This week marked the 15th anniversary of the Slate Political Gabfest. To celebrate, hosts Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz spoke about their decade and a half of podcasting together at a special anniversary show, sponsored by Round Pond Estate Napa Valley. They talked about how the political world has changed, what they got wrong over the years, and what they’ve learned from one another. They also heard from special guests, including Gayle King, Stacey Abrams, and Stephen Colbert. Part of their conversation, adapted from their live show and edited for clarity, can be read below.
David Plotz: Let’s talk about what’s happened over 15 years, some of which what happened on the show, and some of which just happened in the world. What are the fundamental things that have changed in politics from the time we started this back in 2005?
John Dickerson: I spend so much time thinking about the presidency, so my mind goes there. We’ve learned that so much was part of an agreement, and that agreement required everybody to agree to it. And it turns out the power of that agreement can be challenged across so many different areas and that it doesn’t just take one president who chooses to not heed to that agreement, but that you can have an entire party—which once was the standard-keeper of a lot of those agreements—not think that they mean so much anymore. All the rules that I covered when I first came to Washington in 1995, so many of them are up for grabs and are being redefined, and we’re about to head into an amazing period of redefinition—or maybe not.
Plotz: I feel like [Atlantic writer] Jonathan Rauch had this wonderful piece maybe five years ago where he pointed out a really significant number of Americans didn’t believe in politics anymore—that they fundamentally didn’t trust the process that was politics, the idea of compromise, the idea that you negotiated in partnership with a loyal opposition, and people gave some and got some.
The reason there is so much cynicism about the system is because people’s lives weren’t great, but also people had just become divided from each other. For example, you live in a world of people like you, and people who were not like you had become quite threatening and alien, and in some cases not equal to you, not legitimate. When I read the piece, I think Rauch was saying it was 30 percent of Americans. I think today you’d find a much higher percentage of people who basically don’t believe in the political compact. And most of those people are on the right—not all of them, but most of them. And when you have that much distrust in a political system, I just don’t see how it can operate in the long term.
Emily, do you want to take it from a legal perspective? What do you think was the biggest shift over the last 15 years?
Emily Bazelon: I’m not sure the biggest shifts are legal, actually. We’ve had huge things happen. We had the legalization of same-sex marriage, which was an enormous change for civil rights. When you think about the kinds of political divides as you’re describing them, I don’t actually think it’s the laws that have changed. I mean, this has become a cliché to trot out at this point about the Trump presidency, but it’s really the set of norms when you talk about agreement and social compact.
When we started the show, George W. Bush was president. I’m thinking about Bush’s presidency, and I do wonder how much the fact that these norms of agreement, of the rules of the road still appearing to operate, was masking some actually very deep divisions. I mean, when you think about the Iraq War—the abuses, the torture that took place at that time—the deep divisions over whether to do anything about inequality and poverty, I wonder if there’s actually more of a continuum and it was just that people observed niceties more on each side. So we didn’t see it. I’m not sure I, myself, agree with that thesis, but let’s put it out there for a moment.
Dickerson: Well, can’t you have both? You can have one set of roiling problems that are bigger than we knew, and then you can have the death of agreement and norms, and they’re connected. I think they can both exist. I think the power to blow through a lot of those norms is the connection that those who felt upset with the political system, the connection they felt to President Trump and still feel to him, is in part inflamed. Although, then we can get into a conversation about why there is the adhesion to President Trump that there is, and why that is inflamed by some of those issues that you are arguing perhaps were thundering beneath the surface but weren’t as much of our public dialogue.
Bazelon: I think it’s a difference in degree. And right now, it feels like a difference in kind. The outgoing Bush administration did not behave in this fashion. In that sense, it’s different. I just can’t imagine those politicians and appointed officials behaving in this way. So this moment does feel like a different kind, and yet there are ways in which, I think, the Republican Party was stoking the division. I just didn’t quite understand how big the embers were that have since burst into flames.
Plotz: This goes back to my favorite thesis, which is that the most important election of our lifetimes was in 1992 and George H.W. Bush. He should have won, and that would have potentially prevented the Republican Party from going in this disastrous direction, but we can save that for another year.
Next Wednesday, Culture Gabfest hosts Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner will be live for their annual end-of-year call-in show. We hope to see you there!