Overview:

With US midterms still under review, why doom-scroll? Here are 7 podcasts to remind us of other work to be done in bettering our democracies.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Are you doomscrolling around the ongoing US midterm count? The closeness of many races, the losses on some key issues, and the spectacle-driven politics that a tightly split House of Representatives foretells certainly weigh on the US today. Will results be contested on the grounds that they didn’t yield a massive sweep for one side? Will the US see a further escalation of fringe groups, or some hope of a return to stable democratic processes?

Who knows. But democratic labor extends beyond the polls, so also: is constantly checking the news the most constructive use of our time? Or is there other work we can lean in to, not only as distraction but also to deepen our perspectives for the world ahead?

Rhetorical questions are fun, aren’t they? Here are seven podcast episodes that might offer clarity, context, and a sense of democratic direction, in the wake of the US midterms.

1. Offline with Jon Favreau, “Rachel Maddow on America’s Forgotten Insurrection”

This first recommendation comes with a name that might immediately throw out more conservative listeners, because Rachel Maddow is well known for her work as an MSNBC commentator. But that’s precisely why this episode of Offline, in which she talks to Jon Favreau about a key moment in 1940s US history, is such a good listen.

Maddow is not scaremongering with her new historical series, Ultra, which she and Favreau here discuss in light of attacks on democracy today. Yes, her series explores a US sedition plot funded by the Third Reich, and she’s critical of similar in the 21st century. But her conclusion is antithetical to the common refrain that the US is living through unprecedented times. “Sedition happens,” she says, and there’s comfort and strength to be drawn from knowing that these struggles have always been a part of US political history.

That’s a very different tune from the one often seen in media, and it offers a way of bringing down the temperature of the conversation while still treating the core issues as very serious. As Maddow explains,

It’s this recurring political and human impulse to turn ourselves over to strongmen, and to give up on democracy, because democracy allows for other people to have a say, too. And that is the fight. And that fight is about exposing people who are organizing along these lines, and opposing them, and … making sure they are brought up on trial when they do commit crimes. But first of all, not all of these things are crimes. And second of all, the kinds of crimes these are are really hard to win convictions of, in a liberal democracy where you have the right to think anything you want, say anything you want, associate with whoever you want. Our constitutional protections that make us a liberal democracy also make it difficult to get convictions on sedition.

The pair talks about the importance of “inoculating” people against the dissemination of authoritarian rhetoric and mythology by taking away the sense that any of this is new—and not just among those who buy into it, but also among pro-democracy advocates who might be horrified to see the US engaged in these fights at all. Maddow argues that there’s something grounding in knowing that we’ve been here before, because it means that we can draw from past lessons as we face familiar challenges here and now.


2. Throughline, “American Socialist”

The next recommendation also has a word that sets off alarm bells for some: “socialist”.

But Throughline‘s history of Eugene V. Debs, the US’s first viable socialist candidate for the presidency, serves another important role today, because it explores a time when US politics wasn’t as rigidly two-party driven. Debs fought for the right to dissent, and helped cultivate a strong populist movement by emphasizing how little ruling elites, from either major party, were meeting the needs of average citizens.

“The ruling class has always fought and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war, and to have yourself slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you the people have never had a voice in declaring war.”

Eugene V. Debs

The Socialist Party of America saw increasing successes in the 1908 presidential election. This worried the Democrats, and brought them to adopt facets of the Socialist Party’s pro-average-citizen agenda (the “good” ideas among what they considered to be a sea of “bad” ones), to cut off a rising tide of popular votes for the Socialist Party in the 1912 election.

The underlying principle remains relevant today: third parties might not ever dominate in the US polls, but they also don’t have to, to defray the stark tribalism of a two-party system and influence the overall agenda. Critics often note that most US citizens fixate on major elections (presidential and midterm), but fail to consider the role of building robust third-party or independent discourse around those major spectacles. This history lesson is a good reminder of the power of sustaining democratic discourse all the year round.

Eugene V. Debs, five-time presidential candidate, in 1912, when the Socialist Party of America had 6 percent of the popular vote.

3. The Problem with Jon Stewart, “Rep. Elissa Slotkin on Governing in an Era of Extremes”

This next piece comes with a head’s up that some of these podcasts have preamble before their main interview. It can be good banter, and make salient points, but if you want to dive right into Jon Stewart’s interview with Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, from the Eighth District of Michigan, start at time-stamp 8:47. The full transcript is also available here.

Stewart sat down with Slotkin to talk about what led a fairly moderate, even-keeled House representative to make a heated speech on the floor, around a veterans’ healthcare bill that Republicans had blocked by turning it into an abortion issue. Their conversation offers key insights into the mechanisms of congressional politicking that keep average citizens disillusioned about the ability of their sitting representatives to advance even what should be no-brainer, bipartisan legislation.

This is a problem for many democracies: the inability to engage in good-faith discourse. Slotkin is an excellent case study for the depth of the problem in the US, though, because she’s a strong believer in having a robust and full political spectrum. As she argues,

My dad was a Republican, my mom was a Democrat. I deeply, deeply believe for the future of the country, we need two parties, healthy, decent, who debate on the role of government in our lives. That is George Washington, mom and apple pie. That is how we should be debating here in this country. That’s a legit conversation. And I would say even further than that, that when the Republican party, when the soul has left the body on the Republican party side, it’s not good for the Democratic party. We stop listening to any ideas coming from the other side because they’re tainted. We start having fights amongst ourselves. We don’t actually react to that push and pull about the role of government in our lives. I deeply want a healthy Republican party, and I think that makes Democrats more healthy. But what we have right now it just doesn’t represent where the average person is.

The next recommendation deals with a similar issue, with respect to broken political practice, but this one is especially important because veterans’ issues strike at the heart of the “patriotic chore”. Slotkin calls the issues she faced around this bill as “gamesmanship [on what] should be literally an apolitical topic”, which is why she spoke with uncharacteristic heat on the floor. Her interview with Stewart also explores the broader structural impediments to individual congress-people doing better, some of what’s still working (or at least, the people working hard to mitigate everything going wrong), and what needs to be supported for change going forward.

Without good data, and good dissemination of that data, how can we ever expect to advance policies that will actually improve our societies?

4. This American Life, “Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me A Map”

Another excellent example of the everyday mechanics of governmental disruption comes with This American Life‘s “Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me A Map”, which explores the struggle for good-faith relations between parties around the topic of gerrymandering, and illustrates the way the system itself does not always encourage fair play. (Transcript here.)

The team follows the multiple attempts of Republican and Democratic representatives in Ohio to develop a constitutionally sound map to replace one that the state court recognized as highly gerrymandered. The slings and arrows of this story involve quite a bit of Republican manipulation (Republicans standing to lose more often if the original gerrymandering is fixed), to the extent that even the Republican judge was surprised:

Ira Glass: Meet Maureen O’Connor, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, at least through December when she retires. A lifelong Republican and the swing vote that rejected Ohio’s election maps as gerrymandered seven times this past year, she knew all about the map that had been made by the independent mapmakers. I told her how the commission never submitted it because they were afraid they wouldn’t make their deadline.

Maureen O’Connor: OK, that is—what can I say? If that was their understanding, contacting the court at 9:00 at night, whatever, would have been, can we have 24 more hours? Absolutely. That would have happened. Would we have rejected something that was given to us at 9:00 in the morning? Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

And yet, This American Life is never so one-sided, even if the interests of its hosts are abundantly clear. Rather, the episode ends with an exercise in contrast. It highlights how another instance of gerrymandering was quickly ceded by the Democrats responsible, because that case took place in New York, where the state has the constitutional right to appoint a special master to redraw maps. Only in states where partisan politicians have ultimate authority does one see underhanded tricks distort democratic process.

Wherever we entangle people seeking re-election with the work of setting the parameters for fair political contests, we undermine the shape of our democracy. This is absolutely a place in which the entrenchment of more third-party oversight would do wonders for us all.

5. This Is Hell!, “The Elite Academic Experts Propagating the Police State / Alec Karakatsanis”

The rest of these recommendations go “big picture”, because part of our problem very much lies in overlooking the other pillars that sustain a healthy democracy.

This Is Hell! is part podcast, part radio-show, so you’ll want to skip to time-stamp 10:22 to dive into this episode’s main interview with Alec Karakatsanis, about his recent article “A Warning to Journalists about Elite Academia”. Karakatsanis is a media critic who routinely deconstructs the biased if not flat-out incorrect use of statistics in mainstream media like The New York Times and The Washington Post: both in their choices with respect to what crimes to cover, and how to cover them.

In the above article, Karakatsanis cautions journalists about the role played by academics in this spread of misinformation. As host Chuck Mertz frames the episode:

We expect academia, the greatest intellects, to guide us by applying the scientific method—that is, the process of objectively establishing facts through testing and experimentation, making an observation, forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, conducting an experiment, and finally, analyzing the results, thus determining which policy is best when considering (in this case) criminal justice and law enforcement policy.

But what if those trusted experts, those elites, are far from being objective in their examination of an issue that affects us all? What if, rather than offering evidence to support any claims they make, they instead engage in hyperbole and conjecture, and wrap it all up in an article published by an academic journal, to give their findings some level of gravitas, leaving those in the media to believe their findings are, in fact, factual, when in reality their findings are far from being based on reality?

What makes this topic useful, when thinking about how to build a better democracy, is that there are facets to appeal to both “sides” of the stark political binary. Yes, criticizing public spending on police and arguing for an approach to crime-reporting that pays more attention to the far more costly issues of white-collar crime and wage theft is a decidedly “liberal-left” issue. But also, critiquing institutions like the NYT, Washington Post, and universities for their elitist disconnect is absolutely a thriving pastime among right wing groups.

So surely there’s some common ground to be found here, no? As Karakatsanis notes, when looking through all the omitted costs of increased policing in the academic paper:

All of those cons were completely ignored in this article, and yet, these professors were celebrating their article as some sort of rigorous, progressive, egalitarian contribution. It’s really incredible, and its role in the so-called discourse is that it makes it okay for progressives to take pro-police positions. And that is a really important function that elites serve. They tend to try to co-opt the energy of more left-leaning, more radical movements, by making it okay for good, uncritical liberals to support policies that actually undermine everything that they say believe about our side.

Without good data, and good dissemination of that data, how can we ever expect to advance policies that will actually improve our societies?

We have to remind ourselves, and each other, that healthy debate, dissent, and criticism exist in plenty of public forums. That’s how we defeat any cult claiming a monopoly over truth.

6. 99% Invisible, “Pandemic Tracking and the Future of Data”

Another major issue for data accuracy emerged with pandemic, when we all received a very painful and costly lesson in unpreparedness—and also, what we can do about it now. In this episode of 99% Invisible, “Pandemic Tracking and the Future of Data”, Roman Mars talks to data journalists who quickly realized how prone to inaccuracy our current systems are.

As Alexis Madrigal notes: “Viruses do not care about states rights. They do not care about jurisdictions.” And yet, our care for these variables is only the beginning of the problems we face when trying to improve data collection. She goes on to argue that

over time there was another damaging pattern that began to develop with the CDC, and the public health system more widely, which is that it struggled for consistent funding. So, when there was an immediate crisis, there would be an infusion of cash. But then, when the crisis had passed, the resources would evaporate. And that only accelerated from the 1980s onward, during the Reagan era.

The CDC’s attitude didn’t help, either. As journalist Robinson Meyer adds, this key public health organization was unduly dismissive of calls to build a specialized system for the “disease de jour”, even though COVID-19 happened to be killing hundreds of thousands of US citizens. And of course, the data that was gathered ended up being woefully mis-categorized along racialized lines (among others), to the further detriment of future utility.

This kind of commentary matters for two reasons: first, because the issue of data collection is absolutely critical to the construction of effective social policy. But also, second, because it’s a form of inoculation by exposure (as Maddow talks about in another recommended podcast). Many forums where folks are radicalized into right wing extremism perpetuate the belief that major public institutions aren’t talking honestly about issues like the pandemic. And they’re right to some extent. The CDC absolutely failed the public on many occasions, losing their trust and depreciating confidence in public health officials in general.

But where these forums thrive is in encouraging people to believe that mainstream media, “liberal” and “leftist” alike, doesn’t want to tell you the truth about these institutional failings, because they’re in the pockets of “big government” and all its wild conspiracies.

One of the easiest and most robust ways to counter this sort of misinformation is to know the mainstream critiques (of which there are many, especially for the CDC), and to use that common ground to push back on the idea that extremist forums are the only places “brave” enough to ask questions, and to follow the evidence.

We have to remind ourselves, and each other, that healthy debate, dissent, and criticism already exist in plenty of public forums.

That’s how we defeat any cult claiming a monopoly on truth.

7. If Books Could Kill, “Freakonomics”

And cults sure do abound, don’t they? Pop-sci is a particularly notorious field for hand-wavy uses of data, to craft feel-good stories that often only uphold conventional beliefs. That’s a shame, though, because pop-sci is also a fairly noble pursuit, inasmuch as the best volumes can help lay readers understand the value of wide swaths of research to everyday life, inoculate against misinformation, and maybe even foster better critical thinking.

That’s why If Books Could Kill, a new podcast by Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri, is a welcome addition to the media and science literary landscape. Both hosts have seasoned backgrounds in debunking and deconstructing (Hobbes is of the You’re Wrong About podcast, and Shamshiri’s 5-4 analyzes the many failings of SCOTUS), which they here turn to the study of “airport books”, those feel-good nonfiction reads found in easily accessible book racks, that often deliver a wallop of sloppy data to average consumers.

Now, the subject of their first episode, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2005), has already received multiple dressings-down since its publication. Still, that’s not really the point of “Freakonomics”, wherein Hobbes and Shamshiri focus on a few glaring examples of a wide range of biases and fallacies in the work. The real point is educative: they’re doing the work of admirable pop-sci, by using its failings to improve statistical, scientific, and media literacy among listeners. And that’s a practice we could sorely stand to see more examples of, in the wild.

(Next up? Malcolm Gladwell!)

The takeaway, whatever you’re listening to

We cannot expect fellow citizens to recognize every bias and data inaccuracy they come across in readings, viewings, and listening experiences. Even folks who were once highly trained in identifying fallacious reasoning can easily grow rusty. We need a thriving commons—one that celebrates good faith discourse, does not stigmatize the sheer fact of error, and invites us to see critical thinking as a process of ongoing refinement—to accommodate for inevitable individual lapses, and to build shared histories and data sets that will help us cultivate more resilient communities and frame better policy.

Every pillar of democracy matters—not just those laid bare on or around election days.

Onward, then, with the real work.

Avatar photo

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.