Susan Cain (BSS #430)

Susan Cain is most recently the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts.


SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY: Are we all prone to the malady of the introvert who turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within? Perhaps this conversation about introverts will clear up this Bertrand Russell idea. And perhaps you, dear listener, can weigh in. The Bat Segundo Show is giving away two copies of Susan Cain’s Quiet. All you have to do is email ed @ with the subject line QUIET GIVEAWAY before February 7, 2012. Tell us when you first knew you were an introvert or an extrovert and what effect this has had on your life. Don’t worry. If you’re feeling shy, you can stay anonymous and we’ll keep your names confidential. We’ll read some of the stories on a future program and give away two copies of Quiet to two random people. (UPDATE: To listen to the many stories that were sent in, check out the introduction to Show #435.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if Zeno’s paradox is applicable to social types.

Author: Susan Cain

Subjects Discussed: Establishing terminology of introverts and extroverts, David Sloan Wilson, new Kinsey scales, Carl Jung, Jonathan Rauch’s “Caring for Your Introvert,” Google and Apple offered as “introvert comeback” examples, introvert glamour in the 21st century, how the loner idea has changed in American culture, Steve Wozniak, Edward Bernays, Western culture founded upon Greco-Roman ideals, how oratory has driven the spread of Western culture, going to business forces and corporations to understand introverts, Tony Robbins seminars, the self-help industry, the ideal self as a marketing device, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, Peter Hills and Michael Argyle on happy introverts, how flow and happiness differs between introverts and extoverts, responding to myths that introverts aren’t social, the fine line between introversion and misanthropy, Jason Fried’s “No Talk Thursdays” idea, Wozniak’s Homebrew Computer Club, extreme positions from introverts and extroverts, “how to talk to strangers” workshops, the Solomon Asch experiments, conformity and groups, mimicking the opinions of other people, “fitting in,” Gregory Burns’s experiments with the amygdala and groups, high reactive types, shyness, introverted Asian-American populations in Cupertino, pluralism movements involving introverts and extroverts, Jerome Kagan, nature vs. nurture, interactionism, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Robert Sutton’s response to the brainstorming dilemma, the problems with multitasking, group cohesion in brainstorming, avoiding lopsided perspectives, parents with introverted children, the No Child Left Behind Act, the advantages of role-playing and improvisation, smiling, public speaking as the number one fear, introverted actors and the performance mask, Brian Little looking into introverts being overstimulated, stage fright, being a member of Toastmasters, impromptu speaking, the advantages of anarchy, intense curiosity, Picasso, connections between solitude and creativity, and answers to charges that introverts are filled with hubris and narcissism.


Correspondent: I should point out that, as an ambivert, I’m one of those types who swings both ways. I go ahead and ingratiate myself with all forms of version. I’m wondering if it’s entirely productive to divide the world into these two austere bipolar categories. As you point out in the book, David Sloan Wilson applied these labels to the fruit fly. And I’m wondering if, say, a Kinsey scale of 1 to 6 — to pound the metaphor in here further — is probably more applicable for this kind of thing. I mean, why should introverts of all stripes be lumped together?

Cain: Yeah Okay. So that’s actually a really important question that you’re raising. And the reality is that there’s an introvert-extrovert spectrum and that we’re all situated on different points of the spectrum and that even people who are on the extreme end of the spectrum, whether introverts or extroverts, have sides to themselves that are the opposite side. And Jung — Carl Jung, who is the psychologist who actually popularized these terms — speaks about that. And he says that there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert and that such a man would be in an insane asylum. So it’s an important question that you’re asking. But at the same time that this is true and that we’re all a glorious mishmosh of traits, there is also a reality to what it means to be, in general, oriented towards the outer world or, in general, more oriented to the riches that are inside your own mind. And these things I believe, these orientations, shape who we are in ways that are as profound as our gender shapes us.

Correspondent: But gradients of orientation. I mean, that’s the key thing. Jung, of course, as you point out, he popularizes the terms in 1921. You have Hans Eysenck doing research in the late 1960s, hypothesizing that humans sought “just right” levels of stimulation. And he ran some tests. So where do we, I suppose, calibrate ourselves if we’re all going to all refer to people as “You’re only an introvert” or “You’re only an extrovert.” I mean, we could get vertist, so to speak. (laughs)

Cain: Right. I guess I would take the “only” out of that formulation. It’s not “you’re only an introvert” or “you’re only an extrovert.” You’re a million other things as well. But I guess a metaphor that I could give for you, that I think is helpful here, is gender. So if I had written a book that presumed to say, “Here’s what men are like and here’s what women are like,” I probably would have been able to get it mostly right describing these categories as groups. But in the case of any one individual, there are going to be men with all kinds of female characteristics and women with all kinds of male characteristics. That doesn’t mean though that there’s no such thing as maleness or femaleness. And that doesn’t mean that these things aren’t hugely important and shape our lives in ways we need to pay attention to.

Correspondent: Yes, but such a book would spawn a million Jezebel threads.

Cain: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s a danger, I suppose, in cleaving to these labels. And I guess maybe another way of trying to figure out what’s going on here in terms of the schism between the introverts and the extroverts is through a wonderful 2003 Jonathan Rauch article in The Atlantic, not quoted here.

Cain: Yes. Fantastic article.

Correspondent: “Caring for Your Introvert.” He was willing to go on the line and say that introverts are oppressed. I’m wondering if you would go on the line as well. You didn’t in this book. But to what degree are they oppressed? I mean, since 2003, we’ve seen Google and Apple, products of introverts, spring up. And we’re all enslaved by them. So I think the balance may be more or less stabilized. What do you think about all this?

Cain: Okay, so first of all, I would say I did go on the line in this book. And the central thesis of my book really is there is a severe bias against most introverts in this society and that operates to all of our losses. Certainly to the loss of introverts who get the message in a million different ways that there’s something wrong with who they are. But I think it operates to the loss of everybody. Because when we set up society in a way that depletes the energies of half to a third of the population, that’s not in anybody’s best interest. So that’s my feeling about it.

Correspondent: But no real oppression. I mean, if the extroverts are in control, do you think that there’s been enough of a comeback of the introverts in the years since that Rauch article?

Cain: Well, okay, so I think it’s an interesting thing. When I talk about a bias, I’m not saying, “Well, therefore introverts have had no happiness and no success in society.” And the examples that you just gave are very interesting and apt ones. But here’s the thing. Those examples, they’re not accidents. We tend to have respect for the loner who’s operating in his garage and is about to launch a fabulously successful company or who holds the promise of launching such a company. We have respect for that person. Because that person carries with him the whiff of great wealth or power. But what I’m talking about is something that operates at a deeper level of self. And the fact is that if you look at our schools and our workplaces, the institutions where we all spend our lives and where our daily happiness is shaped, those institutes are set up for extroverts. In ways that we’re not aware of. So children from the time they go into preschool at a very early age, they are going into an environment that is a group environment where they are expected to behave in certain ways. I’m not saying this is all a bad thing. But I am saying that it’s set up in such a way that introverted children from the get go are kind of expected to act in ways that are being not themselves.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s interesting to me that the loner has moved from the sort of James Dean Rebel Without a Cause/Marlon Brando kind of thing to the guy going ahead, like Wozniak, and fiddling around with tools in his garage, in his bedroom, starting a company. And I’m wondering if the loner model has always been associated with introverts or whether there has been some outsider label instead. It seems to me that, because the idea of being a loner was predicated in some way on being a loner in relation to society, you weren’t entirely an introvert. You were more an outsider. You were still an extrovert in some sense. And yet it has moved in the decades since to the Wozniakian model, where you’re tinkering with some massive project that’s going to change the world in your garage. I’m wondering if you had some thoughts on why “loner” has almost been co-opted and has become more related to this introversion idea.

Cain: Oh, that’s interesting. I think that’s probably just a function of the role that technology has played in the last decades. You know, what you’re talking about really is ways in which we have shifted notions of glamour as attached to individual people. So in the ’50s, the decade of conformity, there was a glamour attached to the figure who could stand outside that and still have sex appeal. And then what happens in the decades of technology is suddenly we have introverts who, just because of their great technical competence, can create wealth and power. And so glamour attaches to them.

Correspondent: Introverts aren’t sexy? I think they are. I think they’re being celebrated in our culture. The “Think different” billboards that we got with Apple. It’s been all about “Yes, introverts are sexy. But we just don’t communicate with other people.” You think that they aren’t sexy these days?

Cain: No, what I was saying is that what was happening as technology grew up was that there was a glamour that was attached to that. But what I still believe is that that’s a subset of the reality of what it means to be introverted. And even if you go out to Silicon Valley, the heart of the subset where you would say that this glamour model for lack of a better word is operating — you know, even in Silicon Valley, I went out there while I was researching my book. And I talked to many introverts who were working there. And even there, they feel that their personality style is not validated, that it’s not celebrated. And they’re constantly exhorted to act in a way that’s not natural to themselves.

Correspondent: I suppose this relates to the initial line of inquiry. When you are talking about introverts, when you are promoting introverts, they inevitably feed into this marketing, advertorial sort of approach, where it’s not so much about trying to understand the introvert’s place. It’s more about promoting the introvert. This leads me to also name a figure who you didn’t name in the book — Edward Bernays. I mean, we were talking about Jung earlier. But he relied upon Freudian ideas to promote the idea of being empowered, that manipulation could be used to factor in the herd crowd. “Herd” is a word used frequently in your book. Do you think that one of the problems with introverts being misunderstood or not accepted has a lot to do with this maligning or skirmishing of psychology with these larger marketing forces?

Cain: Well, I think that it goes back even earlier than that. It starts out with there being this kernel in our society. We are a culture that is grounded on Greco-Roman ideals. And these are ideals that celebrate oratory and celebrate being able to declaim in front of people. So that’s a piece of it. But that’s only a small piece really. Because what really happened was, at the turn of the 20th century, we moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character and we moved into a culture of personality. And this happened because suddenly we had the rise of big business. And we had urbanization. So you had people flocking into the cities. And instead of living in small towns and working with people they had known all their lives, they’re suddenly in big cities applying for jobs at corporations, where everything depends on their abilities to shine at a job interview and to be able to sell their company’s latest gizmo and, of course, to sell themselves. At the same time, you have the rise of movies. And movie stars are the perfect model for this.

Correspondent: Of course.

Cain: They are the ultimate role models of this kind of charisma that people are starting to feel they need in their everyday lives. And so in a way, there used to be in the earlier years of this country’s founding, where it used to be that these oratorical skills and this ability to command a crowd was seen as being important only for political figures. Now it was something that everybody suddenly had to have. And at the core of all this was the corporation really. That was why people started to feel that they needed to have these skills.

Categories: Ideas

Elliot Perlman (BSS #429)

Elliot Perlman is most recently the author of The Street Sweeper.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Collecting the dregs of his spatulate ambitions.

Author: Elliot Perlman

Subjects Discussed: Perlman living across the street from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, whether an author has to reside in a place to write about it, why some Australians consider the US and the UK to be part of the same neighborhood, how to make New York your friend, smoking outside of a hospital, the Mayor of East 77th and York, the improbable idea of characters in their thirties listening to Jonathan Schwartz, Kafka’s Statue of Liberty sword, rental rates and gentrification, writing an “anything you want” book that takes on such a wide social canvas, knowing the endings of Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Street Sweeper, how research enriches the writing process, whether a novelist can entirely avoid coincidences and convenient run-ins, being “a child of the 19th century,” It’s a Wonderful Life, cutting art from the past some appreciative slack, cynicism vs. efforts by fiction to feel and grapple with the world, sincerity and postmodernism, writing something you believe in, fiction interpreted as too didactic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, how certain types of postmodernism masks sloppy thinking, conducting vigorous research and gravitating to the visceral, novelists as professional liars, the obligation to get serious historical details right, finding comfort in Auschwitz by going there six times, the ground beneath one’s feet as a starting point, “memory as a willful dog,” Daniel Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, positive people who don’t learn from the past, avoiding Holocaust book fatigue, Godwin’s law, people who think they know about the Holocaust but really don’t, the Musselmann state, Auschwitz being half the size of Manhattan, Ricky Gervais sending up the Holocaust, Perlman’s family background, moral efforts to rid ourselves of superstitions, the American civil rights movement, the fictitious Henry Border vs. the real David Boder, the adjective-verb ratio, being inspired an episode of This American Life, whether it’s fair to speculate on what real historical figures are thinking, how to respect historical figures in fiction, interviewing Illinois psychiatrists and Boder’s students, the Voices of the Holocaust project, characters who steal objects as a narrative bookend, failed teachers who perform irrational acts in Perlman’s fiction, the inevitability of parallel characters, how to live without hurting people, hurting other characters as an effective dramatic device, Ern Malley’s idea: “the emotions are not skilled workers,” heightened anxiety, Morningside Heights, inventing a fictive construct instead of confronting an emotional reality, real and fictional voices serving as narrative counterpoints, obsessing with the jet black hair aesthetic of a student, and not being able to tell everybody’s story.


Correspondent: Let’s talk about this research and the social canvas here. I mean, this book, it deal with the Holocaust. You have mid-20th century developments in American labor. You have a man who just got out of jail. You have the nature of history. You have the Great Migration. You have the academic world. You have the adjective-verb quotient ratio and wire recording involving Dr. Border — and I’ll get into that more in a bit. So it’s almost a kitchen sink book or perhaps, if you want to pay homage to [The Street Sweeper Chicago laborer] James Pearson, an “anything you want” book. I know that many of these elements came to you by serendipity. But I’m wondering how much you need to have these thematic connections worked out in advance. I mean, can you really deal with a novel when you have a scale that is this large — both with The Street Sweeper and Seven Types of Ambiguity? Were there any things that you threw out along the way?

Perlman: Oh yeah. Definitely. I know you hear a lot of writers say that they invent characters and characters grab them by the ear and take them along to the conclusion of the book. And I think that’s often true. But I think sometimes it’s not true. They say it. And perhaps it sounds romantic or in some way interesting. I’m not like that. I’m anxious and anal retentive — particularly with the last two books, The Street Sweeper and Seven Types of Ambiguity. I needed to know the books were going to end before I got too far into them. And pretty much at the beginning, I think even with Seven Types, I did. And I’m probably that way with pretty much everything I write, except maybe some short stories. The danger is that you spend years of your life writing these things and the end doesn’t satisfy you. And that would be a tragedy for me. And I’m not suggesting that the endings of those two books will satisfy everybody. But they need to satisfy me before I’m willing to commit. You know, what it’s really been — Seven Types of Ambiguity took almost four years to write. And The Street Sweeper took about five and a half years. So you want to be satisfied — at least I think — that it’s a story worth telling. So I do plan it out quite meticulously. And, of course, what happens is that it gets enriched by your research along the way. And there are certain things that don’t help you. So you’re disinclined to use them. But if there are certain things that do help you, well then obviously you grab it. And it might look like you’ve been building to that along the way. But it’s a combination of having the architecture or the spine of the thing worked out with certain key points that you’ve already researched. But then there are certain little things that you find serendipitously that can be incredibly helpful. And they go in. And it might look like you knew that all along when in fact you didn’t come to that a bit later.

Correspondent: Well, speaking of serendipity, I was curious about this. I mean, can you entirely avoid coincidences or convenient run-ins or contrivances with your method? Aren’t there certain strands where the bandage is not exactly neatly applied to the wound? How does this work?

Perlman: Well, you know, some people have said that I’ve used coincidence. I can’t even remember which book it was. And maybe it’s more than one book. I guess I try not to overdo it. But I have a little fondness for it. And maybe it’s because in certain senses I’m a child of the 19th century in terms of the stuff that was important to me as a young man growing up. And I try not to use it as much as it’s been used by some of my heroes. Because I don’t think in the 21st century a writer can probably get away with it in the same way as a filmmaker can probably couldn’t make something as beautifully sweet as It’s a Wonderful Life. As much as we all might love that movie, if somebody literally tries to make that now, it would probably not be revered anywhere near as much. Because society’s so different from the society that came to in which It’s a Wonderful Life was made.

Correspondent: How so? Is it because of sincerity?

Perlman: With It’s a Wonderful Life now, we’re cutting it some slack because of the time it was made. So we might cut, and I hope we do, so many of the 19th century greats some slack for coincidences that I might not be cut now. But having said that, I do use it a little bit. But whether I overuse it or not is probably for some readers to decide. I hope I don’t. I try not to.

Correspondent: You know, that’s a very crafty way of suggesting that contemporary fiction is perhaps not giving enough slack for depicting certain realities. Is that what you’re suggesting, Mr. Perlman?

Perlman: (laughs) I’m probably not being crafty. I’m probably being sleep-deprived and not expressing myself so eloquently. Look, I don’t know. I had the feeling — in the 90s at least — that we had become almost too cynical. A little too clever in the sense of: It’s all very well to delineate, even meticulously, what it is that you’re mulling over. What it is that you’re disenchanted by. But sooner or later, shouldn’t art remind us what we should really aspire to? And the danger with doing that is that you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve and you’re making yourself an easy target and super-hip, ultra literary people, they can be more interested and get more pleasure out of deriding the status quo and perhaps dreaming or aspiring to something better. And I’ll take the risk — whether it’s successful or not, I don’t know. Certainly in the three novels that I’ve written so far, and even some of the short stories, I’m trying to offer some hope. And I do that because that’s what I would like. I think that’s something that can be very helpful in art.

Correspondent: You know, Elliot, another way of phrasing this might just be this: I’m curious if, from the vantage point of Australia, you as a novelist were under siege with this wave that was against sincerity in fiction and against postmodernism in fiction. And that essentially the last two novels are partially a response to that. I mention this because I note that sometimes in your fiction, you’re very fond of saying “you” in a way that is rather curious. It’s not quite second person and it’s not quite omniscient. It’s somewhere in between. And I’m fascinated by that. There are also often these strange moemnts in your novels where you almost command the reader. And I can get into that. One thing I think of is: “Pay attention the small details. It is the mark of a professional.” That whole business with Adam Zignelik. And I’m curious if this has plagued you in any way or how this not quite omniscient but leaving room for taking room for perspective approach developed.

Perlman: Well, you know, that particular example that you brought up, Edward, is actually — well, I guess it’s a device really. It’s Adam, who’s a historian at Columbia. An insecure untenured historian who is certain that his time at Columbia is just about up and he hasn’t written anything new in five years. And he is delivering a lecture to his undergraduate students. So when he says things like “Pay attention,” it’s the character talking to his students. You might also say, “Well, that’s the author talking to his readers.” It doesn’t need to be taken that way but, look, I suppose I can’t hide the fact that I feel certain things quite strongly. And it’s very difficult writing anything. You may as well write something you believe in and that matters to you, and clearly I guess I put my heart on my sleeve with my political views with all of the books. And in doing that, sometimes perhaps I can be overly prescriptive. I don’t think it would have bothered me as a reader. And that’s why I put it in there. I suppose if someone has particular views that are really antithetical to mine, diametrically opposed, then they’re going to be annoyed by what might appear finger waving. But at the very least, I did in the context of a character talking to other characters. Look at me. I’m trying to troll through my memory of all the negative things that have been said about me in an attempt to bend over backwards to help you. Isn’t that pathetic? It has been said that I can be didactic at times. Again, it’s a question of degree. And obviously, you and I defend that movement and it’s sent to editors. I think it’s not totally didactic. To some people, it will be, I guess.

Correspondent: Well, let me clarify. I think that the “What is history?” chapter is one of the most interesting points in the book. I mean, you have this situation where Adam is describing the personal tidbits of Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer befriending this black man over the Union Theological Seminary, and things like that. So in that moment, you do in fact write not in Adam’s words but those of the narrator, “Pay attention to the small details.” But I thought that it wasn’t necessarily a command. It was more of a cue to the readers. But it also made me think, “Well, hmmm, I wonder if he’s up to some larger game to encourage readers to look almost beyond the book.” To look at the sources you have in the back. Or whether this was some modest gesture to postmodernism where you basically just thought that the whole thing was kind of a wild game. Or it was possibly a genuine interest on your part over whether history could in fact predict the future. But it sounds to me that what you’re saying is that that was driven from a pure moment of emotional sincerity and that’s pretty much how you operate. And this may explain some of the things I’m observing from your book. These very visceral heightened moments couched in really unusual philosophical terms?

Perlman: Well, gee, I dig your questions. I didn’t mean to say that. Because you already decided to interview me. But you really do. And I hope that in my sleep-deprived state I’m able to do justice to them. I guess what I’m trying to do, I think, is marry a certain passion that makes you want to write in the first place. Because it is in some respects an irrational activity. I mean, you’re alone. You’re frequently not particularly physically comfortable. And you’re never going to be adequately financially rewarded for all the hours it takes you to produce the thing. So in a sense, it’s for the most part an antisocial thing to do. So it’s an irrational activity. So why are you doing it? You’re doing it because something in you, you’d feel worse if you didn’t do it. It’s a kind of a passion. And you really want to grab the reader and hold him or her and say, “Look at this. Look at this story. Look at the world.” At least as I see it. And yet you go and impose some kind of order on it. And that’s where the other side of me — I suppose the anal retentive side. The side that became a lawyer or maybe it was fostered and assisted and nurtured by being a lawyer. Anyway, leaving aside any attempts to psychoanalyze myself on a long distance call, it is a marriage of the two — the passion and the intent to impose some order over it. And in a sense, the structure of the book is where I’m definitely using more intellect than emotion. But then within the pockets, there is an attempt to really say to the reader, “Yeah. Look at this. I’m thinking about it. Would you like to think about it too? And I’ll try to express it as eloquently as I can to get you to see at least common things from the perspective I have.” When it’s a character who shares what could essentially be described as a series of views which constitutes my worldview, but often — particularly in Seven Types — I might not be writing about characters who definitely don’t share my views. But even then you try and give as much as you can, imbuing it with every bit of humanity you can garner to make the suggestion that often means that there is more that we have in common which separates us. And if we could just put aside so much of our preconceptions, we might get on a little better. But that runs the risk of making it sound like literature is a tool to social cohesion only. And it isn’t. It does many things. And that’s only one of the things it can do.

Categories: Fiction

Thomas Frank (BSS #428)

Thomas Frank is most recently the author of Pity the Billionaire.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Grover Norquist keeps leaving voicemails about tax pledges.

Author: Thomas Frank

Subjects Discussed: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s notion of “compromise,” the Republican failure to acknowledge Reagan’s complete history, Reagan’s Continental Illinois bailout, efforts to “erase” liberalism from Washington, Barack Obama’s failings, Congressional disapproval by the American people (as reflected by recent polls), how George W. Bush became a toxic Republican figure, the Tea Party movement, the Great Recession, how the Right co-opted populism after 2008, the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts and Bernie Sanders’s filibuster, Obama signing the NDAA “with serious reservations,” the Democratic Party less about the working man and more about expertise and technocrats, Obama’s TARP bailouts vs. Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation bailouts, government agencies that become instruments of Wall Street, “purified” capitalism, firing bank managers, conservatives mimicking progressive ideologies of the past and protest movements of the 1930s, co-opting outrage, Orson Welles’s influence on Glenn Beck, The War of the Worlds, being subscribed to Beck’s email newsletter, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, the Republican base being united over the past few decades by “quasi-military victory” and lack of civility, Howard Phillips and “organized discontent,” why the Democrats are allergic to discontent and anger, Roosevelt’s tendency to stump and explain legislation vs. Obama’s failure to do so, the Democratic tendency to use experts as a selling point, Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege, the Rally to Restore Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, blue-collar invisibility in DC, living in a neighborhood in which 50% of the population have PhDs, NASCAR, idiosyncratic hangover cures, diffidence and resistance against righteous indignation in the last few years, the hard times swindle, Scott Walker and attacks on the Wisconsin labor movement, attempts to investigate why liberalism can’t stick in recent years given The Wrecking Crew‘s suggestion that people inherently expect a liberal state, the myth of small business job creation (specific data breakdown on new jobs creation from 1992-2008 from Scott Shane discussed by Correspondent and Frank), George Lucas calling himself an “independent filmmaker,” C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, small business serving as a propaganda front for big business, America’s reticence in discussing how we are all corporate slaves in some sense, Tea Party memorabilia, Glenn Beck’s CAPITALISM painting, Rep. Nan Hayworth’s dodging questions about Verizon with empty utopian bluster, whether it’s possible to take back the term “small business,” the Black Panther Party, ways to organize political movements, whether it’s possible to build a dedicated base to combat a corrupt two-party system, legal blockades to third party movements, protesting out of resentment and self-pity, self-pity and the resurgent Right, whether the Tea Party is protesting with a shared sense of humiliation, populist politics as a gateway drug, searching for good things to say about the Tea Party, liberalism and populist movements, Atlas Shrugged, Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Jobs being selfish with his money, why selfishness is a uniquely American draw, retreating into laissez-faire purity, Ayn Rand’s prose style, capital strikes as fantasy, leftist versions of Atlas Shrugged, John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction, Upton Sinclair, the cold sex and descriptions of steel and machinery in Atlas Shrugged, the connections between recent political movements and mythology, German sociologists from the 1930s, the social construction of reality, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, how the Left might find political possibilities in passion, pragmatism, and anger, the neutered Left falling prey to forms of mythology that are just as nefarious as present myths on the Right, organized labor, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, how politics tends to inspire perverse behavior, and train wrecks.


Correspondent: We’re talking only a few nights after a really fascinating 60 Minutes interview with [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor. I’m not sure if you saw this.

Frank: I didn’t see it.

Correspondent: Well, it was interesting. Because it reminded me very much of your book. I’m about to talk with you and this happens. So [Cantor] appears. And it’s this fairly amicable, typical segment. And then Lesley Stahl basically says, “Will you compromise in any way?” And he dodged the issue of being able to compromise on anything. And then Lesley, of course, brings up the Reagan tax increase.

Frank: The 1986?*

Correspondent: Yes. And he denies that Reagan ever did that. And then, to add an additional monkey wrench into this, there’s an off-camera press secretary who says that’s a lie. And then, of course, they play the clip.

Frank: What?

Correspondent: Yes! And they play a clip of Reagan using “compromise” as a verb** when he’s talking about this tax increase. So this seems a very appropriate beginning to some of the issues in your book.

Frank: That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I’m writing about. These people who are essentially blinded by ideology. But when I say it that way, it sounds like some kind of slang term. Or something like that. But I mean it in a very serious way. That these are people who have bought an entire utopian way of seeing the world and are able to close their eyes to things that are obvious. And what you just said about Reagan, that would be a juicy detail that I would have loved to have had for the book. But there are so many other examples — essentially, they deny. Look, I went to a graduate school and studied history. One of the baseline things that historians agree on is that for the last thirty or forty years, we’ve been in a conservative era. That people around the world — governments, politicians, elites around the world — have discovered the power of markets and have moved in this direction towards markets that are deregulated, have privatized, have done all these things. This is common knowledge. A conservative movement today — you talk to a guy like Eric Cantor? No, that’s never happened. We’re still living under socialism. And we have been since Woodrow Wilson. Or something like this.

Correspondent: But why is it that Cantor and the Freshman Republicans want to just keep their blinders on about history? About their man Reagan? Is there a specific…

Frank: They have to have a hero and they’ve thrown George W. Bush under the bus. Because of the bailouts. But at the end of the day, look, it’s opportunism. Reagan is very popular. Bush is not popular. Nixon is not popular. So they have to have a hero. And it has to be someone who is beloved. Ipso facto, it has to be Reagan. But they have to deny all sorts of thing about Reagan. For example, Reagan bailed out Continential Illinois Bank — at the time, the biggest bank failure in U.S. history. Reagan, as you’ve just mentioned, raised taxes. Reagan sold weapons to Iran. You remember that one? Iran-Contra. I mean, there are all sorts of other crazy things that Reagan did that don’t look so good. I mean, Reagan really liked Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a more complicated person. But none of that is admissible. If you’re going to follow this ideology and this utopian vision that they have of what I call “market populism” — if you’re going to follow that all the way — and, of course, part of the idea of this is that you’re going to have to follow it all the way — and we’ll get into that a minute — you basically have to whitewash history. I mean, it’s almost Soviet, what you’re describing.

Correspondent: The phrase you use in The Wrecking Crew. “The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism not by debating, but by erasing it.” And I’m wondering if there’s any past political precedent that would suggest they could entirely efface liberalism from our political machinations.

Frank: Or from our memory.

Correspondent: Or from our memory. It’s very strange.

Frank: Well, that was the big subject a few years ago — when The Wrecking Crew was published. One of the topics of conversation was these grand schemes that the Republicans kept coming up with. The Republicans in Washington here, I’m talking about. I’m not talking about your rank-and-file Republicans. But the Republicans in Washington kept coming up with the grand schemes for some kind of political checkmate. Some kind of move that would end the debate forever and yield victory for their side forever. And they include — privatizing social security was a big one. Another one — the one that I focused on in The Wrecking Crew — is deficits. And that, I’m sorry to say, I turned out to be right about the one. By deliberately running up the deficits in the Bush years, it doesn’t give them permanent victory, but it does stay the hand of whoever, whatever liberal follows — in this case, Barack Obama — and it has worked exactly as they planned it to. Although Obama pushed it a little farther than they thought possible with the stimulus package. But now look at what’s happened with the debt ceiling catastrophe and all that sort of thing. So that turned out to be effective. They were able to limit the debate by some deeds that they pulled while they were still in power. And some of the other things that they are trying or will try or I predict they’ll try, they are things about tricking the franchise. Somehow keeping or dissuading people from voting. That sort of thing. But there’s always this search for the doomsday device. Yes, and it still goes on.

Correspondent: But this level of no quarter, no compromise. I mean, isn’t there some kind of “uncanny valley” or Hubbert’s Peak to what they can do before it’s just not acceptable? I mean, there was that latest Rasmussen poll where Congress got a 5% approval rating. That was a few days ago.

Frank: 5%?

Correspondent: 5%.

Frank: Well, that makes a difference in the Presidential Election. But that really won’t make a whole lot of difference, strangely enough, in the Congressional Election. Because people might hate Congress, but they like their own Congressman. That’s the classic, the old saw. But, look, what you’re getting at is a really interesting phenomenon of these people, instead of being pulled to the center — as all of your political science theorizing and all of your DC punditry insists that the gravity of politics pulls people to the center. Political scientists have believed this for fifty years. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Because I think it’s rubbish, okay, for reasons that we’ll go into. But it’s been just dramatically disproven in the last couple of years. Think back to 2008. You had the Republican Party in ruins. You had all these scandals in the Bush Administration. All this corruption. And then it ends with this catastrophic meltdown in the market. The housing bubble bursts. The banks start to go under, one after another. Then Wall Street starts shedding 700 points per day. It’s this crazy disaster. The financial crisis. And then they do the bailouts, forever sealing Bush’s fate not only with the general public but with the Right. One of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. The Republican Party is in ruins in 2008. And you have pundit after pundit weighing in and saying, “These people are done for. Bush led them too far to the right.” The era of George W. Bush was where they went too far to the right, and Tom DeLay and all those guys, they went too far to the right, and now they have to make their way back to the center or they will risk being irrelevant forever more. Or for the next twenty years or something like that. And look what happened. They did the opposite. Guys like Eric Cantor, they did not embrace the moderates in their party. They excommunicated them. They purged them. I mean, these guys, they behave like Communists in a lot of ways. This is one of those things. They purged these guys. They throw people out. And they don’t want them in the Party anymore. And they moved deliberately to the right. Way to the right. That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. They just scored their biggest victory in eighty years. Or seventy what — a whole lot of years in the 2010 off-term elections. They had a huge victory. So obviously that strategy has vindicated for them. It worked! It paid off! And there’s no reason why they would go back on something that just succeeded. It was a success.

Correspondent: But in the chapter in this book, “The Silence of the Technocrats,” you describe this collapse of Democratic populism from 2008. You point to the failings of the Democrats to challenge the Tea Party, people at the town hall meetings. You point also to the manner in which they formed corporate alliances with healthcare and also the bailouts that we were just talking about. The failure of the stimulus package. The list goes on. Only a few days ago, Obama signed into law the NDAA, which essentially gives the government the right to detain any citizen, and he had this whole “with serious reservations” claause that he did while he signed it. So the question I have is: if Democrats are offering the defense that Obama is being forced into this predicament…

Frank: They’re listening to the pundits. The Republicans did the opposite of what the pundits suggested. The Democrats are listening to them. There’s this DC elite that the Democrats are listening to. This is what Obama’s Presidency is all about — it’s looking for a grand compromise. But the Republicans, they’re not interested. Make him come to us, they say. He can come to us. He can compromise in our direction. Look, at the end of the day, this is something you can figure out with game theory. It’s really simple. If they’re the side that stands pat and makes the other guy come to them, they win. But that’s neither her nor there. I think the Democrats really misplayed the hand they were dealt with. I mean, misplayed it in a colossal manner. In a catastrophic manner. And Obama may well get re-elected in 2012 at this point. Who knows at this point?

Correspondent: Well, with the crop of candidates, it’s a big clown car.

Frank: Elected for what purpose? After what’s happened, why bother? They didn’t understand the needs of the moment. The cultural and political needs of the moment, which were populist. They didn’t understand that all that political science theorizing that I was telling you about, where the center is where the gravity always pulls you — you have to move to the center. You have to make compromises with the other side. That all of that old way of thinking about everything was discredited. The financial crisis. The Great Recession. The huge business slump. We were going into Great Depression II, it looked like back then. And what was called for was 1930s style politics. The conservatives offered it. The Republicans offered it. Or I should say the Tea Party offered it and has since grafted it on the Republican Party. And the Democrats behaved as if everything was just as it was in the 1990s. That if they acted like Bill Clinton, everything would be fine. They did not understand that the old scheme was completely out the window.

Correspondent: Why though would they continue to act as if they wished to rise above partisanship? This notion…

Frank: That’s who they are.

Correspondent: I mean, even after the whole debt ceiling showdown. That whole business.

Frank: Can you believe that? Don’t you think that that would be the big convincer?

Correspondent: But why do you think this is? I mean, why didn’t Obama just go to the people and say, “Look, this is going to have serious actions even if I approve it or veto it. I am actually going to you, the American people, and I am explaining to you that the Republicans want to throw the Bill of Rights into a flaming trash can…

Frank: (laughs)

Correspondent: “So I can’t in good conscience sign this.” Why do you think he can’t do that?

Frank: Well, the point where this really got out of hand — I mean, there were several big turning points in the Obama Presidency, but the one that really just blew my mind because it was such a misplayed moment. And we think Obama’s a very intelligent man. And he is. I met up. He’s a super-duper smart guy. But some of the political moves have just been total rookie mistakes. The one that got me was when he still had a Democratic Congress. It was a lame duck session. This would have been at the end of 2010. And he renewed the Bush tax cuts. Why not make the Republicans come to him and offer something in exchange for that? No. He just gave it to them. It’s like the biggest prize on the table. And he just handed it over.

Correspondent: Leaving Bernie Sanders to do that long filibuster. But that ended up being all for nought. Even though it was an impressive theatrical display. Everybody was behind Bernie Sanders. Finally somebody standing up.

Frank: Oh sure. But it wasn’t up to Bernie Sanders. It was up to Barack Obama. And he just gave it away — the one ace he had in the hole, he just gave it away. And so maybe he did it as a good faith gesture to the Republicans. And look what it got him? This terrible smackdown with the debt ceiling crisis.

Correspondent: An embarrassment.

Frank: The kind of naivete that that takes. To not understand that that’s how these guys play the game. There’s plenty of journalists that wrote about the DeLay Congress and the Gingrich Congress. We know how these guys play. Or George W. Bush. Look at the career of Karl Rove. These guys play to win. They don’t mess around. And the innocence of Washington that it took to make a blunder — let’s call it what it is. A blunder like that is shocking to me.

Correspondent: If he’s so smart, why does he constantly come to them? I mean, why give the game away like that?

Frank: Because that’s who they are. That’s the Democratic Party nowadays.

Correspondent: It’s been like that for a while though, you know?

Frank: It has. And, hey, let’s be fair. Obama isn’t the — all of their last six Presidential candidates have been cut from the same cloth. I think Obama is, in lots of ways, smarter and a better speaker, and more talented than a lot of their previous leaders. But this is who the Democratic Party has become. Many years ago, they were the party of the working man. Everyone knew that. They were also a party that had an ideology. An ideology that arose from organized labor, that arose from the New Deal. And that has been lost. They are the party of technocrats now. Look, everything I’m telling you right now is right on the surface down at Washington DC. The big Democratic Party thinkers talk about this all the time. We are the party of the professional class. And if we aren’t that yet, that’s who we’re going to be when we’re done. We’re going to get there eventually.

* — This is a very pedantic stickler point, but one that nonetheless demands clarity. Reagan raised taxes twelve times during his administration. Frank is referring to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But, to be clear, Stahl was specifically referring to Reagan’s 1982 tax increase in the 60 Minutes segment.

** — Another highly pedantic (and perhaps needless) stickler point. Reagan used “compromise” as a noun, not as a verb: “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.” And while Reagan’s specific words convey the same point (indeed more definitively with a noun), it is important to remain committed to painstaking accuracy — especially when the corresponding approach being discussed over the hour involves how political parties cleave to mythology.

Categories: Ideas