What House Dysfunction Means for America’s Future (with David Leonhardt)

Subscribe to Lemonada Premium for Bonus Content

House Republicans still can’t elect a speaker after three weeks of infighting. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt joins Andy to look at what the speaker battle signals for the future of U.S. democracy at a time when the world is in turmoil. They also discuss why Republicans continue to win elections, despite their dysfunction and lack of clear agenda. Plus, David shares why he thinks voters are turned off by some Democratic messaging and end up voting against their self-interest.

Keep up with Andy on Post and Twitter @ASlavitt.

Follow @DLeonhardt on Twitter.

Joining Lemonada Premium is a great way to support our show and get bonus content. Subscribe today at bit.ly/lemonadapremium.

Support the show by checking out our sponsors!

Check out these resources from today’s episode: 

Order Andy’s book, “Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response”: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250770165



David Leonhardt, Andy Slavitt

Andy Slavitt  00:18

This is IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. How are you today? Stay tuned in the next few shows. Next Wednesday, we’re gonna have a pretty major announcement for you. And I want you to tune in for it. And tell your friends, your neighbors, your pets, your enemies, the people uppercut grocery stores to tune in next week for our major announcement, very excited about today’s show. It’s a David Leonhard, he writes a very influential newsletter. I think it’s the most widely read email newsletter. It’s called the morning. He’s just written a new book. It’s actually his first book. And when you’re going to talk to him about that, but man times are weird. Times are weird. I’m guessing you’re feeling that sense of upheaval of what is up, what is down? What’s going on around the world. And we’re getting into wars. How should we do this? If you’re affected by what’s going on in the Middle East, I feel for you, no matter who you are, no matter where your people are, or if you’re there yourself. It’s some horrific stuff. And it’s going to get worse. And I don’t think we’ve got a clear sensor path out. But I would also say, you never have a clear path out. And somehow they emerge. And you just kind of hope we end up making the right choices. You’ve got to hope that the good people of the world will prevail. And you gotta hope that people will understand each other better. At the end of this, man, I know it’s scary. I know it feels awful. And to some extent, I think American weakness allows us to happen. I think the fact that we can’t elect a speaker of the house for weeks, the fact that there’s so much infighting, the fact that we turn against each other, instead of support each other during a pandemic. The fact that we have people that don’t support and believe in our democracy. And you have to look at how are all these things linked. When people see that they go, Oh, now’s a good time to invade Ukraine. Now’s a good time to set off a major attack against Israel, a country that is not going to be as well protected. Now might be a good time to attack Taiwan. It emboldened people with bad ideas. And I’m not here to tell you that the US is always right. Far from it, if you’ve listened to the show, we’ve talked about a lot of things we need to get better at. But man, we have a country where you can speak the truth, where you have basic freedoms, where you have the ability to change, and improve if you take advantage of it. And so David Leonardo’s very interesting guests in this context, because he went about the question of why are we on the decline? And look, all empires decline? And maybe this is our time to begin our decline? I don’t know. History will tell. I think how we treat the planet, how we treat each other, how we assert our values in the world, we have a lot to say about it. How we deal with inequality, we’ll have a lot to say about it, in my opinion. But it’s unknown. What is clear, though, is since the 1980s, in the face of massive amounts of economic growth, there are underlying signs of our decline, our division, it’s our inequality. It’s our carelessness with one another. It’s our lack of empathy. It’s the very different lives that we lead. And I am not going to sit here and blame one political party or the other people who are screwing it up. I think what David does quite nicely is he says, Fine, go ahead and point out what the other side is doing wrong. That’s easy. That’s the easy part. But maybe in the process, just ask yourself, what your tribe in every tribal society is getting wrong, or could do better or has lessons to learn from it man. I find it really valuable and talking to David to reach inclusion that if we don’t do that, if we don’t somehow adjust and say, Hey, we may have the best of intentions. But what we’re doing is clearly not working the way we want it to. We don’t get there. So that’s the conversation with David. Email me, Andy. That’s Labott eliminated media.com. Listen to this show. Enjoy it. Please come in. And listen next week for our special announcement. I’m excited to bring you David, here he is.

Andy Slavitt  05:40

David, welcome to the bubble.

David Leonhardt  05:42

It’s great to be here, Andy.

Andy Slavitt  05:45

All right. As I said, in my introduction, I think you’re one of the most influential writers today around what goes on around the world. And you’ve done some really serious work, and some setback work, which is just been a delight to read in your book. But we have a couple of things going on at the moment that we probably should start with, yes. Let’s talk about the Republicans in the House and kind of what’s what, what lessons are we learning from the situation? Is there anybody winning it or anybody emerging? Or are we simply seeing that there is a faction that’s basically splitting off from the majority of Republicans? And that what we’re witnessing is we’re only witnessing because it’s such a close margin that Republicans have that really empowers a small minority? And how does this work itself out this whole Splinter party thing that we’re seeing here?

David Leonhardt  06:44

This wouldn’t happen, as you point out without the Republican Party being so having such a narrow majority, right? I mean, if the Republicans had a 40 or 50 seat majority, then this faction probably wouldn’t be big enough to be determinative. But it’s not just about that, because we’ve had narrow control of the House. before many times in our history, it’s not that unusual. And obviously, we’ve we’ve had and have narrow control of the Senate today. And what really stands out about this is, whatever you think of the substance of what the call it hard, right faction in the House wants, which is much, much lower government spending, in a couple of targeted areas are more than a couple. They don’t all agree on everything. But basically, it seems pretty clear they want much less spending outside of Social Security and Medicare. That’s a policy view, and people have policy views. But what’s striking about it is the unwillingness to compromise. And so contrast it with past versions of the Republican party where there also were pretty deep differences mean, the Republican Party of the 50s and 60s had much deeper differences than today’s Republican Party does internally. Or think about today’s Democratic party where you have Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin, right. And I’m just picking two people, right, we could have picked Elizabeth Warren and Kristen cinema. And yet, the Democratic Party manages and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are great examples. They try to push the party to the left, push, push, push the party to the left, and then they also are willing to cut a deal. And the fact that we have seen so many Republicans, who are just completely unwilling to cut a deal, who are willing to play by the normal rules of American politics, are just sort of willing to tear the whole thing down, is what I find deeply worrisome. And also, of course, some of these Republicans are the same people who continue to promote or at least tolerate lies about what happened in the 2020 election. And it’s this just whole notion of, than a basic level, don’t believe in the American system of government.

Andy Slavitt  08:59

It may be enough to say that in some respects, there are more things that they don’t have in common in terms of their core belief than they have in common. And the reason I say that is because the reason that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can get on the same page and strike a compromise, as Sanders camp famously did with Biden, in the lead up to the general election, is because the end of the day they value winning, and beating the other side, way more than they do whatever their differences are. And I think what you have as people on the far right, and this is not the case so far in the far left, although could end up happening, who essentially say we have such differences. And in these, these differences would be worth understanding a little bit better, that I don’t care if we win, I’m not trying to pull this thing in a direction and win I would rather lose than win in a way that doesn’t get us the things that are important to us that don’t seem to be important to you. And that feels like in other countries, that results in a splintering off of the party, you know, countries, it’s easier to do when you’ve got proportional representation and coalition governments, etc, which we, which we don’t have here. But that’s one of the things that feels different. I don’t know if that difference, by the way is policy. Like, I don’t think that what separates them is simply how big do they want the government to be? I actually think it’s I agree, it’s something that is maybe deeper and more intrinsic, which is how fed up they are on the extreme with with anything resembling what we have today. And this sort of strong notion that there for populist districts who are, as you say, and as others have said, right, you know, ready to kind of burden the whole thing down, given how they’re feeling and that that does get to some of the themes in your book, too.

David Leonhardt  10:51

Yeah, I think that’s right. I don’t think this is about policy. I think it’s about basic belief in and faith in the American system. And we see that with January 6, we see that with the lies about 2020. And we’ve seen it with this incredibly extended process to pick the next Republican Speaker.

Andy Slavitt  11:13

What we’re getting into, really, is this sort of conversation about when do countries reach a point where populism, and, you know, I’ll just say anti democratic, but despotism, I mean, I’m trying not to pick words that actually sound judgmental, I’m trying to pick words that sound descriptive, become attractive. And I think, you know, this leans a lot into the ours was the shining future, which is the book you’ve written about what’s happened to the American dream? And so a lot of the things we’re seeing seems symptomatic of something deeper, what is that thing that is deeper?

David Leonhardt  11:56

I think the thing that’s deeper is that living standards really have stagnated for a majority of the American population. And depending on exactly what measure you look at, you can say they’ve grown slowly, or they’ve not really grown much at all, or they’ve even declined, I don’t think we want to too much focus on is the sign, you know, slightly positive or slightly negative, what we want to say is, living standards are not rising at the speed that they used to, and they’re not rising at the speed that they are, for relatively well off people. That’s true, both of the top 1% are the very, very rich. But it’s also true about a more basic or a larger, a number sense class gap. There’s no perfect measure of class, but a four year college degree is the best one we’ve got, I think. And if you look at almost any of these measures by a four year college degree, income, wealth, life expectancy, which I think is the most telling measure that there is various other social measures, the family structure, the number of kids growing up with with two parents, loneliness, mental health, whether you file for disability, and what’s happened to those numbers in the workplace, we really have this incredible class divide. And the problem is, is that it is just breeding so much frustration. You’ll often hear politicians or government officials, or pundits, that the kind of rooms Andy, you and I are often in and you’ll hear people say, Why are people so angry, and the economy is growing GPS, high unemployment is low? Well, I actually think the anger is quite rational, even though it can take destructive and hateful forms. When you look at income growth, when you look at at net worth. And then when you look at life expectancy. To me, this is the signature stat. It’s the first chart in my book, and I don’t have many charts in my book. It’s a book of history more than economics. In 1980, the United States had a typical life expectancy for a high income country, toward the middle. Since 2005, or 2006, we’ve had the lowest life expectancy of any high income country, lower than then all the countries of Western Europe, including Greece and Slovenia, which are substantially less wealthy than us, lower than Canada, lower than Japan, lower than South Korea and Australia. And that’s consistent with a lot of the economic data. And it’s just so alarming.

Andy Slavitt  14:14

And a 13 year gap from the top to the bottom.

David Leonhardt  14:17

That’s right. So what’s driving that if that class gap, right, life expectancy has continued to rise for college graduates,

Andy Slavitt  14:23

If you’re the top 1%, the life is, your life expectancy is 89.

David Leonhardt  14:26

It’s really good. Yeah. And it’s and it’s risen a lot. And that’s what the most fundamental definition the American dream is.

Andy Slavitt  14:33

Because here’s the thing, like, if you describe this, the beginning of your description really starts with an economic description. And I think a lot of Democrats, whether it’s center left or or just left, kind of view everything through the lens of policy. And so people hear that and say, Well, wait a minute, imagine a world where all of a sudden wages at the lower end are moving up and they are they’re moving up pretty rapidly. Then we have a huge investment in industrial manufacturing, which which has begun it is underway through a lot of the things passed in the in the last couple of years. And I think if you play that out, David, though, do you think that more economic prosperity for non college educated graduates is the entirety of the issue? Or is in fact, some of the issues around it like the resentment that builds, when you see people gaming faster than you the resentment that builds around immigration, and government programs for people with the lowest and the resentment that builds quite frankly, let’s just call it what it is around race? Yeah. When there are more people that don’t look like me live like me, whether it’s religious faith, zip code, whatever it is, it to me, those are economically rooted issues, but they’re also I think, cultural issues, which I know you don’t pay a lot of attention to. In other words, if people say, Here’s great policies to solve the economic problem at the bottom of the ladder, do you really think that changes things? Or is there? Is there something cultural that’s much harder?

David Leonhardt  16:07

I think there are two important subjects to think about. So I do really think the economic stagnation is the kindling for broader societal frustration. And we haven’t actually lived through a period in which the economy was really good for an extended period. For most people, you’re right. For a couple of years, we’ve had pretty decent, at least before taking into account inflation, wage increases toward the bottom, but inflation has really eaten away at a lot of that. And it’s also coming after a time in which many years in which that wage growth was really quite bad. So we haven’t gotten to a point of wow, we’ve had a decade or two decades in which things have really been quite good for working class and poor people. And we still see this frustration.

Andy Slavitt  16:50

Okay, let me just put one thing, yeah, and I wanted to keep going. But I want to have a little bit of a kind of debate on this thing. Good. A lot of what you talk about, it’s not just culture and money, but power. And it seems to me that for a long, long, long time, the bottom end of the economic spectrum had no power. Very few, you know, jobs, hard to get earnings growth. What does seem to be happening? It may be it’s an early sign, is there are more forms of power accumulating at the lower end, meaning there are more jobs available, more choices of what to do, I think, a greater appreciation for people working lower skilled jobs, and in fact, more threats to people working some of the early college educated jobs. So I wonder if that factors into your thinking at all that power that accompanies this help? Or is it or is it not real? Or is it still just too little relative to the kind of wealthy college educated?

David Leonhardt  17:47

I think we don’t know yet. And I promise, I want to get to the cultural part of your question, which is a really important question. I think we don’t yet know, it also would have been very tempting, if you and I were having this conversation 25 years ago, in 1998, which we’re both old enough to remember to have said, Oh, the economy seems to be shifting in ways that that things are really good for, for people at the bottom, their wages have grown quite nicely for the last couple of years. So labor markets really tight, businesses are going to have to keep paying them, the workforce is aging, and it just ended up being a femoral. Right. And we very quickly went back to this economy in which inequality was growing, I am not yet ready to pronounce that the last, we’re now in this similar period where it’s been, it’s been pretty decent for a couple of years, I’m not yet ready to pronounce that we’re in some sunny new economic era, in part because the power dynamic, as you note hasn’t really shifted yet we see more interest in labor unions, but we don’t actually see any meaningful increase in the number of workers and labor unions. And I think they are the most important thing in the economy for for lower and working lower income and working class workers. That’s something I think I underestimated how important it was earlier in my career. And as I’ve spent more time reading the evidence and reporting on it, and talking to people and reading history, I think it’s it’s really more important. So it would be great. I think, if we were in a period where we didn’t really need to make any more policy changes to have inequality to kind, I don’t think we’re there.

Andy Slavitt  19:17

Yeah, I don’t think so. Either. Alexander fascinating know how the leading candidate for the Republican and the Democratic presidential nominations, in the case of the auto workers, both identified with and tried to be the champion of the Union and the working people. I don’t think if he had told me that in the middle of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when neither President neither presidential candidate would have come anywhere near that, that I would have seen how that would be possible that so it just it’s an early sign, but a sign that you know, look, there’s a version of this, which looks like ugly populism and there’s a version of this which looks like actually power being reinstated, or at least being rebalanced a little bit more. And it is absolutely too early to know. And I think you will see what comes to this manufacturing boom and the insourcing boom. And but I have to say like, you know, there is a consciousness now, which is saying, wait a minute, all these jobs go into China, going to Mexico, neither party now thinks it was a really good idea. Yes, that’s it feels like a shift, it feels like a shift.

David Leonhardt  20:24

No, it does feel like a shift. And one of the things you know, as an author, and you’re not natural, or what the environment is going to be when your book comes out when you’re writing it. One thing that I feel quite fortunate and good about is, I’m trying to write a book that argues that a bunch of those trade policies, a bunch of those labor policies have not worked over the last several decades. And it feels like the book is coming out at a time when when many people mostly on the left, but also some people on the right, I mean, you see this group American compass, you see a statement signed by actually sitting members of Congress, Republicans, not the ones paralyzing the house right now, saying labor unions are important. And so I do think there is a reconsideration of economic policy that is appropriate and justified. And I think President Biden embodies that, in many ways. And and to some extent, what I’ve tried to do is for people are saying, wait a second, why is Obama governing differently from Obama to some extent, and Clinton very clearly, what I’ve tried to do is write a history that tells the story of how we got here to help people better understand, oh, this is why we see these things in the political system. This is why we see these things in the economy. As a reader. There’s some times when, when there’s some complicated story that I don’t really understand. And I’ll read a long magazine story in the Atlantic or the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine, and then I’ll feel like, Oh, now I get this story. Now I can actually engage with the individual news stories. And I’ve basically tried to do that with my book for the American economy and the American political system.

Andy Slavitt  21:57

So Well, I think you do that with the morning as well. All right, we’ll be back. After a quick break, I want to get into a little deeper about populism and how both parties are responding to it. And let’s let’s be self critical, after the break love being self critical. You know, it’s interesting, I talked to somebody who is connected to the RNC, the some of the Republican campaigns. And one of the things that he told me was that they’re doing a whole bunch of message testing now ahead of 2024. And the message is to test by far the best or the anti corporate messages. Yeah, anti big tech, at the insurance company, at the pharmaceutical company. I’m not sure about fossil fuels. I don’t know if that was included in there or not. And but this is a place where, you know, the electorate is getting to, on the Republican side. And certainly, you know, we’re seeing the Democrats who have, as you pointed out, for some time, run on and favored cultural issues. At some times, you could be it could be argued at the expense of economic issues, for particular people in the lower end of the of the spectrum, also starting to take notice and pay attention. I think the election of Trump in 2016 caused this kind of weird and somewhat delayed soul searching on the left, and I’m not sure that that’s fully been done and embraced. But at some level, I think it’s very hard to escape the conclusion that if you leave people behind, and someone does a good job speaking to them, whether they do anything policy wise or not just feeling that I’m the one that’s going to make you feel heard that that’s going to have consequences. I remember reading a couple decades ago how demographics were so in the favor of the Democrats and Republicans who were basically a party of a shrinking kind of well off corporate laissez faire base as far as how they defined themselves. Democrats had reason to feel optimistic. I think that when the world is broken into down not that way, but by college educated, and college educated, and race tends to be a little bit more malleable there. It gets a little bit more confusing and complicated for Democrats if they don’t adjust to it.

David Leonhardt  24:46

I think that’s an incredibly important point, Andy and so the story that I think Democrats have sometimes told themselves is, this is all about race and And there’s a lot of truth in that story because look, I mean, I’ve written this Donald Trump is a racist, large parts of the Republican. I mean, he said many racist things over the course of his career, I can obviously look inside his heart. But if you say a lot of racist things, I’m comfortable saying you’re a racist, and Donald Trump has been in his career. The Republican Party is very comfortable race baiting, playing footsie with people who clearly are white nationalists. And that appeals to to a distressingly large number of voters, I think the mistake that the Democratic Party has made, and it tends to be among fairly well off Democrats is saying it’s all that the only people who aren’t voting for us are either so rich, that they’re selfish, or they’re ignorant and bigoted.

Andy Slavitt  25:53

So what are they missing? Tell us what they’re missing.

David Leonhardt  25:57

So here’s what I think they’re missing. So again, I just want to emphasize this. Yes, there is huge truth in there, right? Like, we live in a terribly racist society in many ways, and the Republican Party is often comfortable or promotes that. But here’s what I think is really important to look at. Over the last several years, roughly five years, we have seen a very clear shift among Asian American voters, particularly in large metropolitan areas, among Latino voters, particularly in the south Texas, and, and Florida, but also nationwide. And although the numbers are smaller among black voters, we have seen a shift away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republican Party. Now, I never bought the the very for the political left kind of convenient argument that the only way people don’t vote for us is because they’re, they’re wealthy, or they’re ignorant and bigoted. But if you were tempted by that argument, because sometimes you will put fancy social science around it, which I don’t find persuasive. But I would really ask you to reflect on what’s happened over the last five years, is it so what’s the why part because I think large numbers of working class voters across every race, white, black, Latino, and Asian, look at the Democratic Party and think it is disdainful of many of their views. Many working class voters across races have complex feelings on abortion, they don’t want these six week bands, which are basically total bans, but they’re also comfortable with the idea that there will be some restrictions, many working class voters across races, really care about border security, and are quite worried about the levels of immigration, we’ve seen large parts of the Democratic Party now basically, believe in something that isn’t that different from open borders, even though they reject that phrase, what they say is basically, if you make it to this country, we should let you stay right? If you’ve made it here, we should figure out a way not to deport you, and a lot of voters, a lot of Latino voters, a lot of voters of other races as well, in Florida and Texas, look at that Democratic position and say no, thank you. You and I have talked a lot about COVID. You know, one of the post 2020 polls that tried to ask why Latinos moved to the right in Texas, was they were frustrated by lock downs. And and I think it’s not just that the Democratic Party has a set of positions here that are to the left of where many working class people are. It’s that the Democratic Party, and particularly some of its loudest megaphones, in the media, in academia, in Hollywood, have said to the other side, your position isn’t raw only wrong. It’s stupid. It’s bad. It’s ignorant. And people hear that and they say, that’s not like, that’s not my party, you’re gonna tell me I’m killing people by trying to reopen this business or reopen the school? No, thanks. Right, you’re gonna tell me that? I’m a terrible person? Because I believe in border security. No, thanks.

Andy Slavitt  28:49

Yeah. And I think I assume you that crime to that list as well.

David Leonhardt  28:52

I would add crime to that list. And you know, crime has a really fascinating history. When crime started to rise in this country. I tell the story of the great Plymouth mail robbery outside of Massachusetts, in my book, which is just this incredible caper of a bank robbery outside of Boston, and then it really 1960s. And I tell it, because it’s really the beginning of this huge boom in modern of pewter boom of crime in the 60s and 70s. And I went back and I read all these publications. And Andy, I love the mainstream media. I’m in the mainstream media. But it was so dismissive during those early years of the idea that crime was rising. And we now know in retrospect, it clearly was rising. And we’ve had a version of that in recent years, which is crime really did rise and last few years, then it leveled off. And and I just worry that large parts of the left have just said, you know, say no, now crime is falling, while ignoring the fact that actually it rose a lot. And as you just said, crime is an issue that a lot of working class people really are concerned about. And so I think it’s important for the Democratic Party if it cares about winning elections, to really think about what are the truly the issues on which we are absolutely refuse to compromise? And what are the things in which people of good faith might actually be able to disagree? And still belong to the same political coalition?

Andy Slavitt  30:12

Yeah, no, it’s fascinating. And as I’ve said to you before, David, and I said in the introduction, one of the things that makes you different, and I appreciate about you, is, it’s very easy to sort through and pick in this today’s digital age, the opinion pieces, or the articles in the New York Times that have headlines that you know, agree with your point of view. And it’s also fine to read things where you don’t know what your point of view is, and get informed. What you do is a sort of special thing, which I’m sure some love you for, and some hatred for, which is, you make it okay for people to question why they might not be right, and what they believe for quite some time whether orthodoxy might change. I think keeping an open mind in this climate isn’t really hard. I mean, we all think we have open mind, but we’re so cemented all of us into our tribes. Do you feel like you are able to approach these issues with some sort of plasticity? And being informed? Do you feel like you’ve had occasions where you’ve had to say, and have been willing to say, Oh, I thought about it one way. Now, I think about it a different way. Do you think we’ve lost that? Am I happy to have you? Right?

David Leonhardt  31:32

Yeah, you certainly have what I aspire to. And I’m sure that I often fail to live up what I to what I aspire to, but I really do try to question my own beliefs, I do try to give readers evidence that is more and less convenient. And so So I already mentioned labor unions, I do think I paid insufficient attention to the importance of labor unions early in my career. And I sort of thought of them as this kind of old fashioned thing. And look, I’ve been in a labor union. And I’ve been been frustrated by how inefficient it was. I’ve been a manager who had to manage people in a labor union, I was frustrated by aspects of that inefficiency. Labor unions have flaws. The thing is, if we have an economy with powerful corporations, and really weak, weak labor unions, no one can hold the flaws of the corporation accountable. And we end up with an economy like the one we have. So I think the importance of labor unions is something that I was somewhat off about. I think trade which you offer also mentioned, is something that I like many, you know, relatively privileged, Democrats educated people. Yeah, I just think I think you look at the evidence about what this massive boom in trade particularly with China has done. It’s been really great for China. And I don’t say that dismissively. It’s lifted huge numbers of people in China and in Asia, out of poverty.

Andy Slavitt  32:53

And for US consumers. It’s been good for us consumers.

David Leonhardt  32:56

it’s been good for US consumers, but none of us is only a consumer, that’s the thing.

Andy Slavitt  33:00

Well, I shouldn’t say there’s people who are primarily impacted by trade as a consumer, but their jobs are not threatened by it, it feels there was a lot of short term benefit. Yes, things were cheaper people can afford luxury goods, that sort of mass standardization. I mean, but I think at the same time that was happening, there were a whole bunch of people go, Well, I’m sure everybody else is getting their jobs, retrained somehow somewhere. And, of course, leaving behind that, that there’s actual real impact to people who’s primarily not a consumer. And that’s not the only way they interact with the issue.

David Leonhardt  33:34

No, that’s right. Can I mention one other thing? Because part of what I’m suggesting for people on the political left is ask which issues you might be willing to compromise on. And so I just want to give one example that helps me think about this. I’ve written a whole bunch of columns over the years about how a successful and valuable and important tax on sweetened beverages could be a soda tax. I really believe the technocratic merits for a soda tax are super strong. Look at look at Singapore. Yeah, look at Singapore look at you just look at anywhere that’s basically adopted one Mexico and I think the political opposition to it overwhelmingly comes from Coke and Pepsi and other soda companies that care a lot more about how much money they make then about the health of Americans. I just think soda taxes are a great policy. I also have come to think that that my positive writing about them had an arrogance to it and a little bit of classism to it. If you look at polls, and if you look at when soda tax has appeared on the ballot, a lot of people say hey, you know what a soda is, is a small luxury for me I like having a coke and I don’t want you coming to tax it. And the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve thought you know what? I still think it’s like technocratic Lee the right position. But I don’t write about it the way I used to anymore. I’m more deferential to public opinion, I’m particularly deferential to public opinion among people who are less fortunate than I am.

Andy Slavitt  35:05

But here, here’s what I pushed you back a little bit as your job isn’t to be popular. I mean, I think you can acknowledge that it may not be the right time. But I think for you to say, here’s why this is still the right idea. And it may not be for 10 or 15 years, for 10 or 15 years, you may look like an idiot. People who were pushing for cigarette bans and restaurants and stuff look like an idiot. But yep, for a time, but now they don’t. So I’d say as a writer, you know, you got to be willing to stick with those things you think, Alright, even as you acknowledge that you understand why it’s hard?

David Leonhardt  35:36

I did. That’s a very fair critique. And I’ve not written something saying a soda tax is a bad idea. I just think it affects the sort of volume and frequency of it. Absolutely. And I just raised it because, look, I would just ask other people to think what’s an issue in which you genuinely believe in, but you can also imagine being part of a political coalition with someone who feels differently, can you imagine being part of a political coalition with someone who even if you believe in complete reproductive rights and full access to abortion at any point in pregnancy? Could you imagine being part of a coalition with somebody who believes in restrictions, starting in the second or third trimester, and apply that to a whole series of issues? And if your answer on issue after issue after issue after issue is no I couldn’t, the problem you’re gonna have is, if you’re on the left, you’re gonna end up with a very small political coalition that is overwhelmingly made up of quite privileged people.

Andy Slavitt  36:34

Okay, so let me let me make the case to you. I don’t think this is exclusive problem with the left. And in fact, I think it’s more a problem of the right than the left, I think the right has done to their benefit, they’ve been better at being single issue voters, whether it’s judges, or abortion, or what have you. And they have been extreme and firm, and have been able to find the issues that have gotten people to the ballot. But that has also left them with a very uncompromising, bent ally, earlier conversation that we had around what’s going on in the house. But I will say that, like if you want to look at who’s getting stuff done, and this will be my defense of the left in some respect, pushing for decade plus more on guns, and finally walking away with a small victory smaller than they wanted. But they build consensus and get a bipartisan build and climate, saying we are not going to compromise on climate. But we are going to compromise with Manchin who I think represented folks who are saying I don’t think we should do this with a carbon tax, which I think very much like a like a soda tax is so clearly to me the right answer, but it’s not what the country was ready for. And they said, You know what, we’ll do this with positive incentives and build a new economy, prescription drug costs, which I think would not have happened if the Democrats hadn’t hadn’t pushed hard in a area that’s very popular for the public. And so like, I think that the case did, and I’m curious how you would answer the question of what case the Democrats have to make against some of those positions that you rightly, I think, fairly pointed out? Is that like, there are issues of really strong broad public consensus, very 60%, 70%, 80% want something done on guns? Why did something done on prescription drugs, strong segments of the population who feel like yes, we are a part of climate change, and we need to do something. Lots of argument, for sure. And what cost we should take on in order to make it how quick the transition should be. But Democrats have been right on those issues, and left to their own devices. If Republicans had been in charge, we would be doing absolutely nothing about any of those issues.

David Leonhardt  38:38

Totally fair. And look, the Democratic Party has been a much more functional party for several decades now. I mean, really, the only thing the Republican Party has gotten done is cut taxes for rich people from a legislative perspective, right? Obviously, the appointment of Supreme Court justices has allowed allowed the rollback of reproductive rights and but the Democratic Party has done much, much more. You just gave a really good list. I think I would ask Democrats to reflect on the following. Democrats basically can’t win a statewide election in something like 20 states in the United States. And as you just talked about, Democrats thought, hey, you know it, we’re Florida, Florida is purple, but it’s about to be blue. Instead, it’s become more red, not just in the most reasonable, right? So we’re not I’m not just talking about places like Alabama or Wyoming. Democrats basically don’t win statewide elections in North Carolina, in Florida, in Texas, in with the notable exception of Sherrod Brown, who I think is worth talking about, because he’s not a kind of mushy, moderate, but he’s also not a culture warrior. They don’t win in Ohio. And and so, to some extent, I would answer your question with a question why this can’t be gerrymandering. We’re talking about full states, right. Why is it that the Democratic message has become so unpopular among the majority of people in something like 20 states, the Democrats can basically never win. And whatever the answer to that question is, I would say if Democrats could unlock that, just imagine what they could get done. They could expand reproductive rights in places like North Carolina and Florida and Texas, right. They could do things to help working class people. They could expand LGBT rights in the States. And so I don’t have a perfect diagnosis of why Democrats can’t win. But I think the kind of falling back on Wow, Democrats are on the side of public opinion on every issue, like guns, and somehow we can’t win. And then there’s sort of a lot of it must be gerrymandering? Well, it’s not just gerrymandering, and it’s not just Republicans cheating.

Andy Slavitt  40:47

Just not just voting rights. Okay, let’s hold that thought. Let’s do one final break. I want to continue this conversation exactly where we’re leaving it off. And then I want to go to when we get beyond the election cycle, like what gives us reason for optimism, and I’m gonna really challenge you if you really believe it. Okay, we’ll be right back with David. I agree that the first impulse of the political left is to grasp the got all the polls favorites on all these issues. And I think she pointed out not so cleanly, by the way. But by the way, there we are very tribal, from at least a zip code standpoint. There are obviously strong Republican pockets here in California and very strong democratic pockets in Texas, and Ohio. So one thing seems certain that a lot of the motivation on either side in this coming election is to really vote against the other guy. Yep. And that’s, that’s kind of a despairing kind of thought. I want to close by something you said earlier, which is, hey, if you read my book, it really has an optimistic message at the end, which I attempt kinda like, yeah, no, I think he felt obligated. Not to leave us no, no, no, no. But But I wanted to see what his optimism comes from. But I want before that I want to talk about optimism itself. Yes. Because optimism to some extent, as you say, in your book, it’s been an ongoing feature of our of our country. Over the last couple of centuries, there’s always been big problems. There’s always been big divisions. helped with that we’ve we’ve had enslaved people in this country we’ve had women have only had the right to vote for 100 years. Yeah, we’ve had serious, serious, serious structural racism through the 1960s 50 years ago, and serious ongoing racism and xenophobia and anti semitism that goes on today. Yes, yet through at all, there has been good evidence that there’s reason to be optimistic about not just our own future, but the future of our kids and our grandkids. And it is a deeply different feeling is you, you caused us at one point in the book to do a thought experiment to say imagine, if you didn’t feel like that was owed to you or promised to you are part of this American system we live in. And yet optimism feels to some extent, like a self fulfilling prophecy, not entirely the third lot of facts fault, but to some extent, once you lose that optimism, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that follows economically, you invest less, you take fewer risks, you’re willing to offer people jobs and be entrepreneurial, and all the things that may drive progress and economic growth, but also just your generosity to others. When you’re feeling optimistic, you’re willing to share your attitudes, that community are different. When you’re feeling under threat. When you’re feeling pessimistic when you’re feeling like things are shrinking on you, your attitudes change. So maybe start there, like what is happening to the sense of optimism. And then I’m really going to challenge you to say in the face of everything you said, what gives you the right to sit here and go Yeah, we should feel optimistic.

David Leonhardt  44:24

Or at least we should have reason for hope those are subtly different. But I do think that rising living standards are create a virtuous cycle and stagnant living standards create a vicious cycle. And I think as you point out for so much of our history, people have been able to say, Well, life is getting better. And so I’m willing to be more generous to my fellow citizens. I’m willing to endure hard times I’m willing to make sacrifices. I tell the story of my own family. My great grandfather couldn’t get a job as an opera singer in Europe because he was Jewish. moved to the United States, he got a job as an opera singer. And then he got fired because he was Austrian. And they were firing all the Austrians and Germans in World War One. And he died alone in New York at age 40. And that’s obviously a horrible story. But I when I think about that story, and then I think about my family’s own trajectory since then, that that gives me reason for basic faith in this country. And you instead think about communities where where people look back, and they say, Wow, I think things really might have been better for, for my grandparents, they didn’t have opioids, they had solid jobs. It just engenders a very different feeling. And, and I think that is why it is so important for particularly those of us who are fortunate enough to really have had rising living standards, which is broadly true of college graduates in this country to reflect on how corrosive it is to American society, to have so many people who who have not been so fortunate.

Andy Slavitt  45:56

That’s so true. And yeah, that doesn’t leave me feeling optimistic.

David Leonhardt  46:00

No, that’s fair. So here, here’s something that that, that I hope will a little story and a larger idea. So this is one of my favorite chapters in the book. In the early 20th century, there was someone growing up in Jacksonville, Florida named ASA Randolph mom ran a little sewing business out of their home in Jacksonville. His dad was an ame preacher. His parents insisted that their kids read not just the Bible, but Jane Austen and Charles Darwin. And Asa Randolph eventually makes his way to New York, he takes night classes at City College, he becomes a street preacher, a soapbox orator during the Harlem Renaissance, and he starts writing and he decides, well, if I’m going to write I need a more Aug byline than ASA Randolph. So he uses a version of his full name, which will be familiar to many people, a Philip Randolph. And he eventually gets recruited to try to organize a union of railroad workers, maids and porters. Almost all black, the largest employer of black Americans at the time, the Pullman rail car company. And this is like the greatest underdog social movement in history. On the one side, you have people trying to unionize at a time, the 1920s when unions always lost, they lost like every fight they ever started. And they’re not just trying to organize any workers. They’re trying to organize black workers at a time when Jim Crow rules. And Randolph and the porters and maids endure failure after failure over many years. And finally, for a mix of reasons, Washington becomes on their side, they keep organizing people they succeed. And the Pullman Company realizes it actually has to negotiate with them, because the federal government is going to force them to and and the porters earn these huge raises. I mean, 30% raises for the maids 15% raises for the porters 40% reduction in hours, which just makes you think about Oh, my God, how many hours were they working before. And I liked the story of a Philip Randolph, both because he’s just a wonderful character. There’s this confrontation between him and FDR in the Oval Office that I described, but also because a Philip Randolph had so much more reason to be pessimistic, and to lose hope than we do today. And instead of losing hope, he basically responded by using the American system to reform the American system. And I think that’s the most hopeful message I took from looking over the past century, the thing that has changed this country is grassroots political movements. It’s true of the civil rights movement. It’s true, the labor movement, it’s true, the women’s movement, the disability rights movement. It’s true of movements on the political right, as well. And so I really do think I know so many people think democracy is rigged. I know the stagnant living standards make more people feel democracy is rigged. But I think the only solution to our problems involves political movements that try to lift the living standards of most people and win people over to those movements. And I think if that could happen, I think the American system remains flexible enough American democracy remains flexible enough that the solution to our economic and democratic problems is more democracy.

Andy Slavitt  49:15

So I do feel that thread in it, not just in this book, but in put in your in your column. And part of what it tells me and I think and I believe in this is that leadership plays a role. Yeah, right. I mean, if you look at by Luther King, you look at Mahatma Gandhi, you look at people that were extraordinary individuals that were able to help overcome and, and were iconic enough to draw people in. And your book is full of them, not just a Philip Randolph, Cesar Chavez, Robert Kennedy, Paul Hoffman, Grace Hopper, you feature a lot of these people. What I wonder though, is if you’re gonna write this book about who are the leaders who are Most influencing our world today, it wouldn’t be a jump, who will be Elon Musk? It would be Jeff Bezos, you know, it would be maybe maybe it would be Steve Jobs. It may be it’s the way that the internet has restructured power, and capital, and influence, and ideas. But none of that feels particularly grassroots to me. And, you know, I think we looked at the Internet as this potentially very empowering tool for grassroots. And to some extent, it obviously is, but I look at the the money and the power that even drive some of those movements. And it’s a mixed picture as to where leadership is going to come from, I hope you are correct, and that the right kind of leaders emerge, I hope that people step up at times and in ways, quite honestly, it’s why I left what I was doing for a few months ago, join the Biden administration at the beginning of the pandemic, was like a lot of people I think, are motivated and driven to do whatever it is that they think is the thing that they can do to contribute. But I think this sense that I don’t think it’s just being felt by non college, educated folks, I think it’s felt but but it’s being felt throughout society, that we have a handful of people, a very small handful of people with so much accumulated power and wealth that they’re influencing the outcome of wars, let alone politics.

David Leonhardt  51:25

Yeah, that’s true. It is true. And I think we have some challenges we didn’t have before. And I am not predicting that we are destined to overcome our problems, I just think we have the potential to overcome our problems. And I think when you look at the United States of the early 20th century, in terms of income inequality, in terms of the kinds of barriers that that Randolph and others faced, I actually think there’s a lot of similarity in terms of just how much of an obstacle the Supreme Court was to a lot of this stuff. And so I do not think it’s inevitable that we’re going to overcome this. I just think it’s possible. And I think there have been more recent successful grassroots movements that have one great victories, like the LGBT rights movement, I mean, the amount of progress that movement has made quickly, no closer. So I still think grassroots political successes, big ones, surprising ones are possible in in this country today.

Andy Slavitt  52:19

Totally, totally agree. Climate, guns, LGBT rights, I agree. And I do think that is a real source of optimism, soaking with you, but I had to challenge it, because you still got a challenging me every single morning, David Leonhard, so good of you to be here, his book, ours was the shining future, it’s the story the American Dream is out, it’s worth reading. And we’re going to undergo some changes this this show soon. And one of the things I’m going to do is, I’m planning to tell people what I think are the 10 best resources for being informed. And if you’re thinking in a kind of an ongoing basis, and I think I actually think your newsletter the morning from the New York Times, which everybody can get is one of the 10 things that I think is a must do source for understanding the world these days. And so I thank you for that.

David Leonhardt  53:10

Thank you. First of all, thank you so much. That’s that’s really nice. And second of all, let me just underline, anyone can get it. You don’t have to be a subscriber to the New York Times. Our newsletter, like the daily podcast is free to everyone. Whether or not you’re a subscriber.

Andy Slavitt  53:24

Thanks, David.

David Leonhardt  53:25

Thank you, Andy.

Andy Slavitt  53:39

Thank you, David. Thank you for listening. Next week. We are scheduled to have Matt Yglesias, I think, but it may be something else. Stay tuned. It says to be a good show. And as I said, I’ve got a special announcement to make as well. Then we have the mother of all COVID podcasts, because we have basically Bob Wachter, Eric Topel, Kately Jetelina, Lena, Ashish Jha, Andy Slavitt. All hanging out and rapping in a way I think you’re gonna find really reflective, fun, interesting. And even on the lots of fun stuff. That’s coming up in a couple weeks. So thank you for being here. Have a great week. I’ll be thinking about you until next week, take care.


Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Martin Macias and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.

Spoil Your Inbox

Pods, news, special deals… oh my.