S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership. Enjoy.
S2: Hello and welcome to the Slate political gabfest for July 30th, 2020, The Twilight of Democracy edition. I am David Plotz of Business Insider. I’m back in Washington, D.C. and my new apartment, my glorious new apartment, back from RESTful Pastorale, New England into the sweatbox of Washington. I’m joined back from somewhere by John Dickerson of CBS 60 Minutes. Hello, John.
S3: Hello, David. It’s good to be back.
S2: Where if you were you away or were you just in Connecticut or what were you doing?
S3: Yeah, we we took a we left the city for the first time since, I guess, the first week of March and took a little vacation in which basically the kids. Didn’t hang out with us, but it was lovely.
S2: That sounds idyllic. I wish my kids didn’t hang out with me, know if my kids are listening. I didn’t say that. And that brief gasp of horror you heard from Wyoming is that of Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, Gaffar stalwart, who joins us. Emily’s away. So Ruth is here. Hello, Ruth. It’s great to see you.
S4: Hi, everybody. How is Wyoming?
S5: Wyoming is glorious. I’m not going to rub it in the weather to anybody on the East Coast or sweltering elsewhere, but it’s beautiful. And we’ve seen moose and we’ve seen bison and we’ve seen antelope and friends have seen bear. But I am very happy not to have seen bears because they scare me. Republicans probably say Republicans, unlike we’ve seen a very large Trump 20 flag. But Jackson, where we are, is a little liberal enclave in the very red. Oh, my God.
S2: Sorry. We’re going to get the chance again in Vermont on the road where my parents live, one of their neighbors has put up an enormous flagpole with a Confederate flag on it in Vermont. It’s just what is going on anyway on today’s gabfest. How is Joe Biden doing? We’re just under 100 days out from the election. Is he running the right kind of campaign? Does his running mate, who he’s going to choose next week, is that going to matter? Who should it be then? Big tech has a day on Capitol Hill. The House Antitrust Subcommittee is targeting Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. What should be done to these big tech companies and how did their appearance before Congress go? And then Anne Applebaum, the brilliant thinker about nations gone terribly wrong, has a new book about the twilight of American democracy. Well, democracy globally and the rise of authoritarianism. We will talk to her about that. Plus, we will have cocktail chatter. Can you guys hear my cat’s meow?
S6: Yes, I mean, I find it I’m sorry, charming, but OK, there is a man in a basement in Wilmington, Delaware. He is likely to be the next president of the United States. Joe Biden continues to count a big lead in the polls, 90 what? Ninety four. Ninety six days out from the election, despite running the most invisible presidential campaign of recent years, the Mike Gravel campaign with more visible. There are no yard signs that I can see. The best ads for the Biden campaign are made by a bunch of Republicans. He can announce multitrillion dollar ideas for programs and barely make the news, not make the home page of a major news outlet. So, Ruth, how is it going? Is this a great campaign that Biden is running?
S5: It is. I think it’s actually the best campaign that Biden could run, which is to say he has the perfect excuse to contain control and not to put too fine a point on it, limit his exposure to the public while still being out there enough. And meanwhile, his opponent, President Trump, is doing all of Biden’s best work for him by apparently seeking to do his best to convince those who still might be open to thinking about possibly once again voting for President Trump, that that would be a really unwise idea. So good work, Joe.
S2: John, I think there is expected to be this may be pre covered. There’s expected to be a kind of civil war within the Democratic Party in this election with progressives who were frustrated that Bernie Sanders got knocked out and frustrated by Biden’s mediocre half a loaf, small, small half loaf of wheat bread instincts. But that has not really happened. Why do you think that civil war has not really happened?
S3: Well, I think because the civil war idea was overblown a little bit the same way. It’s overblown on the right, where people talk about, you know, there was going to be a great civil war when Donald Trump was the nominee. And basically all you got was some frustrated antics by Ted Cruz that at Trump’s convention, where he didn’t precisely endorse him, even though he had a speaking slot. But now Ted Cruz has become a Trump stalwart. But it’s because there’s sometimes a little overcoverage of that. The aggressively anti response from the president to the protests in the wake of George Floyds murder have become a turnout mechanism for a lot of for a lot of progressives and also particularly for the black vote, which people used to worry about, although with Joe Biden that where he always was a little weird because he did so well among black voters in the primary. So I think I think it was overblown. Events have interfered. We know that negative partisanship, which is to say voting against the other person, drives a lot of voting. And certainly Democrats are have negative views about about the president. And finally, Joe Biden has done a lot to try to quell those things. You put out 110 page unity document with Bernie Sanders. He worked with Bernie Sanders and coddled him in a way that was has been effective, coddled, maybe. I don’t mean that to be pejorative. And then finally, he has done with bigness and his build back better campaign, which, by the way, some people may remember where they heard that term first, but he’s trying to do it in a big response to the current situation. If it’s not super liberal, he is he is amping up his what he thinks is the response to the current moment, which conveys boldness in a way that maybe papers over a little bit the fact that he’s not for Medicare for all.
S2: Well, let’s talk about some of this policy stuff. So it it is so odd to me that he’s announced what by historical standards are absolutely enormous progressive programs on sort of building infrastructure and building back and buying American. And also he effectively announced a green new deal. I don’t think the green New Deal people think of it as a green new deal, but it was an enormous investment in clean energy and in some of the ways to to mitigate climate. And yet these are not getting much attention for reasons we can see that are obvious, but that we could talk about. Do you see them as being compelling or are they ideas that are grabbing for people, for voters, or are they just things you have to do to put out there just to make noise?
S1: Every candidate I mean, John and I and you remember the good old days when in 1992 and afterwards were to be a serious candidate. You didn’t just need to put out ideas. You need to have actually like a whole book of them. Nobody is going to read a book about infrastructure in the middle of a pandemic or focus on 11. Of the Green New Deal and where it doesn’t doesn’t comply with what the proponents of the Green New Deal do, but I think it’s important. As for a couple different reasons. One is what John was saying and what I think that the Biden campaign has been really smart to do, which is to mollify might be a better word than coddle. Be here, Ed, yet again. I had a great time being John Dickerson’s editor for an excellent op ed he wrote for The Washington Post. Both of us and John’s book Go with it. He’s done the Biden campaign has done a good job of giving the left of the party enough that it can be. So it’s it’s a.. Biden instincts can be suppressed, though. There are, to use a Trump word about the pandemic. Clearly embers that are and we’re going to see additional flare ups as this go along, but they haven’t really caught fire among the left of the party. But at the same time, none of these policy proposals from the Biden campaign have caught fire in the country. No, I don’t think that even most gabfests listeners could tell you very much about the first five things that a president would do this.
S4: So could not do.
S1: I didn’t want to name names there, but that’s OK. As I keep saying, we are all focused on whether we’ve washed our hands properly or wears our mask when we go out and what the death count is, unfortunately, and whether our families are going to be safe and consumed with fury, as I am, about the inadequate and continuing inadequate response of the administration. So if I’m not really clear on how he’s going to build on the Affordable Care Act, which I’m semi clear on, that’s OK.
S3: Yeah, the policy brush fire is hard to catch, as we’ve discussed on here. But it’s hard that’s hard to happen given the news cycle. But I do I think the idea of build back better, which I said he should adopt months ago, which is funny because I thought it was just my idea. But it comes out of the etymology, comes out of disasters. And so after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the idea was the disaster created all of these problems, but also an opportunity to use all our skills to build something that was better. And so implicit in build back better is that the incumbent has done the destroying. It’s also hopeful it has a future oriented view to it, all of which you kind of traditionally want in a campaign. So slogans are not that useful except in politics where they can be useful. And so even if people aren’t getting down into the details of his infrastructure plan or his plan for for minimizing or reducing racial disparities, the idea in his slogan does seem to me to be the right one and represents an adaptation in the moment from what was more of a caretaker message earlier, which was kind of a return to normalcy. This is, you know, a second stage of the Biden message, which recognizes that lots of inequities and disparities have been highlighted by covid-19 and then by this moment of racial implicit racism conversation that we’re having.
S2: John, I want to go back to the point that Ruth was making, which is that the Biden strategy effectively is the the adage that when your opponent is staking his own grave, don’t get in the way. That is not the adage. That’s the McGlothin, whatever the actual adages. But is there is there a point I build back better? I know only because I was doing reading to prepare for the segment. Build back better as you were listening often has not been. I mean, you probably said on the show months ago, but like you said, a month on the show a month ago, I’ve forgotten it. But it is. But it build back better was not kind of acid etched on my brain before having to read about it. I don’t think the American public has a grand sense of what it is that Joe Biden is doing. And is it OK? Do you think that this as a campaign strategy can persist till Election Day, given what the polls are doing and given how much Trump is the issue? And should he should he not bother to emerge from his chrysalis and attempt to really broadly campaign and make a show and let people know who he is or should he try to do it?
S3: Short answer. You can’t campaign in that way because of covid. Second, you can’t campaign in that way and break through the news cycle except by lighting your hair on fire. And that’s not him and that’s not his campaign. And it might not work anyway because it’s really hard to break into this news cycle. And as we’ve all said, running the kind of campaign he’s running right now allows his. Primary turnout weapon to keep helping turnout, which is to say, leaving the president to continue to have an insufficient response to the two biggest crises of the day, and the third, because I would argue the economic devastation is the result of poor choices on testing and masks with respect to covid and any other of the problems with the response on covid, which is a health thing, but it’s an economic thing as well. So strategically he’s doing what his skill set and at the moment seem to require.
S1: And if I could just amplify on that, it he’s not in he may be functionally invisible, but he’s not actually silent. There is enough coming from the Biden campaign to get him somewhere in the news cycle every day if suppressed. And there will be attention forcing events coming forward, not under normal circumstances. We would all be packing our bags eagerly for conventions. We’re not doing or not eagerly. We’re not actually. I’m like maybe the only person on Earth who enjoys political conventions not going to lie, but I’ll just sit here and silently in my Jackson room and be sorrowful about that. So we’re not going to get a lot of bump or buzz or anything from virtual conventions on either side. But there will be attention forcing events in the form of debates of some sort. And those are the moments of maybe even more peril than opportunity for Biden. As the election gets closer, people will focus more. He will have an opportunity. I mean, I could write for you the ten, twenty, thirty things that President Biden could do by executive order or revocation or other action on his own in his first days or weeks in office. That would return us to normalcy. And I think build back better is fine. But I really think the more compelling message is restore order, restore normalcy, restore decency. And there are a lot of different ways in which candidate Biden, as people start paying attention to him, can convey the real specifics of what he would do as president to get us there. Because it’s not just tone, it’s not just not tweeting. It’s actual real policies and reversals of policies.
S2: But there will be one of those attention getting moments next week. According to Biden’s own calendar, he has said he’s going to announce his running mate in the first week of August. Kamala Harris, I believe, is seen as the most likely choice. The senator from California. She’s the child of immigrants, Jamaican, Indian immigrants. She’s a prosecutor. She’s good on her feet. She’s run successfully for statewide office in California several times. She’s a boring choice. She ran a poor, poor to mediocre presidential campaign. What’s your what do you first of all, do you think it’s locked and loaded for Harris? And second of all, does this choice is his choice as consequential as it feels to me? Because Biden has all but said he will not run for a second term to this person if Biden wins, is going to be the presumptive frontrunner for the twenty, twenty four Democratic nomination already.
S5: It’s more important than normal for precisely the reason that you said it is not locked and loaded. I don’t think for Kamala Harris, we’ve seen this fascinating and I would argue, interestingly, gendered conversation about whether she is too ambitious would be running for president herself from day one. That’s been a very unusually direct campaign, quoting Senator Chris Dodd, who thought she was not sufficiently remorseful about the attack. Such as?
S2: Well, I wanted to Chris Dodd should just shut up. That was an absurd thing for him to say anyway.
S5: Well, not just absurd, offensive and sexist. You know, in the scrum of campaigns, it turns out that candidates who are running for the same office or the same nomination end up attacking each other and not to be too much on my high horse here, apparently when they’re when they’re male candidates and they say things like voodoo economics, hello, George H.W. Bush, or they say other things as Democratic candidates and attacking them. And there’s all sorts of Biden quotes about Barack Obama and his lack of experience that doesn’t dissuade anybody from picking them as running mates because politics ain’t beanbag. But apparently when women do it, it becomes more offensive to certain people of the male persuasion, none of whom are on this call.
S3: There’s so much of those stories, too, is just like just the the machinations of awful people spinning things for all these bank shot reasons to watch her, which adds a level of awfulness to all the things you’ve already said. Also, can I just say that part of the reason I wrote the damn book was because of these silly things, like too ambitious, like to to talk about these kinds of terms in the binary way they get talked about in the presidential campaign and in this vice presidential selection process is so irritating because, of course, you have to be ambitious. You and in campaigns, we now elect people who lack remorse in the way they behave. It’s not that they have these qualities. It’s when they have too much of them. And what does it mean to be too ambitious? And especially for a candidate, by the way, who’s running for president on the strength of his of the job he did as vice president, which apparent which no doubt had some ambition involved in it anyway.
S5: Just someone who has been ambitious to become president since nineteen eighty seven at least, was the first evident flowering of it. But I think it’s existed before.
S3: That’s exactly that’s exactly right. So this isn’t to negate anything that was said earlier. It just but it just highlights this awful absolutist binary way we talk about these things. And the reason it’s awful is because it shuts down any actual conversation about what you might need in the job, why this person may or may not have the actual attributes for the job. And that’s why we’re in the fix we’re in.
S5: So, David, you said something about Kamala Harris that I wanted to raise, which is that she was a boring choice. And I think that is actually just a phenomenally interesting word to use about. So I think she would be the fourth woman on a presidential ticket. If I’m counting correctly, she would be the first woman of color on a presidential ticket. And that I think it’s fantastically wonderful that that could count as boring. So that’s point number one. Point number two is you raised her best as a prosecutor as if that was a plus, which would be true under ordinary circumstances. And I’m really curious about whether that becomes a net plus or minus today in the world in which the left part and may be a big part of the Democratic Party is worried about the role of prosecutors in systemic racism. And yet the president is desperately trying to summon up suburban mommies fear. I speak as a suburban mommy of law and order, and so is being a prosecutor a net plus?
S2: Well, when I meant prosecutor, that’s a good point. I was actually more thinking of the interrogatory power that she has as a as a member of Congress, that she’s a good questioner, she’s good on her feet. She’s a good talker. She would be. Presumably a good debater, I wasn’t it wasn’t the experiential piece, which I guess was what was implied by it. It was more she’s somebody who in the the ebb and flow of the campaign is likely to be good at talking and and putting maybe Pence on the defensive. But no, I think that’s a really good question. And certainly in her presidential campaign, there were so many so many of the questions about her were is she sufficiently progressive? Has she been too close to police unions? Has she prosecuted the wrong kinds of people? And that was one of the things that hurt that campaign.
S3: But, you know, Joe Biden has decided to try to keep a careful balance between defund the police, which he does not support, and nevertheless addressing systemic racism. He cannot bring in a vice president who cannot echo that balance for him, because if he does, you have one of two problems. One, the vice president comes and overshadows the candidate by a full throated embracing of defund the police or more adventuresome rhetoric on the question of systemic racism and therefore overshadows the president, the presidential candidate, and causes a big problem. Or you have a person who has stronger views on those issues and who stays mum and therefore creates a story by not holding their previous views in this time, in this moment where people are looking for clarity on the issue of systemic racism. So it seems to me that on these questions, he needs a candidate who has spent some time trying to work through that tension in their own life and career, which is basically what Kamala Harris has tried to do.
S2: Slate plus members. You get bonus segments on the Gabfest and other Slate podcasts if you go to sleep, dotcom slash gabfests. Plus you can sign up to become a member today. Then your Slate plus bonus segment today will possibly be the most controversial Slate plus segment we’ve ever done, which is should I have moved my cats with me from the house that they have always lived in to my new apartment. And it’s you know, it could it just it could break the Internet, the segment, so. Slate dotcom slugfests, plus, if you want to hear the segment that broke the Internet. Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, big tech, if you put big in front of your name, you had better watch out if they come after big pods, if we get included in big podcast, John, that would be amazing. But then we’d have to worry. One of the most anticipated congressional hearings in years, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, who include two of the richest people in the world, testified on Wednesday before the House antitrust subcommittee. Being what it is, it was mostly members of Congress talking and occasionally asking questions, the Democrats and Republicans, as we’ll get into approach the issue from different directions. But it’s clear that both Democrats and Republicans are disconsolate with some of the things that the big technology companies are doing. So, Ruth, start us off contextualizes what was the purpose of this gathering, this unprecedented gathering of tech CEOs? Why are both Democrats and Republicans wanting to put pressure on them?
S5: So I want to actually pull back the lens even further to contextualize. It wasn’t so long ago, I think, as we say on the Internet, I’m old enough to remember that the tech companies were the darlings of Washington for obvious reasons, that they had some political campaign contributions to give, and they were hot and sexy and interesting and growing companies. So it wasn’t so long ago that both Democrats and Republicans, but particularly Democrats, loved, loved, loved Silicon Valley and its environs and all the innovation that it brought. And so this moment when you had these four tech leaders, like the heads of the tobacco companies on the hot seat, being accused of being the emperors of the Internet, they weren’t lined up like in the good old days when we could have in-person hearings. But nonetheless, it’s a remarkable tale of transformation. It’s a dual tale of transformation because just because both sides were out to attack the tech companies didn’t mean that Democrats and Republicans agreed on the line of attack. The Republican line of attack was, why are you lefties silencing us, censoring us, discriminating against us? And let me say that I thought this line of attack was bizarrely conspiratorial and not particularly well supported. The Democratic line of attack wasn’t ideological in that sense at all or content based. It was you guys who we once thought were so cool and so wonderful have turned out to bring us the country, a world of hurt, along with your innovations. And you’ve just become too scary, too dangerous, too big. And so the essence of the hearing was about it was run by the antitrust subcommittee, was about whether these companies, each one of them in their own separate and potentially sinister ways, are misusing their incredible market power in order to squelch rivals and grow big in a way that is super dangerous to the country.
S3: It just to piggyback on Ruth’s point about the conservative complaint about balance on social media, we should note that the president and his team regularly talk about how powerful his voice on social media is and how he’s reframed and recreated or not recreated. He’s created a whole new way of communicating with the country through this medium that they say is is unfair to to conservatives. So it’s probably it may be, in fact, be unfair to conservatives. It’s not unfair to the president and his party. It doesn’t seem based on the power that he has in the national conversation based on social media. The second thing is the minute the president and his allies were supporting nutty video by doctors promoting unproven cures for covid, it was the number two story on Facebook in like a nanosecond. Again, more proof that there is no problem getting the message promoted by the president and his allies in front of eyeballs on social media, though, that was the claim from the from the right.
S2: It was striking to me. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to members of Congress and especially not a lot of time listening to Republican members of Congress who they don’t watch FOX. And I don’t tune in to C-SPAN regularly. So yesterday was a chance for me to see a little bit of some of the Republican House members in action. And it was striking to me how dumb they sound. They just sound like petulant, dumb. Kids, and it was there, you know, these were the two who I spent some time watching were young white dudes from even nowhere, I think one was Matt gets it was so off the mark. And so you have you have these most powerful people in American business in front of you, and you’re wasting their time on this really trivial stuff that isn’t completely off the mark when there are these huge questions around, you know, whether American small business has been squelched by this, whether it’s whether the choice is between an American conglomerate or a Chinese conglomerate, whether these businesses are themselves utilities, are they not utilities? Are they do they function as public utilities? Like really, really profound questions, which could shape the structure of the American economy in the generation. And they’re asking just just really trivial questions.
S5: But I want to interrupt you for one second, David. It’s not just trivial. It’s bizarrely conspiratorial. And I can’t remember the name of the congressman. I think he was from Florida who was complaining that his campaign messages, campaign emails to this is to the chairman of Google. Yeah, we’re not reaching his parents and that this was proof that his messages were being blocked, whereas any of us who’ve had problems with things going to spam and understand things about aggressive natures of email filters would probably intuitively understand that it’s not a an ideologically based conspiracy. It’s the reality of trying to navigate ourselves in the tech world. But I took him to be sincere in it. And maybe this is naive of me, but that his outrage at the tech companies supposed assault on conservatives was sincere in his belief that they were doing that when it was just simply, you know, spam filters are spam filters and the tech companies are trying to protect, you know, protect us from that. I have ever quotes for people who are listening.
S3: Can I just David, you said that the questions were there was a lot of playing dumb on the part of the witnesses as well. There were all these instances in which they were presented with instances where their companies use their market power to smash or or cast aside smaller competitors. And and and several of them said, well, I’m not familiar with that case, which is the most. Which is which is which should have inflamed and infuriated the questioners because you’re about to come to testify before Congress. You know exactly what The Wall Street Journal reported Amazon about, about these practices. You need to have an answer for it. You can’t just say, well, I’m unfamiliar with that. But we’ve in part because politicians have conditioned us and everybody’s gotten OK with it to saying, oh, I didn’t see that the president just tweeted this or I didn’t see that that thing happened and nobody should be able to get away with that. And yet they all sort of did that.
S2: That’s an excellent point, John.
S5: So, by the way, that I was just reliably informed that I am speaking ill of Congressman Greg Steube of Florida, the whose poor parents can’t get his emails anymore.
S4: They probably mark them as spam. They probably were like, sorry, Greg, Greg’s campaign, if anything, more emails.
S2: We’ve already maxed out our donation. Please, no more from you. All right. So I want to get to some of the substantive questions, because the biggest, I think general area is this idea that these platforms and particular Google, Amazon and Apple less this is less true of Facebook are places where people are doing commerce, but they have to do commerce. People who are not Google, Apple and Amazon are doing commerce, but they have to compete against Google, Apple and Amazon, which are giving themselves preferential treatment. So Amazon is creating its own line of products to sell double A batteries that are the Amazon basics version of batteries that other people are trying to sell on the platform. Or Amazon has just set up its its whole ecosystem so that it can learn a ton about consumer behavior, harvest that information, learn a ton of consumer behavior as people buy things from other retailers, and then use that information to, in turn advantage themselves and and harm these other retailers that that because of the size of Amazon, that these retailers have to compete on Amazon and give that information away. And and I want to to continue this long point. I’m making antitrust policy for the past, you know. Forty years or so has been built around harm to consumers, is built around the idea that that if we can find a harmed consumer, then then the government should be concerned with antitrust. But if we can find no harm to consumer in the form of a higher price, then we shouldn’t worry about it. And Amazon’s. Defense against all antitrust, I think Google and Apple is implicitly against all antitrust is that if you look at the world, but what’s the harm to consumers? We here at Amazon, we’ve lowered prices for everyone. We’ve made shopping more convenient. So why is there an antitrust investigation when we’ve made things so much better for consumers? Truth is, the harm to consumers model of antitrust in itself flawed or or is it not flawed? But actually, there are huge harms to consumers in the sense that consumers are also workers and workers are being harmed by this. Businesses are being driven out of, you know, small businesses are being destroyed all across the country. And so the overall economy and the overall consumer is doing badly, even if they are not doing badly when they buy that particular set of batteries.
S5: So I think this is my moment for full disclosure. Full disclosure, I work for The Washington Post, which is owned by one Jeff Bezos, who also is the founder of Amazon. Full disclosure, no to my husband, was the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, which helps protect consumers from all sorts of harm under President Obama. It was involved in some investigations of these very same companies. So now that everybody knows all my dark, not secrets and not that dark, I think that the consumer based model of antitrust laws and looking at harm to consumers can survive this new onslaught of really dominated social media and other technological platforms. Because the essential argument is that if, say, an Amazon or a Google manages to run the other businesses out of business, then eventually they are. If they are monopolists and they control the marketplace, then they will eventually exert their monopoly power and raise prices. So you look at monopoly power, you look at consumer harm. I thought one of the smartest moments of the hearing yesterday was when Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a Republican who’s retiring, made the point that he thought that the antitrust laws were up to the task of policing these companies, but questioned whether the enforcement was up to the task of policing the companies and whether our models of going after these companies were robust enough. When I spoke to an antitrust enforce our former antitrust enforcer about this, he also suggested that court decisions have had potentially limited the reach of antitrust laws, played a role here as well. And it’s been a long time since I took antitrust law, so I had no idea what he was talking about. But as a general matter, I think there’s two things going on here at once. One is the challenge of the antitrust laws as it applies to these incredibly powerful and dominant companies in their own fields. But we’ve dealt with that in the United States before, whether it’s with railroads or oil companies or other monopolists or would be monopolists or potential monopolies through history. The layer of this that I think is animating some of the animus towards the companies is the information they have and the power that they have over our lives and the invasions or potential invasions of our privacy, which are not antitrust law issues. They’re questions of whether we have the right laws to protect consumer privacy. And they don’t go to the serious questions about whether these companies are competing unfairly by charging would be people on the App Store too much by using information to take business away from competitors selling dish rags or whatever else, by by charging too much for their advertising space. But it’s the spillover effects that we understand that these companies, unlike previous would be monopolists in America, are affecting our democracy, are no information about us, could use it in ways, have allowed themselves knowingly or unknowingly to be misused in our elections. And so they are a different breed of would be monopolies that we’ve dealt with before.
S3: Is that is that is that a separate question, though, from. Right.
S5: So yes, it is that it infects it.
S3: Sure, sure. Sure. I also wonder, I mean, this was Microsoft’s defense in 2001 and is that if you’re in a tech company, you’re always worried about the competitor stealing your lunch quickly. Now, the defense against that or the rebuttal to that is, well, sure, but that doesn’t mean you should have this excessively dominant power. But I wonder if that puts I mean, so, for example. They hope they’re able to point to say tick tock, which is and say, look, they came out of nowhere and now it’s it has this dominant position. And so in a competitive environment like that, we’re always under threat from market forces. So you don’t need to to meddle. But I also wonder whether the pace of change means dealing with these questions and with existing antitrust laws makes more sense. Because as David was saying earlier, do you really want Congress legislating on these things, given that level of expertise there and pay and speed of action?
S2: I want to I mean, John, to your point on Microsoft and and on competition generally, I worked at Microsoft in those days, and I and I I think that Microsoft case is a really interesting one, because it was at the time it was seen as a huge defeat for the government. The government lost, effectively lost the case. But in retrospect, it was a complete victory, that it’s that Microsoft spent five years enmeshed in litigation, really slowed down what it was doing, and that those in those five years, a whole new world of competitors arose, including some of the companies that we’re talking about that took away from Microsoft’s dominance. And so merely the investigation and merely the kind of friction that that was imposed on Microsoft during that time caused that Microsoft to stumble. And and I don’t think I mean, one of the things that I keep coming back to is that it’s not that the option, the alternative to Amazon is some, you know, magical other baby baby e-commerce company. That’s coming up. The alternatives to Amazon globally are companies like Alibaba and Tencent and principally or Chinese companies. And so one of the things that I think will will help these the American tech companies in the long run is for them to say, yeah, OK, we’re problematic. We concede we’re problematic. But do you really want all these decisions to be made, all these the same kinds of dominance to be gained by companies that are Chinese or Indian or Korean rather than companies that are at least home grown? And and that’s a that is I think that’s a that’s a pretty good defense to some of the attacks on that. We are joined by Anne Applebaum, who’s been on the gabfest a few times before and of course, is a brilliant journalist and thinker, and she has a new book, Twilight of Democracy The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. And it’s about why and how intellectual elites, intellectual conservative elites in so many places, particularly, I think you write about Poland and Hungary, the UK, the US, maybe Spain, have abandoned liberal Democratic beliefs and instead support TRISTANT, buttressed and legitimized authoritarian regimes that have sprung up in the past 20 years or so. And you begin with a party, a party that took place in the house that you are at right now in rural Poland. Tell us about the party and about what the party tells us about where we were 20 years ago and what’s happened now.
S7: So, first of all, to be clear, it’s not a book about parties. I’m not that great a hostess. You wrote a cookbook catering at that party. You remember where you are now.
S3: But you know what time I got really hammered with at a birthday party for you and anybody who shoots blanks into the air during a party is attending a pretty good party. But now that we’ve all three interrupted you, right.
S7: That wasn’t me shooting the blanks at the party. That was a nutty guest. So the party was on the night of the millennium in 1999. And what struck me about it years later was I looked back on and I thought about who had been there at the time. It was kind of nobody famous or fancy. It was kind of junior journalists and very low ranking people in politics. My husband was then a junior minister in the Polish Foreign Office. Some of our friends came from England. Some came from of people came from the US, you know, because it was the millennium, people wanted to do something exotic. And so people were willing to come to Poland in January, which normally they’re not. But it had this kind of goodwill about it. You know, our neighbors came there sort of local farmers came. It was a very it was very eclectic across a range of people and a lot of people from Warsaw. What struck me years later was the memory that it had felt at that time, like everyone in the party was on the same side. Communism had fallen ten years earlier, and we were all kind of vaguely in agreement about direction things were going. And we thought Poland was going to very soon join the EU, which it did, and joined NATO. You know, we’d had this great triumph of liberal democracy. And of course, one of the other striking things was that it didn’t feel like there were going to be that many differences anymore between, you know, the Polish guests and the American guests and the British guests. You know, we were all going to we were all kind of on the same team, going in the same direction. That is no longer the case. And it is very true that there are people at the party who would now cross the street to avoid other people who’d been at the party. Poland has become so profoundly polarized and the deep differences between the political camps are so profound. The current Polish ruling party kind of nationalist nativist party was elected to office in 2015 and once it took power, proceeded to try and change the Democratic rules. So it tried to pack the courts. It took over state television, began putting private media under pressure. It politicized the civil service and so on. So it began to do this classic liberal actions that liberal parties, when they take over democracy, sometimes do in order to sort of make sure the playing field is no longer even and to make sure that they won’t lose ever again. The rhetoric was very ugly. They used this very ugly way of speaking about themselves as the true poles and their opponents, as kind of foreigners or aliens or Jews. And I I was one of the people who at one point was attacked by the regime, media and regime press again, including people who I used to know. I was blamed for bad press that the government was given, that I was secretly organizing. I don’t know The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Reuters and The Washington Post and the BBC against Poland. And this was it actually was an item on Polish state television. And I thought about that. And I thought this demands some kind of explanation. So why did this happen? And then I started to think about other places where I’ve spent time over the last twenty years, including the US and the UK, where I worked for a long time at The Spectator, which is kind of sort of historically been conservative. And I thought about my friends there who had also split in different directions. And I thought a little bit about the Republican Party in the US, which is also had this experience, the same kind of deep divide. And all of those thoughts led to this book, which is about the breakup of what used to be the coalition of the center right. And it will be an annoying book for political scientists because it doesn’t have a single thesis. It just kind of it tells some stories and shows how some of these things echo across different countries and across time.
S8: So. So and you conclude the book. I talking about the potential paths that the future can take and that the future and a post covid future could take and whether it will make us more willing to engage in global cooperation or whether it will reinforce some of these really dangerous and upsetting tendencies that you identify. And I’m wondering, since you finished writing and ended up in that kind of equipoise of uncertainty, whether you’ve become more optimistic or more pessimistic.
S9: The problem with making judgments about the pandemic is that the nature of it changes as we go along. And it’s certainly true that at the beginning it looked like the pandemic was going to be good for authoritarians, because when people are frightened, I mean, this is true all the way back through history, they’re very willing to exchange freedom for security. And you saw these, you know, the slamming down of the borders and the, you know, orders for people to stay home and that sometimes things elements like that stay once they’ve been used once. As it’s going on, though, it’s become clear that this pandemic requires something different of the state, that it that in order to defeat it, it actually needs some high level of public trust. And it turns out that the countries that are good at doing that are not countries that are run by populist, authoritarian political parties. They are countries like Germany or South Korea, Taiwan, Switzerland, Slovakia. My my conclusion is that one of the things the pandemic may do is it may show that this style of politics that I describe a lot in the book, which is this depend this use of conspiracy theory, the sort of deliberate sowing of distrust in institutions, the use of the use of us versus them politics, and the courting of this deep polarization that may turn out to be a bad way to run a country during a pandemic. And if you look at the US, if you look at Brazil, if you look at Mexico, if you look at Russia, you can see why this is the case.
S3: Is that is that and because in order to come up in that authoritarian structure, you’re the incentive is to find enemies and not present arguments. But in the course of a of a pandemic, you have to convince more than those who are like minded. So you have to present an actual argument that can persuade rather than a list of enemies to target.
S9: Yes, exactly. I mean, so so the kind of politics that I’m describing in the book that has split the right in so many places is this politics of us versus them? You know, where are the true patriots, where the real Americans, as opposed to those multicultural Lib Dem, whatever you call them, antifa people who are trying to wreck our country or we’re the true poles, as opposed to the sort of Jews and foreigners and Europeanized urban Poles who whom we don’t like. And in order to convince people that you need to use all kinds of conspiracy theory, accusation, division, whereas in fact during a pandemic, what you need is to get people to listen to science. You need them to trust the government. And, you know, if you’ve been running a political system that says, you know, in which half the country, you know, has been demonized and no longer trust the government, then why do you why do you think they’ll listen to you? I mean, here in Poland, there’s enormous doubt now. So we now have we’ve done OK in the pandemic so far, partly because of, you know, we just got it late. I think Poland was very lucky. And the numbers are going up now. And partly it’s a reflection of lack of trust in the government.
S10: People just don’t believe them anymore because they and and the you know, it turns out that what you need is people to to listen to science and not listen to their nutty uncle on Facebook who sends them another meme, you know, describing how foreigners are undermining us and taking away our, you know, our nation.
S2: You had a really good piece in the Atlantic earlier this year about why so many Republicans go along with what they at least if you told them five years ago, no, to be disgusting ideas, wrongheaded ideas, a disgusting president, grotesque distortions of the America that they have claimed to believe in that they’ve run on, why are there so many collaborators with authoritarian government?
S9: So if you remember that piece, there was there was a range of explanations. And once again, I’m going to be annoying and I’m not going to give you a single answer. But and they range from people who talk themselves into believing that they’re doing something useful by staying inside the circle of power around the White House. You know, I can if I stay here, I can help my country. And if you remember The New York Times, that anonymous op ed from some months ago made exactly that argument.
S10: There are others who are absolutely there for economic self-interest, because if you’re inside the administration and later on, you can quit and get a really good lobbying job. There are some who are there. Because they’re so mesmerized and entranced by the idea of power, there are some who are there because they have come to believe and this is these are the most dangerous ones and these are actually some of them. There are people like this in my book. They’ve come to believe that the other side, the liberals, whatever you call them, the Democrats, the are so dangerous and so damaging to our nation, in some cases so immoral and so degenerate that we need to stick behind the president.
S9: Most of them probably believe themselves still to be at some level, you know, good people. And so they will use a mix of these excuses. You know, the latest the next battle is going to be over Trump’s evident intent to damage or somehow mis shape the coming election, whether it’s going to be through undermining it verbally or through trying to stop it or through refusing to accept the results. You know, we can we can see this coming. And this is going to be the new big test for that group of people.
S3: And I was thinking of you when President Trump answered a question about bounties on US soldiers, Russians putting bounties on your soldiers by explaining that the US had supported the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, which it seems an extraordinary thing for an American Republican president to use in defense of why he didn’t confront Putin about that. And that got me thinking about the Soviet period and communism. If if the adhesion of your party was in part a shared antipathy towards communism, how much of what you describe in the book, it results from a failure to offer an alternative explanation in the post-Cold War period for liberal democracies. And is that a contributing factor at all?
S7: So I don’t know that it’s so much a failure. I mean, what happened basically was that the coalition that was created to fight the Cold War fell apart. And when you think back on it, that’s not very surprising because who was in that coalition? You know, why were people anti-communist, including Democrats, by the way? Some were anti-communist because they were, you know, cared about, I don’t know, realpolitik and Soviet nuclear weapons. All right. Some people were anti-communist because they cared about human rights and democracy or minority rights. You know, some people were communists because they were Christians and Marxism was atheist. And what happened after communism fell was that that coalition began to fray. And actually it frayed pretty quickly.
S9: And it did so in in all these different countries, some of the ones who were Christians became, you know, immediately interested in working on behalf of promoting Christianity in politics, for example. And the ones who are interested in democracy were working on behalf of democracy that actually, I would I would argue that the probably 9/11 kept the thing together longer than it would have done otherwise, partly because after 9/11, the party became once again, at least for some period of time, you know, gripped by the idea that democracy was fundamental to foreign policy. And once it gave up that idea, which it certainly did under Trump, then it wasn’t clear like why all these people should should should be together anymore.
S2: And Applebaum is the author of Twilit of Democracy The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. And since you’re in a party house, you want to join us for cocktail chatter and tell us some remarkable thing that struck you this past week. I will join you for cocktail chatter. All right. So let’s go to cocktail chatter when you were having. A virtual cocktail with your virtual friends. John Dickerson, what will you be chattering about?
S3: Well, we ended up talking about it with and so I’m going to quickly shift to the books that I got to read over the last few weeks, which include and’s but also both of. I finally got around to finishing the Underground Railroad, which David had talked about years ago, before it was the thing everybody was reading, and the Nickel Boys, which is also by Colson Whitehead, which is also amazing. It’s I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I was taking a little time off or the power of the writing or the combination of the two. But they are books that that consume you and walk around in your head for long after you put them down, which is a joy to be in the power of that kind of work. I also read Gene Reeses, Good Morning Midnight, which anybody who wants a quick read about disillusion in Paris. It’s fantastic. So I recommend all of those disillusioned or disillusioned.
S4: Both OK, they go hand in hand with anticipation for that matter. I think the solution in Paris sounds really good right now. I mean, Ruth, what’s your chatter?
S5: My chatter because I find during the pandemic that my capacity to read actual book length books is really limited. I’m going to do the next best thing, which is an essay I read in The New Yorker by Sophie Hackney called An Elegy for the Land Line and Literature.
S8: And she talks about how this actually ties, I guess, to our previous segment about the tech companies, but how evolutions in technology are changing an essential element of literature. And she starts with a Nabokov short story that begins. The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for it to ring. And I’ve been thinking a lot because among in addition to failing to read books during the pandemic, I’m failing to work on the notional novel that I have. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how changes in technology have taken away lots of potential plot twists and plot devices. Right. If you always know who it is, who’s at the other end of the line, who’s calling. And this is not just an analogy for the land line, this analogy for old fashioned technology. You always know who’s calling. You can always figure out where that if the phone call is coming from inside the house, you can find your friend and everything else. And so I thought it was just an interesting musing on the impact of the modern world on the books that I’m not managing to read.
S2: But oh, but I think that it’s such a narrow reading of it. Yes. What is lost? Certainly things are lost. I remember you remember the movie Swingers. There’s one of the funniest scenes ever made on film, but an answering machine, messages going awry and the movie Swingers. But so much is gained with the the the literature of texting of the kind of abbreviated nature of phone calls, of these kind of group conversations that you can now have. It’s such a rich environment and it’s there’s new language.
S5: People write novels that people write so much, want that so much more.
S6: Oh, but think about there’s so many. If you you read normal people or conversations with friends, so much of what’s in there is based on kind of text and email conversations and how those are those are convey nuance and can convey emotion in new ways. It it is. It is. That’s a that’s such a narrow.
S5: I’m an old fashioned thero person. I miss like SHAC. What would Shakespeare do in the modern world? All of you know pretty much most, if not all of Shakespeare’s comedies are based on misunderstandings that could be cleared up with you people text.
S2: But he would have different. It’s not there are no misunderstandings in the world. There’s so much in fact, in text. It’s so easy to misunderstand people.
S3: I was going to say I want my experience with texting is, is that I’m constantly being misunderstood, although that’s also my misunderstanding. That’s also my experience with normal human interaction now.
S7: But there is something about the written word because you can’t do a facial expression with it. You know, you lose irony, you know, and because you can’t, I don’t know, tip your voice up at the end or down. Can be unclear what your meaning is. And I mean, this is this is a problem, but not just for text, but for Twitter as well. You know, if you get the word wrong and people misunderstand you, they don’t get it was a joke. I mean, you’re right. There’s all kinds of layers of mysteries. And although I think I’m with Ruth because I’m not sure those are as interesting as the kinds of misunderstandings that we used to, just all we’ve learned and are conservatives.
S4: And John and I are progressing. Thanks. That’s the nature of this conversation. We just haven’t found our Shakespeare of texting yet. And what is your chatter?
S9: So I have been reading a book called NB’s The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman by Ben Hubbard, and it’s an extraordinary book in some ways.
S11: I mean, it’s a biography of somebody who’s, I think not even 40. So it’s in a way, a strange idea. It’s you know, it’s about his rise to power. What’s interesting about the book is that the author has done quite a lot of interviews with mostly with people who are anonymous, who knew him at various stages and who can therefore and he can therefore describe how his the atmosphere around him, the things he did and said, you know, altered as he gains power in the book, also starts with a kind of sleepy Saudi Arabia of the former regime kind of backwater. Nothing much is happening. But also nobody is particularly afraid or frightened. You know, foreign journalists are kind of ignored there. And as the book goes on and as as there’s this change of power in Saudi Arabia and then as maybe the young prince, you know, slowly takes over, you see the rise of a different kind of authoritarianism and a different kind of regime. And then you see how, you know, people around him begin to change. And so this is an interesting counterpart to everything that we’ve just been talking about to the rise of authoritarianism and democracies and the instinct towards authoritarianism.
S10: And it’s the same story, but told from a different point of view, my chapter takes us in a vastly different direction.
S2: I saw a little photo feature on Business Insider about the new locker room at the University of Alabama Football Stadium and the Bryant Denny Stadium in Alabama. And it’s a 16 million dollar locker room, which actually didn’t. I was surprised it was that little. This is for the celebrated University of Alabama football team. And it’s just disgusting. It’s just disgusting that they have spent all this money to put fancy swivel chairs and and led screens everywhere and lots of places to plug for football players to plug in their devices and and glamour glamour shots of each of the players on the team. It’s all part of a 600 million dollar upgrade to the stadium.
S6: Think about what the university could spend 600 million dollars on 600 million dollars upgrade to the stadium. And it does make you feel like it is so profoundly screwy that these players, these young men are so valuable, economically valuable to this university and they’re not getting a dime. And instead, the university is spending it to to gold plate a locker room and gold plate the the stadium. And these men whose work these young men whose work on the field is earning all that money gets them nothing. So it was it’s a particularly gross juxtaposition. And also six hundred million dollars on the stadium. Come on. College football stadium listeners, you two have been sending us chatter and we appreciate you sending it to us. You’ve tweeted them to us at at Slate Gabfests. Please keep them coming in. Today’s listening chatter comes from Mark Alamdar at at Mark Alamdar. It points us to a ProPublica story, which is outrageous when you read it. It’s about a 15 year old girl in Michigan with ADHD who had been acting up and who had gotten in trouble in the pre covid times and had done done some disruptive things and enduring covid because of, you know, it’s impossible to stay current in school. And distance learning is terrible. She had not turned in her homework when school went remote and because she had not turned in her homework, that violated a term of her probation, as it were, her her juvenile probation. And she got sent. She’s been in juvenile detention. She got sent to juvenile detention months ago. She’s been in juvenile detention for four months for not turning in her homework. She doesn’t want to be there. Her mother doesn’t want to be there. But the courts are like, no, we think it’s better for her to be here. It’s really strange and outrageous story. So check it out at ProPublica.
S2: That is our show for today. The Gabfest is produced by Jocelyn Frank, our researchers, Bridget Dunlap. Gabriel Roth is editorial director of Slate podcast. June Thomas is managing producer, and Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Slate podcasts for John Dickerson and our always welcome and beloved guest host Ruth Marcus.
S12: I’m David Plotz. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you next week.
S2: Hello, Slate, plus, how are you? So I’ve been previewing for weeks and months the fact that I was moving and I have moved and I faced an enormous dilemma with my move. So I moved from house where I had lived with my then wife and our children and moved to an apartment, a quite nice big apartment several blocks away where I’m living with my children. And there are two cats that have lived in the house that I used to live in. And they they were brought there as tiny kittens as three week old kittens 14 years ago. And they have been in that house for 14 years. And then one of them goes outside occasionally. The two girls are sisters. One of them goes outside occasionally. The other one, quite literally, had not been outside that house since before Barack Obama was elected president. Just think about it like this cat has lived only in the several couple of thousand square feet of a house in Washington, D.C. And so the question was, and I have feelings for the cats. Did not really have feelings for the cats who she tolerated them. She was OK with them. But I was the person who always, you know, change a litter box, fed them, took care of them. I liked petting them. And so the question was when I was moving, where do the cats go to the cats stay? Is it more important for the cats to stay in their geographical territory, the only world they’ve known? Or should they go to a place with a person who will be happy to take care of them, but in a totally new space, in a traumatic space. And so. The the answer is the cats are with me, I brought them here yesterday, but I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. Have I done the right thing?
S8: I’ll go first. You have so done the right thing, even though cats will be cats and will pretend to be aloof. They do know who cares for them and who loves them. And they are adaptable to new environments. And in fact, I saw a little I hear all the time as I listen to gabfests, the kitties sitting on your computer and getting in your way, which means they want to be with you even if they cat, like, pretend they don’t want to. When we saw a cat tail on the zoom earlier. And so I think you are you you are projecting trauma onto the cats. The cats are not actually feel and petting one right here.
S2: It’s right here.
S8: However, I would also take the opportunity to say, as someone else did, John Dickerson can tell us who if you really want a friend in Washington, get a dog, do what I did and get a dog behind your husband’s back for the good of the country. And now, 11 years later, we have driven for the second time across the country to Wyoming with our dog, with us, because we love him too much to put him in the belly of a plane and he’s in a different place. So he won’t interrupt this thing. But I’ve had a cat. I’ve had a dog. And I’m sorry to say, for cat people out there, no comparison, get a dog to the cats will accommodate themselves.
S3: It was that quote is attributed to Truman, but I think it might be a bit of a splicing. But anyway, it’s usually Truman that’s attributed to. Yes, John, should I move the cats? Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, come on. The cats don’t. Yeah. I mean, it seems to me to be the obvious choice for all concerned. And the cats have already forgotten that they’re in a new context.
S2: Because they do they don’t they have not forgotten, but I think so they do care what I proposed during the segment, I hadn’t actually decided to move them. And then John and I talked about it and decided to do it and just did it very quickly. And we did it yesterday.
S6: And so last night they spent the night in the apartment and they were so, you know, they just hung around the bed. They came and sat on me. They are you know, they’re they’re clearly anxious. They haven’t eaten anything yet. They haven’t used their litter box yet. But they’re not they’re they’re doing OK. And so it’s clearly like so far, it’s the it’s an OK decision. But it was I was pretty I was pretty nervous. Like, they’re they’re highly territorial creatures. And I’ve given I’ve taken away the only territory they’ve ever had and now they’re imprisoned in this in this box. Five stories above above the street. She’ll probably never leave. They’ll probably never leave here.
S3: But they’re highly adaptable. So you’re fine. And why do you keep saying they’re highly adaptable, they’re not highly adaptable because they they’re just adaptable, they adapt to what they want and they want whatever is before them, they don’t have any choice. There’s a choice like a huge cat revolts in the history of cats are they’re like they just do what they’re going to do and we don’t organize.
S5: Well, no, if the cats are upset, the cats could start to act out, as cats can with, you know, peeing in places and things like that. But you haven’t seen that.
S8: And I sort of think I sort of think this is like a this is like a parable of modern parenting where we just worry too much about eggshell feelings about our children and our pets and everything else. Easy for me to say because I really have spent a lot of time worrying about how post pandemic, the dog is going to cope because he clearly can’t tolerate having become reduced to being with us all the time. He is increasingly intolerant of being separated from us when we go out for a bike ride or something. He’s just he cries when of course he he’s a dog, not a cat. So he literally was crying when I left the other hotel room two to come do the show.
S2: I think your point that this is a analog to how we worry about our children is so good. I didn’t even mention that my children also the first night, the first night they spent here with also last night, they also have never lived. They also have never lived, have also never lived anywhere outside that house.
S5: But they did peeing everywhere.
S2: Now that you have a problem, the. Yeah, the cats. The cats are they are I think they’re going to be OK. This is a less controversial I thought this is going to be full of controversy, but apparently not. Sorry, sorry, John. You had such a better slate plus topic and instead we just had banal cat talk.
S3: Well, because we were all agreed on the same thing.
S2: Banal Cat Talk is going to be my next podcast series by Slate Plus.