Bait the Nation
MICAH LOEWINGER Hey, On the Media, listeners, this is OTM correspondent Micah Loewinger. This week's show is coming up in just a second. But first, lend me your ear for like a moment.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUDS HOST AND GUEST]
MICAH LOEWINGER It's time for On the Media trivia. With me today is On the Media's intern, Juwayriah Wright. Juwayriah, welcome.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Hi, thanks for having me.
MICAH LOEWINGER OK, so where are you? I'm going to ask you three trivia questions, and if you're able to get at least two correct, you will win, a hat, hand-crocheted by the one and only – Brooke Gladstone, How's that sound?
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT I don't own a single hat, so I would love to be christened with Brooke's hat.
MICAH LOEWINGER OK, first question.
[TENSE MUSIC BEGINS]
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Mm-Hmm.
MICAH LOEWINGER Who was the original host of On the media? A) Brian Lehrer B) Alex Jones, C) Rex Burlington or D) Satirius Johnson?
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Huh, I'm just going to go with D) Satirius Johnson because I like the name.
MICAH LOEWINGER Oow, Juwayriah, I'm sorry to say that is incorrect.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Oh no.
MICAH LOEWINGER The right answer was B) Alex Jones.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Wow.
MICAH LOEWINGER Not that Alex Jones, a different Alex Jones.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT OK, presumably, so – yeah.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's still possible to win the hat. OK, second question. What is the name of Brooke's cat? A) Shlomo B) Gibraltar, C) Mendel or D) Schrodinger
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Schrodinger sounds like a fun name for a cat, but I'm going to have to go with C) Mendel.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's correct. Nicely done. Can we get a round of applause?
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Thank you.
MICAH LOEWINGER That was a bit of a gimme, because I'm pretty sure you've met Mendel.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Oh yeah, I've chased Mendel before.
MICAH LOEWINGER I was going to give you a really hard time if you didn't get that right. OK, third and final question. Who is the smartest producer on our staff? A) Leah Feder, B) Eloise Blondiau, C) Rebecca Clark-Callender, or D). Micah Loewinger
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT You know what, I'm really going to get in trouble for this, aren't I?
MICAH LOEWINGER Think carefully about this one.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT I'm I guess I'm going to have to go with D) Micah Loewinger
MICAH LOEWINGER Juwayriah, I am flattered, but that is not the correct answer.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Oh no.
MICAH LOEWINGER The correct answer was all of the above. Juwayriah, come on. Geez.
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT I was just trying to get points from you.
MICAH LOEWINGER Better luck. Next time you got one out of three, correct. Okay, folks. She did not get enough questions correct, but we'll be giving her a hat anyway.
[Audience 'aw's' at the generosity]
JUWAYRIAH WRIGHT Thank you. Thank you.
MICAH LOEWINGER And fortunately for you, Juwayriah, and everyone listening at home, this is not the last time you can flex your On the Media knowledge. Because on December 7th, we will be hosting an On the Media trivia night. Our whole team's going to be there. It's going to be fun and funny and stimulating, and there's going to be some pretty sweet prizes. All you need to do to get an invite to the event, which will be on Zoom, is become a sustaining member. If you've never donated before, it really just takes a minute. Go to onthemedia.org and hit the support button or text the letters 'O-T-M' to 70101, again 'O- T-M' to the number 70101. Those sustaining donations, you know, 10, 12, 20 bucks a month. That's the money that keeps the show on air. That's the money that powers our journalism. It's really, really important. And if you're already an OTM sustainer, thank you so much. We'll be emailing you an invite to join us for trivia. So stay tuned and enjoy the show.
REPUBLICAN BLOVIATOR Inflation, perhaps more accurately called Biden, inflation is climbing at the highest rate in 13 years [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For pundits and politicians on the right. There's a new term to describe rising prices. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also this week how school board elections became ground zero for the fight over the American narrative and who at least for now, is winning
ADAM HARRIS After election night. A lot of the votes were tallied. What they found was the sort of anti-CRT candidates, only won about 25 percent of the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, when we shift the story, we tell about our present. We shift what's possible for the future. Just look how far we've come and how fast...
ALAN JENKINS Welcoming immigrants in the south, making marriage equality a reality. Those were all the result of persuasion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. If you're a person who buys things, then you've probably noticed things cost more these days...
NEWS REPORT From the gas station to the grocery store. Americans are struggling with rising prices and historic inflation.
NEWS REPORT Prices on just about everything are soaring and consumer patience is waning.
NEWS REPORT Inflation is taking a bite out of people's paychecks, particularly for middle and lower income Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The annual consumer price index rose more than six percent in the past year, the largest year to year increase since 1990. The cause of this inflationary jump and chatter about how long it will last. A red meat for the bloviating class. And if you're a Republican bloviator, you know where to direct your blast.
REPUBLICAN BLOVIATOR And now we see Biden inflation. All the money you've worked for in your life is worth less.
REPUBLICAN BLOVIATOR Mr. President, the inflation we're seeing, Biden-flation, as I call it, is here to stay so long as those on the left continue to jam through reckless tax and spend bills [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE seems blaming Biden's working. The Washington Post published a poll last week that found almost half of Americans believe Biden deserves quote a great deal or a good amount of the blame for rising prices.
NEWS REPORT Those worries are at least in part responsible for President Biden's approval rating, dropping to the lowest point of his presidency. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released a new report estimating that the bill could add 367 billion to the federal budget deficit over the next decade. But according to John Cassidy, staff writer at The New Yorker, the coverage often fails to tell us what those numbers really mean. John, welcome back to the show.
JOHN CASSIDY Thanks a lot for inviting me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last week, the Labor Department said that prices rose by 6.2 over the last 12 months. That's the largest increase, they say, in decades. So what exactly contributes to that number?
JOHN CASSIDY The inflation rate is an average of all the prices in the economy that consumers face. The biggest factors in this 6.2 percent jump have been mostly goods and services affected by the pandemic. New cars and trucks and car rentals, especially cars, are basically like, you know, mobile computers these days. They can't build the cars without the computer chips. A lot of the semiconductor factories are in Asia. Some of them are being closed down by COVID. That's the main driver of what's happening. Plus the cost of gasoline and fuel oil. Now, obviously, when the pandemic started, demand collapsed around the world because it's difficult to drive your car if you're locked in your house. 2021, the whole world has been reopening. The demand for all sorts of fuel oil has skyrocketed. And at the same time, OPEC, the cartel of oil producers, has kept production pretty steady. So you've got pretty much a constant flow of oil, a massive increase in demand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So is any of this Biden's fault? What is the GOP's argument simply that the government spending too much money?
JOHN CASSIDY First, presidents always get the blame when the economy goes south and credit when it does well, even if it's got little or nothing to do with them. But having said that, what are the merits of Republican arguments? And I think most are pretty weak. They say things like, well, should have anticipated the supply chain problems and acted earlier. It took him to the summer to get on to it, which isn't actually true. We set up a working group back in February to look into it. Right wing talk radio, they say, well, he just collapsed American oil production by stopping pipelines, et cetera. That's not true. American oil production hasn't gone down. It's just not going up enough to make up the shortage between supply and demand. Spending argument, of course, is their third one, and they say the rescue package, back in February. The American Rescue Act, which was part two of the big pandemic stimulus, was too big. But they don't really make that one too strenuously because they passed a big stimulus package the year before, you know, the Trump pandemic relief package. And the fact is, both of those packages were very necessary to basically prevent the wholesale economic collapse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of the analysis says that the Trump administration and the Biden administration were trying not to repeat the mistakes of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to do too little in the face of the 2008 economic collapse.
JOHN CASSIDY That's exactly right. I think most economists on both sides of the political divide now agree that the stimulus program post 2008-2009, that financial crisis, was too small to bring about a rapid recovery. They prevented a wholesale financial collapse, but overall growth was very slow for a half a decade or so. So I think there is a consensus that we didn't know enough last time. This time we've got this terrible shock to the. Let's go big, make sure that we give people enough money to survive and to keep the factories running. And that worked. I remember at the start of this recovery when people talked about a V-shaped recovery, I was pretty skeptical. Sounded like sort of happy talk. But actually, we if you look at a chart of employment or output, there was a much more rapid rebound than most economists expected. And that plays into the whole inflation picture because basically what's happened is demand and the amount of money in the economy has come back a lot quicker than expected, whereas supply, the output of goods and services and especially imported goods, has come back a lot more slowly than we hoped. And that, together with slower than expected rebound in the labor force in the U.S., has put upward pressure on inflation. So you could make the argument that policies introduced were responsible. But the flip side of that is that they're responsible because they've been so successful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk now specifically about the labor side of this. Unemployment seems way lower than many predicted it would be this early in the pandemic, but at the same time, we're in the middle of what some people are calling the great resignation. People quitting in droves.
JOHN CASSIDY I think there's two sides to this. The great resignation is basically taking place in the in the low wage economy, especially in restaurants, retailing warehouses. Because of a shortage of labor, people who work in those industries for the first time in decades have now got outside options. They can go somewhere else down the street, which is off, maybe offering a dollar or two higher, or other industries desperate to hire workers. And you know, you might get a 20, 30, 40 percent pay raise. So that's putting upward pressure on wages. And that explains why there's a lot of vacancies. The other side of it, which doesn't get covered as much, which I think is equally important in the overall picture, is that a lot of people are still, for various reasons, reluctant to return to the labor force because of how COVID has changed their lives. A lot of these people are older. I've seen some statistics which suggest that up to half of the people who left the labor force during COVID are aged 55 and over. And that doesn't seem to be rebounding. Now, the Republicans say it was because of higher unemployment benefits. You're paying people to stay at home. That's the reason why we haven't had a rebound in labor supply. On the face of it, you might think that's a plausible argument. But if you look at the actual data, what you find is both in the states that got rid of expanded unemployment benefits earlier, they didn't recover any faster in terms of employment than the states, which kept the higher benefits. And since August and September, when they expanded, benefits lapsed all over the country, the proponents of the benefits of the problem argument said we should see a big rebound in labor supply, and that just hasn't happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So we're talking about people who work in famously underpaid and without sufficient benefits.
JOHN CASSIDY Exactly. Low paid people casualised labor. For the first time in decades, the whip hand in the labor employer relationship is not all in the hands of the employer. That's the upside of the current situation, which doesn't get nearly enough coverage. But when wages go up, companies may take a slight cut in their profit margin. But the first thing they'll do is try to raise prices and see if there's any resistance, and that pushes up the inflation rate. The big question in all of this stuff is whether it's just a one off increase because of the pandemic related dysfunctions in the economy or whether it's going to just keep going up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, there's more to the economic picture than just inflation. How does this story change when you factor in things like unemployment or wage growth or reducing child poverty?
JOHN CASSIDY Yeah, well, that's another very good question, obviously, inflation is just, you know, one economic statistic. And to the extent the wages keep up with inflation, it's not a particularly important one to say the average person. If the inflation rate is five percent and your wages are going up five percent and inflation is not really a problem to you. What we see in a moment is that wages are not going up as fast as prices. As a result, real wages have actually fallen over the last year. The average, I mean again, averages disguise a lot of variance. But the average hourly wage is down 1.2 percent of last year. Now, at the same time, lots of other statistics in the economy are positive. We've had a huge fall in the unemployment rate over the last 18 months. You also see, as you mentioned, a large fall in the child poverty rate. That's due to the program, which was introduced as part of the Rescue Act, families, particularly low income and middle income families, get checks every month of 250 or $300 now for each child they have. That's had a huge impact on child poverty. In any sort of reasonable assessment of how the economy's doing, you'd have to say that's a big success.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We keep hearing endlessly that the economy is a disaster, but most people are saying their financial situation is good.
JOHN CASSIDY Well, pollsters ask people, How do you think the economy's going to fare over the next year? And 60 or 70 percent of respondents said it's going to get worse? Now, in the same poll, they ask people, How are your own personal finances? And you had a majority saying that personally they were doing pretty well and that they expected their finances to be fine over the next year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So I think there's a political messaging issue then.
JOHN CASSIDY Some people blame the media and say it's all your fault for focusing on inflation. You should be focusing on the drop in child poverty. Inflation is the real issue, et cetera. I think that goes too far. When you get a headline inflation rate, which is 6.2 percent the highest in 30 years. That's a news story, you can't expect the media not to cover that. But you do have to place it in the context of this extraordinary pandemic we've had, which has upended all sorts of different economic relationships.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One thing that's heartbreaking for me and I think terrible for the economy, is that in making the cuts to the Build Back Better plan to bring in Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Cinema, the quote moderate Democrats, they're going to be cutting the plans for affordable housing. Evictions are still happening. Rents are soaring. The knock on effects to the economy of homelessness, even beyond the incalculable issue of individual misery. I just think it's so shortsighted.
JOHN CASSIDY What we are forgoing is programs which would improve people's lives, and that's not going to happen. The question is, is it not going to happen for good reasons or is it not going to happen for bad reasons? The economic argument is pretty one sided here. We can afford to spend a little bit more on these programs, even at three point five trillion. The figure itself is misleading because it's over 10 years. Divide by 10, you're talking about $350 billion a year. You know, we got a 22- 23 trillion dollar economy here now. So you're talking between 1- 2 percent of GDP here. You're not talking 5-10 percent of GDP in the United States can afford to spend that much if it wants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You referenced one of my bete noirs, which is the emphasis on this trillion dollar number, which you put into clear perspective. You have to divide it by 10 over the 10 years, and then you have to look at the 350 billion annual number against the annual economy and you find it's no more than 2 percent. The number 3.5 trillion we hear all the time, what it means, we almost never do.
JOHN CASSIDY Yeah, I mean, that's I mean, as you can probably tell from my accent, I come from the U.K. and that's always struck me. I don't know where it comes from. When did American economics coverage start to get cast in terms of 10 year budget windows? Because it is very misleading. If you're cast in terms of a 10 year budget window, you should cast it in terms of a 10 year window too. So instead of looking at a 22.2 trillion dollar economy, we should look at a 220 trillion dollar economy, which is what it would be over 10 years, and that's without any growth. Factoring growth. You're probably talking about a 300 trillion dollar economy in other countries. You don't get it, but for whatever reason, here, all spending plans are reported and argued about in terms of 10 year windows, because that's how the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Congressional Committee score things. But in terms of how it impacts people's lives and how it relates to the sustainability of these programs and the ability of the government to afford them, it's actually very misleading because as you say, people see these huge figures of three point five trillion and it just plays in to this sort of argument that all these politicians, you just tax and spending and they don't know what they're doing and they're going to bankrupt the country, et cetera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So to conclude, what do you think that people need to hold in their head about all the economic coverage they're seeing?
JOHN CASSIDY One of the problems is that most people get their news from TV and TV news generally doesn't cover economics at all. Being an old timer these days, I guess I'd call myself. I still watch the evening news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow, are you 107?
JOHN CASSIDY Well, the reason I do it is just to try and see what the median voter or whatever is seeing every evening. And what you find if you watch the evening news is that economics only ever really is reported when it's bad news. It basically has to be a terrible jobs figure, or the inflation spike we've seen. That will lead the coverage. Stories about rising disposable income as a result of the stimulus packages, how it's kept businesses open or how the child tax credit is reducing child poverty don't appear on TV. So the problem and economic coverage is similar to in all sorts of other areas. Mass market coverage is very different to the elite coverage. How you break through all that, I'm afraid, is above my pay grade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John, thank you very much.
JOHN CASSIDY Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995, where he writes regularly about politics and economics.
So that's our first segment in an episode that turned out to be about persuasion. What works, what doesn't and why. Up next, sorting through the arguments that are supposedly about, but really aren't, what's called, but really isn't, critical race theory in schools. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. After this month's off-year elections, reporters and pundits quickly landed on a theme.
NEWS REPORT They got their butts whooped. They lost everywhere, a critical race theory and what's going on in our schools. They lost the governorship of Virginia, almost lost the governorship of New Jersey.
NEWS REPORT Republicans have been very eager to run on culture war issues, and we saw them be fairly successful at running on things like schools and critical race theory. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Critical race theory was fervently embraced by conservatives looking to stir up voters, especially white voters with kids, to make the phrase a mover, a hobgoblin, a specter haunting the homeland. Virginia's now governor elect Glenn Youngkin, was one of many to pepper the closing months of his run with warnings of the harm posed by CRT.
GLENN YOUNGKIN We've watched critical race theory come into our schools and try to divide our children based on seeing everything through a lens as opposed to the content of their character. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And even before Election Day, state legislatures across the country passed laws to limit what kids could be taught in school.
NEWS REPORT The critical race theory movement in the headlines as Florida becomes the latest state to ban schools from teaching about systemic racism.
NEWS REPORT The Texas Senate passed a controversial piece of legislation that would actually prevent teachers from discussing polarizing social issues in class, like critical race theory. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ironically, the use of the legal system to dictate how kids learn about our racial history, is something that true critical race theory as opposed to the boogeyman would neatly explain. But the academic idea at the root of this debate is hardly ever taught below the college level, meaning that the thing actually getting banned or campaigned against isn't the theory, but the history it was created to explain.
ADAM HARRIS We're not talking about potential elimination of a academic theory, right? We're talking about a chill on free speech more broadly that discusses race in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Earlier this year, he walked us through the emergence of the term critical race theory as a tactic to freeze rather than frame discussions of America's past and present race problem. Now, we wanted to find out how much impact that strategy had, not just on the bigger campaigns but on the fundamental level of curricula and school boards.
ADAM HARRIS Ballotpedia, which tracks elections, covered an average of something like 23 recall efforts against 52 school board members each year. But this election, they were tracking 84 efforts against 215 school board officials. That was incredibly unusual, and after election night, a lot of the votes were tallied. What they found was the sort of anti CRT candidates, only won about 25 percent of the time. And in several of these cases, they were single districts where some of the candidates won multiple seats. So if you were to look at Virginia and try to just pull things out of just Virginia, then you're going to get a very different story than if you're looking at the sort of national picture. For example, if you look at a place like Wisconsin and Mequon-Theinsville's school district in Wisconsin. 4 of the 7 school board members there stood to be recalled this year. They had thrown about $50,000 into the campaign to eliminate these 4 school board members. And when the dust had settled on, all the votes were tallied, each of the school board members that stood to be recalled won their seats back with almost about 60 percent of the vote
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what are typically low turnout events became high turnout events.
ADAM HARRIS One of the members that stood to be recalled in Wisconsin when she was first elected in 2014, she received about 2300 votes in total. This year, she received about 6800 votes, which is almost the exact same amount as the total votes in the entire race, back in 2014, when she was first elected. People actually voted in large numbers in support of keeping schools about schools.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Back in September, we talked to Rick Hasen. He's a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, and one of the things he said always gets less coverage is when experienced election officials leave driven out by the wrath of angry constituents. And I couldn't help but notice that in your piece, you also mentioned school board members who didn't lose elections, but they just left out of sheer frustration or even fear.
ADAM HARRIS Yes, in Minnesota, there's something like 70 members who had retired or resigned since August 2020–
BROOKE GLADSTONE and that's an unusual number?
ADAM HARRIS That's an incredibly unusual number. Typically, you see about, you know, fewer than 20 of those departures. In Wisconsin, you saw 3 school board members who left, citing animosities that they've been feeling. Feeling like they weren't able to to conduct the work of their board. Down in Arizona, there was a case of a school board member who had been elected just last year, who said that if she had not just been elected to the school board, she would not have run again. In Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, a school board member who had voted to require masks for students resigned because he had received threats and there was a vehicle that he observed sitting outside of his house. So people who are generally interested in serving their communities may not be willing to do that under such duress if this sort of heightened tension around schools continues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I wonder, and I don't know if he did the math on this, but did those departures offset the wins by candidates who say they are talking about the impact of race in history or literature?
ADAM HARRIS It's hard to tell because some of the departures came in a period where school boards were able to appoint new members. In Robbinsdale, Minnesota, for example, one of the school board members who had been on the school board for something like six years, she resigned. But the timing of her resignation meant that they were able to appoint another member of the school board to serve out the rest of her term. And so what you will have is those appointed school board members coming up for reelection or fresh elections. And so, you know, a lot of people are worried that leading into 2022 and future elections, those seats that will come open may be occupied by those candidates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You spoke to William G. Howell, who's the editor of Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, and he told you these are often the places where the political rubber meets the road.
ADAM HARRIS Historically, schools and school boards and these sort of meetings are places where people can go to make their voices heard. And it's been where America has really sorted out issues of race, of class, of immigration and citizenship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And why?
ADAM HARRIS Because they're sort of the base level. If you're thinking about things like segregation that gets sorted out in Brown v. Board of Education and their students, their children who ultimately end up moving into these previously segregated spaces.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But there's also the accessibility of a school board meeting, right? I mean, you can actually be heard by someone. I mean, there's even a remote possibility that you could have an impact.
ADAM HARRIS Yes, when you are trying to talk to a public official, it is going to be a lot easier to talk to your school board member when you can go to a meeting at your local middle school or your local high school, or if there's a county office where they hold their meetings, you can go to that school board meeting. There's an open public comment session and you can have your voice heard. In a way that you can't with your local Congress member in the way that you can't with your governor. And so people feel that schools are a place where they can go and have that conversation with a public official in a way that will affect change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, you've been sitting in on a lot of school board meetings recently.
ADAM HARRIS Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you give me an example where you saw this kind of thing play out?
ADAM HARRIS Yeah, so I went to a school board meeting recently in Michigan, where for about an hour and a half, you heard just kind of the general stuff that you would typically hear at a school board meeting. They honored some National Merit semifinalists, they showed a video of kids in the classroom who were wearing their masks. They do all of this, they go over the budget audit for the district, it shows that the district is on a pretty financially sound footing. They move to the part of the meeting where there is the public comment. That's when it just sort of goes off the rails. And you have people who are standing up and talking about Dr. Fauci and following the money and the corruption that is happening on the board. You have people talking about a manipulated image that had been shown in a classroom of a white board that the board had already discussed and said was not an accurate depiction of what the teacher had been showing, but effectively that period of the meeting lasted for about 30 minutes. If that part of the meeting becomes the primary part of the meeting. Then you have to worry about what that function of this really bedrock of democracy ends up being.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So historically, does the public servant prevail or do the angry voices?
ADAM HARRIS Historically, what you've seen is there's a sort of leveling out. But I was speaking with Joseph Viteritti, a political science at Hunter College, who, you know, really studies education, politics. And, you know, oftentimes if we're living through a moment that feels new, there is always the tendency to think that it is different than it has been historically. But he's been studying this for a long time, and what he told me was this a moment actually does feel new. This moment does feel like we're in uncharted territory, in part because people are operating in, pretty legitimately, different realities. And so when you think about school boards as a sort of ground zero for the larger debates when you were having those debates on two different playing fields, you know, you're not even playing the same sport when you're having those debates. That environment, the sort of partisan environment, mixed with the fears that people have for their children just creates a really sort of toxic cocktail that is really kind of a new thing in an unprecedented moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So we see politics trickle down to school boards because school boards are accessible, but not every debate seems to make it. For instance, inflation is a big, confusing topic right now, but I haven't seen people yelling about how it's being taught to students. What makes the coopted critical race theory idea such a powder keg
ADAM HARRIS At a very fundamental level, the sort of current battle over the way that history and literature are taught in school is about culture. It's about the stories that we tell ourselves about who and what America is and what America can be – right? Is it this sort of rosy image of unfettered progress that starts with the Constitution and moves on to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment moves forward again to, you know, the Civil Rights Act and broad equality and the end of segregation. And then you have a black president which proves that you're in a post-racial America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Done and done.
ADAM HARRIS Done and done. Yeah, you kind of, you know, wipe your hands and call it a day. Or is it in the sort of messy details and understanding the ways that slavery and segregation has imbued the laws and continues to affect the America that we live in today? And so at a very fundamental level like that is about teaching like what children learn about going forward. It is about controlling the narrative of our culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not just children, but your children who could be turned against you.
ADAM HARRIS Yes. And when you play up that fear, even if it's not a realistic fear, right? Like the first grade, second graders are not learning this like really intense version of history, right? Even if it is not grounded in fact, people fear for their children. It is a natural thing to do. Historically, right, there has been a large push to control the narrative of American history in placement. The Lost Cause was a push to control the narrative of history and the South's place in it. After integration, there was a push to control the narrative of what was taught about segregation. This is not unrelated or unlike those previous pushes. But as I mention, kind of what is different is at a very base level, there's an argument happening on different playing fields.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where do you see all this headed? And how do we cover it?
ADAM HARRIS It's difficult to say right where it is headed specifically, but one of the key things to do is at the very beginning in coverage defining what we are talking about. So when you're talking about CRT, as it's kind of currently understood, not in the sort of traditional academic language, then we should lay bare the fact that it is not the legal study, but rather the catchall for the range of concerns about how schools teach history and literature, and that it is part of this broader kind of cultural conversation. To say that, oh, we're not teaching CRT in schools is not sufficient to establish at the beginning in stories as you're covering it what it is you're actually talking about. When you're saying CRT, what do you actually mean? And then to press on that question is incredibly important. But beyond that, I think that to draw sort of broad narratives from one instance by which I would mean Virginia. Folks should really work to examine what is happening more broadly across the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how important is the school in this whole trajectory?
ADAM HARRIS It's incredibly important when you think about what schools are and what they provide public schools in particular for the future. It is the education of the next generation of Americans. And so, you know, you see why people want to control the narrative in those spaces because it is creating the next class of politicians. Creating the next class of teachers, its creating a class of lawyers and doctors. And so, you know, they are incredibly critical and it's important that folks of all stripes kind of recognize that and keep the business of schools about school.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much, Adam.
ADAM HARRIS Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the book. The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal and How to Set Them Right.
Coming up, a man who spent decades assessing modes of persuasion on what actually does work and could work even now. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Adam Harris describes the battles taking place over the American story everywhere, from newspapers to school boards to classrooms. The people engaged in these battles know that to the narrative victors go the spoils. And so they're giving it all they've got. But they're far from the first people to wage this kind of battle. Alan Jenkins is a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communications lab. He says that those deep in the work of narrative shifting understand that it's not just about knowing what story you want to convey, it's also about knowing when that story needs to change.
ALAN JENKINS I became the director of human rights at the Ford Foundation three weeks before September 11th, 2001, and so the narrative of the decency and dignity of every person and why torture is wrong. Those stories fell flat. The stories that were effective on September 10th were no longer effective in a society and to some extent, a world that was now afraid. Afraid of the other, afraid of people from other countries, afraid of harm. And so we really had to go back to the drawing board and tell a new story. But that works in both directions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How all those people home because of the pandemic watched the killing of George Floyd.
ALAN JENKINS Exactly. Speaking here, especially of people who are not black. Because of the terrible and televised murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, we now see increased understanding and openness to the story of systemic racial bias and injustice. The everyday biases that we all carry around. That is a big change over a very short period of time. It's about events, but it's also about the largest outpouring of activism and movement participation in our nation's history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that narrative change is about reaching agreements. We've been talking about how hard that is. What do you mean?
ALAN JENKINS I can walk into any room in America and say that we need systems that keep all communities safe and that uphold the values of equal justice and accountability. And I've said that in rooms filled with police officers with movement for Black Lives activists, with swing voters. I never get pushback on that statement, right, because it articulates values that we all share. Then we're going to have to fight about. Well, does the system currently uphold those values and what are the right alternatives? But once you've framed it in terms of those shared values and outcomes, you already have brought people together in a way to work through how to achieve them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But isn't the devil in the detail?
ALAN JENKINS If we are arguing about the details, that's productive democracy. It's when we're walking in alternative realities that I think we're going to have a hard time coming together as a nation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about semantics. You've described a particular sleight of hand involved in the invention of the term tax relief. Here's former Congressman Paul Ryan in 2012.
MICAH LOEWINGER President Bush delivered broad tax relief for all Americans because he understands that people, not government, start the businesses and create the jobs that drive our economy.
ALAN JENKINS Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has pointed out that a relief frame is an affliction. So the hero is the person who protects you from the affliction. The villain is the person who imposes that on you. The taxpayer in this instance is the victim. And so going from tax cuts to tax relief actually introduced a moral component. Democrats blindly just repeated that tax relief phrase to their detriment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Democrats have not been so successful as Republicans in this regard.
ALAN JENKINS Democrats are terrible at narrative and framing. We're seeing this now, despite an environment in which the safety net programs and protections that President Biden is trying to advance should be at their highest level of receptivity. He's allowed the debate to devolve down to how many trillions of dollars. When your agenda is framed in terms of dollars, fewer dollars, it's always going to be better than more dollars. But by contrast, when it's about opportunity, are people going to have the opportunity to go work a decent job because they have? Paid family leave when they get sick, they have resources for child care. That's the story the Democrats should be telling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Capital punishment is an example of a discourse that has changed within the past couple of decades anyway. What was the shift in narrative there?
ALAN JENKINS For many, many years? Death penalty opponents were telling the story of abolition that the death penalty is wrong in all instances. It needs to be abolished the way slavery was abolished. It was clear in the 80s and 90s, that story was not being effective. The anti-death penalty community came together and began to tell a new story about the death penalty as a flawed system that threatened to execute innocent people. Now, that was controversial within the movement because those of us who opposed the death penalty oppose it in all instances. But the research and experience and the field testing made clear that that new story about the risk of executing the innocent would reduce support for the death penalty across the board. So they began to tell that news story and it began to work. DNA testing was freeing people from both death row and from prison generally, and so that helped to build momentum for that story. Both journalists and the Innocence Project have played a huge role in telling that story right through the exoneration of real people who've been wrongly convicted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your class, you teach about a Stanford study that showed how much a single word can change a frame of mind.
ALAN JENKINS It's a remarkable study by two scholars, Boroditsky and Thibideau. They had two identical groups of listeners in two separate rooms. They got the same crime statistics, but one group the metaphor of crime as a beast was used ravaging our city and decimating our population. And in the other group, the metaphor of a virus that's infecting our communities. And what they found was that people who got the virus metaphor were significantly more likely to recommend prevention and drug treatment and mental health treatment as a remedy for crime. And the people who got the beast metaphor were much more likely to recommend increased money for courts and police and incarceration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So we know that language choice can affect people's initial responses. Is there any evidence that shows it translating into long term shifts in opinion?
ALAN JENKINS The impact is lasting. You think about Ronald Reagan's mythical welfare queen. The underlying narrative that programs designed to help low income people actually do more harm than good because they somehow rob people of their self-discipline. You know, in the 1960s, at least in the early 60s, that was an absurd concept. But telling those stories over and over and over again has resulted in a significant shift not only of where the public is, where current policy is, but what's become acceptable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think the poster child for success on the left would probably be the current public outlook on marriage equality. I mean, it's almost a consensus. In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama said he wasn't pro-gay marriage. That wasn't even 15 years ago. How did activists move the needle so dramatically on this one?
ALAN JENKINS An early narrative from that movement was based on unequal rights and benefits. You should support same sex marriage as it was called, because look at all these rights and benefits that we don't have as gay and lesbian couples that straight couples have. That's unfair. And that just was not resonating with people, and it was causing a lot of straight folks to double down on the belief that, you know, straight people get married because of love and gay and lesbian couples get married because of rights and benefits. So number one, they rebranded and began to talk about marriage equality, and critically, they changed their narrative from give us equal access to rights and benefits to a narrative about love and commitment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE People were persuaded by a straight forward positive message. What's easier, steering the public's mindset towards something positive or steering it towards something...scary?
ALAN JENKINS Fear tends to drive people towards more defensive and conservative responses. Often conservatives have that on their side, but if you're afraid and I show you a pathway out of that scary situation, and if part of that pathway is rooted in the values that we share, then you might be with me for life. Solutions and shared values are the best way to persuade people to find their better selves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in fact, it's a real art, and I wonder why the creation of a narrative sometimes is such a difficult thing.
ALAN JENKINS Two phrases that I often say to my students, they're probably tired of hearing it. One is a fish doesn't know it's in water. We swim in narratives all the time, and we can often fall into harmful narratives. But the other phrase is empathy is your superpower. So I'm a comic book geek, you know, and I have seen that really trying to understand people who don't agree with you is critical to persuading them to have in your own mind changed when you're wrong. A lot of people communicate to hear themselves talk or to vent, and there's a role for that. Sometimes you've just got to say what needs to be said. But really, listening to your audience is crucial to moving them to a new place and also to the possibility for compromise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of people say that there is no talking to these people. The only thing that can come of it is compromising your own principles. You say that you have to find your way to a shared story with the other person.
ALAN JENKINS Now people are complex and often will be outside of the glass in focus groups and hear people lurch from pretty hateful things to really hopeful, soulful things, and they're carrying around both of those stories in their head. Now some people are your opponents, they're working to undermine you, and it's very unlikely that you will ever persuade them. And as an advocate, that's not a place where you should be wasting your time. But that's not most people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how can we, as individuals, persuade? What are some lessons we can derive from those who created narratives that change the country?
ALAN JENKINS We should never leave an audience without giving them at least one thing that they can do to solve the problem that we've identified. And that's not a magic wand. But when we look at all of these successful efforts through the years, including the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, they all included those elements: listening, finding shared values, narratives, offering concrete solutions and giving our audiences actions that they can take to make things better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It reminds me of what Bryan Stevenson has tried to do in Montgomery, Alabama. If persuasion has a long term goal, it has to be about reimagining who we are, what our history is, as you mentioned, what our society can be. When he created that museum that traced the history of slavery and specifically lynching in this country, he reproduced the tombstone like objects that represented all of the known lynchings in America and has sought for the communities where they occurred to take the replicas and put them up to remind people of their history. So he sees history as a way to come to terms with who we are. Do you think that falls into the realm of persuasion?
ALAN JENKINS The debates that we're engaged in now about Confederate monuments or critical race theory, those are all throwbacks to earlier efforts to erase histories of discrimination and oppression. After the Civil War and reconstruction, when federal troops were removed from the South and the harsh regime of Jim Crow and lynchings have returned with a vengeance. You immediately saw Confederate veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy reinventing history textbooks to describe slavery as benign and the south as genteel and the Civil War as a war of northern aggression. And you see that same battle going on now. The idea that any discussion of past discrimination or oppression is something to be suppressed or censored. But you know, when you do that, it's like showing up in the middle of a movie. You're trying to understand what's happening and it is almost impossible. So for example, when you hear that our criminal justice system is racially discriminatory or that educational outcomes are unequal, but you have no idea what the first half of the movie was and that history of discrimination right up until today, then you can only conclude that this must be something wrong with the people. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have done a remarkable service to the country by making manifest aspects of our history that help to explain where we are today and where we need to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So persuasion in the long term involves redefining who we are and what we want to be.
ALAN JENKINS Understanding who we are and who we want to be as a nation, as a people in all of its fullness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And ultimately, you believe persuasion can work.
ALAN JENKINS I see persuasion work all the time on issues that seemed completely intractable. Welcoming immigrants in the south, making marriage equality a reality, moving away from mass incarceration in places where we seem to have been addicted to it. Even the legalization of marijuana in so many places that seemed unthinkable a decade or two ago. Those were all the result of persuasion, of telling a new story about right and wrong, about what we could be together. And so I remain hopeful that that can be done on the toughest issues of our time now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alan, thank you very much.
ALAN JENKINS Thank you. It's a pleasure, as always.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alan Jenkins is a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communications lab.
And that's this week's show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our show is edited by me and Katya. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week where Sam Bair and Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.