Daniel Bessner is a historian with a particular focus on American foreign policy. His book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual mixes biography with a striking analysis of Cold War policy-making. In this conversation, Bessner expands on the ideas he presented in a recent New York Times op-ed, in which he argues that the left needs a more focused and practical pathway to dismantling the American imperial project and drawing down the endless wars that have decimated globe for decades.
Nathan J. Robinson is the creator and editor-in-chief of Current Affairs, one of the left’s most consistently valuable and readable publications. Robinson talks about honing his skills at political argument in the high school debate club, explains how a British accent can be an asset in American media, and describes his vision for the future of Current Affairs and the larger left movement.
Eileen Jones is a film critic and professor whose biting, polemical movie reviews are featured in Jacobin and a number of other publications. Her recent book Filmsuck, USA investigates the persistently horrific state of American cinema, while outlining Jones’ vision of a liberatory movie culture that honors the medium’s working class roots. In this conversation, she explains how her early experiences watching Hollywood genre films influenced her ideas about movies, why the Coen brothers are her preferred auteurs, and why she thinks the language of cinema can play such a vital role in challenging the organizing principles of capitalism.
Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of American class, race, and inequality, with a particular focus on the South during and after the Civil War. Her book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South deftly navigates discourses on race, power, and capitalism, telling us what happens to “excess labor” under a slave economy. In this conversation, she talks about the South’s influence on her direction as a scholar, and explains how vital elements of the Southern political economy (from “right to work” to convict leasing) have spread to the rest of the country.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a political scientist and activist whose work focuses on the historical and current landscape of insurgent politics and anti-capitalism. As an outspoken left academic, Ciccariello-Maher is a favorite target of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists, whose threats and harassment led to his resignation from Drexel University in 2017. In this conversation, he tells how his early life informed his political development, why Venezuela’s recent history is such a vital piece of understanding global politics, and how riots and other forms of militant resistance can be effective means of achieving social and economic justice.
Daniel Traber is a professor of English at Texas A & M University at Galveston. His work focuses on the intersection of culture and politics, with a particular emphasis on musical subcultures like punk and ska (a favorite Nostalgia Trap subject). In this conversation, he talks about getting into punk as a white suburban teen in Galveston, Texas in the 1980s, and how expressions of subversive identity are entangled with the forces of capitalism and fascism from which they emerged. From “God Save the Queen” to “conservative is the new punk,” we explore the malleability of our cultural signifiers in the age of Trump.
Shuja Haider is a writer and editor for a number of left publications (check out his work in Popula and Viewpoint). In this conversation, we talk about historical cycles of generational politics, the weird road from 60s counterculture to "conservatism is the new punk rock," and the growth of left/right radicalism among young people in the Trump era.
Matthew Stanley is a historian and professor whose latest book, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America explores how the politics of the Civil War moved through the regions of the Lower Middle West. His work shows us how ideologies evolve through space and time, and how the Civil War in particular has served as a container for American social and political attitudes well into the 21st century. With Confederate monuments being toppled by activists and organizers around the country, to the shock and outrage of white supremacists and “traditional” (wink) Americans everywhere, Stanley points out some vital historical context:
“People talk about preserving history. But the best argument against keeping these monuments in public places IS the historical argument. Most of these were not erected by Confederate veterans, they weren’t erected during the Civil War or even Reconstruction. They were erected during the Jim Crow era, and many of them explicitly re-encode the racial order through monumentation. So they’re designed to be a political statement. You can’t depoliticize a monument. A monument is inherently political.”
Micah Uetricht is managing editor at Jacobin Magazine and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. Like many of us, he’s watching with a combination of delight and disbelief as left-of-liberal ideas enjoy a rare moment in the mainstream spotlight, from the 1950s-style red-baiting of Fox News to Stephen Colbert’s recent declaration that “God is a socialist.” Even the ladies of The View are getting in on it, sitting down with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for a friendly little chat about democratic socialism. To Uetricht, these moments are further evidence that the time is ripe for a return to the working class politics that defined the Democratic Party in past eras.
In this conversation, Uetricht tells how his early experiences as a union organizer influenced his ideas, what he sees as the future for labor in America, and why he thinks it’s so critical for the left to wrest power from the neoliberals who control the Democratic Party:
“It really is a kind of socialism or barbarism moment. We can either offer something to people, or someone like Trump can. This is why we do have this responsibility, because obviously what is on offer by the Democratic Party, by the tepid centrist liberalism, is just going to continue to play right into the hands of people like Trump. And so our responsibility is to create an alternative that can actually speak to these very understandable and real and rational feelings that a huge chunk, if not the majority, of the population are feeling right now.”
Nate Bethea is co-host of the podcast A Hell of a Way to Die, a funny, often bracing show about the intersection of leftist politics and American military culture. While serving as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army from 2007-2014, and deploying to Afghanistan in 2009-2010, Bethea reports that he “lived the Army values so hard that I became a socialist.” In this conversation, he discusses the hazards of being openly left while on active duty, the disturbing rise of MAGA-style fascism among veterans, and how his experience at war deepened his political commitments:
“Leftist veterans aren’t coming from the perspective that everyone should be in the military, but what we’re saying is that we’ve seen some of these policies put forth in the military, we’ve seen things like universal health care, things like the GI Bill covering your full tuition—we see these things, and we think, why can’t everybody have this?
And we also have seen the waste and the stupidity . . . the containers full of shit burned in Afghanistan, vehicles valued at $300,000 abandoned in Iraq . . . I mean, if you take ROTC paying for my undergrad, and the GI Bill paying for my M.F.A., and if I had done a Ph.D., all of that tuition put together, and all the cost of living allowance they’ve given me, would not equal the cost of one stupid Humvee that we gave to the Iraqis and then ISIS stole, and then we bombed it with a bomb that cost more than the Humvee.”
Alex Press is a writer and assistant editor at Jacobin Magazine whose work explores the contours and possibilities of American working class politics. In this conversation, she tells about being radicalized by the Occupy movement in 2011, her journey through anarchism and socialism in a basement full of radical literature, and her thoughts on the rising visibility of socialist politics in the U.S. mainstream. Surveying the current political landscape, Press sees many opportunities for the left to more effectively harness the anger and energy felt by millions of Americans. She argues that popular social movements, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, can and should be channeled into real working class power:
“We don’t have a very visible fighting feminist movement in the way that we’ve had in the past. You have this incredible energy around #MeToo, so many people wanted to change this thing, everyone agreed it was terrible that every woman they know seems to have experienced really awful things, whether in their work life or elsewhere, and yet there was nowhere really for people to go. And when you don’t have that infrastructure of an organized left that can really lead that energy, and develop it, and demand certain changes, it dissipates. It’s a real missed opportunity, and it’s why left organizations should be preparing themselves to actually figure out a way to fight back against incredibly anti-feminist policies in this country.”
Bhakti Shringarpure is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Warscapes, an online magazine that features interviews, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art from regions of conflict around the world. In this conversation, she talks about her youth in India, her work with poet Ammiel Alcalay in graduate school, and why Warscapes avoids the clickbait format of mainstream digital media. In discussing recent outrage about Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza, Shringarpure explains how the urgent tone of social media distorts our perceptions:
“I think it’s not a new moment. Those things, the brutality toward children, the right to maim, all these things that people are shocked by, have always been endemic to that conflict, and to many conflicts. But I think we have this very bifurcated moment. We have this over-vigilant reportage [with] Twitter and social media—we’re finding out a lot, so the outrage machine is very intense.
On the one hand, we have all this information, we can see how intensely horrible it is, and then we have a set of governments that seem completely disinterested in what’s causing us this daily outrage. We are constantly forced to think of the insensitivity of these governments, alongside the hypersensitive, over-the-top, social media internet machine giving us image after image after image, and I think there’s a shock there . . . but the actual violence is unchanged.”
Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and academic whose work often explores the intersections of changing technological environments and the production of radical political philosophy. In this conversation, he talks about being surrounded by conservatives in Southern California during the 1990s, how the discovery of Russian literature expanded his political and intellectual worldview, and why it’s vital for academics to bridge the gap between the university and the wider public. Reflecting on Trump’s rise and the increasingly overt fascism of his troglodytic supporters, Alvarez invites us to consider the dark implications of social media’s powerful grip on the American mind:
“We are seeing and experiencing first-hand how the changing media environment in the 21st century shapes politics . . . When we’re writing the history of the beginning of the Trump era, we’re going to have plenty of work to do to figure out how his brand of populist ethnonationalism came to resonate with people, how the backlash to Obama materialized, the shifts on the right, etc. But we’re also going to have to ask other questions that are incredibly difficult.
What, for instance, are the political ramifications of a country’s increasingly pervasive loss of long term memory? [We’re] plugged into this hyperspeed of the immediate that social media and the digital news flow attunes [us] to, and I think this is having a very significant impact. The politics of resentment has found a place to flourish in a social media economy where the dopamine hits come from the responses of other people, that you get to see on your phone.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a historian of American politics with a number of important books on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ideological evolution of the Republican Party. Richardson’s work tracks the space between rhetoric and reality, showing us how political parties pull the levers of race and class to manipulate public opinion and gain power.
Richardson’s recent focus is the way American conservatism has influenced the direction of the Republican Party over the course of the past several decades. In this conversation, she explains how “movement conservatives” since the Buckley era pushed the GOP to embrace increasingly extreme candidates and positions, setting the table for the Trump nightmare:
“Americans figured out fairly early on that [Republican economic policies] didn’t really help them. So Republican language has gotten more and more crazy. For me, the real sign was when Carly Fiorina, in the debates in 2016, said that Democrats were literally killing babies so they could sell their body parts . . .
They’ve had to ratchet this language up more and more. So when Trump came in and said and did the horrific things he did, he was really simply playing that movement conservative narrative out to its logical end. It’s exactly the path we started on in 1951 with God and Man at Yale.”
Justin and David discuss the long-term implications of Trump's border policies, and try to find a silver lining in the gathering clouds of fascism. ONLY AVAILABLE TO PATREON SUBSCRIBERS. SUBSCRIBE AND LISTEN HERE.
Michael Kazin is a historian of American labor and social movements, and co-editor of Dissent magazine. As a student at Harvard in the late 1960s, he was a leader within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and played a part in its short-lived militant faction, the Weatherman. In this conversation, Kazin reflects on his path “from revolutionary to professor,” explaining how his early experiences in the New Left inform his analysis of the massive political shifts over the decades that followed. In explaining the recent popularity of left figures and organizations, from Bernie Sanders to the DSA, Kazin sees liberal failure as a significant part of the equation:
“When liberals are in power, it actually helps the left, because they make promises they don’t keep. The left grew in the 60s under liberal presidents, the left grew in the 30s under Franklin Roosevelt, the left grew under Woodrow Wilson before then, and the left grew under Abraham Lincoln, who was in effect a progressive though no one used that term at the time.
And so people, especially young people say ‘I thought Obama was gonna do all this great stuff— he talked about a movement, he was gonna stop climate change, he was gonna get everybody better wages, he was gonna help unions organize.’ And the financial crisis made it seem as though, maybe capitalism’s not so great after all. Maybe this globalized economy, what some people call neoliberalism, made promises it couldn’t keep.
So under Obama, we have Black Lives Matter, we have Occupy . . . and people are open to hearing the kinds of things that Sanders has been saying for 50 years.”
Carl Lindskoog is a historian of immigration, race, and rebellion whose forthcoming book Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System locates the roots of America’s current immigration policies in the history of U.S - Haiti relations over the past several decades. His latest piece reminds us that horrific practices like child detention are sadly nothing new, explaining how the U.S. government’s response to an influx of Haitian refugees in the 1990s created the template for the harsh, punitive immigration system that exists today. In this conversation, Lindskoog tells the extraordinary story of Haitian children rising up against their American captors at a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, and discusses how the history of resistance to the U.S. immigration system is part of the wider movement to confront the brutality of the American carceral state. LISTEN HERE.
“It’s always the two sides, repression and resistance. Long before it’s Guantanamo detainees or immigrant detainees in the United States doing hunger strikes and resisting and organizing inside—which they’re doing right now and we’ve been hearing about for the past several years—in the 1970s Haitian women in a prison in West Virginia have a hunger strike . . . so this is a big part of the movement for refugee and immigrant rights that’s been going a for a long time.
"And this is where I see the Haitian story as connected to the [work of] Heather Ann Thompson and other people who are documenting prisoner resistance and resistance inside, because just as incarcerated people have always fought for their freedom, so have incarcerated people who are immigrants . . . and that needs to be part of the story too.”
In this week's bonus episode, the show's creators get loose and talk about their personal trajectories, from shitty jobs in awful restaurants to getting radicalized and starting a podcast. ONLY AVAILABLE TO PATREON SUBSCRIBERS. LISTEN HERE.
Heather Ann Thompson is a historian and writer whose 2016 book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. In this conversation, she discusses how her upbringing in Detroit shaped her views on American politics and ignited her interest in tracking the history of mass incarceration. Thompson also talks about the 13-year process behind writing a book like Blood in the Water, a project that included intense research, wrenching oral histories, and a narrative that’s been intentionally distorted and covered up for decades. By putting Attica’s history in context, Thompson’s work considers the larger moral dimensions of America’s obsession with crime and punishment.
“We have to explain not just why we get drug laws . . . what we really need to explain is: When did we become a country where it’s okay to have 400 children in Michigan serving life sentences? When did we as a society become okay with people spending 10 years in solitary confinement?
And that was where I felt that the memory of Attica was so critically important. Somehow, we had been given this opportunity to do right by the folks that were serving time, and that is exactly what the men in Attica had hoped would happen. And yet, the exact opposite happens and we come out of Attica seeing prisoners like animals.
How does that happen?”
Bruce Schulman's 2001 book The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics is a fascinating take on a critical era, and helps put the Trump era into an understandable historical context. In this conversation, Schulman discusses how popular culture came to be such a central element of his methodology, helping him chart a course through the political and social history of late 20th century America. LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE