Amy: It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway. As 2021 is down and we prepare for the inauguration of a new president, I wanted to revisit a few conversations we've had on the show that really stood out to me. The first is from back in May, still relatively early in the pandemic, but at the point where few things were clear, we're going to be social distancing for quite some time to come and masks were the key to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
It was also clear that opinions about mask-wearing and the restrictions put in place at the state level all across the country were extremely partisan. I had been feeling very unsatisfied with the way in which politics in the time of a pandemic had been covered. We had a lot of data about what Americans thought about how their political leaders were or weren't handling the crisis, and what activities they were and weren't comfortable doing. We were lacking the ambiguity and internal conflict that so many people were and still are feeling.
I wanted to understand not just what people say they're worried or not worried about, but how people assess risk, and how their political leanings factor into all of it. I also wanted to understand how a pandemic something that theoretically should be a national unifier is dividing us along familiar political lines. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. He's also the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He spent a lot of time thinking about what brings us together and what drives us apart.
Jonathan: There's a lot of evidence, not just from history, but even from social psychology experiments, that an attack by a foreign adversary binds people together, draws them together. There's research by Joe Henrich at Harvard and others that even people whose countries were at war when they were teenagers, they're more cooperative in economic games 20 years later. Foreign attack we know has this powerful effect, but this is not a foreign attack.
Conversely, a pandemic historically doesn't bring people together. It makes them afraid of each other. There's sources of contagion, and especially if there's starvation, then it's really zero-sum game. Thank God, we're not starving and this disease is not so deadly so this is not a classic pandemic, either. It's in between those two. We started off much more with a sense of unity but now we're into the more divided phase.
Amy: We are separating ourselves into two camps, really, ideologically, Republicans feeling one way and Democrats, the other. Why does it break down so cleanly along those lines?
Jonathan: The first piece of nuance I'd add to that is with politics in America these days, you always have to distinguish between what the average person thinks, which we have no idea of other than survey data and what we see on social media and mainstream media. The media environment has changed so much since the mid 20th century, with cable TV, and especially with social media. Basically, America has been a pretty moderate country historically but the extremes now have a megaphone. We've amplified the voices from the extremes.
The survey research shows that most Americans, if it's a question about Donald Trump, yes, they're totally divided. If it's a question about the pandemic, on average, there's a lot of agreement, but that's not what we see. What we see in terms of lockdown protests and things like that, yes, it's incredibly divided and that is because we have this really bad cultural war. We have this negative partisanship in which our politics is much more about who we hate than about what we like. Unfortunately, the pandemic played right into that here.
Amy: Except there is this one thing, which is governors almost across the board, are seeing real spikes in their popularity. This is true even if you're a blue governor in a red state or a red governor in a blue state, the one person whose opinions haven't changed at all is Donald Trump, so is this really a Donald Trump issue, or is this our partisan politics issue?
Jonathan: Let me put in a little bit of social and evolutionary psychology here, which is that human beings have this amazing form of sociality. Deer are not actually really that social. They just flock together in herds, so that only the slowest one gets eaten. Bees at the other end of the spectrum are hive creatures. They have to live in hives and they cooperate like crazy. I mean, the hive is really like the animal. Humans are different. We're in between. We're really flexible so we can come together at whatever level is needed.
We have this recursive structure. After Pearl Harbor, you get the whole country coming together to fight the absolutely perfect evil enemy, but we have this ability to come together or separate at multiple levels, even at the same time. We're not coming together nationally anymore since mid-April, I think that's when things really split up but we can come together at the state level. Then we could be divided on some other level and then we can come together in a company or in a church community. You have to look at different levels of sociality nested together and it's a fascinating time to be a social scientist.
Amy Walter: The real question I wanted to get some understanding about is how this exposes the way that human beings assess risk and what are those differences? How does somebody wake up in the morning and say, "Oh, I'm not leaving my house, maybe for years" and a person who lives right next door to me says, "This is not a big deal. I don't need to wear a mask. I'm fine. Just let me do what I want to do." Can you speak to some of that, how the brain is processing these risks and how you think, then that's going to impact the way we actually move through this crisis?
Jonathan: I always find it helpful to start with the assumption that we're perfectly rational information processors, and then you see how far away reality is from that assumption. Let's start with the idea that we're perfectly rational and all we care about is achieving the optimum outcome for ourselves. Well, there's a whole huge field in cognitive psychology that's looked at all the biases, the errors we make. We're afraid of plane travel if a plane crashes but we're not so afraid of traveling by car because it's not as salient, it's not as vivid.
That's just taking each person as an individual risk assessor and there's 30 or 40 different biases. There's a huge amount of research on how individuals get it wrong. Okay, but now, let's really nest things up. Let's make those individuals social and so we're incredibly social creatures. We look to everyone else to see what to do. I'm here in New York. I teach at NYU and I remember when I was riding on the subway, back when this was beginning, I brought a mask with me, but I felt stupid. I felt foolish being the only one wearing it so I didn't wear it.
Then there was one day when it flipped and then most people were wearing it. Here, we're social, but not yet tribal. We just care what others think of us. Then let's go to the third level, like DEFCON 3 for social biases which is, now let's add in my group versus yours, team versus team and there's a war on and it's a war for the survival of whatever we hold sacred. If your side says, "The virus is nothing to worry about." Well, that's going to make me say, "What? What about all this other evidence? You're wrong."
If your side says, "We've got a lockdown, we've got to stop all our social activity," then I'm going to say, "What? What are you talking about? What about Sweden," or whatever? We're incredibly social creatures and I think the key to understanding the craziness and this destructiveness and the foolishness of the American response. I mean, there's a lot of institutional failures, but if you want to look at the weirdness of the way people are reacting, I would say, look at those different levels of sociality, that warp our thinking about risk.
Amy: In an ideal setting then, how would a leader respond to this?
Jonathan: One of the most important principles and you see this in every leadership book or article is you must be completely transparent, honest, and reliable. It's hard to gain trust, and it's easy to lose it and so the fiasco about recommending that people not wear masks by various organizations, that was really foolish. I think that cost a lot of credibility. That's just an example of the things you should not do. If they did it for the ulterior motive of preserving the masks for doctors, I understand why they did, but I think it was very damaging.
You have to be completely honest and transparent and that's where I think at the national level, but certainly, that leader has gotten very bad marks, whereas many of the governors have gotten very high ratings on that. Then the other really key thing is, you are the best-placed person to activate the one for all, all for one response. I said before that we're like hive creatures where we can be like bees in a hive and we love that. We love to be called together, to come together to work on some noble project.
If the leader uses elevating language and speaks to our noble ideals, and emphasizes our shared history, and we're all in the same boat, and we're going to work together to a glorious future. Leadership should be inspiring. It should be honest. It should specifically put aside petty squabbles, and speak to people's nobler motives.
Amy: Yet this noble motive, this gets to the very heart. It seems to me what it means to be an American this idea of freedom from and freedom to. I want a freedom from getting sick, which means I need you, Jonathan, not to sneeze on me or to come to work if you're sick, but I also need freedom to do what I want. If I want to ride without a seatbelt, or if I want to smoke or do those things, I should be able to do them.
Jonathan: Just like we all have the same five different kinds of taste receptors on our tongue, it's the same thing with our moral sense. We all have built in sensitivity, receptivity to stimuli or arguments about care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, it's like the taste buds of the moral sense. There are differences, some people are born with extra sensitivity to care, and they're really sensitive to animal suffering when they're kids.
Those people tend to be attracted more to left-wing causes. Left-wing movements tend to emphasize care, suffering, pain, things like that, empathy. There are some reasons why individuals, even siblings in the same family will gravitate one way or another, but then there's a whole level of manipulation by moral entrepreneurs. All Americans believe in freedom. As you were saying, you can spin it either way.
All Americans believe in freedom, but it's only once some talking head or some activist or somebody on a cable news show says, "I have a God-given right to-- This is America, you can't make me wear a mask." Or whatever it is. It happens on both sides, but that's what a lot of politics is, especially age of social media. Whoever comes up with the stickiest, most alluring construction, between the issue that they want to manipulate you on and your innate moral foundations, that's the construction that will spread. We're witnessing that happening in hyperdrive, nowadays.
Amy: You always end your talks with a little silver lining or at least a little kernel of hope. Do you still see that now as we're navigating our way, through this process about how this moment in time might change the way in which we do or see politics?
Jonathan: I do see some glimmers of hope. The best way I can say it, is that I've been incredibly pessimistic about our future for the last five years or so. The trends for our democracy have been downward and I saw no way forward. I would just cling to the hope that current trends never continue, things are going to change. I would say in my public talks, I'd say, "I'm sorry, this has been a really pessimistic talk, but you know what? It's always been wrong to bet against America and present trends never continue forever." Something's going to happen. It could be something great, it could be something terrible, but something's going to happen, that's going to change things.
Well, guess what? That something is happening. Right now, the signs are not necessarily that it's going to lead to any civic rebirth, but, boy, is it changing things that seemed unchangeable. I'm not necessarily optimistic right now, but I actually see more paths forward than I did four months ago. There are going to be big generational changes. I think millennials and Gen Z will be changed by this in ways that could end up making them better citizens or more involved in democracy in positive ways. It is complicated and I can't predict anything specific, but at least there's going to be change. Given the trajectory we were on, change is good.
Amy: Well, this has been great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk it with me, I really appreciate it.
Jonathan: My pleasure, Amy.
Amy: Jonathan Haidt, is the author of Righteous mind.
We spent a lot of time over the last nine months exploring how the pandemic was changing our electoral process, from the way in which we actually cast our ballots, to what election day and election night would be like. We spoke to secretaries of state and other election officials across the country and we talked to two political directors, Rick Klein, from ABC, and Caitlin Conant, from CBS, in order to understand how their networks were preparing to cover what was predicted and proved to be a long and contentious election. A few weeks after the race was called by the AP and the major networks, I sat back down with Rick and Caitlin, and also Ben Smith, the media columnist at The New York Times, to hear how they thought things went.
Caitlin: I think that, as we discussed last time, that CBS News and I think most of the networks did this, but we invested time and resources into covering really what was going on at the state level, in terms of getting to source up with secretaries of state, know what was happening and what the rules would be and to prepare and lay the groundwork for the scenario that we did find ourselves in, which is that it was going to come down to Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, where we weren't able to call it on election night and because of the way that they processed and counted votes.
You saw what many described as a red mirage, which appeared that Trump was leading that night because in-person votes, a lot of those voters were Republican and the mail-in votes, which were from urban more populated areas, which tended to be Democrat, it took states longer to count those. I think, between our campaign reporters, Major Garrett, we had covered that a lot.
I'm curious to hear what Rick says next, but I do think there were a lot of people who hadn't been following the ins and outs of this, like we had, who were living and breathing this every day. I think it turned out that many of them went to bed on Tuesday night thinking one thing, and a few days later, there was a different result. I can't really fault them for that. I think that, what we have to do is continue to explain why that happened and to have information out there and have a responsibility to educate.
Amy: Rick, what about you?
Rick: Amy, I've thought a lot about the conversation that we had on this show a couple weeks before the election and I've thought about the column that Ben wrote a couple of months, maybe before the election, about the way that we were preparing for this election. Actually, It surprises me that it played out almost exactly like we thought it would. Election night itself, in terms of the red mirage and the blue shift, that happened. We said it would happen, we said it a lot on our air.
I don't think anything can fully prepare an audience for actually seeing it. We actually made some changes even in the guts of our graphics, to try to make sure that we weren't casting forward a result that was inaccurate. We spent a lot of time on election night hours, explaining why what you're seeing in terms of the vote coming in, isn't necessarily reflective of the final outcome. Then we spent days afterward, explaining in detail that I have never seen before on television broadcasts, of the intricacies of what our decision desk was thinking and what the results were and weren't and what the legal processes were.
Ultimately, we were talking about provisional ballots that were cast in a certain way, in certain counties in Pennsylvania at a level of detail that again, if you're watching, maybe it goes over people's heads. I think people were really interested in it. We spent time on election night, we had someone working demographic boards, we had someone with exit polls, we had Nate silver and the 538 team. With their analysis, we were again bringing in these different facets of it and explaining to people over the course of several days, as it wasn't till Saturday that our network and Caitlin's network and other major news organizations projected the presidency for Joe Biden.
I'm very gratified to know that we've told every turn of that story and frankly, that we haven't overreacted to things that the losing candidate has said and done. We saw this week that, extraordinary 46 minute Facebook posting, highly edited from the White House speech. The President of United States gives what he says is the most important speech of his career and he does it for 46 minutes from the White House.
We covered it as if it was another volley in this. We didn't overreact, we didn't-- If you watched it in your show that night, you had some light touches around it, but it was basically him giving voice to things that have been disproven in court or that he tweets all the time. It really wasn't that newsy. I feel like from our perspective, we've found something of a balance. It's never perfect, it's always difficult in the hour by hour. I'm hopeful that can continue going forward through this process and then through whoever comes next. Joe Biden will be president on January 20th.
We expect that if President Trump wants to continue his political career and announce for 2024, he's not going to go away, he's still going to be making a lot of noise. I got a text from my mom saying, "Have you guys thought about how you're going to handle him when he's an ex-president and he does these things, because you guys should really think about that." I'm like. "Okay, mom. We're thinking about those things."
Amy: Ben, I want you to weigh in one of your columns. You ended by saying, "The question now is whether the electorate and we in the media can break our addiction to the Trump news cycle." What do you think?
Ben: I wrote a pretty panicky column as Rick referred to in August, about how we were totally going to screw up the election. Actually, I think people, as he said, did a really-- as Caitlin said, did a pretty good job of being, very, very, very explicit and focused on the mechanics of voting. Did as good a job as you can do, and still huge chunks of the country don't care and weren't listening. That's sort of the caveat here. I don't know, I do actually think maybe to a degree that I didn't even expect that Trump's getting a little boring. I think it's a lot of this, what is news, is a gut sense of what's interesting to you and to your audience.
His power is every day seeping away and is not as interesting when a former politician tweets crazy stuff as when somebody with enormous power tweets crazy stuff. He's still the president of the United States, he has enormous power, but I think there's a constant challenge in the White House was on one hand he's saying these crazy things that are unlikely to happen and that are out of touch with reality and even with his own administration and yet, he's president of the United States. You've got to wrestle with that.
I think when he's not a president of the United States, it's going to be easier to dismiss it and it actually just isn't as interesting and important. The important story is going to be his, I would say, fight for control of the Republican Party except that he seems to totally control the Republican Party. There is a political story that in the old days of newspapers would live on page [unintelligible 00:20:46] 20 about the ongoing Donald Trump consolidation of power in the Republican Party and who's going to be the RNC chair and what jobs do his kids get, but it's not that big a story.
Amy: With so much of the 2020 campaign done virtually, Joe Biden was able to avoid much of the traditional back and forth with the press assigned to cover him. Lot's of folks criticized the campaign and the media for not pushing harder to get Biden in front of reporters. I asked Ben Smith, Rick Klein, and Caitlin Conant about this and how they are recalibrating to cover the new president and administration. Ben, speaks first.
Ben: Yes, it's our job to push. I think that definitely there were times when, again, people worked but also there was a press corp camped out trying to get questions answered and Biden was ignoring them. There's a limit to what you can do there. Trump was in fact, incredibly open with the press. He gave long rambling press conferences and answered questions that got shouted at him, and reacted constantly on Tweeter and often spoke to his favorite Fox News people, but also his administration just leaks like a sieve, which is great and accustomed us to a level of transparency that I'm sure Biden is going to try to walk back.
It's also just true that Trump is this extraordinary phenomenon and the story and was a bigger story. Biden was a conventional Democrat running with basically conventional Democratic policies and it is important to figure out where he stands on police reform. It's within a fairly narrow, it's within the old politics being played between the 40-yard lines.
Rick: I was going to answer that. I think the degree to which our brains have been rewired by Trump and the Trump-era can't be overestimated. There was a headline in Ben's newspaper this week that reported accurately so far, is we know that Joe Biden was not planning to fire the FBI director. I thought, how is that a story, well, it is a story because Donald Trump did fire the FBI Director but you are not supposed to fire the FBI Director. They get ten-year terms and Obama kept the FBI Director that he inherited from Bush and gave him an extra two years, in fact.
The fact that we now report as news that he won't do something that is viewed widely as outrageous and coloring outside the lines, tells you how much we are reacting and thinking about things differently because of Donald Trump. That isn't to say that Joe Biden gave us as much access as we want. If Ben's right, we were there every day, it was a pandemic as well. It was easier for him to at times hide away from us because of the nature of what we were dealing with, but to judge Joe Biden by all the norms that Donald Trump broke, I don't think it's fair to Joe Biden or fair to democracy.
Well, we have to re-calibrate, and I think where our challenge really lies is remembering coming back to where we came at this as journalists, as people who cover politics and believe in the process of political journalism. There are norms that are important to establish. Just because something that Joe Biden does won't be as outrageous on a scale of 1 to 10 won't even register on the Trump outrage scale, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be covering it. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't be asking questions. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be pointing things out to our viewers and to our readers.
That to me is the most difficult thing that we are going to wrestle with is that we've had four years, five years-plus of Trump on the national stage that is just changed our very wiring, the way we think about how presidents and the White House produces news, now we are going to go to something that is going to be far more traditional but we've got to remember what things were like before Trump.
Amy: What I expect is these organizations are probably going to beef up their help teams and policy teams because a lot of news is going to be breaking at an agency level. What negotiations are happening between the White House and the Senate, and so far, I think the transition team seems pretty disciplined and as the traditional communications operation to the extent that their squeaky wheels who are leaking news it's probably going to be coming from elsewhere. I think those are on new things when we've been dealing with really the principle being the deliverer of all news and making his own decisions every step of the way.
I think that's just going to be something that was normal before and we are going to get accustomed to again. We all know that Donald Trump has dominated political news coverage for the last four-plus years, whether at 140 character Twitter bombs, unwieldy press conferences, or campaign events staged at the White House, his ability to be the center of every story and change the narrative both to his benefit and detriment has been unprecedented.
I asked Ben if he thinks the end of the Trump presidency means politics and political news will go back to being kind of boring?
Ben: I do think that people have been-- The feel, that politics of the United States can go really off the rails, can really change. The realm of possibility and imagination is much wider than they thought and it can either be really inspiring if you support Trump or really scary if you don't. I don't think that feeling's going to go away, I think the idea of the politics is like the sport that you can watch for fun but doesn't really have an impact on your life it's something that people no longer feel and that are-- When you try to talk about politics that way, I think a lot of our audience are disgusted by it actually, the horse race stuff.
On the other hand, I think day-to-day people are not going to be interested in the negotiations on Capitol Hill and the outrage that there are only six votes in committee and that's this incredible violation, and then actually we've got to switch sides and we are in favor of there being six votes in committee and all this stuff that's so complicated and process-driven that it's hard to understand for regular people. Also, Hollywood hasn't released any new movie.
There was a couple of movies, maybe people saw Tenet but that's about it in theaters for a year, but there's this huge stockpile of entertainment that is just sitting there in the studios waiting for theaters to reopen for theatrical reopenings. Production on entertainment TV stopped for months in the Spring. It is back up and running. At least, there's going to be a lot better content coming out next year than politics and people are going to have a lot to tune into.
Amy: Or is it going to be all politics-related content, are there going to be 46 different Trump biopics or are people are going to be over it?
Ben: Anybody who want to watch that, I think Trump defied fiction. I think there is going to be a ton of great entertainment coming out next year and people are going to tune out; and all I want to do is read travel stories for summer 2021.
Rick: Amy, to add on that, Joe Biden built his campaign on that calculation essentially. That the people didn't want to have to worry about the president tweeting in the middle of the night. Like Obama said in a bunch of rallies towards the end, "Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to think about your president every day?" It seems like such a basic thing, but he has become so much of the news diet for everybody, and Biden probably benefited a least on the margins from the perception that, like him or not, I won't have to worry about him starting a Twitter war with somebody randomly.
That slower pace, it may frustrate us in the news business because we'd love every White House to leak like a sieve. We'd love the palace intrigue stories, they are catnip, they are terrific stories. There's so much great reporting that's happened out there and around the White House these last couple of years. Just incredible stuff. Stuff you never ever get out of any White House that's come out. I anticipate there's not going to be anything like it again for a while.
The Biden world isn't going to be like that and we are going to be back to a much more manageable, we'll be frustrated by it at times, and no doubt that White House reporters will be calling for more access and sound off about things that are [unintelligible 00:28:54] but the Biden team's calculation is let's go back to the way things were and people liked it that way. If they are not thinking about politics every waking minute, then that's on net a good thing.
Amy: You guys, I could keep this conversation going for a long time but we don't have forever. I appreciate that so much. Rick Klein, Caitlin Conant, Ben Smith, thank you guys so much.
Rick: Great to be with you.
Ben: Thank you.
Caitlin: Thanks, Amy.
Amy: Rick Klein is the Political Director at ABC News, Ben Smith is a media columnist at the New York Times. Caitlin Conant is political director for CBS News.
The aftermath of President Trump's 2016 wind brought about a lot of soul searching in the political world. How did the polls get it so wrong? How did reporters miss the signs of political alienation among White working-class voters? Why didn't the Clinton campaign take the threat of losing Wisconsin and Michigan more seriously? Four years and another presidential election later, we have a new Democratic president who'll be sworn into office in a few weeks, but a rebuke of President Trump's norm defying tenure wasn't as dramatic as many had hoped.
President Trump distinguished himself in a crowded 2016 primary by running as a populist. He spoke to the problems that many Americans felt the government had failed to adequately address like an inability to earn a decent wage or pay for healthcare and higher education. A man who was born rich tapped into the anxieties of working-class Americans whose pleas for help were often ignored by leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
President Trump brought life back to the Republican party and although they may not have welcomed it at first, party leadership has coalesced around Trump's brand of populism. William Howell is a professor in American politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Terry Moe is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. They've written a book titled President's Populism and the Crisis of Democracy. I spoke with them about President Trump's lasting impact on our policy
William: The worry that Terry and I have and the reason why I think we need to continue to pay attention to the hold that populism has on our country is that first, 73 million people voted for the man. He's doing everything they can to keep them in a continued state of agitation. He is carved out a space for populism and taken hold of a major American party, the Republican party. Most importantly, the foundations that allow for populism to thrive that is the failures of government to solve problems persist.
Unless we have a government that can solve problems, and we don't right now, we're going to continue to see these entreaties by populists, if not by Trump, then some other surrogate to resonate broadly in our politics and our democracy is going to remain really vulnerable.
Terry: Can I jump in there and just say something?
Amy: Yes, please.
Terry: One of the big themes of our book is that Trump is the immediate cause of this crisis of democracy that we have in this country. He's really a symptom of these large powerful disruptive socio-economic forces that have swept the world. Globalization, technological change, immigration that have led to economic harms and cultural anxieties for millions of Americans. These are serious problems that our government has done a really ineffective job at dealing with.
The result has been a surge of populist anger against the system that doesn't work and support for a strong man Donald Trump who can attack that system and get things done on his own. Democracy be damned. Now Trump has lost the election and he'll be leaving office but those big powerful socioeconomic forces, globalization and all the rest are still there. Those economic harms and cultural anxieties are still there, the populist basis is still there. Even though Trump might be moving on, all the rest of it is still there and this anger with the system is still there. That's the threat to our democracy.
Amy: To those who say, "Well, he got 73 million votes, but he is one of the only handful of first-term presidents to lose re-election. He got 7 million fewer votes than Joe Biden did. At the same time, we know that the guardrails of democracy, the so-called guardrails the courts, the state legislatures, the secretaries of state, they didn't bend to Donald Trump's will. They didn't overturn the election results. They stood up to him. Did it work? Did democracy prove that it can stand this stress test?
William: I don't think it's a yes or no. The answer is that he didn't obviously have his will. He's not going to be able to undo this election, but he's done extraordinary damage in the aftermath of the election and frankly throughout his presidency in pushing back against democratic norms, in marginalizing the press, in violating the rule of law. There all kinds of damage that he has done. It is true that look he lost by 7 million votes. That's a big deal.
It's also at a time when the economy came out. The rug was pulled out from under him and the country. That was in the aftermath of a pandemic that he managed horribly and yet nonetheless still managed to secure the votes of 73 million people. His voice and the claims of entreaties that he's going to levy against an incoming Biden administration aren't going away. Sure, he lost but that doesn't mean that the pathway for populists to power is going to disappear. Note moreover that the Republicans did mighty well in Congress. We don't have evidence of a widespread repudiation of Trump here, even after this catastrophic response to the pandemic.
Amy: I want you all. Terry, I'll start with you to also really dig into this question about what is populism.
Terry: In everyday language, I think people tend to use populism in reference to an ideology that stands up for the little guy and supports higher taxes on the rich and so on. The way scholars use the term based on historical experience and the way we use it here is very different. At the heart of a populist movement is the belief that they represent the real people of a nation in the United States, White, socially conservative Christian people. They are rising up to attack a corrupt illegitimate system.
Populism pits the people against the system and it's less-educated White people, especially in rural areas, who have been experiencing the brunt of the economic harms that have been imposed by modern times and also who are feeling these cultural anxieties of growing cultural diversity and of immigration. They're the ones that are really rising up and they see themselves as the people here. The thing is, they rise up within a democratic system and therefore they're attacking democracy and that's what makes populism so dangerous. It's not just anti-system, it's ultimately anti-democratic.
Amy: You have some of the analysis after this election about Trump's success with Latino voters, this conversation that we're hearing among Republicans that they're going to position themselves now as a working-class party across racial lines, is what Trump had built. To Will's point, it was really about Donald Trump and that's going to be really difficult to turn into this working people's Republican party going forward.
Terry: This is not just about Donald Trump. This is about populism and about populist anger and rage against the system. A lot of that is rooted in this cultural anxiety that is centered in White people losing their predominance in this country historically, losing their grip. It's a White backlash. The Republican party has become a White identity party and all this business about how they're going to attract Latinos, they're going to attract Asians, this is basically not going to happen on a grand scale.
Trump got a lot of support from the Cubans in Florida because of his anti-Cuba anti-communist stance but basically, Latinos in this election voted two to one for Biden just as they have in the past. The Republicans remain a White identity party and demographically, they are up against it. As this country becomes more diverse, they know it.
That's why the Republican party is not only a populist party now because Trump has taken it over or the populists have taken it over. It's also a party that has to be afraid of democracy because the more people vote, the more the Republicans lose. That's why we have voter ID laws and all the rest that are suppressing the vote; on the Republican side, they need to suppress the vote in order to keep winning.
Amy: Let's talk about next steps, you all, because as you pointed out, this isn't just about, "Trump's not here so now problem solved." It's that the threat of another candidate who's able to come into power as this populist and really truly do a damage long-lasting damage to our democracy is still real. Will, why don't you start with looking at what kinds of reforms are needed. As you pointed out, the crux of the problem here is that Americans do not see government working and government inaction has really helped to fuel this rise in populism.
One reaction might be okay, the way to get government to work and to ensure that we don't have a populist or a demagogue elected is to reduce the power of the executive. Make Congress more powerful, but that's an argument that you all dismissed, so talk about that.
William: It's worth taking a cue from past historical moments in American history when the country has faced this rising discontent and face the threat of populism. We saw that in the 1890s. We saw that again in the 1930s both in times in the aftermath of significant economic anxiety and roiling concerns about immigration and industrialization. In both instances, we saw concerted widespread efforts with the progressive movement first, and then the rise of the new deal second in the 1930s to both modernize government and to address harms that significant portions of the American public were feeling.
If you move to the present era and you say, "All right, well, what do we do in the face of this?" We have to think about how do we build a government that can effectively attend to the very real harms and the very real anxiety that significant portions of the American public feels. When you look at issues involving uncontrolled immigration and the fact that somewhere between 10 and 12 million people in this country live without documentation, and you look at the harms associated with globalization and climate change and rising inequality between the rich and the poor and on and on.
You think, where are we going to find the kind of leadership that we need in order to meet these national long-term concerns? The answer we layout in some detail is in fact, we need to find ways to responsibly leverage presidential leadership. This isn't to say that presidents get it right all the time or that we should just bow before presidents decidedly, not, but that they provide a different kind of leadership than the more locally-oriented, the more parochial sensibilities that we observe within Congress, which as a legislative body is a disaster.
Terry: Look, there are very good reasons for fearing presidential power when it's in the wrong hands when you have an authoritarian inclined president as we do now. We think that there should be a dramatic cutback in the number of presidential appointees in the executive branch. Now, presidents appoint roughly 4,000 people to top-level policy positions throughout the bureaucracy. That's ridiculous, and it's dangerous. In other countries throughout the West and very democratic countries, they may have 100 or 200 people at the top of their governments.
We recommend cutting way back on the number of presidential appointees and having a government that is populated by professionals and experts and that can do the job effectively. Number two, we think it's really important to insulate the justice department and the intelligence agencies to a large extent from direct presidential control.
Amy: As you all talk to people about your book and you're watching how the country processed this election, how seriously the country is taking this? Once again, this conversation does seem to be very bifurcated. There are a group of folks who agree with everything you have outlined in your writing. Then the other half of the country thinks that you all are just hyperventilating. You're just over-analyzing that there's never been a threat that you just have hated Donald Trump because you just don't like how he acts. How do you bring folks, how you bring a country this divided even on issues like this together to see what could be a very serious threat to our democracy, or do you just assume we're never going to be unified on this?
William: When you don't have a government that actually works, that sets it in motion the kinds of pathologies associated with the rise of populism, it invites people to start talking about conspiracy theories. It invites people to say, "Well, it's all broken. Give up on that system. Look at me." It's incredibly corrosive. It makes the kinds of arguments, the deliberation that we really do need to have all the more difficult, but just as it underscores the need for those arguments, it cuts both ways. You now, as you pointed out, have half the country saying, "No, I'm quite all right with having a president who clearly lost the election insist again and again, all facts to the contrary that it was stolen and to not call them out."
We have a major American party now who the only people who are speaking out are usually are people who are on their way out. We have very few people within the Republican party who are willing to speak out. If this isn't a cause for real alarm and concern, it's hard to know what exactly is, but it also underscores though the need for this first-order conversation about, how do we rebuild government? How do we think a new and think imaginatively about the kinds of institutions that we need, so that we do a better job of meeting the challenges that stand before us than we have up until now?
Terry: Go ahead.
Amy: Yes, please.
Terry: [chuckles] You want me to speak to this? I'd like to.
Amy: I'm happy to.
Terry: Okay, good. Look, I think it's important to be realistic about the situation that we face. Polarization is real and has resulted in tribalism in our politics and people are dug in on both sides. Also, it's reinforced by the propaganda network on the right, Fox News is at the center of that. They have tens of millions of people who are siloed in that propaganda network, and that simply reinforces this populist, anger, and grievance. It's not as though this is the thing that can simply be overcome by a president who claims to be unifying the nation. This is something that needs to be overcome in part by simply winning elections and making sure that populist demagogues don't take on the presidency again.
That's number one. Number two, with the Biden presidency, it's really important for them to pursue programs like jobs programs and childcare and healthcare programs and immigration reform that can help to meet the needs of at least some portion of these less-educated, White, populist constituents and win back enough of them so that the Republicans have a very hard time winning elections going forward. We have to put that together with institutional reforms that make the government more effective going forward.
I think these kinds of things can help to eat away at the populous base. When that begins to happen there, I think the Republicans are just in real trouble when you combine that with the demographic trends and that's what we need going forward.
Amy: Well, Terry and will, I thank you both for coming on and taking the time to walk me through your book. I wish you both the best of luck and please stay safe and healthy.
William: Thanks, Amy.
Terry: Thank you very much.
William: It was pretty good. Great to talk to you.
Amy: That's all for us today. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Patricia Yacob is our associate producer, Polly Irungu is our digital editor. David Gebel is our executive assistant. Jay Cowit is our director and sound designer. Debbie Daughtry is our board op. Vince Fairchild is our board up and engineer. Our executive producer is Lee Hill. Thanks so much for listening. It's politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway.
[00:47:49] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.