Democrats are in an identity crisis, do they know how to fix it?

Conservative policy ideas are very unpopular, but Democrats have not been able to close the deal with the public
President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., delivers remarks on the American Rescue Plan on Friday, March 12, 2021, in the Rose Garden of the White House. Photo: Adam Schultz/White House

Episode Summary

While the Republican Party’s embrace of authoritarianism has attracted a lot of media attention in recent years, the Democratic Party’s inability to build a real political majority is a big reason that American conservatives haven’t had to drop their unpopular views about government. 

After all, if Democrats were better at diagnosing and meeting the needs of the public, anti-government Republicans wouldn’t be able to use cultural or religious controversies to win.

For decades, polls have shown that millions of Americans who generally favor the Democratic Party don’t typically vote. Some people, particularly supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, say it’s because Democrats have turned them off by not expanding government enough to meet their needs. Other people say that reaching out to people through their race or gender identity is the way to go.

In this episode, Matthew Sheffield talks to Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly on what he’s seen in 20 years of progressive journalism. We also talk about where Democrats have been and where they might go in the future.

A lightly edited transcript of the discussion follows.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: This is Theory of Change. I’m Matthew Sheffield. 

We’ve talked a lot about on the show recently about the Republican Party and American conservatism in its descent into madness, as it were. But a lot of the focus also in the story should be focused on Democrats as well, because Democrats in America are kind of in an identity crisis right now. 

The Republican Party has very unpopular policies and is led by people who are very unpopular, like Donald Trump. But at the same time, Democrats barely have a majority in the US House, which many people suppose they may lose in the 2022 elections and also have a 50-50 tie in the Senate. So the question is, how is it that Democrats have gotten to that point, and a lot of things have changed for Democrats in the past 20 to 30 years, there’s a lot to think about right now. We’ve seen the rise of people who are calling themselves Democratic socialists through the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. And he was able to really come from a backbencher in Vermont to one of the most popular Democratic politicians. But on the other hand, he wasn’t able to win the Democratic nomination, the two times that he tried. 

So there’s a lot going on with Democrats right now. And I figured one of the best people to talk about that subject with me is Paul Glastris. He is the editor of Washington Monthly. He’s been there since 2001. And he also worked in the Bill Clinton White House. And so there’s a lot that he’s seen within the Democratic Party and the American left in general. So I am happy to be joined by Paul Glastris. 

GLASTRIS: Hey, Matt, how are you? 

SHEFFIELD: Good. All right, so for those who are not as familiar with your work, why don’t you give everybody a little introduction to why did you come to DC and how did you get interested in progressive politics in general? 

GLASTRIS: Well, I don’t come from a progressive background. My parents were, you know, pretty conservative. I grew up in exurban St. Louis, Missouri, and it was in the 60s and 70s. And a lot of leftism was in the air. And I probably had a natural inclination to it. 

But when I got to Washington, I didn’t really have politics in mind. I didn’t, I can’t tell you how sort of disengaged politically I was as a young person. But I interned I did have some desire to write I thought I could write pretty well. And I interned at the Washington Monthly, this small magazine that I discovered, and Charlie Peters was the founder, a former state legislator in West Virginia and a JFK sort of ally, who went on to be a founder of the Peace Corps. And then in 1969, founder of The Washington Monthly 

And it more or less expressed my politics, as close as instinctively, I could, and wanted to be an editor there and then spent 10 years with U.S. News. And as I said, two and a half, as you mentioned, two and a half years as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton. And then when Charlie retired, I took over the magazine in 2001, turned into a nonprofit. And I have been editing it ever since. 

It’s been a kind of a journey for me as it’s been, I think, for a lot of people to sort of figure out what your thoughts are, your positions are, you know, we do straight ahead journalism with reporting, but we also at the Monthly write with a point of view, we’re a magazine of opinion, and openly so. But very much focused on policy. And, you know, believers that, that you can’t have a politics without policy, that policy ultimately determines politics, although the you know, recent years has certainly challenged that notion.

SHEFFIELD: In terms of — just so I guess people can know, have your, have your, do you think your views have evolved at all? And in terms of like, where you are see yourself in the Democratic Party, you know, the progressive left center left coalition? I mean, you were in the Clinton White House, were you—did you identify as a so called New Democrat at that time? 

GLASTRIS: I think so. I think that’s fair to say, on certainly a lot of matters. I did. And I think like, like, all of us, facts on the ground have changed, right? I think in the early 90s, when you had not the overabundance of capital that we have now. And interest rates really were tied to federal deficits, federal deficits actually mattered, right? And so cutting the deficit as the Clinton administration did long before I got there, in the early 90s, really had a stimulative effect. Today, deficits, federal deficits don’t really have that effect and you can run much bigger deficits without, you know, at some point, maybe fear of inflation, but certainly not now. So facts change. And I think my policies have certainly changed with the facts. I was also married to a woman who was to my left, and she had some effect on me over the years, he went a lot of arguments.

But you know, I think today, even today, we’re still believers in a kind of very politics grounded in sound policy. And we’ve had some disagreements with the progressive left today. And I’ve written pretty openly about those disagreements, I thought Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s free college proposals were very poorly structured. And and we’ve offered alternatives to that. And again, on a variety of reasons. I’m still a big believer in community policing, which was the heart of the Clinton crime bill, I still think it’s the the the sort of lens through which progressive policy and policymakers in general ought to think about crime, especially you know, in these days when violent crime is up. So I still think that that approach has a lot of value. 

But we have to, again, facts on the ground of change. In the 90s, incomes were rising for all income classes, right? The bottom 20% of earners, saw their incomes rise faster than the top 20%. Well, that all changed in that in the 2000s. And we’ve seen now generational downward mobility for 80% of the population. 

So, so policies need to change. 

SHEFFIELD: And one of the other things that changed was the Republican Party as well. 

GLASTRIS: Absolutely. 

SHEFFIELD: And, and a lot of those forces had been in place for a long time. 

GLASTRIS: You know, hey, I live I lived through Monica Lewinsky, I was there for that. So yes, I’ve seen those forces up close early, but they have grown. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so but at the same time, as the Republican Party has become openly, pro-violent insurrection and and trying to lionize Ashley Babbitt, the woman who was trying to break into to the—open open the door so that people could break into the Capitol and kill Mike Pence. They’re saying she was wrongfully murdered. 

And so the Republican Party has become this terrible apparition, but at the same time, Democrats have not been able to fill in the gap. Because—why do you suppose that Democrats right now have pretty low approval ratings—

GLASTRIS: Politicians, both Republicans and Democrats have have low, low ratings, I think we’re in a very anti-institutional era. People forget that almost everybody have voting age now, not everybody, but anyone from the from their mid 70s on down to people in their 50s, that whole kind of upper—the people who vote the most—they all lived through the 60s. And they all imbued a kind of anti-institutional, rebellious against authority ethos. And let us be honest, our institutions have not performed well on a variety of scales, feeding that instinct. So to stand up and be a a, a member of a political party trying to govern responsibly, is going to limit just that identity limits your appeal, a lot of people just have no, have no truck with that.

SHEFFIELD: Mmhmm. 

GLASTRIS: I mean, I think also what one example and then one, there’s a lot of reasons why the Democrats are struggling, we can let us, you know, proceed, walk through all 20 reasons. But it’s always been the case that the Democratic Party is a party of a coalition party. And the Republican Party increasingly over recent decades, is an ideological party and an identity party. And, you know, we’re living in an age of of identity of tribalism. I don’t know that Democrats have quite the same coherent tribal identity. They are coalition. They represent multiple races. They represent multiple classes. They represent some pretty conservative folks. They represent some they represent the far left, they’re a party pride, predominantly unified by the desire for government programs.

SHEFFIELD: And functioning government period. 

GLASTRIS: Certainly a functioning government. Absolutely. I wish Democrats were more focused on the inner workings, the functioning of government and less on the next benefit that needs to be won. But yes, so and Democrats have struggled with what their identity is because of who they are. 

They represent — put it this way— Anne Kim a fine contributing editor of The Washington Monthly had a piece last week in the WashingtonMonthly.com that provides numbers that I had not seen. And it basically shows the degree to which Democrats rely on moderate voters. We think of the Democrats have has having, you know, lurched to the left. And certainly the liberal left, self identified liberal left within the party is much bigger. But the Democrats cannot win control of Congress cannot win the White House without winning a super majority of self identified moderates. Republicans do not need a supermajority. They can win with a pretty modest majority, minority, of moderates. That gives you a sense of the breadth of what the Democrats are, and in a sense, ideologically, the narrowness of what the what the Republicans are. The Republicans are a primarily conservative, reactionary, party, Democrats span a much wider ideological space. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. And actually, on the Flux website, which Theory of Change is part of, we actually have a piece up there today on that very topic of how—but the interesting thing about that, though, is that, it seems it seems like a lot of people who were Democratic consultants or politicians, they, they don’t seem to understand the full dynamics at work here. 

Because on the one hand, you’ve got some people, let’s say, who were affiliated with Bernie Sanders, or, you know, support hit supported him, they have this idea that the Democratic base is a bunch of socialists, that’s the constant Democratic voter. And as you said, that’s not correct. But then at the same time, you know, you have a lot of, of Democratic, you know, consultants are people who have been there in place for decades, like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, there have been studies that have shown that the average member of Congress thinks that the average American is much more conservative than they actually are. 

You know, it’s almost like Democrats don’t know who votes for them. Do you think that’s right? 

GLASTRIS: I do not underestimate the amount of information and savviness of people like Nancy Pelosi. She’s in, you know, one of the, you know, will go down in history as one of the most capable speakers of the House. And she doesn’t do that by being ignorant of who her voters are. 

But I will say this, I think Democrats for many, many years, lost sight of what—of economic theory of economic growth of what defines liberal Democratic policy when it comes to the economy. And there’s really nothing more important than having that well thought through. Republicans have a theory of economic growth, that whether you think it’s crackpot or not everybody understands, cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, who will reinvest the taxes, cut regulations, on business owners, and you will get more jobs and growth. And even under Donald Trump, who was somewhat of a big government conservative, that’s what he delivered tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, and deregulation. I personally think that’s a not a formula for economic growth, but everyone understands it. 

I don’t think most most Americans know what the Democratic theory of economic growth is, other than we’re going to spend money on social programs, which isn’t really a theory of economic growth. It’s a theory of how I could put money in your pocket. Fine, but it’s not a theory of how does the economy grow? And I think what’s changed only in recent years, is that the Democrats are beginning to get that back again. 

I would argue Bill Clinton had it in the early 90s. The economy stupid, we knew what Bill Clinton had a theory of how he’s going to bring back the economy, you know, he was going to kick open the doors of trade in Japan, and  train people for these high wage, high value jobs. Again, you know, whether you agree with it or think it worked or not. He ran on a coherent theory of change. I don’t believe Joe Biden did. I didn’t think he needed to he could win without it. But Democrats recently have latched on to what I think is the right economic model, a kind of theory of economic change, and that is anti-monopoly, anti-trust. And you saw Joe Biden, who talked almost nothing about this during the campaign suddenly become its biggest champion. I think Nancy Pelosi was very slow to it. But you know, others pushed her in that direction. and Chuck Schumer was slow to it. Others pushed him in that direction. 

And so now the Democrats are the party of challenging big businesses that corner markets, which stops you know, strangle startups and starve average people have wages because they have, they don’t have competing employers to, to negotiate higher wages with.

SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s also, it’s also good on a political standpoint, because a huge part of the appeal of Donald Trump, especially in 2016, he ran as an anti-big business person, and a lot of progressives and liberals didn’t see that. They just saw him as this malignant fascist attacking various groups. But if you actually listen to what his speeches were, especially toward the end, he was talking about I’m going to go after these evil hedge funds, I’m going to raise taxes on—he literally said he was going to raise taxes on rapacious billionaires, and that he was a class trader for the billionaires. 

That was a huge, that’s a huge part of his appeal. And even now, this whole contrived, anti-big tech thing, like they’re pushing very, very hard for it. And as a matter of policy, it makes no sense because they’re trying to claim that people have the somehow have the legal right to free distribution on the internet. 

It’s doesn’t work as a legal theory. But it works great as a campaign theory. Because now finally, the party that is beholden to billionaires and lets them structure their tax plans can now say, ‘oh, yeah, actually, we’re the anti-big business guys, right? 

GLASTRIS: Well, they hate they hate Silicon Valley, because Silicon Valley has traditionally been run—the the billionaires support Democrats. And but Democrats are very slow to go after Silicon Valley because they were getting a lot of support from Silicon Valley. But all that’s really changed a lot. So we’ll have to see. I think one of the problems for Democrats is that their percentages in small town rural exurban America went down so low that they had to run up such big margins in the metro areas, which they’re doing, that they could barely win. 

If Democrats can raise their margins from, say, 20% in some of these Trump counties, or, you know, to 40% in the Obama-Trump counties, just raise it 5%. It’s almost game over for the Republicans, because the Democrats have now more or less run the table on metro areas almost everywhere. And but where they’re really hurting is in these in these exurban, small town rural areas. And nowhere in America, are people more attuned thant in these areas to the power of monopolies. Right? The they’ve lost their local banks. If you’re a farmer, you’re paying excessive amounts for your inputs, your seed, your fertilizer, and you’re selling to monopolist meat packers and grain operators.

SHEFFIELD: Who pay less.

GLASTRIS:  So people, you’re selling yeah, they are driving down the prices of your products and elevating the prices of your inputs. And so all over rural America, and Democrats have not been talking to that to to rural Americans on those on those basis on that basis. 

SHEFFIELD: But how did that happen? Because I think you’re right—

GLASTRIS: But they’re getting there.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but there was such a difference, I think, between the campaign strategies of Hillary Clinton and that of her husband. And I, you know, it’s something that that I’ve wondered, how Hillary Clinton seemed to be running as actively as the candidate of the big urban centers, and Bill Clinton tried to run as from everywhere. 

How do you think that happened, the difference?

GLASTRIS: Bill Clinton had a theory of economic change. That was as true for small towns as it was metro areas. Neither Hillary nor really Biden adapted to the new world that—in 1992/1996, we didn’t have these locked up markets the way we do now. And it was possible to have policies that elevated rural America without going after big business. Today, it’s not. The Democrats have just been slow to recognize how the economy has changed on them. 

Hillary had a special problem. You know, as a member of the Obama administration, she had to run as a great champion of the policies, the economic policies of Barack Obama. And in many ways, that’s fair enough. He did have some fantastically successful economic policies, but even as late as 2016, huge chunks of the public had not felt the impact, because of the problems that I just described. And instead of being able to shift and and talk about that she very late in the game at the very end, she began to talk about anti-monopoly. But you know, she was talking as if Obama had made everybody’s lives better. And he hadn’t made everybody’s life better. He made the lives better, mostly in places like Chicago, and New York and LA and so forth. So it Democrats have just been very slow to adapt. 

SHEFFIELD: Well, and you can, you can definitely make the case that, you know, some of the blanket free trade policies of the claim administration did accelerate some of those negative trends, especially for working class people, like people who were in who were in trade unions were people who were working in manufacturing jobs. The way that a lot of these trade deals were structured, people, they did not take into account human rights abuses, they did not take into account wages or right to, right to unionize, and so a lot of American companies began to outsource production to China in other places where in some cases, they were there was literally slave labor. 

You know, that was something that, that Donald Trump was able to make as a strong centerpiece of his, especially with this anti-China message that he developed. And so yeah, would you would you agree with that? 

GLASTRIS: Yeah, no question. I think probably the history will show that the single greatest failing, failed decision of the Clinton administration was bringing China into the World Trade Organization. They had a theory, the theory was that the closer that China got into the international global economy, the more it would force China to play by the rules. It turned out that that wasn’t the case at all. The World Trade Organization more or less insulated China from its predatory and statist mercantilist practices. And China was such a huge market that American corporations to get at that market had to play by China’s rules. 

And as a result, we just decimated the American manufacturing base, and a lot else. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And a lot of those people were Democratic voters. 

GLASTRIS: Yeah, absolutely. 

SHEFFIELD: If you go back, if you look at and I think the Pew Research Center and a couple of other places have, you know, done like decade long voter histories that a lot of people felt like Democrats abandoned them by not standing up against China’s mercantilist agenda. 

And of course, the reality is that most of what Trump did with respect to China either didn’t have any effect at all, but some of it, you know, you could argue, at least forced people to at least forced people to pay attention to this subject. And, to some degree, I think you could argue that the Democrats, part of their issue with adapting is that they have had more elderly people, in contrast to Republicans. The idea that Nancy Pelosi and the average member of the House leadership in the Democratic Party is significantly higher than among Republicans. And whereas, you know, and Republicans, you could argue had that same sort of transition earlier, when newt gingrich came along and kind of up ended a lot of their their leadership. Age has been an issue, I think, to some degree, would you What would you say to that? 

GLASTRIS: Hmm. I’ve trying to think who the younger Democrats were—I mean you know the leader of the Democratic Party, far and away for the middle 2000s was Barack Obama, who was barely old enough to be president. So there was a lot of youth and vigor there. Right?

But I’m talking about in Congress.

You know, certainly, certainly. But I mean, I just don’t know how much older Nancy Pelosi is. I really don’t know the answer to this. If you look back at the history of speakers of the house, very few of them were young, vigorous people, they were they were the bulk of them late in their careers. So it’s always good to have to have youth but I can’t think of too many younger congresspeople over the last five or six years, who had the ideas and the leadership ability that would have made things different. I mean, maybe there are. 

SHEFFIELD: Well, yeah, again, let’s just look at the Republican side. I mean, you had Paul Ryan, who was in his 40s when he was Speaker of the House, you’ve got Kevin McCarthy who’s, you know, he’s in his 50s. Before that—

GLASTRIS: Newt Gingrich, Robert Livingston, and they all failed miserably. They were all out of town. I mean, yeah, sure. They were young, and they were terrible at the job. Of course being Speaker of the House for the Republicans is—

SHEFFIELD: That’s a death sentence no matter who you are. 

GLASTRIS: Yeah. So so but you know, I think, yeah, I probably just probably going to agree to disagree. There’s, it’s certainly observably true that Democrats have Steny Hoyer and these old you know, Jim Cliburn, and these are all—Nancy Pelosi—are older people, 

SHEFFIELD: Schumer. 

GLASTRIS: Schumer, I’m just not sure that that that explains what I’m talking about, which is a I think, as much a problem with the Democratic intelligentsia. The whole of the Democratic liberal establishment, missed consolidation, they simply didn’t see the whole country, and its markets getting locked up by billionaires and monopolists. And, and how that would destroy wages, destroy innovation, and wipe out small business, both parties missed it, honestly. But again, you know, youth is kind of a good thing generally. 

SHEFFIELD: Now, I guess I would say also, you know, one thing that I think a lot of people who are in the, as you said, the, you know, left of center intelligentsia, are aware, and you talked about this in an essay, which you wrote about your 20 years of being the editor of Washington Monthly that you guys noticed that the Republican Party had changed and wasn’t acting in good faith, you know, and it wasn’t trying to have policies anymore, or wasn’t trying to campaign on them. But while Democrats have wised up to that, I don’t know that they tell the public what Republicans are doing. 

It seems like they never talk about just how how much Republicans will use cultural or religious issues as just as a distraction. I mean look at this whole thing, this obsession they’re doing about transgender athletes. I mean, the number of transgender athletes who are out there just period is probably less than 50. And then when you look at trans women, they’re not sweeping into athletic competitions and winning all the medals. And as a matter of fact, they do, you know, they do not win in general. And that’s why, for instance, on Fox News, they are always showing the same B-roll footage of the same people. So like in the Olympics that just concluded there were four transgender women who had competed, and none of them won an individual medal. So it’s just this complete fraud as a matter of policy that, you know, you could, you could give all of them all, every trans woman a gold medal, and it wouldn’t really affect anyone, but Democrats don’t say these things very often. They don’t talk about the distraction politics of Republicans, it seems.

GLASTRIS: You know, I think that’s right. Again, remember, the Democratic Party is a coalition. There are a lot of reliable Democratic voters, many of them minority, who are made uncomfortable by the whole elevation of the trans issue and don’t understand these debates and don’t understand fluid gender roles and all that. And that it’s not as if the entire Democratic Party are my kids, right, living in Brooklyn, with leftist views. So it’s not really in the interest of a lot of Democrats to talk about that stuff. And, and the truth is, it’s Democrats who elevated the trans issue by championing trans rights. So it’s hard to blame Republicans, it’s just a matter of politics for taking the issue on. 

I do think that there’s been a wholesale abandonment of policy on the on the Republican side of it, you and I are old enough to remember a Republican Party that, that, whether you agreed with the ideas or not, certainly engaged in good faith debate over policy, and that is just less and less true. But not—let us be honest—not all Republicans, there’s there’s still many lawmakers who would like nothing better than to be legislating and, and engaging but they aren’t allowed to by their, by their masters by the base by the the conservative entertainment complex, which is always sending them on to the next shiny object, trans athletes, as you were saying before. And it is falling on the Democrats more and more to be the responsible party on policy. 

SHEFFIELD: But this is, yeah, but this is—I mean it points to a failure, though, that the Democratic leadership won’t talk about this dynamic as it exists. They won’t talk about that the Republican Party is, is a simulacrum of a political party. Now it is basically a cultural grievance machine in the service of a handful of Christian right billionaires. But that’s basically all it is now. And they don’t talk about this now. 

And, and what’s interesting further, I would say, is that when you look at—so there is a lot of discontent among the younger Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders type supporters. But they never they don’t seem to realize that in order for them to change the Democrats, first the Republicans have to be completely defeated. In the same way that Franklin Roosevelt was not able to pursue a lot of his larger plans until he had taken his massive congressional majorities. There was just no mandate—there was just simply no mechanism where it could could be achieved. And there, there’s this a lot of pushback of people saying, ‘oh, well, we need to force as many votes on different things and make Joe Manchin squirm or Kyrsten Sinema.’ Well, that’s fine, you can do that. But what have you accomplished in doing that? If you really want to have change, you’ve got to, you’ve got to, to beat these Republican politicians. And that’s what you need to focus your energy on. Not on saying how much you think the Democratic Party sucks, because again, you could be 100% correct in everything you say. But if you have no mechanism to implement your ideas, well, then you’ve wasted your time. 

GLASTRIS: That’s right. And I do credit, the left—Bernie Sanders in particular, the squad, AOC—with recognizing the degree to which they need moderate swing district Democrats, and a president with 50% plus approval ratings, to hold on to power to get anything done. And, and so they’ve been far more accommodating, far more easier for the leadership to work with far less prone to blow things up than a lot of people predicted. 

And that was the case in the Republican Party during in recent years. You don’t have the kind of crazy behavior, even the furthest extremes on the American left, that you did with the Tea Party Republicans who were shutting down the government and damaging Republicans and damaging the country. So so there is more of a pragmatic understanding both among moderates and Democrats, that were that we’re in this together, which is not to say that the progressives won’t primary every democrat who’s not sufficiently left that they can, or that they won’t negotiate hard, but we’re just not seeing the self-destruction among Democrats, during the last year that we saw among Republicans for many years. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that’s true in—but at the same time, it’s interesting to see that a lot of people who are self-styled internet commentators about politics, they have noticed what you just said as well, and they’re angry about it. 

GLASTRIS: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: A lot of people in the online socialist scene, or so-called socialist scene, are going out there and saying that they hate AOC now that she’s a sellout, that they hate the squad. And it’s led to the formation of kind of this sort of anti Democrat, fake leftism that we’re seeing now. And there are a lot of people that are out there doing that now. And I talked about it in my previous episode with Eric Boehlert. But you’ve been a member of the left of center media scene for a while, we’ve seen people like Glenn Greenwald, like Matt Taibbi, like Michael Tracy, people who basically have become anti Democrat, and somehow never really talk about their own beliefs. So we actually don’t know what they believe anymore. Like, are they socialists? Are they communists, are they moderates? What are they? And they don’t engage with their critics on the left anymore. So there’s no record of what they actually believe in.

GLASTRIS: I know a lot of young people just because I had kids who are in their 20s and 30s. And I think there’s an audience. I think there’s a more than an audience. There’s a constituency, there are voters who are situational Democrats, they’ll support Democrats, but they don’t feel represented by establishment Democrats. They don’t identify as Democrats. They want something very different than they’re getting. And there’s probably more of them now on the left than was the case 5-10 years ago. 

How they coalesce, where they go in the future could have major implications. But my, my sense is right now it’s a Twitter phenomenon. And somebody like AOC is very, very savvy politically and knows how to keep her folks inside the tent and wield that support in a way that can bring enough victories that that they stay with her. But you’re right there is this growing. And it’s it’s it’s not any one thing it’s socialists or, and socialism itself is obviously a very hard to, for a century, been hard to define, especially in America. But there’s the more the libertarian left the Glenn Greenwald types and and so they don’t cohere among themselves either.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, the paradox is that, in order to build lasting and real change, you have to have at least something of a conservative sensibility in order to understand how things existed before, and how can they can be improved in a meaningful and lasting way for the long term. But for people who have this sort of burn-it-all-down leftist mentality, revolutionary mentality, that doesn’t make sense to them. And it’s hard to understand. And it kind of is, to some degree, it’s it’s easier to, to exist in this country as a social phenomenon, because we have never had a Fabian socialist tradition here in America, where this idea that if you want socialism, you have to gradually go into it, because people can’t understand it and won’t accept it. We never had that tradition here in America.

GLASTRIS: No, no, we built we built social provisions through liberalism, not socialism, right? 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

GLASTRIS: FDR was very much not a socialist, he was attacked relentlessly by socialists. And FDR had that sense of that feel for conservative America that made him successful. Look, there are two things that are true: We have an insufficiently built out the social safety net, we have for years. The left is correct about that. But we also are a, in our bones, individualistic, capitalist society, our identity is that.  And a politics that is singularly focused on building out the social safety net, misses what I was talking about before, what is the theory of economic growth? And FDR didn’t just create Social Security, he busted monopolies more than any other president, and created space for small towns,  entrepreneurs, and for competition in every realm of industrial life, in broadcast and every other in every other sector, and allowed individuals to have a piece of the pie that they owned that they controlled. He dispersed economic power from the corporate elite, down to literally Main Street that was a form of deep democracy. That is, I don’t want to say uniquely American, but it is quintessentially American, it goes back to the founding, goes back to the, you know, the Northwest Territories, it’s a deeply American thing. 

And it’s not just the left, that’s lost—that for many years lost touch with that, elites in both parties lost touch with it. So there’s a role for the left in pushing for broader social welfare. But there’s a strong argument for Democrats and Republicans, all of them understanding that there is an American tradition of how to run an economy with rules that allow individuals to compete fairly in fair markets.

SHEFFIELD: And it’s also just to underline what you said it’s a it’s a, really, it’s relating it to economic growth, and showing it’s not just about well, we’re going to make things more fair, because for a lot of people, they don’t understand that they’re not in the 1% or anywhere close to it. And they don’t understand how the system actually harms them.

GLASTRIS: They absolutely don’t understand and that again, it’s a failure of elites. It’s a failure of Democratic leaders. And it’s a failure of journalists and a failure of the cognoscenti to explain. First to understand and then to explain how the economy has changed with the rise of these oligopolistic corporations in ways that hurt the average person. Right?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

GLASTRIS: We’ve lost the language. Look, I went to college in the late 70s, early 80s. I studied economics, heard about the mixed economy and lived through the Milton Friedman revolution. And, you know, we were taught an economics that was not integrated with this larger tradition. It was economic theory. Economic theory is very different from industrial structure and the realities of an economy on the ground. And we lost our way as a country, and the turmoil we’re going through political and otherwise, really is tied to that economic, wrong turn, that led to these enormous inequalities, and this generational downward mobility, but it’s fixable.

SHEFFIELD: I mean, it’s not entirely just economic concern that I mean, that’s, I think we should be careful to point that out that a lot of the success that Republicans have had is is using identity as you said. Using Christian identity, especially, and like, for instance, Josh Mandel, who was running for Senate in Ohio, he literally said at a campaign event recently that when I go to Washington, I’m gonna have two documents with me, the Constitution and the Bible. 

I feel like a lot of establishment media journalists and establishment Democrats, they don’t, they’re uncomfortable it seems like talking about this rank Christian supremacism as a campaign strategy that we see. And it’s so common in right wing media, like they’re just, that’s, that’s how they get their audiences. To say ‘I’m out here pushing for the Bible I stand for Christ.’ And I like that’s like Jenna Ellis, who was one of Donald Trump’s election heist lawyers, she’s constantly posting Bible verses and trying to tell people who are Christians that you have to agree with me, and don’t see a lot of pushback in, in left of center or mainstream, Democratic places where they talk about this stuff.

GLASTRIS: Yeah, I think it’s very important and I don’t think, again, I’m a little less of a blamer of politicians, and a little bit more of a blamer of the intelligentsia. You’re a politician, you’re trying to survive man, you’re just trying to win votes, so you can get back to your job. And we expect the politicians to educate the public, that it’s not the job of the politician to educate the public, it’s the job of politician to take whatever public sentiment exists, and see if they can do some legislating with it? 

The people who need to be doing the educating are frankly, people like us, you know, people with audiences, people who analyze and argue for a living, people who report what is and and so I think it’s, it’s it, it is more on the on the press, to, to describe precisely what it is you’re seeing. Again, you’re a Democrat, you’re running for office, you’re trying to get the African American vote—that’s a, in many parts of this country, a very Christian vote, right? These are people, many, many of them, who are very devout, very devoted to church very engaged in in Christian self-identity. And it’s tricky for them to find the language to distinguish between what you’re saying, and respect for the voters’ devotion. And so it’s tricky. It’s a very—religion is a very hard place to, to talk, hard thing to talk about. But, you know, what we need are liberal Christians with voices speaking from their faith, on the issues and to their fellow Christians who are behaving in ways that are anti-Democratic, and crackpot. Those are the voices that I think would be very helpful to elevate.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no. And that’s the thing like they are not often elevated. 

GLASTRIS: No. 

SHEFFIELD: Like you open up the New York Times, or watch broadcast news or cable news, like they don’t talk to these people to the only extent they talk about religion at all. It’s Oh, well, you know, here’s what pat robertson said. 

GLASTRIS: Yeah

SHEFFIELD: And mostly they ignore everything else. And a lot of it is I, because a lot of journalists come from more secular backgrounds or personal regular experiences. So they’re not familiar with these topics, and they don’t understand that they’re very important to a lot of people. Ant that you have to tell people what’s happening. So like, for instance, in 2020, the Hispanic vote shifted several points toward Donald Trump, and a lot of that had to do with the rise of evangelicalism, specifically white evangelicalism exported into Hispanic communities and worked successfully. And, you know, there’s just this sense that—a complacency among a lot of progressive both, I would say consultants and and commentators that people who are Hispanic or democrat or African American are just going to sort of, by default, go for the Democrats. 

GLASTRIS: Right. 

SHEFFIELD: But the reality is, if you if Republicans ever did—and they actually now are showing signs that they are—if the religious right would would actually bother trying to have outreach to people who were not white, they could get a whole bunch of voters, and we’re seeing that trend start to happen now. It’s worked for Trump as well. Like he got the highest percentage of black Americans voting for him since the 1960s, as a Republican.

GLASTRIS: Yeah, yeah. And what what role religion had in that and some other things. Black people, Hispanic people, they have the same range of liberal and conservative as anybody else. They happen to vote Democratic for historical, and darn good historical reasons. But they can be appealed to, just Democrats are appealing to the common sense and civic-mindedness of a lot of Republicans who have been turned off by the turn of the Republican Party.

But going back to the religion point, remember, the Democrats also have a massive share of the unaffiliated, right? These are not necessarily unspiritual people, but they’re people who do not affiliate with an organized religion. So the Democratic politician has to weigh how they talk about because if it’s too secular, they, they lose the devout and if it’s too devout, they lose the secular. Whereas Republicans can turn it up to 11 on Christianity, and they still keep 80-90%.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it’s true. And this goes back to the the necessity of people who are left to center pointing out just what what a scam, the whole Republican argument is. 

Well, let’s go back to the to your 20 year essay, and something you mentioned at the beginning. So when you took over Washington Monthly, one of the things that you did was made it into a nonprofit. And, you know, it looks like we’re seeing now that kind of an explosion of of nonprofit, high-quality media. Why do you think that is? a) Why did you decide to take Washington Monthly as a nonprofit and b) Why do you think that that’s something other people should be thinking about?

GLASTRIS: It was Charlie Peters’s idea that it become a nonprofit, he had been running the magazine as a for-profit that made no profits for long enough to recognize that that model was done, certainly for a small magazine. And that if you move to nonprofit, then you can provide a place for people to make tax-deductible donations, as well as sell ads and subscriptions. So it made a lot of sense for a small margin, little enterprise like the Washington Monthly. And, you know, it’s still not easy, we still are up a magazine that that—this is not something you do to to make a lot of money, but it does provide a funding base and through individual donations, large and small through foundations, and so forth. And in an era where advertising has shrunk considerably, you need to have as many income streams as you can get. And you have to have a board to answer to and it’s—when Charlie had my job, he didn’t answer to anybody. I have a board, which is fine. But it there’s no perfect structure, but I found the nonprofit model to suit us quite well. 

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Yeah, I guess we’re also seeing the kind of the rise of crowdfunded media as well. And there are pluses and minuses to that, you know, we’d mentioned some of these anti-Democratic faux leftpeople, or former left, I’m not sure what they are now, they’re making 10s maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars a month off of this stuff. And I think you could argue that in some ways, it’s been great that the internet has enabled independent voices a lot more and people who were not, did not have access to mainstream press and mass audiences, that’s been great. But at the same time, there’s a role for editing that, that you were talking about that, that people may not appreciate, necessarily,

GLASTRIS: It is quite a good thing that there is the Substack-ization, as we call it, or some people call it, of journalism, where individuals who want to write without oversight directly to an audience, now have the technology to do that. Bloggers had it before but this is a way to monetize the work through subscriptions. That is a lot easier than it used to be. And a lot of people are making a lot of money at it, and fine for them. 

It’s just part of the larger disaggregation of journalism. It came around, part of it is Facebook and Twitter, right? People don’t necessarily have to go to my magazine’s website, to see its content, they can catch what they like on Twitter. Most people go to—most people who are in my business anyway, in my world—check Twitter to see what the Atlantic has recently published, rather than go to the Atlantic to read what’s on the front page of the Atlantic. And this is a further disaggregation where the content isn’t even coming to you from a content producer, or a magazine or a newspaper, it’s coming to you from an individual. 

So in many ways, that’s a good thing. But everybody needs an editor. Everybody benefits from editing. I certainly do. And everything I write gets vetted with my colleagues, fact-checked, copy-edited, and thought edited and challenged by people as smart or smarter than I am. And I think, especially when you’re dealing in the realm of provable fact, and research, you better be right, you better have described what it is you’re writing about accurately with good sourcing. And your arguments should be coherent, and fair. And that just takes internal work that takes editing. What the Washington Monthly and magazines like it are, are really editing machines. It’s why someone would come and post with to us with us, we have an audience. But we also provide a lot of this back-end intellectual curating, thinking, often the ideas come out—we’re the ones commissioning the article from the writer, that that’s what creates a kind of integrity and identity to a to a publication that is hard, frankly, for anyone to see who is not on the inside.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, going back to what you were saying about trying to confirm facts and things like that, that has been a real problem that we’re seeing with a lot of internet-based content or independent media based content. I think that the hardest thing in journalism is to know what you don’t know, right? And so while you may get some bit of information from somebody, or you see something yourself, that doesn’t mean it’s true. 

We’re seeing that a lot with regard to data analysis, especially. Now that you’ve got a lot of people that they may know how to push some numbers around in Excel. But that doesn’t mean they understand them. Just because you have data doesn’t mean you should use it. And the same thing is true with regard to a lot of things. And we’re in this phase here, where a lot of people who have developed platforms are specifically going away from traditional media so that they won’t have editors. I mean, for instance, Glenn Greenwald, he specifically wanted to get away from his editors at the Intercept, which he was at before and was a co founder of, he didn’t like them, fact-checking him. And so he went and did his own thing. I mean, where do you see where that’s ending?

GLASTRIS: Yeah, I don’t know. And I know editors at other publications, some of them much bigger than ours, who are wrestling with the question. For instance, if you’ve got a writer who is a star, and what you want to do is keep that writer with you and not go out and launch his or her own Substack, where they might be able to make more money, they have negotiating power over you. 

They can say, ‘Look, I don’t want to be edited,’ right? And are you going to say, all right, we won’t edit you? ‘I don’t want to be fact-checked.’ So it’s causing internal struggles within organizations. And I honestly don’t know how it’s going to shake out. 

I would say, I don’t have enough faith in myself as a writer to go independent. I would be scared to death not to work collegially. I know, my work is always made better by collaborating with smart people. It’s just how I’m comfortable working. It’s how I’ve always worked. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice, it doesn’t mean you don’t write what you want to write. It’s just, it makes your work better. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. 

GLASTRIS: And hopefully, audiences will see that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and I think, you know, ultimately, probably each side in that needs to to learn from the other side. So that in a lot of publications, in my own experience, I’ve seen editors who didn’t understand a story. And so therefore, they didn’t want to do it. And you know, somebody else did the story and it got you know, millions of views. 

GLASTRIS: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: And I’ve been in that situation so many times, I was like, ‘look, guys, I was right about this, wasn’t it?’ ‘Oh, yeah, sorry, Matt.’ But at the same time, when you think you know something and you don’t know it, you get into all kinds—

GLASTRIS: What people used to do is if they couldn’t sell something to one paper/magazine, they went to another more congenial. Find yourself an editor who gets it. It’s hard to, if you’re stuck in one publication to have your way, especially if you’re not the boss. This is something new. This is literally people publishing their own things with no, no oversight, no help. No gatekeeping at all, and good for them. And you know, some of these places are—ours—a little bit more collegial, but it is—I don’t want to say it’s something new under the sun. Because there there are precedents for it. Blogging being the most recent one, it is going to change things. It already has.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, I think we’ll we’ll leave it there. Paul Glastris, I’d like to say thanks for for joining me today and I’m going to put up on the screen for those who are watching, and then I’m going to read it out your social information. So you’re the editor of Washington Monthly, and you’re on Twitter at Glastris, so that’s G-L-A-S-T-R-I-S. So thanks for joining me today, Paul.

GLASTRIS: Matt, thank you. It’s Washingtonmonthly.com if you want to read the publication, and subscribe there, and I really am grateful for the chance to talk to your to your audience and have them get a little bit more sense of what we do, and really grateful for you having me on.

SHEFFIELD: Thanks for listening today. Theory of Change is made possible thanks to people like you. If you liked what you heard today, please be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and leave a nice review. That actually is really helpful. And if you really want to support the show, please click on one of the “donate” links that are in the show notes. High-quality content doesn’t create itself. So you can really do something great from my standpoint by showing financial support.

Theory of Change is part of the Flux media network. We’re a new media organization providing in-depth podcasts and articles about politics, religion, media and technology. The website addresses Flux.community. And if you’d like to visit the Theory of Change section, just go to theoryofchange.show and you’ll go right to the episode archives. 

I’m Matthew Sheffield. Let’s do this again.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.