A talk with John Wood Jr. (twitter: @johnrwoodjr), who’s an ambassador with the depolarization group Braver Angels (braverangels.org) and who ran for Congress as a Republican in 2014 against Maxine Waters. Topics discussed include: American polarization and how it’s increased since the 1950s; what drew John to conservative politics; what the labels “liberal” and “conservative” mean and how they can change over time; how traditional American conservative thought is different from Trump’s populism; what it’s like to be a black conservative in America; black conservative political beliefs and how those are more complex and varied than is widely perceived. A transcript is below.
Links to this episode:
Resources discussed in the episode:
- The Braver Angels podcast
- Jon Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind
- About Russell Kirk, whose book ‘The Conservative Mind’ John recommended
- Peter Coleman’s book about depolarization The Way Out
- My episode about Trump supporters’ belief that the election was rigged
Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding others and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it and my work at www.behavior-podcast.com. If you like this podcast, I’d greatly appreciate it if you were willing to leave a review on iTunes or to share this podcast with your friends and family.
In this episode, I talk to John Wood, Jr., who ran for Congress in 2014 as a Republican against Democrat Maxine Waters. His campaign messaging at that time was focused on depolarization and reducing political animosity; he criticized both parties for unreasonable levels of us vs them behaviors. John is the former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. John serves now as a leader and ambassador for Braver Angels, which is an organization aimed at bridge-building and depolarization. I respect the work of John and of Braver Angels a lot, and I think they’re doing some of the most important work around in trying to tackle what is, in my opinion, the root cause of our dysfunction: unreasonable us-vs-them animosity that’s largely based on emotions and not nearly as much about ideology and issues as many people believe. You can follow John on Twitter at @johnrwoodjr.
I thought it would be interesting to get a conservative’s views on polarization, because I think most views about polarization in mainstream media tend to come from liberals. John and I also talk about what it is that drew him to a conservative political philosophy, and about the difference between traditional conservative philosophy and the iteration of conservatism that Trump represents. We talk about the history of polarization in the U.S., and how it has grown over time since the 1950s. I ask John about what it’s like to be black and be conservative, about black conservatives in general, and ask him for his thoughts on the GOP’s “election integrity” efforts, which have been criticized as election obstruction by many liberals.
Before getting to the interview, I wanted to share a story about John that will give you a sense of his philosophy about how we build bridges, how we work on depolarization.
For the Braver Angels podcast, a few months ago, John interviewed James Lindsay. If you don’t know, Lindsay is someone who spends much of his time these days criticizing what he perceived as unreasonable aspects of woke culture and anti-racism activism and such. Which, to be clear, I think is fine, as I think there are a lot of bad ideas and behaviors in that area to criticize So even though I actually agree w/ some of Lindsay’s critiques in this area, I also think he’s entirely immersed and consumed by extreme us-vs-them narratives and emotions. Essentially, he’s the poster child for what unreasonable polarization looks like; entirely focused on and extremely angry about the perceived bad behaviors of one group, seemingly entirely uninterested in the bad behaviors of other groups.
And when John did that interview with Lindsay, I tweeted to John and Braver Angels and said quote “I lost some respect for you all w/ your talking to James Lindsay. There are many reasonable people to talk to about unreasonable aspects of anti-racism stuff. Lindsay fans flames of division/hatred every day. We should be trying to find bridge-builders.” end quote.
I then named some people who I thought were capable of criticizing such things while remaining respectful, and that included John McWhorter (who, if you haven’t read him, I highly recommend for understanding what there is to criticize about anti-racism and CRT-related things). And in a following tweet to John and Braver Angels I said “My point is that Lindsay is hateful, divisive. IMO he’s been deranged by social media. Personally I attempt to critique extreme stuff while remaining respectful. I do believe most people are trying their best & think they’re doing good things.” end quote
And John Wood responded with quote “Those people you’re thinking of probably don’t reach James’ audience, which I thought might benefit from a more empathetic analysis of anti-racism. Don’t I influence them more speaking to James than not? Doesn’t James have to reckon with points he wouldn’t otherwise?” end quote
And I do think this is wise. I think John is right. And I think it shows the philosophy behind John’s approach and behind the Braver Angels approach. That by having such conversations, even with people you strongly disagree with, or maybe even agree with in some ways but may find very polarized and unhelpful, that maybe you promote more balanced views, if not with the person you’re speaking with, then perhaps amongst their fans and listeners. Because clearly the bubbles of thought so many of us live in are part of the problem, on both sides, and by mixing some of those bubbles more, I do believe that we help tamp down extreme and simplistic and one-sided ideas.
Peter Coleman is a respected person in the field of conflict resolution and mediation; in his recent book about polarization, called The Way Out: How To Overcome Toxic Polarization, he talks about how a major strategy for achieving peace between two conflicting groups is to highlight the complexity of the situation, to show the groups that their angry us-vs-them narratives are distorted and simplistic views of the world, that there is so much complexity; complexity in terms of each group’s diversity of ideas and viewpoints, and complexity in how the groups interact. By highlighting the complexity, you disperse simplistic narratives, and that’s what the tough conversations that John and Braver Angels are helping do, in my opinion.
And unfortunately these days I think too many people take the stance of “we just need to banish the people we think are the worst behaved, or ignore those people, or shut them down somehow.” But clearly our divides are not going away that easily. You could make the argument that the casting out, the ignoring, is part of the problem, in how such things lead to more bubbles, more places where unquestioned and one-sided views blossom. Maybe we need more people who decide to take that road of engaging in tough conversations, of attempting to understand and discuss ideas they don’t agree with; maybe that’s what would help us blend and melt those pockets of simplistic us vs them narratives that are all around us. If we’re going to avoid worst-case scenarios, maybe we need to convince some critical mass of people to attempt such things more, and maybe that way we lower the temperature enough to where our political polarization reaches normal, healthier levels. That’s my hope, and I think that’s the hope of John and Braver Angels.
Okay, here’s the talk with John Wood Jr.
Hey John, thanks for coming on.
John Wood Jr: Hey Zachary, how are you doing, man?
Zach Elwood: All right. And I appreciate your time. And actually with your work, with the work you’ve done with Braver Angels and depolarization, I just have so many questions. So it was actually difficult for me to narrow down to a few, but we’ll see how it goes. So when you ran for Congress in California in 2014 against Maxine Waters, it seemed like polarization was on your mind even back then. And you had said in your messaging when running that, “Due to egotism and intransigence of Democrats and Republicans alike, American politics have remained mired in division and dysfunction. So is it fair to say that polarization has been a focus of yours for quite a while and have you recognized it as a major problem for quite a while?
John Wood Jr: Man, you pulled a quote from the campaign; this is already a special conversation. I really appreciate that. No, you’re absolutely right, man. I’m not a Johnny come lately to this conversation over polarization. I mean, my concern with it definitely predates the Trump era and Black Lives Matter and so on and so forth. I think that it is a longstanding issue that sort of connects to a long-term kind of decline in our ability to relate to each other reinforced by the fact that the sort of structure of the political system is such that identity has become kind of deeply sort of woven into sort of party affiliation. That’s not necessarily all or even most of the picture here, but since you got me thinking about that campaign, it’s a worthwhile place to begin. I mean, at that time, you had… I mean, that was towards the end of the Obama administration. I ran in 2014, started campaigning in earnest in early 2013. The Obama presidency was sort of defined to a great degree by his running standoffs with the Tea Party backed Republican leadership in Congress. And that was a time where, I mean, you had intense controversies, you had intense issues, but it was like a government shutdown was like, “Oh man, where have we come to as as a country that the government could shut down for a couple weeks because the two parties can’t get it together to pass an annual budget.” Oh man, how nice it would be to have those be our worries now in the midst of what some people sort of look at as the pending collapse of democracy, legitimacy of the voting system and global pandemics and all that. So forgive me, I may have lost actually the starting [unintelligible 9.24]
Zach Elwood: Oh no, it wasn’t even a well-formed question. I think you were just verifying that it has been on your mind for a while.
John Wood Jr: Yeah. Well, when I was a little kid, well before obviously running for Congress or even being an activist, but I can remember in elementary school and I’ve always been interested in politics and governments and just sort of, I mean, those conversations stuck out to me before I even was consciously paying attention to them. And I can remember in the nineties people talking about how our politics just seemed to be breaking down over the sort of the pettiest things sometimes. And that back then was evidenced to many people by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton’s dalliances, but then his being dishonest with the American people about it. Newt Gingrich, congressional Republican, sort of seizing the moment and bringing the president into an impeachment saga that really just ate up a tremendous part of the nation’s attention then. And it’s funny just how quaint that feels in retrospect, because Donald Trump got elected and it’s like how many affairs? How many different gender-related controversies did he get into? And even being a Republican, it didn’t matter much at all. But it’s just to say that this pattern has been accelerating, it’s tied to our identification with the parties and ways that go beyond the pragmatic, but it’s greatly amplified by I would say demographic changes in American life and by technological changes in American life. And so there’s some different trend lines which sort of converge in quasi apocalyptic fashion with respect to our ability to retain relationship with each other and to reason together in the current moment. But yeah, I’ve been sensitive to this as a building problem about as long as I can remember. It’s fair to say that it’s kind of the big thing that made me want to get into politics in first place, was to push against that trend.
Zach Elwood: Yeah. And so my audience is liberal leaning mostly, and I’m curious when you wrote that line for your campaign back in 2014, I think most people listening, most on the liberal side will have examples on the Republican side of the intransigence and egotism, but I’m curious, do certain things stick out for you of what you were thinking about on the Democrat side for those kinds of things?
John Wood Jr: Yeah. I mean, specifically I was running against Maxine Waters, who has always been a flame thrower and fire brand. And back in those days, I mean, it’s not hard to remember her saying things like, “The Tea Party can go to hell,” and kind of as she’s pretty much always done, kind of wading into the political slug fest ways that pushed the envelope away from empathy and civility and towards a more kind of total warfare-style of politics. But I somebody who worked for Obama’s campaign in 2008 and I became a Republican afterwards, but I always was inspired by the brand of politics he represented. And I do recall feeling that the brand of politics that Obama represented in terms of the cultural reconciliation that he at least very early on and as a candidate, I think saw himself as wanting to be an agent for in Congress, and Republicans of course didn’t make it easy for him, but on the Democratic side of things, I think that when Barack Obama came into the White House, there was the poetry with which he governed, poetry with which he ran, I should say, this idea that we’re not red states or blue states, but the United States of America. And then the cold hard reality of special interest-driven, partisan politics in which it seemed to me at the time, and it would be interesting for me to revisit these issues now, but it seemed for me at the time that the Democratic Party broadly speaking, did not have the same commitment to the sort of cross partisan consensus building and basic sort of demonstrating of good faith and so forth that Obama sought to exemplify. I don’t think that that was at the top of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid’s agenda. It seemed like the desire to get congressional majorities that would allow them to not have to reckon with the input of Republicans too much. I mean, I think Obama pushed for bipartisanship, but I don’t think that that was something that the Democratic house cared about. And then you flip over to the cable news channels and so forth, I mean, obviously, you could talk all day back then about Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly’s sort of bloviating and prevaricating. But then you turn on Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann, just thinking about the folks who were big, the cable circuit back at that time. And you realize it’s a bipartisan food fight, especially in the media, because I used to listen to Randi Rhodes on Air America, the liberal side, talk radio and so forth. That was just the business model. Everybody was doing it, talking shit to build an audience and not thinking about how that ultimately impacts our ability to not just govern society but to get along with each other, as neighbors, commodifying conflict in a context where we should be centering and prioritizing reasoning and consensus and trust building. So that’s the way I felt back then. And things have really gotten a lot worse since
Zach Elwood: Yeah. That really helpful, I think, because I think I talk about these things too, and I try to point out like there’s… Even if you think one side’s worse, there is blame to go around on both sides in the sense of people that talk in us versus them ways of speaking and non-bridge building ways of speaking, I think. And Maxine Waters’ one, plenty of other people on the Democrat side and obviously on the Republican side too. But yeah, I think that’s helpful to go over. So let’s see. Do you find that in these increasingly polarized times with the volatility and chaos of the political situation, have you found that it can be kind of hard to use words, simple words like liberal or conservative in the same way that we used to? For example, I’ve talked to some liberals who were upset by some liberal side things who will say things like, “I used to be a liberal, but I don’t really know what I am anymore,” and things like that from both sides. Have you found that these kind of terms have become even harder to use in practical ways than they used to be?
John Wood Jr: Yeah. It’s definitely the case that they are blunt instruments in terms of communicating what people actually stand for and believe. And they are only less and less effective as time goes by. And yeah, it’s still hard to see how we utterly dispense with them. The truth is that the terms liberal and conservative have always been pretty flexible. I mean, I go back historically and what a liberal was a hundred years ago or so would’ve had very little to do with the expansive kind of presuppositions of the need for a welfare state, the need to kind of use the powers of government to place walls against discrimination of people in predicted categories and so forth. And then on the conservative side, I mean, you think of conservatives today, you tend to… Although even this has shifted within the last few years, but when I was running for Congress though, just in 2014, again, it feels like so long ago, it was only eight years ago I was on the campaign trail, so conservative was somebody who generally had a belief in sort of free market economics, limiting the role of government in a serious way, strong kind of libertarian sort of influences in terms of the role of the state and government. And while that’s still sort of a generally predominant kind of perspective in the GOP, for one, you go back to the 1950s, the 1960s, Republicans were largely in favor with the expansion of the welfare state and so forth. Barry Goldwater’s conservative kind of insurgency opposing the expansion of government was not the majority position like the Republican Party, and probably didn’t even… You go 10 or 20 years before that, you probably had a whole lot of people who called themselves conservatives or thought of themselves as being conservative, who would not have had a philosophy, anything that close to where Goldwater’s perspectives were. Fast forward a couple of decades, Reagan comes to the forefront, that sort of conservatism just defines what conservatism is. But now the era of Trump, it’s like is conservatism what Reagan stood for or is it a populism that allows for tariffs and protectionism on trade and things that tend to be much more situational in terms of like, “Okay, where do we limit the role of government and where do we just use it to protect American interests and so forth?” So the terms liberal and conservative can be defined in ways that identify formal philosophical traditions, and you can split the definitions of those terms in ways that identify substrands, that start to have less and less to do with each other at certain points. But I think that the most useful application of the terms as generalizing tools is to just say that liberals tend to be folks who are pushing for some sort of progress towards an ideal that has up and realized, whereas conservatives are trying to sort of hold on to the preconditions for the preservation of an ideal that they feel is slipping away. And in so far as those are just sort of elemental polls and aggregate human social psychology, you’re always going to have liberals and conservatives. But it’s totally possible to have liberals and conservatives in that fashion who aren’t traditional liberals or conservatives in more specific kind of political terms. So just bear in mind the limitations of language.
Zach Elwood: A small note here, “America’s political parties several decades ago before the 1960s used to be very well mixed and non-polarized. In some sense, they were more like clubs where neither side was very ideologically monolithic. They were mainly focused on just winning elections.” This is something I was reading about most recently in Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized. The start of that book gives a very good synopsis of what things were like at that time. And it was a much different time than we’re used to. I think we tend to extrapolate backwards from the way we know things are now, and we imagine things were the same a few decades ago, but they just weren’t. There were passions, there was anger, but the political parties were much more diverse ideologically. The anger on specific issues wasn’t accumulated on one side in other words. Regarding the fractured mental landscape we now inhabit, it’s possible that the internet age represents a return to our normal state of high conflict, that the era of big radio and TV only temporarily calmed. Tom Standage in his book Writing on the Wall had the following thoughts, “Look back before 1833 to the centuries before the era of old media began, however, to what could be termed the era of really old media and the media environment based on distribution of information from person to person, social networks has many similarities with today’s world. In many respects, 21st century internet media has more in common with 17th century pamphlets or 18th century coffee houses than with 19th century newspapers or 20th century radio and television.” From that point of view, perhaps the age of monolithic radio and TV and film, that period from roughly 1930 to 1990, that time before the digitally-powered explosion of cable news channels and the internet represented the abnormally calm times, a time when having only a few big media outlets resulted in media being a relatively calming opiate of the masses. Perhaps the internet age has just returned us to a state humans have been at since the invention of the printing press, an abundance of conflicting views and abundance of sources for those views. I don’t necessarily believe this, but it’s an interesting framing to consider. Back to the interview. I’m not sure exactly if you identify as a Republican now, but I’m wondering if you can talk about what being a conservative means to you and what the draw was there. And maybe if you had like a book that summarized best your feelings or thoughts about that, maybe you could talk about that too.
John Wood Jr: Yeah, well, that’s a great question. so I am still a registered Republican. To be perfectly honest with you, I have not voted Republican beyond the local level. I think I voted Republican for Congress maybe the last time around. I’ve actually only ever voted Republican for president once, that was in 2012, voted for Mitt Romney in the primary and the general election. And as time has gone by, I’ve actually felt better and better about that vote as I feel like for me, Romney has kind distinguished himself more and more as a person of principle in the context of our politics, GOP. But what does conservatism mean for me? My relationship to conservatism has evolved over time. I would say that what drew me to conservatism earlier on was the sense that the essential sorts of cultural claims of American conservatism and the essential economic claims of American conservatism resonated with what grew to be my sort of understanding of where sort of the base level kind of value structures of society need to be. So let me ground that a little bit. I was a person who grew up secular, who grew up sort of opposed organized religion, and somebody who didn’t really think too much about the nuclear family and the smaller units of society. But I’m somebody who eventually sort of found religion, found a faith-based community, derived great value from that, sort of saw how church and synagogue became sort of anchors for communities across the cultural ethnic spectrum, been a part of black churches, been a part of Messianic Jewish synagogues, long story there, from Los Angeles to Colorado. And really sort of became struck by the idea that faith in the abstract and religion and the concrete sort of provides kind of a moral and cultural centering sort of structure that society for all of the corruptions and excesses of religion that society might be throwing the baby out with the bath water with respect to if we didn’t hold onto. And then on the economic side, I was struck by arguments back at that time, which basically said that the conventional right, left economic arguments of the nineties and the early 2000s and so forth, which basically made the case that look, as you lower regulations, as you lower taxes, you increase growth, you increase opportunity, you increase prosperity. And while there’s a role for a social safety net to make sure that people don’t fall through the bottom, you’re tamping down on people’s ability to ascend the ranks of society as you tighten the controls too much through taxation and regulation. Now, I was impressed by those arguments on a statistical sort of level, and we can go through the nooks and crannies of that, in retrospect, I think my analysis might have been a little bit simplistic, although maybe I still fear that direction. But part of what grounded me to appreciating certain mainstream conservatism back then was also just my experience in the black community really. I mean, I was a person who after having grown up largely in the suburbs, but with family and relatives in the inner city, I actually came to live in the inner city and in the projects. And the sort of claims about welfare estate sort of precipitating in many cases sort of like norms of dependency and so forth in the absence of greater economic mobility, in the absence of school choice, where you’re stuck in underperforming schools determined by your ZIP code and so forth. I sort of lived in communities where that was just evidenced up close. I in stood welfare lines, I hung out with people who weren’t necessarily looking for work. One, because it wasn’t really… They weren’t really pushing that direction. Two, because there wasn’t a whole lot of good jobs to be found anyway. And so suddenly, folks are able to innovate ways of living that more or less make a career out how you deal with the public benefits sort of system. Everything’s a lot more complicated than that, but that is a reality, and it is something that made me think at the time. You know what, there’s something to this empowerment, the need for an empowerment mindset like say a guy like Larry Oliver might talk about. It made me think, “Okay, there needs to be a whole lot more conservatism in this conversation in America, but definitely in the black community.” And let be an intelligent, but also an empathetic voice for that. Because people don’t have it easy, but I grew up being told that capitalism was more bad than good, but over time I came to feel like you look at history, you look at the way in which resources and technology have been used by innovating minds to generate wealth and drive down starvation rates and negative outcomes in healthcare, not just in America, but globally through entrepreneurialism and through production, it just seemed to me like capitalism’s got a bad rep and that’s something that we want to preserve a basic commitment to. So back in those days, all of those conventional arguments sort of appealed to me and made me lean towards mainstream conservatism. Since then, I would say that my conservatism has shifted in a way to where I’ve become far more interested in the roots of, you hear a lot of people talk about classical liberalism, but I’ve become a lot more interested in the roots of classical conservatism if you will, which is the conservatism that was written about by folks like, well, most significantly Russell Kirk in the mid-20th century, but sort of recounting the conservatism of Edmund Burke and of John Adams and various other figures in British and American history. And that sort of conservatism, interestingly enough, even though it provided sort of the intellectual foundation in general for the conservative movement that would go mainstream with Reagan in America, you look at what Russell Kirk was writing about and you look at the figures he was writing about, the conservatism that Russell Kirk represented really has very little today to do relatively speaking with the conservatism that has evolved in America since then. His conservatism was more about recognizing the foundational structures of our institutions and the virtues of character that allow us to be able to preserve what is good and functioning in our institutions while being able to also look at the world around us through prudence, through temperance, through wisdom, and to concede the points at which things need to change, to concede the places in which reforms need to need to happen, but to just do it in a way that allows us to, again, not throw the baby out with the bath water. So whether you’re a free market capitalist or somebody who believes in a strongly mixed economy, let’s say, the thing that would make you conservative in this philosophical context would not be being one or the other, but it would be being somebody who would be very slow to, let’s say, take a mixed economy and just a eradicate every government program maybe in the way that perhaps that’s what Ron Paul would’ve liked to do. Because that very sort of destruction of the governing norms of society would itself bring in chaos and unexpected or unintended consequences that would betray the wisdom of a conservative temperament and same thing going the other way. If you wanted to take a free market state and radically sort of change it to sort of a socialist utopia overnight, even if you had the best practical arguments for doing so, the pace at which you did so, the arguments that you made for doing so, have to take into account the structures and the traditions that already exist in a society. And so what you see with a person like Donald Trump, I think is a radical departure, about as radical as you can imagine from that sort of a conservative, philosophical orientation, because it immediately sort of, this particular movement, which some people think of as conservative, but this populous movement on the right has sort of set out to undermine the institutions of society rather than seeking to merely sort of identify their flaws and intelligently reform them, even in Trump’s conduct and the conduct of many of his allies in terms of how they talk to their political opponents, our very loose relationship on the right oftentimes with empirical reality, the fact that we can all just sort of laugh at the fact that you would have a map indicating where a storm is going to hit in coastal Florida, and for political reasons somebody takes a Sharpie marker and just redraws it right before the press, God, so everybody can see what happened yet nobody looks at that as just like a radically disconcerting sort of thing for the leaders of our country to do. These are all elementally sort of anti-conservative tendencies. And so I’ve kind of gone back to that old sort of conservative literature because I think it has wisdom in it for not just the Republican Party but for all of American society. And so that’s the kind of conservative, a Burkian conservative more or less you might say, that I sort of see myself as more akin to today.
Zach Elwood: That’s very helpful, yeah. And I had interviewed a sociology researcher, Michael Macy, on a previous podcast, and he had talked about the chaotic nature of political stances, and especially how they group together in different parties. And he talked a little bit about kind of seeing it as a chaotic system, and especially as things get more polarized in the society and there’s more animosity and emotion. That leads to even more chaos, which I think gets to some of that weird strange bedfellows kind of unusual stances that parties can suddenly shift to just because one party takes a stance on something, and so the other party feels compelled to take the opposite stance on the extreme end. So there’s this, I think, viewing it as a really chaotic system that’s really subject to initial conditions as kind of a helpful way to see these things as a turbulent system and that kind of stood out for me as a way to understand these things.
John Wood Jr: Yeah, I agree with that.
Zach Elwood: Yeah. One of the great books I’ve read for reaching a better understanding of conservative philosophy and conservative thought and respect for conservative thought was Jonathan Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, which I would recommend anybody listening if you’re on the liberal side and you just really can’t understand a lot of conservative philosophy and think it’s all maybe just bad or unreasonable. I’d highly recommend reading that book because it just so well explains so many things that before I read that book, I honestly felt looking back very clueless and even embarrassed by a lot of things I’d said and thought before reading that book. So I just highly recommend that one. I don’t know if you’ve read that one.
John Wood Jr: Yeah, agreed. Well, not only have I read that book, but Jonathan Haidt is on our board of directors at Braver Angels, the organization I represent. And in fact it was… By the way, I would highly recommend people do read… Although it’s a lengthy philosophical tune, but it travels a great deal of history, and I would highly recommend anybody interested in this sort of conservatism, classical conservatism I’m referring to, to read The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk published mid-fifties, I believe. But it was reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt that gave me something of a psychological vocabulary for a lot of those sort of patterns and trends of human psychology as it varies across the left right spectrum and sort of the way humans reason generally that I had already more or less kind of identified and acted upon in the course of my campaign for Congress and my other work in and around politics. But yeah, The Righteous Mind has been incredibly impactful, not just to I think people’s the country’s understanding of the psychological mechanics of polarization, but to the larger sort of bridge building field and depolarization movement that’s begun to germinate over the last several years. I don’t think you can think of anybody who intellectually has provided more of an intellectual foundation for that small, but real and deepening space in American social and civic life than Jonathan Haidt. So he’s a very consequential figure in our understanding here.
Zach Elwood: Yeah, for sure. He’s done great work, a great service, I think. Yeah. So do you think the nature of the US election system and how it works, for example, seeming to pre-select for a two-party system by the way it operates, do you think that system inherently sets us up for increasing polarization over time?
John Wood Jr: Well, I don’t know if that’s inherent because we can look back at other episodes of American history where you had two parties and yet we did not have the sort of polarization we have today, which isn’t to say that a system that is multipolar might not be better anyway. And actually for the first time ever on the Braver Angels podcast, I interviewed Andrew Yang relatively recently, who has his own third party now called the Forward Party, which basically is about advocating for electoral reforms, rank choice voting, among them, that would essentially give us a multipolar system. And for the first time ever, I’m sort of thinking that Andrew and the sorts of reformed advocates who want to push in that direction may be onto something. But it is worth remembering that in the 1950s, 1960s, when we passed the voting rights act, the civil rights act, the great society legislation, medicare, etc, these were bipartisan majorities that passed these bills. And significant bipartisan, not just one or two, not just like Manchin and Sinema or Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski maybe crossing over, but significant numbers of members from both parties in Congress voting alongside each other. And that was against the backdrop of a society in which polling data would reveal people did not have any problems with the idea of their son or daughter marrying Republican if the parents happen to be Democrats or vice versa. Now that’s totally flipped in a serious way, back then it used to be say religion, something. “I don’t mind if my son marries a Republican, but if he marries a Catholic, that’s a problem.” Well, now religion hardly matters at all, it’s party affiliation, which is driving so much of social prejudice. But I will say that the problem, one problem with the analysis I just gave you a moment ago is that a big part of what allowed for the lack of polarization on the governing level in particular to persist, and there are multiple things. I mean, one thing that allowed members of Congress to interact with each other in a genuinely fraternal way was the fact that many of those folks had served together in World War Two and in uniform. They all had the memory of greater enemies like the Nazis and so forth, truly representing the enemies of the country. They didn’t really have time to think of each other in that way. Although, you had McCarthy and the communist scares and all that. But the thing that many people would say, and I think it’s true, that allowed the parties to not be so polarized back then, a significant factor, was the fact that there was something of a bipartisan agreement over racial issues, which allowed for the continuing subjugation of African Americans in particular in American life in ways that sort of allowed Southern Democrats to vote with others in the Democratic Party or the Republican party so long as somebody was willing to protect, let’s say, for instance, the right of Jim Crow states to ensure that school segregation remained in place. Or maybe a better example would be something like… It used to be when federal housing developments were built up at scale, federal housing projects in the 1930s, so forth, you had lawmakers who wanted them to be integrated. But you had Republicans on the one hand who didn’t want to see the proliferation of public housing, because it would compete with private real estate and commercial interest. But then you had Southern Democrats who might be willing to throw their votes towards public housing, except for the fact that they wanted them to remain segregated. And so you’d have Southern Democrats who represent sort of a swing vote between free market oriented or at least private business kind of focused Republicans and Democrats who wanted to expand liberals, more liberal Democrats who wanted to expand housing, public housing nationwide. Now, in that case, Southern Democrats ultimately threw their weight behind the progressive Democrats or the more liberal Democrats, your Adlai Stevenson types behind public housing, because they dropped the demand for integration. The NAACP wound up siding with the Republicans who had strategically placed sort of a poison pill on the legislation saying, “Okay, we’ll vote for this if you make it integrated.” They didn’t want the public housing projects at all, but they knew that if they demanded that it’d be integrated, that Southern Democrats would vote against it. But the NAACP joined the Republican position politically because they wanted to see it integrated in its own right. But the point being that the hot potato here is what you do about black people. And depending on what coalition was there to be forged, the way to do that oftentimes was to sort of make sure that African Americans were cut out of the legislative pie if you will. And so you had bipartisan governance kind of persist in American society for a good long while in that way until racial issues emerge as a central part of what ultimately polarized the electorate, especially after the bipartisan legislation of the sixties was passed, and then you got into a new era of American life. And so it’s just to say that there’s never necessarily been a golden age that didn’t have something of an underbelly to it, but even so I do think that in all sorts of ways, we would like to see the partisan culture of American political life return to something more fraternal in the way it was in the 1950s or sixties or what have you, where at least along the axis of political identification we don’t find reasons to hate each other otherwise, abuse each other on the basis of our merely being Republicans or Democrats. That’s an artifact that I’d like to see go.
Zach Elwood: So hopefully these are okay questions to ask. I was curious to ask you about what it’s like at an emotional level to be a black conservative, because I’ve often thought when I looked at black conservatives in the US, I think that must be a pretty tough and lonely road just because of how little respect in the liberal leaning mainstream media that black conservatives seem to get. They’re either ignored or mocked by the media or mocked by liberal citizens. I’m curious if maybe you can talk a little bit about that, and is it tough? And maybe are there more black conservatives maybe than people would think there are based on polls and such?
John Wood Jr: Well, last time if you just go by a figure like how many African Americans voted Republican, let’s say in… I think that through most of, let’s say, the Bush years or whatnot, I think Bush probably would’ve been around 7%, something like that. And that might represent a cool million people or so out of the larger black voting population. I’m sort of guesstimating here. But I think that’s probably about right. Of course, with Obama, even a lot of black Republicans voted for Obama because his election was so historic and so forth for obvious reasons. But it’s fair to say that to be a black Republican or a black conservative, politically conservative African-American is oftentimes a lonely and isolating road, socially isolating if you’re too loud about it. The Republican party has become like each party has since become sort of identifiable with the ideology of their base. And so as we said, a moment ago, you said liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans, conservative Republicans, that’s no more the case. So Republicans are identified with conservatism. Conservatism these days is identified with sort of racial, cultural, social intolerance. And so for black people, it’s like if you’re with… And is identified with the south too, because that’s where the base of the Republican party is. So for black people, if you’re voting Republican, you’re voting with the party of the south, you’re voting the party that is the descendants of folks who brought us slavery, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and who now don’t want to give money for social services for poor people and who want to make it harder to vote. How the hell are you going to be black and a Republican? The Republican identity in this point of view is sort forged in anti-blackness. And yet there are very obvious reasons why some black people are drawn to conservatism, including the vast majority of black people who are never going to get the opportunity to be a well paid, contributing to The Daily Wire or funded on Fox News, something. And it’s because on an elemental level, there’s a of couple things. But again on elemental sort of cultural level, it’s worth remembering that African Americans come out of the south in American history, cultural history. And that even as they migrated to Chicago, to Detroit, to Los Angeles, New York, elsewhere, they brought religion with them, they brought a traditional way of viewing the family unit with them. They brought all sorts of longer standing traditional values that come out of basically the same sort of cultural kind of wellspring as does much of Southern culture, which itself kind of bubbles up into Southern conservative political orientations. And so for black Americans who tend to be far more religious than their Democratic counterparts and in inner city communities that institutionally speaking are basically anchored by the black church traditionally, even more than the schools in most cases, there’s a cultural worldview with which many African Americans will find sympathy with conservative Americans. And then again, you look at the impact of sort of the welfare state, if you will, on the larger sort of culture of empowerment and autonomy and independence in black communities, I’m recognizing the fact that this is a far more complicated conversation than I’m going to make it sound, but in the lived experience of many black folks who are constantly working with young men in particular, to keep them out of gangs, to keep them out of violence, to get them into the workforce to work for themselves, to not be content to sort of live a life in which you are given things but one in which you are earning your way forward because that’s the only way you’re going to progress in society, that’s the only way you’re going to move up and out through hard work and through education, but who would like the option, like the opportunity to send their kids to better schools than they’re allowed to send them to given the way the public educational system determines educational outcomes by ZIP codes which correspond to race. For black people who put those dots together in that way, it produces sympathy for a larger sort of conservative political worldview, which emphasize entrepreneurialism over government assistance and which would emphasize choice in education and the grounding of religious and cultural tradition over the increasingly shifting and fluid social and sexual and familial norms of the American left. Many black people are naturally drawn to that for deeply felt reasons, including many who vote Democrat, but then in church will kind of complain about a lot of the same patterns that people who would identify themselves as black Republicans would. So it’s a nuanced landscape, but to your question, black Republicans do get signaled out for the obvious reasons. However, I, myself have never… I’ve tasted a bit of that, and I have deep sympathy for what black Republicans, conservatives go through, because they will stand up and say, “Hey, I’m voting for George W. Bush. I’m voting for Mitt Romney. I’m with the Tea Party. I’m with Donald Trump.” Although there’s a new conversation we had about Trump and black America, because Trump scrambles all the categories as always. But yes, those who are willing to just sort of stand up and say that, get pilloried. And many times they get resentful. Because the only way most… Many black Republicans want to be vocal about their politics just like many people in politics in general, the only way many folks can think of to communicate their convictions is just by challenging and debating the people around them or being loud about it, signaling what they believe politically and then saying, “Okay, now it’s time to take the heat.” And I admire anybody who’s willing to stand in the kitchen even as it gets hot, but for myself, I’m a good debater, I think. And I’m happy to debate folks and defend my positions so on and so forth, but I’ve always kind of evaded a lot of the negative stigma that has come to many black Republicans, particularly folks who have public reputations. In part just because as a communicator, I’ve always valued listening to what the other side has to say and understanding and recognizing the validity of the experiences that produced the other person’s worldview. And I always try to honor that before I start digging into my opinions or why I think they might be wrong or incorrect about something. And that’s how I campaigned when I was running for Congress. And I think as a consequence of that, it’s been remarkably few and far between the number of times that I’ve ever been called an Uncle Tom or a race traitor or anything like that. Because I think people could sort tell that where I was coming from, at the end of the day, one, I recognize the fact that I could be wrong about any given thing and two, I’m doing what I’m doing because I want things to be better for everybody. And in the context of the black community, I have a commitment to the flourishing of black Americans, of all Americans, but there’s a particular historic struggle in the context of African American life that I find myself wanting to be a part of addressing and redressing. So I think that, again, it’s not to say that I, I haven’t felt the awkwardness at least or stepped in circles, “Okay, here’s John, he’s a Republican. What does he think about this? What does he think about that? What’d your boy Trump do? Yada, yada, yada.” And I didn’t vote for Trump, but doesn’t even always matter. Nevertheless, it’s something that hasn’t made me lose too much sleep in my life.
Zach Elwood: Yeah. I think it’s mainly to me seemed how ignored minority conservatives seem to be in the mainstream media. And when I have these kind of conversations, depolarizing kind of conversations, and I bring up the fact that 12% of black voters or so voted for Trump or a third of Muslim Americans voted for Trump in the last election or a third of Hispanic voters. I think it shows that those things are powerful because it shows the complexity and the nuance of the situation. And it hurts those many simplistic narratives that many liberals have about all or most Trump supporters are bigoted or xenophobic or something. It kind of showed that complexity is valuable, I think, in showing if you can see how these people can vote for Trump, then maybe it’s more easy to understand how not all white Trump supporters are like you think they are, things like that. So, yeah, I think those things are valuable to talk about them.
John Wood Jr: That’s absolutely the case. I’ve never met anybody who was more exorcised about immigration, unchecked immigration, illegal immigration across our Southern border than regular black folks in south central Los Angeles who may or may not even have been been Republicans. I mean, many of them are Republicans, but some of them are not. And yet they’ve seen competition for already scarce jobs and opportunity and housing in inner city neighborhoods that used to be predominantly black and culturally black and so forth, where in suddenly sort of larger the economic interests of let’s say conservative businessmen and the political interests of progressive Republicans have sort of allowed in their view, the sacrificing of the black community economically, politically and culturally to shifting demographic trends. And it’s not that they hate Latinos or anything like that, but they didn’t ask for, they didn’t ask for their communities to be sort of swamped and changed in that way. And I just mentioned that because certainly if you hear conservative white folks talking that way, who live out in Michigan or whatnot, pretty far from the border, but even if they live in Texas is like the response from many of us is going to be like how you are bigoted and intolerant. And I wish I had a few more open-minded brown people in this country to balance out crazy rednecks, but you got black people who feel the exact same way, and they don’t fit easily into the narrative. And there’s a hell of a lot more of them than you would think if all you’re doing is watching the black folks who show up on CNN or NBC. But I mean, you kind of… If have something of a partisan interest in representing the black view, the black perspective and so forth, you’re kind of going to want to downplay that, the fact that there’s such a significant constituency around those types of sentiments. And you’re right. I mean, Trump did not actually do badly compared to other Republicans. He did very well with people of color in general, including black Americans. I mean, the bar is very low there for Republican presidential candidates, but he definitely cleared it, and got higher profile support from black celebrities and so forth than any Republican in recent memory. Those people are real, their black experiences are real. I sympathize and identify with various points of it. And yet there’s something of a larger monopolization of black identity within the institutional spaces of academia and entertainment in politics that because of where it’s situated can kind of amplify its own voice across the country in a way that allows to kind of pretend to be more or less universally representative of where black Americans are. But really what you see coming through this sort of progressive vanguard of the Democratic Party, of the campuses and what comes to the entertainment industry, is more of a representation. It’s not to say that it’s not a real perspective, real worldview, it is, sort of the I mean, let’s just say the generally progressive sort of anti-racist worldview of American political and cultural life that would invest its political identity in support for one wing or the other of the Democratic Party. But as you go down to the base of it, the worldview that comes out of that place is something that’s largely, it’s much more a product of the black educated classes, the black middle classes, the sort of multicultural black community that’s integrated into American suburban communities. It is less representative of rural black Americans, is less representative of religious black Americans, and it’s less representative of older black Americans. Now, those folks will tend to vote Democrat as well largely because there’s, again, this perception fair, unfair of the Republican party as having inherited the mantle of particularly Southern racism and so forth. But the worldview of, let’s say, Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is not illegitimate, and he speaks for many, many, many black people, but there’s many millions of black people for whom he doesn’t really speak. And I think that gets lost for a lot of particularly progressive white folks because of where they live, because of the institutions they go to, because of what they’re watching on TV, aren’t really in a position to even meet a lot of the black people I know who would see the world socially and culturally and in some cases politically in strikingly different terms. That’s why all of this stuff is more complicated than it seems
Zach Elwood: For sure. Are you okay for one more questioner or do you have a-
John Wood Jr: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Zach Elwood: Okay. So I’d say the thing that’s generating the most anger on the left right now besides the election is rigged, well, I guess kind of related to it, but one of the things that’s driving a lot of anger is the perception that voting rights are being unfairly and maliciously restricted by the GOP in order to win more elections. And I’ll say I think some of this is overheated and exaggerated. For example, I read a very good Atlantic piece by Derek Thompson about the Georgia voting law, for example, that went into detail about how the law wasn’t as extreme or malicious was widely perceived. And then there’s the fact that even a majority of Democrats in one recent poll supported the idea of requiring voting ID, but then a lot of what the GOP is doing does seem to me pretty clearly intentionally restrictive and bad, especially how it relates to Trump’s attempts to overturn the last election. So I’m curious if you’d be up for saying something about that. Because when I said I was going to be interviewing you and asked for question ideas, the most common question was ask him what he thinks. How can he or a black Republican, somebody who says they’re a black Republican, not be very angry about these kind of voting restrictions? So I’m curious if you’d have anything to say about that.
John Wood Jr: Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t consider myself to be an expert on the legislation, federal or state level, that’s most relevant to this question. But I can tell you with some confidence sort of what my impressions and feelings are here. I think that there are a couple of things that are true at the same time. On the one hand, I think that to some degree, and I don’t know whether it’s most of it or less than most of it, but to some degree Republicans I think have consciously sought to innovate voting restrictions that have been targeted at depressing Democratic turnout which inevitably is going to overlap with broader, with suppressing the votes of black and brown communities, because those are the voting bases of the Democratic Party, certainly in key urban centers across the country that tend to swing the most electoral votes. And we know this because you actually had Republican politicians say it out loud. I forget who it was exactly, but I think it might have been like… Well, he was a member, I think, of the Pennsylvania state legislature or what have you. And he said out loud, he said something along the lines of like, “So and such voting reform act is that is,” which everybody knew… You look at it, was going to require just greater requirements for being able to cast a ballot. But he put the bill in terms of the act that was going to allow Mitt Romney to be elected president of the United States was done. And the whole reputation of this legislation for people on the left was this is going to suppress turnout people of color. And yes, because whether you’re racist or not, you could say that has nothing to do with it. And probably it very well may not have anything to do with it, but in terms of raw political calculations, if you’re a Republican and most black people are voting Democrat, well, you want fewer black people to vote. And if you can innovate electoral reforms to affect that outcome, that’s what a cynical political operative is going to do. Our system is filled with cynical political operatives. I mean, I think that there are Democrats who want to increase sort of immigration intake for the exact sort of parallel reason. Because it’s an investment in the ongoing sort of building out of the Democratic coalition. Here’s the baseline reality for me. I think that the truth of it is that for all of the bills that have been passed requiring whatever it is they require for people to be able to cast votes, that has not kept African American voter turnout from being at all time highs in recent cycles. Now, if you have legislation in the state of Georgia or a circumstance in the state of Georgia or somewhere else, wherein you can sort of quantify the fact that black voters are having to stand in line three or four hours longer than white voters to be able to cast ballot, I say do something about that. Because I do think that there’s an equity conversation to be had here. And if there are patterns that you can identify like that, and people have said that there are, I’m perfectly willing to believe it. I haven’t dug deep into the reporting on this, but things like that are what made people say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten rid of the provision of the voting rights act which required, particularly Southern states, to submit to certain authorizations before putting in place new voting reforms.” Because there’s this history of voter disenfranchisement which defined the black civic experience across America and most acutely in the south. That history isn’t that far behind us. But having said that, a hell of a lot of difference between now and then. you know, The policies the voting rights act was aimed to address in the social context at the time kept black people from voting at all across much of America. Nothing the Republican party is doing is preventing black people from basically determining the outcome of so much of our national politics. So that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned, it is to say that our focus on this issue has less to do with where the practical problems in American political life lie right now and more to do, if I’m being a little bit… Well, from the vantage point again of the cynical political operator, let’s say, the utility of this issue is usefulness in being able to leverage the accusation that the right is acting in continuation of the legacy of Jim Crow in American life as a means of delegitimizing the larger sort of political program and standing of the Republican Party writ large in American life. And politics is nasty. I mean, of course it’s going to be that way, but for me the bummer just comes in the fact that there really is this huge untold story of black American underclass, wherein we’re still dealing with a bloated incarcerated population, we’re still dealing with incredibly disproportionate poverty, we’re still dealing with seriously segregated housing across America, we’re still dealing with deep inequalities in education so on and so forth, that we could be working towards establishing bipartisan political and also commercial and philanthropic coalitions to address in materially meaningful ways. But a lot of important issues just don’t get as much of the spotlight as the things that can allow us to sort of relive the culture wars in language that is reminiscent of the 1960s in context where we should probably be approaching these things a little bit differently. And so that’s the opportunity loss for me in this kind of politics. And it’s more polarizing than it needs to be. So yeah, that’s kind where I come out on it.
Zach Elwood: I have many more questions I’d love to ask you, but I know you got to go. So thanks a lot for joining me, John. It’s been great and educational.
John Wood Jr: Yeah, man. Well, thanks a lot. I enjoyed the conversation. You keep doing the good work that you do, man. Thanks a lot.
Zach Elwood: That was an interview with John Wood Jr., ambassador for the depolarization group Braver Angels. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnRWoodJr. And you can follow Braver Angels on Twitter @BraverAngels. Honestly, I just had so many more questions I wanted to ask John, we didn’t even get to the questions I had about his experiences doing depolarization work and the techniques he found useful and what he found didn’t work. Maybe one day I’ll talk to him again.
If you’re interested to learn more about Republican endeavors to make voting harder, I recommend the Wikipedia entry called “Republican efforts to restrict voting following the 2020 presidential election,” which gives a good overview of what’s going on in that area.
With regards to how conservatives view some liberal pro-immigration stances as, in John’s words, “cynical political operations,” one thing we didn’t touch on but that seems especially relevant to that discussion was the recent New York City law, which allowed non-citizens to vote in local elections. This was a controversial law even amongst liberals. A good recent Atlantic article about it was titled “The Voting-Rights Debate Democrats Don’t Want to Have,” with the subtitle “A progressive law in the nation’s largest city seems to be a step too far for national Democrats.” That law has angered many conservatives, who see it as an indicator of the cynical strategy of Democrats.
Regardless of whether you agree with those kinds of views or not, I think it’s important to recognize how many conservatives view the pro-immigration stances of Democrats. They view such stances largely, as John said in our talk, as cynical attempts to gain political power. I think it’s important to consider how, even if you don’t believe that, how it could seem that way to conservatives. Because I think putting yourself in those shoes can help make some conservative behaviors more comprehensible.
For example, let’s imagine an alternate reality where the majority of immigrants to the U.S. voted Republican, for whatever reason. That doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me, considering in our world, the real world, there’s pretty significant minority support for the GOP already. For example, one third of Muslim Americans voted for Trump in the last election. Amongst Asian-American voters 17% voted for Trump in 2016, and that rose significantly to 31% in 2020.
If we lived in a world where immigrants were generally more likely to vote Republican, do you think it’s possible that Democrats might be less enthusiastic about immigration than they are now? Do you think it’s possible Democrats might even seek to curtail immigration? Do you think in such a world that Republicans might turn quite pro-immigration? It’s easy for me in that imagined world to imagine Democrats being the ones objecting to Republican’s pro-immigration stances as cynical political maneuvering.
Is it possible that, in our world, the real world, the mere fact that immigrants are more likely to vote Democrat is, in itself, what drives a lot of Republican anti-immigration stances, especially amongst the Republican political leadership?
In a recent Tucker Carlson episode, he argued that his segments being critical of Democrats’ stances on immigration, which often get described as promoting racist “white replacement” ideas, weren’t about race at all. To quote a City Journal article about that, Tucker Carlson said that quote “the U.S. would be better off if Brown University’s upper-middle-class student population were replaced with industrious Nigerian immigrants.”
This isn’t to defend Republican leaders, or to defend Tucker Carlson. My goal is just to attempt to dig into the reason why Republicans are engaging in these election obstruction attempts. I want to understand them. Do they do this because they’re simply unethical people who don’t care about democracy and want to win at any cost? Or is because they really truly believe that Democrat leaders are doing similar underhanded things when it comes to seeking political power? Or is it because they really do believe stories about widespread election fraud? Or is it different combinations of those things for different Republicans?
To be clear, I think no matter what, making it harder for our fellow citizens to vote, when there’s been no evidence of widespread election fraud, just seems clearly wrong and bad to me. The reason I want to delve into these topics and ask these questions, is because I’m interested in understanding some of these behaviors. Because honestly I just don’t understand a lot of people’s behaviors these days.
One thing I do believe is that if Trump had won the 2020 election, we would have seen a significant number of Biden voters who believed the election was illegitimate, just as we saw happen with Trump supporters. I definitely do not believe we would have seen a major Democrat leader behave in the horribly irresponsible and dangerous way Trump did in denigrating the election, but based on the research I’ve looked at, it seems probable that we would have seen a lot of people, including probably some influential Democrats, who viewed the election as illegitimate and promoted it as such. In a recent episode from a few weeks before, i talked to political scientist Tom Pepinsky about that topic, as he had previously done some research about beliefs in election illegitimacy. We also talk about the question of how many Trump supporters really truly believe that the election was stolen.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at www.behavior-podcast.com. If you enjoy this podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes or another platform. I make no money on this podcast, and I spend a good deal of time on it. If you want to give me some money to show your appreciate, my Patreon is at patreon.com/zachelwood. And you can follow me on Twitter at @apokerplayer.
Okay thanks for listening.