Kai Wright: Hey, everybody. This is Kai. The episode you're about to hear aired live on Sunday night. That means before the world read Justice Alito's leaked draft of an expected Supreme court ruling that will sometime this spring or summer overturn Roe and end the constitutional protection for abortion. We'll of course get to that story, but as it turns out, a lot of this episode is relevant in that it captures the way many, many voters feel about the Democratic Party right now and its willingness to fight for what they believe. Here you go.
Regina de Heer: Would you say you are a Democrat or a Republican?
Felicia: Depends on what the issues are. I don't identify with one or the other.
Regina de Heer: How would you describe the energy of the Democratic Party right now?
Felicia: Honestly, I don't feel the energy like I used to. I don't feel it as being as progressive and forward-moving as it once was, but I do feel the hope in the Democratic Party, I feel that much.
Regina de Heer: If the Democratic Party were a person, what descriptive words would you like to see used to describe that person?
Felicia: Let's see. More of a upbeat party that wants to help and that has hope and that's encouraging and uplifting, motivational and all those things. That's the type of person I would like to see them again. I'm not feeling that right now.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright and I'm joined tonight by someone who has recently set the Democratic Party on fire. Mallory McMorrow is a state senator in Michigan. She's a Democrat whose district encompasses Oakland County. That's a lot of the Detroit suburbs and some of Detroit itself. A couple of weeks ago now Senator McMorrow gave a short impassioned speech on the statehouse floor that has spawned so much conversation. It hit and surpassed viral status online, 14.6 million views on Twitter when I last looked, and some people think it may fundamentally change the Democratic Party's strategy in responding to the culture wars.
Senator McMorrow joins us tonight to share the story behind her speech. Thank you so much Senator for making this time.
Mallory McMorrow: Thanks, Kai. I appreciate it.
Kai: I gather this story actually begins at a prayer breakfast some weeks ago, right?
Mallory: Yes. It wasn't even a prayer breakfast. Our Senate sessions all open with an invocation every session. Some people can argue whether that is an appropriate thing in government, but it is. That's what we have in Michigan. Typically, it is non-confrontational, just setting the tone for our session to remind people that we serve 10 million residents of the State of Michigan and to use our best judgment in service to people, but Senator Lana Theis, it was her turn to give the invocation and she stood up and under the guise of a prayer pleaded with God for guidance and protection.
She said, "Because our children are under attack," and there was a long pause. Then she said, "By forces that would have them see or know or learn things against their parents' will." A few of us walked out because it was a very thinly veiled replica of language like Florida's Don't Say Gay bill and just such a misuse of prayer. That's where I think this started.
Kai: Then you wake up a couple of Mondays ago and you open your email and what do you find?
Mallory: It wasn't even opening my email. My husband was out of the country. He was in Germany. He texted me on a Monday with a screenshot from an email that I think he saw circulating on Twitter that accused me by name. It said Mallory McMorrow D-Snowflake wanted to groom and sexualize kindergartners and make eighth graders believe that they were responsible for slavery.
Kai: How did you feel when you initially read that? What was your initial immediate reaction to it?
Mallory: Just as speechless as I am now. My jaw was on the floor. My stomach was in a knot. It's so horrible and vile. I am the mom of a one-year-old. The idea that another mother and a colleague would accuse me of grooming, which is befriending a child for the purpose of sexually assaulting them, it's just so beyond the pale. I was sick to my stomach.
Kai: Did you feel like, "Okay, this is in reaction to what? To me walking out on the prayer breakfast"?
Mallory: Yes. I think reaction to that, but there were a few of us, and I was trying to figure out why me specifically versus the number of us who did walk out. I had taken to my social media following that prayer just to say that I thought it was inappropriate, that it was a misuse of prayer. I pointed out the Utah governor having recently vetoed legislation to ban trans kids from playing sports and really saying openly that he's never seen so much anger directed at so few and, in my own way, trying to say, "We need to get back to real issues." That must have been it, that I dared to stand up with the LGBTQ community and say this is not acceptable.
Kai: What was your initial impulse on just whether or how to react to this publicly? It's a question that has twisted a lot of people in the Democratic Party up about like, "Well, do I respond to this kind of stuff?" What was your initial reaction to it?
Mallory: I think the initial reaction for anybody is to want to hit back, but it gets into mud flinging. I think that you see all the time Democrats accusing Republicans of things and Republicans accusing Democrats of things. I wanted to take the time and not say something that I was going to regret and something that wouldn't actually help address the real issue, so I sat on it for the day and really wanted to think very carefully about how and when I responded and what I said.
People who are different are not the reason that our roads are in bad shape after decades of disinvestment or that healthcare costs are too high or that teachers are leaving the profession. I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard, and supported, not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, white, and Christian.
I wanted to make the statement on the floor, A, to address the issue out in the open, and then to really reclaim the identity because what started it all was prayer, right? We've seen Christianity weaponized to target marginalized people, which to me is just so hateful and unacceptable that I really wanted to reclaim my own identity and identity of a lot of people like me, which is not marginalized suburban white moms. For me, I happen to be Christian as well, or raised Christian, and hopefully, get us out of this place where those things can be weaponized and used to target already targeted people.
Kai: Can you say a little bit more about that because part of the speech is you kept repeating this mantra about your identity.
Mallory: Who am I? I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom. Straight, white, and Christian. Straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom. I want my daughter to know that she--
Kai: There's just something about the way you said it and spelled it out.
Mallory: I learned that service was far more important than performative nonsense like being seen in the same pew every Sunday or writing Christian--
Kai: Named it as an identity, even in this conversation. We don't hear those things named as identities. We hear Black, gay, something other than Christian named as identities. We just so rarely hear that period, let a loan from a politician. It was obviously intentional. Why was that such an important part of the response?
Mallory: I think to put it into context, I flipped a district that was a Republican district when I ran in 2018. I represent a very marginal, pretty evenly split district. We have seen the rise in pressure on our school boards and the same sort of trend that we're seeing around the country of far-right groups taking advantage of moms. I had a conversation with a constituent probably a month or two ago who has started to become active in some of these groups of moms who are frustrated with school.
I think acknowledging that moms have had to deal with a lot for the past two years with the pandemic and school closures and trying to balance work and being a teacher and a mom and all of these things all at once. I talked to this constituent who said, "I think that parents have a lot of real concerns and real frustrations," but her concern, even though she's becoming active in some of these groups, is that some of the focus of these groups is to drive towards hate, to try to rile up about the active teaching of history and slavery and critical race theory and now the anti-LGBTQ focus.
That really stuck in my head is thinking about the fact that I know most moms like me don't feel this way and that we are being taken advantage of and lied to by people who want to create this moral panic.
Kai: How did you feel when you finished the speech? What did you think had just happened?
Mallory: I was standing at the microphone and looking at Senator Thies the whole time and she couldn't even look back at me. I looked at the back of her head the entire speech. I think that's probably part of the reason why it got a little more animated as it went. This was something that I had written down and I had thought about, but the fact that I couldn't even be dignified with acknowledgement made me angrier than I was at the start of it. I felt good that I said what I said, and I felt confident that in my own head I had found a way to hit back but without attacking. I think I really tried to address the issue and not the person. I felt like I had done that.
Kai: Politically in terms of what you were trying to accomplish, this was a political act obviously. What did you hope that it would accomplish? I hear you saying about the stuff that you just had to do for yourself, but as a political act, what did you--
Mallory: Any kind of speech on the floor is really me speaking to my constituents, to the people in my district. Nobody watches the Michigan session live.
Kai: Maybe we're going to be watching it now.
Mallory: Outside of my grandma who tunes in every single day, there's not that many people who watch it, but we get videos of it. I typically post it to my Facebook page or my Twitter page or put it in an email to talk to my constituents and say this is an issue and responding thinking about the people who I represent. As there's more panic around these issues that are manufactured, just saying, "No, these are not real issues. This is what happened. This is why it's wrong, and it's a deflection from the real issues, which are the quality of our roads and healthcare costs are too high and teachers are leaving the profession," which are why moms are frustrated in the first place.
Kai: One thing you accomplished is you got the president's attention. President Biden called you. What did he say to you?
Mallory: I actually missed the call when the president called because I was putting my daughter to bed so he actually called me back the next day. That's a story that I'm always just going to hold over [unintelligible 00:12:40] "Noa, you were more important than the president. Never forget that." He said thank you. He's an Irish Catholic. I was raised Irish Catholic. He told me you said what needed to be said in the way that it needed to be said. Not to divulge too much of a personal conversation, but he acknowledged he's been doing this a lot longer than I have and said he's never seen it this bad and we have to put an end to it.
Kai: There has been heated debate in the Democratic Party about whether and how candidates should respond to the culture war arguments that Republicans are making this year. Before you gave this speech, did you have an opinion about that?
Mallory: Yes. I have an opinion as somebody who had never run for office before Donald Trump was elected. I am one of those women who woke up the next day and was pissed off and ran for office and beat an incumbent. That's why I'm here. I think that for me we have to call hate what it is. When I think about my constituents, again, and it's a pretty evenly split district, I get so mad that they're being lied to, even if they support Republicans, because Republicans are deflecting because they don't have any policy solutions.
There's the LGBTQ community and the Black community who is being attacked directly, but then everybody else is also being attacked because you're being made to believe that all of your problems are because a trans fifth grader wants to play soccer. It's just a lie. I just feel very strongly that it's not about weeding into super complex issues and debating the merits of it, it's calling out lies when they're lies.
Kai: How do you think this would've been received had you not been a straight, white, Christian mom, if you had given this speech and you were a Black lesbian or some other identity? Do you think people in the party, particularly even among Democrats, would've received this the same way or am I being cynical that way?
Mallory: No, I don't think the speech would've been received the same way. I want to be very candid. My colleagues who are Black, who are gay, have been fighting this fight a hell of a lot longer than I have and getting up and saying the same things and it often falls on deaf ears. It is strange to be a frankly privileged white woman from the suburbs who is now getting this attention. My hope is that I'm speaking to people like me who are not marginalized, who are not under attack to say we can't keep asking the people who are being attacked to stand up for themselves because it hasn't worked so far. You can't fight alone.
Yes, the email attacked me, but generally, however bad I felt on one Monday is significantly worse if you are the parent of a trans kid who is just trying to live. No, I don't think it would've been received the same way. I'm glad that it's resonated, but it's not going to mean anything unless a hell of a lot more suburban white moms stand up and do the same thing and take the hits.
I want to be very clear right now. Call me whatever you want. I hope you brought in a few dollars. I hope it made you sleep good last night. I know who I am. I know what faith and service means and what it calls for in this moment. We will not let hate win.
Kai: Mallory McMorrow is a state senator in Michigan. She is up for reelection in a newly drawn district that still includes much of the Detroit suburbs. Thank you so much for spending this time with us Senator.
Mallory: Thank you, Kai.
Kai: That's where Mallory McMorrow stands, but for as long as I can remember, and I've been covering culture war politics since the '90s, whenever sexuality and race come up in campaigns Democrats have mostly tried to change the subject. Conventional wisdom has said that their voters simply don't care about this stuff. At least not when they vote. It's a distraction. What about you? If you vote as a Democrat or even consider yourself an independent, do you want your elected officials at whatever level to fight the culture wars like Mallory McMorrow has done? Is that important to you?
If it's not, what is important to you right now? What do you want? So much about Democratic Party politics has focused on opposing Donald Trump's movement, but what do you want Democrats to stand for right now? We'll take your calls after a break and I'll be joined by John Nichols from The Nation magazine. He spent many, many years arguing for a more aggressive Democratic Party, particularly in congressional politics. He says Mallory McMorrow may have shown the way to victory. Stay with us.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha. I'm a producer. Quick heads up. Over the next few weeks, our feed is going to be a little bit different. It's for good reason. Our colleagues at WNYC Studios have been doing some incredible new journalism and The United States of Anxiety will highlight that work. What does that mean for you? On top of our weekly show, which is still dropping each Monday, we're going to spice up the feed with a few short specials.
The first one of these specials is already out. It's a preview of a new podcast called Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery. You can hear Kai talk to our colleague Nancy Solomon about her reporting as well as a short preview of the series. Do check that out. Looking ahead a little further, we have more developments to share with you about this show. Keep an ear out for updates over the next few weeks. As always, if you want to talk to us, email us and send a voice message to email@example.com, or talk to us on Twitter, use the hashtag #USofAnxiety. All right, thanks, happy listening.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright and I'm joined now by my friend John Nichols. John is the national correspondent for The Nation magazine and has spent years arguing that the Democratic Party not only needs a more progressive politic but a less cautious one in general. He has been a close watcher of state and local elections in particular. After Mallory McMorrow's speech on the floor of the Michigan State House went viral recently, John wrote in The Nation that she provided a model for confronting the culture wars. John, you've got me tongue-tied. I'm so excited to talk to you. Welcome to the show.
John Nichols: I'm sure I'll be equally tongue- tied. I'm very glad to be with you, my friend.
Kai: What was your reaction when you first heard that speech?
John Nichols: I saw it like just about everybody else, which was on my Twitter feed. It came up; I popped it. I wouldn't say my jaw dropped, but it was pretty close. I was really struck. I think that I wrote about it and print it online, but I don't think you can really capture it that way. In fact, I don't even think video is as good as how it came across just now when you were playing it on radio because part of what made it so powerful was the anger in her voice. The passion in her voice.
It wasn't just the words; it was that you could tell she was deeply, deeply concerned about this, that this was something that she had to say. That is so different than usual Democratic politics because usual Democratic politics is very carefully calculated talking points, that you know exactly what they're going to say next, you know exactly how they're going to say it, and you also know that you're not going to be very excited about it.
What she did, and she's not alone, as she well points out, there are other people who've been talking about these issues for a long time, but what she did in this circumstance was push back. She didn't push back cautiously; she didn't push back in some sort of academic way; she pushed back as a passionate advocate. I think frankly that resonated with a lot of people.
Kai: Have you seen much else of that sort? As you said, there are people in the party who have been fighting back in this way, but we don't hear about them in the same way. Who else have you seen doing that lately, and what do you think was unique about her that made it go viral?
John Nichols: There are definitely people who have been speaking up. Just watch Cori Bush in Congress, she speaks with a deep passion and holds nothing back. Rashida Tlaib out of Detroit has again and again shown, not just her intellect but also her passion, and has brought it across. There's others who do as well.
Kai: Most notably, these are women of color that you're naming.
John Nichols: They are women of color. In fact, a Muslim American woman and somebody who came out of Black Lives Matter. These are people who have experiences that bring them right to the heart of a lot of these issues. Kai, I'm not missing your point here, I think people of color have been at the forefront of talking about these issues for a long time. I think people from the LGBTQ community have been out there.
If you want to go back for some history on it, look at how Harvey Milk talked about stuff in the late 1970s. I reference Harvey Milk because it is so similar, frequently, to what we're now talking about with Mallory McMorrow. He didn't just gather his arguments and speak calmly; he spoke passionately. Harvey Milk used to say he did it for a reason because he wanted it to be noticed.
He knew that in San Francisco where he was an elected official and an openly gay man that it would be heard in a certain way. He said he wanted to shout loud enough so some kid in Nebraska who felt completely cut off and didn't think there was anybody like him or anybody that cared about him could hear it as well. I will give Mallory McMorrow credit because she acknowledged her privilege, but she also in her speech really did I think try to speak to people who are vulnerable to people who are beaten up on so much in our politics. I think that's part of what gave it power.
Kai: Listeners, join us in this conversation. If you vote as a Democrat or consider yourself a swing voter, somebody who switches parties from year to year, how do you want Democrats to respond to the culture war arguments that Republicans have very clearly decided they want to make this year's elections about? How important is that to you as a voter? I'm not inviting you to be an armchair strategist here, I want to know how important this is to you as a voter. If not the culture wars, what is important to you? What do you want the Democrats to stand for? Let's hear from Judy in Port Washington, Long Island. Judy, welcome to the show.
Judy: Hi. Thank you. My biggest issue is my parents and their whole generation were terrorized by the McCarthy witch-hunting over nothing. We as Democrats can't seem to mobilize public uproar or even concern. We have a real crisis. We have people in Congress who don't believe in democracy. We can't seem to mobilize any kind of feeling that this is not the way things should be. We can't let this go on. If the shoe had been on the other foot, can you imagine people would be so blasé? Of course not.
Kai: Judy, I take it, that means that what you would like to see Democrats stand for is more in the fight for democracy itself?
Judy: Yes. I think I want to borrow a line from the first President Bush, "This shall not stand."
Kai: Okay. Thank you, Judy. Let's hear from Regina in Staten Island. Regina, welcome to the show.
Regina: Thank you very much. Thank you for covering this story. I call because I really do believe in what McMorrow did. I do believe culture wars are an important topic of conversation. Staten Island, even though it's in New York City is a very, very conservative borough, and we need to speak up. I'm a straight, white, Catholic woman, Christian woman, I should say, and I do speak in churches, too. I lead services as a minister. I believe we do have to speak to this because we can't allow, but I'm very disturbed at Staten Island and the lack of excitement among the Democratic Party right now here. I do want to get involved, but I don't know exactly as a non-elected official how to get involved. She spoke up so well, and I really appreciate what she did.
Kai: Thank you, Regina. That's a vote for engage the culture wars. Let's take one more, John, before we talk about it. Let's go to Bob in Brooklyn. Bob, welcome to the show.
Bob: Thank you very much. Long-time listener, first-time caller to the show.
Bob: I think I may have a partial answer for your last caller. My first feeling is that the very premise that you set forth in the question about whether certain topics that will be more or less comfortable for Democrats and for the party, in general, may be faulty. I think the faulty part is that what we're really talking about is the calculus of white Democrats and whether or not certain issues would be comfortable for them on one hand, and whether or not there are certain issues will be politically successful for them on the other hand.
The bottom line for that is that the base of the Democratic party feels like when all is said and done, at the end of the day, they'll talk about your problem but they won't actually stand up for you, even you are the base that keeps putting them in office. I think that's one huge difference between the two main parties, is at the end of the day Republican voters will always get the sense that they're going to get fed their red meat and at the end of the day their party is going to stand up for them and their values no matter what. The Democrats have a different set of evidence, and that lack of evidence is why the blue wall fell.
Kai: Bob, I'm going to stop you there just for time. We've got a ton of callers, but thank you for that. John, there's a lot to chew on in all three of those calls. You were nodding vigorously. I want to go back to Judy who talked about the history here of McCarthyism. You've written a whole book. You wrote a book back in 2020 called The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party that tries to draw a line between the early 20th-century fight against fascism and against racism and economic populism today. What is that history and what about it was coming to your mind when Judy was talking?
John Nichols: Your callers are brilliant. They're right on the target. If I could have set it up this way, these three calls were perfect. Look, Judy got to the heart of the matter. There was a period in the 1930s and the 1940s when Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States. He was a very imperfect president. I can list 20 things Roosevelt did that I disapprove of. He was never as aggressive as I would have liked him, but still, under Roosevelt in that New Deal era, and then during World War II, there was a sense of experimentation with the Democratic Party, a willingness to keep pushing the limits so that Roosevelt's last great speeches was about an Economic Bill of Rights.
Literally, making a right to housing, healthcare, a job, union representation, the equal of our political rights. You had this remarkable moment, then Roosevelt died, and it's just fair to say that with him went a lot of that energy. The tragedy of it is, and I write about it in the book, is that the Democrats learned a lesson and that lesson was, especially during the McCarthy era, that be cautious, don't push the limits, maybe you can win just by not being as bad as the other guys.
That has become such a touchstone for the Democratic Party that again and again, on economic, social, and racial issues, the Democratic Party has a whole culture within it and a whole team of consultants and strategists who say, "Dial it down. Don't push so hard. Don't go out on the margins here. If you do, you'll lose." The thing is, they're wrong. They're dead wrong. The lesson I'll give you is Harry Truman in 1946 dialed down the messaging lost the Congress. That's how we got Taft-Hartley.
I just keep going through history. Carter dialed down the messaging in '78. He had terrible setbacks in Congress and in '80 he lost the presidency. Clinton in the '94 midterms, they dialed down the messaging during the period after his big election in '92. Went softer and softer. They pulled their punches again and again on so many issues, they lost the Congress. Obama did actually, I think, a better job than Clinton and some of these others and yet still they didn't go for single-payer Medicare for all healthcare. They didn't go for a big, huge stimulus. At the end of the day, they went into that 2010 election cycle and lost badly.
What I would suggest to you is that Democrats tend to win presidential elections now and again with a lot of promises, with a big, bold vision. This gets to Bob's point. Big, bold vision of what they're going to do. They tell their base, "Get us into power and you won't able to imagine all the things we will do for you. We will transform this country." It's always this transformational message. Then they're in power and they govern cautiously. They pull punches. The strategists, the consultants, the money, people all come in, by the time they head into that next midterm, they're like, "Well, we did the best we could. The other guys, I don't know, blah, blah, blah."
They don't fight the fight. Increasingly today, I'll close off with this, the fight it's about a lot of these culture war issues. You will hear Democrats say, "Oh, let's not go there. Let's just talk about economics." With all due respect, we're suffering from intense inflation and we've got a lot of economic anxiety in this country. If you only talk about economics, you're unlikely to win that fight.
You have to confront these culture war issues, and you have to push back against the hatred, against the cruelty, against frankly also the assault on democracy that the other caller brought up. If you do that, then you're in that fight. It's a real fight. If you pull your punches and you avoid the issues, I can guarantee you, you will see a repeat of 1994, 2010 in 2022.
Kai: Let me bring in another caller who has a question that I think might speak to this though in terms of the debate about what will resonate with voters. Michelle in Chelsea, welcome to the show.
Michelle: Hi. Thank you for taking my question. My question is a note in that I listen to a lot of NPR and you have a lot of people on who are talking about Democratic politics, et cetera. There's always this focus on niche, niche, niche, niche, niche types of issues. I'm wondering where is the focus on bigger issues that encompass greater swaths of the population like aging in the United States and the fact that a lot of people, especially after the pandemic, have aged out of the workforce, not by choice but have been forced out.
No one ever talks about ageism. There's tons of single moms out there. Nobody seems to address single moms, which is a huge amount of the population. Why not address those kinds of larger groups and see if you can get people to swing from Republican to Democrat and realize that, "Oh, they're going to take care of us too and our needs"?
Kai: Thank you for that, Michelle. John, what I hear in that-- In the past two election cycles and it is true that there has been increasingly number of Democratic candidates that do center race, that do center sexuality, that do center gender. That was the story of the 2018 midterms in some ways. By last fall, I guess, there was a cottage industry of think pieces and operatives of the sort that you were just talking about a minute ago, saying, "That alienates most voters. That alienates most Democratic voters. We need to have a popularism." The term became popularism are what they should focus on issues that poll well across.
I should say they were talking about including amongst Black and Latino voters, that poll well across the base and stick to that. How do you respond to that idea and what Michelle is saying here that, "Well, okay, fine, but why can they talk about stuff that affects everybody?"
John Nichols: Kai, if I am shaking your hand, smiling in your face, and then I kick you in the shin, what are you going to remember?
Kai: The shin kick.
John Nichols: That's right. Talking about these culture war issues is the shin kick. The fact of the matter is that Democrats go out there with a lot of good ideas, frankly. They're not perfect to my view, but with a lot of good economic issues, as an example, that touch a lot of people. I can't think of a bigger issue. For instance, think of the child tax credit. That went across races, across communities. Think of caregiving, which was a fabulous part of the Build Back Better proposal, which Ai-jen Poo and others advocated for. These are really big things that touch huge portions of society.
The caller's references to ageism and single moms, having a national daycare program, having programs for the elderly, having programs for them. All great, but when I'm kicking you in the shin, when I'm pushing divisive issues, when I am pushing hate into this game, if there isn't a response to that, then that handshake gets forgotten. That's the simple reality. I try to make it so blunt and so at a human level, but that's the reality. I have covered politics for a very long time and things that you cannot believe will distract do distract. If you don't believe me, you ask President John Kerry.
Kai: Okay. We're going to take a break and we're going to come back and talk about that because that's an important point in history that maybe everybody doesn't remember. I'm talking with John Nichols, national correspondent for The Nation magazine, who has been arguing for a more assertive, less spooked Democratic Party for a long time. We'll take more of your calls after the break and more with John. Stay with us.
Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright and I am joined by John Nichols, national correspondent for The Nation magazine and overall proposer for a more assertive, less spooked Democratic Party. John, right before the break, we started talking about President John Kerry, and you were making a point about why it's important to fight back and using him as an example. Quickly, for folks who don't remember that history, recap that and why you bring it up.
John Nichols: Sure. In 2004, John Kerry was challenging incumbent George Bush. Kerry got the Democratic nomination. He took off. Things were looking pretty good for him as the candidate. A group of right-wing donors funded a campaign called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. You had this incredible thing. This is during the Iraq war. You had George W. Bush who had not gone to Vietnam running against John Kerry who had gone and who had a pretty distinguished service record.
What these conservative donors do is they put ads all over, they put messaging all over that suggested that John Kerry somehow was a bad player in Vietnam, that he had disgraced himself, just run down a list of things people might imagine. They smeared him. Kerry and the Democrats initially said that is so absurd. That is so silly. We're not going to pay attention to that. We'll focus in on the big issues, the things that really matter. The fact of the matter was that by the time that they came around in realizing that they were being harmed, they were taking a hit it was too late. Kerry lost that election relatively narrowly.
I bring that point up again and again because I don't think the Democratic Party ought to abandon its economic issues or its big foreign policy. I don't think it should abandon that, but I do think that when you avoid talking about issues that you think are challenging or difficult or that you're getting beat up on, that doesn't make them go away. That actually makes them stronger. The fact is if you don't counter them an awful lot of people are out there going, "I don't know. Maybe it's true."
One final thing, when you do stand up for trans kids, when you do stand up for an honest teaching of our history in our schools, when you do stand up for people who have been attacked, who have been marginalized, who've been harmed, when you stand up for them, yes, you are standing up for them, but you're also sending a message to a lot of people across races, across backgrounds that you're ready to fight. That you pick on somebody in an unjust and unfair way, I will come back at you with facts and with passion and I will defend the people that are being harmed.
That message has incredible resonance and incredible power in politics. If more people did what Mallory McMorrow did, I think you'd see that it doesn't harm Democrats to speak up on these issues. I think it benefits.
Kai: Well, schools are the chosen battleground for this amongst Republicans. You've got a story coming soon, I gather, where you are saying that you've seen progressive school board candidates are winning right now. That's not what most people would expect watching the news I think. What are you seeing?
John Nichols: Yes, I just tell it very quickly because I know we have more callers. I'm seeing everywhere after the Virginia gubernatorial race last year where the Republican candidate weaponized critical race theory, turned it into a tool to try and get people scared and all sorts of things about honest teaching of our history, about slavery, segregation, all the issues that continue to influence both our politics and our society, suddenly in all these media all these pundits saying, "Oh, well, this is an incredibly powerful issue. It's great for conservatives."
Well, I decided, well, let's look at it where it's really playing out on the ground, in school boards, in school board elections. I happen to come from a very small town in Wisconsin. I grew up covering school board elections. The first elections I ever covered. I went out to places across the country where school board elections were held in the fall of last year, in the spring of this year, you know what's happening? Progressives are winning all over. Not every race. I'm not going to create some fantasy here, but they're winning even in suburban areas that voted for Trump.
They're winning not by avoiding the issue, not by running away from it, not by saying, "Oh, that's silly. We won't talk about that." No. They're winning by going specifically into the details and saying critical race theory isn't taught in most schools, but the idea that we should teach about slavery and segregation and racism and how that has affected and influenced our current circumstance, that's a good thing. We should do that.
Talking about taking care of our LGBTQ kids and making sure that they are respected and have a place in our schools. That's a good thing. We should talk about that. Finally, saying the reason that our right-wing opponents are bringing this stuff up, isn't because they care about these issues, it's because it's a political strategy done to try and win votes and achieve influence up and down the political ladder. Frankly, I've seen, I write about people who have won using that strategy, and I think frankly, it's a good lesson, not just at school board races but for Democrats up and down the ballot.
Kai: I look forward to reading that. That is surprising. Let's go to Lauren in the Bronx. Lauren, welcome to the show.
Lauren: Thank you. I believe that the Democrats should be seizing on a more statesmanlike grand or rhetorical presentation that can inspire people and make them feel that they're being led by people who have their eye on more important constitutional issues. I'm thinking that what drew me in or draws me in is somebody like, for example, Michelle Obama saying when they go low, we go high. You don't have to get into what one of your callers terms niche issues. I think if you have a banner issue like when they go low, we go high, who is going to say, "No, we should stay low," or when you have someone like Adam--
Kai: Just to interrupt you for a second, Lauren, and to gather what you're saying here. You're saying, no, don't take the bait in these fights, stick to big statesmanlike issues?
Lauren: Well, I'm saying that the small, I don't want to say smaller, but the specific issues I think come under various banners. For example, if you are like Adam Schiff, if you're going to have a platform which is "Truth Matters", then you can go from "Truth Matters" as a rallying cry, appealing to people's highest integrity. Then from there, you can go to, "Well, why should we be dishonest when talking about slavery? Why should we be dishonest--"
Kai: I'm going to stop you, Lauren. I think I got the gist of it, just for time, but I appreciate it. Start big and then tie everything together as one. That's a little bit I think what I heard, John, you saying about the school boards. Let's go to John in Shelton, Connecticut. John, welcome to the show.
John: Yes. Hi. For work, I travel all over the country and I work with a lot of people who would identify as conservative and Republican. From their perspective, what I see continuously is the Democrats fail to speak to them. The Democrats can't reach them. They come across as elitist tooks. All this talking, we're still not reaching the people you need to reach.
Kai: Thank you, John. Let's hear from Donna in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Donna, welcome to the show.
Donna: Hi. I liked when Biden recently spoke to teachers and said, "Those are your children." We need more aggressive leaders, as your guest is saying, that's going to teach these kids at the ground level. The Don't Say Gay bill has to be abolished because five-year-olds are so malleable. We have to teach them that they are, yes, the stain of slavery and they are the oppressors. We also have to teach them about transgenderism and they have a right to choose their gender early because these are future voters.
We can't have Republican parents teaching them otherwise because in school I learned about [unintelligible 00:47:07] and I never use it. When you're out in the world and you're dealing with people, you're going to have to learn how to deal with people from other races, people from other genders, it has to start early.
Kai: Donna, thank you. John, we're right up against it here, but to tie all of these together, one of the things that keeps coming up is like, "What's a big issue and what's a niche issue? What's universal and what's only for a particular population?" As one person tweeted at me, "How is race, niche?" Also, with the elitism point, I feel like a lot of times when I hear that, when I hear people say, "Oh, these are elite things," there's a subtext there that if you're talking about your identity, it's somehow elitism. Just respond to those things for me here in the last couple of minutes we've got.
John Nichols: I'll give you the simplest answer. Bernie Sanders who voted for every gay rights bill, who had a history in the civil rights movement, blah, blah, blah, you run down the list, voted against the war in Iraq, voted against Patriot Act, went out to a lot of rural and small towns in America and drew crowds and actually carried places like Indiana in rural Wisconsin as a presidential candidate. The fact of the matter is that you can speak to people in a lot of places and it can work. That's just the one thing I'll say to John, who is worried about not connecting to people.
I think that at the heart of the matter here is what Lauren was talking about. I do think that Democrats don't speak very often in poetry. They don't speak with that elevated statesmanlike exquisite language that frankly, the best political figures have always been able to master. The fact is that if you look at the history of it, often political figures who speak in these very powerful ways are speaking about an individual incident.
I'll quickly close with the notion that my book focuses on Henry Wallace, the former vice president of the United States, who when there was a race riot in Detroit, instead of avoiding it, he flew to Detroit to talk about it during the course of World War II. People said there are bigger issues, you should talk about other things. The fact of the matter is he was talking about exactly the right issue at exactly the right time. The fact is, if you do it, I think you can have a great deal of political resonance.
Kai: We've got to stop. John Nichols is the national correspondent for The Nation magazine. Thank you so much for your time, John.
Thanks to everybody who called and tweeted at us. If we didn't get to you, do keep chiming in. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com, and I will talk to you next week. The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Sound designed by Jared Paul. Matthew Mirando was at the boards for the live show. Wayne Shulmister makes the podcast version. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, Kousha Navidar, and a warm welcome to our brand new producer, Rahima Nasa. I'm Kai Wright.
You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright. Of course, you can catch the live version of the show every Sunday at 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
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