Sarah Kendzior: Authoritarianism in a “Democracy”


Journalist and author Sarah Kendzior talks to Rob Johnson about how the Uzbekistan’s experience of authoritarianism within a nominally democratic framework could be the future of the U.S.

Transcription

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Sarah Kendzior, a writer and author, and who has a podcast of her own called Gaslit Nation, which is very, very exciting. She’s the author of two books: the first, The View from Flyover Country, and the second which was very recent, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America. Sarah, thanks for joining me.

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh, thank you for having me.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I was very, very touched in listening to some of your podcasts, particularly in relation to the new book. And you and I share a similar experience, we both have two young children. And you were talking in the podcast about, with all of us in such close proximity during this pandemic and lockdown, how frank can you be with your children? And I guess at the ages, mine are eight and 11, and I guess yours are just a touch older than that.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Nine and 12… or 13?

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah, nine and 12.

Rob Johnson:

Nine and 12. So it is a delicate time, and particularly I would say because your own offering, your own vision is so hard-hitting, and at times frightening. But I’ll tell you, one of my dearest friends who passed away last Christmas Day was the author, William Greider. And he in 2009 set up a website of his own, and the first thing he said to me was, “Look at this.” And the first post was about how he trusted in young people because they had fresh eyes, they could sense right and wrong, but they haven’t been acclimated to what is feasible.

Sarah Kendzior:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

And I would say that in my own searching, I am often kind of jarred by young people. INET has Young Scholars Initiative, which is about 11,000 people who are very, very vital and vibrant, and see a need for the change in the world. But one night after my board met, two of my board members, both from California, John Powell and Drummond Pike came over for dinner, and we were talking about climate change.

And Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis are friends of the family, so my daughter Sarah had been quite exposed to the concerns, and they went to the student strike. But Sarah became very quiet at dinner, and was very quiet the next morning when I drove her to school.

In the middle of what turned out to be her second period in fifth grade at 10-years-old that next morning, I got a text message with a photograph, and she wrote this poem: What is Everything, by Sarah. What is everything? Is it all essence, or is it all answers? Is there more? Why am I all covered up, never seeing past, present, or future? Is it all an illusion? Why is it all collapsing, destroyed? All those lives, not knowing. Will we ever know?

When I read that, I was not in mode of proud father, I was in the mode of the weight that that child’s awareness is forcing her to bear. It’s really a call to action for people like you and I.

Sarah Kendzior:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

And I thought it was very, very daunting. And I’ve been, what I would say, even more careful in how I share with my two young children. And today in listening to your podcast again, it reminded me of that critical moment.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah. I mean, it’s a very difficult thing to draw that line where, of course, children are going to be aware of what’s going on. They’re going to recognize the danger that Trump poses, simply by observing him. They’re obviously aware we’re in a pandemic. When you live in a city like St. Louis like I do, they’re going to be aware of poverty, of racism, of all of these structural issues. And so, there’s the combination where you want them to have a sense of history, you want them to understand the root causes of the catastrophes that we’re facing and also how people faced them in the past, but without completely demoralizing them, without leaving them with a feeling of futurelessness.

And that feeling has haunted younger generations. That feeling has been with me for like the last 20 years, for basically all of my adult life, and it’s not one that I want my kids to inherit, but I do want them to be aware.

One thing that I have noticed is what you pointed to, that there’s a refreshing kind of candor, a willingness to address the severity of the crisis head on, to just simply identify what’s happening right before their eyes, which I think adults lack, especially adults that have long worked in institutions that want to protect institutions, or reputations, or prestigious venues. Kids don’t care. They tend to have a much more direct sense of right and wrong, and they tend to see through a con artist often quite quicker than adults.

And so yeah, I do have hope for this generation in that sense. But I think that what they’re facing down, this combination of climate change, of incredible corruption, of the erosion of freedom in our country, it is an unprecedented mix of challenges.

And so, it’s our obligation as adults to protect them and educate them. That’s what defines a lot of my life. Like I feel like I’m not really fighting for people my age anymore. I’m trying to illuminate the conditions we’re in so that they can be changed, so that a better future can be there by the time my own kids grow up. And so it’s not so much this, how do I relay this information to them now because they’re quite aware, but how do I work to try to change these broken institutions, this broken country for the future.

Rob Johnson:

Do you see the pandemic, which has really unmasked a whole lot of things as an ally in your pursuit? Does it, how would I say, weaken those who are strident about some false conscious conventional wisdom, or is the fear of this chaotic, disorienting time make people want to look back to the familiar rather than forward to a new vision? How do you see that-?

Sarah Kendzior:

There’s nothing good about the pandemic. I mean, I see the pandemic as something bringing mass death, and also an administration that wants to normalize mass death, that wants to basically strip away the intrinsic horror of it that seeks to devalue human life.

We’ve seen this from the moment it emerged when the Trump administration first denied it existed, then they wouldn’t provide adequate medical equipment. We haven’t seen the traditional rituals of mourning in place. The flag doesn’t go to half-staff. There’s all sorts of things about this that I find alarming because they’re in line with the dehumanization that often accompanies an autocratic regime, which is I think what they are trying to build.

I think the pandemic, it does highlight inequalities, and suffering, and a lack of access to resources for different populations that was already there, and that was of course underplayed by the press and not adequately addressed by Congress.

We see a disproportionate death toll among black Americans, among Native Americans, among impoverished Americans. And we’re also seeing scapegoating, where both the administration and just various figures in the media and ordinary citizens are viewing other populations as diseased because of their ethnic background being one where folks have been more likely to get it, or just because they’re, for example, Chinese-American and there’s been this weaponization of the coronavirus against people from China or just simply of Asian descent. I feel like I’m living in a horror movie.

I’ve predicted a lot of the things that came to pass in the Trump administration because they’re basically following the dictator’s playbook. You see things like the purging of agencies, the packing of courts, the use of propaganda. They’re all fairly standard. I did not see a pandemic coming. But the minute it came, it’s like no autocrat wastes a crisis. They always can bend it to serve their needs, whether those needs are financial or the consolidation of power.

And so I do think it’s working to that effect, and it’s also to some extent mitigated mass protests and other organizational activities where people get together face-to-face to try to solve a social or a political problem. There were mass protests last night in Minnesota. And so, I think that coronavirus is not going to completely stop this, but I worry about their health. I worry about the health of anybody that’s out in the world trying to navigate a very unpredictable, mysterious virus that we don’t fully understand the effects of it, we don’t fully understand how it spreads or what it does over the long-term.

Rob Johnson:

You’ve raised many things in this conversation already. I’m very concerned what I might call about the quality of representation in the United States, and for that matter in other countries. We’ve had money politics, that I often refer to as commodifying social design in narrower representation. Well, in the context of this pandemic with an election on the horizon, I am concerned about the process of allowing an election to actually take place, and people to, and I call vote at all, or not just vote who they prefer.

Robin William Barbara works very closely with people I know on stopping voter suppression. But it feels like with the pandemic, the scale of this, what I’ll call refraction or anesthetizing democratic reaction, could further, what I’ll call, deeply damage people’s trust in the United States of America.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah. I think that’s true. I mean, we’ve handled this crisis abysmally. The United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Russia, you see the same tendencies in the leadership of all of these nations. These are either autocracies or aspiring autocracies that have administrations seeking to personally profit off of the crisis, and that have no concern for how it’s affecting average citizens of any of these countries or about that being known.

And you see flagrant violations from people in government, whether it’s Jared Kushner here, or Dominic Cummings in the UK, and so forth. I am worried about the election because I never thought that this was going to be a free and fair election. Like when Trump got in in 2016, I immediately thought, “Well, it’s going to be very difficult to get him out, because he’s going to abuse executive power to try to rig every apparatus of accountability in his favor.”

And he’s backed by a political party that’s completely acquiescent, that’s complicit, that is in fact the mastermind behind this. It’s not Trump. It’s these people like McConnell that know how to navigate a bureaucracy. It’s his backers abroad, these various oligarchs, and mafiosos and so forth. And so, of course he doesn’t want to leave power, because if Trump leaves office then he loses his money, his political power, and his immunity from prosecution. So he’s going to do everything he can to remain there, and it’s not for the good of American citizens.

And that could mean using the same tactics that they used in 2016, which is a mixture of domestic voter suppression, foreign interference, insecure machines. But then with coronavirus, we have to reconsider the way that we vote, and making sure that people are safe. And I’ve been saying since March that they need to switch to vote-by-mail in all states. This has already worked very well for states like Oregon for a long time. And Trump, of course, is trying to claim that this is a rampant way of ensuring voter fraud, but that’s a complete lie. They see this as threatening. That’s also why they want to shut down the postal service.

And I’ve been frustrated by the uncertainty that we have now, where so many people just don’t know, “Well, how am I going to vote? How do I register to vote? Where am I going to go? How do I know that my vote will be counted, that this will be a transparent election?”

And the problem is, the more questions that everybody has about how this process works, the more that uncertainty is going to be exploited by Trump and by the Republican Party, because they’ll come out like if they lose, and say, “Oh. Well, this was illegitimate. People couldn’t vote because of coronavirus,” et cetera, et cetera, utterly ignoring that they were the ones who tried to prevent people from voting by putting forth a simple system of vote-by-mail.

So it raises a lot of questions, but at the heart, it’s just abuse of power. It’s the fact that they have no desire to serve the American people or to have a government that was chosen by the American people. We’re just extras in this play that revolves around Trump and the criminals in his midst.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. We at INET, today published a piece by a gentleman named Phillip Alvelda, which is a very, very detailed quantitative study of the Wisconsin in-person primary vote on April 7th, and the rise in cases and deaths that followed that. It strongly suggests that… how would I say it… that we should not have in-person voting, said it in relative terms, “Yeah. You want to have by-mail voting.” I’m a bit afraid that this kind of evidence, this is part of why Phillip wanted to raise it up the flag pole now, will be used to postpone, or cancel or whatever elections, in the name of public health but not in the name of democratic health.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah. I think they’re absolutely going to try to do that. We’ve already seen Jared Kushner basically discussing the election in that way, being like, “Maybe we’ll have it, maybe we won’t,” and using public health as the pretext. And it’s a very difficult thing because there is a genuine public health crisis. Usually when the Trump administration tries to pass some sort of repressive policy, they invent a crisis. They say that there is a migrant horde clamoring at the border of Mexico, so we have to have a national emergency declared, whereas that’s not actually happening in reality. They invent prior massacres.

They invented the Bowling Green massacre. They deal in alternative facts. But this is an actual public health crisis, one of course that they at first tried to deny existed, but yes, I think that they may use it to try to postpone the election. I mean, ideally, it would be the Democrats, and the Republicans, and Independents or anyone else coming together to make sure that the integrity of the election system remains intact.

I do think the onus falls on the Democrats for obvious reasons, the reason being the Republicans don’t care about election integrity other than violating it, they need to be very proactive. The worst thing would be if they suddenly in October, September are greeted with members of the Trump administration saying, “Hey, we’re just looking out for the public. We think it’s too risky to vote. We’re going to have to postpone the election,” and then it would be postponed again and again, until there is no election.

They need to assume that they’re going to do something like that and get a system in place now, one that is proactive and not reactive. I think voting by mail is the safest way to go, but they need to make sure that that is, in fact, a system that can’t be tampered with. They should be dealing with experts. And if there is going to be in-person voting since often these matters are decided by the states, that I think they need to be more creative. They need to maybe have it be more than one day, or stagger out the times, or limit the number of people that could be in a place in a given time, or add more polling locations to spread them out or what have you.

But the worst thing though, like as I said, is for this to be decided months from now, in a move that looks insincere or reactive to the Republicans, instead of sincerely advocating for the guaranteed right to vote of all Americans.

Rob Johnson:

Let me ask you a question. I think your characterization of the Republicans is right, but both sides running for office, Democrat, Republican, incumbents and challengers need to raise an awful lot of money in light of having to pay commercial rates for media exposure, create activist teams, and various other costs. We don’t have public financing of elections. And so, that healthy democratic thrust that you describe of the Democrats holding the Republicans’ feet to the flames, is not one side effect of that, that they’ll just chase the donors over to Trump’s side?

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah. I mean, they do chase the donors. I think that’s one of the greatest weaknesses and flaws of the Democratic Party is that they are, in fact, beholden to the donors. And there’s this tension between older members of Congress who are particularly beholden to these donors and this apparatus, and others who want to reform it.

I mean, and honestly, it doesn’t completely break down along age lines, but I think younger people tend to have less wealth or are at disadvantage. If somebody in their 30s or 40s wants to run for office, it means they’re going to have to make enormous moral compromises to even get in the game. They’re going to have to accept financial help from people they may despise, and then be beholden to them. And I think that that hurts the range of people who might want to participate in government and be part of government. And so, it’s deeply flawed. It’s a deeply corrupt system.

And I think one of the things that needs to be done to just reform this entire disaster is repealing Citizens United is getting dark money out of politics. I live in Missouri, which has more dark money than any other state in the country. We were earlier to it. The problem emerged well before Citizens United. And we don’t have a representative government at all. Even when the voters vote for various propositions, like for raising the minimum wage or for something we had called Clean Missouri, which was supposed to get rid of gerrymandering and dark money in campaigns and things like that, then the Republican legislature will just vote it down. They override the people’s will flagrantly because they know that they’re untouchable.

And I think we’re seeing a system like that now at a national level, and it’s very difficult to combat. And I think that the Democrats not tackling this head on and not tackling a lot of our problems head on, whether they’re ones particular to the Trump administration and its criminality or ones that predate it by decades that were just never fully rectified or addressed, we see that now. I mean, I do think we have weak leadership, and it’s unfortunate. It’s the worst time in American history to have leadership that is so timid and so seemingly afraid of rocking a boat that’s already sinking.

Rob Johnson:

That’s a great line. I was in Detroit in 2016 on election day, and a friend of mine invited me to a party election night, seven people that I’d gone to high school with. But before I went to the party, I went and saw a gentleman whose name was Ulysses, who used to be a security guard in the medical office building where my father worked.

And when I saw Ulysses, I said, “Well, what’s going on with the election here?” It was a rainy day in Detroit, but I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “Oh, Mr. Johnson. It’s like you went to a restaurant where there’s nothing on the menu anyone wants to eat. People are just going to go to work and stay home. They’re not going to come out. Not at all.”

And that proved to be quite a prescient statement. Detroit has a population that’s just under 800,000 people. That’s not registered voters, that’s population. Turnout relative to 2012 was down 112,000. And despite that, the city of Detroit of the hundred largest cities in America had the lowest percentage vote for Donald Trump. 2.9% voted for Trump. So if they’d had the turnout, if the Democrats had been more inspiring, it would have been, how do I say, a different result with regard to those electoral votes in that particular state. And I think there may be analogies elsewhere.

But the interesting thing to me was among white, suburban, affluent people, all these people I went to the party with had a JD, or an MBA, or an MD, or a CPA, all advanced degrees. And of the seven people I was with, six voted for Trump. And I said, “What do you guys think you’re getting?” They knew that I hadn’t. And they said, “Well, Rob, you left and went to the East Coast, and you and your family have prospered. We’re here, our children are here. And whether it’s welfare reform, or criminal justice reform, or privatization of prisons, or NAFTA, the Democratic Party has not served us.”

And on the day after Trump was nominated at his convention, he came to the Detroit Economic Club and he scolded top management in the auto industry for not preserving jobs. His kind of bumper sticker was, “The system is rigged.” And that diagnosis rang true with an awful lot of people. I think you and I would agree with that.

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But his prescription, once he was in office, was in contradiction to the diagnosis. He exacerbates the problems. But I do think the Democrats contributed to those problems that allowed him to become inspiring for people, who traditionally would not vote for that man.

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh, I think that’s true. Trump is good at that. He’s good at honing in on human pain and exploiting it for his own advantage. He’s good at recognizing weaknesses and flaws, and he did that throughout the campaign. And it very much is regional. And I would go somewhere, like from St. Louis, when I would go to DC, or New York or something, I felt like Katniss in The Hunger Games, like coming out from District 12 to see the Capitol. I mean, it was a completely different world after the 2008 recession.

And across the board, it doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, people were suffering, people were losing opportunities, people were losing their sense of the future. There’s this sense that the good jobs, the mechanisms of survival were being hoarded by a small elite, mostly conglomerated in wealthy cities on the coast, and that absolutely no one really cared what happened to us here unless there was some kind of disaster that they could exploit for ratings or whatnot, a tornado, a riot; or if there is an election, and then they would suddenly show up in Iowa and in neighboring states clamoring for our votes. But there is a sense of dehumanization.

Those who voted for Trump from here. I mean, I think it’s a variety of people. It’s not a monolith. Some of them were intensely attracted to him because he’s a xenophobe, he’s a racist. And he doesn’t deny that. He’s stokes that kind of sentiment on purpose. There were others who I think were not paying as much attention to the election. They were generally disgusted with the whole thing. They just, kind like the guy you were talking to, where they just looked at both of them, at Hillary and at Trump, and said like, “I don’t even want to be part of this.”

And I’ve met people who did ultimately vote for Trump because they thought that he would have some kind of strongman approach to the economy that would emphasize the Midwest, that would emphasize the industrial Midwest, and that would at least recognize that our conditions hadn’t improved. Because one of the things that was hard to deal with during the Obama years were the speeches, honestly, from Obama, where he would describe America and how we had gotten past our terrible financial crisis and we were blooming and flourishing yet again. And I would listen to that and think, “Man, I want to live in that country. I want to live in that America,” that he’s describing that bears no resemblance to the reality of me or anyone I know.

And this isn’t all on Obama. I mean, he was handed financial collapse and two wars by the Bush administration. And I think during his first term, he did a lot to keep it from getting worse than it actually was, and he did make some moves to fix it. And he was, of course, blocked by the Republicans throughout his entire presidency whenever he tried to do anything. But I think the lack of recognition, especially from someone who projected such empathy, generally speaking, as Obama did, it was selective empathy, and it wasn’t hitting here.

When we would here about how rosy things are, people would internalize that as, “He must think I’m a failure,” or, “Those people must think that we’re all failures out here.” And Trump honed in on that resentment and on that hurt and exploited it like a vulture, and it did contribute to his win.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I think that plus the fact that Barack was a black man made a whole lot of people, which I might call vulnerable, to reacting to the hostility, even though Hillary Clinton obviously is Caucasian, it just set a stage. I think it made it much harder for Barack Obama to lead and to govern in some respects, especially as you said, the kind of what I’ll call the seduce and abandon of speaking hopeful, acting like everything was going well when lots of people were suffering. That contradiction, what you might call, fed the diseases of despair.

Let’s talk a little bit. You live in St Louis. I’m from Detroit. Racism, otherness, which is not just related to race but gender and other things, has been almost the seed-corn of how Trump holds his coalition together. You have a man who said the system was rigged. He mowed down 15 Republicans before he beat Hillary Clinton. And then, he can’t really appeal to broad-based economic prosperity, so resorting to what people call identity politics, demonizing, polarizing.

I remember Charlottesville is a horrific episode. But like I said, you’re from St. Louis, I’m from Detroit. When the economies hollow out or become desperate, there’s very fundamental research that says, “As economic insecurity goes up, racial animosity goes up in lockstep.” People are displaced from focusing on the economic, structural conditions, and they start blaming others.

The reason I raise this now is when a black man is the president, I think many people somehow mistakenly felt like, “Well, Obama will take care of the black people, or take care of the gay people or the movement because that’s how he gets their votes, but he’s left us hanging out to dry. He left us to despair.”

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And-

Sarah Kendzior:

I’m sorry. Go on.

Rob Johnson:

I was just going to say that this mixture between identity politics and economic despair is a very toxic cocktail.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s one that you see any aspiring dictator try to exploit. You see the same things with Milosevic, or Hitler or anybody who finds their minority scapegoat, and then they pin the problems of the world on them. They use that.

And I think this is especially effective on older white people, especially white men, baby boomers who had experienced easier times to some degree, but also I think consciously or subconsciously fell in a position of privilege. And what Trump was doing was encouraging them to embrace that, encouraging them to think of themselves as superior, and to think of themselves as having been robbed, having been taken advantage of and had their rights or opportunities stripped away. And the thing is, is they were, but so were black folks of that generation.

So it was anybody in America, not any tiny group of elites. After the 2008 collapse, people really did lose their jobs, their ability to pay their bills, their benefits, their sense of hope and dream for the future. They really did lose that. But it was just white people, pretty much, that were going to vote for Trump, and that’s because he made it acceptable for them to embrace this toxic form of white identity, to weaponize it, and to publicly revel in it.

And I think the more the media encouraged this, the more they treated it like entertainment, or a joke, or even bought into many aspects of the white supremacy that he was peddling, because the media is a racist business of its own, the worse that it got.

And the bottom line is that no one has been looked out for. No one’s life, with the exception of Trump and his crime cohort, has materially improved since he came into office. And in terms of civil rights, it’s been a terrible time. It’s been a time of rising hate crimes, of courts being rigged in favor of those who seek to discriminate against others of voting rights and other rights being attacked. It is very frustrating.

But I think part of this is the refusal earlier to address a lot of the pain and suffering Americans were experiencing head on. I think that the Obama administration was unwilling to do that because they saw it as an admission of failure, like as if they were saying, “We have failed you,” whereas in reality the problem was very complex, it was structural, it predated the Obama administration and even the Bush administration. A lot of this is an extension of the Reagan era and the kind of fruition of those policies coming to pass.

I think that an admission of it goes a long way. And I think Hillary Clinton realized that during the course of her campaign, where she suddenly was embracing policies more along the line of Bernie Sanders, policies that are labeled progressive or even radical, but are really more similar to new deal policies into what a lot of these baby boomers and whatnot actually grew up with and experienced in their own life. I had a small taste of that kind of America as a kid, but I certainly haven’t experienced it as an adult on my own.

Rob Johnson:

One of the scholars that work very closely with INET is named Peter Temin. He’s a professor emeritus at MIT. I was an undergraduate student there. And he wrote a book, I guess in 2016, probably 2017 released, called The Vanishing Middle Class. And the book has the basic premise that as time has gone on and with globalization and technology, that value in the economy, in the financial sense is increasingly created by knowledge-intensive services. And that requires a certain kind of pathway through education to assimilate those skills and to, how do I say, become credentialized or accepted as able to work in that sector.

But what Peter identified was that the poison of racism and the way in which public school systems are structured, and isolated or cordoned off and segregated led to a system where the rungs in that ladder of progress were not there. And what he found most disheartening in studying this in deep dive in data and so forth was that… I think the way he put it is, “About 30% of the population is in high value-added services. About 70% is in the low margin services and not being well-paid,” kind of gig economy. But only about nine percentage points of that 70 were African Americans.

But so many of the Caucasians voted against repairing the public schools, in order to, which I might call, separate themselves from those others, that the entire system was disintegrating, and that the vanishing middle class without the rungs in the ladder for black, white, Hispanic, Asian, unless you were wealthy and privileged at the starting line, led to the deterioration of our country and of our political system. I don’t think that diagnosis, it’s tragic, it’s a social construct, it’s not essential or necessary, but it feels like it’s where we are.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s true and it’s gotten much worse over the last couple of decades. And I think that credentialism is part of that, jobs that once required just a high school degree now require a BA, jobs that required a BA now require an MA, even a PhD or a degree above that. And that puts people either in an enormous amount of debt, or they just simply remove themselves from the process. They think, “Well, I can never afford this. I can never do this. This is a world that I can’t enter.”

And that’s hard enough on individual, but I think it’s hardest on parents when they’re looking at like, “What possibilities does my child have in life, and how can I get them there?” And then they look at the average cost of like college tuition, and they’re like, “My God,” I mean, “There’s absolutely no way in hell, and I don’t want to saddle my kid with a lifetime of debt.”

And then you also see, increasingly, private school kids having an advantage in college, and public schools trying their best I think, while they’re being underfunded, to prepare kids for college even if the kid’s not interested, because they just know that the absence of that degree will be such a black mark for them if they go out into the job market.

And so I think it’s a system that’s designed to reward elite or upper middle class at the least families and their children, who understand that the system even exists, who feel the desire to prepare and groom for it to stack their resumes from early childhood.

And I think all of this might be going out the window now because of coronavirus. I mean, it was going to implode anyway, because what you really have is a generation of people my age, like in their 30s and 40s who have a lot of debt from college, who now have children. And they’re thinking, “Well, Jesus! I can’t even pay off my own debt. How am I going to pay off my kid’s debt?” And college didn’t really get me a great job. So is it really worth it? So I think that was always coming.

But I don’t think if we’re going to have to do things virtually, if we’re going to virtual classrooms and virtual school, these lines between elite institutions and public, regular institutions will blur, because everyone will be trapped in their bedroom from the pandemic watching the same lecture, and no one’s going to want to shell out a lot of money.

I mean, I am worried. I’m worried about the system of higher education because they think there’s value in learning, there’s value in study, there’s value in reading and having teachers that can guide you through it. I’m not against that, but I feel like it’s become a very sleazy business, one that exploits people’s vulnerabilities, and that often can crush them into a lifetime of debt.

So if it gets radically reformed, I think that’s a good thing. But I think at any rate, big change is coming our way. We’re in a holding pattern now because of the summer, but when the fall starts and either colleges open or don’t, or public schools, any schools open or don’t, I think there’s going to be a lot of re-evaluation about, “What is this worth? What are we trying to accomplish? Who gets to participate? How do they get to participate?” and so forth.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I think you’re right on the money there, just right on the button. Because I talk to lots of people, particularly young people who are postdocs or assistant professors, they can see the stress under which major universities are now encumbered. They see administrative leaders, deans and what have you, who are all making a million dollars a year, resorting to outside marketing for funding, but also adjunct professors and all kinds of ways, not to fortify and secure the career of a tenured professor, which makes those professors much more tentative, much more obedient to elites.

It reminds me Wendy Brown at Berkeley, who’s a brilliant scholar, and a book called Undoing the Demos. It’s about what she called neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. And as I listen to you and I’m reading, I see what you might call the tyranny of meritocracy, to take the phrase from Michael Sandel’s forthcoming book, I see the conformity. There’s a wonderful book on the staleness of elite education called Excellent Sheep. Wendy’s book talks about how the arts are being commodified.

We’ve talked about how politics is being commodified, how education is being kind of shoved up against the wall, commodified and credentialism is a traded commodity. And you mentioned early on in this conversation how at times the press isn’t working for the public good, they’re working for their advertisers and the taboos that they abide by, all of which contradicts the basis for health, and faith, and what I’ll call wide-open democratic discourse, which we might call are the underpinnings of a healthy, responsive society.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah, absolutely. I think careerism and conformity, they spring from this fear of being left out of what is a very narrow, very credentialized system that gives you access to wealth and just access to baseline stability. I think that people, once they get in this way, in media, in policy and in any kind of job, they are terrified of being booted out, because once you lose your job in America you lose your health insurance, you lose your pathway forward.

The longer you’re unemployed, the less likely it is that you’re going to find any kind of steady work in the future. And so, people play that game. And I think that the system also just encourages people who are already willing to conform. They don’t like it if you’re unconventional, they definitely don’t like it if you challenge power. And even with a proto-autocratic, very unconventional president and administration at the moment, there’s still reluctance to challenge it overtly. There’s reluctance to call a crime a crime, and a lie a lie.

And it’s a similar thing to the kind of reluctance during the Obama administration to admit that people are suffering, that people are hurting, to just call things like you see them. People want to pretend that they’re doing fine themselves because they want to believe that this institution, the system that they’ve invested so much of their life, and their money, and their faith in, that it’s real. But I think it’s illusory. It crumbles around us all the time, whether through overt corruption of our political system or something like the pandemic, which puts all of these flaws and these failures in plain sight where you can’t deny that they exist.

But yeah, it’s been sad for me. I live in a place like St. Louis where in my mind, I’m surrounded by people who are interesting, who are creative, who have ideas that could be beneficial towards society, and they’re just absolutely locked out because they didn’t get a college degree, or they didn’t go to the right college, and they certainly don’t live in the right city. And this often affects people disproportionately if you’re not white, if you’re not a man, and especially if you don’t have money. And all of that leads to terrible conditions in terms of who actually gets these influential, powerful jobs.

That’s why we have like Jared Kushner in the White House. He exemplifies this whole racket. You buy your way into Harvard, or your dad does, and you marry the president’s daughter, and then you use your power and office to just commit crimes, and absolutely no one will hold you accountable because they’re too afraid of the system of power that brought you to prominence in the first place.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I know Jesse Eisinger at ProPublica has just put out a paper on the implications of what you might call the nature of the bailouts, which both parties went along with, but which Kushner and her team have had a lot of influence over. And what you’re seeing is all of the big, strong private equity firms, Blackstone and Carlyle Group and all these, their prices are going up, assets in existing wealth is being, how do you say, fortified and protected. And at the same time, all kinds of small business is going out of business, is collapsing in all, and unemployment rate is skyrocketing. It’s as if the bailout is to protect the donors and the existing power structure. I think only if access to voting and election becomes more broad-based can people respond to this dreadful experience.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And-

Sarah Kendzior:

I’m sorry. Go on.

Rob Johnson:

No, that’s it. Go, go, go.

Sarah Kendzior:

I mean, I think you’re absolutely right that they’re using this to consolidate their power. And I think what the pandemic shows is that we have a class, it’s like beyond the 1%, we have an oligarchy class that can just coast above any kind of catastrophic event because of the sheer hoarding of wealth that they’ve managed to accomplish. Like this isn’t affecting them in any way. It’s not reflected in the stock market. The stock market is not reflecting the economy. And there’s no one looking out for small business owners either. This isn’t like a pro-capitalist system, it’s a pro-oligarchy, pro-plutocracy.

One thing that worries me is that this appears to be an indicator that the election is not going to be free and fair. Because in a normal sort of circumstance, you would have the Republican Party being very concerned that small businesses, or even relatively small to medium corporations, are being hit so hard by this pandemic that you have 100,000 people dead, that you have your own base, potentially getting sick and dying and not having access to medical care, not having access to the equipment needed. They’re utterly unconcerned. And they’ve been like that the whole time. They’ve had a number of extremely unpopular positions before it and people have reacted with condemnation, and they just roll along their merry way.

So I’m worried about voter turnout and whatnot, but I’m also worried that the Republicans have acted like they’ve got this presidential election lock. Basically from the moment that Trump stepped into the White House, the leverage of the public has diminished so dramatically over the past four years, but really over like the past 20 years, where you see massive protests against things, no reaction from government, little coverage in media or skewed coverage. It’s a very frustrating thing.

Rob Johnson:

Well, Sarah, I was inspired to ask you to come on this program with me when I read about your background, because you have a great vitality as a speaker and very heartfelt expression of right and wrong. And I had learned that from your podcasts. But I’d learned in the course of exploring that you actually did a PhD in anthropology, and you focused on, I believe it was autocracy and particularly Uzbekistan. Can you share with me; how did you get on that path? How did you get curious in that realm?

Gosh, it’s long story. Well, after I graduated college, I worked in journalism. I worked at the New York Daily News, and I was there during 9/11. So I was reading a lot of articles about the war in Afghanistan, and I got very interested in the surrounding Central Asian countries, which I didn’t really think had been adequately covered, countries like Uzbekistan.

Sarah Kendzior:

To make a long story quite short, I went on to Indiana University and got an MA in Central Eurasian Studies. So I could learn to speak Uzbek and Russian, with the hope of doing journalism abroad and filling in those gaps.

While I was there, I began working as a research assistant for an anthropologist. I got interested in anthropology because, honestly, there’s more opportunity to write about places like Uzbekistan in that field than there certainly are in a regular American newspaper. And this was, of course, media was already being guarded and these opportunities were vanishing anyway.

And so then, yeah, I applied to a number of schools. I got a full-ride at Washington University in St. Louis, moved here in 2006, finished my degree in 2012. And I focused on Uzbekistan, but what I ended up doing because Westerners got basically banned from Uzbekistan right around the time that I was planning to go because the Uzbek government had fired on protesters and killed about 800 people in what’s known as the Andijan massacre, and they didn’t want anybody there writing about it. I, of course, went on to write about the massacre anyway, thus reaffirming that I would never be allowed in Uzbekistan.

And then focusing on the diaspora that had been created by that massacre when so many people had to leave the country, so many Uzbek people, and they began setting up blogs and all these ways of interaction and talking about politics that were never allowed in Uzbekistan.

And so I was very interested in how the Internet was being used by dissidents, and how the Internet was being used by authoritarian regimes for surveillance and for control. And how all these facets of the Internet, that were at this time new, things like anonymous comments, how they could be exploited. And all of this proved very advantageous in understanding the 2016 election here, where I was seeing tactics used that were so reminiscent of what the Uzbek government, or Russian government, or Azerbaijani government would use against their own citizens.

They often refer to Steve Bannon is having pioneered the strategy of flooding the zone with nonsense… there’s another word they’re using… propaganda, conspiracies, and so forth. But this is a very old strategy in terms of the Internet. It really was pioneered much more effectively by dictatorships from the former Soviet Union.

Rob Johnson:

I remember listening to the podcasts they call The Big Steal, and it was all about Russia kleptocracy, and then these techniques. Now, there’s a young scholar named Emma Briant, who’s been someone we’ve funded for research, and who’s got very involved in the diagnosis of Cambridge Analytica. It almost felt to me like science fiction.

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh, she was on our show. She came on Gaslit Nation, and we interviewed her about it. Yeah. It was a very horrifying interview, very illuminating. I mean, what she’s discovered is appalling. So yeah.

Rob Johnson:

I was reminded of her as I listened to one of your podcasts because she had experienced what I’ll call rather formidable threats to her life. And I remember you talking about similar kind of challenges that were presented to you. But Emma, she’s done some really great work for INET. And I’ll send you some of the things that she did for us for, just for your records.

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh, great.

Rob Johnson:

So you studied this. It’s almost like you started with Uzbekistan, and all of a sudden you got a window into the world.

Sarah Kendzior:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

It’s just amazing, because the United States now has these founding documents and so forth, but nothing. Whether it’s the courts, or the legislature or the media, none of them act like, which you might call that romantic vision in all of our principles and founding documents. I guess what I’m seeing is, after you studied a bit, did you start to smell incipient autocracy at home?

Sarah Kendzior:

Well, yeah. I mean, I certainly saw parallels in terms of corruption, in terms of I guess what we call purchased meritocracy, where the sons and daughters of elites were the only ones who could get certain opportunities.

One of the things that was the most chilling about Uzbekistan is, of course, it’s a democracy on paper. All the rights that citizens are routinely denied: freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, free market, are all guaranteed to them through their constitution, and they’re supposed to have a functional justice system. And it’s all a lie.

Some of the folks that I knew in Uzbekistan were doing what was considered a very subversive kind of plot, which is basically trying to get Uzbek officials to follow their own laws, the laws of their own constitution. There was a group of Uzbek lawyers who would represent clients, and they would just be like, “Yes, in the constitution, it says that you cannot demand bribes of people on the street.” They would say this to Uzbek policemen and so forth.

And yeah, I was always aware, of course, you can’t not be growing up in America, that our laws were not always practiced on paper. And there was a long hundreds-years struggle of trying to have the ideals of the founding fathers, that they themselves did not hold up in practice, to have those ideals actually enforced and have them include all citizens and not just a narrow few.

But my study of it did coincide with the US going off the cliff because of the Great Recession, because of massive technological change and hyper-partisanship, and all of these sea changes that were going on, and it coincided with me having children. And I think when you have kids, it does change your worldview because things that you were not directly engaging with, like the public school system, or what the cost of child birth is or childcare, or any of that is nowadays, you might not know that. But as soon as you are financially taking care of a dependent and you’re trying to envision that person’s future, you become much more attune to inequalities and systemic rigging of the system around you. It’s not just affecting you, it’s affecting the person you love the most. And so all of that was going on my mind at once.

And the other thing is, once you study an authoritarian state or once you go to one, it’ll hurt you. You will never want your own country to turn that way. And it’s not like there’s ever been a completely free democracy. Every democracy is flawed. But there’s a real difference, obviously, between a democracy and an autocracy. And I could see how America could fall, and I could see us moving in that direction.

And then with Trump, it was like a violent acceleration of what I feared would be coming. I hoped officials would at least take advantage of the fact that this is someone who’s committed criminal acts, and hold him accountable and prevent him from abusing executive power in the way he has, but they haven’t. They’ve caved every time. They’ve let them get away with it every time. And that’s something that worries me, too, because I do think we are heading in the direction of Russia, in the direction of these other mafia states.

Rob Johnson:

It’s funny. I don’t have a biological brother, but my next door neighbor through my childhood now lives in Southern China. He works with power generation company, and he’s about to retire. And I said, “Well, what does it feel like with the pandemic and everything?” He said to me, “Well, I’m so stoked about living life in a free country again.” And then, he kind of dot, dot, dot, “Is that what I’m coming back to?”

These are very daunting challenges. As we come down to the, how would you say, the home stretch here in our conversation, if you were asked on behalf of your children and mine, what reforms to implement in the United States to put us back on track, what would be the top five in your list?

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh gosh. Well, climate change, actions to slow climate change or fend off that massive catastrophe as much as possible, dark money in politics, corruption, and elite criminal impunity. The fact that people with enough money, and power, and privilege can essentially do whatever they want and have decided to infiltrate our government, those people all need to be brought to justice. Those people all need to be taken to task. And right now they’re treated as and touchable, and they’re doing an enormous amount of damage. So I’d put that as a foremost priority. I think we need something akin to like a truth and reconciliation commission combined with like Nuremberg trials to really clean out the rot.

And then on top of that, I think reforms to education, to access to a quality education everywhere, to not have a bill on tax bracket. My kids go to public school in St. Louis, and I love their teachers. And I think that they’re getting a pretty good education, but it’s always a struggle to just get basic resources, basic funding that a few zip codes over they have no problem getting. And that inequality, that starts young and it’ll last for a long time unless you’re able to overcome obstacles that were not your fault. So I guess those would be like the big five.Rob Johnson:

Okay. Well, I heard you say in one of your podcasts that, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” from a Mary Poppins song. I appreciate your five-part spoonful of sugar to help us gain direction. One of my favorite books is called The Life of Poetry by a woman named Muriel Rukeyser. It was written in the 1950s, I believe. Oh, 1949.

Rob Johnson:

And at the beginning of the book, she’s talking about why sometimes in dangerous times people are a little bit afraid of poetry, because it stirs the imagination and they want to settle down. But she makes a declaration, and she says, “If we are free, we are free to choose the tradition. And we find in the past as well as the present, our poets of outrage like Melville and our poets of possibility like Whitman. And I sense both of those dimensions, with more than a spoonful of courage, characterize the path that you’ve chosen.

I am a fond of musical lyrics. And as I listened to you today, it reminded me of a Leonard Cohen song called Anthem, where I’ll just go with the verse that was ringing in my mind.

The birds they sing at the break of day. “Start again,” I heard them say, “Don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be.” Yeah, the wars they will be fought again. The holy dove, she will be caught again, bought and sold and bought again. The dove is never free. So ring the bells that still can ring, forget a perfect offering. There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Sarah, you shed light on the things that matter for our recovering our balance, our integrity, and how would I say, our path towards a prosperous future. And I think of that in terms of delivering to all of our children what we need to do to get to where we got to go. So I want to thank you for being with me. And I would like, in a few months, to call on you again, that we can explore where things are, perhaps around election time, from a slightly different vantage point.

Sarah Kendzior:

That would be great. Thank you so much for having me on.

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. How would say? Someday, I got to meet your children, because I know-

Sarah Kendzior:

For the play date, is quarantine play date.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. We’ll do that, because I know, for sure, that your children are getting a great education because I got one today.

Sarah Kendzior:

Oh. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Rob Johnson:

Thanks. Talk again soon. Bye-bye.

Sarah Kendzior:

Bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

SARAH KENDZIOR is a writer who lives in St Louis, Missouri. She is best known for her best-selling essay collection The View From Flyover Country, her reporting on political and economic problems in the US, and her prescient coverage of the 2016 election and the Trump administration, and her academic research on authoritarian states in Central Asia. She is also the co-host of Gaslit Nation, a weekly podcast which covers corruption in the Trump administration and the rise of authoritarianism around the world.

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