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The Scary Third Meaning of Freedom

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jefferson Cowie on the deep, twisted roots of American oppression

GBM Historical Images/Shutterstock
George Wallace of Alabama campaigns for president In 1968.

Vanderbilt historian Jefferson Cowie has written several highly influential volumes in his career, including Stayin’ Alive, about the 1970s, and The Great Exception, on the New Deal. This year, he struck gold with his newest work, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power. In April, it won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It’s a historical look at Barbour County, Alabama—the birthplace, as it happens, of segregationist Governor George Wallace—and how the white people there imposed their will on Native and Black Americans. We know the two standard definitions of freedom or liberty—“negative” freedom (the right to be left alone) and “positive” freedom (affirmative rights guaranteed by the state). Cowie identifies in Barbour County’s history a chilling third definition: the freedom to oppress and dominate. Its relevance to our time should be obvious.

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.

Jefferson Cowie: Unlike freedom, democracy requires institutions, it requires compromise. It requires the sacrifice of a certain amount of freedom in order to live in common with your fellow citizens. So I would like to see us push for democracy rather than freedom. And I think honestly that if fascism comes to America, it’s going to be marching under a banner that says freedom. 

Felicia Wong: That is Jefferson Cowie. Jeff’s here to talk to us about freedom.  

Michael Tomasky: How it was conceived, at least by some people, as something tied to oppression and against the federal government.

Felicia: How we progressives can reclaim freedom.

Michael: And what the role of a historian is in this moment of rupture.

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

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

Felicia: Welcome to How to Save a Country, our show about the ideas and the people behind a progressive vision for America. 

Felicia: So, Michael, you talk a lot about the word freedom and when you do, what’s there for you? What does it really mean?

Michael: What it means to me and the definition that I tried to advance in my last book, The Middle Out, is giving people the tools to fulfill their greatest potential, because by doing that, they can live the freest lives.

Felicia: I think maybe some of the freedom we are fighting for and the freedom that the Freedom Caucus is talking about, they’re pretty radically different. 

Michael: Like 1000% different. I’ve been hammering at this for a couple of years now, but we need to reclaim and redefine the word.

Felicia: Yeah. Well, I’m really curious to see what Jeff thinks about all of that because that is the subject of his Pulitzer Prize–winning new book, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power. And Jeff actually writes about a pretty different freedom, one that we don’t often like to think about, but one that he argues has been used since the very first days of our republic. It’s the freedom to enslave. It’s the freedom to dominate. It’s the freedom to oppress other people. He says that there’s a really long historical trajectory to that meaning of the word.

Michael: Jeff takes us to one place, Barbour County, Alabama, to tell that story. It’s a relatively small county with a population of under 30,000. So people probably aren’t very familiar with it but I would imagine people listening to this show have heard of George Wallace.

Felicia: George Wallace was the four-time governor of Alabama. He was a staunch, vocal segregationist, and he also had a number of different unsuccessful bids for the presidency of the United States.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. One of his most famous speeches was from his inauguration for his first term as governor of Alabama, where he said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow”—I tried to throw a little southern accent in there—and “segregation forever.” And he really shaped politics in the South at that time. So we’re going to talk with Jeff all about Wallace’s political beginnings.

Felicia: Jefferson Cowie is the James G. Stahlman professor of history at Vanderbilt University, a position he took after nearly two decades of teaching at Cornell. He’s one of those historians people turn to in order to make sense of the present moment. He’s the author of several books, and one of his earlier works that I really loved was Stayin’ Alive, which focused on the labor movements and the cultural upheaval of the 1970s. 

Michael: Yeah, that was great. And another one of his books, The Great Exception, made a really big impression on me and reframed the way that I thought about the New Deal in history.

Felicia: Yeah, we’ll put those titles in our show notes if our listeners would like to check them out. They really are must reads if we want to understand the story of labor and class and capitalism in the U.S.

Michael: Jeff, welcome to the show.

Jefferson Cowie: Thanks for having me on. 

Michael: You’ve been praised because of your writings on history, labor, class, capitalism. So start things off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself, your background, how you got interested in these things.

Jeff: Wow. So going deep, I grew up in the Midwest. I was the son of a janitor. Not just any janitor, but the janitor at my high school. So I lived in the context of how class worked in a daily way; that had a pretty profound impact on how I saw things in my hometown. And I put that on the shelf, eventually went to college, went to Berkeley. It wasn’t until after about four or five years, I began to think, maybe that hidden transcript that I had observed as a kid was actually a really important thing to think about. So I began to think about class a lot and most of my books are really about how class works in the U.S., and Mexico to a certain extent. But this new book is really about how race works.

Felicia: We talk a lot on this show about freedom and you have a notion in the book of a freedom that goes beyond the “freedom from” and “freedom to,” this Isaiah Berlin notion of freedoms that Michael often brings up: freedom to be left alone or freedoms that are a launching pad forward. There’s another notion of progressive freedoms that many people today talk about, related to FDR and his four freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of worship. But your notion of freedom in the book is, in a way, deeper. It’s about the freedom of some people to be able to do violence to other people. I really want you to talk about that.

Jeff: Yeah, it’s a bit of a critique of that Berlin dichotomy that I think we all rely on. And I did too. So, no insult to Michael or anybody else who uses that framework. And “necessitous men are not free men,” as FDR put it

Felicia: I use that all the time, I say that all the time.

Jeff: Right, of course. You are not free to fulfill your sense of self and your family security and who you are in society if you are not materially taken care of in some capacity with good wages and good benefits and housing and cities that are safe and flourishing, right? I began to look at people who invoked freedom, and I realized I disagreed with a lot of those invocations of freedom.

Felicia: What did you disagree with—specifically? 

Jeff: Yeah. OK, like the Freedom Caucus. The Freedom Caucus is antithetical to everything I believe in, but they use that word freedom. What’s going on there? And by the end of the book I was like, Oh, the Freedom Caucus is perfectly named. They’re not using freedom as window dressing to get something else. They’re actually practicing a deeply embedded version of American freedom that has been there since the earliest settlements. 

Felicia: What is that in two sentences for our listeners?

Jeff: In two sentences. Right. So I use Orlando Patterson’s idea of freedom. He’s a historical sociologist at Harvard, and he says it’s more three pieces. The freedom from, the civil liberties version of freedom. Number two is the freedom to build your own political community however you wish to participate in that. And the third, going all the way back to Athenian democracy is the freedom to enslave, the freedom to oppress, the freedom to dominate. He says that freedom is deeply, profoundly part of the Western tradition. And of course, the American Republic is based on Athenian democracy, which was also a slave society. I really look at that darker version, that third note, what he calls a “court of freedom,” and if you put that in a settler-colonial, chattel slave society then that grows very large, that freedom to dominate, the freedom to dominate others.

Michael: So how did you settle on Barbour County, Alabama as the place where you wanted to locate this story? Is it because George Wallace was from there, or was that a coincidence?

Jeff: Completely coincidental. I had two or three questions. One, what is American Freedom? Two, why is this anti-federal tension a constant? Why do local people fear and even hate the federal government? I was trying to figure out how to explore that, what would be my method? And I began to think maybe one place, one local situation might allow me to write it better and really dig into that local concept and how localism is set in opposition to federal authority. And I happened to find Barbour County, because we were driving down to the Gulf Coast and we drove through it and I was just blown away. 

Felicia: You drive through a lot of places. What struck you about Barbour County?

Jeff: Yeah, right. So, we got off the highway and you drive in and it was like this moonlight magnolia set with these trees, arcing over two-lane boulevards and these antebellum-style mansions on either side of the road. Just an amazing set piece. And then you cross over to the other side of town and it’s whitewashed windows and mom and pop, failing places. And I said this place is interesting. My spider senses went off like, Oh, what’s going on here? And I turned to my wife and I said, “What is this place? I’ve never heard of it.” And she looked it up, and this is Eufaula, Alabama. And she said, “Well, I don’t know, but they didn’t have their first integrated high school prom until 1991.” And I’m like, Oh, OK, That’s a story. Yeah. So, which raises a possible question, which is, Is this an extreme example rather than an illustrative example? So I just went back into my office and started looking backward. Finally I realized, Oh my god, George Wallace is from this county! And I had spent so much time with Wallace in Stayin’ Alive and in The Great Exception, I was like, This is fate. This is just complete fate. 

Michael: Yeah. So the first episode you discussed has to do with treatment of Native Americans, some of which was unspeakably savage. Talk a bit about that.

Jeff: Right. So we all know the Indian dispossession removal story, or elements of it in the Trail of Tears and all of those things. But what was interesting to me in this case was one, this is the frontier of the cotton economy. The cotton capitalism expanding into what was then the Southwest, on the other side of the Chattahoochee River from Georgia. But what had happened was a treaty had been signed to protect this last nine county area for the Muscogee Creek people.

Felicia: A treaty between who and who? Between the federal government and the Creek Nation?

Jeff: That’s correct. Between the federal government and the Creek Nation, but what happened is once that treaty was signed in 1832, all these white settlers known as the intruders at the time flooded into this area to try and stake a claim. And then the shocking thing happens is Andrew Jackson, the person we associate with a white supremacist, expansionary policy, pro-slavery, anti-Native American, actually sends federal troops and marshals in to remove white intruders from Native American land. And this goes against the whole story of American history. That Jackson paves the way, which he did. I mean, let’s not get the…  He’s still got Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama. But this one area he was going to protect. 

Felicia: Did that surprise you? When you—Did you first learn that through your research on this book? 

Jeff: Oh. Yeah. People who studied this whole region are like, what? I had to write it so boldly in proposals and in books and in the manuscript. People would read the opposite of what I was writing even though I was saying explicitly that Jackson was protecting the Native Americans from white intruders.

Michael: So these people went too far for Andrew Jackson. That tells you something.

Jeff: Right, right. And so what this means, and this is deeply problematic for our shared project on this podcast is the white intruders were actually worse in a lot of ways than Jackson. That Jackson was tapping the brakes on the very process, which was all about opening up the continent to white settlement, beyond a doubt, but he wasn’t doing it fast enough, and quickly became the enemy of the people. Alabama turned against him. They’re talking about civil war already in the 1830s. It’s truly a remarkable tale and it really made me think a lot more about freedom because land, at this time, is freedom. And they made this case against the indigenous people on the grounds that their right as free men included the right to take Native American lands.

Felicia: So that was the argument that the white settlers, the white intruders made against “federal tyranny,” in air quotes. So in a way, the story you tell in the book locates this white Southern resentment of hatred of the federal government in that historical moment. After all of the work you’ve done on this book, is that how you see it?

Jeff: Yeah. The main town, Eufaula, was burned down by federal marshals before it had barely started. So it begins in opposition to federal power because the marshals destroyed the cotton warehouse and all that stuff downtown. And what the settlers call on, or the intruders call upon is the Jeffersonian tradition based in the early Republic… 

Felicia: Yeoman farmer. 

Jeff: Yeoman farmers, access to land. 

Felicia: That form of freedom.

Jeff: “The Empire of Liberty,” as Jefferson called it.

Felicia: Yes. “The Empire of Liberty,” which has an almost Tocquevillian romance in a way. 

Jeff: Oh, yeah, I’m named after the guy. 

Felicia: Right. There you go. There you go, Jefferson Cowie. Anyway, it is fascinating to think that this federal conflict and this cry of liberty against the federal government is located, before what some of us think about, and what is the next episode in your book, which is about reconstruction. I think progressives these days talk a lot about reconstruction. Talk about the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendments and I think a lot of people today who think about race and racial justice think about reconstruction as a lost opportunity. Bishop William Barber, who’s from North Carolina and is the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, often talks about the need for a third reconstruction. But tell us about the story of reconstruction in Barbour County. What did you learn there and what did you learn about the role of the federal government in that story up until 1877? 

Jeff: The short story is that after the Civil War, Republicans who are the good guys in this story and African Americans wanted federal citizenship. They wanted to get as far away from local and state citizenship as they could. And this is a core theme. It’s what the Native Americans wanted too. They were writing Jackson saying, Protect us from state’s rights. Protect us from local rule. And it’s the same thing for the freedmen after the war. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments rebuild the constitutional structure and especially the Fourteenth Amendment, try to federalize citizenship, which was not the case prior to that. This local-federal struggle for classes that are trying to dominate, they want local rule for freedmen, who want their specific democratic participation type of freedom. They want federal intervention to protect them. That’s the nature of reconstruction. We can get into policies and things like that. But what that unleashed was this long-term struggle on the local level between Black Republicans and their allies against the Democratic machinery, locally and on the state level, to try and either kick out or enforce federal power.  

Felicia: Yeah, that makes so much sense because a lot of times it’s governors and other people at the state level, state legislatures where you do see a lot of these fights about federal power, local power. And of course, we should probably talk about George Wallace because he is from Barbour County.

Michael: Yeah, I’d like you to talk about Wallace in this tradition but I’d also like to ask you about the period after Wallace. So Wallace late in life dropped his segregationist stance, and the South at that point seemed to be moving in an accommodationist direction. There was talk of a new South and all that. Did that really happen? And what cut it short?

Jeff: Well, if I could take your question more broadly about the potential of a different freedom emerging at multiple points, because you see it in reconstruction where interracial democracy is flourishing, and then whites essentially shoot Black voters in the streets in Eufaula. Then the populist movement comes along in the 1880s and 1890s and they’re building toward a biracial system. But then the 1901 Constitution has passed and becomes a reason for segregation. Then we have The New Deal. But then this Wallace period, Wallace is working it out early on, the white South is conflicted and Wallace runs as a fairly progressive figure in the early ’50s.

Felicia: That was actually surprising to me in the book. He felt a little bit like a political opportunist. He was going to go where the wind was blowing. Right? On race? 

Jeff: He’s more than an opportunist. He’s a political genius. I think he’s like—

Felicia: Maybe one in the same. 

Jeff: Yeah, right. But, oh my god, my favorite quote about him is, “Anti-communist to the core, but if you dropped him into the Albanian countryside, he’d be head of the politburo in six months,” because he’s a political animal. He’s a great way to think about these things because he’s such a wonderful conniving figure to figure out what the lay of the landscape is. And so he wants to build better roads, he wants trade schools. He’s a moderate on race. But then after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, he sees the writing on the wall, he’s like, No. And he gets beat by a vicious racist. He runs as a racist, but not just a racist. He brings in the racists by running against the federal government. They’re going to come no matter what, but you can build a coalition by running against federal power. And so always on the horizon in Wallace’s world are federal bayonets about to descend from the hillsides onto your community. That means you’re going to get tax people, regulation people, people who are worried about Blacks voting, people who are worried about housing, integrating neighborhoods. That becomes his M.O. and he runs for president several times in ’64, ’68, ’72, ’76. He’s a little different because, and now we’re getting into the period that Michael’s asking about finally, in that he is trying to bring the South to the North rather than the Southern strategy of bringing the Republican party to the South. I actually call the chapter “The Northern Strategy,” as a sort of way to think about that. And the more that ’70s progress, he begins to pull away from race, but he still has it in for the feds and that still becomes the glue for how he can push forward by saying your freedom is an opposition to these meddling federal bureaucrats who can’t park a bicycle straight. And so that becomes really where he wants to be. Now, in the long run, he ultimately, and maybe this is where you’re really going, he apologizes for the whole thing. And he feels terrible. 

Felicia: Was that legit? 

Jeff: I think it was. John Lewis prayed with him, Jesse Jackson talked to him. He looked at what he had done and, and was actually afraid. Now, it also served his political interest because Black people could vote, right? So—

Michael: Right,

Jeff: —to the sense he’s the bellwether we’re looking at, he also understood the lay of the landscape and actually ended up being fairly popular among African American voters in Alabama.

Michael: It’s so tangled and I just think that no sooner did we as a country make this progress in the 1960s and seventies than there was a backlash just immediately and we’re still fighting that fight of the 1960s and ’70s in so many fundamental ways.

Jeff: Right. Well, so my argument that I don’t develop in this book is, thinking about the post-60s era as the long redemption. And redemption is a very problematic word, but it’s the—

Felicia: I was going to say, are you using it literally the way they did in the nineteenth century? Like the redeemers? 

Jeff: Yes. Right. So after reconstruction, white Southerners felt the need to redeem the South from meddling with federal power and bring back the racial hierarchy, exclude federal authority and try and maintain democracy at the local and state levels as much as possible. That was called redemption. And this was built on the myth of the lost cause and all these things that, and so while you talked about Barber wanting to make this a third reconstruction, I’m 100 percent behind that project, but what we see so far really is a second white redemption against federal power, being used after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and the Housing Act and other things like that. We see this slow clawing of federal power back away from the defense of the political rights of minority people. I’ll give you an example when I got to the civil rights section in this book, Hosea Williams was the guy who was trying to register voters, organize the registration campaign after the Voting Rights Act. He was Martin Luther King’s key lieutenant on this question as they were going into the ’66 midterms, which is the first elections after the Voting Rights Act. He’s trying to figure out why some counties have good registration numbers and some don’t. Finally, he figures out there’s one variable that explains why any county in the South had good registration numbers, and it was this: whether there was a federal registrar on the ground ensuring democratic rights for local people. You could have a great campaign, you could have great leadership, all that stuff. But unless there was federal force there, the numbers didn’t bear up.

Felicia: To me, that story speaks about race very specifically as such a unique force in American history, in a way that’s different than gender, as important as gender is, and different than labor, different than class. Jeff, your new book is so much more about race than any of your other books, which dealt more with labor history. So how do you think about race?

Jeff: I spent so much time thinking about class, and subsuming other things into the question of class, like women’s rights, vocational and occupational rights that that would solve a lot, Black, immigrant rights. If we could subsume that into class, we can get somewhere. I’ve become more critical of that, a lot more critical of my original, almost naive assumptions about how race might work. I do think that race is an extraordinarily powerful driver of American history. And that it’s going to be difficult to make progress in those other realms without first making progress on questions about race. I really do think it is, as much as I believe in all of these other issues, and this is what happened to me in my commitment to class and labor stuff, I kept coming across this question of race, and it seemed to be the one that needed to be dealt with before we could create other forms of solidarities. 

Michael: I want to jump to today and ask about definitions of freedom and the fight over freedom. We talk about it a lot on this show, and it’s our view, my view, our view that we have to reclaim the word freedom and that we have to redefine it along the lines that governor Josh Shapiro did last fall in that last speech he gave before the election, where he said freedom is giving that girl in North Philadelphia the tools she needs to fulfill her potential. Do you think that’s a winning argument? Not only just politically, but historically, is there enough historical ballast there for that argument to take hold eventually?

Jeff: Right. So what is the value of freedom today, especially for progressives? It’s a great question. And if we look back over the history of social movements, acclaim on freedom has often been part and parcel of that. To get rid of it is problematic, but I think to be specific about it is really helpful and to say what that means, and to emphasize the other dimensions of freedom besides this freedom to dominate. Because I do think in fact the Republican Party has a lock on that brand. And I think it’s really problematic. 

Felicia: Do you think the Republican Party… is that shifting at all in your, I’m asking you now to be a political strategist and not a historian, but do you think that that’s shifting at all?

Jeff: Well, Biden’s campaign launch of course was called Freedom, his little video. But what was interesting about that, and this presages where I’m going, is while Biden said, Here’s the name of my campaign and it’s “Freedom.” He was talking about something else for the most part, as far as I could tell. And that’s democracy. And my argument is I think we need to push democracy. Unlike freedom, democracy requires institutions, it requires compromise. It requires the sacrifice of a certain amount of freedom in order to live in common with your fellow citizens. So I would like to see us push for democracy rather than freedom. And I think honestly that if fascism comes to America, it’s going to be marching under a banner that says freedom.

Felicia: So you don’t think that progressives can reclaim a freedom that would maybe be coextensive with equality or coextensive with democracy? Would you weave freedom in somehow if you were writing the speeches for the candidate? Or do you really think that democracy itself is going to be enough of a rallying crime? I mean, democracy is a process. You and I serve on the board of a small college that is democratically governed, and we know that—Deep Springs College for, since we could just do a little plug for Deep Springs here on this podcast—but at any rate, we know that sometimes democracy’s challenging. So you really think that democracy in and of itself is a great sales tactic? 

Jeff: Let me first concede, democracy is messy, but that’s also why I’m in favor of it. Some of it could just be empty breast beating. So much of freedom is in fact that. So that leaves us in a fork, and I think we need to take both. One is a more didactic version of freedom. When we say freedom, they mean burning textbooks. When we say freedom, we mean the security offered by health care.  Maybe do something like that to be absolutely clear to, to unpack it and to— 

Felicia: Don’t leave the word hanging, but actually say this is what we mean. This is what we want for all Americans. OK.

Jeff: That’s one fork. The other is this idea of pushing democracy, because I strongly believe that the fate of democracy in America requires pushing so many of these questions, including voting rights to the federal level. And that’s my biggest takeaway from this. When you start making the argument that voting rights need to be taken away from local and state authorities and put at the federal level, the argument against that is going to be you’re taking away my freedom. Making a case about the institutions and governing structures and civic dimensions really of what this is about is really important. It’s not a panacea. It’s not the silver bullet that’s going to save progressives, but I do think there’s a lot of traction for what we want that freedom doesn’t necessarily offer. We can make an argument about the right to choose and that that’s a freedom. Great. The majority of people are pro-choice. It’s not an issue. If they had the Democratic means to assert their interests, that’s a foregone conclusion. We all know that the Democrats won every presidential contest in terms of the popularity of the vote except for ’04, which is a product of 2000, since the ’90s. The institutions are in terrible, terrible shape, and that’s what really needs to be rebuilt. And the stronger you build them, the more people are going to scream freedom. And I think we just need to be able to push back on that.

Felicia: Withstand that, right. Prepare for that and withstand that. I think that’s really interesting advice. Obviously the work in Freedom’s Dominion, I think your work on the New Deal, your work on the 1970s, it feels like all of this work is just so almost scarily timely. And obviously for your latest book, we’ve seen this wave of anti-statism, anti-federal governmentism from a number of far-right groups. Obviously January 6, the armed protests in the Michigan Capitol. Like as a historian, what do you make of these movements?

Jeff: I’m scared. 

Felicia: You’re scared as a historian?

Jeff: I’m scared as a citizen. 

Felicia: OK. OK. OK.

Jeff: If I understand your question, you’re not really looking for my say on how I am feeling about this? 

Felicia: Oh, I want both. I want to know how you’re feeling as a citizen, as Jeff Cowie, but I also want to know how you’re feeling as historian Jefferson Cowie. I would like to know both. 

Jeff: I like that distinction. Thank you, Felicia. That was, that’s useful. The thing that pops to my mind immediately is continuity versus rupture. If you look at my history of freedom, this is a continuous story. That was the first question my editors asked, “Is this a story of change or is this a story of continuity?” It’s a story of rough continuity with a lot of changes. We have this rupture at this moment, this very specific crisis inflection point since the election of Donald Trump, which is a failure of democratic institutions. I will reiterate. 

Felicia: So we’re living in a moment of rupture.

Jeff: I think so. Yeah. But it’s building off these continuous trends. It’s not like this emerged from nowhere. But these themes that the Trumpian right has been working with, run through Wallace, and they run through Father Coughlan, and they run through Tom Watson and they run through Andrew Jackson and backward. They’re a sort of preexisting condition with a massive flare-up that is made all the more complicated by global warming and the weakening of civic rights and duties and, maybe now A.I. after the report of those A.I. leaders. But I don’t think, I think we do ourselves as a disservice to say, these people don’t understand America. That’s not American to say. What Trump says is an American, the Freedom Caucus says isn’t American. No, it’s deeply, problematically American. This is the fight amongst American historians right now is what are the most enduring elements and this is the 1619 argument and others. 

Felicia: Versus 1776. This is shorthand for the argument that the historical historical community’s having right now. 

Jeff: Kind of, yeah. 

Felicia: Tell us more.

Jeff: There’s all sorts of shades of gray in there. I understand the 1619 group, but I would put myself in a more nuanced position than they are, even though I appreciate the work that they’re doing, because then it becomes, OK, who are the heroes of the Republic? Are they the Andrew Jacksons of the world, or are they the people who have this long history of resistance and bringing the promise of America to more people? When Barack Obama gave that speech at the anniversary of the Edmund Pettus Bridge march, he essentially made the case that the heroes of America are those who sought to expand democracy, to deepen democracy, to bring freedom to more people not have a defensive version. That remains, even in the most sophisticated, historiographical debates, the essence of what we’re talking about oftentimes. How much power and transformation social movements have actually delivered over time? What’s enduring and what can change? How pessimistic, how cynical should we be about American institutions? How much elasticity and acceptance have they shown over time?

Felicia: Well, I do think, on the 1619 question, much of what Nikole Hannah Jones and others that she’s working with, she’s a journalist, not a historian of course, but what they’re trying to say is that there is a way to take some of that hope, take both the pain of the Black American experience and actually look at it as a drive for perfecting what we claim we could stand for or do stand for. So I think there’s a way to look at 1619 that way. But anyway, we don’t have to go there. I have another question for you about being a historian. What do you believe the role of a historian is in today’s social movements and at a time of rupture and when democracy is so fragile? What do historians need to do today?

Jeff: That is like a deer in the headlights question for me. 

Felicia: I wish our listeners could see Jeff right now sitting on the video. His eyes get really big. But yeah, that’s a very serious question actually.

Jeff: It is and I want to take it seriously as well. I mean it’s hard. Historians were once in policy circles on a regular basis. They are no longer—

Felicia: Yeah. Now you got all those economists. 

Jeff: Exactly. Yeah. Right. 

Felicia: That’s not a joke.

Jeff: No absolutely, 100 percent. The closer you are to a certain sort of econometric framework, the more legitimacy you have, even among historians now with the history of capitalism. There’s a lot of frustration there amongst historians and even though history continues to be among the more popular disciplines for general readers, what should we be doing? This is an all hands on deck moment, and I think we all just need to be doing our jobs as well as we possibly can. I think why I’m having trouble answering your question, Felicia, is I talk to young activists and they’re like, “We’re going to do this and we’re going to do that and we’re going to do this.” And I’m the cynical old historian going, “Eh, we did, we tried that. We did, here’s the obstacle of that, blah, blah.” And what I’ve learned to do in those situations is to be as positive and encouraging in the right direction as possible. Because as we’ve discussed, this is a moment of flux. We don’t know where things are going to land, and I think we need to leave our cynicism behind and let as many flowers bloom out there as we possibly can. And historians can be a cynical group of people because we feel like, through the archive, we’ve seen a lot. And it’s easy to get a little dark about potential. And so, I hope people will read our stuff, they’ll read our op-eds, they’ll listen to our podcasts and things like that, but not feel as hemmed in as many historians do about the past. This is why, say the DNA metaphor that you see in the 1619 project, if it’s DNA, it ain’t going to change. That if this is locked into who we are, we have even bigger problems than we thought. So we need that youth, we need that vitality. We need that sense of can, that anger. And not just say, been there, done that. 

Felicia: I was leading the witness a little bit here, Jeff, ’cause I have been spending a lot of time with historians lately.

Jeff: Sorry. 

Felicia: No, no. And here’s the thing, here’s why I love talking to historians. First of all, it is a fascinating narrative and it’s just great to learn because there’s so much to learn. But also, historians remind us that things can be different. Historians remind us that we haven’t always lived with the social structures that we’re living with today. Sometimes they were a lot worse, but that also tells us that things can be better. 

Jeff: The past is full of all of these wonderful lost opportunities too. It’s not just what actually changed, but all these voices out there that said, It doesn’t have to be this way! 

Felicia: Yeah. Examples of courage. 

Jeff: Just absolute courage. Exactly. 

Felicia: Right. I don’t know. It’s just at the FDR library, we just opened an exhibit on the Roosevelts and Black Americans, Roosevelts and the Civil Rights movement. And Mary McLeod Bethune, come on, just like amazing courage as the sort of Deputy Director of the National Youth Administration during the mid-to-late 1930s. So many people who did so much, that’s what … Maybe I’m just glass half full, but I take a lot of that from history as well as the sort of been there, done that, seen it all sort of—

Jeff: Yeah, and I think historically there’s a drifting problem of historians getting a little too locked into their own story of, “it was always thus.” It used to be the old story moving out of the new left in the ’60s and ’70s was, Look what social movements can do! And they went back and looked at all the social movements and showed their change over time. And then since the ’90s, and especially now, it’s been a lot more about structured limitations and I think we need to bring some of that energy back. 

Felicia: Agency and structure. Have got to have both. Have got to have both. Boy, that was like a nerdy reference. So, Jeff Cowie, here’s my final question for you: How would you save our country?

Jeff: I think it goes back to that story about Hosea Williams. The number one thing I would look at is finding ways to expand voting rights and make voting rights legitimate because, and this is where I believe in the power of the people of this republic, something that’s a little unfashionable right now, but I actually think if the structures of democracy worked, the majority would do the right thing, but they’re very restricted right now. Elites have been playing with ideas of freedom as they have all the way since the beginning of my book. And selling a bill of goods to a lot of people, that regulatory oversight of the election process and getting rid of gerrymandering and all these things that are very big, complicated questions is really the direction I would like to see as much of our energy put. I’ve become so radical in this question, I’m ready to get rid of the states altogether. 

Felicia: Not just getting rid of electoral colleges but getting rid of—no more state legislatures! You heard it here first, folks on How to Save a Country.

Jeff: Breaking news. 

Felicia: Jefferson Cowie wants to get rid of all state legislatures. No, but you’re serious that absent obstruction, the people would do the right thing.

Jeff: I do think so. 

Felicia: That’s what you’re really saying. 

Jeff: And right now, the electoral college and gerrymandering and horrible limitations and the right to vote, restrictions on access to the right to vote are blocking that. The more we think about getting rid of those, the better we’re going to be because that will actually restore this faith question that we’ve been struggling with here, that agency-structure question, because I think there’s still a lot of really positive energy in the country with regard to this.

Felicia: Yeah, that is a great place to leave this conversation. Jeff Cowie, Jefferson Cowie, thank you so much for joining us here on How to Save a Country.  

Jeff: I appreciate you having me on and I’m sorry I couldn’t singlehandedly come up with an answer for saving the country!

Felicia: Oh, I think we just do what you said and we’ll be good. 

Jeff: Done and done. 

Felicia: So Michael, I know how much you love thinking about freedom and you have hope for freedom. In fact, just a couple weeks ago when we talked to Danielle Allen on this show, you said that if you and she were in Congress together, you would be chairs of, or leaders of the Freedom Democrats. So how does Jeff’s whole take here about freedom maybe not being the answer or not being central to an answer. How does that strike you?

Michael: Well, I disagree about not fighting for the word freedom. I think it’s wrong to cede that concept to the right and to not fight to advance our definition, and it’s been a mistake for 40 years to do that. I think we have to start offering an alternative definition. It’s a word that’s really not just a word, but a concept, an idea that’s really important to every American, every living human being. I mean, everybody wants freedom. And if you have a set of political actors using the word and defining it for people. And another set of political actors not even trying to confront that definition and offer a different definition, I think you’ve just lost a really, really important fight. Having said that, I take his points about why democracy is important too. And I would never say that we shouldn’t make democracy preservation and protection and expansion of democracy central to our arguments. Of course we should! I mean, it’s been my argument, throughout this show and in my last book that progressives make a mistake when they silo these concepts off and talk about economics as one thing, and democracy as another thing, which only comes down to voting rights and gerrymandering and a few other ideas like that. And then freedom is a third thing or even a thing that they don’t even really discuss at all. I think all of these things need to be discussed in tandem. Economics, democracy, freedom. It’s all one argument. Our economic ideas will help strengthen democracy and help expand human freedom. 

Felicia: Michael, this whole conversation of freedom being so dark, it’s pretty scary. So come on, give me some good news to end this episode with.

Michael: Well here is my stab at some good news, which has to do with everything that we talked about with Jeff. I’ve been thinking about the Trump indictment, in a lot of different ways. But one thing that stands out for me and that is important I think in the context of the kinds of things that we talk about on this show, is that this really is a win for democracy. The most powerful person in the country who says he’s above the law, and whose statement along those lines is unfortunately, occasionally a little bit backed up by certain precedents that have been said in this country and certain Department of Justice rulings that say a sitting president can’t be prosecuted and so on and so on. But anyway, no, he’s not above the law and the law is catching up and his bluster, which has gotten him through a hundred shady real estate deals and stiffing those poor vendors who supplied pianos to his hotels and stuff like that, you can do that as a private citizen, and if you have money and very little conscience and great lawyers and patience, you can win those things as a private citizen, unfortunately. But once he became president, a new set of rules applied. It took a while and it’s taking a while, and of course he may still be acquitted. But at least, there is a legitimate effort to hold him to account. Obviously there’s some percentage of the country that’s furious about that, but I think it’s something that most Americans, whether they hate Donald Trump or are indifferent to him, ought to be glad about. 

Felicia: Yeah, Michael, you’re right that this indictment is a win for democracy. And I understand that we imagine sometimes that presidents are above the law, but we also in real life also understand that it takes a lot to indict, obviously a sitting president, a former president in this case. What’s so striking to me about this indictment is that, as far as I understand it, of course there’s, I’m not in the middle of the documents, but if the reporting is to be believed, this is a matter of grave national security and we should not let that behavior go unremarked on, unpunished, or at least unprosecuted. So that’s the good news, or at least the news. No, it’s good news. And I have more good news because next week, Michael, we don’t have a guest. It’s just going to be you and me. We thought it would be fun to end this season by going head to head on some of the debates, some of the disagreements even that the two of us have had. Is it liberal or is it progressive? Should we use middle out economics to describe what we’re for? And we can talk more about freedom too. We haven’t really had enough time to just duke that out. Let’s do that next week.

Michael: I can’t wait to have the middle out debate in particular.

 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.

 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

 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.