(First, the wild. Then a woodwind chord. A conductor taps their baton on a music stand, directing the orchestra of America: flickers of a kitchen conversation, a television dial, laughter, “Say Hello, America,” and a trumpet solo. Ducks honk in disagreement. The soundtrack to an old-timey romance movie swells. Then, silencing it all, a phone rings.)
Mike Belderrain: (In his voicemail message.) Hello, you’ve reached Mike Belderrain with Drilltech Mining and Tunneling. If you leave your name and your number, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks. (A beep.)
Julia Longoria: Hi, Mike! This is Julia Longoria, uh, from The Experiment. You might remember me from [A deep inhale, encompassing the time that passed.] like, over a year ago. We talked about the elk you shot in the ‘Zone of Death.’ [A light chuckle.]
Um, so I’m calling you, actually, because The Experiment—the show—is coming to an end. And we just wanted to see if you might answer a few questions, ’cause we’re figuring out how to [Another deep breath.] wrap up the show. [A brief, maybe nervous chuckle.] Um, hope you’re well. Thanks. (A different beep. The message is over.)
(In the cathedral of a summer night, crickets chirp and buzz. A church organ plays a melody that glows under an imagined ceiling of stars.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And it’s true: This show about our unfinished country is coming to an end.
The founding idea of our show was to take a look at our strange, sometimes beautiful, and often frustrating country.
We Americans have a habit of repeating the ideals of our democracy like a prayer. But, in practice, as we try to bring those ideals down to Earth, we have a way of making an epic mess of things.
Margarita Longoria: We’re all experimenting in our lives.
(The organ distorts, then dissolves. A repetitive beat bursts onto the scene.)
Peter Bresnan: (Over rustling sounds.) Honestly, there’s nothing that exhausts me like a low incline!
Tracie Hunte: Oh yeah? [Empathically.] Yes!
Bresnan: It’s brutal! (Laughs.)
(Over the beat, shimmering horns and rainsticks enter: the sounds of a journey.)
Longoria: And over the course of the last year or so, we’ve traveled across the U.S. and interviewed dozens of people who are doing small versions of that experiment in their own little corner of the country.
(A phone rings.)
Jollene Levid: Hello?
Hunte: Hi! This is Tracie.
Levid: Hi, Tracie! How are you?
Hunte: I’m okay! I feel like it’s been—
Levid: (Anticipating Hunte’s next words, kindly.) Been forever? (Levid gives a radiant laugh.)
Longoria: So before we say goodbye, we decided to call up some of the people we’ve fallen in love with while making this show.
Gabrielle Berbey: So, as you know, the show is ending.
Rayce Hardy: Boo! (Berbey laughs gently.)
Longoria: To zoom out for a second and tell us how their own version of the American experiment is going.
(The music echoes out into a reflective, empty space, then to quiet.)
Aséna Tahir Izgil: I’ve heard people, you know, like, they hate the government. And I’ve seen people who just love the government. (Fades under.)
Longoria: We called Aséna Izgil, a Uyghur refugee who came to the U.S. as a teenager, to ask her about her relationship to the country.
(As Izgil speaks, a soft resonant chord floats in and out.)
Izgil: It’s basically like a kid. You know? A love to a country is like a love to a kid. Now I treat the country like treating my brother.
Not, like, blindly criticize it, or not blindly love it—like, compliment it—but give it the most accurate comments and try to make it a better place.
So real love to a country is correcting its mistakes. Not blindly just—just love it.
You know, you love it. You definitely want it to be better. As long as the parents love them and they don’t leave them—mmm—and then they try to, like, you know, guide them to the right way.
Berbey: Do you have any thoughts on—on what she said? What do you think of that?
Yusuf Ahmed Nur: (Inhaling.) Well, you know, I—it’s an interesting, uh, analogy, comparing it to a child.
Ashley C. Ford: I think that, once upon a time, America had an ideal for itself.
Pastor Robin Lutjohann: And we keep talking about certain ideals with—with stars in our eyes almost. [Longoria laughs.] We think of it as something glorious and wonderful.
(Stars shine through the chords, a bright ringing.)
Hunte: Do you think we’re moving closer to the American ideal or further away from it?
Levid: (After a beat.) Ahhh …
Ahmed Nur: We become disillusioned because the country doesn’t love us back. Brace yourself to be disappointed.
Longoria: Yusuf Ahmed Nur served as a spiritual adviser to men on death row.
Ahmed Nur: Although I am loyal to this country and, in my own way, I love this country, at the same time, [Chuckles.] I know the reality. Um, everything that glitters is not gold.
(Dissonant, clunky strings pluck against an infrequent mechanical beat. Birds chirp in contrast.)
Hardy: I have great fears for things that I’m seeing around the country.
Longoria: That’s Rayce Hardy, the son of a meatpacker we met in Minnesota, who always carries a miniature Constitution in his pocket.
(Quietly, underneath Hardy’s words, the mechanical beat turns into a bell that rings out with grim regularity.)
Hardy: You know, truth is being completely ignored! Billionaires that are competing to fly up and down in space! And we have people that are allowed to restrict voting—going on right now! I mean, you gotta be kidding me!
Pastor Lutjohann: Even when … January 6—right?—the U.S. Capitol was stormed—ransacked—I kept hearing everybody say the word sacred, you know? Like, “The sacred building was violated.” And I was thinking, “Sacred?”
Longoria: The Lutheran pastor Robin Lutjohann is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Germany.
(The music fades out.)
Pastor Lutjohann: Here’s where I bring my German-ness to this, right? And, like all Germans, I’m raised with this deep skepticism about human ideals, and government institutions, and, uh—and any form of glorification of that.
And when I hear people talk about those great big marble buildings in Washington, D.C., as [Dramatically.] “temples of democracy,” I find that deeply disturbing.
(A resonant woodwind loops, stirring air around in circles.)
Pastor Lutjohann: Because when we idealize all of that, it becomes very difficult to critique it and move forward.
Jeff McIlvaine: You know, especially if you’re coming from a dictatorship, of course America—the idea—is great!
Longoria: Jeff McIlvaine’s brother Bobby was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
McIlvaine: I’m a science teacher. So when I teach about evolution, we haven’t been around long enough to say that “ope, the—the American experiment has been proven,” you know? When you talk about the survival of our species, it’s very possible that humans could end up killing ourselves and decimating the—the planet, and even though humans are great, if you fast-forward a hundred thousand years, it might be better to be, you know, a roach or something. [Laughs.]
(Over the sounds of a jungle, instead of a woodwind, a fluttering of insect wings.)
McIlvaine: Just speaking from an evolutionary standpoint. (Both McIlvaine and his interviewer laugh.)
(The music fades out.)
Alyssa Edes: If you were to burn it all to the ground [Ford chuckles.] and then rebuild it, what would you take from America as it is now? If—if anything?
Longoria: Ashley C. Ford wrote a memoir about growing up with an incarcerated father.
Ford: I love the imagination of America: the story of what could be. But everything else can go! [Both laugh. Ford’s laugh stands out: an open-mouthed laugh, bright, as good-humored as she is reflective.]
Everything else can go!
(A slightly funky music box plays over the sound of birds echoing in the distance.)
Berbey: Do you feel optimistic about where we’re headed as a country?
Hardy: (Laughing even before Berbey finishes asking the question.) Ahh well, I’m trying to—I’m trying to have hope!
Levid: I think to get up every morning and purposefully put yourself in front of folks who do not already agree with you takes a lot of optimism.
Longoria: Jollene Levid is an organizer working to protect Filipino nurses during the pandemic.
Levid: Like, I have to believe in both people’s and this country’s capacity to change, or else I wouldn’t be having hard conversations every day.
Pastor Lutjohann: Yeah, it’s, I—I’m hoping for a … a less idealistic, more human and more humane and brutally honest look at our country and its institutions. That would make me feel very hopeful. Because I think you can’t make progress without truth.
Ford: I’ve definitely, lately, been thinking, Do I need to get the hell out?
(With a downward rush of air—woomph—the music trembles and holds.)
Ford: Or I could just stick around and, every day, do a little bit more to push forward the kind of changes and the kind of progress that I would like to see available to the people around me.
(This hold is weird, a little alarming.)
Longoria: Being a citizen of a country is … an experiment.
(A meandering melody plays on a piano around a bumbling beat.)
Longoria: We strive to do better. We fail.
McIlvaine: We might find that it’s just not capable of working.
Longoria: We try to figure out where things go wrong—
Izgil: I feel optimistic about the situation. There might be mistakes. But I’m pretty sure we have the young generation who can fix it.
Longoria: —and try to make the country more perfect.
Hardy: The preamble—it goes, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …” So how do you know when you got a perfect union?
Longoria: To state the obvious, the country is never going to achieve perfection. [A little chuckle to herself.] We are far from it.
Ford: The country is the people. The people, the people.
(A lush flourish in the music.)
Ford: And the people are always worthy of grace. Always.
(The flourish repeats, bringing birdsong in with it.)
Longoria: It is worth trying to do right by each other.
(With one last flush, the music slowly fades to silence.)
Longoria: On our last reporting trip to Minnesota, one of the families we interviewed invited us to an annual tradition they have—
(Tractor sounds rumble to life just before the engine cuts out.)
RJ’s granddaughter: Hi, Grandpa!
RJ Bergstrom: Hi! How’s my favorite granddaughter?
Berbey: Okay. So what are they doing right now?
(With each of Longoria’s lines, children can be heard trying to wrangle the birds. Wings flutter, cages clatter, and children scream in surprise.)
Longoria: —where they raise pheasants from infancy—
Dedee Bergstrom: (Over the chirping of birds.) They’re letting them go, and this is where they hopefully will grow up, you know, and survive … (Fades)
Longoria: —and then release them into the wild.
RJ Bergstrom: Put ’em on the ground and chase ’em.
Berbey: Here. How about you show me how you let it go?
RJ’s son: What, am I supposed to say a prayer ’em every time?
RJ Bergstrom: You’re supposed to name ’em!
Berbey: What’s this one’s name? (A child screams.)
RJ Bergstrom: Julia.
Longoria: The Experiment was co-created and hosted by me, Julia Longoria.
RJ Bergstrom: You got any other people you work with? Their names?
Berbey: Let’s see, Katherine? (Laughs.)
RJ Bergstrom: Okay. There he goes.
Berbey: (Laughing.) Oh!
RJ Bergstrom: Okay! Who else you work with?
(A bittersweet piano melody plays, sparse and solemn, underneath the chaos of the bird-releasing tradition.)
Longoria: I dreamt up the show with Katherine Wells, Emily Botein, Alvin Melathe, and—
Longoria: —David Herman …
RJ Bergstrom: Okay, let’s see where he goes.
Berbey: That makes sense.
RJ Bergstrom: He pulls his own weight.
Berbey: That makes sense for him.
Dedee Bergstrom: (She laughs.) Oh! He spread his wings!
Berbey: Yeah, that really makes sense for him. (Laughs.)
Longoria: Our team has included some of the best in the business:
Berbey: Okay, that’s Tracie.
Longoria: Tracie Hunte …
RJ’s grandson: Tracie’s gonna fly high!
RJ Bergstrom: Holy! She’s going far in life! Look at that. [A beat, closer.] Who’s this? [A beat.] “Gabrielle.” Or you got a nickname?
Longoria: Gabrielle Berbey …
Longoria: Natalia Ramirez …
RJ Bergstrom: Okay, there she is. Oh, look, she’s going back to the roost! Oh look at her go! Is she a troublemaker? [A pause, looking for the answer.] She is? [Laughs.] Who else you got to work with?
(The birds and the Bergstroms fade away.)
Longoria: Alyssa Edes, Peter Bresnan, Hannis Brown, Matt Collette, Meg Cramer, Salman Ahad Khan, Alina Kulman, Jenny Lawton, Michael May, Jennifer Munson, Joe Plourde, and Kelly Prime.
Our music was by Tasty Morsels, Nelson Nance, Hannis Brown, Joe Plourde, and Alex Overington.
Our weekly transcriptions were by Caleb Codding.
This episode was fact-checked by Sam Fentress.
Our show art is by Nicolás Ortega.
Special thanks to so many people at WNYC and The Atlantic for giving us the room and resources to make this show sing every week. And another special thanks to the writers for filling each week with incredible journalism.
Longoria: And thank you for listening.
(Bringing back the ambience of the pheasant release.)
RJ Bergstrom: Now we just carry on with our lives; let’s go.
Berbey: Oh, it just pooped.
Dedee Bergstrom: And we’re done.
(The piano plays a few final notes. With the soft lift of the sustain pedal, the last chord carries into the air for a few more seconds, then is gone.)