated to fighting for democracy and preserving your sanity in a time, and this is the blurb from the podcast, when both are under active assault by forces committed to white supremacy and stupidity. Far too long, they say, our body politic has been viewed through an all-white prism that does not represent the multiracial nation that is the United States of America. So they discuss how we can achieve a multiracial democracy in the podcast and cover all the ground left behind by mainstream media seeking to make sense out of the nonsense. So let’s go talk to Danielle and Wajahat.
ZK: Wajahat and Danielle, thank you so much for joining us. And I think we’re doing like a, I invite you over to my house and you invite me to yours. So I think I’m doing an episode with you, or at least we’re planning to based on assuming that this following conversation goes well. But I guess we’ll see if that ends up happening. I’m really curious about the following. I started The Progress Network with a kind of an idea of we all know what’s wrong and we all know what the problems are because we all collectively, we being us collectively, spend a lot of time focusing on what’s not working and the urgency of making sure that certain things change and that there’s also a sensibility of more trying to focus on the future of our hopes and dreams and less on the present of our fears. And I think for me personally, and those people who have been listening to the podcast probably know this by now, like for my whole life, I’ve had this struggle with and question mark around what’s the most efficacious way to create change, particularly in a noisy, multiethnic, multi-ideological democracy like the United States. Like a noisy place where a lot of people disagree profoundly about what’s right, whether or not change happens because a few passionate radicals and revolutionaries like William Lloyd Garrison or civil rights leaders in the ’60s articulate a black and white notion of this is wrong, this must change, and everything else must be subsumed to that, or whether change is more small P progressive, right, takes time, you build on it, you don’t notice it over time. And my sense of the work that you guys do and the podcast you do is you’re somewhat more in the camp of there’s an urgency and there’s a kind of a need for kind of radicalism, no bullshit, we’re gonna call this a spade and try to, with that passion and urgency, force change. So I’m just curious about what you think about that, is that a fair characterization, and is there a legit question mark between the sort of the passion of change over time in a more step-by-step gradualist way or this is things are wrong, things are bad, they have to change, we have to take sides and focus on that entirely?
Danielle Moodie (DM): It’s a big question, and I think that it’s a both/and type of answer. I think that you need big radicalized visionary change, right? You need those people who create that kind of message, that path forward, that say that we can be bigger and brighter and better than what is currently in existence. And in order to be in that space, you have to kind of end the BS of where we are currently and imagine something greater and bigger. At that same time, I think that you do need the small P progressive of small pockets of people having hope and believing that they alone with whatever small platform, their neighbors, their communities, their schools can make a difference, right? Because what fuel and what drives change is hope, right? Hopefulness and the power that people have individually and then collectively, once they come together to form a greater community, belief that small groups of people can actually create significant change. When the opposition win is when we lose sight of our own personal power and connectivity to one another. And that connectivity turns into fear. And so that siloed effect is what is driving our divisiveness now. And so I think that you need both/and if you are to see anything both sizable and step by step, decade by decade, year by year.
Wajahat Ali (WA): I want to acknowledge the fact that so many people, when I travel around America and even the world just to give talks, especially post-COVID, they feel overwhelmed and they feel like they want to tap out. And you can’t blame folks. We’re still surviving a pandemic. There’s climate change. There’s gonna be climate change refugees in our lifetime, there already are. Income inequality, the rich are getting richer, the rise of fascism. We just lost a 50-year constitutionally protected right, so 51% of the population, women, sorry, but America joins three other countries in moving backwards when it comes to women’s rights. And oftentimes what I get even in corporate settings, when it comes to students, when it comes to teachers, when it comes to those who are middle-class, their refrain is, who am I? I’m nobody. What can I do? You guys have a podcast, you guys go on TV, but what can I do? And so then with that feeling of helplessness, which so oftentimes then can become learned helplessness, your retreat is to tap out and say, okay, no one’s looking out for me. The problems are too big, the institutions are corrupt, so I’m just gonna take care of my own. I’m gonna carve out a small piece of land and on that land take care of my wife, my children, and a couple loved ones, and peace out, everybody else. And essentially what you’re investing in then is kind of cynicism and apathy, which I’ve always said is very comforting and convenient, but it means you’ve chosen to be a spectator, not a participant. And it makes sense because if you’re a participant, what do you get? You get a bloody nose, especially if you’re a person of color or a woman or an organizer, right? And if you invest in hope, it’s very dangerous because hope means opening yourself up to disappointment. And if you’re a person of color, this country will break your heart every day. And yet I still tell people, you still have to invest in hope. You need hope. Danielle touched upon it, right? Because in the absence of hope, you have cynicism and apathy and you have no change. Hope or faith, if not in yourself or in something, gives you enough fuel to get up and say, you know what? I’m gonna do something. And this is where I feel like when people say it should be macro and micro, should it be the inside game and outside game, I always tell people, everyone has a superpower. You need an inside game and an outside game. You need people working in Congress, you need people working in the grassroots, you need teachers, and you need the homemakers to model a certain type of behavior for your children. Look at the right wing real quick as a model, right? Roe v. Wade, 50 years ago. I talked to some conservative activists who 10 years ago said, we’ve lost Roe v. Wade, but we can’t lose gay marriage. We still have a good fight. For 50 years, they’ve been chipping away, Zachary, chipping away, surgical. Got to a point where if you asked a bunch of conservative activists 10 years ago, they would’ve said, there’s no way Roe v. Wade would fall. And they got it done. We have the numbers, we have the majority, but you have to flex. And I always say this on our show, our podcast Democracy-ish, is give me a well-funded, zealous organized minority over a flabby majority any day. They’ll cut through the majority like butter. And if you look at the right wing, and I hate using this, but I give an example, they use the inside game, the outside game, local organizers, moms, big money city council, judges, right? They groom law students from law school to the Supreme Court. And now you see the left. And if you will, not just the left, the majority saying, how come we didn’t do that? It’s ’cause we fell asleep. Last thing I’ll say is you hear these quotes from Martin Luther King, and America only likes three quotes from Martin Luther King. One of them is the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, right? Won’t judge a man by his color of his skin, but the content of his character. And that’s pretty much all Martin Luther King said, and then he smiled and he died, and now he’s a poster. He said a lot of other stuff by the way. I believe that the arc of the universe has to be bended. You have to bend it, right? And a lot of people think, oh, naturally, things will just happen. If you just sit on your ass, naturally people will evolve. No, we’re looking at the rise of white nationalism and fascism in America. So every single person, Zachary, has a role. Every single person has to be a change agent. And every single person, I believe, has some superpower that they can flex in the home, at the city council, at school boards, at hospital boards, in Congress, [inaudible] workers, educators. And if you look at the arc of history, when it comes to this multicultural coalition, through time and work, you chip away and that’s how you create the systemic change. To answer the question you asked, can we have change tomorrow or should we have radical change now? It’s like that Langston Hughes quote that I’ll paraphrase, I can’t eat tomorrow’s bread. So for most of the folks who say, listen, just wait, I’ll be blunt, you darkies, you just wait. Wait for voting rights, wait for police reform, wait for immigration reform. Listen, we got an election to win, the midterm. This is the most important election. And if you notice, it’s usually people of color, women, LGBTQ, and immigrants who are told punt for the next five years. You wait. And then for us, we’re like, we’ve been waiting forever, we’re gonna be dead. And so you need a combination of both urgency and patience. But you need those allies, and especially those allies who have power, who have wealth, and if I may be so bold, have that white complexion to really get with people of color to make the change ’cause when we have that alliance, we see change happen sometimes overnight. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.
EV: So this is kind of a subset of the, you know, urgency versus patience question. And it’s a question of kind of where you guys see yourselves like in this larger game and a question of if you’re building a multiracial coalition, right, how do you form the community? How do you attract people in and convince people, hey, like we need to band together on this. And we talk a lot on this podcast about tonality, you know, sensibility and pull people in kind of methodology. I’m curious where you guys see yourself in that. If you have a particular strategy or thought or philosophy behind that, especially when it comes to your podcast.
DM: I would say that Waj and I have two very— not two completely different tone, but I am, of the two of us, much more cynical and I am much more filled with rage.
WA: You have a mustard seed of hope.
DM: Which is what I’d say often, I have a mustard seed of hope. But oftentimes I—
ZK: And yet you did begin this-
DM: With hope.
ZK: -talking about hope, which is int—
DM: But I also am a person that is a realist and recognize that as a Black queer woman in America, a child of immigrant, that this country is unkind, that as much as I love this country, as much as I went into politics, worked on Capitol Hill, was a teacher, did all of these different things because I actually love the country that doesn’t, as Waj says constantly, does not love us back. And so for me, what is the connector? How do I bring people in? I bring them in with my shared rage, right? Because there are so many people that are outdone. They are outdone by the fact that they’re going into libraries that have books that are either covered up or removed. They’re outdone by the fact that instead of their governor paying attention to the racial wealth gap or paying attention to climate change or paying attention to ways in which corporations take advantage of them or pay attention to worker’s rights, that instead they wanna put targets on the back of trans children and criminalize their parents, right? So there is something to rage fueling connectivity and bringing people in because again, there are so many people that will listen to our show and they tweet and they’ll say, thank you so much for articulating how angry I am. Because there is also a type of anger that can become silent, right? Because you just don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do, right? So you just stop engaging, as Waj said earlier, altogether, right? Because of that sense of overwhelm. But if you recognize, no, there are other people that are just as exasperated as you, there are other people that are just as outdone, that instead of paying our teachers what they’re worth, we’re criminalizing them instead, but wanting to teach a more robust and well-rounded idea of what this country is so that they can be competitive, right, and not repeat the mistakes of the past, right? Which is what white supremacy wants from us all, right? To continue to repeat those mistakes, to continue to repeat and erase. And for me, I think that how do I bring people in, it is through that shared rage. But also rage is not something that is sustainable. You will burn out. And so it’s bringing people in with rage but then saying now that you’re here, right, here is what you can do, right? You can call your elected official. You can decide that instead of waiting for somebody else to run to represent your voice, that you can decide to run, that if you have the mean, right, to give the money to the people that are on the grassroots that are battling day in and day out in order to keep the bit of protections that they have left, right? That there are ways to tap in, that you don’t need to have kids in the school district in order to run for school board. ‘Cause guess what? The far right is bussing in people that don’t even live in the area to run for school board to show their outrage at these meetings. Like they are training people to do that, right? So there are avenues. People just need to be provided with an on-ramp. And I find that rage is a really good on-ramp, right? Because then people don’t feel isolated in that rage. And then they can figure out, okay, now that I’m here and there are like-minded people around me that are just as upset, right, what can we do as a collective? So that to me, that’s my on-ramp in helping people figure out how do I connect? How do I use my power? What does my voice look like? It doesn’t matter if I have half a million followers or 10 followers, right? It matters that I connect with those people daily, weekly, right, and that we figure out what solutions look like.
ZK: I do like your articulation of rage as a tool. My concern is always that it’s often a place that people get stuck in. They either burn out or-
WA: That’s right.
ZK: -it becomes— it’s hard to get out of the loop.
ZK: Fear, despair, and outrage, they’re very useful human emotions to alert you that, hey, there’s a problem here. There is an issue here and we have to do something. The challenge is not to get stuck in them and also consumed by them, that you use the tool, it doesn’t use you. And from my own personal place, I find that the cycles of outrage, despair— and I wanna get to some specifics after we do this kind of generalized. And I do, I like your articulation of that. It’s a tool that is powerful, that is tractionable, that gets people’s attention and also arouses them in the best sense of the word. But there is that kind of that tension of, it’s a bit of quicksilver and it can also backfire.
DM: And I had to really learn for myself to use my rage as a tool because, Zachary, before the pandemic, I was getting stuck in it. I was like, people think that part of what I do is performance. No. There are many times when I’ve turned off the microphone and I’m actually left just sitting and crying and just sitting and just, oh my god, another mass shooting, another unarmed black child, another devastating “manmade disaster”, right? Another this, another that. And recognizing that no, I won’t be able to continue to be of service, right, in the way that I feel called to be of service if I allow myself to be stuck in the rage. So it’s like how can it be utilized as a tool? And then you have the ability to put that tool down and pick it up when you need it, right? But that in order to feel like you were doing the “work”, you don’t need to carry that weight all day, every day. And that’s a lesson that, thankfully for me, out of the privilege of the point that I was sitting in in the pandemic, I was able to do a lot of deep diving and reflecting on how I wanna best use my voice and my time.
WA: And the missing ingredient, it’s important, we should spend a couple minutes on this because for the oldheads like us, we didn’t hear words like self-care. No one taught us self-care. Our job was to like burn out and be a perpetual fireman and do the work and then just die. Like work, die, and then don’t complain, white-knuckle it. And so Gen Z is onto something with these words like self-care. We never had it. Like I’m the post-9/11 generation, right? And even this kind of antiquated mindset of what a alpha male is, right? A man doesn’t whine and complain. A man doesn’t cry. He just works hard, and even if he might be depressed or anxious, he keeps it bottled in, and you bottle it in for the rest of your life. And then he dies at the age of 65, and they’re like, but he worked out and did pilates. But if you did like an emotional audit of that person, they’re like, oh, depressed, anxious, scared, never talked to anyone. If he just cried once, he probably would’ve lived 10 more years. I always joke, I think I’ve done this joke on Democracy-ish, is that if you give men of my age and older, right, the option of the angel of death comes and says okay, you can live 10 extra years of a good life if you just cried once or you could die at 65, many of us would be like, kill us now. And the angel of death is like, oh, wait, I’m not trying to kill you now. Like just end it. End it now.
WA: So there is something about love and self-care that is very important and it doesn’t get talked about enough. You need love and self-care. And I think that the anger is oftentimes fueled by love. You love a country that hates you. You love a country that doesn’t fight for you. You love your fellow countrymen to be better and you’re so disappointed and angry that they stomp on you and stomp on each other. And then like you said, Zachary, it’s important that without the appropriate tools for self-care, the anger can be so corrosive that it destroys the person. It destroys relationships, it destroys your relationship with your kids, and it impacts future generations ’cause they’re like why should I fight? I saw my parents, they were miserable. My mom and dad burned out. F that. I’m gonna go get paid, I’m gonna get laid, I’m gonna chill, just have fun, and peace out, everyone. And so it’s important for love and self-care to be, I think, the primary ingredients along with anger that fuels you, sustains you. And I also want to just throw this out there. Who gets to be angry in this country? ‘Cause when Danielle expresses her righteous rage at things that are really affecting her and her community, you know what they call her? Angry Black woman. You should lower your temperature, Danielle. Why is she so angry? And yet if Danielle was a rich white man like Tucker Carlson, telling it like it is, keeping it real, being politically correct, mad as hell and not taking it anymore. We’re gonna elect you president, Danielle. The way I answer this question when it comes to your big picture question of how you can bring on people who might be hesitant, right? I was thinking about this earlier. ‘Cause how can you simultaneously entertain we want a big tent, we wanna invite folks, we wanna be loving, we wanna be generous, but at the same time you say punch a fascist in the mouth, figuratively, not literally, figuratively, take ’em out, call ’em for what they are, challenge them. So how do you reconcile that? And I was thinking about it, and the way I have landed on, Zachary, is the caravan has to move forward. The dogs will bark, but the caravan has to move forward, to give an old school Middle Eastern and Asian analogy. I know in America, and this is where the pragmatist in me comes up, we ain’t gonna get everyone, we’re not gonna get 100%, we’re not gonna get 90%, we’re not gonna get even 80%. If we’re lucky, if you look at all the polls, we’ll get 70%. I believe in my lifetime we have lost about a third of Americans to this right wing disinformation hate system, a third. No matter what you and I do, Zachary, we’re not gonna win them over. So do I give up on them? No, but I can’t wait, to go back to your first question, I cannot wait to sit there and win them over, coddle them, go to their Rust Belt diners, drink frigging like 17 cups of coffee to figure out their economic anxiety. I gotta move forward. I got kids. So bring me the majority, the majority’s gonna be in the caravan, the caravan’s gonna move forward. But this is where love comes back. ‘Cause I do believe in God and I look at the prophets and look at their model, the door will be open and my hand will be out there to bring you onto the caravan, but you have to meet me halfway. And if you choose to sit there and throw rocks at me, peace, the caravan moves forward.
ZK: Back to the percentage thing, and I wanna hear Emma about this ’cause she has thought a lot about the burnout and the way one manages heated emotions often through a Buddhist lens. But I think there’ve only been three times in the 20th century where a president won more than 60% of the vote. Franklin Roosevelt in the ’30s, Lyndon Johnson in ’64, and Richard Nixon in 1972. So not only is it really difficult to get to 70%, it’s incredibly difficult just to get to 60% in this country.
EV: I guess, you know, where I come onto this is a lot of my personal political views are certainly on the left, probably on the progressive left, and yet I find myself in this position where I am trying to convince people that are in that 60, 50, 40% that I think gets shut down by certain language, and whether or not it’s fair that they get shut down by certain language is another argument entirely. Something like toxic masculinity, kind of agree with that as a framework. Do I use the term? No because I feel like when I go to people that may be in that 40%, I use the term, they don’t wanna talk about it, like the all the defenses come up. So I found that it was more productive to keep the same ideas that I had and say them a different language and try to get some of those people to come over. But I feel like you guys might have a different point of view about that, about what’s ultimately productive.
WA: Can I jump in real quick? I just wanna give you a recent example. And this is a good question for our audience and for the rest of us. When do you modulate? ‘Cause it’s strategy, right? You have to win people over, you have to meet them where they are and bring them towards you, right? When do you give up? When do you stay blunt? When do you sugarcoat it? So let me give you an example. Someone said to me that— invited me to address their law firm and they said, listen, we’ve been working on them. Half of us voted Trump, half of us didn’t. And it took us, listen, I want you to talk about racism, I want you to talk about diversity and what equity means, and your experiences, but you can’t say one word. I’m like, okay, what’s that? White supremacy. I’m like, what? And they’re like, just don’t mention white supremacy and we’ll be okay. So I’m like, are we playing Taboo? Like I don’t understand. But listen, you just can’t say that. And I’m like, why? And they said, it took us a year for— she said, most of the white folks here in this very global wealthy law firm to just get around to not being triggered by the word white privilege. It took like lesson after lesson and they finally understood it. So it took us a year to get to white privilege. We’re afraid that if you say the word white supremacy, they’ll shut down. So I’m like, I was just amused by it. I’m like, okay. And I nonetheless gave the same speech I did. I didn’t censor myself. I used my same— Danielle knows. I use humor and personal stories and then I hit them when I need to hit them and I won them over. I did say the word white supremacy. No one seemed to like freak out. But it comes a point, right, when even when it comes to Trumpism or even when it comes to what we’re doing with MAGA, oh don’t piss them off. Don’t say racism. Say economic anxiety. Don’t use that F word, fascism. And then Biden, in a Maryland fundraiser, blurts out semi fascism and everyone, ooh, and all of our like colleagues are like, how dare are you say that and what happened? The people are like, finally, he gave a name to the reality and he was rewarded for it. I don’t have the answer to it, Emma, but it’s one of those situations where I feel like, going back to our original question, in your specific community— and I’ll say it with this, there’s a guy I know who’s in South Carolina, progressive, brown guy, Muslim guy, says, I can’t be as bold and blunt as you. These people are my neighbors. I live in this community. I have to like work in baby steps. And what I told them is work in baby steps. If that’s what it takes, work in baby steps. But for those who have power and privilege, what’s your excuse not to call a spade for a spade?
EV: I was gonna say just I guess the pushback to that is— this is a good example, Wajahat. We’re recording this right after you’re facing some criticism for some choice of words about Nikki Haley [laughs], some of them were funny, the alpha-Karen line, I have to admit that I laughed. But anyway, you’re facing some criticism about it, right? And what happens with that is that the news about Nikki Haley’s presidential run and the campaign video and the quality of the campaign video and her positions, it moves the news off of that, right, and off that discussion and into a reaction to the news, and then a reaction to the news, and even a reaction to the reaction, right? And yeah, I’m just curious what you make of all that, given the discussion that we’re having now. I think that you might say the dogs will bark, but there are certainly people on the left too that were like, okay, maybe we can tone it down.
EV: How do you see it?
WA: We brought all the receipts. The people who manufactured that crisis is the right wing, literally— and this is why— this is my response to that. We keep bending the need to bad faith crisis actors who yell fake outrage and their hypocrisy gets revealed. So I didn’t— that’s a great example. I went on Mehdi Hasan’s show, we brought all the receipts. There was three folks of color, three South Asians, me, Asha, and Mehdi, children of immigrants. We brought out all the receipts of Nikki Haley’s actual rhetoric, behavior, policy position, and associations. We brought them out and I talked about the model minority stereotype of how the GOP often uses people of color as tokens and people of color allow themselves to be used as tokens, especially Asians and South Asians, to be used as a cudgel against Black folks and to launder white supremacist talking points. Now, right on point, Nikki Haley says Ron DeSantis, he didn’t go far enough on Don’t Say Gay. Warnock, you should be deported. She does a flip-flop on the Confederate flag, that ad, the three-minute ad. Guess who was featured in that three-minute ad? My co-host, who is your guest today, Danielle Moodie. Fearmongering about CRT and 1619. She used a black woman and AOC to rise up this manufactured fear, and so on cue— and I have to admit, this is where the left fails and the majority fails. The right wing has awesome message discipling. One after another within an hour. Fox News, an hour later, Daily Mail, an hour later, New York Post, and an hour later, the right-wing trolls, same message. They didn’t actually attack the substance of my argument. They’re like how dare he call her the Dinesh D’Souzas of Candace Owens and the alpha-Karen with brown skin? How dare he? And then what I said was, you’re really outraged by this and you seem to be really outraged by racism. Wajahat Ali, you’re the racist. I’m not the one who told her to go back to her country. That was Ann Coulter on Friday. What about that? Not a single word, Emma. So you have to call out the bad faith manufactured outrage that the majority keeps falling for. I don’t fall for it, I don’t bend the knee, I call it out, and I go straight back to the substance of the argument. Nikki Haley, why do you kick down to brown folks and refugee folks? But Donald Trump said she has the wrong complexion to be my running mate. Not a word. Nikki Haley, what do you say about Anne Coulter who told you to go back to your country? Not a word. That’s my take on that.
ZK: The midterms in November ’22 felt vaguely normal, as in a lot of people disagreed but the really extremes, we’re gonna deny all elections unless we win, most of those people lost, a fair number of the most extreme people lost, but a fair number of the most extreme people won as well in districts and we didn’t necessarily pay attention to it. Lauren Boebert did in fact get reelected. But we’re heading into 2024 and obviously, Nikki Haley and this conversation is the first of what will become an escalating series of conversations about who’s gonna run, who’s gonna be nominated, and ultimately who’s gonna become the next president of the United States, much of which is likely to have racial overtones, let alone undertones, particularly given that if Joe Biden does in fact run again, it’s almost certain that he’ll run with Kamala Harris and the prospect of her becoming president, given his age and all that, I assume will be more front and center and so it’ll be both sub rosa and dog whistle-ish, but it’ll also be whatever the opposite of sub rosa is. I guess the question is how do we not do a replay of 2020 in 2024? How do we not get into a— because part of the problem on the left, I think, in 2020 was if you overpersonalize everything you dislike into the incarnation of Donald Trump, you do tend to lose the people who might otherwise not support Donald Trump, meaning the personalization got away from what are the issues that are actually moving people to vote for whomever. And I guess how do we not do that again? Given that it’s highly likely Trump is still gonna be front and center until, I don’t know, minimum of June of 2024 and more so than now.
DM: I think that there are a couple of things. And I think that Waj, with the example of going toe to toe with Nikki Haley and folks that wanna detract from real issues to cry outrage is to call it a spade, right? Like you don’t have to go into a personal attack about Donald Trump and his misogyny and his racism and the things that he said to call out the themes that are ever present in the Republican party. They are a white supremist party. So whether or not you’re putting forward a Nikki Haley or a Ron DeSantis, they share the same ideas around fascism, which is that the most dangerous thing that a child can be infected with right now is a book written by a person of color as opposed to a bullet from an AR-15. The most dangerous thing that that can happen is that a woman or a person with a uterus gets to decide what they can and cannot do with their own body as opposed to a bunch of politicians in a back room making decisions, and I don’t know if any of them went to a medical school. So I think that what you can do is absolutely call out all of the things because in these states that we are seeing make headlines week after week, Florida and Texas saying hold my beer, let me see who can be worse, and then Mississippi stepping in here, and then in Tennessee, they are all doing the same thing. Ron DeSantis banned AP Black History. Guess who else is starting to ban AP Black History? Guess who else is starting to go through and ban books and do these things? And so you don’t need— I don’t think that we need personal attacks, to your point, because I don’t think that they are effective because what the Republican party is infected with isn’t by one man, right? It is an entire ideology that they have decided to swallow, right? It is all of QAnon, it is all of Jim Crow, it is all of segregation of thinking, it is all of fascism which tells you that academics and learning is the real problem, not the bullet and the hyped up toxic masculinity. So if we’re not gonna call out those themes and say regardless of who the messenger is, listen to the method, right? That’s what it is that we need to do. So I don’t give a damn who it’s coming from, but if it’s coming from somebody that has an R after their name, then it is not for me and it is not for most sane people.
ZK: But so what do you do then in Florida and Texas where some of the fastest growing support for the Republican party is not non-college educated white males, it’s Hispanic voters which have showed a huge increase in percentage terms. I don’t know, it’s 25% to 35% of the Hispanic vote in 2020. And it’s also increasing, a Hispanic vote that goes toward Republicans in both Texas and—
DM: So instead of running scared, do what was done in Georgia twice. Do what people, Black people and people of color on the ground in Georgia did up against some of the greatest voter suppression that we have seen, which is start funding those people that are actually doing the work. We know what the demographics have been in certain pockets of the Hispanic community. We’ve always known that, that they are more conservative, more aligned with Catholicism, more religious. We know this is not rocket science. But what we also know is that when people are actually given the money, the support, and the tools to do what is right, and there are many of grassroots organizations that are already doing that, if you fund those groups and you back those groups, then you’re gonna get what you’ve got in Georgia time and time again, right?
WA: And that article just came out last week, Danielle, right? Like Black-
WA: -Democrats on the ground are saying you all do not invest in us financially . . .
DM: Until it’s too late. Until it’s too late. So you wanna look to every other place. And I’m saying we haven’t had a 50-state strategy, right, in over a decade. Democrats haven’t had a 50-state strategy. They’re like, oh, we’ve ceded the south. We’ve ceded these areas. We cede words like freedom and patriotism. We cede whole states. We cede whole regions. And what we’ve seen in Georgia time again, it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t an accident. It’s something to modeled, and can be a blueprint not only for the south, right, but can be a blueprint for Florida. So I don’t need to run scared about what the Hispanic conservative population wants to do. They’ve been doing the same thing for the longest time.
WA: We don’t have time, so I will say this. When you talk to those Latino Democrats in Florida and Texas, they say don’t give up on the state. Invest in us, invest in the right candidates, we actually can get out the vote. You have to talk to people where they are. You see the Republicans, cynical, it’s gross but it works. They are running deliberately the token Latinos, [inaudible] Luna of Florida and like Herschel Walker. And so they’re saying see, see, they invest in these folks. And I’m sorry to say this, it goes back to white supremacy. The democratic establishment, like most establishments and institutions, still cater whites, still cater wealthy. It’s the prism through which they see everything, and they’re playing catchup. Republicans through cynicism have been able to say, aha, we can win over through family values, God, terrify them about the gays, and we’ll launder it through a Latino or a Black from their community. Great. And we give up, we don’t invest in these folks, we wash our hands, and then we say, oops, we could have won that race. Same thing happened in New York, right? So-
WA: -this is where you have to know your base. And I’m sorry, if you’re a Democrat, you don’t like hearing this, your base is people of color predominantly. It’s a multicultural coalition fueled by people of color. You have to respect your base, you have to invest in your base, you have to show up for your base, you have to fight for your base. And when you do, you just saw the midterm election, people came out, Zachary. Me and Danielle have been saying it for a year. Fight for social security, message on it, people will show up. Call it a fascist movement, people will show up. Defensive democracy and abortion rights are kitchen table issues. We have the receipts. We’ve been saying it for a year. Look at the midterm elections. What were kitchen table issues? Defensive democracy, abortion rights. And now Biden Democrats are like, oh, we can actually win on social security. You do that, you invest, you work hard, you don’t give up on the votes. And I haven’t given up on Texas and Florida, I know other people have, but I think it could change ’cause these policies are so self-destructive of DeSantis and Abbott. Give it a couple of years, chip away, and we can have grassroots change. I haven’t given up on Texas and Florida. I know other people might, not me.
ZK: All right. On that note, we will not give up on Texas and Florida. We will not give up on American democracy. We will not give up on constructive change. And we will not give up on continuing to have this debate and conversation about what the most efficacious way is to create constructive change, which is hardly something we have answered or settled, but at least it’s something we’ve begun to discuss. So thank you both so much for joining us today on What Could Go Right?.
DM: Thank you so much for having us.
WA: Thank you, Zachary and Emma.
EV: Thank you.
ZK: So I think that conversation went somewhat as I expected and somewhat as I didn’t. They’re a fascinating kind of counterintuitive mix of both really hopeful and also really passionately pissed off and not a conclusive conversation. I still don’t actually agree with the pissed off part and I don’t actually agree with it necessarily as the best electoral strategy. And I think you and I will end up talking about this a lot more into 2024, Emma, about as we read the tea leaves about what works. I think that notion of the Republican party being a white supremacist party has a lot of power in a lot of urban areas amongst certain communities. But I don’t think it has a lot of power in suburban Michigan and parts of Florida, which, again, have those Latinos or, you know, that there’s a lot of parts of the country where Democrats are running on different things and actually running away from that message. Wajahat and Danielle would I’m sure say that they’re mistakenly running away from that. I’m just saying a lot of them believes that’s not a successful message in their communities. But that’s the back and forth here between radical and moderate, between sort of small C conservative pathways to change step by step, moment by moment over time versus that kind of urgency of now. And all I want is to keep having this conversation engage it, right? We can presumably learn from each other in this.
EV: Yeah. And I think it’s that perennial extremely difficult, and as you pointed out, [laughs] not yet answered, how do you speak to a country of 350 million people? Let’s say you need 60% of those, so whatever 60% of 350 million is, how do you get all those people under the one tent when what might get—
ZK: 210 million.
EV: Thank you. Mental math, not my strong suit [laughs]. You know, how do you get them under the same tent when the thing that speaks to one person is not the thing that speaks to the other? And I think that’s what I was getting at with the what language is productive because with certain language, you are gonna get a certain swath of people, but I tend to think that a certain kind of language, you’ll get a certain swath but then you’ll stop.
ZK: Or you’ll repel others.
EV: Or you’ll repel others. And I think that tones— there’s a patronizing tone that I find comes out sometimes when we talk about like poor white voters that I know from talking to people that they really resent that, really resent it. And I think sometimes the left makes the mistake not to rectify that. I think you can still stay strong on all of the points that you believe and not fall into those tonal mistakes.
ZK: Totally. So these are— again, this is the shot across the bow for the 2024. We’ve had a couple years where some of this just went into abeyance. I think we talked about in an earlier podcast, wouldn’t it be nice to have a boring year in 2023? I’m sure that even if 2023 is somewhat boring, 2024 almost certainly won’t be. And we’re gonna begin to have these conversations in ways that I think we’re gonna push back against and say, hey, wait a minute, this is not the best way to manage a political debate or manage a body politic. Anyway, let’s table that for now and move on to the news that we haven’t been paying attention to. So for those of you who are watching this or watching clips of this who also watched the earlier part, I am now wearing different clothes and so is Emma. This is not a testament to our quick-change abilities, but the fact that we’re recording this more proximate to the air date of the episode and we’re in different places and we did not carry the same wardrobes with us. So this is one of those like movie discontinuity moments. And if you’re listening to this in audio, none of what I just said has any relevance whatsoever.
EV: So we’re gonna start with kind of a fun one. The World Happiness Report 2023 just came out and to start with the fun parts first, it’s always cool to see like who’s on top, right? So Finland has won most happy for the sixth year in a row.
Finland, no surprise here, has been declared the happiest country in the world for the sixth year in a row. That is according to the World Happiness Report. More than 100,000 people were surveyed, and the report points to Finland’s life expectancy, GDP, and other factors as reasons for the high score. The majority of the countries in the top 10 are in Europe.
EV: Of course every time news comes out, you know, the Finns like get on Reddit or Twitter or whatever and they’re like, we’re not that happy actually. So take it with a grain of salt. You wanna guess where the United States ended up?
ZK: I probably don’t have to guess ’cause I read the newsletter and the report, but why don’t you tell us? If I guess, I’m gonna guess and then it’s gonna-
ZK: -seem like I had some sort of preternatural view of this, which would be delightful but misleading.
EV: Yeah. Okay. So I guess we should say if you read the newsletter, you would already know too, to any of our listeners. But US was number 15. The top 20 like generally remains the same. They just shift in the different top 20 spots. But the one that I wanted to call out, which is super interesting, usually with the World Happiness Report, if countries like really shoot up or really shoot down, it’s a very obvious reason like a war started.
Audio Clip: The results also show the least happy country in the world is the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. I guess that’s no surprise there, which was 137th on the list.
EV: But Lithuania went up 30 spots since the last time they did the report, and now they are number 20, so they’re in the top 20 for the first time. And I just really wanna know what’s going on in Lithuania.
ZK: They’re incredibly wired digitally. They have a very active government. They’re a small country. And we’ve talked about this before, smaller, more homogenous countries do have some advantages when it comes to collective problem-solving because there just is a little bit more buy-in or a little less multiplicity of perspectives, and that’s a right generalization, but it is certainly true about Scandinavian countries. The Baltics tend to be more ethnically cohesive. They’ve been through a lot. They have learned, I think, to collectively address collective problems somewhat better. It’s not clear that there are great lessons for large, teeming, complicated, roiling democracies like the United States or Brazil or India at all, but more power to Lithuania.
EV: Because it was such a fast change. Because they were a homogenous small nation, you know, the last time they did the report as well. What happened between now and then that they went up 30 spots? It’s really strong. So maybe anyone from Lithuania listening to the podcast can tell us. What was really interesting about the report this year is that obviously, they were comparing the COVID pandemic years to previous years and you would think that people were a lot less happy during COVID than they were previously, but they weren’t actually. They were about the same. They rated their lives on average between 2020 and 2022 as they did between 2017 and 2019. There’s a little bit of a difference between the West and everyone else. But the other thing that the report brought out that we have, I think, talked about on the podcast before when we did our interview about philanthropy, that there’s huge spike in donations with COVID in the United States in particular, and the World Happiness Report is backing that up, that worldwide, what they call, there is a globe-spanning surge of benevolence in 2020 and 2021 and even into 2022. So things like donating, volunteering, helping a stranger, generally pro-social behavior were massively up during the pandemic. And also contrary to popular belief that, you know, everyone was like really suffering, everyone was really lonely, suffering, to the contrary, the World Happiness Report found that most people were experiencing positive social environments during the pandemic. So there’s just a lot of stuff that runs counter to what people might expect and what we were saying at the time.
ZK: Look, everywhere in the world, and I don’t know whether actually that’s true of China, so everywhere in the world is clearly not necessarily everywhere in the world, many parts in the world, one of the upsides of the downside of COVID was much more connection to community and much more connection to family by necessity, by things— you know, you couldn’t travel, you were left in your community. So I think in many ways, people did— there was a surge of connectivity. And one of the things people have talked about, the digitization of the world, which, outside the Western world is both the digitization and the urbanization and kind of the breakdown of traditional societies, is a feeling of disconnect, sometimes of loneliness. Yes, I’ve been skeptical of some of the generalizations we make about that, but there’s also some core elements of real truth and I think some of that was ameliorated during COVID ’cause you had to be more connected to the people around you because you had less opportunity to be connected to the people who weren’t. Plus the Zoom factor, which, again was more of an elite phenomenon. You weren’t Zooming in large parts of the world, but those who were, some of the offset was you had more actual contact with some people. Everyone should check out the World Happiness Report. It is actually really interesting to just look at as a thing in addition to read what Emma has written about the World Happiness Report.
EV: Yeah. And it’s very long and detailed, I should say that. What goes into the news is generally like the top 20 and the bottom 20, and we just did a bit of that as well, but actually, the report is really long and detailed and like you said, has lots of interesting parts, so.
ZK: Just one thing of course on the Happiness Report, if you do end up reading it, it’s not just people saying they’re happy. It’s life expectancy, it’s GDP, it’s macro numbers. So there is some rationale for why more affluent countries show up on the list rather than the developed world because it’s called the World Happiness Report, but it’s not gauging whether or not everybody in society is saying, hey, I’m really happy. There are actually other reports that do that, that purely look at sort of self-reported happiness as a thing. And those actually end up ranking rather differently than the World Happiness Report. So just putting that out there. It’s a particular type of report. It’s not just are you feeling good about things?
EV: What a niche realm of how different happiness reports collect their data.
ZK: Maybe we could do that. We’re a niche platform. We could add that as part of our niche offerings to our niche audience.
EV: Absolutely. And it’s a good point. It’s very relevant. So second little bit about, you know, pandemic in the rear view mirror is an update on long COVID. I feel like long COVID has like mostly dropped out of the conversation, but there was certainly a period during the acute phase of the pandemic where some journalists were saying like we’re gonna have a massive disabling event in the American economy because there were some studies at the time that were showing that up to a third of people that were positive for COVID would then go on to get long COVID, which would be a pretty serious and scary issue. Now that we’ve had some time, some more research, people think that previous research was pretty flawed and new research is showing that for most people who do get long COVID, those symptoms resolve within a year. And for people whose symptoms of long COVID go beyond one year, so these are people that are saying it’s really a debilitating disease, it’s a very small percentage of people that happens to. There wasn’t an exact number given. I think it’s still getting sorted out and people are still sorting out treatments and understanding long COVID. But it’s certainly much, much better to have a very small percentage of people get it than a third.
ZK: Look, I was deeply skeptical of many of the initial reports of long COVID. And before someone jumps out of their proverbial seat, I wasn’t skeptical of long COVID, I was skeptical of the statistical prognostications of the percentage of people who would have long COVID or even what that meant. And when you looked through some of the— first of all, some of the criteria for long COVID were much fuzzier than I think most people recognized. It wasn’t things like loss of taste, which was a big COVID issue. It was things like anxiety, tiredness. And tiredness could mean anything. It could mean I’m feeling more tired or it could mean that I’m so exhausted I can’t function. And the sample sets for long COVID well into the end of 2021 were incredibly small. If you looked through the actual— every scientific paper, every study does its headline, we found the 33%. But then you have to look up to the appendices or the footnotes to find out what was the sample size, what was the demographics of it, et cetera. And a lot of these sample sizes were really small.
EV: All right. Moving on, the next thing that I would like to talk about is this idea of Gen Z dropping going to college. And this is gonna be like a TPN reframe because I was really interested in this AP article that came out one or two weeks ago that cited data from the National Student Clearinghouse that National Undergraduate College enrollment has dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, and that hasn’t gotten any better after the pandemic has ended, or I shouldn’t say hasn’t gotten any better. It hasn’t ameliorated since then. And in case you’re wondering, this slide is the steepest on record. Just to put that in context, like 8% is a big drop. And the article painted this as like a massive crisis.
Audio Clip: Post-pandemic college enrollment numbers are still on the decline according to the National Student Clearinghouse. It reported more than 1 million fewer undergraduate students in 2022 compared to 2019. The report also found a nearly 8% decline in transfers from community colleges to four-year colleges. Joining us now is Stephanie Marken. She’s a partner in the Gallup Research Company’s Education Division. Aside from the pandemic, what have you seen in your research that could explain this— it’s a pretty big decline in college enrollment numbers.
It is a big decline. And what’s interesting about the decline in enrollment that we’re currently seeing is this was actually a problem pre-pandemic. What most people don’t realize is we are facing rather significant declines up until the COVID-19 pandemic and really COVID-19 just exacerbated some of the challenges that we were facing.
EV: I feel like it’s actually a good thing. College is so expensive. Although colleges are starting now in 2024, they expect colleges to start adjusting their prices for the first time in a long time. College is so expensive right now. But there’s a lot of low-wage jobs that are turning into middle-wage jobs, meaning that the starting salaries for something like working at Target or McDonald’s are so high right now that it’s actually like a decent option. And there are so many technical jobs that need to be filled in the United States that the fact that Gen Z is just looking at the numbers and saying to themselves like, why would I go to college? Why would I go into debt if I can get a job without a college degree that’s going to be a good paying job for myself? So I would just like to reframe this. I don’t think it’s a crisis really.
ZK: I am totally with you. You’ve done really good work on this, Emma. And there is a whole world of sort of certifications. There are schools like Arizona State University that have been working on why does everyone need a four-year degree? We have just particular universities having a set of teaching skills. They can be much more in tune with the job market and the needs of individuals to have education and skills-based education that leads to employment. There’s a whole class of people who hate what I’ve just said, right? And it’s largely in my cohort that feels like you’re denying people the right or the ability or the opportunity to do liberal arts and do English studies or learn how to think. And I think all that’s incredibly valuable, but I don’t think we should therefore force that template onto everyone just because it’s valuable. And that’s the problem, right? It’s not that those other forms of education can’t be amazingly helpful. It’s that it shouldn’t be so totalizing and it shouldn’t be the only framework that’s helpful. And there should be some optionality in how people construe their educational experience and the skills they wanna learn. And we’ve gone too far in the direction, I think, of you need this degree detached from, okay, what do some people want the degree for? ‘Cause some people want a four-year college experience, and particularly, if they have the economic luxury or just the desire to have that experience. But not everyone wants that and not everyone needs that. And we shouldn’t— it ends up being an amazingly punitive tax on lower incomes even if there were more student loan reform. Particularly if it’s a mid-career or someone— single woman in her 20s, working class, like the idea that you need to get a degree is incredibly expensive relative to the cost that it would be to get certification for that next job.
EV: Yeah. And there’s been I think they call it the college degree requirement creep, meaning that more and more jobs require a college degree when if you really look at them, they’re being filled by people without college degrees [laughs]. And so it’s like, what? Like you said, why are we imposing this punitive tax on people? And there is a little bit of a change going on in terms of both Republican and Democratic state leaders saying, at least for government jobs, they’re getting rid of the four-year degree requirement. So Pennsylvania, Utah, and Maryland so far. Barack Obama, which some of you may remember Barack Obama [laughs], also retweeted a article about this recently. So I actually think that like these are all things that we’re moving in the right direction toward, Like you said, like optionality is really the key here. College should be affordable for people who want to go to college and have that experience. And if you don’t want to, you should absolutely have paths available to you to get a good-paying job.
ZK: Absolutely. I guess that’s our news of the week and our episode of the week. Thank you all for listening. Please spread the word. Get the newsletter if you’re not getting it. Sign up at theprogressnetwork.org and please send us your feedback. Let us know if there are things you would like us to address, discuss, focus on. And thank you, Emma, for this conversation once again.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
Meet the Hosts