KAI WRIGHT: Hey, so we got a lotta new folks listening to the show and joining our community here this season, which is awesome. Welcome! And if you like this work, here are a couple things you can do to help us spread the word about it: First, leave us a rating and a review in your podcast app. And then tell somebody you know about the show. This is really what helps others find us. And, hey, thanks for listening…
I’m Kai Wright, and this is The United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history, and its grip on our future.
KAI: Deidre, Hi.
DEIDRE DEJEAR: Hi, Kai. How are you doing?
KAI: How are YOU doing? I feel like a whole lot has happened since I saw you last.
DEIDRE: Yes, a whole lot has happened [laughs]
KAI: I met Deidre DeJear in Iowa -- before the impeachment acquittal, before voters in New Hampshire gave Bernie Sanders a win....and before the great re-canvassing controversy of the Iowa caucuses. Though, you know, Deidre thinks less of a controversy than a fit thrown by those of us in the political press.
DEIDRE: It's about the people. It's not about the press and their ability to commentate on results.
KAI: But Deidre, we have to fill the air. Don’t you understand?
DEIDRE: That’s y’all's choice. Y’all could have been talking about the Grammys or something, I don't know.
[They both laugh]
KAI: I called Diedre because I needed to take a quick break from history and try to make sense of where things stand with this election right now. A couple weeks into this Democratic primary, I imagine a lot of y’all feel like I do -- which is: really uncertain about what’s gonna happen. And overwhelmed by what feels like an enormously consequential choice. I’ve been asking you in person and on the phone about the anxieties you’ll take into the voting booth with you, and your responses have been intense.
KIMBERLY: I never thought I would witness a time when children were locked in cages and half the country defended the practice because they’re so afraid of immigrants.
NICHOLAS: I guess I’m going with you know, the uncomfortable realization that white America doesn’t want a multicultural society.
LINDA: Something that, I’ve never thought would happen again in my life time. I’m afraid to go to the Synagogue. I’m very careful when I go -- I look around. It’s so scary.
KAI: So I talked to Diedre, because I figure, she’s watching this election from a unique vantage, which may be helpful. She’s a 33 year old black woman -- so, young, for national politics -- who has an impressive political resume, in an overwhelmingly white state. She started in 2012, when she led Barack Obama’s outreach to black voters in Iowa.
BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote [crowd cheers]
KAI: It was exciting and she got hooked! Later she ran an historic campaign of her own. In 2018, she became the first black person in Iowa to win a major party’s state-wide primary. She was running for Secretary of State, which oversees elections. And that campaign got a lot of attention…
KAMALA HARRIS: What’s up Polk County?! [cheers]
KAI: Kamala Harris even showed up on the stump for Deidre.
KAMALA: Alright, Deidre DeJear, are we gonna elect her? Yes!
KAI: Deidre was not elected; the Republican incumbent held on. But then, Kamala Harris tapped Diedre to become her state-wide political director in Iowa. Which...is a very big deal job, in any campaign, but certainly given the massive weight of history that hung over this particular campaign.
DEIDRE: One of the things that I used to tell our folks was that -- no matter what identity they connect with -- working for a black woman, you represent two demographics that are often excluded, that are often disenfranchised: women and black people.
KAI: The franchise--voting. This is Deidre’s passion: More people, from more walks of life, voting more often.
DEIDRE: The idea that we have over two million people in our state that are eligible to vote. And we see less than half of them register to vote, and less than that participating in these elections -- It's a problem and we can do better than that.
KAI: And it’s this focus on voting -- just, the act of voting, setting aside the candidates -- that’s what made me wanna check in with Diedre now. Because when I met her, I also met all these people in Iowa who were, honestly, just not super psyched to be the first voters to have to make a choice in this Democratic primary. I heard a lot of indecision, mostly tied to the fact that people felt how I do now -- which is deeply uncertain and anxious about the future, and like they just had the weight of history on their shoulders.
DEIDRE: So, I have a friend who's a teacher. And she calls me and says, “Who do I go and vote for?” And I'm like, “This is a loaded question.” And I'm like, “What are you doing?” She's like, “Well, we're in this teacher's lounge and there's ten of us and we're trying to figure out who we're going to go and support.” And the number one thing that was on their mind was: who can beat Donald Trump?
Diedre: And they hated me because I didn't tell them who to vote for. But they loved me because I encouraged them to vote their values. And I later got a text message and she said, “You're right. We talked about it. We have to vote for the person that we believe in, unburdened by this man who wants to occupy space in our mind.” Because at the end of the day, when we allow him to infiltrate our thinking, we're playing his game. I think all of those people ended up going to a caucus, which was amazing.
Deidre: But they needed somebody to tell them that it was okay for them to go with their gut.
KAI: Well, that may have been too hard for some Iowans. Lemme just tick through some of the turnout numbers from recent elections: In 2008, for Obama’s first term, 240,000 Iowans caucused. But in the last presidential election, in 2016, that number dropped to about 170,000. Which freaked out Democrats at the time; it felt like an ominous sign. Then the 2018 midterms sparked new excitement -- there was huge turnout in many places, including Iowa, and that led Democrats to expect Obama-level participation this year. Well, that didn’t materialize in Iowa; turnout was just about the same as it was in 2016. And you know, I do wonder if people were just...paralyzed by the gravity of it all.
DEIDRE: I started seeing, you know, regular, everyday folks who don't typically spend time navigating the political sphere really turned off by it.
KAI: So you saw it coming? You could see that the turnout might be lower this year?
DEIDRE: Yeah, I did feel that, especially within the last three weeks. And you could just hear it in every event that I went to. People were asking that question: who should I support? Who should I support? More than I've ever heard people ask that question.
And one thing -- you can't make a wrong choice. When you vote your values, that's who you vote for. Now whether or not that person wins, that's another thing. But the nature of voting is almost like shooting a free throw: You make some, you miss some. But as long as you're on the court, as long as you're participating, our democracy is working.
KAI: She says all of us who are still waiting to vote -- we should go through a similar process. Forget about Donald Trump. Who do I wanna be president? And, fine... But listen, if Trump’s presidency terrifies you, then the way this election year kicked off...
DONALD TRUMP: Total acquittal.
KAI: Prolly didn’t calm your anxieties….
TRUMP: The Democrats, they can’t count some simple votes and yet they wanna take over your health care system. Think of that.
KAI: But you know, I got fixated on at least one response from you all about your anxieties this election.
LIZZETTE: This is Lizzette, from Westchester, New York.
KAI: It got me thinking again about history, and our mission in this season of the show…
LIZZETTE: And I never thought that in 2020 we would have to worry about a sitting US president insinuating civil war on Twitter.
KAI: Civil war. For so many people…and on so many of the challenges we face collectively... we are past the point of compromise. That’s the source of what’s really the central debate among Democratic voters: Is the best antidote to Trump a return to comity and unity in our national politics? Or do you embrace the end of compromise, and focus instead on the fight for power? And when I looked back at the moment when politics did in fact collapse into outright warfare, I found a really similar political debate among reformers. There were those who held the kind of certainty we hear on the insurgent left of the Democratic Party today.
BERNIE SANDERS: The only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution.
KAI: And those who felt a great deal more cautious about pushing the country too far, too fast.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: I think we need someone to head up this ticket that actually brings people with her, instead of shutting them out.
KAI: And in some ways, both of these perspectives turned out to be right, at least in part. Up next, what we can learn from the radical politics of the 1850s.
KAI: I came across a new book -- It’s just out, and it’s written by a historian named LeeAnna Keith.
LEEANNA KEITH: I'm a teacher at Collegiate School in New York City and the author of When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War.
KAI: And one of the neat things about this book is it was partly a teaching project.
LEEANNA: That was a perennial assignment for tenth graders, right, I teach 10th grade U.S. history. They had to write papers about the Civil War and Reconstruction.
KAI: The book tells a kinda edgy story, which I at least don’t remember learning in high school. I mean, I wasn’t the world’s most studious tenth grader, so maybe I missed it. But still, I like the idea of high school historians.
LEEANNA: If I try to lead them too much into saying, look at these Republicans, aren't they cool? You know, they might not buy it, right? But since they have a chance to see for themselves I think they learned it that way, learning by doing it.
KAI: So who were these cool, Radical Republicans? First off, not Mitch McConnell… It’s become kind of a thing among particularly far right Republicans to lay claim to the party’s Civil War history -- to latch onto the idea that the GOP was the party of freedom. Trump seems to love invoking Abraham Lincoln.
TRUMP: You know, a lot of people forget Abe Lincoln. I wish he were here. I’d give him one hell of an introduction. [Laughter]
KAI: But the radicalism LeeAnna’s talking about is a little different, from both Trump and Lincoln. Maybe the best place to begin explaining it is a story you might have heard in high school? It’s about Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.
LEEANNA: Sumner is really the most famous Republican in America, the most famous radical, and a guy who had for some time really represented political abolitionism. He was a wonderfully tall and handsome and well-spoken, well educated, really an ideal for a lot of people in the North.
KAI: For white progressives in the North. And he’s a renowned orator -- he gives these fiery speeches, where he just rips into the congress members who are carrying water for the South’s slaveholders. Anyway, it’s 1856. The Republicans are a brand new party, essentially a big tent for everybody who’s fed up with the South’s power. And the whole country feels like a powder keg. There’s this huge fight over whether Western territories -- which, are being violently siezed from Indigenous people -- whether slavery will be allowed in these territories. And Congress...is in a war of words over all of this. So Sumner, who welcomes these inflamed tensions, he gets up and he gives a two-day speech on the Senate floor.
LEEANNA: And he is not very judicious in the kind of language that he uses.
KAI: He just goes in on pro-slavery Democrats. Like, as people.
LEEANNA: He says Stephen Douglas has bad breath. He makes fun of the senator from South Carolina, who's had a stroke, for gargling when he speaks. It's a very aggressive speech and one that Democrats take a strong objection to.
KAI: And it’s a sign of the times that, right away, Sumner’s colleagues think: He’s gonna get killed.
LEEANNA: Many people, members of Congress, were carrying firearms.
KAI: And there's this trope we use now when we talk about how divided America is and how all how uncivil our politics have become. They were carrying firearms.
LEEANNA: And they were also brandishing them on occasion. They were engaging in fistfights or as in the case of Charles Sumner, after he made these insulting comments, a southern member of Congress, comes to the Senate, where Sumner’s working at his desk, takes a big, heavy cane with a with a gold top and he beats Sumner, until Sumner is unconscious. He injures him so badly that he can't return to his work in the Senate for something like 18 months. People worry about Nancy Pelosi tearing up a speech. This is actually a more dramatic gesture.
KAI: But the Radical Republicans thought: great. Now we’re getting real about this debate over slavery. It’s not civil. And frankly, that’s probably a good thing.
LEEANNA: One of the characters that I sort of hit at and step away from occasionally in the book is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a Republican and an antislavery activist. And one of his quotable quotes was that, you know, “Good is a good doctor, but bad is sometimes better.”
KAI: I asked LeeAnna how people like Emerson and Sumner came to that point, where they welcomed conflict -- like actual physical conflict.
LEEANNA: I think the most important circumstance is the total control of the federal government, the firm grip of the federal government in the hands of the sort of pro slavery faction.
KAI: I mean, this is something we don’t really talk about with our so-called founding fathers. They were mostly Southerners. Every president up until 1850 -- other than the Adams family, John Adams and his son, John Quincy -- they all held slaves.
LEEANNA: Such a large number of slave holding presidents also meant pro slavery bias in the Supreme Court.
KAI: Moreover, both the Electoral College and the Senate were designed to favor rural areas -- which is of course a debate we are of course still having. As early as the 1850s, these Radical Republicans understood that this design meant the South was overrepresented in Congress.
LEEANNA: I think that the desperation that we see is a reaction to the kind of hopelessness of politics in the 1850s for the antislavery activists.
KAI: And to me, the parallels to today are inescapable -- in terms of the political dynamics. Because what the radicals had to do was convince the rest of their party -- this big-tent Republican party -- to embrace conflict. Or, really, to embrace fundamental change, and the ugly fight that kind of change requires. They had to convince their peers that the other party had NO interest in peace. Meanwhile, the rest of the party was like, calm down, we don’t wanna fracture the country. We can gradually chip away at slavery.
LEEANNA: I mean, there are Republicans who imagine a legal course to the end. And that's what Lincoln meant when he said putting slavery on a course of ultimate extinction.
KAI: Just contain it to the South -- that was how Lincoln and the moderates initially wanted to play it. They argued that if the party just fought hard to get new, free states, then the South would be eventually overwhelmed without having to have a direct confrontation.
LEEANNA: If you can just limit the growth of slavery, that means that increasingly free states will outnumber the slave states and therefore out-represent slave states in Congress, and new legislation will be possible. The kind of legislation they imagine are laws that would make it illegal to import slaves, that would make it illegal to take slaves across state lines. And that agenda, what they call the Freedom National agenda, imagined an end of slavery in 50 years and 100 years, over the long term. And the Republican Party is really home to that idea.
KAI: So, much like the debate among Democrats today, back then, there wasn’t real disagreement over what they wanted to achieve. It was a question of how to get there. Most of the party believed they could bend existing institutions toward justice and avoid a horrific rupture to the country. The radicals argued the only way forward was to accept that rupture.
KAI: So how did the Radical Republicans win the day? How did they make it a mainstream idea, at least within the party?
LEEANNA: It's the Civil War. You know, if you were an abolitionist, you'd been thinking about the injustice of slavery for a long time. You'd been thinking about family separations. You'd been imagining, you know, corporal punishment. But now suddenly everybody's doing that, right? And families across the north are experiencing the loss of loved ones and the frustration of the stagnation of the northern war effort. The radicals really from the beginning of the war, they claim, well, you know, the worst thing that can happen for us is a quick victory and everybody goes home. What serves the interests…
KAI: The return to normalcy.
LEEANNA: The return to normalcy is not good for the antislavery movement.
KAI: As I’m talking to LeeAnna, I’m of course not thinking, hey, let’s have a war. The only people who I’ve heard truly hold that fantasy today are leaders of paramilitary white supremacist groups. And as grave as the stakes may be in this election, it’s obviously not slavery…. But, I do take a lesson from the radicals’ clarity--that the South was already well past the point of compromise, and there comes a point when normalcy just cannot be the goal. And after the war, things did radically change; it was a period of truly multiracial democracy. I talked about this back in episode one. This remarkable, if brief period in political history when black people streamed into the Republican Party -- most notably Federick Douglass himself -- and they held elected positions of all kinds: County commissioners. School boards. More black people served in Congress in the decade after Civil War than did in all the following 100 years. Which of course, begs the question: Why it didn’t last?
LEEANNA: Well, you know, the Republicans imagine they can build a North-South coalition, a black, white coalition of black and white men working together in the Republican Party. That proves a lot harder than people imagine. I mean, nobody thought it would be easy, but nobody also anticipated the kind of entrenched resistance that presents itself in the KKK and Knights of the White Camellia and other organizations that sort of speak for white supremacy in the South.
KAI: How were they surprised when the slaveocracy said: no, no, no, we will meet this with violence, to make sure it doesn't exist. How could that have surprised them?
LEEANNA: Well, I guess part of the surprise is that they don't come up with legal mechanisms to contain the threat. They think that they do. But what they find in practice is that the Supreme Court is not in sympathy with the expansion of federal power. And that when the Supreme Court chips away at the authority of laws to create law and order in the South, there's no longer the political will in Congress, which means that they can't go back and correct their mistakes.
KAI: There’s a lotta reasons for that, and we’re gonna keep pulling the thread on the political dynamics of Reconstruction as this season continues. But for now, the point is, when crisis faded, normalcy did in fact return.
LEEANNA: Northerners got tired of fighting the southern racists. You know, they don't care enough about the elevation of black people to the status of equals to continue to struggle for it against the kinds of resistance that that presents itself.
KAI: White supremacy cared enough to continue struggling.
LEEANNA: They sure did. They sure did.
KAI: It makes me think about something another voter said to me in Iowa, before the caucuses. He said, sure, he shares other Democrats’ anxiety about defeating Donald Trump. But his real anxiety comes when he thinks: What then? What happens after victory? Trump’s movement will not just disappear with his presidency - I didn’t come from nowhere. So who’s ready to fight for a multiracial society for the long term? We wanna keep hearing from you--what are you anxious about that you never expected to be a concern in 2020? It can be a big political issue, but maybe it’s something super personal and specific to you. Just record a voice memo and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, in case we use it in an upcoming episode.
And next week, we go to Liberty Island.
The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios.
This episode was produced by Jessica Miller and myself.
And a very special thanks to the Public Policy Center at the University of Iowa, for being such gracious hosts to our show during the runup to the caucuses. Also a shoutout Jonah -- cause, four year olds like to be podcast-famous.
The episode was edited by Karen Frillman, who is also our executive producer.
Cayce Means is our technical director.
Our team also includes… Emily Botien, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Jessica Miller, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams…
With help from…Kim Nowacki and Michelle Harris.
Our theme music is written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Brand.
And listen, stay in touch: You can hit me up on Twitter, @kai_wright.
Thanks for listening.