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How the Tumultuous ’70s Shaped Our Political Conflicts

The upheavals of the 1970s — the Watergate cover-up, defeat in Vietnam, racial conflict, and economic convulsions — formed the contours of today’s polarization, argue Princeton historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer. They joined Soledad O’Brien to discuss their new book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

  • Soledad O'Brien
  • Kevin M. Kruse
  • Julian E. Zelizer
March 24, 2020
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Transcript

This podcast was recorded on February 4, 2019.

Intro

MICHAEL WALDMAN: American politics is polarized. We all know that. We’re divided into different camps — suspicious, sometimes hateful. It didn’t start yesterday. Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer say that polarization has been widening since 1974.

That was the year we had a crippling energy crisis, school busing riots, and, of course, looming over all of it, Watergate, all while the Vietnam War was winding down.

Since then, our political discourse has continued to unravel.

JULIAN ZELIZER: … But we’ve institutionalized cultural outrage and made it a routine.  

KEVIN KRUSE: There's no common kind of public square anymore. So, the belief before had been, "We'll tear down these walls of racial division. We'll all come together in harmony." And instead, we find Americans really going off into their own camps.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Professors Kruse and Zelizer teamed up to write about our country and its last five decades in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. In it, they trace how our past has formed America’s present, including the decline of faith and confidence in leaders and institutions.

JULIAN ZELIZER: You can argue we’ve moved in the wrong direction. Many liberals came out of the 60s believing you couldn't really trust all the people who you were told you could believe in, whether it was your professor, whether it was your president or whether it was your parents.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: This is Brennan Center LIVE, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. I’m Michael Waldman.

In February 2019, Kruse and Zelizer were joined by Soledad O’Brien. She’s the CEO of Starfish Media Group and the host of Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien. They talked about their book and the origins of today’s contentious political rifts and continuous political crisis.


Soledad O'Brien: So, let's begin with 1974. Why that specific year?        

Kevin M. Kruse: '74 is, we're political historians so the natural answer is Watergate. You've got the President of the United States who's reelected by a landslide in 1972 who was thrown out office less than two years later. But that's just one shock of many that happens at that time.

If you look across the board, in terms of the economy, 1973 is when the OPEC oil embargo happens and really shakes the country's foundation in terms of its economic strength. The war in Vietnam comes to a frustrating end for Americans in 1975. You got Roe v. Wade in 1973, the busing riots in '75. So, there's a lot of kind of shaking up of the old order around 1974. That seemed like a good starting point for us.

Soledad O'Brien: And when you look, when you were starting work on this book, when I opened it, I assumed that this was something you'd been working on as soon as President Trump was elected. Many people were trying to figure out how we have all the divisions that we have today. Can we trace them back to 1974? And I was surprised to see that, in fact, you'd been working on this book before President Trump was elected.

Julian Zelizer: Yeah, we did it without imagining that Donald Trump would be President Trump. That was not in our vision.

And we finished the first draft before the Republican primaries. Then, we would add a chapter and add an epilogue once he was elected and everything that followed. But in some ways, that is the frame of the book. It's a foundation of what's happened in the last few years rather than simply here's the president and we're going to explain the era of Trump. We're really explaining a bigger period that explains how we got to this presidency.

Soledad O'Brien: So, when people think that this fracture, this unhappiness, this division all sort of started in the last four to ten years, they're completely wrong.

Kevin M. Kruse: Completely wrong. Again, and we've always had fault lines in American society. What we trace here are a particular set that really come into focus after the 70s and have gotten incredibly worse as time has gone on. And what's different about this period than the earlier period is in the postwar period, we had forces that pushed back against the divisions in American society. So you had political institutions. The parties were much more ideologically diverse. There was a strong faith in the federal government. People thought it was working. The economy was working for people. The union movement was lifting people up and papered over some of these lines of division. The mainstream media really was a thing. You had the big three networks. You had a couple major newspapers that really started everyone out on the same set of facts to begin with. Those forces were kind of centripetal forces that pushed back against these lines of division.

Soledad O'Brien: Isn't that true across all races? Like, sometimes I think, when people hearken back to the comfort, you're describing really a comfort with institutions.

You sort of say, "Yeah, how about the Black people," or, "How about the Latino people." Often that comfort is really describing sort of white Americans.

Kevin M. Kruse: No, you're absolutely right. But if you look at the union movement. The union movement, something like the UAW, the United Automobile Workers really was a union that was committed to civil rights. Had really did a lot to paper over racial divisions in places like Detroit and throughout Ohio and really helped lift a lot of African-Americans and Latinos into the middle class. As that goes away, you find it's more of an every-worker-for-themselves philosophy that really pits these races against one another.

Julian Zelizer: We're really just trying to understand how we get out of the turmoil of the 60s, end up, in some ways, tearing apart some of the institutions that worked against that to some degree, and then, create new ones that actually push us further and further, creating incentives for more polarization and division. It's really just the story of how that happened. But we don't start from a period of euphoria, a kind of, "Oh, we had Leave it to Beaver and everything went all the way down to Donald Trump."

Soledad O'Brien: How did we get here?

Julian Zelizer: How did we get here? So yeah.

It’s important to understand just how long these battles have been going on. We've been going around these issues over. These are deeply rooted problems, and we're trying to capture that.

Soledad O'Brien: You mentioned Watergate as sort of a pivotal moment in 1974. What was the impact of that moment upon the culture?

Kevin M. Kruse: It was a huge impact. So, Ford comes in. People at first regard him as a healer. He promises our long national nightmare is over, his poll numbers are … What? You'll know this. In the seventies? People see him as he's really kind of restored dignity to the office. It was a tough thing for him to do, because remember, he hadn't been elected vice president. He was a congressman. He'd been from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He gets thrown to the vice presidency when Spiro Agnew is forced out. So, Agnew was resigned in disgrace in '73. Ford comes in. Nixon resigns in August of 1974. Suddenly, this guy who no one nationally had voted for is the president. So, he has to really rely on their goodwill.

At first, he seems he's gotten it. Then, just a month later, almost exactly a month after Nixon's resignation, he announces that he's going to pardon the president. He says, "To spare the nation the trauma of a trial, we have to put the wounds of Watergate behind us and look forward to healing."

Well, the nation erupts because they didn't want this. I think Ford legitimately believed that this was in the nation's best interests. People, though, see this as a corrupt bargain, that he was only appointed vice president on the promise that he would then spare and pardon Nixon when the time came. We've got examples in the book of the outrage about this. People are protesting outside the White House. Somebody burst into a White House press conference to scream, "Jail Ford! Jail Ford!"

So, they're furious about it. His poll numbers tank. It just becomes yet another sign of the distrust of government. You can't trust Ford, either.

Soledad O'Brien: Talk to me about when resentment and anger starts to breed around a sense of economic inequality and how women and women going to work in the 1970s kind of fit into that picture.

Kevin M. Kruse: That's a great question. It starts right away in this period. And I think one of the things that we push back against in the book, in that part of it is the common misconception a lot of people have that feminism meant women suddenly decided to go to work. It's the other way around. It's women find themselves forced to go to work by the economic crisis of the time. By 1976, only about 40 percent of jobs in America pay enough to support a family of four on them. You have to have both parents work.

So, women find themselves going into the workplace. And as a result of that, whether they were feminists before or not, they confront gender discrimination, they confront unequal pay, all the things on the job, sexual harassment, of course. So, then that mobilizes them to speak up. From those outside of that perspective, they see this just as women are looking for a job just because they want to for fun. They don't need to and they resent them. They see that this is taking a job away from a man. There's a whole set of … It applies in race. It applies in politics. It applies in economics. There's a zero-sum mentality that really sweeps across the country in this period. You can see it in a variety of spots. Certainly this place of women in the workplace is when it really comes to the fore.

Soledad O'Brien: Are the conversations … I mean, obviously during the 2016 election, there was a lot of conversations about economic insecurity, right? And sometimes, I read that really to mean just out-and-out racism at times. It was used sometimes interchangeably. Are those economically insecure conversations from the 1970s different than the ones that we're hearing today or is it part of that same line?

Kevin M. Kruse: I think it's part of that same line. It's become much more pronounced. So, one of the fault lines we track in the economy is that growing economic inequality, right? It starts in 1980, but it continues to pace in the 90s, which we remember as this boom period, but really that inequality gap continued to grow. It continued to grow into the 2000s and on to today.

What changes though, is the way in which the rage is funneled. In the early 70s, you still have a viable union movement. They're pointing the fingers in, I think, the right directions. They're pointing it at corporations. They're pointing it at politicians who are cutting corners. As the time goes on, though, increasingly, they start pointing fingers at each other.

Soledad O'Brien: So when you read these stories from the 1970s and economic insecurity, even back then, and even through then to now, there was a sense of American optimism. I know from 30 years of reporting about it, there was always this undergirding. Even in disasters, there was a sense of, "Well, we'll rebuild because this is what Americans do."

It seems in the last few years, that that optimism is collapsing a bit and it's correlated to people understanding that their children won't necessarily do better than they will.

Julian Zelizer: Yeah, I mean part of it is the 70s and 80s are still not removed very much from that post-World War II period, which goes into the 60s, where there was a strong assumption about your children. There was a logical and rational assumption that if you had some kind of education and training, you would have access to a secure middle class job, a factory job that would give you access to healthcare, pensions, and long-term stability.

So, if you're in the 70s and 80s, even the early 80s, you've just been through stagflation in the 70s, the energy crisis. That was still very fresh and real. That's the famous Reagan ad in 1984 is the “Morning in America” ad, where he plays exactly on what you're talking about. Many of you remember the ad where you see families coming out onto their lawns, white suburban families who are very happy that everything's fixed after a long decade. It wasn't. The trends are not over. The instability of the middle class and the widening economic divisions, that trend line is still continuing, but that optimism was there. I think there's an argument to be made, certainly in recent years, that's gone away, at least from the political rhetoric. I don't know in national polls. I'm sure it's diminished.

Soledad O'Brien: Well you have a great poll that you reference in your book where Al Gore pledged that he would raise taxes on the top 1 percent. The poll that you referenced determined later that 19 percent of Americans felt like they were either in the top 1 percent or they were about to be in the top 1 percent, right?

Kevin M. Kruse: No, no, no. It's even better. It's 19 percent think they're in it. 20 percent think they will be in five years.

Soledad O'Brien: … Will be in five years. I mean, so the optimism of, "Hey, that might be a problem for the really, really rich because I'm going to be one of them soon," really speaks to an optimism that has disappeared, I think, today.

Julian Zelizer: No, I think that's true. I guess what we're saying also is certainly with President Trump — but I don't want to turn right to him because he will kind of take the oxygen out of the room — but you do see a political strategy, which is an interesting contrast with Reagan where there's no real effort to rekindle that. Instead it's like partisan division.

Right now, we have a president who fully embraces that and plays to it, whereas back in the 80s, even in the political class, you could see there were still efforts to not just speak to that element of society.

Soledad O'Brien: And does that happen on the left, on the right equally or is that one party has decided that they're going to leverage that and it's not happening on the other side?

Kevin M. Kruse: We really do push back against the kind of both-sides frame that you often hear.

Soledad O'Brien: Thank you, Jesus. Appreciate that.

Kevin M. Kruse: I'll thank Jesus, too, but that's really our job as historians is not to simply say, "Yes, this side was to blame. This side has an equal share of blame," but rather to really sort out who were the driving forces in this? Who were the real engines of change? This is a period in which, for most of the time we're talking about, conservatism really does set the agenda, for better or worse. It does so to a lot of ways and it really does push things. It's much more pronounced both in terms of politics, in terms of the move to the far right, and the willingness to override institutions that have been there for a while, but also in terms of the media, the move to the far right really is set by people, like we talk about Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, the Drudge Report, to Breitbart. They really are the ones that are kind of pushing the envelope. There are efforts on the left to catch up with them. They're not as, I think, far to the left as they go far to the right. They're not as successful in changing the tone.

Soledad O'Brien: The both sides-ism, you get the sense that people sort of embrace that because they almost feel like they don't want to contribute to division, that they want to be like “both sides” because it makes it nice and easy. Is it problematic? Does it worry you when you say, “It's conservatives. We're looking at drivers and this is what it is,” that you're not helping close divisions?

Julian Zelizer: We're historians and we're capturing the period. Our job is not to solve the problem. If you present a history that actually isn't accurate, I think it won't do any service to people who are trying to deal with it today. A lot of people respond, "Do you blame both sides?" they ask. "Do you blame Democrats and Republicans for this or that?" And thinking of history that way is not a healthy way to do it. There are moments in history when one party, one ideology is more pronounced than the other. They can be a driving force. It would be weird to write a history of the New Deal that focused exclusively on the Republican Party or try to make an equivalency argument there.

This is an era and we start the book with conservatism and a movement that did reshape America. That's not a normative statement. They did. Then, there's tactical innovations. There's  ideological innovations right through the 80s and 1990s, which we think had a bigger effect in many realms of American life than what liberals were achieving, although we actually bring liberals back into the story. That's part of what we try to do. But it would be a mistake to do what you see in journalism to step back in fear and say, "Well, it's both sides." That's not accurate history. That's an inaccurate and it won't get you to a solution of a better place today.

Kevin M. Kruse: The problem of that kind of both sides approach, and I know they do it to in order to present, “Well, we've heard all sides of the issues,” but in the same, we've got this side over here and this side over here. What you're doing is you're saying, "Well, there's a huge chasm between them and they can't agree." It really does … It almost reifies that sense of division. Well, then, they try to avoid it.

Soledad O'Brien: So, when you talk about fractures, it's hard not to think about TV news. I'm curious about what has been happening in the 1970s that leads us to where we are today. One would think, since part of the shift was more voices in media, more democratization, if you will, of media, more platforms. That sounds like amazing, amazing, amazing. Why does it feel terrible?

Kevin M. Kruse: Well, again, in the 70s, there was this idea that there's going to be hope. There was, at a time, a drive to create a number of new fourth networks. They all failed. But this dream is out there.

We've got a great quote from Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, who says, "We got to break up the big three monopoly in media, like we got a big three monopoly in Detroit. We want to have all these new media outlets out there." He wanted all these news networks. "Wouldn't it be great to have a news network just for the elderly, and just for the young, just for African-Americans, just for Hispanics? Wouldn't it be great to have a news network that was solely conservative?" He's very excited about this. I don't think he would be as excited today about what happened.

The technology catches up and makes it possible to do this through satellite, through cable, and it leads to this incredible new fracturing and we do see, first in radio with Rush Limbaugh, but then really with Fox News started in 1996, this real pronounced shift to the right and an embrace of a partisan slant on the news, which again went against everything that had been the kind of the norm in the postwar period.

The postwar period is a little bit unusual, but it was a departure in the 70s and 80s from what had happened before, certainly.

Soledad O'Brien: How did the repeal of the fairness doctrine play a role in that?

Julian Zelizer: So that happens in 1987. And that's a FCC rule, which required both sides of an issue to be aired on a radio station and a television station, in exchange for having access. It didn't always work. It was challenged constantly in the courts and in practice, but it did create a norm. It created a countervailing source of pressure to radio hosts primarily who wanted to go on air and just rail from one political perspective on every institution that was out there.

It goes away in 1987. Ronald Reagan doesn't support it. He thinks it's a bad regulation, like many regulations. And he believes the media is biased toward liberals, even though they don't say it. There are a lot of conservatives who felt that way. He puts into place an FCC chair Mark Fowler, and Fowler says, "We're done with it."

You can see the growth of conservative talk radio is really amazing between 1987 and about 1994, with big national figures emerging and even some of the more shrill voices on radio. Many people here will remember Bob Grant. You can listen to him in the period after the fairness doctrine. He gets much more vicious, much more open in his political views. So, that's an important policy change that open the doors to some of the partisan news we have today.

There's other things we talk about that are important. I mean, two is one, the commercialization of the media, not just television, but the pressures all media starts to face after the 1980s to make revenue. You have cable stations which depend on their advertising and viewership for their revenue, newspapers lose the classified ads. So, now they're also seeking revenue. Then, in the era of social media, another pressure is a kind of filterless world public square, where all voices can get on pretty easily. So, all that is surrounding this new partisan era, and I think explains where we are today.

Soledad O'Brien: How come liberals have never been able to pull off the powerful talk radio conversation in a way that conservative radio media has been able to do it?

Kevin M. Kruse: This format doesn't quite fit for liberals. Liberals can certainly get angry, but not to the kind of white-hot rage that made Limbaugh or Hannity or others work on the radio. It's much more in terms of an ideology, it’s more suited towards sarcasm and satire. And so, talk radio fails, but you get The Daily Show and you get The Colbert Report. On TV, it works a little bit better.

Soledad O'Brien: At the same time, you start seeing primary systems shift, as well. Talk to me about the changes in the primary system that helped fan the flames of partisanship that we're already seeing, being fanned by all of these other things that you've already spoken about.

Julian Zelizer: It happens in the early 70s, right when our book takes off. The Democrats are the first movers here, and the McGovern reforms change the system of selecting presidential candidates where the convention and the party machinery loses its hold and we switch to a primary and caucus system, where that really is vote … It's a democratic idea that voters will have the ability to decide who should run for president, but in primaries and caucuses, it's often the most active and politically active people who are going to come out to vote.

So, early on, this is an effect that's seen. You'll have candidates who are playing both to those voters, to the organizations that will be active, and to reporters who are covering this instead of the old party machine. Republicans quickly replicate it. Reagan in '76 challenges Gerald Ford in the primary. He almost wins, but he's also trying to capitalize on this new primary caucus system. So, that's a very concrete thing that changes and is part like the end of the FCC fairness doctrine of the world we have today.

It's not simply the changes in the media. In the 70s, there's a huge effort to reform Congress, to really change the way that Congress works, and to break the power of the old alliance between committee chairs, who primarily were Southern, and Republicans. They had worked in tandem since the 30s through backrooms, through the committee system to really rule the roost on Capitol Hill.

Younger reformers who come into the office after Watergate and after Vietnam, and they're like, "No way. We're not doing that anymore." They bust open the system. They change the rules of the House and Senate. They strengthen party leaders. They want more partisanship. That's a key part of the 70s. Strengthen party leaders in Congress. Give them more money, more authority through the rules to make sure everyone votes the same way. That was seen as a good thing.

So, there are internal changes to Congress. There are then the changes in the media. And finally, there are campaign finance changes where private money becomes more pronounced. Congress doesn't reform itself in terms of fundraising. They say everyone is going to be limited in how much they can give, but you can still raise and have to raise lots of money.

So, these single-issue groups gain immense power by the 70s and 80s to hold on to legislators and make sure they vote the right way. So, all these things work together. They're quite important, in addition to other factors like gerrymandering.

Soledad O'Brien: Is racism more at the center of our divisions today, or were they just as much at the center of the divisions in the 1970s through today?

Kevin M. Kruse: We've always been racist. There are racist divisions that run throughout the 70s to today. They just take different forms.

In the 70s, one of the things we talk about is the fight over busing. There's the fight over affirmative action, which again, as I note, was very much seen as a zero-sum game.

Soledad O'Brien: When did it move into politics? I mean, in the sense that—

Kevin M. Kruse: Oh! Always.

Soledad O'Brien: I always felt that … But often politicians, as you know, John McCain comes to mind and others, who would tamp down. They sort of knew where the line was. To me, and obviously President Trump started his campaign, launched it, basically criticizing Mexicans, so — and it's gone downhill from there. But I think that that is the time now where you really see people saying, "We see the line and actually let's jump over it because there's a value to that." That seems to me to be different. Am I reading that wrong?

Kevin M. Kruse: It's gotten more pronounced certainly. So, if you look at what Trump does, there are certain clear examples in the past we can draw on. His rallies always remind me of George Wallace. If you look at a George Wallace rally from 1968, it's the exact same. The calling out of the protester in the crowd, the whipping up the crowd into kind of a frenzy, the going between these really dark moments, on almost this kind of comic presence on stage. The issues he raises are largely the same, too. So, in some ways, it's just like that. In other ways, though, it is subtly evolved.

So, if you look at the way in which Nixon would have handled issues of race, it's always done kind of quietly and softly. It's benign neglect. We speak for a silent majority. It's always very soft. Or, look at what, as these politics get darker in the 1980s, Lee Atwater running the 1988 campaign for George H.W. Bush.

Soledad O'Brien: And what about integration and desegregation? I mean, again, the vision of what America could be sort of centered around integration and desegregation. Today, we look at any school in America and, for the most part, it's as segregated as it was in the late 1960s.

Julian Zelizer: Yeah. I think this is an area, not just residential or educational segregation, but all sorts of racial segregation that are very deeply embedded in different institutions in American society, whether we're talking about prisons or whether we're talking about how people experience criminal justice or how people experience where they can or can't buy property.

These were issues on the table in the 70s. This is not a new issue, but that's kind of a very flat line from the 70s through today, in which the progress has been halting. You can make an argument that, in some areas such as criminal justice, with the proliferation of the private prison system and the weaponization of local police, it's actually gotten worse. You could make a case — Kevin can talk more about it — on residential segregation, but there's not a lot of ups and downs in this story. You can argue we've moved in the wrong direction.

Kevin M. Kruse: You have to remember that desegregation and integration are not synonyms. Desegregation means taking away the legal barriers that are thrown up between people that force them apart by law. That doesn't mean once those come down, Americans suddenly integrate. That was the hope of a lot of the leaders of the civil rights movement that we would tear down these walls and Americans would come together.

What we show in the book, though, is from the 70s on, they increasingly go apart. And a lot of it is due to the racism of people who don't want to be around people who are unlike them. Some of it also comes from communities that resort to cultural nationalism and build up their own society, to a larger sense of wanting to have diversity. That's the new value we celebrate and something that white ethnics embrace as well as Latinos and African Americans and all other varieties of Americans.

There's no common kind of public square anymore. So, the belief before had been, "We'll tear down these walls of racial division. We'll all come together in harmony." And instead, we find Americans really going off into their own camps.

Soledad O'Brien: And you said there's no public square today, but in an environment where our lives are ruled by social media, I mean, don't we have these points of commonality, right?

Kevin M. Kruse: Sure.

Julian Zelizer: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Soledad O'Brien: Like Netflix, Amazon. I mean, and maybe in even more ways than in the 1970s, where every single person, when you talk about something on your smartphone, knows exactly what you're talking about and probably even covering an age range that is greater than you might have been able to find in the 1970s. How come that doesn't have a mitigating effect?

Kevin M. Kruse: Well, it does to some degree. We talk about this in the way in which people across the country are consuming things in a lot of the same ways, not just in terms of media, but actual products. So, Amazon's a good example or Starbucks or think about a variety of things in which you can get things in a small town in Iowa that you wouldn't have been able to get before and you can be mailed to you. You can find it on the internet. You can find like-minded communities across the world.

But then there's that instinct of once you've got access to anything, Americans that are people then sort out like-minded communities. So, Twitter gives you access to anyone, but you don't follow everyone, or the internet gives you access to all sorts of varieties of things, but you pick up the things that largely reinforce what you already believe. So, there's an opportunity out there, but in some ways, it's almost overwhelming. You have so many choices and so people tend to pick the things that are like themselves.

Soledad O'Brien: Talk to me about your Twitter feed because that's how we met. I don't know if you're following Kevin Kruse on Twitter. Man! That man! No rest for the weary. Literally, he's like, "Okay. Let me explain slavery to you again." Starts again. Dinesh D'Souza, you're constantly fighting with him. I mean, I'm sure you have literally five million things you'd rather be doing than to explain the history of slavery to Dinesh D'Souza, but I'm curious, in all seriousness, why do you continue to go back to this medium over and over again to spell things out?

Kevin M. Kruse: Well, it's just so financially lucrative for me.

Soledad O'Brien: Well, that explains it. Thank you for clearing that up.

Kevin M. Kruse: I am cashing it in. I mean, I do feel that we historians have a responsibility, and Julian does this, too, in op-eds and on TV. We have a responsibility to be out there in the public sphere to correct these deliberate falsehoods, the same way in which scientists have a responsibility, I think, to fight against those who deny climate change or doctors have a responsibility to fight against those who are pushing the anti-vaccine nonsense. We have a special set of expertise, and if we don't correct the record, people are going to assume that what's out there is right.

In fact, D'Souza used to do that all the time. He would say in these threads and then this is what finally got me out. He would in these threads, "Well, no historian's ever corrected me." I was like, "Okay. This is on us, then." If we don't step up and say, "No, this is actually wrong," then he's allowed to say, "No one's corrected me."

Soledad O'Brien: You two did not realize that for the rest of your lives, you will be correcting Dinesh D'Souza.

Has the “Truth Decay,” — as they call it at the RAND Corporation, sort of call it “Truth Decay,” — is that new to the last five years or is that something that really, we think of the 70s as people having great faith in institutions and at least agreeing on a set of facts, even if they took a different position on the facts, there was a data set of facts that everybody agreed were, in fact, facts. We've moved away off of that. What caused that? What were the drivers of that and did that exist at all in the 1970s?

Julian Zelizer: Sure. This is also, the decline of faith in expertise is a big story of the 1970s. That's not just a conservative phenomenon. Many liberals came out of the 60s believing you couldn't really trust all the people who you were told you could believe in, whether it was your professor, whether it was your president, or whether it was your parents. I think that was a pervasive sentiment. The hope still in the 70s, I think, still, was that you'd move to a place where you could re-establish sources of trust, but that's not what happened. And I think we kept moving in a direction where that essential distrust that emerged in that decade only got worse. You had people who played to the distrust. I do think part of conservative politics has been about perpetuating some of that sentiment in areas like the university or the media for partisan objectives.

Then, you have literally had technological changes, which aren't always connected to politics, which have also exacerbated the sense of a source of information that we can all rely on. We do have a very fragmented — not just fragmented, uncontrolled public square. That's how I think we see it. There is a public square, but not only is it divisive, no one’s really in charge anymore, or no one was ever in charge, but you don't have big forces that are the dominant sources of our information. 

I saw something that President Obama actually said, that one of the challenges of climate change is on Facebook. You can have an award-winning scientist write a whole paper about why climate change happens and what the problem is. Then, someone in their basement, and I don't know if — you would know if he actually said this — but another page with someone just write, "That doesn't exist."

Soledad O'Brien: "I'm a seventh grader and I don't believe in climate change."

Julian Zelizer: The point is, in our public square, you can't tell the difference. We've moved farther and farther away from a place where we are debating a common set of issues and facts to a place I think we both agree where everyone has their own facts and point of view.

Kevin M. Kruse: Well, we've institutionalized cultural outrage and made it a routine. We've taken very real tensions that exist broadly and have been going on about issues such as gender, race, the family, for decades now.

I think that's part of what you're talking about. An underlying important story is that a lot of incentives that we have both in the media and politics are to do just that.

So, there's reasons people keep going back to that. It works. And so it’s hard to get out of these kinds of debates.

Soledad O'Brien: So, what do you think has to happen policy-wise that could maybe make a difference?

Julian Zelizer: Look, for the House of Representatives, it's not about inside of the House, but there's clearly a case to be made that the intensity of gerrymandering needs to be reversed, if you really want to deal with this issue, meaning a shift to commission, nonpartisan-based determination of districts back in the states. Some states are experimenting with this, but this would be really essential if you don't want House members constantly worried about being primaried by someone more extreme than they are.

Within the House, I think money is where you start. The power of the leaders is they have these huge pools of money that all the members are desperate for. If you don't vote the party line, that money is gone and you're facing, certainly in the House, bad districts.

Soledad O'Brien: Okay so then, moving off of policy and into maybe more people-centric, what do you do since it sounds like you're saying, "Hey, listen. This polarization has been in the works or, if not, in effect for the last almost 50 years."

Kevin M. Kruse: Instead the responsibility rests with all of us, the choices we make as consumers of media, as consumers of culture. It really does depend on us because those broadcasters are ultimately after the bottom line of money.

Julian Zelizer: And some of the issues won't be resolved. There are real divisions. Sometimes, it's important to say, "Well, this is a fight that has to be had." Certainly, on an issue like immigration, you can argue we don't necessarily need to find some kind of consensus that incorporates all points of view. I think there's many people would say move towards restrictionism and nativism is really not, shouldn't be on the table in 2019. You can't resolve this until that's pushed aside. There are lots of questions like that where I'm not sure until they're resolved one way or another, you'll ever get out of the polarization or one group kind of supporting one side starts just to lose political power. That's the other way something's resolved.

Soledad O'Brien: Where are you optimistic? What do you see in the culture or what do you even see in the political sphere where you say, "Now, that thing, if we could elevate that, expand it, could be useful"?

Kevin M. Kruse: The book really tells a story of all these social movements that bubble up from the ground and really do change things. So, in the 80s, as much as it seemed like the Reagan Revolution had swept across the country and that was an image they consciously created, that this wasn't just another election, this was a revolution. We've changed things.

One of the things that we talk about in the book is new waves of activism from the grassroots change things.

So, think about what's happened, just in the last couple years with Black Lives Matter, with the #MeToo movement, with the Parkland students putting gun control back on the table. New generation of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about taking the top marginal tax rate back up to 70 percent where it had been before Reagan, where it had been higher than that under Eisenhower. These are things that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. Yet, they're now in conversation because a new generation of people are really pushing them to the floor. So, that gives me a little optimism.

Soledad O'Brien: Final question for you gentlemen. Optimistic or pessimistic that we ever get to a united America that I think we're all very aspirational about and there's a gajillion cheery little quotes that we post on Instagram about, but I think most of us would say we don't necessarily see it day in and day out. Genuinely, in your heart, are you optimistic?

Kevin M. Kruse: I mean, look. As a historian, I find myself a—

Soledad O'Brien: As a human being. Forget the historian. As a human being—

Kevin M. Kruse: As a human?

Soledad O'Brien: … are you optimistic about America?

Kevin M. Kruse: But my view as a human being is informed by my view as an historian, which is that I know how bad things have gotten in the past and how really, really, really bad they've gotten, I don't think we're quite to that depth yet. Not quite a bloody civil war with millions dead on both sides, so it's not quite that bad.

Soledad O'Brien: This is your optimistic take? Okay.

Kevin M. Kruse: This is my optimistic take. This is as sunny as historians get. We wade in people's dirty secrets in the archives and dwell on conflict and crisis all the time. So, we're a real cheery bunch.

But again, to go back to my earlier point, I do think I see signs of real change here. I don't think we're ever going to be wholly united. I think it's a mistake to believe this country was ever wholly divided. This country has always been a series of contested debates. I think we can do that a little more civilly. I think we can do that a little more politely. I think we can maybe disagree in ways that aren't quite as full-throated screaming at one another. That would be nice. But the fundamental disagreements are going to always be there, but I think that we do see these new movements that are going to, I think, get us out of this dark moment. How is that for optimism?

Soledad O'Brien: Yeah.

Julian Zelizer: I'll give a mix. I don't have optimism that we're on the cusp or even close to any point of unity, but part of the fun part of writing this book was to see — it's not all a bleak book. It is about division and divisive aspects of American society, but a lot of amazing things happen in the period we study, whether it was the ability of social movements right and left to change the fundamental terms of debate in American politics, whether it was the computer revolution, which we write about, which is just amazing to see the origins of the PC and where we ended up today, which has done many good things in terms of our communication and our commonality as a country, to politicians who, at moments, have been able to inspire.

The 80s was fractious, divisive, and angry, but Ronald Reagan was able to hit moments when a lot of the nation found him aspirational. Barack Obama, that 2008 night should not be forgotten. Even though we didn't get over, certainly, or we've not even close to the issues of racial division, something happened that night. That was a moment in this contentious period that I think signaled something good. So, my optimism actually doesn't come from a resolution, but it just comes from looking back at the good things. We made progress on issues.

So my optimism is there are good things that even happen in the moment we are in, and they can happen again.


MICHAEL WALDMAN: Thank you for listening to this episode of Brennan Center LIVE, with Soledad O’Brien, the CEO of Starfish Media Group and host of Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University and a teacher to all of us on Twitter, and Julian Zelizer, also a professor of history at Princeton and a CNN Political Analyst.

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