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Is America Two Nations?

Division—racial, cultural, economic, and electoral—has dominated our politics from the very beginning.

An antifa demonstrator has a heated exchange with a pro-Trump supporter in Denver, Colorado, on June 10, 2017.

It’s not uncommon for political pundits to muse on the differences between red and blue America. But political analyst Michael Podhorzer argues that the United States has always been more like two nations tenuously united under the Constitution. These “red and blue nations,” as he calls them, are divided by geography, by political economy, and by different views toward religion and even democracy itself. 

On this episode of How to Save a Country, co-hosts Michael Tomasky and Felicia Wong discuss with Mike the historical origins of this split, the ramifications for electoral strategy, and the role the Supreme Court has played in hardening these divisions.

“They don’t actually hear cases anymore,” Mike says. “They look for opportunities to legislate, and in fact, I think that’s really the frame we need to think about the court now: It’s the only functioning legislative body in the country.” 

Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.

Mike Podhorzer [clip]: There’s so many different reasons why these two nations have just such fundamentally different histories and different economic foundations that it just keeps moving into this division.

Felicia Wong: That’s Mike Podhorzer. He’s our guest this week, and he has us thinking …

Michael Tomasky: What if America really is two different countries acting like one?

Felicia: What do these two nations, red and blue, look like?

Michael: And how does the Supreme Court specifically enable this division?

Felicia: Can labor unions, where people work together, can unions bring our whole country together?

Felicia: I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

Michael: And I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.

Felicia: And this is How to Save a Country, our podcast about the ideas and the people behind a progressive vision for America.

Felicia: So Michael, last episode, Gary Gerstle really encouraged us to think about our history including this idea of a political order, whether or not norms and policy positions can change, and then what makes them really sticky. Today’s conversation with Mike Podhorzer is, in a way, a continuation of that. Mike really has us think about political orders. Red orders and blue orders is how he talks about them. He just connects our history to the present in very political and electoral ways.

Michael: Yeah. And it’s interesting because most people, even somewhat careful observers of politics, think that these divisions started in the 1990s.

Felicia: Or maybe the ’80s, but yeah, recently.

Michael: Well, the truth is they started in the nineties—the 1790s.

Felicia: 1790s, maybe 1690s. If it’s really true that our differences are so intense that we might as well be two separate countries, which is Mike’s basic proposition here, that is a pretty pessimistic thing to say. It feels like maybe we shouldn’t be talking about America’s problems in such stark terms, especially on this show, Michael. I mean, we call our show How to Save a Country, so is this too much to say that we’re that divided?

Michael: Well, I don’t know. Let’s just acknowledge reality. I think that virtually every day. I ask myself that virtually every day. Our goal is to save the country, but you have to acknowledge certain realities along the way. No problem with that.

Felicia: Yeah, and maybe even like they say in therapy, right? Like if you really acknowledge the truth, then you can make progress in solving the problem.

Michael: There you go. Let’s look at it that way.

Felicia: Mike is another one of those not-so-secret weapons in the progressive movement. He was for years the political director at the AFL-CIO, which is the biggest and most powerful federation of labor unions in the United States.

Michael: Mike’s a keen political analyst. He just hoovers up data and in the early days after Donald Trump’s election, he started bringing pollsters and political strategists together to try to figure out what in the heck was going on in America. And that effort has now become a mainstay of our politics. I’m one of the small army of people who await his weekly emails on Sunday evening that help us make sense of things. So this is why we wanted to bring Mike, who’s now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress onto the show to find out what he knows about where this country has been and is headed. Welcome to the show, Mike Podhorzer.

Mike Podhorzer: Great to be here. 

Felicia: Here’s where I want to start. You’ve talked a lot about a Red Nation and a Blue Nation, and I think by that you mean something different than red states and blue states. So here’s a quote from you, “When we think about the United States, we make the essential error of imagining it as a single nation, a marbled mix of Red and Blue people … But in truth, we have never been one nation. We are more like a federated republic of two nations: Blue Nation and Red Nation. This is not a metaphor; it is a geographic and historical reality.” What did you mean by all of that?

Mike: What I mean is that the current discussion about the crisis in America fails in my mind because it looks at, mostly, public opinion polls, which gives the illusion that there are just a lot of people out there and what they think. But this country was founded with one nation, which was born with slavery and with a very theocratic, illiberal bent, and another that was committed to a more commercial, innovative, secular culture. And because the treaty, which we call the Constitution, was built in many ways for those two nations to retain the integrity of those beliefs, we have not gotten past that over 250 years. There are still obvious differences between the cultures and societies and the way people live in those two nations.

Felicia: So if you drew us a map of Red Nation and Blue Nation what would that look like?

Mike: Red Nation begins with a nucleus of the original Southern states, the states that seceded in 1860. And it first grew by absorbing border states like Kentucky and Tennessee that did not secede, but after the Civil War, adopted Jim Crow constitutions. And then more recently, as smaller Western states were settled into that spirit, that rounds out the Red Nation and it constitutes, where about half of Americans live right now, but it has a significantly smaller portion of GDP than Blue Nation. Blue Nation is essentially the liberal nation outside of that area. It’s many of the states that fought in the union. There’s been a kind of nucleus, which people think of as New England, and maybe the West Coast. And it does not include places like Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania, where the question of whether a liberal approach, or like a more theocratic approach is still constantly being fought.

Felicia:  So let’s pause here briefly to give a quick overview of how Mike actually thinks about purple states and their role.

Michael: Yeah, I think he’s saying that obviously there’s swing states, but a little bit more than that, that they determine which set of values, blue values or red values, or which nation, Blue Nation or Red Nation, is dominant for any period of time.

Felicia: Yes, exactly.

Mike: And for most of the country’s history, each of those nations quickly organized themselves as regional parties. It’s really only in a very short period of time during the actual aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act that we started to see that come.

Felicia: Voting Rights Act, to remind us again, 1965?

Mike: Sixty-five. Right. And so in that immediate period after that, we began to see more convergence in the country. But then everything started going back to where it had been. There are so many different reasons why these two nations have just such fundamentally different histories and different economic foundations, that it just keeps moving into this division.

Michael: Mike, let me ask you about the history, because I think this is something our listeners would be really interested in learning more about. You trace this back to the beginning of the Republic. Is this about Federalists versus Democratic Republicans? Those were our first original two political parties. The Federalists, the Hamiltonians, the city slickers, the coastal elites, if you will, and the Democratic Republicans, the Jeffersonian yeoman farmers. Does that map onto today’s divide, or not quite exactly?

Mike: Very close. And I think that there’s a way in which when we try to think about that history, we get unfortunately locked in a binary that you just described, between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans. I think a more accurate way of talking about it is that what was then the Confederacy has been an enduring, unified, geographic nation within a nation from the beginning only interrupted by the Civil War and begun to be interrupted by the dismantling of Jim Crow in the middle of the twentieth century. But other than that, it has been an intentional nation within the nation.

Michael: It’s been, you say, an authoritarian state within a state, a one-party state within a state, with the exception of that transition period in the mid to late twentieth century.

Mike: Right. Really though where it reconsolidates in the same kind of iron grip way is beginning with the 2010 election where this built-in impulse to separate by region was supercharged by a trifecta of the backlash against the Obama election and the way the Republican establishment reacted to it, the great recession, and the decisions to completely rewrite the rules of elections that the Supreme Court undertook at that point.

Felicia: So, Mike, there are a lot of other things going on in our politics in 2010, but I do want to call out specifically that it was Barack Obama’s Blackness, the reaction to our nation’s first Black president. That is a lot of what drove the Tea Party and the Republican wave that year. Just worth noting, but I want to take us now actually to the question of the political economies of these two nations. I think you see Red Nation and Blue Nation as fundamentally different not just culturally but also economically,

Mike: That’s a really important thing because of our obsession with thinking that the only thing dividing this country is a set of social issues. Kept behind the curtains are all the major economic interests that actually have a huge impact on our politics. And in that way, they’re just fundamentally different. The Red Nation has always been the foundation of extracted industries, the oil industry, obviously at the beginning, cotton—

Felicia: And enslavement. Right, so it was both.

Mike: Yeah, whereas the Blue Nation has tech and communications and finance. I’m not saying all of those are great things, and obviously they had a lot to do with the Democrats’ turn toward neoliberalism. But it’s a fundamentally different outlook that is more global in its aperture and that values education and those kinds of industries that are really the hub of innovation in the economy. Especially since 2010, the Blue Nation has used that wholehearted endorsement of innovation and global and all that to have grown much faster than the Red Nation where rolling back rights, attacking business, all of those things have retarded growth in those states.

Felicia: Well, sure, Mike. It’s important to point out that the economics in Red Nation really causes suffering for people who live there in terms of income and all kinds of indicators of health and well-being. Then again, there are places in Red Nation, cities in these states, where you do see more innovative economics driven by research universities and hospitals and these anchor institutions. At the same time, the conservative grip on the politics of these places more broadly is pretty tight. So what makes it possible for conservatives to keep winning in Red Nation when their policies aren’t delivering on quality of life?

Mike: Sure. One of the things that also happened after 2010 is that the approach that the Fed took toward creating liquidity really caused a boom in urban areas. And one of the consequences of that was that suddenly Atlanta, and Houston, Dallas, began to look more like what we’re sort of loosely calling blue. But the problem has been that the nature of elections, and the nitty-gritty of it, gives the white Christian nationalist base in those states still enough power to hold control of the region. The Republican primaries in those states, in almost all of them, at least 45 percent of the people voting are white evangelicals. As a group, that is obviously far to the right of the nation and has the commitments that we see reflected in Red nation, that is a pretty tight grip. Because with gerrymandering, those Republican primaries determine who’s going to represent the district. So you can see states like Georgia, which have become competitive when every vote in the state counts equally, are completely unavailable for the thought of reform in state policies, because the state legislatures are a gerrymandered huge majority. And that, at least for the next 10 years, is the problem in that region.

Michael: Well, it’s interesting that you raised that these days it’s not really a question of states. It is to some extent, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. You have all kinds of super right-wing congressional districts in the north, not in New England, but in New York, in Michigan. Michigan’s history of legislative cheating is perhaps the most racist in the country, maybe more than Mississippi and Alabama. So you have blue dots as we know, Birmingham, Alabama is a blue dot, Gainesville, Florida is a blue dot. The economies of these places are different. The economies of cities and university towns are better than the economies of small towns in rural areas. But the politics are really different. So it’s not like when we had the Civil War in 1861, it was pretty clear the line was the Mason-Dixon line. If we tried to have a civil war today, we wouldn’t know how to divide.

Mike: Well, I think that the thing that complicates that complication—

Michael: Yeah?

Mike: —is that it was also true during the Civil War that there were many people in the Confederacy who were not part of the plantation class that were not terribly thrilled about a civil war.

Michael: Well, yeah, most of them, that’s true.

Mike: Within every society, people have differences of opinions. The reason that I keep coming back to states is that those are the fundamental sovereign units of our country, basically still. That blue in Birmingham really has very little power in our constitutional system. The whole state of Alabama has almost all of the say on it. There’s a state supreme court, a state legislature, all of those things.

Felicia: Right. One of the things that you describe, Mike, in much of your writing is the effort over time for a larger nation, a more expansive rights-focused nation, a more generous nation to persuade the red or whatever you want to call it. In a way, you can think of that as really the struggle our nation has been going through for more than 300 years. That being said, I think that one question is, OK, well where is the court system going to be in this struggle between red and blue or rights expansion versus rights contraction? How do you think the court is playing a role in today’s red and blue politics?

Mike: I think the court has played perhaps the most decisive role of all in all of this.

Felicia: And do you mean the Supreme Court or the federal–

Mike: Yeah, the Supreme Court. Through its decisions in Citizens United, Shelby, Bromwich, Rucho.

Felicia: Just a quick aside here for listeners who may not remember all the details of either Shelby or Citizens United. Michael, help us explain the importance of, first, Shelby.

Michael: That was a voting rights case in which the conservative majority invalidated a very important section of the Voting Rights Act in a way that will permit electoral mischief when it comes to Black people’s votes.

Felicia: And the reason that Shelby is so important is that, in invalidating the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it’s invalidating this thing that Mike Podhorzer says helped make our country more generous and more rights-forward.

Michael: That’s the size of it. And what about Citizens United?

Felicia:  Well, Citizens United was the very important 2010 decision that essentially allowed unlimited money, mostly corporate money, to fund, and thereby in many ways determine the outcome of our elections.

Mike: The way they changed politics since what it was until 2009 was unlimited money, much of it undisclosed, a wide open door to partisan gerrymandering and an abandonment of the Voting Rights Act. So the combination of all of those things is what has created the different politics we exist in now than the one we existed in from around 1965 to 2009. The Citizens United and the other changes in campaign finance has been estimated to have increased Republican vote share and state legislative elections by three to five points.

Felicia: I just want our listeners to pay attention to that for a second, three to five points in close elections.

Mike: If Michigan, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania, where in 2008 they were part of a blue wall, you move them three to five points Republican and you have what we have now. Not because someone did a different message, not whatever, just the difference in how state elections are funded now. All these funding things get much more attention at the federal level, but they’ve been devastating at the state legislative level and have essentially let billionaires in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, basically become a party there. That’s very difficult to dislodge. And then the removal of the Voting Rights Protections has created a situation where since 2008, the rate of turnout for African Americans in the red nation has gone down. While it’s gone up in the blue nation where voting right laws have been liberalized. You just have to take what happened in Tennessee with that expulsion. Obviously, Tennessee is a Republican state. It would’ve been without Citizens United, but because of the fact that it’s hands off on the Voting Rights Act, they were able to split up the vote in Nashville and then not have any worries about overruling partisan gerrymandering. Instead of having maybe 60 percent majority, they had a three-quarter percent majority. If you have that kind of unilateral power, you start going off the rails that way because you have the power. So to your question, how the Supreme Court has done this, it’s what has enabled MAGA to so quickly take over the institutions in Red Nation.

Michael: And conservative organizations have had a heavy hand in orchestrating that change. I’m thinking of the Federalist Society, for example. So where do they fit into this? 

Mike: That’s a really important point. In fact, I really try always to call what the court does the act of the Federalist Society. This is an actual deliberate outside takeover of the court where Republican presidents have essentially, used for a seal of approval, the Federalist Society. And one of the dangers, we have right now is in understanding this Federalist Society majority, what it’s been doing, only in terms of what it’s doing on Dobbs, or religion. Because more quietly it has been dismantling the economic elements of the New Deal as well. And that’s really where the funding came from: It was a coalition of forces that realized that its agenda could not be achieved democratically. And so it set about taking over the court, which it succeeded in doing. They don’t actually hear cases anymore. They look for opportunities to legislate and, in fact, I think that’s really the frame we need to think about the court, now. It’s the only functioning legislative body in the country.

Felicia: Well that’s a helpful frame.

Michael: And what’s happening on the liberal side to counter this?

Mike: Not much. I think that we suffer in America from this thing where each crisis only has two periods. One in which we vehemently reject the idea the problem exists. And then the second period, which we’re in now, where we say it’s too late to do anything about it. And so all these years, when it was obvious what was going on, everyone was asleep at the switch. And now it’s become much more difficult and it’s a much bigger challenge than it would’ve been if people had acknowledged what was underway five, 10, 20 years ago.

Michael: And you don’t credit the American Constitution Society with having much impact?

Mike: I think they have some impact, but I think the challenge is that the portion of the Federalist Society agenda that is directly connected to the business interests of the funders is always going to be a good investment and therefore get the resources it needs. Whereas on the other side, the liberal side, it’s less obvious how it’s a good business investment to do this. And so it’s always going to be under-resourced. The only counterweight we’ve had in American history that’s consistently contested capital is labor unions. And that’s a big part of the reason why Blue nation is Blue nation. Except for Nevada, which is an exception that proves the rule. The only legislatures that have democratic majorities are in states that are not right to work. And in almost every state that’s right to work, you have a Republican trifecta. It goes back to the different view of economics and what’s proper.

Felicia: Yes. So I’m glad you mentioned labor unions, Mike, ’cause I really wanted to ask you about that. Obviously you have a long career in the labor movement. So I’d love for you to describe for our listeners how labor unions, labor institutions, labor unions are confronting exploitative employers in ways that aren’t just good for workers, but also strengthen our democracy.

Mike: The way I think about it is that it’s more than just who you are as institutions, it’s what it means to have now 15 million people whose daily experience of engaging in work is collective. There’s a sense of linked faith. An understanding that all of the people in your workforce rise or fall together. That’s what a contract is.

Felicia: Our wages go up together. Our working conditions improve together, which is a political thing as well as an economic thing. That’s what you’re saying.

Mike: Right, but they not only improve together, they break the idea that I can do better than them by taking wages of whiteness or whatever. And that because we negotiate contracts, you actually now see that you have the power to get something from the boss as opposed to just being on the receiving end. And that is contagious in society that you think you don’t have to just settle for whatever happens. You can come together collectively and contest it. But it remains invisible in the political discourse even within the left.

Felicia: Maybe because the Supreme Court and others on the right have managed to demonize unions.

Mike: Well, it’s more than—it’s really, I hate to say it, but it’s a class bias inside the Democratic Party. 

Felicia: Oh, you should say it. I think that’s right.

Mike: Everyone is locked into where we started this podcast, too, which is thinking about democracy and politics in terms of what happens over two years in elections and how Democrats and Republicans do. And until relatively recently, democracy is what happened every day. And the ways in which labor contests capital is in the workplace. It’s not by trying to go to Congress for a raise, it’s by saying, we’ll strike if you don’t treat us fairly. It’s outside that electoral process which is really where democracy should be located.

Michael: Let’s talk about, uh, Joe Biden here for a while and Bidenomics.

Felicia: Bidenomics, Michael, love it. Bidenomics, middle out economics, the new economics, post-neoliberal economics. Anyway, keep going.

Michael: I think you mentioned to me last fall that you read my book, so you know that I’m pretty obsessed with this idea of changing the economic paradigm and, of course, that Felicia, much of her work is devoted to that question. How do you think Biden’s doing?

Mike: Before I answer that, I just wanted to say, I think that the work that Felicia you’ve done to really give people a different common sense than neoliberalism has been indispensable to get to this moment.

Felicia: That’s very nice of you, Mr. Podhorzer.

Mike: No, but it’s true. Neoliberalism had all these sticky brain worms in it and that sort of made it difficult to get beyond and I think that to an extraordinary extent, the Biden administration has delivered on more than people would’ve expected towards moving the country in that direction. I do want to make two associated points, though. One is to think about how extraordinary it seems that Biden was able to do IRA and all of those things in the first term. A big part of the reason why he was more successful with 50 votes than in many ways Obama was with 59 or 60 is because almost everybody inside the party is now from Blue Nation and actually has the same priorities. But the other thing that I think is that the best way to do any of the ways of taking on income inequality or middle out, whatever. is to actually give working people the power to do it for themselves.

Felicia: Totally agree.

Mike: Policies by themselves don’t get implemented unless you have the power to do it and you don’t have the power to do it if you’re not letting people act collectively, which is why the only time we’ve had an explosion of really good jobs is when the government has been encouraging of people organizing themselves into unions.

Michael: More on the Democratic party. Most of them are from blue areas now, and they share the same priorities, but this is also true, Mike, to get to 230 house members and 53, 54 senators, which they need, to pass the things they want to pass and to reform or eliminate the filibuster, they still need to win a considerable number of purple districts and states, don’t they?

Mike: Oh, of course. Yeah.

Michael: That means that the coalition, almost by definition, will include some people who only share all those priorities.

Mike: Well, except that within those purple states, if we’re talking about the house, there are urban areas and those are the places that Democrats pick up seats. With respect to the Senate, not to be really fatalistic here, beyond where they are now because of the huge bias built into it, people really don’t understand how far to the right Democrats would have to go to be able to go back and do much better in those places.

Felicia: Let’s look forward to the 2024 election, I think you started to go there just now. I’d love to know what you’re foreseeing in your crystal ball. What you think about the election itself? You and many others did a tremendous amount to make sure that the election itself, election administration, was fair and democratic in 2020. Protecting poll workers in 2020. Do you think that is going to be necessary in the next election?

Mike: 2022 and 24 are just very different. 2020 was the absolute most dangerous because Donald Trump was president. And he had extraordinary powers and was using them to undermine the election. And in a number of key places, Republicans were in charge. Civil society in 2020 had to, and did, step up and protect and execute the election against the wishes of the government. After the election made sure that the results were adhered to against the efforts of the government. In 2024, it is back to the government being in good faith, in charge of the election.

Felicia: Even at the state level?

Mike: The threat matrix in the states looks very different as well. In 2020, we had Republican governor in Arizona. We had Republican control of the Pennsylvania and Michigan state legislatures. And we had 4–3 majority of Republican appointees on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Going into 2024, in Arizona, it’s now a Democratic governor. In Michigan, Democrats control both legislative bodies. In Pennsylvania, one. That means all of these independent state legislators, all those mischievous things are off the table. Wisconsin, as I’m sure people listening to this know, Democrats won by an 11-point victory just a couple weeks ago to get a majority in the State Supreme Court. There’s still very dangerous state legislatures in Georgia and Arizona, but compared to 2020, the overall picture is that we should be able to count on the government again to ensure we have a free and fair election. That’s not to say that like a more extraordinary set of threats, of just outright violence or that thing is impossible. It’s also assuming that the Supreme Court doesn’t do something before, immediately after the election, that changes the rules in some new way, that makes it more difficult to have a free and fair election.

Felicia: OK. Well, I’m glad to hear that because I actually have been wondering about that since 2020. So you saying that is going to give me a little bit more optimism and I like optimism so that’s great to hear. Here’s my last question, our last question. Mike Podhorzer, how would you save our country?

Mike: I think that this is a particularly good place to be answering that question because if you remember for decades, people like you and others were trying to figure out how to explain to the neoliberals how to do like a better policy, how to tweak what they were doing. And the problem was that it was never going to work because the assumptions about how the economy worked were just wrong. Unfortunately, when it comes to saving this country, we have the same problem, which is that we’re only recommending solutions to a system that doesn’t exist. Until we understand that our job isn’t to figure out how, in the current framework, for Democrats to get a few more votes by saying a little bit of a different thing. But that the basic idea of how we as citizens make the government one that has our consent legitimately, that is actually delivering on the promise of a better country in the same way you did with the economy, we’re not going to get to solutions that work.  

Felicia: So you’re calling then, Mike, for an even bigger paradigm shift. A paradigm shift that includes both our economy and our democracy. And you’re asking us to think big, and I think you maybe believe that we can actually do that.

Mike: I do. We have done it before and we can do it again, but it only happens when we stop thinking that we are constrained by what everyone thinks we’re constrained by. In the 1850s, there were people going around saying, “You can’t do that because of the compromise of 1850,” or “You can’t do that because of the Supreme Court decision,” or this or that, and it was a mental barrier. It was not imagining the country as it could be. After World War II, there were people who thought there was nothing to do about Jim Crow because there couldn’t be a vote on the Senate floor on even a lynching bill. But people reimagined what the Supreme Court could do and the Supreme Court dismantled Jim Crow. The problem is, right now we’re thinking so small about how to get out of this crisis. We’re thinking what looks like maybe an inch away from what we are doing now. And the problem is that that never works. It didn’t work with respect to trying to make neoliberalism more palatable. It won’t work with respect to a system with this many built-in veto points and advantages to people who have spent 250 years telling us they don’t want a multiracial democracy.  

Felicia: So, Mike, that is why ideas matter, and that is why we’re so happy that you’ve been a guest on this show. Thank you, Mike Podhorzer.

Mike Podhorzer: Thank you, Felicia and Michael.

Michael: So Felicia, what did you think of Mike’s ideas at the end there about how he’d save the country?

Felicia: Well, I think there are two things that were pretty notable about what Mike said. The first is just his observation that the actual administration of the 2024 election is likely to be better than the administration of the 2020 election. Most of the people who sort of have their hands on the wheel, as it were, of actually counting votes, are honest brokers and are working for the public good. The other thing that I thought was interesting and actually made me hopeful, even though Mike can sometimes sound pessimistic, is this idea that people can actually change their minds at the deepest levels. And he gives people like you and me, Michael, credit for changing what people think is possible in the economy. We can have a more equal economy that also really grows.

Michael: Yeah, he was smart about that.

Felicia: Always, always, always take the compliment. But he also says that now we need that for our very democracy. He says we need to use our imaginations to think, Wow, we don’t have to be trapped by bad rules. We don’t have to be trapped by an egalitarian illiberal Supreme Court. We don’t have to be trapped by rules like filibuster or gerrymandering that give a few people a lot of outsize power. We can actually think differently about the rules of how we govern ourselves, and we’re going to have to, he says, to get out of this red/blue conflagration. But he says it’s possible. So I like that.

Michael: Yeah, I do too. This is a point on which I might be a little bit more pessimistic.

Felicia: I was just going to say, “Boy, I could hear the pessimism.” OK. But why pessimistic?

Michael: Well, this work of changing the economic paradigm has taken many, many years, it’s still ongoing.

Felicia: Not done yet. Not done yet.

Michael: It’s taking many, many years. With the election of a Democratic president who embraced these ideas and appointed people into positions of power in his administration who could execute these ideas, our side has been able to enact or manifest that shift to a considerable extent. In other words, it’s done administratively and unilaterally. Shifting the democratic paradigm can’t be done administratively and unilaterally. It has to be done with the consent of the voters through Congress, through the courts. That strikes me as a harder battle to win.

Felicia: Yeah, but I actually think that if you really have a pro-democracy movement, if you actually put democracy itself on the ballot, which is, to some degree, is what happened in the midterms, right? People really thought that authoritarianism was at our doorstep and they fought back. Obviously, there was also the question about the Dobbs decision and abortion, but that, too, seemed like a question of democracy. So I would just say that if you put it that starkly to the American people, that democracy is at risk and you have to actually fight to be able to have the right to change rules, then maybe it’s more than administrative, maybe democracy can actually save democracy.

Michael: Changing that is just going to be a lot of work.

Felicia: It’s always a lot of work. It’s work worth doing. That’s all I can say. OK. I hear your pessimism, Michael, but this is about how to save a country, so let’s get to some good news.

Michael: My good news for the week revolves around a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation which I know everybody read.

Felicia: I read it.

Michael: Well, you read it. OK. But it’s about the fact that private companies are taking much greater advantage of the tax credits, the green tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act than the Congressional Budget Office estimated they would when the IRA was passed. The Congressional Budget Office’s initial estimate was that the tax credits would cost $270 billion over a decade. Now this Joint Committee on Taxation put the price tag at $468 billion. So not quite twice, but a heck of a lot more. Now, there’s a downside: That’s a cost because they’re tax credits. But the upside is that they indicate that companies are really going after these tax credits and really investing in green technologies in a bigger way than anybody thought. And that’s good news.

Felicia: Yeah. Which will have, ostensibly, much bigger climate effects. Much bigger positive decarbonization effects. That is the goal. I had another piece of good news in addition and I wanted to talk about it ’cause it’s so timely.  

Michael: Lay it on me.

Felicia: That is the Writer’s Guild of America strike. And I say this not just because my husband is in fact a member of the Writer’s Guild and he’s going to picket next week. But it’s also because what this strike really shows is that writers are being completely trampled on by the business model of all these new streaming services like Netflix. And at the same time, the CEOs and the corporate executives from these companies are making ungodly sums of money. So the Writer’s Guild had put a bunch of proposals in front of the studio that would cost something like $430 million dollars a year, which is just a drop in the bucket compared to the almost $30 billion, with a ‘B’, in profit that the studios reported in 2021.

Michael: That’s right.

Felicia: And so come on, the writers should be getting part of that. Instead, they’re getting much less because they’re on shorter shows. They get fewer residual checks. This is a huge problem. And I’m glad that we’re talking about this because, on this show, Michael, we’ve talked about Amazon warehouse workers, we’ve talked about fast food workers, but the fact that writers are also striking shows a lot of cross-class and cross-regional solidarity. Everyone is getting kind of trampled on by this tech-enabled capitalism, and I want our listeners to really know that. And I think that the fact that these writers are striking shows that we can fight back,

Michael: Yeah, I agree. It is not settled yet, of course. So we’ll see what happens. I hope our side wins, but I agree with you that, a lot of other people are going through similar things in their workplaces because of these swift technological changes. And writers are workers. It’s glamorous work. It’s fun work. It ain’t the coal mines, but it’s work.

Felicia: Yeah, it’s something we should all care about. So here is yet another piece of good news. A third piece of good news, Michael!

Michael: I can’t take it.

Felicia: So next week, we’re talking to Danielle Allen about democracy. Danielle is this amazing person. She’s a professor of political philosophy in ethics and public policy at Harvard. And she’s also a perfect person to talk to at this point in our podcast season because we’re talking about when ideas met reality, and Danielle left Harvard for a time to run for governor in the 2022 Massachusetts Governor’s race.

Michael: Yeah, not many people who’ve done that and who can speak to these questions from both sides of the coin, the ideas factory and the place where you have to put those ideas into practice.

Danielle Allen [clip]: There is a possibility for us all to live well, to be flourishing creatures, to thrive, but there aren’t a priori answers about how to achieve that. We have to experiment our way toward figuring out what those answers are.

Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael: Our script editor is Christina Stella. Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzales, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.

Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at

Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve.