Description: What are we learning last week about where our country is going? What did we learn this afternoon about where tech and the world are going? How do those two match up?
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Moderators: Rich Benjamin, Author | David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy
(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)
Kirkpatrick: Now something quite different. We’re going to have a town hall about what happened last week. So it’s kind of a strange transition. Rich Benjamin, please come onstage. We have a real political expert that’s going to help me with this. But we really want to have a conversation with you and this is one for which the house lights really do need to come up. I believe that’s possible now. Rich Benjamin is a writer and a political pundit and wrote a great book called “Whitopia,” where you spent a year in the three whitest counties in America, was that right?
Benjamin: Two years.
Kirkpatrick: Two years, okay. Two years in the whitest—and you know, he still has a smile on his face. This is a guy who’s got a pretty good personality so he can take a lot but so he has a real perspective on some of the really key issues that are maybe you would say driving this country apart at the moment. So what do you think just happened last week?
Benjamin: A lot happened that’s going to help determine the future. I’d like to go to a slide, my first slide.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Your only slide, right?
Benjamin: My only slide, of course.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, good.
Benjamin: It’s a takeaway, it’s a map. I figured this tech room might like maps. By the way, between the AI people, the blockchain people, and the doctor, I’ve never been in such a high density of dimwitted people than in this room.
Kirkpatrick: Of which kind of people?
Kirkpatrick: Really? Oh.
Benjamin: No, I’m kidding, I’m saying the brilliance.
Kirkpatrick: Oh, you’re being facetious, okay.
Benjamin: Yes, just the brilliance.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you. Okay, that’s the right slide.
Benjamin: Yes, I’ll talk through it before we get it.
Benjamin: One of the takeaways I’ve seen—and this is a little accelerated from 2016—is the two indicators of polarization and the two predictors of partisanship in this country are geography and race. And so I’m beginning to look at maps of how this plays out. And by geography, I don’t just mean rural versus urban, I mean how people are living in counties. So as you said, if we go back to that slide, there are roughly 3,000 counties in this country and then 271 of them qualify as whitopias and by that I mean they’re already extremely white, they’ve experienced population growth from 2000 to 2010, and the majority of that growth has been from white people. And so Donald Trump won 94% of those counties in 2016, 67% of that vote in whitopia went to Trump, whereas he won 46% of the popular vote nationwide. And so I went through the 2018 midterm results, I just wanted to look at where the votes were going. So this is for the senate races and what I’d like to point out there, what is interesting is here we have Tennessee, this is like ground zero of whitopia—
Benjamin: —in the sense that you have Knoxville, you have Nashville—
Kirkpatrick: No, it’s true. My brother lives near Knoxville and I was going, I said, “Where are the black people?” It’s like it’s just the South, I thought that it was like really a mix. East Tennessee is extremely white.
Benjamin: Well, when I said it was ground zero, what I meant is there are more counties that qualify as whitopia—
Kirkpatrick: Yes, there’s a lot of very white places there. That’s what I mean.
Benjamin: Yes and Marsha Blackburn won quite decisively against what Democrats thought would be a competitive opponent, Phil Bredesen. On the other hand, David, another interesting note is if you look at Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar—and I’m sorry for butchering her name—was competitive in the whitopias that exist in Minnesota. So that’s some interesting realizations there, how Democrats are seeking to compete better in suburban counties, in rural counties, in exurban counties, versus in some counties, as I said, in Tennessee, in Missouri, where Republicans were quite dominant.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Two things. First of all, we’ve set up bars in the room. So we’re starting the reception now in here and then it will sort of move outside when we finish in half an hour or so. So if you want to like lubricate yourself, you can.
Second of all, I just want to throw in another piece of this. You know, the title of this session is “Tech Transformation and the Midterm Elections” and I made a comment at the beginning that what I’m interested in in part is, you know, I think in this room, based on just what we’ve heard so far—this is like a quarter of the conference that we’ve experienced so far today—you can see there is an amazing panoply of very rapidly moving transformational technologies that are going to affect the way we live, right? So one of the questions that I want to ask to you but also to anybody in the room is, how does that affect the political context? For example, maybe I’ll ask you this, I think I at least told you I was going to ask you this—but anybody in the room who has comments on these kind of things, I’d be curious to hear from you. You know, a lot of people tomorrow and even Tuesday will be talking about cities and how urban areas are moving even more rapidly with some of the technological changes that are happening, with self-driving cars and scooters—forget about scooters but you know, there’s a lot of things happening that are really different in urban areas. Urban areas are already politically different, right? But one of the things that I ask myself—and maybe this is a crazy question—but somebody who was going to come, a very close friend of mine, couldn’t come but has already got an order in for one of those flying cars that Larry Page has got. What’s the name of that company? Kitty Hawk, yes. They’re going to start delivering those things like in nine months or something. So flying cars are actually coming, right, not to mention autonomous vehicles. So if cities are where people live differently, is there a possibility that the parameters of cities are going to start to expand and actually suck in some of the rural America that is now in a different mind space? I’m just asking, is that a crazy question?
Benjamin: No, it’s not a crazy question but for me, it’s not just the element of technology. It’s what we do in terms of policy, in terms of business development, making these places habitable, in terms of housing, what housing markets do, in terms of what business markets do. So it’s not just that people migrate for reasons of migrating. It’s all these other factors that are surrounding the technology that you’re describing.
Kirkpatrick: Okay but let me ask you another related question.
Benjamin: Gas prices, how people age.
Kirkpatrick: Here’s a related question. Okay, you’re talking about these whitopia counties. That’s very interesting. Why are the cities so different, politically?
Benjamin: Well, I think density does something. I think density does something to people’s viewpoints. I think cities tend to be destination points for migrants and immigrants in a certain way that changes our views on immigrants. And people in whitopia told me—and by the way, it wasn’t all outdoor. I golfed, I hunted, I fished, and people told me that even for them, they realize that low density, the idea of space, made people more conservative.
Benjamin: Yes, it informs their ideas of the Second Amendment, it informs their ideas of their freedom and their individualism, their ideas of safety. And so density and proximity is an element of this.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, that could cause me to flip the point I made before.
Kirkpatrick: I mean, if we’re moving to a context where people can literally live anywhere, maybe more people will be surrounded by space and become more conservative. I’m just asking—I do think that we are going to see demographic changes as a result of technological changes. I mean, the cities happened because of the automobile and other things, right? I’m just—
Benjamin: But—if we have a planet, there’s that element.
Kirkpatrick: Does anybody agree with any of that? Okay, please, yes. Get the mike. Wait, wait, Jody, hold on. Okay, there’s a microphone for you.
Westby: What’s the average population of these counties?
Kirkpatrick: That is Jody, right?
Westby: Yes, Jody Westby. What’s the average population of the counties, the whitopia counties?
Benjamin: Pardon me?
Westby: The average population?
Benjamin: There’s no average population.
Westby: They’re small?
Benjamin: Some of them are as big as St. George, Utah—by the way, let’s make this more concrete for folks. How many of you are familiar with Bend, Oregon? How many of you spent time in Bend? Okay, that’s an example of a whitopia. How about Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, near Hayden Lake? Okay, that’s another example. So there’s no—they vary. And there are some in Vermont so I wouldn’t say there’s an average population.
Kirkpatrick: Oh, okay, here. Get the mike over here and then back there. This is meant to be a town hall so we’re going to like just respond or not respond—
Luebkeman: Sorry. So for me, one of the reasons why we have concentrations of populations in cities is access to opportunity. And so perhaps these new mobility options will give new ways for different populations to access opportunity. But that doesn’t really come to the question of the whitopia because I’m really kind of curious to hear more about the whitopia and why that evolved and a little bit more of your views on that. But I think, David, we’re going to see with autonomous vehicles perhaps heaven or hell, heaven being we’re going to have more electrified, autonomous, shared fleet. The hell is that we have a spread of exurbia so that one can now commute for two hours in sleep and so we have now suburbs in places which are now natural habitat. So there’s these two vectors, these two pathways which we could see. I think those are pretty well documented, too.
Kirkpatrick: Tell us who you are just before you let go of the mike.
Luebkeman: Chris Luebkeman, director for global foresight research innovation at Arup.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, good. I want to just carry the mike myself back here. That’s what town halls are like, right?
Brody: Hi, Paul Brody from EY. Just a question—when you talked to the people in these whitopias and they’re voting overwhelmingly for Trump, what reasons did they cite to you and do you see them using their media or technology differently from you would in, say, urban areas?
Benjamin: For them, technology is a means of opportunity, in terms of telecommuting, in terms of sort of siphoning out the way you can do business and live in an ideal rural community with suburban perks, right? So you have your good coffee shops in an exurban area where you have natural resources, bike trails, hiking trails, golfing. And your question was how do they use technology differently? There’s no—I haven’t detected a difference in technology, other than what David is describing, in terms of the scooters, in terms of how city people are imagining technology but when we talk about hardware and when we talk about business use of technology, I never detected any differences.
Kirkpatrick: And they make cat videos roughly same percentage in cities and in rural, I mean, white America? I mean, cat videos are everywhere. Okay, that was a bad comment.
Benjamin: I could put it that way, yes.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, let’s go over here.
Washington: So one of our observations is—
Kirkpatrick: At Ford.
Washington: Ken Washington, Ford. So my company and I think a lot of our competitors are very, very focused on dense, urban centers because that’s where we believe we can make economical sense out of autonomy and connected car technology and other technologies like other mobility services. So how does that play into your understanding of the emergence of this whitopia view? Because I don’t believe that the suburban settings are going to be the place where we deploy some of these game-changing technologies first because the economics just don’t work.
Benjamin: And why not?
Washington: Because you don’t have the density of use.
Benjamin: The density of use. Well, it’s something that we’ve discussed at Techonomy, the way in which different geographical locations are getting spread out and the way entrepreneurs—for example, Austin McQuade from Data [ph 0:12:45.0] was saying that in fact, in more rural areas, that’s where technology is going to boom because of better real estate prices, lower overhead. So I guess it remains to be seen.
Washington: Yes, there’s some interesting work done, some research done at the Santa Fe Institute by Jeffrey West that indicates that there are scaling laws that apply here so that nature leads you to believe that the density in the large, urban cities creates these opportunities. So it’ll be interesting to watch it play out.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, I’m going to carry it—I want some gender balance but okay, I’ll give you one more guy here. Because I know he’s going to ask a provocative question, since he’s Cory.
Johnson: Perhaps. Cory Johnson from Ripple. The notion of—it sounds like what you’re describing is white flight or white concentration in certain counties, right? Growth of population. So it sounds like what you’re saying is not that these places are less dense but that they’re becoming more dense and more conservative as they become more dense. And I would posit that the reason cities and urban areas tend to have more open-minded views about people that are different from themselves is because when you sit in a class like “Welcome Back, Kotter” and you’ve got a Jew sitting next to a black kid sitting next to a white kid sitting next to a Puerto Rican kid or you’ve got Juan Epstein who’s a couple of things, you have to have a different view and that being in an urban area forces you to see people who are different from you and interact with them and find out that they’re not that different after all. It sounds like your ideas are in conflict with that.
Benjamin: So to your first point, these places are more dense than they were before but they are still far denser than inner-ring suburbs and from cities proper. So yes, that’s true. And your second point is absolutely right. I describe my work as white flight 3.0.
Benjamin: So the first generation of white flight was when we had the highways built and the GI Bill and housing in the 1950s and after the urban riots, so to speak—and I use that in quotation—we had the second generation of white flight. So this is indeed the third generation of white flight. And it has less of a racial tinge than the first two generations and it is what I’m speaking about, technology, what residents called, when I interviewed them, more housing for your dollar, better opportunities for kids, closer to natural resources, et cetera, et cetera. To your point about—yes, I don’t see how that’s opposed, to say that just because we’re closer to different people than us, ethnically, nationality-wise, sexual orientation-wise, that that informs our viewpoint. But it’s still a form of polarization where, as the map showed you, the midterm elections did not decrease the polarization that we saw in the 2016 presidential election. But I don’t follow how those two points are contradicting.
Johnson: It just sounded like what you were saying is that being further apart from people makes them more conservative but you were talking about places that were growing. It just sounds like they’re not growing quite into being cities yet.
Benjamin: Exactly, yes, thank you.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, I want a gender balance question or comment. Jody was one. Does anybody—okay, please.
Aranda: Hi, I’m Sylvia Aranda. I have a quick question for you. So as the demographics of Hispanics are much younger, so as that generation starts to grow up and we start losing the whitopia baby boomers, how do you predict that’s going to change and what are we going to see next?
Benjamin: Thank you for that question. That’s what’s animating my research, this projection by 2042, white people are scheduled to no longer be the racial majority in this country and we have this thing and we see it played out in the election where you have a graying, older population and a browning, younger population and this I found a conflict in terms of resources where you had older residents saying we want to pay less for public education, we want to pay less for the public sector sources that go to kids because these kids no longer look like their grandkids. Conversely, what are we going to do with the public resources that go to our graying, older population? So it’s a tension that we’re constantly seeing and, David, I’d be curious about your thoughts, how technology could bridge that gap between sort of the graying of America and the browning of America.
Kirkpatrick: I mean, if Tim Berners-Lee’s ideas were to actually work regarding exposing you to other points of—I mean, obviously, there is a way to design technology that could bring people together, we just don’t seem to have found it, would be my general point on that and I don’t believe it’s impossible. But I will say, related to Cory’s question—and we’ll get over here in a second—in prepping with somebody else for a different session at this conference, especially relating to this question of Silicon Valley going off the rails or losing its soul as we’re going to find out later tonight whether it did nor not, this person who was a New York technologist said to me, you know, when you get on the subway every day, it’s very humbling in terms of what the world really is. I mean, New Yorkers particularly have a gift of awareness that is unmistakable and unavoidable every single frickin’ day. And this person was saying, having lived in California and New York, that he thinks of the way he designs products differently in New York because of that in part, which I don’t think is crazy. So to the New York point of view.
Banks: My name is Clayton Banks, founder of Silicon Harlem, and I wanted to ask my question quickly so I can get to the bar.
Kirkpatrick: You can get to the bar and still ask your question, you know.
Banks: I know but I was feeling bad to just stand up and walk so now that I’ve asked a question I’m going to be able to go get my drink.
Banks: So I’m going to be a little bit of a contrarian here and I will say that one of the—and I do have a question here but since this is a town hall I can make a statement?
Banks: I just think we’re all the same. I mean, when you were out in quote-unquote whitopia, I mean, did you really see that much of a difference in people? Weren’t they nice, weren’t they humble? I mean, don’t we all just have a lot in common and we’re all from America and all that kind of stuff? And I get the whole social construct that’s been driven and while we have to be concerned about systemic issues and things of that nature, at the end of the day we’re all the same. And in Harlem, for example, where I operate from, 20 years ago when I went to a town hall, the mayor talked about the issues, the community talked about the issues, which were noise, at the time crime, garbage, and rats. Hello, anybody from New York?
Okay, you know what I’m talking about. So why I say that is I don’t mind someone who has a different opinion from me. I think I can out-argue them but I don’t mind that because what has made this country so phenomenal is that we don’t all agree. And I’m okay with that. As long as there’s still that common humanity that we have, that’s going to make a difference in this country. And if you solve issues that people have, they become happier. If you can get rid of the rats in New York, we might stop drinking coffee. That’s how happy we might be.
So I mean—yes, I know, we can’t go that far. So my simple question to you is, as you were in these environments—because I’ve been all over the world, all over the world, every country. I’ve been in all places and the same sort of question happens to me most places I go—and I like to visit people’s homes—and the question’s always like, “Hey, are you hungry?” No matter where I go. And I’m curious, what is making—and if you call somebody white or you call somebody black, what’s that supposed to mean? Can I go get my drink now?
Kirkpatrick: That was a good one. You’re entitled to have a drink after that.
Benjamin: As one of the resident skeptics, thank you for inviting us skeptics. I don’t believe that for a second, I don’t think we’re interpreted as the same, I don’t think we’re treated as the same, I think there are things called institutions that perceive us differently and treat us differently. And it’s not always predictable, you know, black and white, ha ha, in how that gets played out. But I saw that firsthand and what I did notice is yes, indeed, people are friendly and I was very social, I had dinner parties, I was there for two years, I traveled 27,000 miles. But what I did notice is a lot of these issues—the Second Amendment, immigration, DACA, health care—these become a proxy for racial issues and these become a proxy of how race and racial resentment get expressed. And so you can talk about immigration and say, oh, we’re all the same and I’m not really talking about race but in fact you are. And I say that because people would talk about the places they left, for example. “I left Tucson in order to go to St. George, I left L.A. in order to go to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.” And what did you leave behind? Those get described in racial terms.
Kirkpatrick: But Rich, are a lot of those ideas about the other a problem simply because they have not experienced the other? In other words, is the whitopia self-reinforcing in that way or is there really some—I mean, it sounds like you’re saying to Clayton there’s some fundamental difference that is based on historical—wait, no, that’s real racism, we still have real racism. But there is this—I mean, what about this New York thing versus Coeur d’Alene? Doesn’t it change our brains a little bit?
Benjamin: Yes and no. So some people there have not experienced the other, meaning they’ve grown up in historically homogenous environments and they’re sixth generation of, you know, name your place. Other people have fled L.A. or St. Louis because they literally tell me multiculturalism was done badly, they were fed up. And so—as one reason. And there’s still the tax base, there’s still the public school, there’s still the natural amenities. So yes and no, you have both. You have people who have always been in homogenous environments and there’s people who are fed up with what is perceived, that multiculturalism was done badly.
Kirkpatrick: It’s sort of a bigger question even at a global scale. I mean, you look at all these countries fracturing along lines of hate and you’ve got to ask, what could change that? Anyway, go ahead.
Irving: I’m a little confused.
Kirkpatrick: Who are you?
Irving: Larry Irving, I’m Irving Group and I’m a political hack. I’ve been working politics since 1964. Since 1964, there hasn’t been one presidential election where the majority of white Americans have voted for the Democratic nominee. Since 1952, there have only been two elections in which the majority of white Americans. That number’s always somewhere between 53% and 62%, always. Every election, that’s the range. What happened is sometimes if you get a Southerner like Carter or you get Clinton, then sometimes white folks might feel he’s one of us and they actually vote for a Democrat, closer than others. So what I’m trying to figure out is, what’s changed?
It seems like all that’s happened is folks who had racial issues, who weren’t going to vote for full voting rights, who weren’t going to vote for Social Security because it might help them or health care because it might help them, have just moved to areas where there are more of them because they have the financial resources to do that. But in terms of actually affecting—and they’re more scared because they actually see an America in which they no longer have either male privilege or white privilege or what’s interesting is—even if you look at Stacey Abrams, 97% of black women voted for Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Twenty-five percent of white women voted for Stacey Abrams. So white male patronage is not just something about white males, it’s also endemic to a lot of white females. Look at yesterday. You had a white female senatorial candidate in Mississippi talking about she would attend a public hanging if it would help her campaign. Now, I mean, these dog whistles, this racism, it’s as old as this country and I don’t understand how whitopia changes any of this. It’s just that you don’t like me so rather than live next to me, you move from me. But what’s changed then in any analysis of how our elections are informed?
Benjamin: That’s a great question and I want to highlight your point that Republicans in presidential elections have garnered the majority of the white vote for men and for women since the dates you mentioned. And Trump won every category of white person—even educated white women, by three percentage points. So what is changed? This isn’t the country my parents grew up in. My dad couldn’t have gone 27,000 miles, two years, to live in these places. I mean, we can’t deny that interpersonal relations, how we treat each other as human beings, interpersonal race relations, have drastically improved. That’s one thing that’s changed. And that’s an interesting context for me to do that now in a way that I couldn’t have done that in my dad’s day.
Irving: [OFF MIKE 0:27:00.9] photograph rural white America 50 years ago and he was as black as you or I are and he went down to Mississippi and photographed white folks in Mississippi in the 1960s. So yes, you kind of could because you were the exception or you were doing a study or because you just were kind of there. You know, they weren’t going to let you marry their sister, then or now.
Benjamin: Yes. I won’t speak to that comment [LAUGHS]. But inflection points. So one change, interpersonal relationships. Second change is demographics. Now we have Latinos coming in, now we have 2042. So that’s another element of change that I’m looking at and, you know, that’s an argument to be had, I mean, what has changed. And we can get into the debate, you know, which indices are you going to look at, you know, health outcomes, education outcomes. I could give you 10 indices of outcomes that have gotten better, whether it’s on health, education, more middle-class black people, et cetera, et cetera, or you could probably give me 10 more that you feel haven’t changed.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, Diane.
Diane: I just want to step outside the country a sec and just get your reaction because I lived in Nairobi for a year and I lived in Hong Kong. And the standard of living each of those times was probably pretty similar in some ways but the difference was if you changed money in Nairobi, you’d change it on the streets whereas everybody in Hong Kong seemed to have multi-currency accounts. And to me the difference was that when you talked to people at that point under Arap Moi, they felt like 10 years from now, the world was getting worse whereas in Hong Kong, they felt it was getting better. They were invested in the system. I just went to West Virginia for the first time and not to in any way, you know—I know John Chambers is speaking tomorrow morning—but I had my very expensive Uber ride, there two sisters in the car with the driver and neither of them had gone to college and they said, why bother? You know, so it almost seemed a little bit like that hopelessness and that seemed to be the differentiator there and that’s what I always loved about the States, especially coming from Canada, you came here and everybody was like, why not? And that seems to have eroded somewhat, maybe more so in the whitopia areas.
Audience 1: We do have another question over here.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, go for it. Hello.
Joseph: Michelle Joseph, from Brooklyn, representing Verizon, just to let Harlem know.
So my question is really around place and race. So this country has a long history of that conflicting with each other but this conference is really focused on technology and harnessing the power of technology for responsible growth. When we look at technology and the entire industry, there’s still that happening. It’s a place issue and also it’s a race issue. So how are we not duplicating the same things that’s happening with midterm elections and our day-to-day interactions with the evolution of technology? So it’s a town hall so I just wanted to throw that out there.
Benjamin: Mentioning with online organizing, mentioning how apps have helped prove the vote—by the way, I saw Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp’s debate live, I was helping shoot a documentary on voter suppression in Georgia, I was just there two weeks ago—but beyond these concrete answers, maybe the audience has answers to how technology—and you don’t mean that like big, you mean that granular, how technology has changed race and place?
Kirkpatrick: Well, that’s what I was trying to talk about regarding the New York versus Silicon Valley.
Joseph: Exactly, it’s concentrated and it’s not democratic.
Kirkpatrick: I mean, this will probably come up at 8:30, I think. Whoever thinks Silicon Valley has lost its soul—and two of them do—it might be because of an insularity that is real. I mean, anybody who thinks Silicon Valley does not suffer from insularity is crazy.
Audience 2: [OFF MIKE 0:31:03.3] we’ll figure that out.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, really. [LAUGHS] You lived out here.
Audience 2: I lived here, now I’m in Detroit. It’s different.
Kirkpatrick: It’s different, right. I’ll just give you an interesting example. You know, I wrote a book about Facebook only because—I lived in New York at the time—because out here at that time, everybody thought Twitter had completely killed them. You know, it’s like they get into a mindset—I’m sorry, many of you live here, I know—but there’s a mindset thing that is real and it also is reinforced racially and education-wise and academics, certain schools, all these things.
Benjamin: Yes but it’s a good question to the technologists in terms of the apps, in terms of what is being done, in terms of how we participate in politics through technology.
Sanjay: Hi, my name is Sanjay, I’m from Edelman. You mentioned place and race, just wanted to get your thoughts, if you had any observations, on the role that media played in the way people thought because just as an outsider living here, I mean, you literally live in two different worlds if you’re in Fox world or the non-Fox world. So what’s your take? I mean, how much influence is media playing in the way people think and how their beliefs and stuff are reiterated in their minds?
Kirkpatrick: Very good question, thank you.
Benjamin: It’s significant, it’s significant. And they’re doing studies on even the greater polarization of media. And it’s interesting to get the politicians’ take. So for example, Claire McCaskill, who lost badly in Missouri, which has on the order of 13 whitopian counties—which is a lot for a state that that’s not that big—she would say that she would go meet constituents and one of the first things they would cite to her is what they’d seen on Fox News and more specifically what they had seen about the caravans. So the media’s huge, the media’s huge.
Kirkpatrick: We actually probably need to actually stop ideating for a few hours. But one of the things I know that you are concerned about—and this is not exactly the same topic but I’d love to hear you talk about it because you think about these things very methodically—the Democratic Party. Give us your observations on them.
Benjamin: Even on the record, I think the national Democratic Party is a hot mess.
Kirkpatrick: A hot mess
Benjamin: A hot mess. I think that one—by the way, I think people could interpret the 2018 midterms in two ways. One could say that Trump held a lot of political ground and did better than expected and one could say that the record number of new voters and the record number of women and LGBT and people of color candidates would suggest that the left won. I haven’t made up my mind on that. But to your question, if you subscribed to the idea that the left came out ahead in the midterms, I don’t think that’s attributable at all to the national Democratic Party. And I just mentioned I had been in Georgia, I’ve spoken to longtime big donors in Atlanta about their opinions of the Democratic Party and they’re shaking their heads. They said they made the wrong choice of leadership when elections were held two years ago, they haven’t strategized or understood the way that Howard Dean innovated media, the way that OFA, Obama’s outfit, innovated the media, and for now, they’re really not on their game. They did decently enough but—
Kirkpatrick: It’s interesting, though, the way you said the left as though it was the Democratic Party. Is that what you would like to see the Democratic Party be? Because frankly, I’m not sure that’s a winning strategy, either. I mean, that’s a whole other debate but—
Benjamin: That was a verbal flip in the way that they conflate Trump with conservatism, they’re not always necessarily the same thing and you’re right, the left isn’t necessarily the same thing as the Democratic Party.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, the Democratic Party doesn’t know what it is, it would seem to me.
Benjamin: Yes, exactly. They don’t have a story, they don’t have a story. As an anecdote, I remember after the second debate between Clinton and Trump, a lot of elites were saying, oh, Hillary won, of course. And then, in my guts, I said, no, Trump won. In that debate, he told a story. He said, China did this to you. He said, the Mexicans are doing this to you. Agree or not, it was a story and a narrative of the past and of the future. And I think that the Democratic Party and the left—not to use them interchangeably—they’ve lost a mojo, they’ve lost a sense of what they stand for. And part of this perhaps one could say is healthy, in terms of determining—they have values but values isn’t the same as a vision. How do you transform values into a vision? And I don’t think they’ve done that, let alone in organizing strategy around that vision.
Kirkpatrick: I’m glad I asked. Okay. I was hoping there would be a desperate hand up because I wanted to hear at least one more voice before we wrap up. Identify yourself, please.
Chakravorti: Hi, Bhaskar Chakravorti, the Fletcher School at Tufts.
Kirkpatrick: Good to have you here.
Chakravorti: So I want to sort of pick up on this last question about the Democrats, their message, and the Republicans and their message. And I’m wondering the extent to which technology itself has played a role in mediating that message.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you.
Chakravorti: So, going back to the business model that we were talking about earlier this afternoon. The business model is about getting eyeballs, getting attention, and attention automatically goes to the polar extremes. And poles are defined by simple messaging. So if my message is “I’m going to cut taxes, I’m going to create jobs, and there’s a caravan out there that I’m going to stop with all the force I have,” that gets attention. An alternative message that involves a narrative, that involves a set of complete sentences that make up a paragraph, some nuance, is not going to get picked up. So the Democrats automatically are playing a not level playing field, if those are the alternative positions that the two parties are going to take. So I’m wondering whether technology inherently is kind of shaping a field that is against any kind of nuance in messaging.
Benjamin: Interesting. I’m trying to think of examples around the world where a centrist person got eyeballs. Maybe Macron, for whatever showbiz sense he has, was able to get eyeballs. But part of me doesn’t want to agree with your premise because it sounds so defeatist and it sounds so basically improve America and run a better country by eyeballs. But maybe you’re right.
Kirkpatrick: Well, I guess a little bit of a downbeat way to end but—