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.
S3. EPISODE 6
Midterms, Gerrymandering, Bias, and Conspiracy
Featuring Sharon McMahon
Social media sensation and former high school government and law teacher Sharon McMahon joins us to discuss the need for a better understanding of how the government works. Plus, what to expect for the midterms, the latest on gerrymandering, and an encouraging trend in US military mental health programs.
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 What Could Go Right? is our podcast. It’s also the name of our weekly newsletter, and it is an attempt to ask that question given how much we ask the question, what could go wrong? And we’re gonna talk today to somebody who has, in a very short amount of time, assembled more than a million followers and is kind of part of a nexus that you won’t find in the mainstream media. You know, we’re not spending a lot of time getting down on mainstream media. It’s simply a recognition that established institutions, whether that’s mainstream publishing, whether that’s established media, reflect what they reflect. They often reflect what sells. And often, in a media and news context, what sells is bad news, not good news, and that’s human nature as much as anything else. But there are these people and these voices that are springing up in different angles through all the social media channels, which are also being highly questioned right now, some of them being highly questioned by members of The Progress Network like Jonathan Haidt. But a lot of what these social media channels are allowing us to do is circumvent traditional channels and find communities of interest that have a different sensibility. Sometimes that’s a really dark sensibility, which we know about, but sometimes it’s a really light and uplifting sensibility, which we should also know about. And hence why we are talking today with who we are talking with. So, Emma, tell us who we’re talking with.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): We are gonna talk with Sharon McMahon. She’s a Progress Network member. She’s a former high school government and law teacher. She became known as America’s government teacher on Instagram during the 2020 US elections under the name SharonSaysSo. She has a simple mission of sharing nonpartisan information about democracy. And from that, she’s amassed almost a million followers on Instagram alone, lots of followers in other places like Twitter. They’re affectionately called the Governerds-
EV: -and they look to her as a trustworthy source of information and truth. She also has two podcasts, Sharon Says So, and Here’s Where It Gets Interesting. So, Sharon, welcome to the podcast. We’re so happy to have you here.
Sharon McMahon (SM): Delighted.
EV: And I just kind of wanted to start with the basic facts. Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you see yourself in this intersection of, you know, online media personalities versus mainstream media versus politics versus history and government, all of these things. Where do you see your role in all of that?
SM: I discovered in 2020 that there were a lot of people who wanted more education, but did not want to be told what to think, and there were not a lot of places where people could find that online. They couldn’t find it in places where they already were. Perhaps they could, you know, read 18 books at the library or go back to college. But it was very, very difficult to find where people already were. There are very few people meeting them where they are. So I just started making little nonpartisan, fact-based explainer videos about how things worked and did it while being myself. You know, like I definitely have a sort of goofy side to my personality. Like, I like to make fun of myself quite a bit, you know, like, ’cause that’s real life. Real life is about this intersection between friendship and politics and all the other things that affect our real lives. So that’s what I do, is I educate adults about things related to government, history, et cetera. You know, people call me America’s government teacher if that encompasses anything for you. But [laughs], that’s sort of, you know, just what I’m doing in a nutshell and it’s been very fascinating to see where that’s taken me.
ZK: So this has been a couple years, right? A kind of a vertiginous rocketship of people gravitating and wanting that sensibility. And when I, you know, look through some of your Instagram and the podcast and some of what you’ve said, I can say Instagram ’cause I’m of that generation. I’m not gonna say Insta.
ZK: And, you know, you do engender this sensibility of we are all swimming in the same basic sea. Even though, particularly in the United States, you know, it’s a big country, there are 50 states, last I checked, there’s lot of people of multiple views, multiple ethnicities, lots of different sensibilities coming into it. And yet there is some sort of desire for a common ground that seems increasingly absent, right? And I think you give voice to what would that common ground actually look like? What’s the starting point? And I think some of the pushback, at least what I’ve gleaned as being pushback, is, okay, great, you’ve assembled people in a collective sensibility of let’s just look at things that are common challenges, whether it’s abortion or politics or climate change, but then you don’t take a stance on it. By the way, this is me being devil’s advocate, not me actually believing my own question.
ZK: And okay, so then what? Great, you’ve assembled a lot of people who share a kind of sensibility. What are we supposed to do with that? That, I think, has been some of the pushback on that. And it’s been some of the pushback about what we’re doing at The Progress Network too, which is great, thank you so much for your more even-keeled kind sensibility, but what now?
SM: The foundation for any society’s progress has always been education. I would argue that education is progress, right? If you think about things like the Civil War, the civil rights movement, what is it that people were asking for? Of course, they wanted equality. They wanted to be treated fairly. Part of that included the right to an education because literacy– and by literacy, I don’t just mean being able to read a book, I mean being able to find, digest, and understand information that’s important to you. Literacy is absolutely essential for any amount of change to occur. Without literacy, without that education piece, what we have are puppets, right? We have puppets that can be easily controlled by someone else. And I would argue that’s far more dangerous than an educated populous that is able to make their own choices about things. Now, there are certain things that I’m more than happy to take a position on, right? Like, we’re not gonna be over here pretending that racism is sometimes great, you know what I mean? Like, there’s no, like, sometimes antisemitism is a good idea. You know, like there are some things that, in my opinion, are moral absolutes that we’re not going to pretend that there are multiple sides of. But if you wanna talk about the best way to fund roads and bridges, if you wanna talk about what independent state legislature theory is and the impact that it could have on the United States, there is more than one position to be taken. And the idea that one individual has all of the answers, that person is called a dictator. In every point in history, an individual with all the answers has aspired to greater and greater amounts of power. So I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have all the good ideas and anybody that is, has generally been a menace [laughs]. So I really believe that education is the beginning of change.
EV: We should say too that there is research out there that links, you know, a country’s news literacy in the population with people’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories. For instance, where news literacy is low, the potential that people are gonna fall prey to conspiracy theories is higher. And we certainly have– I don’t wanna say a lot of that in the United States, but enough of it to be talked about, conspiracy theories these days. So I imagine you’ve dealt with a fair number of them, just given the sheer numbers of people that you deal with online. Do you find that, like the presenting just the facts, ma’am, is something that really works for them, or is there something that you found over the course of your time online that is like, this is the way to go about this? You know, there is an inroad with this kind of conspiracy theories and mindset, and I think I’ve found it.
SM: I’m not gonna hold myself up as the bastion of, you know, having unlocked how to fix this issue. But I do spend quite a bit of time dealing with it, thinking about it, answering questions about it, reading about it, reading the latest research on it, and the latest research talks extensively about how believing in and becoming involved in conspiracy theory-related communities, particularly online, is very addictive. It’s addictive in the same way that drugs are addictive in the brain. And so when you begin to think about this as a form of addiction, it allows you to reframe how you approach this issue. Telling an addict the facts about addiction, it does not make them not an addict, right? If I go to somebody who is addicted to heroin and say, “Listen, if you keep doing this, it’s gonna do all the following terrible things to your body and to your life and to your children,” et cetera, chances are good they already know that.
SM: Chances are good that they’re not making decisions based on facts. And unfortunately for me, I wish this was not true, but most humans don’t make decisions based on facts. Most humans make decisions based on emotions. Our emotions tell us what we believe. They dictate what we think and feel. So from my research understanding of this issue, the manner in which you approach a topic or approach an individual in active addiction matters greatly. If you break down somebody’s door and you’re like, “You’re the scum of the earth and you’re going to jail-“
EV: And you’re stupid. [laughs]
SM: “-and you’re stupid, and everybody else is smarter than you”, is that person gonna be like, “Well, you know what? I’ve seen the light, I’m giving it up.” Right? Like, no, the person who approaches the situation from that very aggressive, forceful manner, they become the problem. The person, very often, does not internalize the problem as being endemic to themselves. The other person who’s approaching them is the problem. So I think it’s very useful to think about what are the most effective ways of helping people who have an addiction issue. And a lot of that is addressing the emotional component of conspiracy theory belief, and involvement.
ZK: So I’ve thought about this a lot in this challenge of facts in the face of feelings and the complete failure of facts in a moment of heightened feeling to do anything other than have people either reject them or in some sense it’s like fuel for more indignation. So what do you do about that? Even at an education level, what do you do about that?
SM: Most of the research shows that the more forcefully you push back against somebody’s beliefs that are rooted in motion, the more desperately they will cling to them,-
SM: -which is, again, as I mentioned, infuriating [laughs].
SM: I hate that about human nature. I wish humans were less driven by emotion. But you can also understand why from like an evolutionary perspective, we didn’t have facts. You know, like when you’re out on the plains and you see wolves in the distance, you’re not like Wikipedia-ing the chances, statistics around wolf attack.
ZK: I am now if I’ve got a cellphone coverage,-
SM: [Laughs] Right.
ZK: -that’s the first thing I’m doing. If a black bear is in front of me, the first thing I’m doing is, you know,-
ZK: -do I run or do I stay on Google? [Laughs]
SM: Yeah, Google it. Right, but I mean, like, that information was not at anybody’s fingertips. And so your emotions are what kept you safe. So the human brain has not evolved past that, even though we now have the ability to ascertain facts more readily, ’cause we have the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips literally being held in our hand. So if you’re going back to this idea that these kind of beliefs are rooted in emotion, what the research says is most effective at eliminating those kinds of beliefs, number one, is maintaining a relationship with that person. Again, if you go on the attack, that’s not gonna change anything. If you wanna have the hope of influencing them in the future, you have to maintain a relationship. And number two, you have to plant a seed of doubt. You don’t have to change their mind, you don’t have to get them to admit anything. You don’t have to tell them– they don’t need to say, “You know what? I’ve seen the light. I’m wrong. You’re right.” In the same way that people who are facing active addiction must decide for themselves to get better, and then you as a person can support them in those efforts, a person who is actively believing these kinds of things has to decide for themselves to change what they believe. And facts generally don’t factor into that. The feeling of a seed of doubt does however. That seed of doubt causes them to then begin to explore ways in which that doubt might be legitimate or not. Again, this is not easy. This is not fast. This is not satisfying. This is not a surgery where afterwards you’re all better. Sometimes it never happens. But that seed of doubt is very akin to somebody making the choice to seek treatment for an addiction. That seed of doubt is what can slowly grow over time. And the people that I’ve spoken to who used to believe in, say, a conspiracy theory like QAnon, who used to believe that and no longer do, can almost always pinpoint a moment when a doubt crept into their mind, where there was a moment where they’re like, and then they said this, and it really, like, it really got to me, I really started thinking about, you know, is this right? And I started exploring that more. But it didn’t come because somebody opened a water hose, you know, a fire hose of facts and blasted them in the face with it. It was gentle and it was relationship-based and not fire hose of facts-based.
ZK: That is so important, what you just articulated. And it’s also important especially for people like me who I think grew up in the what now I think is a naive belief that all you had to do was kind of lay out the fact pattern and that in and of itself would be persuasive and increasingly recognizing that, of course, that’s just– I mean, I’ve experienced that. I think it’s clear that that is not the effective pathway to either bridging differences or having us all be a little more open to things that we don’t know or think we know but what don’t.
EV: What’s also nice about it too is that a small seed of doubt sounds manageable. Like we were talking in our last episode with Jason Feifer and we were talking a little bit about agency and how to give people agency. And I think having a microaction, you know, that seems like something that can be accomplished. Can I plant a little seed of doubt? Can I ask a question? Yes, I can do that.
ZK: It’s like the opposite of a microaggression.
EV: [Laughs] A micro planting.
SM: Yeah, it does, in the same sense that you– if somebody is an alcoholic, it’s not your responsibility that they’re an alcoholic even though they might be destroying people’s lives around them, even though they might be harming you, you can’t make them become not an alcoholic anymore. And so once you realize that it’s actually not your responsibility– and I’m not saying we don’t have responsibilities to our friends and neighbors, I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying somebody else’s thoughts and beliefs belong to them. And unfortunately, it would be great if there was some ultimate arbiter of truth and rightness, but there isn’t [laughs] and people have to be allowed to come to their own conclusions.
EV: The other interesting part of what you just said too was that you started that it was relationship-based. and that’s another thing, and I think maybe not so much now, I don’t hear a lot of talk about this anymore, but definitely around 20– well, around 2016 when Trump was elected, all of a sudden on the left at least, it was like very, very popular to cut off your friends and family as a moral imperative, right? That you were doing something wrong if you continued to talk to your uncle who voted for Trump, and there’s a similar thing online where as this push for us to feel like we’re doing something, there’s this push to always put out your political opinions online. Like, this is what I stand for, this is what I don’t stand for. And I’m wondering how you see all of that, if you see yourself as a pushback to that at all and what you’ve seen from your followers online about this.
SM: I think people are feeling– in some cases, they’re feeling weary of the relationship dynamics that those actions have created, the relationship dynamics that tell us it’s not okay to be friends with somebody who voted differently than you do. It’s not okay if you invite them over to your house. Frankly, if you’re related to them, deny the relationship, you know what I mean? Or openly denounce them and be like, my crazy uncle, I don’t speak to him anymore. You know what I mean? This guilt by association, people are growing weary of it. And again, there are extreme versions of this. If you’re a Nazi, yeah, you are guilty by association to Hitler, right? You know, like there are extreme versions of guilt by association. But when we’re talking about average familial relationships, the person you sit next to at work, somebody you’re out to a wedding with and they get seated at your table, this idea that somehow their beliefs taint you is– I think people are starting to feel like this is not working. What we’re doing right now is not working. The data is not getting better in terms of polarization. So this idea that we must cut off anyone who believes slightly differently than us is not serving to bridge that gap, again, because people don’t make most decisions based on facts,
ZK: Right, but you do have the same challenge, which we’re now seeing in our contemporary world, which is when people were fighting hundreds of years of creedal wars, right? Protestant and Catholics in the 17th century, you know, Muslims and Christians, those things were not susceptible to, hey, let’s take a step back and really listen meaningfully to the other side and try to respect their perspective and views. You know, there was a kind of a centralized, if you believe X, and X being antithetical to my Y, there is no common ground here. There is either you remove said person from your life, and if you can, in those earlier times, you remove them from life. And that’s a real challenge now ’cause I think there is a degree to which– you know, you just made the totally legit analogy of, look, there’s a big difference between someone having a radically different political view from you within the spectrum of American politics right now, and they’re Heinrich Himler or something. But increasingly, I don’t think people actually feel that. I think they feel like that is as antithetical as-
ZK: -you believe in a different God and only damnation follows from that.
SM: Mm-hmm, I think you’re totally right. Our new form of tribalism is political beliefs, right? We live in a very pluralistic society, the likes of which humanity has never seen before. So if you are looking back on history, in your like Protestants and Catholics, guess what? They self-segregated by geography. Like, y’all can live over there, we’ll live over here. Y’all Catholics, go live on the islands,-
SM: -a different island than the rest of us. And then we’ll carve out like a little chunk of that island that can be with the Protestants over here. We self-segregated by tribe, by geography, by a variety of different– you know, by country, variety of different modes. We now live in a highly, highly pluralistic society. Again, there’s no other country in the world like it. And so it creates a new level of challenges for the human brain, which is capable of overriding its emotion circuit to say, actually, the people who dress differently than me are not dangerous to me. You know what I mean? Like that immediate belief, that snap judgment of like, oh, that person is wearing something that is scary, we’re capable of overriding that, but political beliefs are a new form of tribalism. They’re a new easy way for what sociologists refer to as in-group out-group identification. It’s easy for us to determine who belongs here and who doesn’t. And the sooner we admit that to ourselves, the sooner that we can admit that in-group out-group selection is, in some ways, very, very similar to judging people based on appearance, the sooner we can start to make progress.
ZK: And I love what you’re doing using history around that, right? Because at some point, and it’s not clear what the, what the cutoff line is, people are much more willing to look at differences and look at challenges when they’re in the past, right?
SM: Mm-hmm. Oh, totally.
ZK: ‘Cause it doesn’t touch those buttons to the same degree.
ZK: And it’s a way of kind of bringing people into the habit of, oh, right, we’ve had these massive conflicts before, somehow we were able to find, if not full common ground, at least areas where we could meet common challenges with commonality, while simultaneously also really disagreeing. I mean, this is true during the new deal with segregationists, right? A lot of the Democrats who supported many of the social programs of the New Deal were racists and segregationists, and yet they supported the creation of social security and the creation of the FCC. I mean, all these things, right? So people worked together on X area, even though they were radically divided. And I think, you know, what you’re doing, some of what you’re doing is sort of high school part two, right? It’s bringing people as adults the knowledge that they may have glossed over when they were in high school, but now they’re actually very interested in, which is also great, by the way. And I’m very pleased, not just that you’re doing that, but it’s having such resonance that you’re doing that.
SM: Thank you.
EV: For some of us, it’s, it’s not even high school part two, because our high school education was so badly done that it’s really just high school [laughs] the first time around.
SM: And a lot of places, government is a one-semester class. In a lot of places, it is. It is in my city. It’s a one-semester class. Some places, it’s a year one. But the idea that you could learn everything you needed to learn at age 16 to understand the totality of the world’s complications, that’s a lot to put on a one-semester class [laughs], when you’re a teenager, that you probably didn’t really wanna take. They were probably very focused on teaching you, you know, the three branches of government and checks and balances and the pledge of allegiance and things along those lines. But there’s so much that we’ve discovered now would be very useful for people living in a highly pluralistic society, living in closer proximity to people who are different than we are more than ever before, certainly not as integrated as it probably should be, but, especially in American cities, much more integrated than it ever has been. That opens up a lot of challenges for that emotional human brain. But again, we can make the choice to override it if we have some education on why it should be overwritten.
EV: Sharon, I was gonna ask you, which we haven’t, we’ve touched on sort of this literacy of education in terms of knowing your history, knowing how the government functions. We haven’t talked much about news literacy. Do you get into that bit at all there? Something that you said, I saw it on the Trevor Noah Show.
Audio Clip: The average American today, my experience has been that they have a very difficult time distinguishing between a lie and bias. They believe that those two things are the same.
EV: That just totally hit it on the nail for me. So yeah, any thoughts you have around also teaching people how to read the news, which is something that we try to do here as well.
SM: Yeah. Increasingly, Americans are distrustful of news outlets, increasingly, especially legacy news media. They’re increasingly distrustful. This is one of the lowest points of trustworthiness that Americans have had with the media. And one thing to keep in mind is that partisan media has existed since before the United States was born. Partisan media was the norm in the colonies. You subscribed to a newspaper based on your political beliefs, you’d buy a newspaper based on your political beliefs. I like Benjamin Franklin, I’m gonna get his newspaper. I hate Thomas Jefferson, I’m not buying that one. So this is embedded into the fabric of American society. Now, for a period of time when during the rise of television, we had mitigating efforts to combat some of that polarization in the media and those went away in the 1980s it was called the Fairness Doctrine. But one of the reasons there is such an increasing amount of distrust, in my opinion, is related to exactly what we were talking about before this, this new era of tribalism. This in-group out-group identification. Either you identify as a watcher of Fox News, in which case you are in, or you watch CNN and you’re out, or vice versa, right? MSNBC, you are out, Newsmax you’re in, again, or vice versa. It’s an easy way for us to identify who’s in and who’s out. But one of the things that many people, in my experience, fail to differentiate between is that there is a big difference between reliability in reporting and slant or bias. The reliability is, you know, like the who, what, where, when, why, like, are we getting the facts of this story right? How many people died in the fire? Who put it out? Where was it? You know, those are the facts of the story. But how that story is characterized varies widely between various news outlets. So people often will say something along the lines of, I don’t believe anything fill in the blank news source has to say. They’re all a bunch of liars. And two things could be at work. One, they don’t understand the difference between bias and lie. And I continually say, bias is not a synonym for lie. They’re not the same thing. Or number two, they have difficulty with this idea of the way the news is delivered to them, and they bristle at the sort of, it seems hyperpartisan, it seems like it’s designed to make you angry all the time. And so they feel like they have to disengage from it, which is understandable. There is a lot of research that shows that watching a lot of news, it takes a toll on your mental health. And so they are left unable to distinguish between fact-based reporting and commentary. If it’s on a news channel, they believe it’s being presented as fact. And so when they discover something that is opinion, they immediately become distrustful of that news source because they think everything on this channel should be news. And when it slips into commentary or opinion or analysis, everything you say is a lie. Everything is suspect then, ’cause we have not developed that news literacy to determine what is commentary and what is fact reporting.
ZK: So as we wrap up, you have this very large following now, probably approaching a million people between the downloads. I mean, it’s more than that in terms of absolutes, but where do you go from here with that? Is this, do you just wanna continue building out educational modules or what do you wanna do with this? I know this is all new, so I’m sure you’re making this up as you go along.
SM: Yeah, I mean, it is a little bit like building the [inaudible].
SM: That’s true [laughs]. I never approached this with a master plan of-
SM: -by October of 2022, I will have 1 million Instagram followers. You know, like that is not how this ever came to be. This is very organic. I do have a book that will be coming out in probably in the spring of ’24. So that will be part of it. I will have a– gonna take some of the things that I talk about and translate that into a more written form. We’re gonna continue to grow our documentary series in our podcast, Here’s Where It Gets Interesting, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I wanna continue that sort of organic growth because this is, has always been, based on what other people need and want, not based on my own master plan. So what America needs and wants may look very different in two years than it does today.
ZK: Well, thank you so much for being a part of The Progress Network. Clearly, these are aligned sensibilities and we keep finding more and more people that are aligned with this sensibility of, you know, start from a place of commonality. Don’t start from a place of outrage and fear. The kind of conspiratorial hot emotions or just those intense feelings of tribalism are totally a part of human nature, but are unlikely to lead us anywhere except into a downward vortex of despair and division.
ZK: And it’s great that you’re doing the work that you’re doing and that it’s had such resonance, especially, so congratulations and let’s see what we can do from here.
EV: Thanks, Sharon.
SM: Thank you.
EV: So that was interesting to talk to someone who’s very much so in the trenches, so to speak. And, you know, one thing that was coming to my mind when Sharon was talking is that, you know, I was out for dinner last week here in Greece, and somebody asked me how much money I make, and I was like, “Well, you know where I come from, like, we don’t ask that. You know, I’m just not gonna answer the question.” And he was like, “Well, where I come from, that’s totally fine to have that conversation. You just never ask people who they voted for.” And I was like, “Huh.” [Laughs]. You know, maybe we could bring a little bit more of that into the US [laughs].
ZK: [Laughs] That’s very funny. Like, you know, it’s such a culturally determined thing. And she was, I think pointing to what is, you know, perfectly acceptable amongst one tribe is completely verboten amongst another. And you come up against these things and you’re like almost– your heart skips a beat, right? Because you don’t know how to process that. And I think some of what Sharon’s speaking to and trying to do is how do we help all of us not give into those reactions, right? To take that moment and to think. She talked about the seed of doubt that becomes a constructive seed, a sapling that breaks up the otherwise hard and rigid wall of prejudice. And there is this whole trend, which I also find fascinating, and you’ve seen it in self-publishing with people like Colleen Hoover, where whatever is the establishment and mainstream, the mainstream media or the mainstream publishing world is not as immediately receptive to needs that are immediately palpable. And I think one of the reasons that she’s done so incredibly well, or Heather Cox Richardson or a whole number of people who essentially have developed these massive followings very quickly, but not through traditional channels. You know, Sharon’s not a columnist for The New York Times. She’s created an Instagram phenomenon that then became a Zoom and podcast phenomenon. And I do think that speaks to– there’s a lot out there that is not reflected well in the channels that we’re all used to. And that’s really, really important to remember, that the channels that we’re used to have a kind of a sensibility and a focus and a franchise, but one that may not and absolutely is not serving where a lot of people actually are.
EV: Right. And yeah, that’s what I mean by in the trenches, is that like she was answering a need that she saw just as a normal person in the United States. And I have a inkling that she probably listens to her followers a lot more than a traditional, let’s say, news organization or book publisher, what have you, listens to what, you know, people are saying they would like to see more of or less of or change.
ZK: Absolutely. Anyway, it’s great that she’s part of this. It’s great that she’s doing the work that she’s doing, and I’m interested to see what book form that takes in-
EV: Me too.
ZK: -next year.
ZK: So as we are now doing, let’s move from our stimulating conversation with Sharon to looking at some of the stories and news that has gone on over the past week that many people probably haven’t been paying as much attention to because it’s been buried in the usual sea of doom scrolling.
EV: Yeah. So speaking of doom scrolling, our first topic is really cheerful one, it’s about suicide.
ZK: Oh, that’s not really–
EV: But good news about suicide. I mean–
ZK: Good news about suicide.
ZK: Tell me.
EV: The news just came out that US military suicides have dropped
Audio Clip: In an encouraging sign, a new VA report shows veteran suicides dropping to the lowest number since 2006.
It’s showing that suicide is preventable.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes says in 2020, there were 343 fewer instances of suicide than the previous year.
EV: They are not a hundred percent sure if this is related to like pandemic era shutdowns. The numbers are different across different branches of the military, but there has been a steady increase in suicides in recent years and then now there’s a decline, which is, you know, remarkable, especially because they’re trying to change the culture around mental health in the military. So, you know, they are trying to basically destigmatize getting help. They’re pushing mental health services, they’re providing firearms locks for service members. And if I were a betting man, I would say that I think that those things are probably helping and that, you know, we can take a look at the numbers down the road, but it seems heartening,
ZK: Right. I mean, that the military, which is a, you know, fast in the United States, 2 million people institution and is often an incubator for other solutions that get disseminated throughout society, taking mental health more seriously. Obviously there has been a real change over the past 10 to 15 years of taking PTSD more seriously as a thing that is tangible and real and not just to be swept under the proverbial rug. So it’s less good news about suicide, the oxymoron in that fully understood, than it is good news about a large institution that we don’t typically associate with attending to the softer aspects of human nature doing so in a way that is tangibly helping service men and women who are equally, if not more susceptible to the stresses and pains of their job and their lives and deserve every bit of compassion and help that can possibly be brought to bear.
EV: For sure. And I think it’s also, for us, since we like to to point out what’s going right, an interesting opportunity to talk about suicide rates in the US generally and also the world, because this is– as per the conversation we just had about facts versus feelings, so here we are presenting a fact, but, you know, maybe there are some people out there listening that have minds that are changed by facts. But I think the common assumption about the suicide rate is that it is up, up, up, when globally it is down, down, down, something like 40% since 1990. In the US, it’s a little bit more wavy, it has floated up and down since 1990, but currently it is down from where it was in 1990. So it’s definitely not a situation where it’s just dramatically increasing.
ZK: Right. It’s not bad and getting worse.
EV: Exactly. Which is a little bit– it’s interesting considering all the numbers that you see about how much depression rates are and anxiety and mental health and teenagers and all of that.
ZK: So what else should we look at?
EV: So midterm fever is beginning. Georgia started their early election period last week, and I just wanted to give a shoutout to Georgia for breaking records in terms of the number of people that casted ballots last week, 131,000 people. And that’s compared, I think, to the numbers that showed up in 2018 at 71,000. So people are fired up to vote. That’s cool.
ZK: And that is– and I’ll try to be nonpartisan about this. There was a lot of concern about laws being passed in the wake of 2020 that were widely classified, particularly on the left, as voter suppression. And, you know, perhaps there was attempts to create restrictions on voting, but clearly those have not worked in the least. So what you have is massive amounts of voting, even if there have been laws that have been passed in multiple states that were designed to make voting a little more frictionful and a little more difficult.
EV: Yeah. And people also might not know that when those various laws around the country were passed to restrict voting, and, again, this is not to dismiss that as a concern, obviously in any situation, we wanna be increasing people’s capacity to vote, but at the same time, I think it was over 20 states passed laws that expanded the ability to vote because of the pandemic, all of the, you know, mail-in voting, but also changing the early election period, changing the times that the polls are open for the better. And a lot of that got totally ignored, which is kind of a bummer.
ZK: Right. And you’re now seeing the effects of it, particularly, as you just said, in Georgia, but you’re gonna see it in many other states as well. Just this several weeks of voting, which will probably lead to a midterm election with more individuals voting, just like we saw more individuals voting in 2020 than had been the pattern for the prior 50, 60 years.
EV: Right, exactly. And we should say too, so the numbers for the millions of active voters on state rules in Georgia is 7 million. So of course there’s still like– the percentage of people in Georgia voting could be improved, but I think it’s really exciting that for the first time in a long time, like you just said, a lot of people are turning up and turning out.
ZK: And that is good for democracy, right?
EV: Yeah, absolutely.
ZK: It may not lead to the results everybody wants, but it is part of the point of democracy, is that-
ZK: -people are engaged and participating.
EV: Right, right. And the other thing around the midterms that I wanted to bring up, and we don’t often talk about particular articles on the podcast, we talk about the news more generally, but there was a particular article in The New York Times by Nate Cohn that was examining gerrymandering. And this is another thing where a lot of people have a concept that the country is very unevenly gerrymandered. And Nate looked at the data, he, you know, looked at the maps and he came out with the conclusion that we have the fairest map for the House of Representatives in the last 40 years. And there’s a slight Republican tilting edge, but it’s much smaller than it has been in the past. Some of it’s because Democrats have also aggressively gerrymandered in certain states, so it’s not like we all got to a nice conclusion because everybody stopped gerrymandering [laughs]. But there has been some of that redrawing of maps that turned out to be more fair on both sides. And it’s hard to argue at the end of the day that you don’t want a fair map. So at least we’re like playing on a fairly even ball field.
ZK: Yeah, I mean that is an important caveat, which is some of the conclusions that Nate talks about are a result of if California aggressively gerrymanders in a Democrat direction and North Carolina or Texas aggressively gerrymanders in a Republican, that will, at a national level, somewhat offset and create what looks like a representational map. And I do think it’s important as a reminder that there’s a lot of sense of what’s going on in the United States today that is often predicated on a belief that it was better then,and it’s worse now. And these kinds of studies factually do at least remind us that whatever the challenges of the present are, many of them are not so much better in the past. And I think that one of the things that precludes meaningful addressing of our contemporary problems is often a false sense of what was then. And in many ways, like, you know, liberals idealized the New Deal and the 1970s, not as an economic time, but as a time of like social change or the ’60s and social change, Medicare was passed and expansion of Social Security and the great society and conservatives—small c—often idolized the 1950s as the time when the nuclear family was the unit that everybody loved and supported. And a lot of those lenses are just myths. Yes, those things happen and there was truth to those myths, but it is very helpful to remind ourselves that much of what we now find unacceptable has often been unacceptable in the past. It may have reached a tipping point where it’s a lot less acceptable to us, but to believe somehow that it’s all a story of decline, I think can be its own form of sort of outrage and despair, like, oh, look how far we have fallen. And it’s helpful to say maybe we never did this very well, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it better, but maybe we’ve always done it badly and now we’ve finally gotten to the point where it’s not acceptable.
EV: Yeah. And to tie that back around to what we talked about with Sharon really quickly before we end, you know, she mentioned something that we’ve been speaking about in the newsletter as well and other Progress Network members discussed, that America is such an experiment in pluralism. It’s the first time we’ve had people from all kinds of different backgrounds coming together. And I will say that there does seem to be a sort of distinct American viewpoint that Americans are particularly intolerant, which is like very quickly destroyed. If you go almost anywhere outside the United States, you realize like actually [laughs], ooh, it’s kind of rough out here when it comes to, you know, people’s views on immigrants, people’s views on people with different races and ethnicities. So I think we should just give ourselves– yes, no, we’re not perfect, but maybe we could give ourselves a little bit of a pat on the back about that.
ZK: Right. Maybe a recognition that this work in progress has led to a degree of civility. I mean, it is certainly striking that as much as tribalism is increasing in the United States and in lots of the world, you certainly don’t have the palpable expressions of that that you would’ve had from time immemorial, which is, you know, armed groups confronting each other, [laughs] and either harming each other or killing each other. You know, it’s mostly online anger. And that has its own toxic problems, but there is something to be said for knowing that you can express your views, be intensely opposed to other sides, and yet the daily warp and woofs of society is fairly orderly and stable in a way that allows us to mouth off online and not worry palpably about whether or not this is gonna become a threat to your life, your family, your standing, your ability to work, earn a living, you name it. And I think we forget the degree to which, in vast parts of the world, including in the United States, it was often a much more destabilizing, physically, daily destabilizing to be so at odds. Whereas now it’s kind of like online destabilizing.
EV: So this is a really good reminder. For instance, if you look at something like the news that’s coming out about Iran around the rock climber, Elnaz Rekabi.
Audio Clip: An Iranian rock climber is back at home and speaking out this morning after her actions at an international competition sparked concerns for her safety. The woman says she climbed without her nation’s mandatory hijab because she was called to climb the wall unexpectedly. And in a rush she unintentionally left her head covering off. It’s not clear if she will face any repercussions. The controversy comes amid nationwide protests in Iran after a young woman died in police custody. She was arrested for allegedly wearing her head scarf too loosely.
EV: So, yeah, it’s just a reminder of exactly what you’re saying, that United States has come away with this and there are many other countries that are in a much more of that daily destabilizing, daily you can’t exactly say what you wanna say or do what you wanna do or make the choices that you wanna make.
ZK: And that, for me, at least for now, has been, you know, when I get asked the question, okay, what would make me palpably [laughs], if not outraged, much more concerned about the state of American society and democracy? And I think for the moment, the sheer noise and the ability to express and say and debate what one wants to without fear of any of these consequences is a massive bullwork against most of what people fear in the United States. And it’s a stark contrast to what you just said about Iran, it’s a stark contrast to China. That doesn’t mean I think the United States should be spending a huge amount of time trying to change the world. I think we should try to change ourselves first and then we’ll see what example that sets for the world. But it is a reminder of that is in and of itself a real bullwork of whatever freedoms we hold dear. And thank God for that.
EV: Yep. The mess isn’t always the mess. Sometimes it’s lots of messy seeming freedom of speech at play [laughs].
ZK: I like that. The mess is not always the mess.
EV: So we can end with that.
ZK: Yeah. Well as we enter a very messy two weeks of political extremism in the United States, just remember that a mess is not always a mess.
EV: And we’ll see what the future holds.
ZK: Thanks again for the conversation, Emma. Thank you all for listening to What Could Go Right? and hopefully reading the What Could Go Right? newsletter and helping us spread the sensibility of The Progress Network, of people like Sharon and everybody else. So until next week.
EV: Thank you. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org.
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