Hey, y’all. This is Alice from Austin.
- julia allen
My name is Julia Allen from Madison, Wisconsin.
This is Cindy from Ohio.
Hi, I’m Patrick.
I’m Michelle Goldberg.
I’m Ross Douthat. And this is “The Argument,” 2021. We made it. [MUSIC PLAYING]
- liam hannah
My name’s Liam Hannah, and I’m calling to talk about how I’ve changed my mind.
Have I changed my mind about anything in 2020? I’ve changed my mind about almost everything I thought I knew before this year happened.
After a most eventful year, we’re going to hear from you about what you changed your mind about over the course of 2020. And then we’re going to share what we changed our minds about, if anything. I suppose it’s possible that we were right about everything all along. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Happy New Year, Ross.
Michelle, Happy New Year’s. I’m not going to ask you what kind of revelry you engaged in to celebrate the end of what was not actually the worst year in all of human history.
But definitely the worst year in my life.
Definitely the worst— yeah. I mean, there was the sixth century, when the sun was blotted out, and the plague of Justinian wiped out, like, half the empire. And we didn’t hit that level, but it’s good. It’s good to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. So we asked our listeners what they changed their minds about this year. And the 2020 election certainly made you rethink some things.
Hi, I’m Patrick. What have I changed my mind on in the last year? Well, before the election, I trusted polls. I thought that 2016 was a fluke, but it was a predictable— it was going to happen eventually. And FiveThirtyEight, in particular, had reassured me that 2016 was within the margin of error, and it wouldn’t happen again. And then it happened worse in 2020. And FiveThirtyEight has come out with some excuses for what’s happened. But I just feel like I can’t trust it. So I went from feeling like everyone is wrong about not trusting the polls to feeling like everyone was right all along. And this has become totally ridiculous that we put so much weight on the horse race, especially when it’s so unpredictable.
- nancy simmons
Hi, my name is Nancy Simmons. Something desperately made me change my mind this year. Although I’ve been a registered Democrat for most of my life, I’ve decided to change my political affiliation to Independent. The reason? Because I do not hate Republicans. I do not hate people. And I want to unify us. And if I don’t declare myself a party one way or the other, then I don’t have any enemies, and hopefully, they don’t have me as an enemy either.
Hi, my name is Max. The biggest thing I changed my mind on this year would be effectiveness of campaigns. I started really early with the Democratic campaign and worked the entire election cycle the last 16 months. I think at the beginning, I was really bright eyed and bushy tailed and optimistic about the effect the campaigns could have. But up close and personal interaction with thousands of voters across the country, it’s now my perception that, at least in this media environment, that our campaign had little effect on persuading voters, which was really contrary to what I had thought going in.
- christian evans
Hi, my name is Christian Evans. I actually called in and got played on the last New Year’s podcast at the beginning of 2020. When I called in, I talked about how I was working an election, a state senate campaign that was in suburban Minnesota. And I think the biggest thing, having lived very close to where George Floyd was killed and having experienced the pandemic, was just how much more people are motivated by their identity than by their interests. That was something people had always told me, but it wasn’t something I totally believed until now. And having worked an election that did not go the way I wanted, I’m wondering how to reconcile those things as someone who cares about the movement.
You know, it’s funny what Max said, because I was actually going to say, of everything I’ve written this year, the piece that I regret the most or have the most second thoughts about is a piece I wrote basically saying that it wasn’t necessarily as big a deal as everybody thought that the Biden campaign wasn’t doing door-to-door canvassing. And people close to the campaign had talked me into that. People I know who are really serious organizers had made that argument. One of the arguments I saw was that if there was an infection, you would then have to basically contact trace your own canvassing route, which would be an extremely negative thing. But looking back at the results, it does seem like that could have made the difference. I mean, particularly when you look at some of these congressional races. And the smallness of these margins are why I do think campaigns make a difference. And it’s a frustrating process because the differences are on the margins. Everybody who’s interested in politics should, at one time or another, go and canvas because meeting ordinary voters is very bracing. Both what people know and think they know, and ways that they talk about politics that are in some ways ultra ideological. You’ll meet QAnon people, or people who are full of all sorts of conspiracy theories. But you also meet people whose view is so transactional in a way that we never really talk about in the media. I remember being at a Trump rally in 2016 and talking to this guy who had voted for Obama but was now going to vote for Trump. And the reason is, is that he had inherited his parents’ car dealership and didn’t want to pay higher taxes. And I said to him something like, but don’t you think it’s fair that now that you make a lot more money, you should pay higher taxes? And he just looked at me like I was crazy. He’s like, “But I don’t want to.” It’s like, the idea — what’s fair completely was not part of the equation for him. And he’s not thinking in the macro level at all. And I think that that’s true for a lot of people. It’s just, what is good for me?
Although that sort of cuts against Christian, our repeat caller, arguing that identity trumped interest. Whereas your guy with the car dealership, that’s the most rational voter in America.
I don’t think you can really draw a bright line between identity and interest because identity is another way of saying somebody who you feel represents your worldview and values. See, I’m the opposite of the car dealership guy. If somebody was going to raise my taxes 80 percent but shared my basic outlook, I’m going to always vote for that person and see that vote as being in my interest.
That’s just because you haven’t inherited a car dealership yet, Michelle. [BOTH LAUGH] I mean, it’s easy to say until you have the car dealership.
But to go back to Max, it’s a two-sided coin. Because on the one hand, when you start out in campaigns, you think you’re going to have all these transformative conversations. And sometimes you do, but it’s a lot of — there’s a long, long slog in between. And you’re really looking to either change the mind or motivate one person out of 100, two people out of 100. And that is ultimately what makes the difference, but it also can often feel like a futile endeavor. For people who are just getting into politics, I think it’s kind of unfortunate that this was their first campaign. Because what keeps people going in a campaign is the intense camaraderie, a sort of camaraderie that I’ve never felt in any other context. And this culture, and the feeling of being part of something larger than you. And it’s just hard to do that online. So I hope that anybody who got involved in this campaign and feels like it didn’t go exactly the way they wanted to doesn’t let that be the last word in their participation.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I have a relative who worked in Maine this summer. Not officially on the Democratic campaign — on a general get out the vote effort. And it was just striking to think about all of these idealistic young campaigners who, in a different world, would be sort of fanning out across the country, and in this world were not.
And I should say, the efficacy of door-to-door campaigning, there’s different studies on it and different opinions on it. And there are a lot of political scientists who will say that it is overrated as a tactic. But I think that where you see it is really, really important is on some of these downticket races. One of the things I heard when I sat in an online focus group of Trump voters who really disapproved of him but were torn was people sort of saying, well, I just don’t know anything about Joe Biden. I don’t have a sense of who he is. Which is, again, hard to fathom if you follow politics closely, but was something that I think a lot of people felt. And they had very good reasons for deciding not to do a lot of door-to-door canvassing. And I understood those reasons. I was convinced by them at the time. But in retrospect, I think that it was a mistake. And of all the columns that I wrote this year, that’s the one I wish I could take back.
Well, you know, there’ll be another presidential election soon. So [BOTH LAUGH] there’ll be more columns to write. So we should say well we changed our minds about. I’ll go first. I mean, I guess I changed my mind about a lot of things, which is maybe not surprising in a year in which there was a lot of totally insane things happened. But taking it from the top, at the start of the year, I still thought probably that Joe Biden would have a tough time winning the Democratic nomination without creating a real ideological split in the Party. I thought he could win, but that it would be tough for the party to unite around an older moderate with this long list of things that are now heterodoxies or worse. That was wrong. One of my assumptions about the whole Trump era was that, at a certain point, having him as the leader of the Republican Party would lead the Party to a end of that George W. Bush era style catastrophic defeat. Meaning not just him losing, but downballot disasters like there were for Republicans in 2006 and 2008. I expected it in 2016. It sort of happened in the midterms, obviously, but not to the extent that the Democrats could take the Senate. And then in 2020, there were various moments when it seemed really, really likely thanks to those polls that Patrick no longer believes in. And it just didn’t happen. The Republican Party has come through the Trump era not as a majority party or a governing party, but also not wiped out in anything like the way that I kept expecting. And then finally, and here I’ll edge towards Goldbergian pessimism, but there were a bunch of times in the Trump era when I didn’t feel good about Trump, but I felt kind of good about what might be happening on the political right, and what the right might look like after Trump. Just in terms of the way Trump acted as a force breaking up these pretty stale orthodoxies within the Republican Party, and suggesting that various forms of populism could be more successful. And up to like, two days after the presidential election, I was feeling pretty good about that in the sense that I felt like, as we, I think, talked about on an episode, that the way Trump lost pointed the way towards the possibility of a more multiracial, populist Republican Party. And now, a couple of months later, it seems like we’re never going to get rid of Trump.
Well, Ross, in a conversation not long ago, you said that you thought that a lot of Republicans were — that some were cynically echoing Trump’s claim to have won the election, but that a lot of them were sort of — they felt like they didn’t have the authority to tell Republican voters the truth. And so they were trying to act responsibly without completely losing their relationship to the Republican base. After the Arizona Republican Party sent out a tweet calling on people to martyr themselves for Donald Trump.
After Ted Cruz offering to take the cause of overturning the Pennsylvania vote to the Supreme Court. Do you still feel that way? Do you still trust in the benign intentions of the Republican Party?
Actually, I think a lot of Republican officialdom has behaved quite well. If you look at —
At the state level.
At the state level, but also the judicial level. Basically, Republicans in positions of actual responsibility where they actually have to make decisions about how far they’re going to go with Trump, I think those Republicans have mostly behaved responsibly. And I still have sympathy for the position, not of Ted Cruz, or Lindsey Graham, or a few others, but of a lot of Republicans who felt like they’re trying to figure out how you move on from Trump. And letting Trump have his challenges felt like a way to move on. Where I’m more pessimistic is just about conservatives who I know, both in real life and online, who I feel like should be thinking about what does conservatism look like after Trump, what does the right want to be after Trump, are just so deep in a narrative of a stolen election to an extent that has actually surprised me. And that is what makes me pessimistic about the idea of the Republican Party getting past Trump. Not that it’s impossible, but I would say my sense of the likelihood that Trump will be the dominant figure in the Republican Party for the next four years and the nominee in 2024, the odds of that have gone up. And that makes me more pessimistic.
As much as I have total pessimism [ROSS LAUGHS] about the connection of the grassroots of the Republican Party to any sort of empiricism or fact-based politics or any set of common values with the rest of their fellow citizens, I do think it’s too late for everybody to say, yes, Donald Trump is going to be warlord of the Republican Party for the next four years. Because when he’s out of the presidency, when he’s ranting at Mar-a-Lago being covered mostly, perhaps, on Newsmax and One America News Network, some of the people are going to follow him. But he’s just going to be a much less omnipresent cultural figure. And he’s going to be spending a huge amount of time in court. He’s going to be spending a huge amount of time staving off his creditors. And I think that when he is no longer able to inflict suffering on the libs, I wonder what that will mean for the emotional connection of the Republican base to him.
I am really, really pleased, Michelle, that we are starting off 2021 with you showing more optimism than I have about the future of the Republican Party. But to rip you back into pessimism, here are some listeners who lost some faith this year. For some of them, the challenges of 2020 changed the way they think about America, or their fellow Americans, or both.
Hi, this is Lynn Dorsett. I’m in Scottsdale, Arizona. The thing I changed my mind about this year is that you can get a group of people to unite against the common enemy. In fact, that’s supposed to be the easiest way to get people to come together. An illness like Covid that threatens everybody is certainly an enemy. But we didn’t unite against it. We divided in the face of it. Now I think that this foundation of group dynamics is wrong, or at least not so simple.
Hi, my name is Julia Allen from Madison, Wisconsin. What has changed in my thinking since the pandemic is that I am shocked at how many of my fellow Americans do not believe in science. In my mind, science is science, and I don’t know how you can argue with it.
Hi there. My name is Maggie Shields. I am 21 years old — I just turned 21. I’m from Baltimore, Maryland. I’m a history and political science major at Colorado College. The main thing that I changed my mind about is whether or not the U.S. is going to last forever. And I thought the U.S. system had been strong enough and that the Constitution was righteous enough in print. Maybe not in actual use throughout American history. But I’ve always had faith in the Constitution to, in the end, give us the right direction about where to go. And I’m not sure if the Constitution can be rectified at this point. I was at the gym yesterday, and I was talking to someone who is a Trump supporter. And she brought up the fact that she believes in the Constitution, and she thinks that we’re going to have freedom because of the Constitution, and Trump is the person who is going to do that. And what struck me about that comment was that this complete faith in the Constitution, the same faith that I have, is just being taken align with Trumpism.
Maggie Shields, I’m sorry to say that I am really with you. I mean, a book I would recommend that you read if you’re starting to think in these terms is “Our Undemocratic Constitution” by the law professor Sanford Levinson. You hear people like Mike Lee saying, well, we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic. And in a way, I think he’s right. We’re not a democracy. And the question is, should we be? Can we be? And I increasingly worried that the answer under our Constitution is no. That we had a period of democracy in this country from 1964 to about 2016. If you look at the fact that, of the last eight presidential elections, Democrats have won the popular vote seven times. And yet we have seen nothing like an unbroken period of Democratic rule. You see the vast majority of judges, for example, being appointed by Republicans. Probably more than any of them appointed by Donald Trump. You just had an election where Joe Biden won by over 7 million votes and came uncomfortably close to losing the electoral college, and ended up with the same amount of electoral votes that Donald Trump got in 2016, when he actually got less of the popular vote than Mitt Romney had gotten four years earlier. And increasingly, you’re going to have a restive majority ruled over by a hostile minority. And that even when you can summon enough of a definitive majority to take some power to take back the presidency, the country is ungovernable because of the nihilistic check that the Republican minority has in the Senate.
So have you changed your mind? Or have you just become more convinced of this?
I can talk myself out of it. But I am coming around to the view that the United States should eventually break up. Which is a view I’ve flirted with for a long time. But I’m coming around to the idea that is maybe the only settlement. It’s something that some of these hardcore Trumpers would probably be amenable to, right? You hear these people say, well, we’d win if it wasn’t for California. So fine, try it without California. And I realize there’s something deeply immoral about what I’m proposing, which is that it requires basically abandoning a bunch of people in the middle of the country, right? Because we’re not talking about a strict sectional split. It’s much more of a rural/urban split. And I don’t know how to justify that. But I just don’t think that our system is going to be tenable. Or if it is tenable, we’re getting locked into a soft form of autocracy in which the majority of the country is at a permanent and growing disadvantage. This country does not work at a very fundamental level. We would see it if we were looking at another country. If we were looking at another country that was letting people starve, where you had a defeated autocrat, where you had some of his allies calling for martyrs to come to his support. If it was a different country, we would see the extent of failure that we’re facing.
Well, [CLEARS THROAT] I’ve got all the 2021 to talk you out of that level of despair. I’m also thrilled to report that you and I and this very show came up several times in what changed listeners’ minds.
Hello, this is Cindy from Ohio. I just want to let you know that, since “The Argument,” I am just as likely to read a column by Michelle as I am by Ross. I am much more nuanced in my opinions. I see the value of others’ ideas, as well as I see the fallacies in my own beliefs.
- matthew gordon
Hi, my name is Matthew Gordon. And Michelle Goldberg has changed my mind on a lot of things this year. I’ve changed my mind that progressivism is essential in our society to move in the direction that I want to go. And I think that we have to work with moderates. Moderates aren’t the evil, and progressives aren’t the evil. I think together we can move forward much stronger.
- simone kunig
Hi, my name is Simone Kunig, and I changed my mind this year about Ross. I’ve just spent the last couple of years yelling every time I would listen to this podcast, yelling at Ross, talking to myself on my walk while people look at me like I’m crazy. But I’ve really come to appreciate his point of view and understand in myself that you just need both sides.
Oh, those are so nice. So I’m going to revise what I changed my mind about. I now feel like I’ve changed my mind about the basic futility of my life and works. So thank you, everyone.
I’m really glad that Simone realized that it’s [LAUGHING] important to have — there’s that great “Simpsons” episode where Sideshow Bob runs for mayor as a Republican. He gets out of jail [MICHELLE LAUGHS] and almost succeeds in stealing the election. Not at all a timely theme or anything like that. And at the end, he’s on the witness stand, and he gets badgered into saying something like, “Deep down inside” — this is like Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane voice — “You need a Republican to tyrannize you and brutalize you.” And I’m not getting the quote right, [MICHELLE LAUGHS] but I like to think that I’ve become the Sideshow Bob.
That you vindicated Bob Yeah?
Yeah. Well, I’m the Sideshow Bob in a lot of “Argument” listeners’ minds. [MUSIC PLAYING] All right, we’re going to take a short break and come back with just a quick dose of New Year’s resolutions. So stay with us.
[MUSIC PLAYING] And we’re back. We had just one more listener question that needs an answer.
- shauna fields
Hi, my name is Shauna Fields, and I’m calling from the San Francisco Bay Area. And I want to know if Michelle’s cat is OK. Two or three episodes ago, at the end, they played the little outtake of her saying her cat was trying to strangle or suffocate itself. And I keep waiting to hear an update, and there’s never anything. So I’m assuming it’s OK. I don’t even like cats, but I don’t know, I just want to know if the cat’s OK. That’s all. Thank you. Bye.
[CLEARS THROAT] The cat’s dead, Shauna. The cat is dead.
No, that’s so — That is so thoughtful.
I can’t believe you brought up — this is like, Michelle, you’ve exposed all the wounds. The cat is dead. I’m sorry.
OK, so that is extremely thoughtful. The cat is fine. I think she just — she just put her head in a plastic bag and couldn’t figure out how to get out. So I just had to remove the plastic bag. She’s completely fine. But really, thank you for asking. That’s really nice of you.
People care. Even Shauna, who doesn’t like cats, [MICHELLE LAUGHS] cares. So the cat is alive. That’s one note of hope. And let’s use it as a segue into your hopes and dreams, Michelle, for this coming year. What are you looking forward to?
I hope to travel. The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and this is personal and also obviously a function of my own privilege that lots of international travel has always been part of my life. And when I had one kid, we still traveled quite a bit. And then I had a second one. And early on, when my son was almost three and my daughter was almost one, we took them to Italy. And it was so hard that we just never really undertook a big trip again. We would take them to beach vacations, and that’s about it. And now that I can’t go anywhere and I’m thinking about all the places that we could go, all the things that we could have done and didn’t get a chance because I, you know, was unwilling to endure the frustration of two bored kids on an eight-hour flight instead of two bored kids in a small apartment for weeks on end. And thinking that we need to make up for lost time. And so I want to both go places that I’ve never been, but also take them to places that I have been and only have told them about. And so I am hoping that we will get back out there.
Turkmenistan in 2021.
Georgia, I was thinking.
Georgia, yeah. OK. Turkmenistan in 2022.
[CHUCKLES] Ross, how about you? What are your hopes for 2021?
Well, I think we can connect our hopes because, I mean, one, I too have a desire to travel. As listeners know, we had a new baby this year. So I’m skeptical that we’ll make it to Georgia or Turkmenistan. I’m hoping more for more internal-to-America travel. But what I’m hoping for is both what we’re all hoping for, right? Which is that the vaccines work, and they’re distributed, and the coronavirus is basically crushed by April or so. And then I’m also hoping that people accept the victory. Obviously, parts of the country that have been corona skeptical throughout are going to throw their doors wide open. But in the future Republic of blue America that you and I both inhabit, Michelle, I sort of worry that it will take a while for, for instance, me to be able to go and sit at my local coffee shop and work without a mask on just because everyone will still be sort of freaked out.
So the one thing I agree with you about, Ross. I guess part of it is a place of concern, that people think that they’re going to be vaccinated, and yet the pandemic is still raging and they don’t know if they can really spread it. But I actually think that the messaging to people in general should be, that you can foresee the end of this. Not that this is your life forever.
Right. No, this is what I have in mind, right? That if we get to summer and a big share of the population is vaccinated and caseloads have dropped away to basically nothing, summer camp should not require masks for kids. Things like that. And maybe they just will, and I’m too deep in the Twitter bubble or blue state bubble. But that’s what I’m hoping for. I want people to accept normalcy if, God willing, it returns. All right, so that’s a dose of semi-optimism. And then to close us out, Michelle, do you have a recommendation for listeners in the new year?
Yes. So I am going to recommend — it’s not new, but it was new to me — the Netflix series “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which is the first series that my kids and I have ever both enjoyed about equally. That I’ve been able to watch with my kids and say, don’t watch it without me because I want to see the next episode. Obviously, it’s based on the book by Lemony Snicket, which, incidentally, I recently found out that Lemony Snicket is really Daniel Handler who played the accordion on “69 Love Songs” by the Magnetic Fields. Probably three of my favorite albums in the entire history of the world. I should have known that a long time ago. But that said, the series is — it’s very arch and stylized. It sort of seems like a little bit Wes Anderson-y. It has a lot of these linguistic jokes. Like, there’s a running joke about the difference between literally and figuratively. It’s pretty dark and macabre. And yet my kids, who are six and eight — five and seven when we started watching it — they absolutely loved it. I could use it to coerce all sorts of good behavior. Like, we’re not going to watch another episode until everybody is bathed and brushed their teeth. And it worked like a charm. I keep hoping that there’s another series that we would all enjoy as much. I haven’t been able to find anything. But if you haven’t watched it yet, I would watch that one.
So what I would recommend to match your streaming recommendation, I would make the boring but nonetheless correct recommendation that people who are even mildly into “Star Wars” should watch “The Mandalorian.” Which is, of course, the “Star Wars” TV show created by Jon Favreau about a bounty hunter wandering the Star Wars galaxy with an incredibly cute Baby Yoda in tow. It’s something you could watch where you watched the original trilogy, and then you watch “The Mandalorian.” And you think, OK, this is a good idea for what someone could do with “Star Wars” that draws on the strengths of the original trilogy but also does something new. Basically, it’s everything that the J.J. Abrams sequels completely failed to be. And if you just treat it as the only existing sequel to the original trilogy, you’ll have a good time, I think.
But do your kids have to have watched the original trilogy to appreciate it?
I would say no, but they do need to like enjoy the “Star Wars” world. You got to enjoy laser guns and stuff. You don’t actually need to, I think, be into like the Skywalker family saga to get into this.
OK. I’ll try it. And if anyone out there knows of another extremely arch black comedy that’s appropriate for children, send it my way.
Aren’t your kids ready for the Coen Brothers? I mean, age is just a number, Michelle. [MICHELLE LAUGHS] Give them “Barton Fink” and “Burn After Reading.” Once again, Michelle, a very happy 2021 to you.
Yes, happy 2021. May it be better than the worst year.
[LAUGHS] And better than Justinian’s plague. [MUSIC PLAYING]
That’s our show. That’s the end of 2020 officially. Thank you all so much for listening. And a big thank you to everyone who called and wrote in. We’re really grateful that you spent some of this wild and crazy and terrible and interesting and disastrous and a longer list of adjectives year with us. “The Argument” is produced by The New York Times’ Opinion section. We want to wish all of our listeners a very happy New Year. Stay safe, take care of yourselves, keep arguing in good faith, and we’ll see you next Friday.
- male speaker
So thank you. Love the show.
- female speaker
- male speaker
- female speaker
- male speaker
Thanks for the show. Really appreciate it, it’s really great. Happy New Year.
2021. We made it. Although technically we’re recording this weeks in advance. [BOTH LAUGH] Sorry, I’m sorry. [CLEARS THROAT] And this is “The Argument” 2021. We made it.
We think. [LAUGHS]