Podcast • September 29, 2016

‘Secular Rapture’: Trump and the American Dispossessed

Working-class whites are now the reigning champs of pessimism in America.  No other group of working-class Americans — Black, Hispanic, or Asian — holds a more despairing, more dire outlook on the future of our country. ...

Working-class whites are now the reigning champs of pessimism in America.  No other group of working-class Americans — Black, Hispanic, or Asian — holds a more despairing, more dire outlook on the future of our country. According to our guest J.D. Vance, only 44% of all working-class whites now believe that their children will be better off economically than themselves.

It’s not hard to understand why: rural, de-industrialized parts of our country are hurting badly. Surging suicide rates, spiraling drug epidemics, rampant joblessness, the same kind of community breakdown often associated with poor, urban African American neighborhoods.

Trump Country

Donald Trump knows this. And while he may not be mobilizing “white working-class voters” as much as the punditry likes to think, much of his speech is directed at whites who are feeling disenfranchised, culturally alienated, and left behind as the coastal elite reap all the advantages of a rigged political system.

Arlie Hochschild has spent the last five years researching and writing her new book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Around Louisiana bayou country, she traces “deep stories” of whites who feel they’ve been screwed over. For them, Trumpand his rebuke of corruption, civility, multiculturalism, and (especially) feminismlooks a lot like “secular rapture,” she says.

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This hour, three scenes from a divided country. From the oil patches of Louisiana to the Rustbelt of southwestern Michigan to the steel town of Ohio, we’re asking where it all comes from. Hochschild and Vance are joined by one other close watcher of rural America. Novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell, in the style of grotesque noir, tells us about the pressures of a changing world and primal existential need to feel necessary and important.

Photos: Sarah L. Voisin; Stacy Kranitz; University of California, Berkeley

This Week's Show •

Democracy’s Dark Side

This week, the third in a series on our democracy in 2016, we’re discussing what you can’t change with a vote — at least for now. Change is the electoral mood for now, with Bernie Sanders ...

This week, the third in a series on our democracy in 2016, we’re discussing what you can’t change with a vote — at least for now.

Change is the electoral mood for now, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s victories in New Hampshire in the news. But change was the watchword of Barack Obama, too. What is an uneasy electorate asking for seven years later, and why aren’t they getting it?

Michael Glennon has a theory. He’s a former Senate lawyer who today teaches at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In his book, National Security and Double Government, Glennon wants to explain the durability of national habits like the drone war, crackdowns on journalists, widespread surveillance, and secrecy by getting voters to see our government as split in two.

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There’s the traditional front — “The Making of the President,” the State of the Union, the Capitol Hill roll call, the marble columns. But beneath that Madisonian world is a secret 20th-century establishment of bureaucrats, experts, contractors, and civil servants who do a lot of deciding themselves, on matters of national security and surveillance, diplomacy, trade, and regulation. And, in a dangerous and complex empire, their indispensable number and their power grows year after year.

Glennon insists that he isn’t speaking about a shadowy secret government, or the Freemasons. Rather, he’s talking about hypertalented, hard-working people who make their homes in the D.C. metro area, and who draft the memos, legal briefs, and war plans that end up deciding our common future.

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The dark-matter influence of this group becomes especially clear when it comes to the stubbornness of the security state: from Harry Truman begging the nation to rethink the privileges of the CIA — an agency he founded — one month after John Kennedy was killed in Dallas (above), to George W. Bush being repeatedly left (like his father) “out of the loop” by the intelligence services, and misled about the nature of the post-9/11 program of torturing America’s prisoners. Or finally Barack Obama, who is reported to have declared, on the subject of drones, “the CIA gets what it wants.” This is the long story of the Castro assassinations, the Church Committee (below), and the torture report.

There’s a chaotic, exciting feeling in the air in 2016 — but should we have to hold our applause for the spectacle and take a second look under the hood of the government itself?

Let us know what you think in the comments or on our Facebook page.

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February 25, 2016

Race and the Race for the White House

Is racial justice on the ballot in 2016? In the past year, Charleston, South Carolina, grieved twice. First, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer, and a Taser was planted next ...

Is racial justice on the ballot in 2016?

In the past year, Charleston, South Carolina, grieved twice. First, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer, and a Taser was planted next to his body. Then a young white supremacist gunned down nine people at Bible study at “Mother Emanuel,” one of the America’s most significant black churches.

Before the state’s assembly, in a moment of shame and anger, could decide to remove the Confederate flag from the state house veranda in Columbia, activist Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole and took it down herself.

Our leadoff guest, the human-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, reminds us that we still live in a country where Martin Luther King shares a memorial day with General Robert E. Lee in Southern celebrations; where the Confederacy is memorialized but the victims of lynching are not; and where woes of every kind — from environmental risks, as in Flint, to criminal records, as in Ferguson — visit black homes, northern and southern, in overwhelming disproportion.

Half a year after Charleston’s bloody summer, the Democrats of South Carolina go to the polls in the race to replace Barack Obama. We’re wondering, what good is a four-year presidential ballot when a fiery, four-hundred-year history is what’s at issue?

We’ve convened our favorite commentators of color to discuss the big issues beyond the election — and maybe the election, too: from Barbara J. Fields, the formidable historian against race; organizers old and new, Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Mychael Denzel Smith; and brilliant friends like Jacqueline Rivers and Calvin McCrevan.

Tell us: can you say “Black Lives Matter” with a ballot this year, and if so, how do you vote?

Header photo by: AP Photo/WCSC-TV, Philip Weiss.

February 18, 2016

Hacking The Constitution

The late justice Antonin Scalia boasted that his United States Constitution was definitively “dead.” But in a mixed-up political season, what if our founding document wants a new lease on life? And what if we ...

The late justice Antonin Scalia boasted that his United States Constitution was definitively “dead.” But in a mixed-up political season, what if our founding document wants a new lease on life? And what if we brought it, as a flawed and fungible 200-year-old wonder, back into the conventional conversation again?

Scalia’s “originalist” literalism about a 225-year-old document made him a conservative force on the court — a kind of bad cop for a Constitution that is still cherished by its nation. But our guest, the law professor Sanford Levinson wants us to ask, in a chaotic political season, how is it that we still love the Constitution so much when we’ve long hated the government it produces? He’d argue that the time has come for a second Constitutional Convention, with a very full laundry list of structural changes:

With that in mind, we’ve convened a panel of our favorite lawyers: Lawrence Lessig, a former Scalia clerk and an advocate-turned-candidate against money in politics; Jedediah Purdy, of Duke, a philosopher of modernity and democracy along with a professor of law; and Katharine Young of Boston College, in the business of comparing the world’s constitutions with an eye toward improving them.

May 12, 2015

TPP On Trial

The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do ...

The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do with the inability of our own polarized and privatized society to repair the social contract at home. Only at the end of our untypically acrimonious hour did a moral come clear: the 30-year regime of expanding global trade could well founder for want of a firm public decision to share the pain and the profits in that transformation. The more we learn about TPP, the more it looks like a blunt instrument of the banking and corporate interests to protect their investments, and of Big Pharma, Hollywood and Info Tech to protect their “intellectual property” abroad.   Enforceable compensations for workers and communities, here and there, would be nice, too.

Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia struck the resounding note on our show of disenchantment heading toward despair. Our friend Jeff has been an inexhaustibly cheerful and pragmatic promoter of globalization strategies that have in fact lifted the starving and the desperately poor. But the TPP bandwagon looks now to be fueled by the fantasy that trade is money-making magic — and he’s off it.

[Obama] said, “Look, why is Elizabeth Warren pounding on me? We’re together on minimum wage, we’re together on job training, we’re together on clean energy.” The problem is he hasn’t gotten any of those things passed…Trade worked more or less as one would expect trade and investment to work. It has created an expanded world economy, it has helped a lot of poor countries to gain a foothold and to grow, and it has exacerbated income inequalities in our country and elsewhere. What hasn’t worked is normal politics. We don’t have what I assumed 30 years ago, as a child of the sixties, was a completely normal idea: that there would be adjustment assistance, that there would be worker training, that we’d care for the environment. What we really have is a system of corporate governance. We don’t have a democratic polity right now in the sense of representing the interest and needs of the American people. Enough is enough. We can’t keep exacerbating these inequalities unless we get our own politics right.

The Harvard economist in our huddle, Robert Z. Lawrence, is a TPP stalwart. The loss of manufacturing work in America is not as extreme, he noted, as the near-vanishing of farm labor in the 20th Century — and the driving force in both transformations was not trade, he argued, so much as the vaulting productivity of new tools — mechanical and now digital.

Automation, technological change and innovation have allowed us to produce the same quantity of goods with far fewer workers… Trade allows us to get higher living standards, but what we haven’t been good at is adjustment policies that help workers who are dislocated… While I agree that we have deficiencies in terms of the way we help workers or don’t help workers, the real question facing us today is: Are we better off being in the game and negotiating for the kind of agreements we like or are we going to let others do it instead of us?

Our journalist, meanwhile, Barry C. Lynn mourned the fact that we can’t just hit the TPP kill-switch. Why not? We don’t own the switch anymore:

The WTO system — the agreement that we signed back in 1994, put in place in 1995 — was a decision by the U.S. government or by people who had control over the US government to get the government out of the job of regulating trade — essentially to turn over the job of regulating trade to the people who run our corporations and the people who run our banks.

We heard a lot of crossfire in this conversation and, in the end, an awkward consensus: that our president is pretending not to know that the trade regime is out of order.

Field Recording: “Seaming Suits in New Bedford”


Max and I went to Joseph Abboud Manufacturing, a garment factory in New Bedford, Mass., to gather sounds and hear from workers about technology, free trade, labor, and what it’s like to be one of the last manufacturers in this famous old whaling port. See some photographs we took, below.

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Podcast • January 27, 2015

Steve Brill’s Bitter Pill

Steve Brill is our guest. He’s an old-fashioned reporter at book length – out of the David Halberstam school. He’s taken apart the passage of Obamacare in an investigation he titled America’s Bitter Pill: Money, ...

Steve Brill is our guest. He’s an old-fashioned reporter at book length – out of the David Halberstam school. He’s taken apart the passage of Obamacare in an investigation he titled America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.

Short form: It’s the story of a messy democracy awash in special-interest money trying to reform a messy health care system itself awash in money and private powers. The moral is every bit of the discontent; everything that’s wrong with Obamacare comes directly out of the way the bill was cooked. There were many steps in good directions, Steve Brill would tell you, but still our politics and our doctoring both need emergency care.

Among the Washington compromises and insurance-industry negotiations, we’re discussing a story that hits close to home here in Boston, too: that of the medical device industry. As Steve Brill says:

The medical device industry is one of the most profitable industries. Their profit margins are through the roof; the leading medical device company, Medtronic, has much higher profit margins even than Apple.

So part of the Obamacare law that made some sense was: they put an excise tax of 3% on all medical devices—all durable medical equipment, as they call it. Now the rationale was we’re about to give people who make pacemakers, and artificial hips, and artificial knees, and neurostimulators for your back that nobody really needs but everybody gets—we’re about to give them tens of millions of new customers. Let’s get a little bit of a tax on them. It’s an excise tax, which means it’s not just on domestic companies, it’s on foreign companies.

And the industry howled. They said: This is a jobs killer; this is a profit killer; it’s terrible. And it wasn’t just the Republicans. In Washington, when it comes to healthcare lobbying it is bipartisan.

The sainted Elizabeth Warren is trying to get that tax repealed. Al Franken is trying to get that tax repealed, as well as the Republicans. It’s the one bipartisan thing going on capitol hill—is let’s repeal the medical device tax—because their tentacles are so deep on capitol hill.

Now is it a jobs killer? Is it a profits killer? Let’s look at Medtronic. Since Obamacare was signed, Medtronic’s profit is up 67% and it’s added more than 5,000 people to the payroll. Doesn’t sound like a jobs killer; doesn’t sound like a profit killer. … Obamacare is a gravy train for these companies. The idea that a 3% tax has hurt them is hilarious, there’s just no evidence of it.

Podcast • June 5, 2014

How Would Burke Makeover the GOP?

Next time on Open Source, the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

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Guest List

David Bromwich introduces us to the conservative hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman who befriended the American Revolution, hated the French version, loved liberty and hated violence, and believed that empires like his and ours must answer to the whole world. Move over, Bush and Boehner. What if Edmund Burke were leading our Republicans in 2014?

Ever wondered how the political map of the United States has changed over the past 225 years. Here’s an interactive map showing the liberal-conservative spectrum of the first 112 Congresses.

 

Reading List 

• Adam Gopnik offers a smart survey of the many Burkes in The New Yorker (paywall);

• Robert Kagan, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”, from Foreign Policy, to be read against Professor Bromwich’s excellent essay, “Moral Imagination.”

• Yuval Levin, presented as a Burkean intellectual historian and the new Irving Kristol;

• Mike Lind on the coming realignment of the political tendencies in America, breaking along more traditional conservative lines.

By the Way • December 24, 2013

Waking up to the BRA

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the ...
Boston Redevelopment Authority

Illustration thanks to Boston Magazine

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the dire need for affordable housing in this rapidly gentrifying city.

Today, the Boston Globe reiterates her claim in an article that reveals some shady deals by the BRA, contrasting Mayor Thomas Menino’s public statements supporting affordable housing in the city. By law, developers are required to allocate at least 13 percent of their housing units for middle-income families or pay fees to build the units in a different location.

However, Globe reporters discovered hidden “discounts” unequally granted by the BRA to some developers but not others. In one particularly egregious example, the BRA staff awarded a $5.9 million discount to Anthony Pangaro, the developer of the luxury Millenium Place and campaign contributor to Menino. Additionally, the Globe writes, “a four-month Boston Globe investigation has found that the BRA has allowed at least four other developers breaks on affordable housing fees valued at a combined $3.4 million without disclosing them publicly.”

Unfortunately, the problem seems to extend beyond the secret tax breaks and loopholes that erode public funds for affordable housing. When money is collected, it is misused. According to the Globe, “the BRA has spent just $18 million on affordable housing since Menino established the housing program in 2000, less than a quarter of the $75 million the agency should have collected if the BRA had consistently followed the rules… the rest either has not been collected, was diverted to other purposes, or languishes in a BRA account.”

Four out of five of the BRA board members are appointed by the Mayor, and all report directly to him alone. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Martin Walsh acknowledged the need for change in the BRA, saying “the BRA must be reformed for efficiency and transparency.”

Will he keep these promises and prevent the siphoning of money away from affordable housing and into the pockets of developers? How will these uncovered deals impact the legacy of Mayor Menino? Is the BRA giving away the city of Boston to its political friends?

December 19, 2013

Waiting a New Mayor, a New Radio Show

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway?Where’s ...

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway?

Where’s the emergent Boston — in the old cradle of liberty that’s become a perfect example of the new inequality? Where prices keep rising and real incomes keep falling: meaning an average worker in Boston can’t afford an average home. Where’s the spirit of Boston — the Puritans’ city on a hill, ready for another Irish Last Hurrah at City Hall… when the Boston accent is fading and in fact 100 different languages are spoken in the city… where most of the people (and three of every four school kids) are black, brown, Asian or Hispanic? In the city of champions — baseball, football, med tech and higher ed… On the new bicycle paths over the ancient cow paths: where’s this reinvented Boston going?

In the land of The Last Hurrah, mayor’s races are markers of social history: James Michael Curley’s Irish wars with the Protestant Yankees in four decades of the 20th Century; John Collins and Johnny Powers and then Kevin White and Louise Day Hicks in Irish contests among themselves; Ray Flynn against the black contender Mel King in the 1980s; then the Irish eclipse through the 20 year reign of Tom Menino. And finally this year in majority-minority Boston (you could argue the most globalized immigrant city in America) we had a final choice between two very different Irish flavors: the favorite John Connolly was Harvard educated and school-reform minded, but he was defeated in the end by the trade-union lobbyist and recovering drinker from the working-class and waterfront precincts, Marty Walsh.

Our guests in the WBUR studio are: John Connolly, because so often it’s the loser who learns more in the game than the winner. Shirley Kressel, a mere housewife from the Back Bay who may be the most relentlessly informed and critical citizen in the Republic of Boston — a combination of Jane Jacobs and I. F. Stone. And Barry Bluestone, the progressive and prolific social scientist who’s had an outsider’s eye on Boston for 40 years now.

The upshot of an hour’s gab seems to be that Boston — for all the knocks — is in a spot that almost any big city in America would dream of occupying. And further, that the hero and villain of the moment is the Graduate Student, most particularly the ones from “away” and “abroad.” It’s those graduate students who (for want of dormitories) are sucking up the three-decker apartments built for workers back in the day — at the same time they’re confirming Boston’s attractiveness and conceiving its future.

Our question — “Where’s Boston?” — was the title of a brilliant little bicentennial film collage of pictures and voices of Boston as of 1976, almost 40 years ago. It makes you wonder: do we still sound that interesting?

Thank you to Cambridge Seven Associates and Executive Producer Peter Chermayeff for the”Where’s Boston” video.

November 14, 2013

Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night ...

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis — he says to Mimi: “I’d rather my kids be Red than dead.” He never could have said that in public, but that was his, one might say, revisionist thinking. Because he had begun as a Cold Warrior, you see. And he becomes more mindful of this idea he’ll be the one who’ll be responsible if there’s a nuclear war. It will go down in history as John Kennedy, the Cold Warrior who killed hundreds of millions of people.

You know, at the beginning of his term he wants to rein in the military, who control nuclear weapons, or the local commanders. Mac Bundy tells them they could touch off nuclear war if there’s an incident with the Soviets. So Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon and says: we want to see the nuclear war plan. And the general says: we don’t show that. Bundy says: you don’t understand, I’m calling for the President. Anyway, they give Kennedy a briefing. They talk about how they would drop 170 atomic bombs — nuclear weapons — on Moscow alone. And they would kill hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe, China. And as Kennedy walks out of the room, he says to Dean Rusk: “And we call ourselves the human race.”

Robert Dallek in conversation with Chris Lydon, November, 2013

Robert Dallek brings passion and a sympathetic curiosity to my last three simple questions about John F. Kennedy — subject of Dallek’s mainstream classic: An Unfinished Life.

First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.

Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?

Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.

DallekProfessor Dallek’s answers aren’t simple, and they’re not exactly what I was looking for. But they do connect in a plausible whole, with feeling. Dallek is reminding us us that JFK, off the record, was a pillow-talk peacenik. With his 19-year-old mistress / intern, in the presidential bed during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke the words “better Red than dead” that were officially forbidden during the Cold War. The best way to see Kennedy’s last year, Dallek says, is as an all-out peace campaign against nuclear suicide. JFK was at war with his own CIA, and a lot of his own generals, who were “nuts,” he said. But Dallek won’t say, doesn’t believe and would hate to discover that it was the spies and generals who set up him up for murder. Dallek told me we love Kennedy for his star-crossed glamour – for so many accidental things like the fact that we never saw him grow old. But he leaves me wondering if we don’t all cling to the Kennedy memory much more for the basic reason Dallek admires him above all – that he stared down a very possible nuclear catastrophe; that he broke the nuclear madness of 50 years ago with his melancholy realism about war.

Check out the other reflections we’re recording on the 50h anniversary of John Kennedy’s death. James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, argues that Kennedy was killed by the war establishment for his turn to peace. Jeffrey Sachs in To Move the World sings the praises of the Kennedy / Sorensen “peace speech” at American University, but doesn’t want to consider a connection with Kennedy’s death. Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers can imagine putting Kennedy’s CIA nemesis Allen Dulles on the list of assassination suspects — but doesn’t see the evidence for prosecution. And by all means add your own thoughts on about John Kennedy’s life, death and legacy in a comment here.