Jun 3, 2022 • 1HR 3M

Volts podcast: Chris Hayes on how his politics have changed since 2015

How to think about America's grim current trajectory.

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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In this episode, Chris Hayes of MSNBC discusses how American politics and society changed after the Obama years, where things might head in the future, and how his own views have shifted along the way.

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David Roberts

I often reflect on a particular moment in the summer of 2015. It was not long after the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal across the nation in Obergefell v. Hodges. And America was in the middle of one of its regular fights over Confederate monuments and flags, which were being pulled down by progressives across the country.

One afternoon I ran across a cartoon — I think it was on Facebook? — showing a Confederate flag being lowered and the LGBTQ flag being raised in its stead.

Hot damn, I thought. Maybe we really do get it right eventually.

I now think back on that moment as the peak of my belief in what you might call the Obama creed, which the nation's first black president repeated in one way or another in virtually every speech: that the essence of America is its continuous struggle toward the egalitarian ideals of its founding. Again and again it delays and falls short and takes two steps back, but it never stops striving, improving, bit by hard-fought bit. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

To a first approximation, everything that has happened since then has sucked. We fell into the ugly 2016 Democratic nomination fight, followed by the ugly presidential election, then four years of daily insults to dignity and compassion by Trump, then a plague that we bungled in countless ways and that has killed more than a million of us, and now, the Supreme Court is systematically dismantling the pillars of the modern administrative state while Biden and the Democrats fumble their way through a slow-motion catastrophe, setting up an openly seditious Republican Party to seize near-total power in the coming two elections.

To put it mildly, these developments have been rough on the Obama creed, at least for me and many people I know. Much of what Obama himself did was crushed or reversed by Trump, and Biden has barely begun rebuilding from the wreckage. More than that, America's reactionary minority seems ascendent. And its intentions are clear: to follow Viktor Orban's lead in Hungary. To whittle democracy down until it's entirely hollow, one-party rule in all but name. It finds echoes in similar reactionary backlashes currently rising in nations across the globe.

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Is America redeemable? Is white Christian patriarchy ready and willing to destroy the country before it gives up power? Is the arc of history bending, or is it merely flailing back and forth, with no larger purpose or pattern? Is modern multi-racial, multi-cultural democracy still a viable long-term project?

Chris Hayes (NBC)
Chris Hayes (NBC)

To help ponder these weighty questions, I've turned to the inimitable Chris Hayes, who, as they say, needs no introduction. You've seen his shows on MSNBC, you've listened to his podcast, you've read his essays and books, you know that he is one of the leading liberal voices of our time. He’s also a friend. We are part of the same generation of journalists, living through the same dumpster fires, seeing the same patterns, and our paths have crossed regularly over the years. I’ve also been on several of his shows! We go way back.

I’ve always felt that Chris and I share similar political and intellectual instincts — one of the few people at the commanding heights of US journalism and punditry about whom I can say that — so I’m curious to hear how his political outlook has changed since 2015, whether he still believes in the Obama creed, and what he thinks is coming in America’s near future.

So with that portentous wind-up, let's bring him into the conversation.

Chris Hayes

That was great. I love that. I found that very moving.

David Roberts

Oh, great. Alright, well, thanks for coming on Volts.

Chris Hayes

I should say I'm a Volts reader, too.

David Roberts

Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it. We're talking during a very dark time. Dark. I mean, it's all shades of dark these days. It's particularly dark in the wake of the latest ...

Chris Hayes

Child murder?

David Roberts

Child murder. Yes, child mass murder. That we're all going through the motions as we always do, until that fades and something else horrible comes up in the news. But let's pull the lens back. I want to do some big picture talking, and then a little bit more close in, like proximate, what's our proximate future talk? But let's start with the big picture. So I just want to start by asking you in the most general possible terms, if you think back to 2015, which I mark as sort of the last normal year, how has your political outlook changed?

I think of you as basically sort of a Left liberal, Scandinavian, welfare-state kind of guy. Has any of that fundamentally changed? Or if not, have you changed your mind about any big things? How have you evolved since then?

Chris Hayes

Yeah, I think my basic orientation, which is like, a Social Democrat, a Rawlsian liberal, a mixed economy, freedom plus groceries, adherent — freedom plus groceries, a great quote from a New Deal congressman describing the New Deal, which has never been improved upon for basically Social Democratic, mixed economy, rule of law. Broadly, I'm a liberal, and I'll talk about that in a second because I actually think that I'm more that in a specific philosophical sense than I ever was before, actually. But, yeah, that hasn't really changed. But things have changed. So one, I do think I'm a little less, I don't know what I feel about progress.

What I do feel with age, and with now going through having been a sort of professional working journalist for 20 years now, just like that, there are reformist moments and reactionary moments, and they kind of alternate and being able to recognize when you're in one almost the way that an athlete can recognize a defense. It's like, "Oh, yeah, no, right now we're in a reactionary moment." I just know what a reactionary moment feels like because I've been through a bunch of them. And in some ways there's a little bit of some comfort, I find, in that, because there's a little of "this too shall pass" about the nature of reactionary moments.

First sort of reformist moments, radical moments, even. I mean, I think there were moments in the Trump administration where we're almost sort of revolutionary in some ways, a level of sort of radical thirst for and exuberant enthusiasm for taking on Patriarchy and White Supremacy that I'd never seen before in my life. I mean, the the sort of both "Me Too" and the Women's March and then the George Floyd protests. So I think I've gotten more, just like a little, again, I think a little wisened or sanguine about the fact that you go through different periods in the life of a society, in a democracy.

I also think things are more tangibly perilous than they've ever been. I think that's informed by actual hard facts. And it really is the case that January 6th hadn't ever happened before. It really is the case that one of the two parties is openly seditious, or contains a faction that's openly seditious. It really is the case that we've pissed away 20 years that we could have been doing stuff on carbon, and now have a much tougher road ahead. It really is the case that, whatever you want to call it, populist ethnonationalism, 21st-century sort of authoritarian models are on the rise, and there's and there's democratic retreat in a lot of places in the world.

David Roberts

My experience since 2015 has been sort of comprehensive, 360-degree, sort of disillusionment. It's one of those things like when you do yoga for years, you're like, "Oh, I didn't even know there were ... I had muscles there." I still had illusions.

Chris Hayes

Right.

David Roberts

Yet they're falling. But one of the things I want to talk about is history because it's odd. I'm not sure why the timing worked out this way, but it seems like one of the things that's happened since then is a lot of people on sort of the broad Left have been getting a little bit more interested in reconstruction and looking more closely into that period of American history right after the Civil War, which is not taught very well in schools. I did not learn, I did not get the full picture in small-town Tennessee, in the 1980s when I was learning history.

But through the lens of that, and then looking more at American history, it's sort of come to me that it seems like American history is not so much reactionary moments followed by reformist moments, as very brief reformist moments followed by long swaths of reactionary moments. Like, if you throw a dart at a timeline, the odds are you're going to hit a period of horrible, reactionary backlash. Most of it is horrible, reactionary backlash. What we learned about in school are these brief periods where the reactionary backlash somehow gets out over its skis or goes too far, or causes some rupture, and then there's this sort of reformist burst.

But really, most of it is dark. So in that light, one of the things you often hear, there's a sort of like, "everybody calm down" faction in the punditry. I know you're familiar with them. And one of the things people like that often say is, "Oh, you know, like, think about the '60s and '70s there were bombings in the cities, and leaders being assassinated, and blah, blah, blah." Or think back to like, you know, the 1910s, or think back to the 1890s, citing these periods of American history which were genuinely awful, in which things genuinely did seem to be falling apart.

But you say, flat out, it's as bad as it's ever been. So how do you think about those historical comparisons?

Chris Hayes

That's a great question. So, yeah, I would agree, probably in terms of sheer years on the dartboard, you're probably right. I think I started reading, getting really into Reconstruction right after Trump's election, and spent several years reading a ton, including the Du Bois classic on it.

David Roberts

It's so infuriating. It's impossible to exaggerate how infuriating it is. The deeper you get into the details.

Chris Hayes

It's also like one of those things ... sometimes you read, like, you encounter some text and you're like, "It just feels like it could have been written yesterday." There's just aspects of that that you're just like, "Holy crap, like, wow. This doesn't feel like the Dead Sea Scrolls. This does not feel like this got cracked out of some vault."

David Roberts

This feels the dynamics, change the rhetoric a little bit, the dynamics are so similar.

Chris Hayes

Yeah. And I think the reason that's useful, I think the reason I got into Reconstruction, I think it's useful is just because it got covered up, because it is so inimical to the view of progress, right? Because we had a huge amount of progress and then this enormous backlash, right? So things move backwards. I always describe it as like the lost city of Atlantis, of American multi-racial democracy, where there was a civilization that got built, and then just flooded, and then completely like, everyone just floats on the surface and it's like, "Wait a second."

David Roberts

Yeah, lost to history.

Chris Hayes

"Wait a second. There was a majority Black state legislature in South Carolina in 1869. Wait, what?" never been replicated before. Like, we've never had a majority Black legislature in any state since then. So I think, yes, I think that the reason a lot of people have gone to that. I think precisely because when you feel like history is being wrenched backward, or reactionary forces are ascended, that's a real touchstone. And I think also your point about ... I have some sympathy to the Just Countdown Caucus insofar as there was tumultuous stuff going on in the 1960s and 70s, and think the way that I square the circle.

And this comes back around, in some ways, to answering the first question, which is that the biggest change is appreciating the difficulty and preciousness of liberal democracy. That I just took it for granted. There's the old David Foster Wallace, who has a very famous graduation speech he gives called "This is Water", which opens with him citing the old joke about the big fish that swims by the two younger fish and says to them, "beautiful day, boys. Enjoy the water." And the big fish swims away, and one the little fish says, the other, "What's the water?"

David Roberts

Right?

Chris Hayes

And democracy is the water for us. It's just like, "Oh, right, yeah. That's how we have a liberal democracy." And there's, like, a court system. There's a rule of law. There's inalienable rights. There are means of redressing grievance through nonviolent adjudication of grievance and accountability.

There is ...

David Roberts

Peaceful transition of power.

Chris Hayes

Peaceful transition of power. Like, all this stuff is just like, "That's the water." And then all of a sudden, it's not.

David Roberts

Yeah.

Chris Hayes

And that is the big thing for me, the understanding the preciousness and the vulnerability of it and the real profound recency of it as a project, which is to say actual, genuine multi-racial democracy. I mean, 1965, basically, when we get the Voting Rights Act, is like when you can really plausibly start the clock on it.

David Roberts

Yes, younger than many living Americans.

Chris Hayes

Younger than many living Americans, and I mean, younger than, like, my parents. And that's also true around the world. I mean, you know, India starts the clock in in '48, and, you know, Brazil, you know, starts the clock probably earlier, but then has multiple military dictatorships, and sort of its modern incarnation of, like, a durable liberal democracy is, what, 40 years old, probably.

David Roberts

Think about Franco in Spain. That wasn't that long ago.

Chris Hayes

No, not at all. And I think that also the other connection that that gives me. The other thing I think about is thinking about the generation that survived fascism, and saw fascism and also Stalinism and authoritarianism in different stripes, and the appreciation that gave them of how thin it was, how fragile, and also that they had watched it collapse in on itself. I mean, that's the other thing I think that ... that experience, which is, like, the fascists came to power in environments of, quote-unquote "liberal democracy and elections".

David Roberts

Yeah, talking about hearing echoes. Go back and read about people living through that, and the sort of like, it's the conservative moderates that didn't step in and restrain the extremists. It's those center Leftists who were too comfortable and didn't worry when they went after this group and that group. I mean, it's just all ...

Chris Hayes

It's the Leftists who said after Hitler, "Us, the worse, the better." There's a lot of blame to go around.

David Roberts

But it's all happening again. It's all like mirror image happening again right now. And this is part of my despair, is like, yes, we had not just a generation of Americans who sort of lived through this kind of thing happening, but all of modern history is full of this kind of thing happening. And full of people like Hannah Arendt, and on and on, sort of doing these incredibly, erudite, deep dives into the mentality of it and the psychology of it and the sociology of it, and really, forensically laying out, like, here's what happens with, presumably thinking as they were doing so, "if we make it so super clear how this works, we'll recognize it next time." And yet we seem to be walking through the script, beat by beat, and knowing that we're living through the script doesn't seem to be helping at all, doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Chris Hayes

And I wonder if that's partly, I do think that's a little bit of lived memory. I do think there's a relationship between the generation of people who experienced it firsthand dying out and what we're seeing. I had a conversation with Francis Fukuyama recently about this, and he definitely thinks that. And we talked about that a little bit.

David Roberts

It's disappointing that one generation is all it takes though, right? I mean, one generation is all it takes to forget this. Totally forget.

Chris Hayes

But don't you also feel I mean, to me again, it comes back to like — if I take a step back and I say it is a miracle for a society to self-organize and self-govern, and it's a miracle to do it at the kind of scale that the US does it, or Brazil, or India, right? These are all massive, multi-racial, complicated democracies with incredibly fraught politics. Like if I take a step back and say, "That's a kind of marvel and precious and worth fighting for," then the fact that it is easy for it to come undone feels in a sort of almost biblical sense or a religious sense. It's like Moses with the tablets and the golden calf.

It's like it's just easier to worship an icon.

David Roberts

It is pushing against a lot of normal human instincts and habits.

Chris Hayes

Yes. Now, this is, I think, a little bit of intention with some other ideas that other people have that actually what we want to be is free and self-organizing. And I just read the David Graeber & Wengrow book — basically makes an argument that hierarchy and these social systems and these forms of sort of complex politics of domination are actually these kind of, aren't necessary for complex systems. And people have organized themselves in all kinds of fascinatingly, free and equitable ways, which I found really a wonderful provocation and really interesting. So I don't want to overly subscribe to this view that's about the human nature that's really born of a fairly small experience of politics.

But that said, it does strike me that it's hard. It's always going to be hard, and that if you appreciate that, then it feels less surprising that there's people constantly pulling on the threads, threatening to undo it.

David Roberts

Yeah, I would even pull that point out a bit and make it slightly broader. Like, I only in retrospect, realize now that I sort of took democracy as the baseline, but also sort of took basic rationality, basic sort of empirically informed argument, basic decency, the basic baseline of moral equality among people. Obviously, I know we fail on all those things again and again, but I guess I just sort of assume that we all agree that those are the baselines, that's what we want, that's the standard, and we err when we drift away from them. But now, as you say, I've sort of flipped around to viewing all those things, especially rationality, especially any sort of collective rationality, as miraculous exceptions to the rule.

Things that we can sometimes have achieved if everything goes just right, but not by any means the default.

Chris Hayes

I mean, to me, the ultimate example of this, right, was like the COVID experience, where it was like the combination of, like, we made this vaccine in twelve months, and then people didn't want to take it, which was just like the most perfect combination of ...

David Roberts

Yin and Yang right there.

Chris Hayes

Yeah, exactly. It's like, wow, we are really, what an amazing thing we are as humans.

David Roberts

And then also like, wow.

Idiots. So let's talk about Trump. And I'm just curious, did you think Trump would win? And looking back on him winning, I'm talking about 2016, looking back on him winning, is the story you tell about him winning a story of large, structural forces that made something like him inevitable? Sort of the 2008 financial crisis, the implications of that, and offshoring of manufacturing. All these stories we're familiar with, the sort of sorting, the big sorting by education level. There's lots of structural factors you could point to. Or is the story you tell about him winning just like a bunch of random contingent shit happened to all line-up and fall the wrong way, and it was just more or less an accident of history?

I go back and forth, both about which I believe and about which is more frightening.

Chris Hayes

Yeah.

David Roberts

Which one do you favor?

Chris Hayes

Well, I was always, and I think the record would reflect this in our program. I mean, people would always ask me, I remember people that summer asking me after he'd sort of sealed up the nomination, "Can he win?" And I would say, "Anyone in this country who wins a major party nomination. And I mean, like, you the person I'm talking to, anyone starts at about 42% of the vote. 43% of the vote. So, yeah, it's a coin flip, basically. I think he's got a 50/50-ish chance of winning, maybe a little less. But yes, of course, he can win. The major party nominee for president absolutely can win." So it always seemed real to me, and possible in a way that I always felt a little frustrated. That was not ...

David Roberts

Did you think he'd win the nomination, though? Like, where was your level of credulity about that?

Chris Hayes

Yes, I did. I did. It was in after a little while, but when I sort of understood how the math was going to work, I did think he was going to win the nomination. Not in the beginning. I definitely did not in the beginning think. I definitely was not like, "Oh, he came down the escalator like this." No, absolutely not. In terms of how I explain him, I mean, look, one thing I like to say is that the definition of a catastrophe is that a lot of things have to go wrong to make it a catastrophe.

So if you read the Challenger launch decision book, which is a sort of autopsy of that right, it's like there's a bunch of stuff concatenated together that produces it, and that's just necessarily the case for a catastrophe. It's true of World War I, right? And so I think of Trump as a catastrophe, and I think in the stuff that went wrong, there's two categories: which is the accidents and then the bigger structural driving forces, like the sort of alienation of downwardly mobile, White, rural folks, who felt increasingly removed from forms of sort of coastal, liberal, multi-ethnic, multi-racial culture. The material basis for that, the fact that these social misery index of addiction and suicide.

So all of that stuff that people talk about when they talk about the kind of hillbilly, elegy, Chris Arnade stuff, I think there's real stuff there. And I think the sort of backlash to multi-racial democracy, as embodied by the first Black president, it's obviously an enormous part of it. I mean, I love the, like, the Michael Tesler research on this, who basically...

David Roberts

Is like, he's the "dying of Whiteness" guy?

Chris Hayes

No, that's Jonathan Metzer. Michael Tesler is ...

David Roberts

You had him on your pod, though, didn't you? Michael Tesler, I remember being very struck by that episode.

Chris Hayes

He does research on race and Obama, and basically, he goes back, he had a panel survey, and basically what he's able to find was that people with high levels of racial animus ...

David Roberts

Yeah, I remember now

Chris Hayes

In his previous panel research were the best predictors of White voters that flip to Trump, basically.

David Roberts

He's the guy that showed, "Grab any thread, pull it long enough, and you end up back in race," basically.

Chris Hayes

Right. And so you could basically predict people's ACA views based on their racial animus score. But one of the things that he, one of the amazing findings of his research, really one of the major takeaways is that people are real checked out of politics and that tens of millions of people didn't know which party was, quote, "on the side of Black people," basically, until Barack Obama was elected.

David Roberts

Truly the mind blower.

Chris Hayes

That like, that, basically, was like, "Oh, wait a second." And for decades, it's not been like an apparent piece of knowledge that a lot of White voters were walking around with and that Barack Obama just is like, "oh, okay, whoa, now, okay, I understand."

And obviously, when I say on the side of Black people, I'm like, that's a tongue-in-cheek reduction of the two-party system. But I just mean like that, obviously, Black voters vote for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in the 80%, 90% range, but also sort of in the sort of demographic cleavage of the two main coalitions, that Black folks were in one of the two predominantly, and that there was a responsiveness to their interests represented in that coalition, was just not a known fact to a lot of White voters.

David Roberts

Yeah. I feel like another trend of the last few years, at least for me, is coming to appreciate more how much political analysis mine and others has been confounded by and continues to be confounded by underestimating the near-total ignorance of most voters. You have written about this very eloquently, and it's something that you can sort of learn, but you have to just relearn it over and over again. You know what I mean? You got pounded into your head. They literally didn't know that, most people didn't know that Democrats were basically the party of Civil Rights.

That's just, like, hard to absorb for someone like us. So let me ask you a related question. Similarly broad, and probably the answers are somewhat related, but this, I feel like, is the sort of central bafflement of our time, at least for liberals. So there's sort of two stories you can tell about kind of American politics since 2015. On one hand, you have the sort of political scientists saying despite all the theatrics and the human cry and the sort of social media heat and et cetera, et cetera, basically, things are going roughly how you would predict they would go, based on the fundamentals, right.

Trump's victory, and his approval rating, and all that were more or less what you'd expect from a generic Republican president in the same circumstances, and vice versa. And you would sort of predict his loss in 2020, and he did lose. And then the fundamentals would predict that Joe Biden would be unpopular based on inflation and everything else. So on one sense, you could just tell a story the last five or six years of American politics that are like, there's this, it's producing a lot more heat and insanity and social media hand-wringing, but basically, things are more or less unfolding normally, as you would expect.

And then the other story is that the Republican Party is going crazy, just very visibly crazy, right in front of us, progressively, as time goes on.

Chris Hayes

Literally. It's like watching someone degenerate in front of you.

David Roberts

Yes. And I feel like I'm losing my mind. Like, how can this continue to go on and not matter? What level of it would matter? On the one hand, you're like the fundamentals. Yes. Predictable, normal. On the other hand, why are things still normal when one party is so clearly invisibly going off the deep end, accelerating off the deep end? How do we reconcile these two?

Chris Hayes

I mean, I was just having this thought today because I was watching Herschel Walker, who basically is, he's now the nominee for Republican Senate seat in Georgia because he was anointed by Trump. He doesn't live in Georgia. He went to the University of Georgia, quite famously, where he was an incredible running back and went on to have a very good pro career. But he lives in Dallas. And people have been talking for a while about, the whispers, you know, the Republicans, he's not a very good candidate. But he hasn't done much media, and I thought the reason for that was like, he pointed a loaded gun at an ex-wife and said he's going to blow her fucking brains out.

There are multiple accusations of domestic violence that he has acknowledged. I don't think he denies them. He says he's sort of a changed man and found God, et cetera, but I didn't quite like I just listened to an interview with him, and I was just like, "Is this a bit?" Like, very obviously this person should not be a US Senator. And, I mean, I feel that way about, like, Tommy Tuberville, too.

David Roberts

Literally, if you were a middle manager at a shoe dealership, you would not hire them.

Chris Hayes

I don't know if you've heard Tommy Tuberville, but it's like ludicrous. It's like an SNL joke. And there's other people I don't feel that way around. I don't feel that way about Tim Scott. I don't feel that way about Mike Lee. There's people it's like, yeah, I don't like that person. I don't like their politics. And the reason I bring this up is because it's a perfect test case right now, of this battle between what I call normal politics and abnormal politics. I'm always talking about this show, the two tracks, right? Because we have the track of normal politics, which is like, Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House. Inflation is 8%. They're going to get their butts kicked.

And again, that's democracy. I don't like it. It's bad. But that is normal politics. Republicans holding a grandstanding press conference to be like, "The price of milk is too high." Any democracy on Earth, that is what the out-of-power party is going to do. When inflation is 8%, that's the most bread and butter normal thing in the world. Meanwhile, there's an ex-president stalking around, like, trying to get pro-coup insurrectionists, including a guy who bussed people to January 6th, who is now the Republican Nominee in Pennsylvania.

David Roberts

Running on a promise to send his state's votes to Trump no matter what.

Chris Hayes

Yes, exactly. To never let a Democrat win the electors of the state of Pennsylvania. And it's like. So I totally feel the same way about the weird, and I think the, what it comes down to is this: voters don't actually — again, we talk voters we're talking about 100 million people. We're talking about people with all kinds of different things they're thinking about and dealing with. There is no within, and this is, I think, the thing that Hannah Arendt and the generation that saw the rise of fascism learned, and we have to relearn — there is no penalty in normal democratic politics for anti-democratic forces.

David Roberts

Yeah.

Chris Hayes

Which is to say you cannot win elections by saying, "Those people are authoritarian fascists," because people will vote on the price of milk. And that underscores how precious and dangerous this stuff is, precisely because within the confines of the battle over people's votes, there is very little penalty for being essentially illiberal, authoritarian, or fascist.

David Roberts

Yes. Another way of saying that is you probably couldn't get the Bill of Rights through a popular referendum. You probably couldn't get democracy itself through a popular referendum. People want their team to win, basically, much more than they feel any fealty toward these sort of abstract third-party rules that are supposed to govern everybody.

Chris Hayes

Yes. And again, keep in mind that the only reason we have, the second founding of this country and the key to the democracy we have now, which is essentially the 14th Amendment, came at the point of a gun. It was over the bodies of 600,000 dead Americans. And because the South's representatives weren't seated in Congress. Like, we only have it because they were under literal military occupation and didn't get votes and had to ratify it to get readmitted to the Union. And the 14th amendment is, basically, the linchpin of what modern liberal democracy in America looks like.

The 14th amendment, which incorporates the Bill of Rights into state governments, which hadn't happened before, which has the Equal Protection Clause, all of the stuff that we think of as being like in a free society, which is really at a real level, protected by the 14th amendment, much more than the Bill of Rights, which, again, is only Congress, right? Congress shall make no law. Congress will make a law right. That itself didn't come about in any democratic way. It came about through mass violence.

David Roberts

But it's not just anti-democratic stuff. There's book banning, and book burning, and then just a general sort of ugliness. And if I'm being honest with myself, I'm a classic coastal liberal. Like, I'm all the stereotypes.

Chris Hayes

I've been telling you this forever. You got to play up your Tennessee bona fides.

David Roberts

I know. I got to drop that.

Chris Hayes

You got to constantly just be like, "look, I'm just a simple gun over from Tennessee."

David Roberts

As a small business owner...

Chris Hayes

You're a small business ...

David Roberts

Who is originally from Tennessee.

Chris Hayes

You're a White man from Tennessee who's a small business owner, basically a MAGA dude.

David Roberts

I know, what's wrong with me? But I will say personally, it's not just that I find all this stuff, the violence, and the obvious love of violence, and the very theatrical sort of to me, almost like parodic sort of sweatiness about masculinity. And all of it is not just morally repugnant to me, but aesthetically repellent on almost every conceivable metric. You've said before, everything's lining up into these one big side versus one big other side, and everything I hate and loathe and find repulsive on both aesthetic and moral grounds, is all coming together in one. Which leaves me, again and again, thinking, "Why is my repugnance at this," — which I find so fundamental and like preconscious, more than I could explain. I couldn't even explain it. I couldn't even argue for it. It's preconscious. "Why is that so rare? Why are the rest of Americans not repulsed by this?" I know it's a naive question, but I can't get around it. It keeps coming.

Chris Hayes

I would say a few things on it. One is they do pay a penalty for being nuts. Like Donald Trump lost the national vote to Hillary Clinton, lost it by 5 million votes. He was an incumbent one-term. There aren't a lot of one-term presidents. They normally win reelection. They do pay a penalty for it. They could have had a Republican president who is 20% less repellent and weird and corrupt and probably won reelection. They've lost, count the Senate seats that they have lost over the last from like Sue Lowden to Todd Akin to Christine O'Donnell, I mean Herschel Walker, like that should be a walk.

They should win that in a walk. It's going to be a tough race. I just watched that interview with Herschel Walker and was like, "Oh no, no no no." And there's a lot of voters who are going to feel that way. So they do pay a penalty, it's just not that big, but it's at the margin, and it gets back to this like 45% problem. The other thing to think about is they are playing on a tilted playing field because of the way that a. that states have been gerrymandered and the electoral college and the Senate, such that they can lose the total national popular vote and win the House.

They can lose the total national popular vote and win a big part of the Senate. They can lose the total national popular vote and win. So when you combine those things, they have an advantage already, and they're already like pissing away some of that with the insanity. But fundamentally, the structural factors are what produced 90% of the outcomes, and then the last 10% is everything else, that they can go very far with that 90% even if they give away the 10%. And then the final thing I would just say is that, you're sort of somewhat tongue-in-cheek when you talk about the repellents, but it's like there are, there's aspects of liberal culture that I find aesthetically repellent. and there's lots of cringy, "in this house, we believe."

David Roberts

There are aspects of virtually every other human being.

Chris Hayes

Totally. And I think a lot of people feel that way about preachy, cosmopolitan liberals. There are times where I could subjectively access. There are certain things it's funny, there really are differences. Like, there are certain issues that I can access subjectively, and some I can't.

David Roberts

Project yourself imaginatively into the position of the person who believes it.

Chris Hayes

Right. But I agree that fundamentally, the penalty they are paying for being as wild as they are is really insufficient. And I also think there's another aspect of this. And if people have watched my show, or I've talked about this may be like, and again, this makes me feel a little like, "Am I doing that thing that people do as they age? Or like, when I was younger?" But I feel like when you would call someone, if you would use the adjective, like, "he's very political" or "he's like a politician" or even "diplomatic", right, it all had a pretty similar cluster of meaning, which is: a person who's just trying to be inoffensive and, like, liked by as many people as possible. Because the basic math of either diplomacy or politics is to not offend and turn people off. And it's very bizarre that the personality of a shock jock, which is the opposite, which is like, "the troll who tries to strip controversy," is now the personality of a lot of politicians.

David Roberts

Everything else has fallen away on the Right.

Chris Hayes

It's weird.

David Roberts

That is the only route.

Chris Hayes

Performing being an asshole to people. It's like Rob. Just the difference between Rob Portman and J. D. Vance, a perfect example. Rob Portman is just like a bloodless, inoffensive White dude, who has terrible politics but is not, like, going out his way to offend people. And J. D. Vance is like, "Alec Baldwin just shot and killed someone." Like, "Jack, you got to let Trump back on Twitter." And it's like, what are you doing?

David Roberts

Or Marjorie Taylor Greene. Let's just take another example. Literally, the only thing there is about her to recommend her to even Republican voters is that she will say the grossest, nastiest, most offensive thing. That's it. There's no record, there's no policy proposals. There's nothing else but that. That is the sole desideratum now, on that side. It's wild.

Chris Hayes

Yeah. And I think, again, I think that, like, well, that relates to something that I'm writing a book about, but I I do think that there's — the attentional incentives have gone pretty haywire and have have wreaked havoc with our politics.

David Roberts

Well, let me ask about that, because the natural follow-up here, is if you're talking about the sort of gap between the sort of theatrically repugnant behavior of Republicans and the weird normalcy of public reaction and public opinion, you have to look at the media. I think that's what comes up, is the media. And we could easily do a whole podcast about media, and what's happened to it, and how much it is to blame for all this. But sort of, this is another thing that has changed markedly, I think, since we started out.

My distinct memory of the George W. Bush years was there's this sort of normal political world and normal political media. And then over here on the periphery, kind of like a weird, buzzing horsefly, is this Right-wing swamp media, with its crazy conspiracy theories. And they were just as crazy back then, over there on their margins. You remember the Jade Helm, like Obama is going to take over the US and declare martial law, just endless, one after the other. And I sort of ended up kind of taking that as my baseline model. Like you've got media, and then you've got this weird peripheral thing, and just very, very steadily, step by step, piece by piece, as we've watched over the years, that peripheral crazy has eaten the Right-wing media entirely.

And so now the media and that machine has grown, and has been measurably strengthened by social media too, of course. So now we have this weird situation where the sort of 800-pound gorilla in the media room is explicit Right-wing propaganda, and then this husk of the mainstream media, if it's left, which seems entirely defensive, entirely not up to the task of pushing back. So how much do you blame the fucked up media situation for our state of affairs?

Chris Hayes

I will say, that I do think that what happened in the wake of 9/11, and what we saw happen in the Bush years, was the beginning of the Right-wing media swallowing, like moving towards this, like infiltrating the mainstream and dominating the things that we talked about. I don't know, I feel really, I don't have a simple answer here. Here are two things I think. One is that everyone in the media underestimates how much power they have over people's attention. Everyone in the media thinks they're just chasing, and everyone outside the media overestimates how much power they have. I think part of what produced Trump, and part of what has produced our current situation, is balkanization and attentional changes to the institutions of attention and the markets for attention.

David Roberts

Right. This is your book, right? This is what you're writing a book about?

Chris Hayes

Yeah, this is what I'm writing a book about. But I also think, again, let's go back for what, 500 or 600 years? All they did on the European continent was murder each other over there, whether trans-substantiation was happening or not. The joke I always make about disinformation is like they didn't have Facebook during the Salem witch trials. Like, it turns out humans are perfectly capable of passing false information, dangerous false information in circles.

David Roberts

False information is the baseline and good ...

Chris Hayes

Exactly.

David Roberts

... fact-based media is another one of these ...

Rare.

... Effinescent miracles that sometimes shimmers into view but can easily vanish, if not actively tended.

Chris Hayes

Right. So I have a million critiques. I do think that, here is the one thing that I think is true. A thing that people don't understand about the media, and media consumption in this country, is that there's basically two large political coalitions. One of them, the center Left, make up the audience for all of the media. So everything that's out there, from small-lifting magazines, podcasts, blah, blah, that's all the center Left.

And then the other half of the country, it's like Fox, Fox, Right-wing talk radio, and some Right-wing podcasts, but they don't read The Washington Post. They don't read the New York Times. Increasingly, they don't watch the network evening news. That whole universe that we call the media is basically, and even when we have these debates about cancel culture and what the media got wrong about the Lab Leak theory, those are all intracoalitional debates amongst one of the two major coalitions of people. And the other coalition really does just get propaganda.

David Roberts

They've been setting it up. They've been working for that goal for decades.

Chris Hayes

And I cannot stress this enough, how much it's propaganda. And I know this because I'm a practitioner. I know what it would look like for me to do propaganda, and I choose not to. So there is this really crazy thing that happens. And then to get back to — now, here's the most fascinating, complicating part of this about how much the media is at fault. Here's the real black pill. Okay. After the election, this is an amazing moment, after the election, by and large, in the weeks after the position of Fox was that Trump had lost the election.

David Roberts

Yeah. Famously called it. Who was it calling Fox trying to get him to take it back? But they called it that night. It was a very pivotal moment.

Chris Hayes

Exactly. Yes. They called Arizona before anyone else. But what I'm saying is that even after that, they did not go fully in on the ghost of Hugo Chavez hacked the Pennsylvania machines.

David Roberts

Or the Chinese ... what was it?

Chris Hayes

The Chinese? The bamboo paper. Yeah. You got to get the UV lights so you could see the Chinese bamboo. Okay. And here's what happened. Fox's ratings tanked worse than they ever have, and for the first time ever, OAN started getting audience, and they even beat them for 1 hour. And I see the ratings every day. I don't look at them every day like I used to, but it was wild, and you could just see it was direct. It was like people were just like, "Click. I don't want to hear you telling me Trump lost. I'm going to go to this place where they tell me that he won."

David Roberts

And, yeah, they've been trained. The audience has been trained.

Chris Hayes

And then Fox realized what was happening, and got much more ... now, they never quite went fully because they have a legal department. They can't just openly lie for people. But they started doing a lot more of big lie stuff and flirting with it, and they got those people back. But that moment was, like, that's where you see the dark agency of the audience.

David Roberts

And there's no firebreak on that. There's no force or constituency left on the Right with the power or the inclination to thrust itself into that process and try to even slow it down. It's less and less friction.

Chris Hayes

Perfect example. This is like the career trajectory of David French, who is a completely doctrinaire conservative, pro-life, religious, Christian, low taxes, low regulation, whatever, name the issue. He also believes in liberal democracy, that the election was not stolen, and that Donald Trump is like a moral monster as a person. These are just like all, like just to me, completely obvious.

David Roberts

Seems like they are obvious. Seems like it.

Chris Hayes

And David French now writes for The Atlantic because that's a place, that's the ecosystem in which we can have debates about this stuff.

David Roberts

No one can predict the future. But I don't see anything on the horizon that would disrupt this basic dynamic. And I just wonder how far ... it's gone so much farther, so much faster than I predicted, even though I, like many netroots types from the early 2000s, came online bitching about the media. That's what I was doing from the second I started commenting on politics. All the same patterns, all the same dynamics. But even as a longtime media critic, I think I underestimated just how far and how fast it's going, and it's just accelerating. So where does that end up?

I mean, this is sort of a cliche at this point, but you can't really have a self-governing democracy without shared trusted sources of information, and we don't have them. So is that it?

Chris Hayes

Yeah, I mean, the key-word there, and this is the thing that I think everything comes down to. So there's two, basically, I think there's two themes when you get down to the fundamentals of this. And I'm writing a book about one of them. And then the other one is what my first book about. But I'm writing a book about attention, because I think attention is the most important resource of the 21st century, and the way that people marshal it, attain it, achieve it, mine it from our minds, determines fortunes and empires and everything, okay.

But the other is trust. And fundamentally, you can't run a low-trust democracy. This is really what it comes down to: you can't run a low-trust democracy.

David Roberts

And it seems so much easier to degrade trust than it is to build it. So it just seems like on that front, democracy is constantly an uphill climb.

Chris Hayes

And I think that's part of the reason that it's such an uphill climb. But I also think, like, we really got to think the trust problem. I mean, we really saw it .... there's all sorts of ways that you can measure this across countries, right? Like, "Do you think most people can be trusted most of the time?" And you can ask it in a bunch of different languages, and you can rank just how people feel about other people in their society. And we're a very low-trust society. We're like, near Russia. Russia is like a famously low-trust society.

David Roberts

I read an article, one of these sort of research roundups on this question of social trust. And the sort of conclusion, as far as I can tell from the sociology world, is a. social trust is the coin of the realm without which nothing else is possible. Nothing. No good media, no good politics, no good policing. Name your thing. Without social trust, it's all impossible. And b. what creates social trust? How do you preserve it? How do you revive it when it's flagging? No one knows. Like, no one has a fucking clue. It's like the mystery juice that makes everything run, but no one knows really how it works or how to create it, or how to stop it from leeching away, which is what seems to be happening.

Chris Hayes

You see a theory of it amongst the Democratic Party leadership institutionalists, which Barack Obama was, Joe Biden, which is basically like, just keep willing the institutions to try to work.

I'm serious. That's the only way to soldier on and to recreate the social trust that's lost, is you got to just put your shoulder to the wheel and work through it. And it's like, again, I don't want to dunk on it because I don't necessarily have a better alternative.

David Roberts

Yeah, exactly. Well, I will say, though, the one perhaps, maybe not alternative to that, but a different strain that I found more hopeful was Warren's sort of approach during the 2016 primaries, which is to say, the problem is lack of social trust. And the way to create social trust is to create a government that works. So pay attention to whose staffing agencies, pay attention to how agencies work, and who they report to. Like, the procedural mechanisms of building an administrative state, as boring as they are, that's the nuts and bolts of what will create trust is the thing working, right?

And yet she couldn't get like, the supposed Pragmatists of the center Left didn't care. They have their catechism about austerity and all the rest. They don't actually care about Pragmatism. And then on the far Left, they just want the beautiful results of socialism, right? The Medicare for all and everything else. No one cares about the mechanisms.

Chris Hayes

The meetings, lots of meetings.

David Roberts

Meetings are where you live or die.

Chris Hayes

Bureaucracy, there's paperwork, there's spreadsheets. All of that stuff is like, what? Yes.

David Roberts

And again, she was the champion of that, and it got her nowhere.

Chris Hayes

Yeah. And I think that's partly because that, again, is a hard thing to win on. But again, I guess here's what I would say to conclude this about where my politics are, I have never been more acutely aware and convinced that things are truly, genuinely perilous and never less clear on the solution. And I don't mean the solutions in a like, "You get to wave your wand and pass the agenda you want to." Because I think those solutions are actually, like, I think we should have single-payer health care, and I think we should massively boost up our investment in clean energy.

And we should probably put a price on carbon. That's not going to be enough. And there's a million different crash programs we should be doing. There's a bunch of stuff that if you said, "Okay, you have a supermajority in both parties and just you control it." I don't mean that. I mean getting from where we are to something has never been less clear to me, like, what that answer to. And I find myself very frustrated with every single faction of the coalition, from the most doctrinal Marxist to the most milquetoast Centrist.

David Roberts

Well, everybody just seems to be reinforcing their priors. And I'm like, "Things sure seem different now."

Chris Hayes

That's part of it.

David Roberts

I think there's something notably different, like some fresh thinking.

Chris Hayes

That's it.

That's part of it. It always feels everyone is giving a "now more than ever" argument. It's like, "Wait a second, a lot of shit has happened. Have we changed our mind on anything? Really now more than ever?" About all the things.

David Roberts

I know. And just imagine when Democrats get beat up in the midterms, which seems inevitable for a thousand different reasons, there is going to be a festival.

Chris Hayes

Everyone's going to get to say, yeah, exactly. It was too far Left, not Left enough.

David Roberts

We're running short on time. So I'm going to combine my last few questions into one mega question. And it's probably unanswerable, but I'm sort of curious about, in terms of our proximate situation, your outlook on the 2022 and 2024 elections. Things sure look bad to me, but maybe you see something else.

And then sort of the second part of that question is if, as seems statistically likely at this point, Republicans romp in the midterms and then take the presidency in 2024 and thereby control all three branches of government and are thereby unleashed to pass all the voter restrictions they want and make it much more difficult for Democrats to ever get back into power. Well, a. how fatalistic are you about the upcoming two elections? And if you are as fatalistic as I am, how fatalistic are you about 2025 and forward, I guess, at this point, do you have an optimistic story?

Chris Hayes

I'm not fatalistic about 2024. I just don't think about it. It just seems too far and too much craziness. I don't know. We had a Pandemic. We had the land war broke out in Europe, the largest one since World War II. Who knows? I don't know. That's a long time away. I am really a Serenity Prayer kind of person, even though I'm not sober, but what I can control, what I can't, the wisdom to know the difference. So I think Democrats are likely to get walloped in 2022. 1946 is a really interesting analog because I'm trying to think of a year that's similar.

And it's funny you think of 1946, you'd think, like, people must have been pretty psyched like the war was over. Like the boys come home and get to meet little Billy, the son he's never met, and they're kissing the nurse in the Times Square. We defeated fascism. But 1946 was like a brutally dyspeptic year in American life. Inflation was through the roof. There wasn't enough housing for everyone that was returning. There was huge disruptions. There was massive racial strife as, like, basically the Black people who had gone into the factories to work were kicked out. And there was, like, factories that had been kind of like integrated under basically the wartime exigency being recently.

What there was in 1946 was the end of this era actually produced its own set of disruptions because normalcy did not snap back. And a new era had to be born. And the way it showed up is that the Democrats got annihilated at the polls in the worst midterm loss in years. And it was functionally the end of the New Deal. And in fact, the first thing they did was they passed Taft-Hartley over the veto of Truman, which rolled back the NLRB and was the first reactionary blow against social democracy that had been achieved on the New Deal was to a frontal attack of the unions.

But all that said, like, Truman improbably wins in '48. Of course. Famously. Right? you think you won, and he ekes it out. A lot can change. So I'm not there yet on the fatalism of 2024, or what comes after. I think this election is going to be bad.

I do think the abortion matters. I do think they have an untenable position on abortion. I do think they have a problem with their own activists who are going to push for wildly unpopular shit. And I do think that the vast majority of Americans think that forcing a 15-year-old to give birth to her rapist child is insane and that abortion illegal after six weeks is insane, under any circumstances. That hunting down doctors for possible criminalization, or banning Plan B imports, or whatever crazy shit they're going to come up with between June and November is nuts and bad and will hurt them, and really will hurt them.

And particularly in these gubernatorial races like as Josh Shapiro, the AG in Pennsylvania, who's the Democratic nominee, said to me, the Republican legislator of Pennsylvania will pass a total abortion ban that will come to the governor's desk and it will either be vetoed by Josh Shapiro or signed by Doug Mastriano. It is not an abstract, like women of Pennsylvania. That's going to be what's going to happen.

So I do think that actually has a tremendous amount of salience, and I also think it kind of reminds people who are cross-pressured or in the middle some of the things they like the least about the Republican Party. That said, there's also, like, the human tragedy of it. So I don't want to, like I'm just focusing on the midterms here, but I don't want anyone to come away thinking I think that's the most important thing. The most important thing is, like, women's bodily autonomy and their control of their own bodies and reproductive health care.

So I don't know, but I think it's going to be bad. And I think the broader thing I would say, is that the problem we have now is it's not tenable. You can't run a democracy in which you have to win every election, otherwise, the other party, when they get in power, is going to ...

David Roberts

Destroy democracy.

Chris Hayes

Destroy democracy. We can't play this as an iterative game. And that's why I do think, I honestly do think from a harm reduction standpoint, I think that if you say that that is the most important thing, and to me, it is now, I mean, climate is, but I don't think I would choose a climate-friendly dictator over a democracy or don't, although it's an interesting choice.

Then you got to be serious about, like for me, it's like Brad Raffensperger's primary win was a big deal. The Idaho governor beating his lieutenant governor, Brad Little beating Janice McGeachin, that was a big deal. I think I will very much root for Ron DeSantis over Donald Trump in that primary.

Really?

Who I think is like really an odious, vile person, but I think is like several degrees closer to believing in the basic fundamental, liberal, democratic order than Donald Trump.

David Roberts

That's so grim. Well, just finally, then, to really conclude, when I try to not be depressive and fatalistic, which is rare these days, but when I try not to, I can think of little things like that. But when I try to think of, if it's just sort of like a politically disengaged, low-information normie, who's just living their life and just seeing these dire headlines occasionally and comes to me and says, "it seems like things are falling apart," what is the long-term story you tell about how America pulls out of what feels like a nosedive? I no longer ...

Chris Hayes

Yeah, I don't have the story.

David Roberts

I start hand waving and talking philosophically, right, about the arc of history because I don't have a story.

Chris Hayes

I don't got it. I agree with you on that, and I really don't have it. And that's what I mean. Again, I could give you ten bills to pass day one, you know what I mean? But the story from here to there is ... I do believe it's unwritten, and I do have hope and faith in it being unwritten and us being able to will it into being. But what the steps of it are, are really, really unclear to me.

David Roberts

All that I can sort of see at this point, the only optimistic story I see is the reactionary backlash overextending itself into some sort of flailing, massive harm that we then ... you know what I mean? Sort of like things fall apart, and then something's born out of the wreckage, in some way. That's the best I can do for optimism. I don't see how you get around the falling apart stage from where I stand now.

Chris Hayes

Yeah, I don't know. I really don't know.

David Roberts

Well, this is not a great place to conclude our podcast.

Chris Hayes

No, but here, let me end on this note. Let me just say this. There's lots of things that I was certain of that didn't happen in other directions, which is, like, I was quite sure they were going to repeal the ACA. Like, I really was. I was also quite sure that, like, Roy Moore was going to be an elected US Senator. And I was actually really skeptical the Democrats will win those Georgia seats. I mean, really, really skeptical.

David Roberts

Me too.

Chris Hayes

So politics does have the ability to surprise, and they have paid a price. Again, it's not enough of one, but they have. Like, it turns out, nominating Roy Moore in Alabama is a bridge too far, even for Alabama. Now, Tommy Tuberville is just a ludicrous figure. Just the right amount of bridge, the perfect amount of bridge. So I guess I would say if there's anything, the thing that I just come back to is like, I just have no certainty about the future and what will happen. And often that means that things far worse than I could have imagined happen. Like a million people dying from an infectious disease.

David Roberts

That's the way things surprise us, most often lately.

Chris Hayes

But sometimes they are surprising the other direction. And like, who knows, really? Who knows?

David Roberts

Yeah, this was I wrote a column about when I was leaving Grist. I was writing these sort of valedictory columns, and one of the columns I wrote was about hope. Because anybody who writes about climate, everybody's constantly asking, "Like, are we screwed? Is there any hope?" And I sort of said, I came down basically exactly where you just did, which is, "Sure, if you look at any particular event or trend, it seems super bad. But then again, life is chaos."

Chris Hayes

Yes, exactly.

David Roberts

"And anything could happen. And so that means good things could happen too." It felt so utterly inadequate, but it really is. That's about all I got.

Chris Hayes

Yeah.

David Roberts

Well, thank you for coming on. I mean, we could ... it's difficult to step back under what feels like constant incoming fire. So this was fun.

Chris Hayes

I enjoyed that. Yeah, it was great.

David Roberts

Let's do it again sometime. Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf, so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much, and I'll see you next time.