Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

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 9

Moving Away from Toxicity: Recapping the Midterms

Featuring Steve Clemons

Are Americans truly done with “angertainment” and toxic politicians? Is democracy safe? Where does the United States go from here? Founding Editor at Large of Semafor and former Editor at Large of “The Hill” and “The Atlantic” Steve Clemons joins us to react to the midterm results and analyze their impact.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are in season three of What Could Go Right?, our podcast that tries to look at the world through a lens of hope, through a lens of what’s going right, through a lens of how are things playing out in the present that are gonna lead to a better future and not just how are things playing out in the present that are gonna lead to a worse one. And we are recording this particular episode just after the midterm elections in the United States, which many of us think went much better than many of us thought and anticipated. Some of that is an awfully low bar where we’ve all come to expect the worst. And when that doesn’t materialize, it can feel like a victory. It’s definitely true that if your expectations are low enough, it’s a lot easier to surpass them, which is why in politics, as in business, the old adage of under-promise and over-deliver is always better than the adage of over-promising and under-delivering. So in a little bit of a way, we did the same thing for the election, right? We collectively under-promised, and I think many people thought anything short of armed violence at the polls, rampant claims of vote fraud that were gaining traction, and like a sweep of people who somehow felt antithetical to democracy, anything short of that was treated as a sigh of relief. That is probably too low a bar, but it does explain some of the post hoc reaction. We’re gonna talk today with one of the most acute observers of the Washington political scene and who has been on the ground for decades, and I think has a better sense of how politics at the national level work and a sense of the individuals involved than almost anybody around these days. So, Emma, tell us a bit about who we’re gonna talk to today, who is also a member of The Progress Network.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): That’s right. So we’re gonna talk to Steve Clemons, who’s the founding editor-at-large of Semafor, which is a new global news organization, just launched in October 2022. Before that, he was editor-at-large of The Hill and The Atlantic, continues at both places as a contributing editor, and was the host of Al Jazeera’s English Washington-based news show, The Bottom Line. If that’s not enough, he also served in senior editorial roles at National Journal and Quartz, which are both part of the Atlantic Media family of publications.

ZK: So let’s talk to Mr. Clemons.

EV: All right.

ZK: So, Steve, you’re one of the great connectors, somebody who has the pulse on things in a way that very few people do or ever will, and we’ve just emerged from, I think, what many people feel is a somewhat unexpected midterm election. So let’s talk a little bit about that. We’re recording this a couple days after the election, and by the time people are listening, there will likely be somewhat more clarity about the full exactly how many seats were won by whom and where. So let’s just add that as kind of a caveat to the discussion. But I guess one thing, apropos Progress Network views, which is to look at things for where the silver linings are and not just pay attention to the clouds, let’s talk a little bit about what the silver linings were for the election, not about who won or lost, but kind of the nature of it. And I’m really interested in your thoughts about this ’cause a couple things struck me and, I think, struck Emma, which she wrote about in the What Could Go Right? newsletter, were election denying, at least for this particular election, while there were occasional fulminations of voices, seemed to be ineffective and much more muted, participation and enthusiasm was incredibly high. So all those, I think, are positives. What was your take on what went on?

Steve Clemons (SC): So you’ve mentioned some good ones. I would say that the bet that toxicity was gonna rise, that Make America Great Again fanaticism was somehow gonna, you know, plant deeper roots in American politics, that Donald Trump shaking the system was gonna be back and on the rise, none of that seems to have reverberated. I mean, I’ve been fascinated watching Republicans– and let’s talk about– a lot of people are framing this as Democrats winning, but two of the governors that Donald Trump was harassing most started with, you know, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis did very, very well. And that’s gonna position him in a very different way. Now, a lot of people may not like DeSantis, but he’s got a kind of, you know, dimension to him and a feel for the ground, which is just very different than Trump’s. But the more important one is Brian Kemp. I mean, Donald Trump threw all of his weight against Brian Kemp in Georgia, and Brian Kemp prevailed there. And I sort of look at that interesting. I’ve been following really closely someone I know well, Adam Frisch, in Colorado’s 3rd District running against Lauren Boebert. And he said, this is a, you know– was a Trump plus 15 district. She was a very loud person. He was offended by her. He saw a lot of Republicans were embarrassed by her. And so he threw his hat in the ring. And at the time of our talking right now, they are neck and neck, 64 votes apart. And this may be something that will have to go to a recount. We don’t know how it will come out given the ballots that still need to be accounted. But I see the big silver linings act as this was a choice against toxicity. And I think that is a really refreshing element. And I think there’s another side to it. And it’s not that the Democrats won their– I think the Democrats held their own in a historic election. President Biden clearly did better than previous Democratic presidents in their midterm races, certainly better than Obama, certainly better than Bill Clinton. And so that can, you know, go into marker. But I think that the broad side of it is that this notion of getting things done again for the American people, whatever, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you’re [inaudible], that largely won. And I haven’t seen that for a while, but that’s not where our eyes have been focused.

ZK: Maybe former President Trump can call up the Colorado Secretary of State or whoever’s in charge of elections and say, “I just need 64 votes.” It’s a much smaller [inaudible]

SC: [Laughs]

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: And what was true for Raffensperger in Georgia in 2020. So, I mean, I think, you know, even though his clout is less, it’s much easier to find 64 votes [laughs].

SC: Exactly. But you know, when I had an interview in Semafor with Adam Frisch and he called Lauren Boebert the queen of angertainment. And this angertainment concept was something that another member of Congress had used. And I was with Paul Ryan recently, the former speaker of the House, who said publicly that too many of his, you know, now former GOP colleagues are performative and not focused on policy. And I think that got a rollback. Marjorie Taylor Greene still won, but, you know, you had other people that didn’t win in this race that were into getting famous from this as opposed to, you know, doing what I think would be– orient themselves towards public policy challenges and deficits that need a response. And I actually think that it was good again, and I tell you, I wrote a piece recently for an international audience and I said, you know what, a lot of things that go into democracy and what democracy is, the courts, it’s the [inaudible] minority, it’s institutions and checks and balances. But I said, it’s also not knowing the outcome of an election before it started. And that’s true in this case. And we sort of reclaimed that. Not many people knew the outcome of this, and that was delightful.

EV: It was a very unexpected midterm outcome. I think what was unexpected for me as well, you know, Zachary mentioned the What Could Go Right? newsletter. Usually, when I write that newsletter, it’s like I have a positive tone, everyone else has a completely negative tone, and I start to feel a little crazy. This week, I had a positive tone and it matched everyone else’s positive tone. So I actually have the opposite of Zachary’s question, which Charlie Sykes wrote this morning, “Warnings against irrational exuberance are in order.” And I’m wondering if you think that’s true, that– I feel like there’s this feeling, oh, we’ve seen the back of the toxicity, we’ve seen the back of the, you know, Stop the Steal-style campaigns. Is it okay right now to take a large breath of relief like that is on the way out for sure, or are we gonna do better for ourselves by, you know, keeping an eye on it?

SC: It’s a really interesting question, and I don’t know an easy way to answer it responsibly. I will tell you that a lot of the toxicity, but not all of it, is wrapped up in the cult of Donald Trump. And to see The Wall Street Journal editorial page come out and say he’s a multiple loser, and to see other leading conservative-tilting publications call Donald Trump out right now, I think, is an interesting creature in this political landscape right now, and I don’t know where it will come out. But I think the big debate is, is that toxicity driven by someone like Trump or is it a manifestation of other issues? And I think that it is a manifestation of other issues. I think that there is a lot– you know, Zach Karabell and I have been talking for years about foreign policy and other things. You can’t ever underestimate the power of what is driven from someone’s sense of being demeaned or humiliated or a nation feeling humiliated. I interviewed then Vice President Biden in 2016 when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running, and he said, “The problem with the Democratic Party is it had become a party of snobs.” And I found that a really dramatic on-the-record statement. I put it in The Atlantic. And you sometimes wonder, wow, what was that about? And so part of that is an ongoing divide inside the Democratic Party. You know, it sort of sounds silly that you’ve got kind of a liberally elite northeastern establishment versus, you know, former working class and lower middle class Americans, particularly white Americans as opposed to other broad diverse Americans, that had been at each other’s throats over control of the party. And I think that that notion of where did that toxicity come from, I think it came from people feeling threatened. Like, they thought they were, you know, anteing up for the track of what the American middle class social contract, you know, was supposed to be, you know, things like the 2008, 2009 financial crisis gut-punched them. They saw their jobs outsourced. I have family members in the Midwest of the United States who think after generations and generations of service for this country from the Revolutionary War on, that they fought the Cold War and China won. These are real things for real people. And I think that that isn’t going away in this election, and so I think it’s there. But I think what has been done is that both parties now realize that– I think they realize that we’ve got to finally get back to figuring out how we can give Americans a pathway to optimism. It’s kind of along the lines of what your folk’s folks are doing. Optimism, feeling that the work they’re doing is leading their lives and the nation in a better place as opposed to inertia and just being attached to things, or attached to processes, or, you know, sort of victims of circumstances. And I think that’s been driving a lot of the toxicity in the country.

ZK: And, again, some of this will descend into I’m sure a lot of sort of partisan rancor and pettiness, particularly given you’re gonna have a divided Congress. I mean, again, we don’t fully know the results of the House, but it would be very unlikely for the Republicans not to have won the House of Representatives [inaudible]

SC: Well, look, I mean, I think it– I mean, I just can jump in here. Like in the Senate, you know, I think it’s public knowledge that I know Senator Joe Manchin pretty well. I actually agree with a lot of his views, not everyone does. But guess who the Joe Manchin in the Republican majority house maybe with a couple– it may be Marjorie Taylor Greene. That’s a very different circumstance.

ZK: Right. And so you’re gonna get– you know, it’s gonna be an odd couple of years with hearings and I think we’re all gonna be fairly sick of Hunter Biden’s laptop by the time everything is said and done, if we’re not already, I do agree that it felt different. You know, I watched Fox on election night ’cause actually watching Fox is a much more revealing to where the shifts are going on than watching MSNBC or CNN or any of these others. And without really saying it explicitly, unlike The Wall Street Journal in its editorial, there was a clear, like, DeSantis is the future, Trump is the past feeling to the coverage in a very sober way. I know people don’t usually associate Fox News commentary or any cable news commentary with the word sober, but it did feel that way in a way that was quite striking and unexpected, I think unexpected for them as well.

SC: Yeah, but I mean, I’d say this, we have to be careful and I have to be careful necessarily looking at that as a positive thing. I mean, I recently had dinner with Bob Iger, the former CEO of Disney, and we were talking about the performance of Disney not under his watch in Florida after being attacked over, you know, the Don’t Say Gay Bill, about, you know, civil rights and identity issues in Florida, which Ron DeSantis was the chief quarterback of all that. So it’s not automa– I don’t want anybody to get the impression and say, oh, we’re saved ’cause DeSantis is, you know, somehow the rising star of Republicanism.

ZK: You know, things have changed when…

EV: [Laughs]

SC: [Laughs]

EV: We’ll take him. We’ll take him.

ZK: But there was another, I think, point made that is vital and kind of fascinating, which is that because of what happened with hanging chads and the disputed 2000 election, Florida, this has nothing to do with DeSantis per se, has one of the most effective, streamlined, trustworthy vote-counting processes of any state in the United States in a way that– you know, I sit around in New York. There is now early voting, but it’s still taking us a very long time to tabulate. I mean, Arizona is gonna take a week to figure out who’s voted for whom. Nevada, Pennsylvania seems to have gotten a little better, but it’s actually a really good point, right? Florida– we should be able to count our votes in some timely fashion. And the fact that we’re unable to is still rather extraordinary. And yet, you know, here you have an example where that’s the case.

SC: Well, I think it’s interesting that you have a convergence of major investment in Florida’s election system under a Republican governor. It kind of reminds you of only Nixon could go to China, like only an anti-communist, you know, fire-breathing right wing anti-communist could normalize with China or go to China. And maybe that is what has happened, is that there’s so much– most of the doubt in election systems exist on the center right. And so those Republican governors who can shore up a credible system, invest in technology, and others do it, it’s an opportunity that I think is good for the overall country ’cause you do see an unbelievably archaic set of systems in some places. And also, you know, I changed my voting registration from Washington DC to Chestertown, Maryland. And I would go in and they’d give you a choice, and you could vote either with a paper ballot or you could vote electronic. I said, I’ll vote electronic, you know, I have no problem with this. But there were a good chunk of people that were early voters who said, I don’t trust those electronic, those machines, those machines are bad. And people were coming in and doing the other. And so you do have this culture clash going on as we negotiate how we vote.

EV: There’s also just like, you know, aside from the whole election thing in the United States, there’s that tactile feeling of like writing out your vote and putting it through or mailing it in that the electronic system doesn’t have. But, anyway, that aside, I wanted to bring something up about DeSantis in Florida, which is that, you know, he won by a whole lot.

SC: 20 points.

Audio Clip: Well, thank you so much. You know, over these past four years, we’ve seen major challenges for the people of our state, for the citizens of the United States, and above all, for the cause of freedom. We saw freedom in our very way of life. And so many other jurisdictions in this country wither on the vine, Florida held the line.

EV: I’ve seen takes out there that they think that this has something to do with the fact that he didn’t go all the way extreme on abortion. I mean, of course, it was a huge midterm election for abortion. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of a state of play on that right now, because Zachary and I have been talking on the podcast about how things are gonna shake out statewide after the Roe v. Wade rollback.

SC: Well, I think– you know, there was a line that the abortion decision, and whether it was Lindsey Graham’s, you know, attempts to sort of federalize a national level of, you know, an abortion allergy, if you will, throughout the system, or looking– you know, DeSantis held the line at 15 weeks. He stayed with that. He held a principle whether people were debating on one side or another. One thing you can give him credit for is he does something and he sort of sees through the political headwinds that at the end of the day is there. But I think that what happened, the narrative was this, that– you know, I was talking to very leading– you know, Zach’s friends, very leading top, top, top, top people in the Democratic party who told me that the Roe v. Wade, the Dobbs decision, was a gift. Now it’s an odd way to frame something that you have so much anxiety and animus towards, but that the Dobbs decision was a gift to the Democratic, likely Democratic outcome, and you saw that in some of the early races. And then the notion was, as you saw polling coming out, that that sort of faded or went down in priority as inflation, price of gas at the pump, other concerns, crime in particular, rose. And there was this belief that while it was still on the map, it was lower down. I think that was a mistake. And I think that to some degree, you know, DeSantis benefited on both sides of that, in a way that Charlie Crist did not. I was surprised as well at how well Marco Rubio did against Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, black woman, competent, capable, she was on Biden’s shortlist for vice president. So Florida was where the red wave happened. But I think it happened because they managed through some of these issues better than some of their Republican colleagues did. But I do think that abortion mattered in this election. I also think inflation and crime mattered. There were a lot of things that mattered, but I think that we had a feeling that somehow if people don’t have it top of mind and aren’t talking about it, that somehow they’ve walked away from that as a primary issue for them. And I think that was a mistaken read of the electorate this time.

ZK: You know, there may be a sort of– I don’t know about the word, like a euphoria-based on the absence of worst-case scenarios [laughs]-

EV: [Laughs]

SC: [Laughs]

ZK: -where we’ve all become-

SC: Yeah.

ZK: -so accustomed to believing that the worst-case scenarios are the most likely ones, that when you have something approaching a normal election where people air their differences but are not voter intimidating– you know, there were, I guess, a few examples of armed people looking suspiciously at drop boxes in early voting places, but for the most part, you didn’t have that. I mean, that speaks to a larger social one, which is the temperature has become so intense that you forget what it’s like to have something approaching like normal divisiveness.

SC: Oh, I mean, let me just . . . the other really good thing are all these election deniers who, when they lost the election, conceded their election.

EV: Yes.

SC: That’s the best thing, the number one thing. You know, I think we were all holding our breath. It’s really stolen the ground, Zach, from President Trump coming back in two years and saying, you were all lied to, you know, you guys, you know, you didn’t lose. When you have a functioning system that even the election deniers accepted the results of, and that happened, I think pretty much in every case I’ve seen, I haven’t seen anyone contest the outcome or process of yet, that’s probably the healthiest element and difference of this because it [inaudible] the possibility of Trump using that line on election denying as we approach 2024.

EV: I mean, there’s also a little bit of the weirdest too, of election deniers who then also won their elections and not conceded, but accepted the results that they won. We are simultaneously saying that the election system works in that essence as well.

SC: Right.

EV: I said this in the newsletter, the system only works if I win narrative only lasts for so long. So I hope that we’re gonna see all this on the way out. But, Steve, I also wanted to ask you, you know, obviously we’re still waiting to see the Senate and the House get settled, but so far, Biden has had a pretty good track record of getting legislation through along with Republican support. Do we see any reason for that to be changing going into his second two years, or you think it’s business as usual?

SC: Well, I mean, it’s a good question. I think, you know, he had– say what you will, at the end of the day, he still had control of both chambers, and there was no way for the Republicans to fully succeed in a just say no to Biden campaign on everything, regardless of the solvency. I guess let’s speculate for a moment that if they get a one seat, if they hold at even, then Joe Manchin’s reign continues in the Senate. If they get an extra seat or an extra two seats, certainly strengthens Biden’s hands on nominations, which have been very, very slow. So I think that’s an important dimension. I worry about the debt limit issues ahead and that so many Republican House members have made this the dramatic moment that they want to take down the American ship and feel proud about it. And they have no idea how dangerous it is to play with the full faith and credit of the United States. And I’m just shocked and alarmed. But that’s far– you know, there’s some Democrats, I think it was reported by one of our Semafor reporters, Joseph Zeballos-Roig, who wrote that some Democrats now lament the thin margin the Republicans have and said if they’d gotten a big red wave, that they’d have far more and the predictably responsible Republicans would’ve been in a better place to prevent the debt limit from being squashed. So, you know, I think it’s there, but, at the end of the day, if the Republicans, even with a few seats, hold that House, it’s gonna be harder for Joe Biden. And the Biden team, to be honest, they’re gonna probably have a change of guard up there. I think we know Ron Klain is probably leaving the chief of staff. There’ll probably be others. Hasn’t been one to really play across the aisle much, and they’re gonna have to figure that out. And so the only pathway they can succeed is an LBJ way. You twist arms, and you dangle carrots, you use whatever you can to cajole and bully and seduce. And I think that unless they take that proactive attitude with Republicans, that it’s gonna be hard. And remember that every deal that they do on the Republican side, there will be someone, I believe, on the progressive left that screams bloody murder and thinks that is a bad thing. And so it’s very hard in this climate to work across the aisle like that, but I don’t think they have any choice.

ZK: So you’ve been the proverbial man about town in the district for a long while. And like anything else, you know, a lot of us relate to what goes on in Washington from afar. So our impressions are sort of dictated by stories you write and things you read. And so the impression is nobody works together and nobody talks, it’s all divided. The years of kind of clubby we’ll fight during the day if we’re Democrat, Republican but we’ll have a drink at night or whatever the formulation thereof is, well, we’ll both meet up at a Georgetown cocktail party and, you know, work things out, that’s all gone. It’s just a place of sort of rancor and indifference. People don’t even live there anymore. Representatives fly in as quickly as possible to do whatever the business of the House and the Senate are, and then they fly out to spend time in their district ’cause they don’t wanna be contaminated by the cesspool of Washington. And then you had COVID, so people weren’t even there at all for much anyway. Is that true? So, like, what’s the reality, the warp and woof?

SC: So it’s a patchwork. I think 90% of Republicans and Democrats in the Congress do deals, meet privately with people on the other side of the aisle. They all have pet projects. They have a bridge they wanna save, you know, a dog and cat care clinic, whatever it may be, whatever pet project they have, kids, education, you know, mental health, orphan drugs, whatever it is out there. There are pet projects that we rarely see in the media where every one of these people has reached out to someone on the other side [inaudible]. So that’s a really great element of a hidden bipartisan bit of the DNA that’s not often given service. On top of that, now, there are those that are so stridently on the right or so stridently on the left that they’re not engaged in that, but they’re very small minority. And then there are people who, like me, live in this town. I like a good cocktail party. I hang out these dinner clubs, I embrace that. You know, name dropping is part of the kind of DC world and scene. I get that. That’s how George Washington became president, you know, beer bashes. And so the politics, the engagement that goes on. And I can tell you, I recently had an event I was involved in that involved Senator Joe Manchin and also involved Senator Michael Bennet. Those two weren’t necessarily on the friendliest of terms over their differences on the child tax care credit, but they have other issues [inaudible] same party. We also had Senator Dan Sullivan with Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, two Republicans that were involved. Senator Dan Sullivan, who many people look at like they look at Manchin, as someone who knows the oil and energy world well, said something striking, and I’m gonna quote it even though it’s sort of off the record, I think I have his permission, where he said, you know, “We have a national epidemic in loneliness right now. If you look at young women and the suicide rates in this country–” I had no idea that Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska, was working with Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General in the Biden White House, on key questions of youth and loneliness. And I gotta tell you that so many Democrats love it, and I said to him, I joked and I said, “Hey, if you and Michael Bennet are in the elevator together in the Senate in the senators-only elevator, what do you talk about?” And then he said, “Well, it’s kind of silent.” But he says, “I like being in the elevator with Sheldon Whitehouse.” [Laughs] And I was stunned by that ’cause Sheldon Whitehouse is someone who has been writing a lot about the nefarious influence of big money, particularly big oil money in American politics. And I thought, and I said to, you know, Senator Sullivan, so I said, “So are you, you know, a puppet of, you know, big dark money and forces?” And he says, “Probably, but I still like Sheldon.” And I saw Sheldon Whitehouse the next day and I asked him [inaudible]. These two guys love each other. They love hanging out together. They do it– it’s just the public doesn’t see it. And I can tell you, I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of cases where I’ve seen that same kind of energy. I host something called the Kalorama Conversations at the Ambassador of France’s private residence, and I get always bipartisan members, senators, House members, members of the administration. I did this during the Trump administration. Would have officials come from the Trump administration [inaudible]. Now, these are off the record. The public doesn’t see them. But what you have is a level of civil engagement and discussion that’s very constructive when it comes to policy issues. And I have seen it over and over and over again, and I wish that story were out more because that is a reality in addition to some of the negatives, Zach, that you mentioned, which erodes some of that. But on the whole, there’s quite a bit of promise, I think, in the human dimension of knowing someone across the aisle and having empathy and understanding where they’re coming from.

ZK: Man, you have a good life. I mean, you know, cocktail parties in Kalorama,-

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: -[inaudible], I mean, Emma and I, we’re–

SC: I mean, some people hate it and they look at me as a part of the problem in Washington, and I’m sorry for that.

ZK: You may totally be part of the problem, but we’re–

SC: Yeah [laughs].

ZK: We’re showing up in like a week on your doorstep-

SC: Yeah.

ZK: -and you’re taking us out in the town, right? Emma, you coordinate to travel. We’ll be–

SC: [Laughs]

EV: All right. Yeah, done.

ZK: [Laughs]

EV: So, Steve, you are at a new publication called Semafor. What is your official title?

SC: I’m founding editor-at-large at Semafor.

EV: Founding editor-at-large. And I know that you have a newsletter there that I’m subscribed to and it’s great. So what’s interesting about Semafor is that they’re doing coverage differently in the actual format of the article.

SC: Yes. I’m glad you’ve noticed.

EV: Yeah, it’s cool. I would love for you to explain that a little bit. Yeah. And maybe some other things that you guys are up to.

SC: Well, look, Axios was brilliant. I think Axios was brilliant in creating a smart brevity format for changing the way reported articles worked. And they found ways to kind of get the nugget of news and deal with its smart form. But that doesn’t work for everyone. And in our case, I think they’re– and people may be offended by what I’m gonna say, we saw a kind of market opportunity in the crisisin trust in news, right? And also a socially responsible approach to say, how does a media responsibly address the fact that so few people trust the news? And this is true on the right and the left. Well, we thought, let’s be transparent about it, that we believe that writers, whether it’s Steve Clemons or Zach Karabell, come with baggage, come with bias. We try to be objective. We try to sell the shtick that we’re objectively distant. I sell the shtick that I talk to people on both sides of the aisle and I do. We still bring a set of issues to this. So we created a format that starts with the news or the scoop, which is pretty indisputable. It’s sort of the facts of exactly what happened, and then we ask the writer, of which we now have about, I think, 40 journalists on staff in a very short order, some of the best journalists in the country, who share his or her perspective on that news. Then we build in a disagreement. We go out and find someone who does not see it the same way. And we put that disagreement in that as well so that people get reacquainted with the fact that critical thinking and critical analysis and seeing different perspectives is actually a healthy thing. And where it’s relevant, whether it’s a regional perspective from different perspectives in the United States, or more importantly, because I think we wrongly divorce ourselves from the importance of what’s going on in the world, we bring in an international perspective to that. And that constitutes in most cases the Semaform, and we’re very proud of it. And it’s taken off like crazy. So, you know, I do the Principles newsletter, which is the Politics and Policy newsletter in Washington DC. I have a team of incredible people who do this. Morgan Chalfant, Benjy Sarlin, who was Chuck Todd’s political director, Kadia Goba, who used to be at BuzzFeed, Shelby Talcott, who was at the Daily Caller, Joseph Zeballos-Roig, these are all extraordinary folks. And then we’ve got the flagship, we’ve got a business editor, you know, business vertical, a tech vertical. And as we kind of do all of this, the Semaform will be the centerpiece for our– I was just [inaudible] for our Semafans [laughs].

EV: [Laughs] Steve, I’m gonna tell you– since I am a Semafan truly and authentically, I’m gonna tell you one other thing that I like about Semafor. It was just that there’s humor in the graphics, in the newsletters, in the–

SC: Oh.

EV: Yes.

SC: Thank you.

EV: Because this is the thing. I read a lot of conservative writers, I read a lot of liberal writers, and I have to say that by and large, the conservative coverage is way funnier. And [laughs] I just–

SC: [Laughs]

EV: I love to see a news publication that’s coming up that has humor in it, because, you know, why not?

ZK: So on Semafor, just, again, part of the letting us know about this new rather exciting venture– there’s not usually a lot of new exciting ventures in media land. It’s usually, you know, sad stories of-

SC: [Laughs]

ZK: -storied franchises fading, so this is the other side of that. Has the mission shifted from the initial, like, we’re gonna focus on the world at large, the English-speaking outside the United States world and become a little more general audience, whether it’s in the United States or abroad?

SC: Well, I don’t know if it’s been a mission shift. I think we have different audiences. And so the thing I’m very proud of is the kind of avant-garde decision, really, that our– we have a– produced out of London by the former global editor of The Atlantic, Prashant Rao, he and his team produce our largest global newsletter right now called Flagship. That is for a general globally engaged, you know, let’s take stock of everything happening in the world perspective. But our first kind of focused regional perspective in which we want to not just have Americans learning about this continent, but also have an organic authentic audience from that continent, is our Africa platform. That is, we have Semafor Africa we just launched. We’re doing a huge conference in December in Washington DC on the edges of the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Yinka Adegoke, who used to be head of Quartz Africa, is our editor of that and has a team. And it gives us kind of an opportunity to compete with The New York Times in Africa, which doesn’t have a lot of resources in Africa. We may be having more there than they do. So I think there’s that. And it allows people who might sit in different pods– so if you’re sitting in New York and you wanna go– may not be, you know, following Africa as intensely as other topics out there as business tech, finance, Hollywood, whatever it may be, but we’ve got that there, and we will eventually expand as well to these different places. Now, the politics and policy vertical principals– I should tell people, it’s principals, not to be confused with principles, which anyone knowing me, that is apt. But I think that the focus there is I want to have a general lay audience that wants to try and understand what’s going on in this town and why, to have both the opportunity to understand so that we don’t lose them in the language, but at the same time, we’re not dumbing it down [inaudible], we’re giving them a layer deeper than most other publications out there about why something happened. Why Build Back Better blew up, we would have had the story as I gave it to The Hill before, or why the Inflation Reduction Act came out despite, you know, the– at that moment, you had various senators in the Democratic Party calling Senator Manchin duplicitous, moving the goal, there’s no chance in hell of [inaudible]. I had [inaudible] So those kinds of things will be part of what we’re doing. And we find that there is a national audience for that that’s very, very interested. Now, the English-speaking dimension of it is something I think we’ll wrestle with as we get scale and size and stabilize. We’re not gonna be operating in foreign languages yet, but we do want foreign audiences and we’re gonna have to tackle that when we have greater capacity ’cause I would like us to operate in other languages. It’s just not in the cards for us right now.

ZK: Well, good luck. We’ll at least pay attention. We may not eagerly pay attention.

SC: [Laughs] Well, I tell anybody, I said, you don’t have to read it every day, but please open it.

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: [Laughs]

EV: That’s true. Anyone who’s worked on a newsletter knows that that is true [laughs].

SC: [Laughs]

ZK: All right. Good luck. Thank you so much, Steve, and thanks for being a part of-

SC: Thank you.

ZK: -The Progress Network and keep at it.

SC: My pleasure. I love it. I love The Progress Network. Thank you both so much.

EV: Thank you, Steve.

Audio Clip: Well, we had an election yesterday and it was a good day, I think, for democracy, and I think it was a good day for America. Our democracy has been tested in recent years, but with their votes, the American people have spoken and proven once again that democracy is who we are. The states across the country saw record voter turnout and the heart and soul of our democracy, the voters, the poll workers, the election officials, they did their job and they fulfilled their duty, and apparently, without much interference at all, without any interference, it looks like. And that’s a testament, I think, to the American people.

ZK: So, Emma, I love that little bit in there, the kind of slight door crack on the continued social realities of Washington. I mean, it used to be that everybody was kind of aware there was the public face of Washington and then there was the private reality of Washington, and the private reality was a lot more fun and a lot less extreme and a lot more clubby. I think a lot of people over the past 20 years have reacted against the clubiness. You know, some of the rise, not just of Trump and the current Republican party, but of progressives and the Democratic Party, has been a reaction against the elite clubiness of DC. You know, the idea that you get to go to the Georgetown parties and everybody casts off their clothes. We talked a little bit about that with Eric Swalwell and Jeff Colyer a little while back on the show, and the degree to which there’s like the performative aspect, right? Swalwell told that great story of even during the heatedness of the impeachment hearings, he ran into Ted Cruz in the bathroom and Cruz was like, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” And like, you know, the idea of that being such an odd, odd optic, you know, and then they go back out and it’s MMA fighting. And Steve has been someone who’s been sort of deeply immersed in that world. And as he points out, some people think that’s part of the problem, and some people think that’s part of the solution. But we do forget that all these things are still, at the end of the day, composed by real human beings who, you know, eat, drink, cry, get married, get sad. It’s not just stump speeches sitting together in a room.

EV: I guess the idea is to find the middle ground, right? The image that was coming to my mind as you were speaking that, like there is this like really great party and then the party got out of hand and a bunch of people gate-crashed it and just like trashed it, you know? And then we went too far in the direction of, like, completely trashing the party and now we wanna get the party started again, but we don’t want it to get as out of hand as it was way back when. That’s what came to my mind [laughs].

ZK: [Laughs] I mean, that’s perfect. And of course, human ability to maintain equilibrium is observably limited.

EV: Yeah. You know, I liked Steve’s reference to not only of like the human element of a thing, but the fact that there are these issues that don’t get a lot of play that are actually bipartisan issues. Like he mentioned loneliness in women. I remember when I started working for The Progress Network, I was saying, you know, we’re bipartisan, we’re nonpartisan. This is not a left thing or a right thing. And people were asking me like, well, what are you gonna talk about? Like, are there really issues like that? And I was like, I guess we’re gonna find out [laughs]. And there are, you know, there really are. It’s just not the ones that get a lot of play.

ZK: What are you gonna do with your– how are you gonna fill the airtime if you’re not talking about all the, you know, nitty gritty crises that are besetting us?

EV: Well, it’s poignant because it’s like, that’s what people know. So if you haven’t given them something else to know, then of course it’s hard for them to come up with topics in their mind like loneliness. But there are lots of things out there that people are really doing. Another thing I also wanted to talk about was the mention of Adam Frisch, which they’re gonna have to do a recount, right? Because he is 64 votes ahead. That’s the one.

ZK: Yeah. And of course, by the time people are listening to this, the outcome of that may be certain. So we’re simply reflecting on an incredibly narrow race, just like the Georgia Senate race will head to a runoff. By the way, one funny aspect of that is that the libertarian candidate who ran in Georgia, Chase Oliver, apparently one of his motivations, which he wrote about in running, was to force Georgia voters to end this system which only Georgia has of if you don’t get 50%, even if you’ve won, the two top candidates go to a runoff. No other state has that. And then he purposely designed a campaign to almost split the difference exactly between the left and the right. So he’s an outspoken gay man. So he put that there. And he’s also unequivocally pro-Second Amendment, you know, gun rights without limitation.

EV: [Laughs] Okay.

ZK: And one of his campaign slogans was gay and armed. And he got like 2% of the vote. And apparently, he got– like 1%-

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: -of that was people on the left and 1% [laughs] was people on the right ’cause he thinks it’s a ridiculous system. And because his 2% might be the reason why they’re gonna head to a runoff, he thought this might get Georgia voters to finally move beyond that.

EV: Okay. So we’re about to find out if this guy’s gonna become a, you know, Georgia hero or the target of a lot of ire in Georgia, or maybe both, and [laughs]. But I had no idea about that. That’s really interesting. Part of the reason why I brought that race up is because NPR had this great article. It was a list of all the races that had been decided by like very small amounts of votes in the last 20 to 30 years. And there were quite a few of them. And some of them are really down to one vote, which I just love as a reminder of, like, we have probably historic turnout, like we talked about last episode, that was expected. We’re still waiting for final numbers, but it’s probably gonna be historic, historically high.

ZK: Right. And if it’s not surpassing 2018, I mean we’ll be at around the levels that we were last at again in the 1950s into the early 1960s.

EV: Mm-hmm. And it’s really like you look at these races that are– could really decide things nationwide as well. [Laughs] you know, 100 votes is not a lot of votes. Like, you really, really– your vote counts more than you think.

ZK: There was a silly movie a bunch of years ago, I think it was called Swing Vote, and apparently, the presidential election was exactly tied and it was coming down to this one guy.

EV: And it’s the guy from Georgia who’s gay and armed [laughs].

ZK: Exactly.

EV: [Laughs] It’s his vote in the end.

ZK: Apparently, it was actually– it was armed and gay. I don’t want listeners to feel like I’m misrepresenting his position, so.

EV: Oh, okay.

ZK: Yeah.

EV: Armed and gay. Thank you for clarifying.

ZK: And that makes all the difference, apparently.

EV: Huge. Huge.

ZK: But I did feel, and I think a lot of us felt, on multiple sides of the spectrum, a degree of relief that we were able to actually have an election that did not seem entirely addicted by hyperbolic hysteria.

EV: That’s what Steve was talking about with the angertainment, right? Like people just kind of want the rollercoaster to stop or like they wanna get off the rollercoaster, you know. And it’s what we’ve been talking about on the podcast as well, that at the end of the day, people want politicians that are gonna do things and not just whip them up into a frenzy. It’s the same reason why people are tired of the media too. They’re like, give me information, stop, like, whipping me up into a frenzy for no reason, not feeling that anymore.

ZK: And that reminds me, we do wanna put out a call to anyone listening. We’re gonna try to crowdsource this. We are in search of an alternate word to doomscrolling, meaning what’s the opposite of doomscrolling. And we’ve been talking about a word that we could come up with. So if anybody has an idea for a word that is the opposite of doomscrolling, which of course is a little Progress Network-y, but I was thinking we could do, you know, hopesurfing-

EV: [Laughs]

ZK: -or hope clicking or something like that. We’d like that there’s gotta be something on the other side.

EV: Uh-huh.

ZK: I don’t expect to answer this right now, but maybe people will have a moment of intense light bulb inspiration and decide-

EV: Yeah.

ZK: -to share it with us.

EV: Good news grooving.

ZK: Good clicking.

EV: Okay.

ZK: Light– you know, something, something’s gotta be out there. So other than midterms, anything we wanna look at this week that is obscure but important?

EV: Yeah, so we’re gonna be short and sweet on the obscure but important this week. What I wanted to mention was for the first time in a clinical trial, lab-grown blood was given to people. So obviously, there’s a big issue with having enough blood donations for folks, especially, who need to do transfusions, dialysis, all sorts of things that require blood donations. And so we’re trying to look into the future into a world where we can literally just grow blood, whatever type that we want, and give it to people. And they’ve taken a step toward that.

ZK: I’m assuming that it was given to people and they didn’t die.

EV: Well, [laughs] they’re tracking that. But [laughs]–

ZK: I just wanna be-

EV: I don’t–

ZK: -really hyperclear here that people were given lab-grown blood and it worked.

EV: Well, they’re tracking them. They’re in clinical trials.

ZK: They’re tracking that. Okay.

EV: But I don’t think that they were going to give them something that they thought– I’m sure this went through animals first. I’m sure we’ll also hear if somebody dies, but I don’t expect that somebody will die.

ZK: But in the wonderful world of, borrowing from Monty Python, they’re not dead yet.

EV: They’re not dead yet [laughs].

ZK: Okay.

EV: And it was very small amounts of the lab-grown blood. It was like a couple of spoonfuls. So it’s not like you’re just dumping a bunch of, you know, random stuff into somebody’s body.

ZK: Okay, good to know on all accounts.

EV: They seem positive about how this is going to go. Of course, even if it does go really, really well, it’s expensive. It’s one of those things where we’re definitely at the first step of a long series of steps. But it’s very, very interesting to think about. You know, for instance, just– people might not know this. In Greece, if you go into the hospital and get surgery, like you require surgery, you or somebody else has to give a blood donation because there’s not enough people here who donate blood. There’s always a shortage of blood.

ZK: Wow.

EV: So really far down the road, but one day to have something where, yeah, just knock a few more packets up of O or of AB or whatever we want, amazing.

ZK: Absolutely. And a reminder too, which we try to do, but we don’t pay enough attention to– yeah, to cool good things happening, to people inventing things, finding solutions. A lot of it is technology. Not all of it’s technology. We talk about a lot of other things here. And we should spend more time looking at such things.

EV: Yeah.

ZK: Such things should be less obscure.

EV: Even if they fail too, like that’s the other thing, is that I think there’s a lot of– people don’t wanna pay attention to, especially these sort of science-y techy stuff that are in their beginning phases because they very well might fail-

ZK: Right.

EV: -and people view that as a disappointment, but it’s all part of the process.

ZK: Right. I mean you need to experiment and fail.

EV: Mm-hmm.

ZK: So thank you all again for listening this week. We will be back after Thanksgiving.

EV: Thanks, Zachary, and happy Thanksgiving to everyone. 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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