Adam: Mozart: The Reign of Love and Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, two biographies by Jan Swafford
Claire: The 1619 Project television series on Hulu
Nichole: Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas
Buckle in. Yes, we secured a conversation with Adam Johnson of the Citations Needed podcast! Brace yourself for a meaty and rapid-fire discussion of food insecurity that inevitably tumbles into the myriad of related issues: poverty, homelessness, precarity, and labor. Prepare to feel challenged and maybe even a bit destabilized or at least that was our experience at times. But true to form, Adam inspires a rethinking of the systems around us and demonstrates how we are presented a media narrative that just might be undermining our ability to make lasting and meaningful change. Please share your thoughts. We’d love to know what resonated with you and what didn’t.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Framing The Issue Of Hunger And Poverty With Adam Johnson Of The Citations Needed Podcast
Thank you for being with us. We’re really excited to be getting into our new series, which is going to be discussing food insecurity in Texas. For this episode, we wanted to get a more holistic understanding of food insecurity and how it’s very connected to precarity, and a lot of times, poverty. We invited a guest to come onto the show who has an incredible podcast called Citations Needed. We spoke to Adam Johnson, and he has so many thoughts. He is so smart.
I don’t know how he holds it all in his head. I really appreciate his show and the dots he connects. I was like, “Nicole, I think he would be a good one to have come on and explain to us a little bit more about why we’re in this state of 1 in 8 Texans being food insecure and, why so many folks go hungry in a state of so much abundance. What is this about at the end of the day?” He did a great job of giving us some things he’s noticed in the media because his podcast focuses on media, PR, and power, and being through a very critical lens of how it’s gotten us to the place where we’re at. Nicole, what are some thoughts that you have?
I want to warn everybody to buckle in because he is a fast talker. The information he gives is very dense. I find it very challenging just to take in and integrate with the thoughts that I already have, the things that honestly, I’m a little programmed to believe, and so I find him to be very challenging but so fascinating, and definitely worth a listen. This might be another one where I would recommend maybe listening more than once. I cannot recommend it enough, though. Stick with us and keep trying with us.
Let us know what you think of this episode. We think it’s going to be a great one to start off our series on food insecurity. As a quick reminder to folks, Nicole and I are going to be at South by Southwest. We’re going to be in the Civic Engagement Track on March 13th. If you’re at South, please come see us. We’re going to be having some great panelists who will also be on the show. We have Adam here to set the stage for us. Check out this episode. Thanks for joining us for this episode of the show. We’re excited to be speaking with Adam Johnson now. Hi, Adam. How are you?
I’m well. How are you?
We’re doing all right. We’re hanging in there and getting over a little bit of sickness and some poor power grids in the state, but it is what it is.
As long as everyone has power back. Now, it definitely only snowed once here in Chicago, so Central Texas may be beating us thus far this year.
It’s crazy, these new extreme weather patterns that we deny are here to stay. We’ll see what happens.
Denial really works.
Thank you for chatting with us. We love your show, Citations Needed. A lot of the themes that you all talk about on that show are specifically being critical of the media. For this episode, we want to talk about food insecurity and some of these misconceptions that we have that are reinforced by the media’s narrative of what we think of as someone who is food insecure. What Nicole and I hypothesize is that it’s just very invisible. We don’t see it in the media. People who come from means in our everyday lives don’t know how pervasive it is.
That’s something we really want to get into in this discussion. Before that, we like to get to know our guest a little bit better. We would just love to know a little bit about your Texas experience because we know you’ve lived in Texas before. Adam, tell us about your political journey. Did you come from a family that talks about politics?
I come from a pretty conservative family, which I suppose is typical of growing up in Texas as a White guy. Demographically speaking, there was very little hope there. I got more left in college as people typically do. Things like the Iraq war, Occupy Wall Street, and things of that nature moved a lot of people from my generation to the left in a way that was perhaps somewhat generationally unique.
Although I don’t like to focus too much on generational discourse, which can be fatuous, there are certain markers that made me more skeptical and concerned with issues of anti-imperialism, socialism, and whatever kind of ism one wishes to indulge in. That brought me to writing, which then brought me to political writing, and then eventually I made a job out of it over the years. I worked in the restaurant business for ten years, which probably helped create plant the seeds a little bit. Waiting tables will turn you into a misanthropic leftist pretty quickly.
It’s not an easy job, for sure. Was there a particular issue that animated you? Listening back to your first episode of Citations Needed, which is how I honestly think I found your show because I was trying to learn more about charter schools myself, was it like charter schools, or was there something that started to have you pull the thread and see the whole bigger picture?
A lot of it is around Occupy Wall Street through the generalized quality of discourse. I had close members of my family who were in poverty and shifting away from a mindset of blaming the individual versus blaming society and thinking about things systemically. Not to be too romantic about it, but I think when one begins to shift, think of things in terms of systems rather than just the accidents of capital, which I bought into a lot of that mindset in my mid-twenties, the kind of freakonomics like a neoliberal worldview. When you start to view things as being not discreet moral choices but systems, you begin to open up a whole world of critique and politics.
People who come before you did all the thinking for you, and you just read them, and then you’re like, “That makes sense. That all adds up.” I thought that leftist politics more generally, without being too sectarian, a more predictive way of understanding the world, that they were better at predicting things quasi-scientifically. To me, the ideology that can say a politician says X, Y, and Z, but they’re actually going to do A, B, and C, and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 times, they correctly predict that then I begin to say those guys may know something. I thought that the general dimension and general paradigm were more predictive and attractive.
The issue that gets people involved in these things, like you said, is this idea that poverty is a political choice and homelessness and food insecurity are a political choice. That one site began to project the full austerity as false. The recession and the bank bailout since 2009 made most stupidly clear, that these things were largely artificial and were largely political choices. That opens up a whole world of what’s possible. Obviously, you see different models in other countries of people who do differently, have more robust welfare states and have far smaller homeless populations.
You realize these countries aren’t richer than the United States is. Obviously, this is not an issue of austerity, but it’s an issue of the political choices we make. Everything else is a way of thinking from that factor or attempting to pit the working class against each other or blaming poor people. The old cliché about a politician’s job is to have the middle class blame poor people for their problems. Once I got out of that mindset, it made me more politically on the left as it were. There are so many things in this country that don’t have to be, 30 million Americans are still uninsured. 1 in 8 Americans has a medical debt of over $10,000. We don’t have NHS or a universal healthcare system.
We have 600,000 unhoused people, which I have seen. We have 17% of children living in poverty. You guys know the statistics on food insecurity, which was what you all are talking about. All these things are political choices. They don’t need to exist. They exist for very specific reasons that make very few people a lot of money, to put it in class terms. I always think that Norman Solomon’s at it, because the word neoliberal gets thrown around a lot, but it’s useful in a certain context, and he defined the neoliberal worldview as a world of victims, but no victimizers. There are all these suffering, but there are no real bad guys.All these things are political choices. They don't need to exist. They exist for very specific reasons that make very few people a lot of money. Click To Tweet
It’s like the Bill Gates-Bono view of poverty. There’s this accident of capital and this accident of history. People are poor, but no one’s really responsible for it, which strikes me as an extremely convenient worldview, one I would certainly adopt if I had $100 billion. How do these guys get poor? What happened here? I don’t know. The idea that poverty is a product of wealth accumulation in very few amount of hands, and that it’s an issue of forced austerity, labor disciplining, and all these kinds of things, again, other leftists have been writing about centuries now.
Adam, I have a question for you. If somebody wanted to follow down the track that you’re talking about, I’m going to call it an awakening. I don’t know if that’s what you would call it.
I’m trying not to sound too much like a religious nut. Leftists can start to sound like they’re in the David Koresh cult, and it can get a little off-putting.
We’ll send that vocabulary word aside. Who would you recommend to somebody they would pick to read or what works do you feel were formative?
I’m so bad at this question.
Am I putting you on the spot?
I do get that question a lot. They’ll say, “What’s your one-on-one or onboarding for people who are curious?” I’m so bad with this answer because I would never prescribe any kind of orthodox Marxist text because I think those are inscrutable for most people. Not to be patronizing, but they’re inscrutable to me. I don’t know.
It is a great place to start.
It is a podcast that is deliberately designed to be neutral. We don’t wear our ideology on our sleeve. We try to be super accessible. I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. Why don’t I get back to you? Everyone always has to have their perfectly pristine list that has everything, non-problematic. I couldn’t give it to you. It’s a mix of things for me personally. I don’t know.
Know that we’re not looking for perfection, and we will await such a list.
I know. It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ll say something, and then twenty minutes later, I’ll be like, “I should have added this or that.” I’m going to take the coward’s way out and abstain.
Here’s what I’m going to obligate you. I’m going to tell our readers and you that we will share this via social media at some future date. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, you can listen to Citations Needed, a fantastic podcast, and get a lot of great information because you all cover a wide range of topics. The through line is there, which is what you’re talking about. We’re in this system that is unfair, and there’s a reason that it’s that way. That brings us back to food insecurity. I’m curious, Adam. What do you think is the way that the media is conveying food insecurity to folks? What do you think is the impression that we have and the reality of the situation?
The times I’ve written about this topic and other poverty-related topics, there are two vectors here. Number one is they just don’t talk about it at all, which is probably the most common one. Two, when we talk about poverty, food insecurity, houselessness, and other related conditions, they’re done in discreet moral terms, which is to say a person’s individual choice or journey. Now, oftentimes, they’ll frame it in what we call on our show perseverance porn, which is the very popular trophy of a scene where a nine-year-old collects cans to pay for his grandma’s cancer surgery or a guy walks to work every day, 2, 5, 10, 12 miles. This is supposed to give the viewer an inspirational view of hard work and perseverance.
In a healthy and moral society, these stories would not be stories of inspiration and warm-heartedness. They would be stories of shock and vulgarity because why is this 55-year-old man having to walk 10 miles to go to work at Chick-fil-A to pay for his rent? These people would be either provided for, given public transportation, or some other means of baseline survival floor. When we talk about food insecurity, it’s typically done in a manner that is either about someone overcoming some struggle or houselessness or some kid who thought of some clever way of raising money so he could afford food or whatever. There isn’t a lot of incentives report on systems. There are exceptions.
There’s Texas Observer or Houston Chronicle. I don’t want to generalize too much, but your middlebrow TV news, 95% of your coverage, it’s either going to be non-existent or the vast majority that does exist is going to operate within this protestant hardworking paradigm. When it is discussed as a social, and what Adam Curtis calls Oh, Dear, which is the 1980s famine in Africa, it’s this thing that happened. There are no real causes for this. No one’s really funneling arms to support a civil war that’s created this problem. There’s no real actor. Again, it’s victims without victimizers. That victim without victimizers’ paradigm is very popular in the US corporate media, especially television media.
The second we start naming victimizers and those who’ve transgressed to the poor, you have victims without victimizers. The second you start talking about victimizers, the thing you start talking about is who specifically is transgressing the poor rather than treating it like some unfortunate law of nature like you would a natural disaster. Although with climate change, even those have victimizers now. Let’s say an earthquake, something that’s maybe a little bit more an act of God to use an insurance term. That is treated like an act of God.
It’s treated like something that no one can do something about it to the extent people are doing about it, or benevolent billionaire overlords and multimillionaire overlords are donated to some token useless charity, and they’re trying to do something about ads, but ultimately, it’s done in the caprice of the wealthy in our community. The second you start asking more systemic questions, you make a lot of people uncomfortable, specifically, those who own television and those in the advertisers who provide the revenue for television. There is good government liberal reporting around the margins that touch on some of those more systemic things, but it’s never put in terms of a right.
That idea is so foreign to American ideology that it is seen as being ideological, whereas letting people die frozen on the street is not an ideological act. In our society, Charles Murray, a White supremacist writer, getting the platform from Middlebury College is authoritarian. Someone freezing to death on the street is not authoritarian. To me, it makes a ton of sense. Someone being food insecure and starving is not viewed as being authoritarian, but it very much is. In fact, several leftist writers have made this point for many years.
If you don’t have basic needs met, if you don’t have medical care, if you’re not alive because you died because of inadequate prenatal care, postnatal care, or because you have an incurable disease, or because you have to ration insulin so your blood sugar goes through high, and you go into diabetic ketoacidosis, or whatever it is, if you don’t have your basic needs met, a full stomach, your medical needs met, have housing, and a roof over your head, then your liberal rights don’t really matter much. That kind of rights-based approach is completely alien to most media. What we do is we get the charity model and get this emotional pornography for and can’t afford it. Mostly, there’s no real systemic critique.
This connection that I’m making now is we did an episode on Critical Race Theory, and I’m thinking about the backlash we’re seeing nationally, specifically here in Texas, to just shut down any discussion about it. It seems like that’s because CRT is so rooted in this idea that so much of our racism is systemic. Anything that seems to be systemic, if it rises to the top, there is this strong intentional effort to squash that. Would you say that?
Every White guy is super thin-skinned. I didn’t do it. It doesn’t matter what you did, like if your father robs a bank for $10,000, comes home and hands it to you, and then he dies of a heart attack, and the bank comes by and wants their $10,000.
Intellectually, it’s very inconsistent because the bootstrap is for you but not for me, yet they can’t see the advantage that’s been passed down from generation to. Why do you think we have this strong individualism ethos versus communal cooperation that would really benefit us on the whole?
The US does have a far more punitive, far more prison-driven, far less charitable, and weaker welfare state, and so that’s why I think that is. It’s the combination of historic accidents, which are based upon White supremacy, the subjugation of workers, and the division of a working class, among racial lines. It’s also reinforced by the status quo. If you have a high concentration of wealth, and those people largely own the media in general, not always, but in general is going to reflect their class interest, and so then that becomes a feedback loop where there isn’t a ton of incentive to mix that up.
There is a strong cultural image that’s reinforced in our education systems that talks about entrepreneurship as the highest achievement. You’re poor not because of systemic problems. You are poor because of bad money management. All this capitalist ideology is always just reinforced. That leads to a system where massive inequality is viewed as being a good thing. It’s viewed as an opportunity for bootstrap to rise to the bottom. You can’t rise from the bottom if the bottom isn’t sufficiently low enough. That is enforced in our politics.
Not to get too down this rabbit hole, but the way we talk about education, education is supposed to be some anti-poverty program. Even Democrats would oftentimes. Not so much lately, but for a long time, we talked in these terms. “Education’s a silver bullet, and it can lift you out of poverty.” That doesn’t make any sense. Why do we need to pass some revolving machine of Maddox test to get out of poverty? Why don’t we just get rid of poverty? If the problem with poverty is people don’t have money, just give them money. If the problem is they don’t have healthcare or housing, just give them at least a baseline floor.
If you don’t want a bunch of people having Xbox and a mansion or whatever, fine. Basic survival like the welfare system that a lot of countries have already, seems reasonable to me. There are systemic reasons we get why that is, and we’ve discussed them before. Largely, destitution poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity are essential to disciplining the bottom rung of labor. We saw this during the COVID pandemic aid with the stimulus and the enhanced unemployment insurance. There was a discussion about giving people an extra $600 a week almost immediately in April 2020 by the Wall Street Journal. That’s going to disincentivize people to work.
Lindsey Graham and Senator John Cornyn of Texas came out and said, “If you give people more money than the minimum wage, they’re going to stay home,” which is true if this was a tacit admission that to keep wages low, which is to say to keep workers precarious and to keep them frightened, you have to have some percent of the population that lives in poverty, homeless, and doesn’t have healthcare. What is the number one reason why organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association lobby against if there’s healthcare when states try to implement it or the federal government begins to talk about it?
It’s because workers don’t have to have their healthcare tethered to their job. It takes away the one thing that employers wield over the largely middle-class and lower-middle-class employees, which is healthcare, for these systems of fear to work, to keep wages low, to keep labor liquid, to keep it precarious, to keep them frightened, and to prevent unionization. You’ve seen this now with the way that you have people on CNBC talk about how low unemployment is a nut that has to be cracked because labor power is sticky. It’s too powerful. You have to artificially weaken it by increasing interest rates. They openly talk about it.
Financial Times and The Economist will openly talk about how basically the worker got too powerful and how many people on Fox News complained about how they went to Nando’s Chicken, and the guy was not obsequious enough or desperate enough for tips. Starbucks guys are getting unionized. They can’t do that. They’re just a bunch of grad school students. They’re a bunch of bisexuals with tattoos. They can’t unionize.
When you see this over the last couple of years play out where people are very open and honest about the fact that the worker needs to be taken down a peg, and things like basic income, which is what unemployment did, things like eviction war terms where you can’t get kicked out of your house, that these things were making workers too powerful, and that upended our social arrangement. The implication of that quite clearly is that extreme poverty is a political choice that is necessary to maintain inequality. That inequality doesn’t really work if people have a floor that they can’t drop below, where they have a house over their heads and healthcare provided for them.
The assumption is that they’re just going to sit around, smoke weed all day, and be lazy. Plenty of countries have these things or some version of these things, then people don’t do that. People actually turn out they enjoy trying and they enjoy work for other reasons, or they want to work for other reasons, or they want to better themselves for other reasons. This is the axiomatic myth in this country. To some extent, even an Anglo-American thing. When you see this a lot in Britain, they have NHS. The biggest crime you can commit is if somebody who’s poor and viewed as being underserved has the slightest bit of luxury or happiness.
It’s the old Ronald Reagan 1976 speech in Oxford, Mississippi, when he talked about the strapping young buck in line buying T-bone steaks on your welfare money, the most thinly veiled razor-thin racist comment in the history of razor-thin veiled racist. This is the animating ethos of so much of how we talked about poverty.
If you are precarious working class or lower middle class, you’re not poor because your boss is scamming you, ripping off your wages, or working you too hard, or because banks are getting bailouts or we’re handing them $1 trillion a year to the military-industrial complex or whatever. You’re poor because the guy typically coded as Black is living higher on the hog. People say this crap. You’ll meet people in the wild, and they’ll say, “Here they’re getting $500,000 homes to homeless people,” or they’re giving away Obama phones. Remember that panic?
You have this idea that your precarity or your hardship is not caused by those in power but inversely caused by those out of power. The fundamental premise of all faux right-wing populism is to complete the inverse power dynamics. The people on top are actually oppressed. The White men’s oppressed, even though I know they’re not categorically on top. Generally speaking as a class, they’re the most oppressed. Those who are at the bottom are somehow not really clear. They’re all living high on the hog. If someone goes out and panhandles in two-degree weather all day, we’re told they get into Cadillac and drive off. This urban legend’s been around since I was in high school.
This mentality is so ingrained in our culture and is reinforced by our media and people like Greg Abbott who are constantly telling people the homeless are living high on the hog while working-class taxpayers are being fleeced by the evil liberal state. With that, facing that broad cultural ethos, how do you combat that? It’s not a coincidence that the weakest unions ever in this country historically were in the Deep South, with the exception of some of the knights of labor, although they were anti-Chinese, or the IWW, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, and other related organizations.
Labor was always weakest in the South for precisely that reason. You use “racial divisions and White racism” to weaken your labor force. If there’s one thing the capital class is good at, it is coming up with ways of weakening labor forces, whether it be racial grievances. If you look at a lot of this anti-local legislation coming out of Florida, and you read between the lines or you read the fine print, so much of it is about busting labor, teachers, and academic unions in universities.
There’s always some new way they bust labor power. All that creates a system, especially in Texas, which historically has had very weak labor laws, where you have a weak social welfare state, weak progressive institutions, and a one-party state for the last 25 to 30 years. It’s hard, especially when the right wing has become exclusively about triggering the libs and punishing the weak in a sadistic manner at this point.
Do you think that the cracks are starting to show at all? Do you think people are waking up to this distraction, this magic show almost? “Let’s look at these things that don’t really impact your life, so we’re going to talk about them over and over, instead of fixing the real problems of our everyday lives.” Nicole and I just experienced another winter storm that impacted our power a couple of years ago. Our power grid failed. Rural Texas is seeing hospitals close. Our schools are under attack. Real things that impact people do not get oxygen. It’s CRC.
To some extent, one problem is people don’t have the language to articulate that frustration. One thing conservatives are really good at doing is they do it similar in the UK with the natural health services. They gut them with austerity and underfund them. When they fail, they say, “Look. The government doesn’t work.” This is done in the US all the time with our schools. They underfund schools, and they come in and say, “Look at all these bad grades.” Now, we need to bring Bill Gates into the charter schools to privatize it. The way the rhetoric around the power grid plays out is similar. It’s a power grid. Isn’t that public? Even though it’s not, people perceive it. There are government regulators and too much government regulation.People don't have the language to articulate that frustration. One thing conservatives are really good at doing is they gut them with austerity and underfund them. Click To Tweet
Look at when Russia invaded Ukraine. That was the first thing Fox News did. They blamed environmentalists for weakening the American energy sector and oil sector in the Green New Deal. They blamed the Green New Deal. They’re so good at flipping everything to be some liberal busybody. Even when the right-wing guts these public institutions and underfunds things like infrastructure, education, power grid, and gas, they’ll still spin it as, “The big nanny state has gone too far. They overregulated us.” That’s one fear. The one positive thing I will say is I think the sadistic trigger, the libs, Greg Abbott, and Donald Trump vector gets old after a while.
It’s fun for the first few years. You’re poking a stick into the wokes. It feels good. These transgender things are confusing. Eventually, it’s inherently degenerate like any other degenerate drug because you have to get more hardcore, more punitive, more statistic, and more about cruelty for its own sake. You see this with a lot of the book bannings and the anti-trans laws. First, there was no trans healthcare for anyone under 16, then it was for 18. Now, in Oklahoma, they’re floating 26 years old. Other states are doing as high as 20, 21, 22, and 23. Certain voters have begun to shy away from that, especially the hyperbolic crime discussion. You saw this with the underperforming of what was called the red wave.
I don’t want to be too optimistic. I know there are other factors like Dobbs. I do think that owning the libs Republican Party brand begins to get old after a while. Maybe I’m being a little optimistic here, but I think a lot of people who are winnable, who are not that sadistic and not that mean can see that. Even someone like Ron DeSantis, who has the cruelty of Trump, but none of the humor, he’s just sullen, boring, and mean. This can’t be an attractive worldview. Biden, I don’t like a lot of his politics. He’s far too conservative. He least has a bit of optimism in his vision. There’s a world we’re fighting for.
There’s at least rhetorically the language of solidarity, even if in policy there’s none or not nearly enough. If you look at internal Republican discussions and people like Warren who are trying to reform the party away from Trumpism, they know that shtick gets old after a while, the paranoia around QAnon, and these things. Ultimately, your soccer mom doesn’t want to hear about underground pedophile rings because you sit home all day with a conspiracy court board, snort Adderall, and try to connect the dots between pizza and the Rothschilds. Eventually, that’s just going to run out of gas. I think. I hope.
America’s had spasms of that right-wing demagogue before and has run out of gas. We saw that. They’re all rebranding versions of John Vercher. It was like when McCarthy was accusing Eisenhower of being a communist, and America was like, “I think we’ve had enough here.” “Curtis LeMay is a communist.” When you have an ideology that’s so degenerate, about being so hardcore, and about triggering the libs more than the guy next to you, invariably, it becomes very unattractive. You could see that in the polling.
I guess I see that trend nationally. I’m nervous living here in Texas because I just can’t stop thinking about how far they will go and how far they will go before we trip too far. It’s just hard for me to see that end.
It’s a long road.
By the way, I will say waiting for your opponent full-blown is not the best strategy. This has been my criticism of the Democratic Party for many years, which is that they’ve done a very poor job of providing an alternative vision that is based on solidarity and economic populism because the corporate wing of the party has maintained power largely. Things that I believe can offer material vision like, for example, universal healthcare or free college rather than $10,000 debt for people, things like that, things that are robust, dramatic, and provide a real sense that something can change or that you’re not in the pocket of Wall Street, that wing of the party has been largely sidelined.
I do think about the extent to which Democrats have made marginal gains. Objectively, Democrats are doing light years better than they’ve been doing, given how radical the Republican Party is, and the fact that they lost the house even though that was relatively good in terms of historical trends. The party is so fringe and so toxic and has such high unfavorable. They wish they should not barely be beating these people. It’s difficult to say because it’s a counterfactual. I’m sure that a democratic consultant with a more moderate wing would dispute that counterfactual because it is ultimately improvable. Obviously, it’s somewhat ideologically self-serving of me because I also think that the ideology that I have is the more electable one.
The strategy seems to be, “Let’s let them go far to the right, and then we’ll pick up the swing voters in Fairfax, Virginia.” I don’t think that’s a very romantic vision for politics. It feels like cynicism. When Dobbs happened, they’re like, “Republicans, it’s a self-inflicted will.” Yes, but women don’t have abortions any more. They won. It could be more than corporate democrats don’t have a lot of firm ideological commitments. They can’t understand why Republicans would do something that was perhaps politically in the short term. They believe in things. They have beliefs. They hate women. Hating women is a core part of their worldview, and they won.
I remember when I was in college, and you’d have the radical anti-abortion activists on campus being, “This is a waste of time.” What are they doing? This thing has been around for many years, and it’s not going anywhere. Twenty years later, they won. You did modestly better in the midterms, but people have done the retrospectives and autopsies, and they said Democrats lost the messaging war around abortion the second day started talking about safe legal.
John Kerry, I personally think it’s murder, but I support it. Wait for a second. What is that? Those half-ass speaking both sides of your mouth ultimately lost the moral argument. Some people even argue that the focus on choice was fun. It was maybe strategic in the 1970s, a libertarian, but ultimately, that seeded too much ground. Simply waiting for your arch nemesis to die of old age could work.
They have a long life, at least in Texas.
A lot of people are going to suffer in the meantime. Texas is different. I’m not too intimate with the ins and outs of it, but it doesn’t seem like a radical element is leveling up too much there. Another problem is the other X factor is gerrymandering. They don’t need to cool off.
More than that, Nicole and I had an election series, we were talking about the statewide offices. Statewide offices are not impacted by gerrymandering, yet the Democrats did not do well. No one came close to winning any of those races. We do wonder what hope is there for Texas US sometimes.
They should start trying to reanimate the dead corpse of Beto O’Rourke every four years. That man got a lot of lives. Let’s see how many times he can run and lose.
He can raise a lot of money.
So what? In fairness, it’s quite difficult to win as a Democrat, but maybe another tact.
We just need opposing force here because we see what happens when there’s not. They run the table.
Speaking of run the table, something that we talk about a lot in this show is how right now the Texas legislatures are in session, and there’s a $33 billion budget surplus. Nicole and I go to a lot of these events where they talk about what it’s going to be spent on, and it’s property taxes, infrastructure, maybe schools, but never is it towards alleviating poverty or anti-poverty programs. We’re like, “When does that get its turn?” It feels never. We do have 1 in 8 Texans that are food insecure. We do have a lot of folks has a high need, yet they’re invisible. They’re just never top of mind.
I just saw a bumper sticker on the back of someone’s car that was for a state rep, and it said, “Make America like Texas.” That was her slogan. I did a little deep dive into her website, and her whole thing is that she believes in small government and the power of NGOs and charity associations. It is her philosophy that they should fill in the gap. I just thought, “What? No.” Her vision is to make America like Texas.
Don’t we see what a failure that is?
It’s about power and control. It’s also about tax breaks. There’s no sense of rights or political power. Simply, the billionaire wakes up in the morning, and his or her whim is the thing that may or may not get funded. It’s a lottery if you get lucky.
Interestingly in her story, too, she also shares the story of her father and grandfather who worked in a non-air conditioned or heated shop. It’s all the bootstrap talk, too.
It’s the persistence porn.
My favorite thing politicians do is when they try to act like suffering is inherited. They’re like, “My grandfather worked in this coal mine.” My grandfather was a boilermaker. He is the toughest in the world. I’m a doctor. I wake up at noon. I don’t inherit working-class credibility. That’s not a thing. Every politician does it, “My great-granny came here, and she worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.” You’re a lawyer. You haven’t worked a day in your life. Come on.
It’s the proximity somehow.
They always do that. They all did because everybody was poor back then. That’s how it worked. Unless you were literally royalty, you were going to work in some crap job. Every politician does that in the Democratic-Republican convention. They always have to poverty-check their great-granddaddy. He was a rancher. You went to Yale. You grew up in a gated neighborhood.
I like how you said perseverance porn, using it there, looking at them, and how they came out of it.
We’re a country of 300 million bootstrap, hardworking, tough, rough, and tumble. It’s like Trump, “I got a small loan of up $1 million.” I don’t know your story. I don’t know what kind of annuities and trust you have, but sure. I’m sure you’re very hardworking.
Do you see any media news sources, shows, or anything that is presenting a true picture of the state of things in a different reality that would put us on a better trajectory?
There are more labor-oriented or poverty-oriented journalists out there occasionally. They’re largely on the exception of the rule. There are outlets that do more. I feel like I might doing the Oscar speech if I name one and miss one. I’m going to feel bad. I didn’t want to name them. There are those that do it. There are those that are more focused on the afflicted. It’s pretty rare. It’s so rare that when I see it come up on my Twitter timeline or whatever, I’ll share it with enthusiasm because it’s like, “Here’s a story about poverty or a story about some kind of systemic critique about why people are poor.” Even just labor coverage.
The idea is that there’s some inherent tension between workers and businesses. This is a modern, relatively recent thing. A couple of years ago, you even got this all the time. Now, you have decent labor reporting. I’m not too nihilistic about that. Even websites like Bloomberg and New York Times, stuff like decent labor coverage now, which just wasn’t the case several years ago. I do think there’s been some progress. One of the reasons why I think that is, aside from the general popularity of socialism or whatever, Bernie Sanders, and all that stuff, so many more news outlets are unionized. The rates of unionization in news media have increased significantly over the last couple of years.
Having unionized media, not the panacea, does improve the outcomes for reporting because they themselves are now members of a labor union in the working class. Also, it gives them more editorial independence and flexibility. Not to overstate it, but I do think it helps and makes it better, is to have more labor unions in media. You can see it. Even things like better firewalls and editorial control are vastly improved when you have organized labor running our media and making the editorial decisions in our media because even sometimes, the editors and producers are in the union, which is even better.One way of improving media coverage is to have more labor unions in the media. Click To Tweet
What thoughts do you have, Nicole?
It just makes a lot of sense. I’m just trying to take all of this in. I’m just trying to orient myself. Even listening to your podcast, if I’m perfectly honest, it’s a lot to take in because I hear the truth in it, and I also feel the challenge in it. It’s holding both of those things at the same time. It feels so radical to take it on board, yet it also feels urgent. There’s a lot I’m trying to do all at the same time.
Some people will sometimes complain to us and say, “Your show is very bleak. You analyze everything correctly, but you don’t provide any solutions.” I’m like, “Guilty as charged. I’m a media critic. I don’t know what you want from me.” It’s a bit of a cop-out. What I say is I try to do because that’s the whole Jon Stewart. I’m just a comedian. One thing we have tried to do is try to be a little bit more. Even if this seems maybe petty, here’s this organization that’s seeking to change this, and here’s how you can find them.
A lot of times, we’ll try to get guests on who are trying to change the world, whether they’re doing political organizing, working on labor strikes inside of prisons, or working with groups that are legitimately trying to redirect resources away from incarceration and policing into communities, and so forth. That way, there’s a sense of actionability, and there are things we can do. I’m sure you all face this, too, with your show. What is that thing? Everyone says, “Here’s this dreary horrible thing.” People always say, “I want to listen to your show. I have to stay away from sharp objects.” Now that you’ve seen badness, there is something to do.
There has to be a sense that something can be done about it. I do think that one should not lie about the efficacy of those things or hogwash too much about how much those things can change in the short term. It’s really important to always be 100% honest, because, to some extent, things change. Sometimes decades happen in weeks. Sometimes stuff just pops off, and things change. In May 2020, these things really changed. At least they changed the discussion, whatever that’s worth. I don’t know. Maybe that’s not worth any.
One thing that the left can do and many have tried to do is basically, they want to create the infrastructure, the systems, and the ideological scaffolding. In the event, there is some paradigm change. There are tools in place because in the event of some crisis, whether it be another recession or what have you, people are going to turn to some system. What you don’t want them to do is you don’t want to turn to fascism and “right-wing populism,” which is what happened to a great extent during the recession in 2008. You saw it all turn into the Astroturf tea party. It wasn’t really until a couple of years later there was some left version of it with Occupy Wall Street.
One of the main tasks now is to provide those systems, the ideological scaffolding, and the political great framework. A lot of people are. You have progressives, DSA, the Working Families Party, and people who are working to do those things. You have non-charity-based, more social justice-oriented, and political work. You have what we’re seeing with the cop city protestors in Atlanta. There are all these people that are out there doing stuff but weren’t cynical podcasters like myself. Directing people towards those resources and telling people there’s stuff you can do does give them a sense that there are things happening, to the extent to which you diagnose the problem as being quite bleak.
In the case of Texas, I don’t know a ton about that. Even I would be curious to know what you think the best places people can go with the calls to action are that aren’t just frankly dumping more money into another, the democratic coffers, which I think is fine, but it can’t be everything. It’s like voting. It’s useful, but it has to be 1 of 10 things. Otherwise, you’re just a lever puller. There is no more passive form of democracy than pulling a lever.
At least show up to do your vote at a minimum, and then we’ll go from there.
Yes. Otherwise, you’re just chumming a partisan machine versus someone who’s generally pressuring things.
A lot of our show has been trying to tap people on the shoulder and say, “Do you really know what they’re doing at the capital, at your city council, and the county commissioner’s court?” I think a lot of people don’t recognize what’s happening and where you need to be voting because that’s where that extremism comes through and where you can vet candidates because too often, it comes down to R or D, and do you even know who this person is? Did you even know there were other options? You didn’t? You should vote in your primary.
They’re too busy freaking out about some minor welfare skiing that they’ve seen on the news.
There is a lot to freak out about, and we’re trying to help people know the real things that they need to be aware of and the ones that are distractions. To wrap up, we are going to ask you. How do we fix this? What are your solutions?
You get a magic wand.
Under the Johnson regime, I would probably just commandeer the wealth of the rich. I will put them on a stipend of $100,000 a year and let them live nicely, but no reason why people need that much money. They certainly don’t need that much money when they’re wielding it to bad ends, as many of them do politically. There’s just far too much power and wealth in the hands of far few too many people, and they’re the biggest predictor of a degradation of social trust in society as equality.
The biggest predictor of criminality is a decrease in social trust. Social trust and equity are incredibly important values. Even if you don’t necessarily support radical distribution, in and of themselves, they have a ton of tremendous benefits. Under the Johnson regime, that’s what I would do. If you’re rich, I would take the vast majority. I’ll leave you with something, you can keep your Tesla or whatever, but that would be my plan. Sorry.The biggest predictor of criminality is a decrease in social trust. Click To Tweet
Do you think most people see wealth distribution for what it is? Do you think they have a warped sense of it and don’t think it’s as extreme as it really is?
You can look at polling. You ask people what they think wealth distribution is, and they’re not even remotely close. People don’t even know what these terms mean. If you make $1 every second, you become a millionaire in a little under 11 days and become a billionaire in 31.7 years. We don’t even know the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. When they tried to do gotcha on Bernie Sanders, but he’s a millionaire. He had $2 million from his book sales. It’s not 1905. That doesn’t really mean much. It’s very comfortable, and that certainly puts him in the top 3%.
People don’t even know what $1 billion is because it’s just completely abstract. In the case of someone like Jeff Bezos, if you made $1 every second, that would put you at about 3,000 years versus 11 days. It’s even in the terms we have. If every media was required to not use the logarithmic notation with money, they actually had to type out Roman numerals or whatever, we would have a sense of how much wealth disparity there is. I don’t think people quite internalize how much wealth it is.
They also don’t internalize how much power politically that gets you in this country and how things like Super PACs have such an eroding effect on our democracy such that it is. Even trying to get people to understand that, where do you even begin? People try to create videos where they visualize it, but it’s just not something people comprehend because it’s so abstract to them. Also, the wealthy are very good at laundering their images. They’re very good at public relations.
They can pay someone for that.
If you do the JD Rockefeller where you ride around in your carriage and you throw silver dollars out the back, you’re pretty much fine in this country. As long as you can just throw people’s shiny objects sometimes, do a charity ball, and work on your PR, you’re fine.
On an uplifting note, what things make you hopeful for our future?
Those are the people that wake up every day and face impossible lives. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the people who work and who are out in the middle of rural Indiana driving people to abortion clinics on the border of Illinois, the people who wake up every day and try to unionize their crappy job at Home Depot, the people that wake up every day and go to school as public school teachers and try to educate people while they’re getting yelled at by right-wingers for being groomers or whatever. It’s the people who show up every day and do the unsexy, unglamorous, unheralded, unsung work to try to move people towards some vision of progress and justice, I suppose.
That’s really good. Are we going to do our Attention Mentions? Are we going to totally change gears?
Yes, let’s do it. To wrap it up, we’ll do our Attention Mentions, where we mention something that has our attention, be it a book, a show, or a podcast. We have attention-mentioned Citations Needed, just so you know, Adam. Perhaps you’ve had some listens from it. I’ll start off. I am currently watching The 1619 Project which is incredible. It’s on Hulu. They had an episode on capitalism.
It talks a lot about the things that came up in this episode, a lot about unionizing, and how important that is to have a robust economy that is equitable, just about the history of slavery and how the way they would plantation owners would keep their logs and assigned values to humans. It was a great episode. It’s a very sad history, but we got to know what it is. I recommend folks watch that.
Good one. I have not built up the emotional fortitude yet to watch it, but I will definitely watch it. I have to mentally and emotionally prepare.
What are you watching, reading, or listening to, Nicole?
I have my share of romance novels. There is one that I’ve reread so many times. It’s the most slow-burning romance novel of all time. It’s ridiculous. They’re friends for a really long time.
By the way, it doesn’t happen in real life. Every hallmark movie I watch where they’re friends for twenty years and then they get together in the last five minutes, I’m like, “That would’ve happened in 1999.”
I don’t know what it is I get from reading this one, but there’s something I love about it. I don’t know what it is. It has a great title. It is Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas. It’s a great title. She’s such a great writer. The title’s really corny, but it’s really good.
I’m going to remember that several years from now. I’ll be like, “Ravishing the Heiress.”
There was a whole series. There was Tempting the Bride. It’s a whole thing.
I don’t really read romance novels, so maybe I’ll check this one out, the one you returned to. Adam, what about you?
I just wrapped up reading Jan Swafford who wrote two biographies on Mozart and Beethoven. I just read them both. I enjoyed them. I don’t know anything about music. He’s a composer by trade. He’s also a historian and biographer, so he goes into the weeds about the creation of the music and the things that were going on in their lives when they created their operas and their compositions. I really enjoyed them, and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed them because I’m a big fan of biography. I read all the biographies. It’s called Mozart: The Reign of Love. I liked it. His Beethoven one was good but not quite as good because mostly Beethoven is just a huge asshole. Although, Mozart seems like a nice guy. He died at 35. He was a short king.
Back in the 1780s, that made him an old man. The average life then was 40, so I think that was young.
Thank you for sharing all of your knowledge about this. We really appreciate it.
Thank you for having me on.
We’re big fans of the show. If you want to hear more about some of the items that Adam touched on, check out Citations Needed and follow us on social media because we’re going to continue this conversation about food insecurity leading up to our South by Southwest panel. If you’re in Austin for that, come see us on March 13th. It’s going to be great. We’re going to talk about all these important things. That’s it for now. Thanks, everybody.
- Citations Needed
- South by Southwest
- Critical Race Theory – Previous Episode
- Ravishing the Heiress
- Tempting the Bride
- Mozart: The Reign of Love
About Adam H. Johnson
Adam H. Johnson is a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast. His writing can also be found in his Substack titled ‘The Column.’