I’m Michelle Goldberg.
I’m Aaron Retica. And this is “The Argument“. [MUSIC PLAYING]
I know. I’m not who you were expecting. Ross is away on paternity leave, and Ross being Ross, he’s also working on a book. So I’ll be filling his seat now and again through the inauguration.
But to introduce myself, I’m an editor in the Opinion section. I work with a number of our columnists, like Jamelle Bouie and Gail Collins and Jen Senior. But I also work with our contributing writers like Tom Edsall, Pete Wehner, Molly Worthen, a whole host of people, including some of our most conservative columnists, our one pro-Trump contributing writer. And what I’m going to try to bring to the show is a combination of my own interests and what I’ve learned from dealing with that breadth of thinking about American political life.
Aaron, you and I have done live debates together, but I don’t think you’ve ever been on this podcast. Is that right?
No, that’s right. This is the first time. But I’m really happy to be here with you now at this bizarre moment in American history, while the defeated candidate sulks in the White House and the president-elect still doesn’t have the keys to the car. Today, we’re kicking off a new series on the show, “The 46th.” From now through inauguration, we’ll be following what has already been an incredibly unconventional transition and shows every sign of continuing to be. We’re also going to be talking about what Biden can and should do over the first 100 days that he is in office.
And for those of you who miss Ross, don’t worry. He will be back periodically throughout this series.
So since the election, to an extraordinary degree, the infighting between moderates and the progressive wing of the party has spilled out into public view. Democrats have been arguing what went wrong on Election Day. There was no blue wave. They, at least so far, have not captured a Senate majority. So what does the party do to course correct now? How does it do it? One of the voices championing the progressive agenda most brilliantly in Congress is Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state. She is the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, and she is joining us from Seattle. I want to start, actually, with this question. What is your theory of the case? What happened?
Well, I think the first thing is that I went to sleep the night before the election thinking job number one was to get Donald Trump out of the White House. And I really think that that is where everybody’s head was. And of course, we hoped to gain more seats in the House. We didn’t. And we had hoped to take over the Senate, but I will tell you that, for me, I thought that was going to be very, very tough. And so when I look at this moment, what I think we have to recognize is Joe Biden is the first president to win both the popular vote and the electoral college vote in a long time. Now, we have to assume a few things. Number one, the country is very divided, and running a state race or a presidential race is different than running a district race. There’s no question about that. Number two, that the Democratic Party has, for a long time, not had people voting that should have been voting that are naturally part of our base. And there are a long list of factors that we can go into as to why that is, but we should recognize that we were finally successful in turning out people that I would not call base voters. And then the third is, I think about— and I was just rereading some speeches from Dr. King in the ‘60s. And I think about the ways in which the system has really been stacked. And sometimes our desire for what Dr. King called order over justice has actually compromised our ability to win not only in the short term, but in the long term. And I think that’s a very complex set of conditions that exist, but I think that we have to dive into them. Because anybody who thinks that we can or should control the anger and the fury and the message of street movements that erupt for justice is really fooling themselves about the conditions that exist and the power that we have as elected officials.
So let me ask you the obvious question. With half of the group leaning in the progressive direction and half in the moderate direction— and already so much sniping and fighting has come out. Obviously that’s not by design, necessarily. So how do you keep that majority together? How do you move forward? How do you make legislation when there is so much internal disagreement?
You know, I think sometimes those internal disagreements— and it’s so unfortunate that we can’t have a private family conversation. You all know I’m a mom. I’ve got a big, diverse family. There are conversations you have within the family that you don’t necessarily want to go outside. And it’s unfortunate we can’t do that, because I do think we need to have those conversations if we are going to move forward well. But again, and maybe this is because I’m an optimist, I think there is a lot less disagreement about some of the core things we need to do immediately with a Biden administration than what is portrayed. And I’m not just trying to diminish the disagreements. They are real. They are there. We’re going to have to have them. But think about what we did before the election. I, as you said, was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter. We all united behind Joe Biden. And that was absolutely critical. He was not our first choice. He probably wasn’t our second choice. But we united—
He probably wasn’t even your fifth choice.
[LAUGHS] But we united around him because we understood what was at stake for our democracy if Donald Trump got another four years, and that was so serious. But we also then worked with him. It wasn’t just about opposing Donald Trump. We worked with Joe Biden to get the most progressive platform that any president has run on in recent history. So the fact that we were able to unite and that— we did not, after the election, immediately start claiming that only progressives won the election. Others, unfortunately, claimed that progressives hurt the election. And I think that is the problem here that we have, is progressives have for too long been a punching bag not only of the right but sometimes of our own colleagues. And I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. We are a diverse party, but we have a lot that we agree on, including some things that we progressives were pushing for a long time. And we were called far-left radicals for pushing a $15 minimum wage. And now you look at Florida has passed a $15 minimum wage, even though the state of Florida went for Donald Trump. And they passed it with a supermajority.
But what do you say to your colleagues like Connor Lamb and Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin who say that the kind of messages that dominate the news about the Democratic Party are hurting them? Because although you’re right, obviously, that the Democratic Party is not going to tell street activists not to use the phrase “defund the police,” it seems that it’s worth taking seriously, if that’s what they’re hearing in their districts, that we shouldn’t just sort of dismiss that as ideologically inconvenient.
Well, I have a lot of respect for those members you mentioned. And two of them I’m quite close to, both Elissa Slotkin and Abigail Spanberger, and we talk all the time. And what I would just say is, let’s look at the data, because I started to look at where the attack ads were for some of my colleagues that lost their districts and even some that won. And I will tell you that I think each of the attack ads were quite distinct to the district. And while it may seem like there are generalized slogans that hurt people, you have to look at what ads were run and where voters placed those things when they went to the polls. We are hoping to do some focus groups in select districts that we won and that we lost to really find out what was it that was on voters’ minds. But I’ll say there was a candidate running in Virginia, and he was attacked on defund the police. And he says that they leaned into the message hard. They took on both the racial injustice part, but they also got sheriffs to endorse him, so it was clear where he stood on the issue. And he says, in the end, voters had that as maybe the third or fourth issue on their mind when they went to vote. He did lose his election. There was incredible turnout in that district. And so I just think we have to be very careful about how we analyze these results and what we assume to be in voters’ minds. I will tell you that I think the number one thing that is in voters’ minds is their lives and their livelihoods, something that I’ve seen a number of members of the Democratic Caucus say across the ideological spectrum. I am concerned about the fact that Donald Trump was a problem in and of himself, but he was also a symptom of a much bigger problem.
But what are the prospects for making progress on these issues, on the kind of material desperation, the underlying material circumstances of people’s lives, when you have a totally nihilistic Senate?
Yeah, that’s the real question right there. And I think it’s going to require that if we genuinely cannot get Republicans to be anything other than an obstructionist party, then Joe Biden is going to have to take bold progressive action right away. And I would urge that it is action that affects the most people in the country.
And what do you think that should look like?
Well, for example, I think you could increase the minimum wage for federal contractors, but you could also really enhance protections around health care for seniors. I mean, there are many ways we can do that. We can cut the price of pharmaceutical drugs, which benefit so many people across the country. These are big bipartisan issues. I think that there are ways to redirect money towards jobs. And we can also make it clear that Republicans are obstructionist on the things that matter to people, whether it’s minimum wage, whether it’s marijuana legislation that passed in so many states across the country, or whether it’s a big infrastructure package that really will bring jobs and money back to districts across the country. I think there’s been a big conversation about student debt. I think that is a very important thing for him to look at canceling either part or substantial parts of student debt, because the fastest growing group of people with student debt is actually seniors. And their Social Security incomes are being garnished for that repayment of student debt. So the idea— that’s one where you get both young people and you get seniors.
Let me ask you a little bit about progressive policies and progressive rhetoric. So you mentioned Florida. And that’s a very interesting test case because Florida in this election went to Trump, as you mentioned. Florida in 2018 went to DeSantis, and they also held their Senate seat. At the same time in 2018, they re-enfranchised disenfranchised felons, although, of course, the legislature messed around with that. And then this time around, as you mentioned, just now, and also in a recent tweet, they passed minimum wage with 60 percent. So on the one hand, we can say, yes, people support progressive policies. But why is there that gap? Why aren’t they trusting Democrats to do it? Why are 10 percent or 12 percent of people voting for an increased minimum wage but voting for Trump?
I think that there is a— when you’re talking about why a state would pass a minimum wage, for example, but still vote for a Republican, those are two different— that’s the dynamic of a state versus a district, number one. But it is also that we have a lot of people on both sides who have— and this goes back to why Trump was elected— who just don’t believe that government is going to work for them. And I would point to massive corruption in the system, that people believe, and rightly so, that most of politics is now controlled by the wealthiest and the people that have the most lobbyists. And people aren’t willing to stand up to them. And that’s why Donald Trump can say a bunch of things, do the exact opposite, but somehow he still maintains people thinking that he’s going to fight for them. And so I don’t have a clear, easy answer to this, but my answer would be deep on-the-ground organizing from day one after an election all the way up to an election. That I actually think is something that the Republicans have invested in much more. And so I just think we’ve got to talk to people. We’ve got to do what Stacey and Black Voters Matter and others did in Georgia. We have to invest in talking to as many people as we can and not writing off people either, because I think there are a lot of people who vote Republican who actually believe in populist policies. And we’ve lost some of them.
So let me ask you this. I mean, I’m obviously all for policies that reduce inequality, but I’m less sold on the idea that that alone is an antidote to Trumpism because we see right-wing populism surging in all of the Nordic countries that people like you and I aspire to emulate. It’s surging all over Europe. And this sort of realignment where progressive parties attract more upper middle class, kind of cosmopolitan urbanites, that’s also happening everywhere. I mean, can you point to anywhere on the planet outside of South America where progressive populism has worked electorally?
I think it’s working in almost every major country in Europe. I mean, look at— Angela Merkel has held onto her majority, and—
Right, but she’s a center-right person.
Well, it depends on how you classify center-right. Look at the policies that Germany has. They’re a hell of a lot better than the United States. People would call them socialist here.
Right, but in Germany— I mean, in Germany— I mean, at least my sense— is that you see the Green Party starting to eclipse the traditional Labor Party. The Green Party is the party that somebody like me would be inclined to vote for. It’s less about labor and workers, more about openness, cultural liberalism, immigration— it had, I think, the first Turkish MP— environmentalism, obviously— the sort of constellation of issues that appeal to the upper middle class but that are not necessarily the— it doesn’t look like the traditional left.
Well, I guess I was trying to point to— the thing I’m most familiar with in Germany from my visits there as an immigrant rights activist has been the rising anti-immigrant, xenophobic actions and rhetoric there. And I think that Merkel was, in part, targeted because she didn’t go there. And she was able to hold the country against it. I mean, I wish we were in a world where we weren’t going to see right-wing populism continuing to flourish and ebb and flow in the ways that it has throughout the history of our country and our world. That’s not the situation. We’re always going to have that. But we’re going to have leaders that either use that to divide us, or we’re going to have people who try to take away all the factors that allow that kind of racism and xenophobia to thrive. And that’s the thing I think is really important. It’s not that it isn’t there. It’s latent in our country. We have a history of slavery and all the things that you know and write about so well. But the reality is that that is all allowed to flourish, and it’s given fuel, when there is deep inequality and people feel like they can no longer think about us and a “we first” society; they have to think about a “me first” society. That’s what Trump capitalized on. That’s what allows that stuff to go from being underground to being on the surface. And that’s, I think, why I focus on inequality. But also, I don’t in any way want to say that we should run away from taking on race, racism, anti-Blackness, white supremacy. We are at a point now in this country where we have to do that. Racism is a part of our history. We have not done anything, really, in my mind, to fight it at its core. We haven’t talked about anti-Blackness and white supremacy in the way we should. We don’t have a truth process. Those are things we need to do as a country that other countries who suffered from this kind of legacy have done in order to try to move forward. We’ve never done that. We’ve got to do that. At the same time, we’ve got to tackle poverty and lack of opportunity and recognize that it disproportionately burdens Black and Brown and Indigenous folks, but not solely. It is unfortunately without regard to color in terms of its reach but perhaps not its depth.
Just following up from there for a second, the areas where there could be some movement— you obviously came to politics through immigration originally. Do you think there’s any room there for bipartisanship? Infrastructure you mentioned earlier. What do you think is plausible?
Yeah. Great question. So I would immediately lower the Medicare age to 57 at a minimum, 55 in an ideal world. That will bring us seniors across every political spectrum. And I would dare a Republican to vote against that. Honestly, I just think it is such smart policy and such smart politics. I would also immediately push forward a $15 minimum wage. It’s going to benefit a lot of people in rural and urban America. I would immediately invest in a big, expansive infrastructure project, because the truth is, even though even though we don’t have earmarks anymore, big infrastructure packages can move us forward on climate, on jobs, on schools, not just roads and bridges, on water systems. That is a huge opportunity. Immigration, 150 percent. It has always been a bipartisan issue— for the last 10 years, anyway. Not before that, but for the last 10 years. And even now, we passed the most progressive Dream and Promise Act and an agricultural workers bill in the House with bipartisan support. And I believe if there was a president who was actually for those things, we would be able to pass those as well. Health care— immediately, we could do so many things to expand health care. And Medicaid expansion is an obvious one, but we could also just make sure that everybody who loses their job is automatically enrolled in some sort of health insurance. So I mean, those are just a few, I think, of the things we can do. And they would be— if not for an obstructionist Senate, they would be things that would appeal to Republicans and Democrats.
And if you had to do some of them— as Senator Warren proposed in her recent op-ed— if you had to do some of that stuff by executive order, as a member of what is supposed to be the bleeding edge of government, the Article I house— but it hasn’t been that for generations— how do you feel about that, extralegislative versions of those same policies? Is it worth the constitutional risk to get those things done?
Well, I do think that they can be done, and they can also be levers to give more power back to the people’s house and to Congress. So in other words, if Joe Biden were to say, here are my day one executive actions, canceling X percentage of student debt, doing a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors, and just go down the line, then what he can say is, these are the things I’m going to do unless Congress acts immediately. And that can push Congress to really make that— do that work and move it forward with the threat that if we don’t, then there are some things that are too important, meaning the lives and livelihoods of the American people, regardless of which party you ascribe to, that Joe Biden is going to get done for us as president. That will benefit all of us. So yes, I would, of course, love to be able to pass bills through the House, but we also need the bully pulpit and the push of a president who is bold coming out of the gate and willing to say, I’m going to stand up for the people. I’m not going to tolerate this kind of inequity, racism, lack of health care, all of these things.
What do you think is a prospect for getting help to people anytime soon, as what coronavirus aid we had is running out and the biggest parts of it have already run out and coronavirus is only getting significantly worse?
I think we will get it done because this thing is going to get so bad, and everyone is going to be touched by it. But if we continue to have Republicans who refuse to admit that it’s a problem and don’t want to get relief, even to their own constituents, I don’t know what to say about that. Obviously, then, Joe Biden is going to have to figure out all the places that he can use money legally— unlike Donald Trump— but legally to get relief to people. But I still believe there’s an 85 percent chance we’re going to get something done— if not by the end of the year, then the first month of the new year.
All right. Great. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much.
Thank you both. Yeah, it was wonderful to talk to both of you. And thank you so much for everything you do and write and say.
And we’ll be right back.
And we’re back. While Biden’s lead is continuing to grow as votes are counted before the certification deadline of December 8th, President Trump is still ranting and raving inside the White House through the medium of social media. He is saying there is fraud. He’s saying that there is a machine that flipped votes from him to Biden. He is going on and on about this and not letting up. In order to talk about the way that these forms of social media have interpenetrated into our political life but also our social lives, we have asked our colleague Kara Swisher, the host of “Sway“, a twice-weekly podcast about power that the Opinion section also produces. And really, there’s no one I would rather talk to about this than her. Kara, hi. How are you?
Hi, Aaron. How are you doing?
So let’s start actually before the election and the lead-up to the election. How do you think the social media companies did in comparison to 2016? Were the generals ready for this war, or were they still fighting the last war?
Well, I mean, it’s a low bar, right? So they didn’t do anything in 2016. They didn’t see it coming. And so I guess any improvement— I guess they get an A for effort, I suppose.
But wait— sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but did they make an effort?
Seems to me that there’s a lot of things that they could do that, especially, Facebook has just sort of decided not to.
No, they made decisions you may not like. That’s different. They were certainly active in figuring it out and figuring out what had happened. What a lot of people feel that they were fighting was the last election. You know, they were dealing with Russians or malevolent players, foreign influences, and things like that. And they didn’t really focus on the uses of the platform by Americans or campaigns in that regard. And I think one of the problems is they’ve got a lot of rules and a lot of ideas of how they run these platforms, and they change them in real time. And it’s sort of that old cliche of building a plane while it’s flying. And so a lot of the stuff changes so quickly, it’s not as easy as you think it is, necessarily, to fix it. But one of the things they didn’t have was a general systemic idea of how they wanted to present themselves. And so that’s why you got the crazy decisions on Twitter on the Hunter Biden thing or, all of a sudden, Mark Zuckerberg has to deal with Steve Bannon, who obviously should have been banned. They have all these wacky rules, and so that’s their problem, is nothing is consistent. And it’s all held up by the fact that the decisions are made at the very top— Twitter by Jack Dorsey and a small team of people there who you don’t know well, but there’s a small group of people who make those big decisions, and then at Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg himself. And so that’s where you end up, is you’ve got billions of people at the mercy of a single person who can’t be fired.
But what’s the problem there? They’re trying to mask their decisions as purely technical decisions when all of them are, in fact, deeply political? Or what’s making it so hard?
No. I think that— because they see themselves as a utility. When I met Mark Zuckerberg for the first time, he kept calling himself a “utility.” And I keep thinking, well, if you’re a utility, then you should be regulated like a utility, which is quite regulated. Great. Sounds good to me. But he runs it just as they feel like. And so they think of themselves as a benign platform, they actually do think of themselves, and not as a media company. And what they have turned into is obviously a new kind of media company. I don’t know what to call it. There’s a word— publisher and platform— called “platisher,” which is a terrible Silicon Valley word, but that’s what it is. That’s really where the problem is, is they don’t know what they are. And therefore they’re not taking responsibility for any of those roles. And one thing Mark does is— he says things— when you hear him talk about the First Amendment, free speech, you just literally want to say, I wish you had finished college. It might have been helpful for you to understand these things. But one of the things he tends to say is, I don’t want to be an arbiter of truth. But he built a platform that requires an arbiter of truth. And therefore, OK, if you don’t want to be, who is going to be? Because there needs to be on some of these platforms, especially around things like Steve Bannon or behavior or falsehoods or misinformation and disinformation. And it’s not just political. It’s everything. It’s vaccines. It’s QAnon. It goes on and on and on.
But, Kara, do you think that Mark just kind of has right-wing sympathies or sees the world like an extraordinarily rich libertarian sees the world?
Well, you know, it’s not right-wing. It’s a really— people misrepresent Silicon Valley as being liberal. I would say it’s libertarian-lite, which means people who don’t understand liberta— you know, avail themselves to government help when they need it and then disdain it when they don’t. Like, it’s a weird—
And they don’t want to pay taxes, yeah.
Yeah, they’re nonpolitical but not not political. It’s an unusual place because on social issues they’re quite liberal. And I don’t think he’s right-wing. I think he just feels like— he’s been influenced a lot by Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen, who are on the board.
Right, but doesn’t that make him sort of right-wing, if you’re influenced by Peter Thiel, if you understand— I mean, he must understand that his user base is right-wing, that he’s profiting off—
Yes, he does.
—the kind of right-wing posts that are the dominant performers on Facebook, the right-wing groups that have these devoted user bases.
I think you think he cares about what’s on there. I’ve never had a political discussion with Mark in my life.
But he must care about what makes money, right?
Yeah, but I don’t think— this stuff doesn’t make that much money, which is really— the enormous amount of time that they spend— one of the reasons Twitter got rid of political advertising and everyone was like, yay, they did it, is because it literally costs more money than they make on it. Like, the amount of time and mindshare— Mark would be so happy if this was just about cat videos and soccer clubs and knitting groups or whatever. This idea of community that’s in his head is really what drives him, but he doesn’t live in the real world. And one of the things he tends to do is he’s just sort of— I don’t want to say barely educated. He’s partially educated. And so when he says things— like, he gave a speech at Georgetown— I happened to be in the audience— about the First Amendment. And I literally almost stood up and said, that is completely wrong. Like, why did you— like, the reading of it was completely wrong. And so he has an idea in his head that there can be a center position that is not problematic, given the explosive nature of his platform, the weaponization of his platform, and the amplification that his platform provides.
So what do you think they were doing when they, like, downgraded Mother Jones, for example, or I guess sabotaged Mother Jones’s reach?
This has gone on for years. If you follow Facebook for a long time— if you remember, they had a problem with breasts when they were trying to get rid of porn. And they got mother breast milk groups all up in arms. They took down that famous picture from Vietnam of the little girl running in the napalm accident. And they’re like, oops. “Oops” is what Facebook does all the time, and it’s because it’s not recognizing what it is and it refuses to recognize what it is. And what they do is they wrap themselves in the cloak of the First Amendment, when the First Amendment only applies to government making no laws. Congress should make no laws, not Facebook. And so I’ve never seen a group of people want to abrogate responsibility more than the people at Facebook. They’re like, not our problem, when they created the problem, they created the tools, and they architected the system to do exactly what it’s doing. And so whether it’s Facebook law being used to broadcast a mass murder, they don’t care. They didn’t think of the consequences. And believe me, I discussed it with them at the time. I was like, huh, this seems problematic. And I think they don’t listen to voices where people say, this seems problematic. They just don’t. They think they’re bummers. They think they’re innovation killers. They don’t appreciate you putting a stop to their jam, essentially.
So, Kara, you were talking about the “oops” factor, right? They always drop back to the idea of, like, oh, yeah, it’s the algorithm, right? The whole drive behind affinity. I’m going to get to the like person and the like thing. That’s the central node of most of these. It’s dangerous, on the one hand, because it can bring and has brought together all kinds of conspiracy theorists, most notably, obviously, with QAnon. But it also has the capacity to be quite something on the— as a force for good. I mean, obviously this is a very vexing problem, but how do you collect communities without creating too much space for the lunatic fringe?
Well, look, lunatics are going to find each other. And what would happen in real life, they’d have to find a town they all lived in, or they’d have to find a weird newsletter. Or they’d have to— it was really difficult. And one of the first times I ever saw it at work was at AOL. If you remember, they had groups. And so when you have any kind of groups, groups tend to coalesce. And many years ago when I was at AOL, a group of knitters who had met online— or quilters, excuse me. They were quilters. They met online, and they had made an AOL quilt for Steve Case. It was kind of hokey and silly, but they had never met each other and they liked quilting. And there’s apparently not a lot of— at the time they weren’t able to meet. These people met and became friends online, and then they created a quilt together. And they brought it to AOL, and then they kept patting Steve Case. It was quite a lovely scene, actually. And so that was the good part. Like, all these people who had an interest— maybe they were isolated, wherever they were— got together. This is a good thing.
I wonder where that is now.
It was hanging— it was huge.
Hanging in an AOL museum somewhere.
It was huge. It was, like, a huge quilt. It was really quite lovely. There was cake involved that they brought. And so you see those kind things. At the same time, a lot of groups— and one of the reasons I think right-wing groups do so well is they were largely cut out of the regular mainstream media, and the internet was a place they could coalesce. And years ago I did an interview with Ralph Reed early, early on, and he was talking about the uses of the internet because they couldn’t break in except for Fox News. And Fox News was in its nascent years at this time. They had nowhere else to go, and so they got very adept at meeting and gathering online. And so it allowed them to do that. So you have to think of these things, as Brad Smith from Microsoft says, a tool or a weapon. Is it a tool or a weapon? A knife is a tool. It helps you cut food and stuff like that, but it also can kill people. And so how it’s used matters. And therefore the things of features and safeguards you put around it are critical. And so the architecture is the problem because if you take that away, then the quilters can’t meet, right?
Yeah, but why is it that important for the quilt— I mean, I understand that we’re not going to take away these platforms, because they exist and nobody has the power to. But it just seems— who cares if the quilters can meet?
Well, I do. The quilters do.
The upside of that is so minimal compared to the immense—
No, no, no. That’s not true.
—immense damage they’ve done to this democracy.
No, you’re not— no, because you can’t— here’s the problem, is that they don’t— there’s ways to fix it and ways to have guardrails in place. For example, look at— I’m going to take away the Chinese part of TikTok. But when you go on TikTok, you mostly have a delightful experience, because it tends to pick things based on your likes, not your friends, not groups. A lot of the problems that Facebook has and the other ones is because of groups and friend links, and that’s what leads you down these weird paths. And so you look at something like a Snapchat, for example. It’s a group of people who are meeting to communicate, and therefore it doesn’t blow out of control, that anybody can be part of it. On TikTok, the way the algorithm works is it is based on your likes. And so someone like me, I get, for some reason, a lot of tie dye stuff recently. I don’t know why. I don’t like tie dye. I’m never going to tie dye, but it’s delightful.
Because you miss California.
I guess, yeah. So that really works, and that’s a really— it’s a really uplifting experience and fun and other stuff like that. Now, there’s problems on TikTok, and it’s going to be everywhere, as these groups try to figure out how to manipulate it. But it’s very easy for both good things and malevolent things to thrive on these platforms. And so what are you going to do? Just close it down? That’s not going to happen.
I mean, I understand that that’s not feasible, but it just— it seems obvious to me that like whatever good these things have brought to our lives is so vastly outweighed by the way that they’ve come close to destroying our civilization.
[LAUGHS] OK. I don’t think— I don’t agree with that. I do think if they put certain things in place and they monitor it in the way you’re supposed to— if anything could be published in the New York Times, it would feel like that, too. But it isn’t because there’s guardrails. There’s editors. There’s all kinds of things. And so I think what your problem is, is they’re incompetent gatekeepers, is what they are. They are gatekeepers now, but they’re incompetent at the job. And they aren’t doing the job. And so whatever you think of the New York Times or the Washington Post or anything else, they’re pretty good gatekeepers about things. But it would look the same thing if anybody could publish anything on the New York Times website.
So one striking thing that happened this week was the firing a couple days ago of Christopher Krebs at the Department of Homeland Security who seems to have run afoul of Trump for two reasons. One, he helped run a very secure election and kept it very smooth. And then, of course, he was extremely vocal about it. But I want to ask you first about this thing that they started at the Department of Homeland Security called rumor control, where they, in real time, tried to debunk conspiracy theories that were sweeping around wrong ideas about voter fraud.
Sure, because voter people— the election people get a lot of that, yeah.
Right. So I was struck by two things. One, it was quite extraordinary that they were doing that. But why aren’t Facebook and Twitter—
They are. They have those.
They’re doing it, but what is it that they’re doing that’s making that not work? Like, it seems to have worked fairly well in this context.
I think you don’t understand how many conspiracies there are. You know what I mean? They are doing that. They are doing it. And there’s lots of groups. I think one of the things— a lot of groups would like to have more access to Facebook information, especially academic groups. Like, there’s a group in Oxford that is doing this, too. A lot of groups do this. There’s a lot around vaccines, for example. There was one that if you take the flu shot, you’re going to get COVID, for example. And once you recognize that, you can start shutting them down piece by piece. So I think the problem is there’s just so much conspiracy theories. Again, these platforms are perfect for conspiracy theories. They’re excellent. And again, before they used to be, I worked for the Washington Post. And when I wrote anything, for example, with a Jewish name in it, I used to get letters with people writing in the scrawling edges all this anti-Semitic stuff. And so that was a letter. I just tossed it out, kind of stuff. Now they have an ability to talk to each other, whether it’s on Reddit or now this Parler, “Parlor,” whatever they want to call it. No one’s going to go there.
Yeah, I don’t think they’ll call it “Par-lay.”
I told him to call it Meinspace. It’s a little German joke there.
Forgive me if I’m taking us far afield.
But what’s the argument against getting rid of Section 230 to make them responsible for some of this stuff or liable for some of this stuff?
Because it’s like throwing a hammer at a piano to make music. Like, this is sophisticated legislation, and you can’t just get rid of it. You have to reform it. Sort of like talking about defund the police versus reform police.
Actually, maybe you— since I will mangle it, do you want to—
Section 230 is something that— I actually covered it when I was at the Washington Post. It was part of a bigger piece of legislation called the Communications Decency Act, most of which was declared unconstitutional. It was around pornography, all kinds of stuff. And so it gives them broad immunity for what’s on their platforms. And a lot of people feel that what it does is solidifies into place the big players now, at this point, because they’re now the biggest, most valuable companies on the planet. And do they need this protection? Now, they do in some part because they will have to close down if they get rid of 230. All of them will have to close down. And that might be the goal of some people. I think it’s a ridiculous goal. But there are ways to figure out what kind of liability do they have on these problems, what are their duties. They have to figure out what the level of liability is.
And this is something that people on the right call for, at least some people on the right, right?
Senator Josh Hawley is calling for this. And it seems to me that the left also has something of an interest in—
Yes, everybody does. And I think the idea of doing this by executive order— that executive order was written by a kindergartner. My issue with a lot of this stuff, because it becomes politicized, is that there is only one shot at these massively powerful companies with enormous amounts of lobbyists, enormous amounts of money. Why are we taking idiot shots at them? Like, really, everybody should do this in a bipartisan way because it’s systemic. And the idea of we’ve got to either close them down or split them up— there’s all kinds of tools the federal government has. They have fines. They have laws they can pass. They have regulations that are already in place they can enforce. They can do anti-trust. They can work on 230. And they never see it systemically. And that’s my issue is that they do all these things and indulge themselves— like the hearings this week— they indulge himself on this right-wing bias, which is nonsense. It’s just nonsense. And even the people, the right-wing people— I had coffee with someone yesterday who— they were like, we know it’s nonsense. It’s like, it’s a waste of time to not focus on power. I mean, that’s really what it’s about is power— too much power in the hands of too few people or too few companies. And we’ve dealt with that dozens of times in our history. And so what do we want to do in this case? It’s just like Wall Street. It’s just like trains. It’s just like telcos. It’s the same stuff. And I think we have this weird love of tech people, or they have some magic or alchemy. And we depend on them so much that we have to give them a pass on regular regulation that we require of everybody else. And that’s what we need to do. And I think, eventually, Josh Hawley’s the world. And as long as they stop going down this right-wing alley of being biased— I mean, I always say to them, because it’s funny in some ways— I’m like, actually you never shut up. These platforms have been nothing but good for right-wingers as far as I can tell. It’s their saving grace in terms of getting noticed, and it’s been very helpful for their organization. And so they have to figure out a way to regulate it in a way that satisfies a lot of people and allows innovation from below. And that’s really the point, is someday Facebook is going to get overturned— not by the government, by some other company. And that’s what we hope for. That’s what we want to have happen.
Let me ask you just one last thing and get us a little away from politics for a second, because these things have penetrated into our lives in every way. And sometimes when I see the algorithms coming at me— if you like this movie, you’re going to like this movie. And if you like this book, you’re going to like that book. It sometimes weirdly makes me think about Karl Kraus, the great Viennese satirist who—
Ah, Karl Kraus.
Yeah, I don’t know. I just thought I’d bring him up for fun. You’ll see why in a second. But I’m bringing him up now because he was also a famous critic of the press at the time that he was writing. And he wrote that the mission of the press is to spread culture while destroying the attention span. And I always think about that with these things. Obviously, evolution doesn’t happen that fast. We’re not going to suddenly not be able to pay attention. But you’re immersed in this universe. Do you feel different from how you felt before you went into it? Like, do you feel that it has actually altered the way you deal with the world in a way that is profound enough to actually reshape human life?
Sure. 100 percent. I think we’ve become reductive and cartoonish, and the way we talk to each other is that way. And then even though sometimes it’s joking, it becomes the real thing. It gets in the way of real conversation. But I do think one of the issues you have to understand is these are small— this is a thousand people in Silicon Valley determining so much of our society. And they’ve never gotten more powerful than in this pandemic. And trends that they had set in motion are accelerating. Things that were going to happen in 10 years are happening in six months, whether it’s retail or commerce or social interactions or communications. And the people who have become richer during this thing are the tech companies. And that’s what I worry about, is that it’s become more and more concentrated in a group of people whose whole— most of whose business plan is to keep you within the matrix and to keep going around. And that should be the worry, is that they— whether it’s delivery of goods or it’s your entertainment on Netflix or it’s your social interaction on Twitter or Facebook, they own every piece of it. That’s no accident what’s happening here. We have to really think hard if we want to give up this much of our power to a small group of people in a zip code in California. We don’t. And I’m from that area. You have to think really hard. And so the only fulcrum against this is the government. The government can step in and do things, and we can do great things with it. And one of the things I think about is what’s coming. You think this is bad? When we get into AI— drones, robotics, transportation that is autonomous— the things that are coming are massive. And the challenges we face, like climate change, need to be addressed by big tech solutions. So I think you better hold on, because a lot of the stuff that’s coming is really much more life-changing than what’s come before. And we’re already exhausted from the inventions that they’ve put upon us for this long. Sorry. [LAUGHS]
All right, that’s— [LAUGHS]
But enjoy TikTok. Have a good time. Tie dye is super fun.
That seems like a good moment for us to turn to— you have been graceful and gracious enough, I should say, to agree to be the recommender this week. So what would you like to recommend to our listeners?
You know, I hate to say this—
Besides the apocalypse.
The apocalypse, yeah.
Maybe apocalypse bunker.
Bunker, right. No, I have to say, I’ve been watching The Crown. I didn’t watch The Crown before, but the Diana episodes are so good. And I just like going back to those times. And it’s silly and ridiculous, and it’s totally enjoyable. And the outfits are amazing.
Do you have to watch all the previous episodes to understand the Diana?
No. I didn’t watch any of them. I don’t care about the other stuff. What do I care about—
I started watching it at the beginning and got sort of bored.
But now it seems intriguing.
You will like every episode. I mean, it was a horrible, tragic end, but it was— it’s really well done. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit.
So, Kara, once again, your recommendation is?
My recommendation is The Crown, but just season four, the Diana years. Fantastic.
All right. Kara, thank you so much for coming from your domain of power to our domain of powerlessness. [LAUGHTER]
Yeah, thank you.
All right. Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]
And that’s it for today’s show. Thank you very much for listening. We’ll be off next week for the holiday and so that I can recover from my imposter syndrome about being Ross Douthat. But we’ll be back in your feed in December. In the meantime, though, we have a question for you. Have you changed your mind about anything over this past year? We want to know what about and what made you think differently. Share it with us by calling 347-915-4324. Again, that’s 347-915-4324. Leave us a brief voicemail that we might play on a future episode of The Argument. And thanks. The Argument is a production of The New York Times Opinion section. The team includes Alison Bruzek, Vishakha Darbha, Elisa Gutierrez, Phoebe Lett, Isaac Jones, Paula Szuchman, Kate Sinclair, and Kathy Tu. Special thanks this week go to Corey Schreppel.
Oh, that’s a good point, yeah. Well, that was sufficiently languid for the two-time speed. Anyone who tries to listen to Kara two times, though, they’re going to be in deep trouble.