Podcast • October 31, 2008

Campaign ’08: How was it for you, Jim Fishkin?

James Fishkin‘s ideal democracy is ruled by “the voice of the people, when they are thinking.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Fishkin (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3) James Fishkin: a thinking democracy? ...

James Fishkin‘s ideal democracy is ruled by “the voice of the people, when they are thinking.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Fishkin (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

James Fishkin: a thinking democracy?

A political scientist long at the University of Texas, now at Stanford, he is the Johnny Appleseed of “deliberative democracy” — in Europe, Australia, China and even in Texas, where his process of open representative decision-making chose windmills over oil as the preferred source of electrical power. If Jim Fishkin had his way, every primary state and perhaps the whole country would stop the music for a Day of Deliberation before any campaigning began. His mission is to fit the care and consideration of our Founding Elitists with the egalitarian idea of our mass democracy. “The Federalists were right that you need a small body,” he remarks in our conversation. “They were wrong that the people couldn’t do it.”

This is the spirit behind Jim Fishkin’s report card on the wondrous presidential campaign of 2008. On his three principal measuring sticks — participation, equality and deliberation: 1) a high turnout and the mobilization of minorities and younger voters will get high grades; 2) the iron cage of an “18th Century trap,” the Electoral College, still effectively disenfranchises most voters in all but a handful of battleground states; and 3) the economic meltdown that has framed the climax of the campaign and tips it heavily toward Barack Obama has made strangely fleeting contact with the spoken discourse.

Look at the 750 billion dollar bailout. The campaign dialogue has not connected with any of the real policy alternatives. The bailout was posed as the need to buy up toxic assets. In fact, very quickly, and in part because of the example of Gordon Brown, the strategy has changed completely. So the government is buying non-voting shares and preferred stocks in banks. And now it turns out the banks aren’t spending the money; they’re using it to buy up other banks to provide a cushion. We’re launching on the most extraordinary expenditures without a real consideration of the policy alternatives. And that dialogue, whatever it is, among policy elites has not penetrated the campaign discussion of the economy. The campaigns focus on who is going to cut your taxes more and earmarks, which are a tiny part of the budget. So there is an unreal… disconnection about the crisis.

Jim Fishkin finds much to celebrate about 2008: most memorably the bravura Obama performance but overall the air of experimentation, the talent for technical innovation, the vitality of YouTube and the Huffington Post, the alternative sources of power that keep opening up in this society. He reminds us, too, that we practice our politics in a global fishbowl:

Let me tell a little dialogue I had in China about this. We did a little deliberative poll in China at the local level where we actually used it to make decisions about what infrastructure projects to build in a city in China. The party elites thought that the public would like all of these image projects: super highways and a fancy town square. Instead what the people wanted were sewage treatment plants. They wanted clean water and an environmental plant and a people’s park for recreation. And they got exactly what the deliberative poll offered. So it was, in a way, a perfect realization of deliberative democracy without party competition, at the local level of course.

We had a big banquet with the local party leader at the end, celebrating it, and so he turned to me and he said, “See, we don’t need your Taiwanese style… party-competition democracy.” I said, “I think party competition would be a good idea for your democracy.” He said that we don’t need it. He said, “Look, even in your own country does your vote count?” I said what did you mean, and this took my breath away because I had no idea he was so well-informed. He said, “Do you live in a swing state?” I said, “I live in California.” He said, “See, your vote doesn’t count.” And then he said, “Is your congressional district gerrymandered?” I was really flabbergasted. He said, “See, your vote for congress doesn’t count either. But here we implement your ideas perfectly.”

James Fishkin of Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 31, 2008

Podcast • October 29, 2008

A Longer View of 2008: Historian Gordon Wood

What does a real historian make of this 2008 election that we all (reflexively now) call “historic”? Gordon Wood: a lot of Lincoln in Obama This is our opportunity with Gordon Wood – ace historian ...

What does a real historian make of this 2008 election that we all (reflexively now) call “historic”?

Gordon Wood: a lot of Lincoln in Obama

This is our opportunity with Gordon Wood – ace historian of 18th Century America at Brown, the trump card that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck invoked in the famous Cambridge bar argument in Good Will Hunting.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Gordon Wood (32 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Gordon Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for his account of The Radicalism of the American Revolution. He puts a critical lash to the best of the modern crop of historians in his new collection of review essays, The Purpose of the Past.

I was looking for an antidote to campaign talk and coverage that’s mostly about polls and operatives, to the exclusion (almost) of the past that got us here, the future unfolding. Journalists, including me, are trained to see presidential campaigns as gang warfare: the Gangs of New York playing Capture the Flag. Or Ajax, Odysseus, Achilles & Company on the ringing plain of Troy – a chaotic struggle of freelance heroes, now with expensive consultants and ad agencies, spearing their way from the Iowa caucuses to the White House. How differently does an eminent American historian of the Founders see what’s happening? It’s in the nature of this game, Gordon Wood says, that the players on the field have often the least idea of the struggle. Historians will have the last word on what happened to our country in 2008, but their judgment will take a while.

I think that all of these candidates will find that they have been carried along by forces that they can scarcely understand. Now we are coming up to the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. I think that Lincoln, of all the presidents in our history — for good reason because he confronted the civil war — had a deep tragic sense: that he was scarcely in control of all of the events that carried him along. And I think that is a kind of wisdom that Lincoln had. He wasn’t an educated man in the sense that he went to Princeton or Harvard, but he had educated himself. And he had a deep brooding sense of the tragedy of life, and that made him the ideal president for such a catastrophic event as the civil war… It didn’t paralyze him. But he always felt that things were hard… that it was hard to make a decision that you could be completely confident in because there were pressures bearing in on him. As a consequence, I think that he made the right decisions with a sense of the limitations of life. That is important, it is what we mean by wisdom. It leads to humility. Something that I think our political leaders need, they should be more humble in the face of this complicated world. And cautious, and prudent. All of these things Lincoln had, and I think politicians need them. And I think that Obama is demonstrating that kind of temperament: he is cautious, he is pragmatic, he seems prudent, and his temperament seems to be right for the world, the dangerous world, we are in.

I had the privilege last summer of reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Gordon Wood in a group of Providence wise folk and wits — eight weeks and much good wine spent on Napoleon in Russia and the transformations of continents and cultures, which, in the end, Tolstoy found to be an irrational and indecipherable process. But I had to ask how Tolstoy would try to scope out the larger dimensions of what is happening in America?

GW: He would take the line I am taking and be pessimistic about any individuals changing anything. He had a very deterministic view of the historical process, far more deterministic than my own. But I think that he is more right than wrong in that he looks at the past and the way he plays down the importance of great heroes and looks at what the masses are doing, for they have a very powerful affect. And Obama, for all of his superb campaigning, couldn’t have achieved what he has achieved if hundreds of thousands, if millions of people, hadn’t changed their minds about race over the last half-century. And I think that structural change has taken place—as I say, sports have been very influential, the military, the whole culture has changed. Bill Cosby was the most popular show on television for a while, that was a big deal. And I think that Obama is reaping the rewards of that transformation. But, I think we’ve got a long way to go and we don’t want to believe that once he is elected our race problems are going to disappear.”

CL: Tolstoy was absorbed by this fifteen year sweep of Western Europe into Russia, and Russia’s march back, in these giant tides of men at war. What do you suppose Tolstoy see about us in the wider world?

GW: Well I think he might take the view that we’ve been full of hubris, too proud, too arrogant — believing that we are capable of doing whatever we wanted to do. I think he would take that kind of line, that the United States was acting in an arrogant fashion, Napoleonic, if you will, and that we’ve had our comeupance: that we are not going to be able to control the world in the way that we thought we could when we went in to Iraq. I mean: the naïveté, the innocence of America, in a sense, was being exposed over the last decade. We’re always losing our innocence, it seems: if you go back to the 1890s or earlier, and then World War One and then World War Two, and Vietnam. We don’t seem to be able to shake our own innocence. We are just as blundering internationally as we were in Vietnam. And what we need is just a little more caution, a little more prudence. It is not that we haven’t done great things internationally. I think that World War Two was our most successful venture, and the aftermath of that was truly a generous moment in American history: the Marshall Plan. And overall I think that the United States has played a significant role in the in the last sixty years, but I don’t think our intervention in Iraq was a wise move. We’ve been hurt by that and we will find it difficult to deal with its aftermath.

Gordon Wood in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 28, 2008

Podcast • August 29, 2008

As Others See Us: Godfrey Hodgson on the Democrats

Godfrey Hodgson: now When you’ve had enough of the dugout chatter from Denver on the cable networks, try Godfrey Hodgson from Oxford, 5000 miles from the convention scene. I wonder if anybody sees American politics ...

Godfrey Hodgson: now

When you’ve had enough of the dugout chatter from Denver on the cable networks, try Godfrey Hodgson from Oxford, 5000 miles from the convention scene. I wonder if anybody sees American politics more essentially than the co-author of a reporters’ masterpiece (up there with Norman Mailer’s) on the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama, and many other rapt studies of us. (Forthcoming: The Myth of American Exceptionalism.) Hodgson volunteers in conversation that what he missed forty years ago was the length and depth of the conservative cycle the US was entering with Richard Nixon’s election. Today, forty years later, Hodgson’s keynote is that the conservative ascendancy, having fomented the Iraq War and a Gilded Age of inequality, sounds far from broken. The “change” chord rings to Hodgson more of therapy than political reconstruction. The tune from America these days, he says, still sounds something like the Russophobic ditty sung in England in the 1870s — the song that gave “Jingo” to the lexicon of chip-on-the-shoulder patriotism.

We don’t want to fight,

But by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships,

We’ve got the men,

And we’ve got the money, too.

From a popular music-hall song by G. W. Hunt, around 1877.

Godfrey Hodgson: then

The grandest thematic links between ’68 and ’08 — race and the American imperium — are oddly same and different, constant and transformed. Race in the Sixties meant riotous rebellion and a rights revolution; the race “issue” today refers to the apparently unpollable question whether Americans will vote a black family into their iconic White House. The debacle in Iraq would seem to cry out for some open straight talk about the limits of American power in the world, but this campaign shies from the general question. In 1968, Robert Kennedy, running against Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, wanted us to lay claim nonetheless to “the moral leadership of this planet.” Eugene McCarthy mocked “the idea that somehow we had a great moral mission to control the entire world.” He was bolder and steadier than any of the major candidates for 2008 in opposing permanent counterinsurgency as our fighting posture in the world — this American assumption for itself of “the role of the world’s judge and the world’s policeman.” It is the relatively shy silence on that point that tells Godfrey Hodgson that the 2008 campaign is veiled in the premises of the conservative ascendancy.

Meantime Geoffrey Hodgson wonders who could answer the question that drove John Gunther‘s “Inside USA” books:

John Gunther would send a researcher ahead, book a suite in the big hotel in town, invite all the movers and shakers, give them a cocktail or two and then say, “Who runs this place?”

We can tick off the established powers of 40 years ago that aren’t there anymore. Sure, the city machines have gone. In 1972, I made film about the Democratic Convention and there, there were still residual smoke-filled rooms, residual bosses, I remember doing an interview with Pete Camille of Philadelphia, for example –a city boss, but that’s gone. Detroit is gone. The big three auto makers have just gone cap-in-hand to the administration asking them for, I think it’s, 25 billion bucks, because they’re broke. The banks are sliding around on the floor. Wall Street; the old foreign policy establishment. I wrote a biography of Colonel Henry L. Stimson; he and his friends, the Bundy brothers, have disappeared… If I may say so, the New York Times and the Washington Post are not the powers in the world that they were in 1968 …

To my mind, Franklin Roosevelt… really was the person who figured out how to make the presidency work and I learned from a political scientist called Aaron Wildavsky one thing about how he did it. He had basically four levers or connections that he used. One of which was the Congress, one of which was the Democratic Party, one of which was the bureaucracy or the permanent government, and one of which was the media. I don’t think any of those connections are still in good working order… The political party has really been utterly transformed by the process that began with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in which the old traditional Democratic party was destroyed and the Republican party became a conservative party. For the first time really you have a European style politics where you have a party of the left and a party of the right. The French say the party of movement and the party of order. It may be that the old political parties just can’t work that way.

It certainly seems that the media cannot be managed in that way if only because of the internet, and the bloggers, and the multiplicity of people who have access to the bullhorn, as it were… Max Weber, who invented the concept of the charismatic leader, always assumed that the destined fate of the charismatic leader was to create a bureaucratic leadership, that there was an almost inevitable progression that you go from the charismatic leader to the organization. This was his example: you go from Jesus Christ to the Apostle Paul, the man who organized the church as a powerful, enduring and efficient institution.

I think the Democratic Party is an intensely interesting organization, and if Barack Obama can really reshape, retool the Democratic Party as an instrument of benign political change, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt created the Roosevelt Coalition, which is now completely crumbled, then I think he will be a very great political leader, but it’s going to be tough. I don’t know whether it’s possible to imagine a President Obama recreating a presidency that is as effective as the Roosevelt presidency was.

Godfrey Hodgson in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008

Podcast • August 24, 2008

Cass Sunstein: for the Homer Simpson in all of us

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Cass Sunstein (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3) Cass Sunstein of the gentle Nudge Cass Sunstein gives us the half-hour short course here on “the most exciting intellectual movement ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Cass Sunstein (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Cass Sunstein of the gentle Nudge

Cass Sunstein gives us the half-hour short course here on “the most exciting intellectual movement of the last thirty years” — behavioral economics, that is, of which we had a taste recently with George Lakoff and Dan Ariely.

Behavioral economics is the demonstration (by clinical psychology, affirmed by neuroscience) that the “rational man” of neo-classical economics is in fact, in Dan Ariely’s book title, Predictably Irrational — that we are eternally kidding ourselves in our choice of credit cards, or of diets and desserts; that we tend to lurch without much reflection from over-optimism to over-anxiety about terrorist threats, war risks, and environmental melt-downs. Cass Sunstein is himself a demonstration of the spread of the new thinking from psychology and economics to law and politics. From the University of Chicago Law School, where he taught alongside Barack Obama for a dozen years, he has just moved permanently to Harvard, where he and Obama seem still to be channeling each other. Sunstein’s new book Nudge, with the economist Richard Thaler, is an introduction to a variety of not-quite-coercive strategies for helping people get what they really want: 401k savings plans, for example, that would be automatic for all workers who didn’t choose to set some of their wages aside. The general trick, Sunstein says, is recognizing that there’s less Immanuel Kant, more Homer Simpson, in each and all us than we’ve been taught.

This started with psychology. Two Israelis Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did a bunch of amazing experiments in the 1970’s where they said people use some mental shortcuts in trying to think about risk. If a recent event, for example, is in your head, say it involves a crime or a misfortune or something wonderful happening, then you will think it’s really probable that the crime or the misfortune or the wonderful thing will happen. This way of thinking migrated first into economics. There has really been a revolution in economic thinking because economists are trying to do their work with a realistic rather than artificial sense of what human beings are like. The idea is that we can do economics with Homer Simpson as our types rather than doing economics with computers as our types. People just aren’t computers. When Homer, in one episode, went to buy a gun, the gun owner told him that him that there is a three day waiting period. And Homer responded: “What? Three Days? I’m angry now!” So that captures people’s passion and focus on the short term, and it also captures how law and policy can help a lot.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 21, 2008.

Podcast • May 19, 2008

Glenn Loury: The Missing Voice of Jeremiah

Are we supposed to be hoping that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s hair-raising 15 minutes of fame are over? The black polymath Glenn Loury and I are puzzling in conversation here about all that the YouTube ...

Are we supposed to be hoping that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s hair-raising 15 minutes of fame are over?

The black polymath Glenn Loury and I are puzzling in conversation here about all that the YouTube and network frenzy left out — the blessed insight and fellowship of black church life in America, but also the radicalism of its perspectives.

It’s commonly observed in the black church that the Sunday morning worship time is the most segregated hour in American life. It’s been my white-guy experience, all the same, that the African-American Christian church — with its manifestly, audibly distinctive roots in slave history and modern ghetto experience — lives out the most open and exemplary, all-embracing and anti-tribal God-consciousness I’ve ever imagined.

Professor Glenn Loury of Brown is a child of the South Side of Chicago, well known for his sometimes wayward path toward the mountaintop of university economics. He tells of his own redemptive engagement with the church, and his own searing confrontation with Jeremiah Wright. His disappointment here is that the “prophetic witness” of the black church was so zealously bound, gagged and anathematized in the political and media caricatures of Reverend Wright — as if we could not bear to know how differently the South Side of Chicago thinks and talks about, say, the Middle East, or the fate of Native Americans, or the US Constitution’s long compromise with slavery. “How could those three quarters of a million African-American descendants sitting on the South Side of Chicago not have that history vividly in their minds, and how could it not be reflected in the spiritual witness and inspirational preaching that would come out of their churches?”

The think that worries me, Chris, more than that the black church will be somehow denigrated and lose respect (because I don’t think there’s any keeping the black church down, okay?)… The thing that worries me more than that is that the root of this “prophetic voice” that comes out of the African American church — “America, you’re not as good as you think you are… America, you’re not so high up on that city on a hill that you’ve constructed for yourself that you cannot go wrong…” You know, the capacity to be critical — My fear is that that voice will be somehow rendered unacceptable, that the need for a presidential candidate to establish for the broad mainstream of the American people that he is not some kind of radical… will somehow bring with it the conclusion that the critical context out of which it came was itself illegitimate, ridiculous, absurd, … not worthy to be considered for another moment; let’s move quickly onto the next case.

Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 16, 2008

Podcast • January 31, 2008

Randall Kennedy: A Change is Gonna Come

A conversation with law professor Randall Kennedy the other night began with his new book Sellout: the Politics of Racial Betrayal . It turned quickly to Barack Obama and ended with a Sam Cooke lyric: ...

A conversation with law professor Randall Kennedy the other night began with his new book Sellout: the Politics of Racial Betrayal . It turned quickly to Barack Obama and ended with a Sam Cooke lyric: “A Change is Gonna Come.”

The dread of “sellouts” in black America is the holdover anxiety of a people with (as the paranoids say) real enemies — from slavery time but also in modern memory when the FBI inflitrated the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party with paid informants, as the FBI had also planted spies in Marcus Garvey’s movement. Randy Kennedy’s plea — fired in part by his own unhappy experience with a book titled Nigger — is for some expansion of the boundaries in the discourse of changing times. And then along comes Barack Obama in the presidential campaign, smashing categories and changing definitions — of “race men,” among other things — until our heads spin, including Randy Kennedy’s.

Podcast • January 19, 2008

Backstage with Henry V

King Henry V: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more… … when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the ...

King Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

… when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage…

… The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Laurence Olivier (1944)

Boy, in Henry’s army:

Would I were in an alehouse in London, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.


The King’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant: I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring I love the lovely bully.

In order: Sovereign, “grunt” and rowdy commoner on the eve of battle, Acts 3 and 4 of Henry the Fifth

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Coppelia Kahn, Normi Noel and Seth Powers here (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Henry the Fifth remains, for many, the familiar favorite among Shakespeare plays. For Lydon kids, it began with my father’s doctrine that Laurence Olivier’s Henry V was the best movie ever made — though we all came to see the sinew-stiffening World War 2 propaganda dimension of the piece, which Winston Churchill had cleansed, for example, of the mass slaugher of French prisoners in Shakespeare’s account. Those magic lines of Henry’s — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” to his warriors, and his love banter with the French princess Katherine — “take a soldier; take a King” — summon the blood and melt the heart long after we realize that this warlike Harry was bluffing his way through an aggressive and unpopular war of choice, egged on by a corrupt church establishment.

Kenneth Branagh challenged the Everest of Shakespearean movie-making, and got credit for taking the peak, in 1989. Branagh’s battle scenes were hellish, and his Henry was a thug in scenes that Olivier had cut:

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

King Henry:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,

And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

Henry’s ultimatum to the town fathers of Harfleur, in Act 3, Scene 1 in Henry the Fifth

Come now the merry and inventive players of the treasured Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston. Their Henry V is five actors in a garage basement, directed by Normi Noel of Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, raising profound old riddles anew, in a production worthy of the ASP standard we’ve celebrated before in King Lear and Titus Andronicus.

Just war? Are you kidding? Be reminded that this dramatic site of arguably the greatest, most quotable war speeches in the language is also a mine of anti-war eloquence, not least by Michael Williams, a soldier:


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

Soldier-talk, overheard by the king on the eve of Agincourt in Act 4, Scene 1, Henry the Fifth

We will have a conversation any day now with Coppelia Kahn, the Shakespeare scholar at Brown, and with principals in this ASP production: the actor playing Henry, Seth Powers, and the director Normi Noel, who remarked to me today: “Hamlet is a cake-walk after this guy.” In the program notes she raises a fascinating question about one of the most famous lines in the play, spoken in connection with the approaching death of Henry’s cast-off roistering mate, Falstaff: “The king has killed his heart.”

Is it Falstaff’s heart that Henry has killed in becoming a king? Or his own? Might the core of the play be, as Normi Noel suspects, about “what we do to armor the heart against feeling?”

But first I put it to the Open Source crowd: What is Shakespeare saying through Henry the Fifth about honor and heroism, about the earning of kingship and manhood, about nationhood and war, about chivalry and tragic irony? Help me out, please. Are not the questions wide open?