EconTalk |
Jill Lepore on Nationalism, Populism, and the State of America
Apr 15 2019

amber-waves.jpg Historian and author Jill Lepore talks about nationalism, populism, and the state of America with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Lepore argues that we need a new Americanism, a common story we share and tell ourselves. Along the way, topics in the conversation include populism, the rise of globalization, and the challenge of knowing what is true and what is false in the internet era.

Sebastian Junger on Tribe
Journalist and author Sebastian Junger talks about his book Tribe with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Junger explores the human need to be needed and the challenges facing many individuals in modern society who struggle to connect with others. His studies...
Russ Roberts on the Information Revolution, Politics, Yeats, and Yelling
EconTalk host Russ Roberts does a monologue on how political discourse seems to have deteriorated in recent years and the growth in outrage, tribalism, and intolerance for those with different views from one's own. Roberts suggests that part of the...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Kent Lyon
Apr 15 2019 at 11:49am

Dr. Roberts continues his track record of promulgating misinformation. In this podcast, toward the end, his guest references the Scopes Trial, with the traditional condescension of the elites of our society. She ridicules William Jennings Bryan and the fundamentalist religious denizens of Tennessee for their opposition to the teaching of “Evolution” in the public schools.   I put “Evolution” in parentheses, because, apparently unknown to Jill Lepore, what was called Evolution was actually Eugenics. The textbook in use was Hunter’s “Civic Biology”. The title gives away the game. The text was derived from materials developed by Charles Davenport the pre-eminent biologist of the time, professor at Harvard, and director of the Cold Spring Harbor lab, whose focus was Eugenics. That facility housed the Eugenics Records Office headed by Harry Laughlin (who was to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelburg in Hitler’s Germany for his promulgation of model Eugenics laws.  Hunter’s textbook explicitly discussed eliminating the “unfit” among the human population, confessing that such direct elimination would not be accepted publicly, so the alternative of preventing reproduction of the unfit would have to do.  When the Harvard elites spoke of the “unfit”, the good folk of Tennessee knew of whom those elites spoke:  Them!  It was particularly galling that they would send their children to school to be taught that they shouldn’t have been born, that their parents would have been forcibly sterilized to prevent the calamity of their birth.

As per the usual elitist treatment of the topic, Dr. Lepore makes no mention whatsoever of the contemporary, wholly concocted case of Carrie Buck (Buck v. Bell) in which a normal young woman was categorized as unfit (because she was poor and her mother was in an institution) and, via a carefully crafted Virginia law allowing the forced sterilization of the unfit, was used as a test case to get the Supreme Court imprimatur for Eugenic sterilization. The Supreme Court, at the time headed by William Howard Taft, an avid Eugenicist himself, was more than happy to give its imprimatur, in arguably the most egregiously arrogant majority opinion ever written, penned by none other than that renowned BostonBrahmin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He compared human pregnancy to contagion, compared forced sterilization to vaccination, and ended his opinion with the immortal words:  “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  (He was even wrong on the technical jargon of the day that did not characterize Carrie Buck as an imbecile).   The Supreme Court vote was 8-1. The only dissenter was a Catholic.

Dr. Lepore commits exactly the same offense that Richard Hofstadder did in his magisterial book, “Anti-Intellectualism in America,”  namely, he ignored Buck v. Bell while regailing his readers with the Scopes Trial history.

Within 15 years of the Scopes Trial, even the august funders of the Eugenics work at Cold Spring Harbor, namely the Carnegie Foundation (after Cold Spring Harbor got its start with funding from the Averil Harriman foundation), recognized the problem with Eugenics, when Vanevar Bush went to Cold Spring Harbor and closed the Eugenics Records Office.

Dr. Roberts should know better, particularly after hosting Thomas Leonard to discuss his book, “Illiberal (that word again) Reformers” in which he documents the vile Eugenics beliefs of those who founded the field of Economics in America (to include of course, Fisher, at Yale, who founded American academic Economics, and wrote a tract praising Eugenics).

Dr. Lepore is right:  Historians will always have us Deplorables out here, we fundamentalists who cling to our guns and our bibles, and oppose the projects of the arrogant and ignorant elites who propose to control and improve us.  I’ll continue to take Calvin (see Abraham Kuyper’s impressive “Lectures on Calvinism”) over Hobbes.

Lewis Clark
Apr 15 2019 at 10:30pm

You’re overplaying eugenics role in the Scopes Trial. Eugenics wasn’t even mentioned in the trial and only filled a couple pages in the textbook, albeit in a horrifying way.

At the time, eugenics and Darwinism were intertwined among many of the educated elite, so from a historical perspective, it can claimed that Tennessee and Bryan were morally justified in denying Civic Biology, but it is not so.

You do, however, illuminate the importance of conservative resistance to the “enlightened” progressives.

Apr 16 2019 at 6:49am

I thank Kent for his comments, and deem his references to Eugenics “fairly played” since at times “over playing” is needed when “zero playing” is the alternative.  I for one had never heard this issue mentioned in mainstream discussion/exposition of the topic as it relates to the Scopes Trial.

I also value a form of Libertarian and Conservative resistance to the current brand of “even more enlightened” progressives which bemoan the dire state of affairs in political discourse, populism, civility, etc., avow that it is a bi-partisan/bi-cultural issue, want to call a time out, but are unable or unwilling to unearth and discuss its (potential) roots: progressive attacks which then begot counterattacks.  This form of resistance need only help us all discern how we may have gotten here.

Benjamin Schoenberg
Apr 17 2019 at 9:50am

What are you so angry about?  There is no doubt ample evidence of “elites” claiming their intent is trying to make things better but end up wasting resources because they think they are smarter and deserving of power. Nevertheless, Lepore is attempting to keep the glue that binds Americans together.  If that project bothers you because your impulse is to straw man and base your worldview on the failings of your fellow citizens then I suggest you come up with a better way of holding the center and motivating your fellow citizens to recognize the opportunity our system affords.

Kent Lyon
Apr 18 2019 at 2:15pm

Well, I would say that her rather off-hand and disdainful comment about the Scopes trial, in which she seemed distressed that the citizenry of a state such as Tennessee could pass a law banning the teaching of evolution in the public schools, undercuts her stated goal. She seemed to imply that that was a bad outcome of democracy, impuning the intelligence and rationality of the citizenry of that state. That she then left out the entire context of the trial, which included the fact that the Buck v. Bell legal process was contemporaneous to the Scopes trial. The Scopes trial was a circus show. The Buck v. Bell case had serious repercussions that continue to today. Buck v. Bell is, as they say, “settled law” inasmuch as it was fully reaffirmed by Blackmun in Roe v. Wade (establishing an interesting connection between Eugenics and abortion rights). You might not have been aware of that. While the Scopes trial devolved into an argument between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan over Christian Biblical fundamentalism,  in which Darrow made mincemeat of Bryan, (with his cross examination taking a similar tack to that that Mark Twain took in his “Letters from the Earth” in ridiculing the Bible, or re-enacted aspects of the Huxley-Wilberforce discussions, in which Huxley destroyed Wilberforce) and the teacher, who was convicted, and given a fine of about $100 (the teacher later left teaching to get an advanced degree), and the law at issue was eventually struck down, the Buck v. Bell case led to the forced sterilization of some 60,000 Americans, and was cited by Nazi physicians who performed some 600,000 forced sterilization during the Nazi regime under laws adopted from the US in gaining acquittance in the Nuremberg Trials.  When, after the Holocaust, Eugenics was in disrepute, it went underground.  However, there are suggestive links that indicate that Eugenics returned in the Roe v Wade decision.  For example, Linus Pauling, the discoverer of the molecular defect that causes sickle cell disease, in 1968 in a preface to an issue of the UCLA Law Review journal, advocated for his “yellow star” program in which anyone who carried the sickle cell gene would be physically branded to avoid intermarriage of carriers, and the production of affected offspring. In that article he also demanded Eugenic abortion to prevent the birth of babies with sickle cell disease. At the time, the life expectancy of such a person was 20-30 years Now it is over 60.  I was a med student at UCLA in the mid 1970s, a time when genetic screening was being advocated. Needless to say, the African American population of Los Angeles would have nothing to do with such screening, given the Eugenics attitudes of such as Linus Pauling.

One of the notables who offered to provide an expert affidavit for the Scopes defense was David Starr Jordan, the retired former president of Stanford University. He was an avid Eugenicist, and had been a member of the board of the Human Betterment Society established at Cal Tech, that was responsible for the forced sterilization of some 16,000 “unfit” individuals. (about half –e.g, 16,000–of the Eugenics forced sterilizations performed in the US were performed in California–that is, about 30,000–and 16,000 of those were performed via the Human Betterment Society affiliated with Cal Tech  The concepts of Eugenics, while not mentioned directly at the Scopes trial, prevailed among pretty much all of our Elites (G.K, Chesterton, not unexpectedly, was one of the few who opposed Eugenics, and wrote a scathing commentary (“Eugenics and Other Evils) that was published several years before the Scopes trial.

How does that affect us today?  The second in command of the Human Genome Project was a Eugenicist, Alan Guttmacher. His namesake was his uncle (Alan Guttmacher) who had been a president of the American Eugenics Society, and an ObGYN physician on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University. After the disbanding of the American Eugenics Society, and the passage of Roe v. Wade, Alan Guttmacher the uncle founded the Guttmacher Institute to promote abortion. Alan Guttmacher the nephew became the director of the Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human development, where he established the motto: Every child health and wanted. (who decides what “healthy” is, and who is wanted and who is not wanted?)  It’s hard to get more Orwellian, or Eugenicist, then that. The current CRSPR9 technology is being used to  manipulate the human genome via germline modification, and Peter Singer is calling for insurance to cover such modification for human enhancement.  It’s the old golum story over again. Ordinary humans are too deplorable, too ordinary, too ignorant, not smart enough–the ideas of profound human inadequacy, and the felt need to transform the species, to produce a transhuman population, is front and center today, back in force.  Actually, never went away. As Faulkner said:  …the past is not even past.

Apr 19 2019 at 1:46pm

You are clearly very passionate about this, but it wasn’t even a large part of the episode. Even if Dr. Lepore has it wrong, I think you’re missing the forest for the trees.

Apr 23 2019 at 3:20pm

While I was enlightened by the bioethics genealogy you trace Mr. Lyon, I think you’d be interested in two quotes from the author of the Buck v. Bell majority opinion, Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.
I always say, as you know, that if my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.”  in a private letter written shortly after he was confirmed.
“The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.”  The Common Law  (1881).

Both are worth considering when we consider democratic rationality and what should/shouldn’t be up for majoritarian decisions.

Michael McEvoy
Apr 17 2019 at 12:56pm

TO Kent and Eric –

I was once an enthusiastic champion of the illiberal cause . I feel I lost about 20 years of my intellectual life holding some of the truths that the illiberal cause tended to hold to. I still believe in honesty , courage , love of country and the importance of stable social institutions. However , vis a vis evolution and biology , the illiberals had it all wrong , very wrong . They were , as I was , victims of their own fortitude.

Apr 15 2019 at 12:10pm

During the discussion of “un-American allegations” and potential poor performance of media, how was the Russiagate hoax not mentioned even once? EconTalk has become exceedingly cautious! The hoax is easily the biggest story since Trump’s election, and a scandal (that ought to be) far larger than Watergate. While I generally avoid reading the New Yorker (exception for Seymour Hersh who was right on Russiagate – interesting he now rarely appears in TNY!), I’ll eat my shoe if TNY was not a purveyor of and profiteer on this obvious hoax.

May 4 2019 at 2:21am

Not being an American and not living in America, Russiagate has always looked like a joke to me. I am far from a Trump fan and expected him to get bored from the job as President and resign. Unfortunately, I was wrong and I understand better why opponents have tried the route of Impeachment instead.

The fact that they failed does not make the joke more relevant than it was initially. Why would anybody focus on this is beyond my understanding: I suspect it is not on the top of the head of Russ Roberts and his guests when they talk about the world around us.

Thanks to econtalk for making be a better Mensch, even when Russia is omitted from the conversation!

Apr 15 2019 at 12:28pm

Cool discussion. I think she’s dead wrong about the traditional media outlets. She says The Economist, New York Times, NPR. Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker are somehow of better quality in truth is inaccurate. They’ve gotten worse. They seem to be all producing content that is meant to drive clicks by provoking outrage. They produce hit pieces, exaggerate events. misrepresent people and promote their ideology. Just look at how they’ve  treated Jordan Peterson or obsess about race, gender and Donald Trump–all divisive topics. Another example: The Economist recently labeled Ben Shapiro alt-right and then corrected it.

Dr Golabki
Apr 18 2019 at 7:27pm


I think Jill’s point was that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that there is not objective truth or that objective truth is unknowable and so my subjective feelings about what’s true are as valid as anyone else’s. But that’s a big problem because (A) it can quickly breakdown reasoned argument into angry disagreement, and (B) it’s a fundamentally incorrect view of the world. So we just have to do our best.

To that end, we need to recognize that there’s a huge difference between places like the NYT and WSJ, where very serious, intelligent, highly trained  journalists work really hard to figure out what is true about the world and their editors work really hard to hold them to a high standard (excluding the editorial page obviously). And places like MSNBC and Fox News (and Facebook), which are mainly designed to entertain by making their audience angry about something “the other side” did. The fact that the NYT and WSJ are imperfect doesn’t make them equivalent to everything else.

Armin Chosnama
Apr 15 2019 at 1:50pm

I wonder how many of the history books promoted by our intellectual elite include details of the atrocities committed by Mayans, Incans, and north American native populations. If these atrocities are omitted, are the authors committing “intellectual violence” against the victims of these atrocities?

Lewis Clark
Apr 15 2019 at 10:00pm

She did an excellent job of advertising her book in the first thirty minutes.
A. She addressed a problem, our country’s lack of identity.
B. She addressed the importance of said deficiency.
C. She provided vague and not too revealing solutions, ex: balance both victories and transgresses to form an honest depiction.
D. She even squeezed in a testimonial.

Her self-promotion aside, she seems relatively unbiased and her book could be worth the gander, albeit at its 916 page length. However, she was inconsistent with C’s example above.

She disagreed to Russ’ play at Devil’s Advocate in support of American folklore and the ideology that stems from it. Her argument was solid, but she then proceeds to promote America’s obsession with equality. She acknowledges its disruption but yet holds steadfast belief in this ideal. I think equality is a grand idea, but congruent to her overlapping message, we have to acknowledge the good and the bad. Perhaps Russ has spoiled us.

Tom Murin
Apr 22 2019 at 11:55am

She certainly appears to be objective – and I confess that I was expecting it. Staff writer for the New Yorker is a bit of a dog whistle for me. Well, my ears perked up, but I was happy with what I heard. I’m adding her book to my reading list.

Tom Murin
Apr 22 2019 at 1:23pm

“wasn’t” expecting objectivity.

Apr 16 2019 at 7:26am

Key point:

Russ Roberts: And similarly, although I might recognize that the United States is deeply flawed, “We hold these truths to be self evident…” is pretty extraordinary and I might choose to focus on that or hold that close to my breast and be ashamed of when I’m forced to remember the bad stuff or vice versa. … I think that, while certainly the founders were incredibly hypocritical in their statements, they set an ideal that forced the people who came after them to live up to even if they didn’t want to.

If we only hold onto these truths of moral principle and deny or ignore all bad stuff, the hypocrisy is invisible and no reason to change is evident.  If we only know the bad stuff and fail to hold onto the moral truths, again there is no reason to change.  Change happens in the vital tension when “we hold these truths” and we also heed the bad realities that fall short of moral truth.

Russ Roberts: You allude to it in your piece when … you write “Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century fundamentalism and post modernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up.  Either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth.  For both, empiricism is an error.”

It is perfectly reasonable to both value empirical knowledge and science and also fault any empiricism that devalues any knowledge that is not empirical such as “these truths” of human equality and human rights.  When past guest Helen Pluckrose tried to defend, not just science, but scientism, she had to acknowledge that human rights are not “an observable reality that science can discover”.  Scientism / empiricism denies the possibility of moral truth as a category of true knowledge.  (See exchange, e.g. herehere, and here.)

Ironically, today’s guest gave an example of the moral failure of empiricism when she brought up the Scopes trial.  Lepore didn’t mention that part of America’s “bad stuff” is the rise of scientific racism in the period leading up to that trial.  By the early 20th century, minority humans were being placed on exhibit in zoos and at the fair, sometimes in monkey houses together with primates, to illustrate Darwin’s idea of inferior races as an intermediate level between advanced humans and lesser primates.

Lepore praised news sources such as The New York Times, but didn’t mention that the NYT actually defended such practices, as did elite scientists and scientific organizations.  The opposition to these abominable practices came from those (e.g. “religious right” to use Lepore’s words) who still held the truths of human equality and human rights as knowledge and as true.  For details, stream the award winning documentary Human Zoos — America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism.

Commenter Kent Lyon provides some information about the Scopes trial above.  For more debunking of common myths (e.g. the law did not make all teaching of evolution illegal, as Lepore suggested), see also the myth vs. fact contrasts at

Apr 17 2019 at 12:17pm

My undergraduate is history, yet I still feel inadequate in articulating the varying material of history, let alone the garden variety of perspective surrounding it. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to hear calm, objective discourse such as this between Roberts and Lepore; calm and objective discussion about subject matter is a difficult skill to master contemporarily, I know first-person as my personal biases and cognitive dissonance continuously reminds me. This was a good conversation, between two people, with perspective derived and formed from different fields of study and passion.

Anthony C.
Apr 17 2019 at 4:14pm

I was right along with her, until she declined to mention immigration as the reason for the rise in populism at minute 42:13.  That’s a big set of blinders she is wearing.

Charles R Martelle
Apr 18 2019 at 7:48am

I taught history to high school students for 18 years.  I found myself in the post-modernist camp as a younger teacher, reading Zinn and other “revisionists”.  I never went about teaching to indoctrinate my students, but in the way I taught, I was leaning to that perspective.  Yet, over the years, I grew concerned that this view of history neglected to offer any meaningful narrative for students.  I never really thought about it as a post nationalist kind of history, as the author suggests and I find that interesting.  I agree with the author on this point and that perhaps some type of narrative is important.  Our history is unique and does provide a great story that is rich with honorable things and terrible things.  Putting it all together is our story and there is value in that.  I now look forward to reading These Truths.

Apr 22 2019 at 12:19pm

The guest mocks some forms of history as being alchemy vs chemistry.  The difference between pop history and rigorous history is pencil thin to people outside of academic history.  At least in alchemy we could do experiments and indeed alchemy y largely died because it could not produce results while chemistry can.   There is no such check on historical narratives that often have unprovable assumptions to form its lens.  History is an ongoing narrative where a new generation rewrites the works of an older generation sometimes without new data and sometimes with.  When that happens in real sciences it happens because we disprove prior theories with experiments.  History, like other very weak social sciences, is an ongoing debate about which groups or ideas academics wish to favor in their narrative.  We have feminist history we don’t have feminist chemistry because chemistry is a science and history is narratives. 

I have faith in “liberal” civic nationalism only because the alternatives are frankly frightening for the future prospects of my country.  But increasingly I worry.

What other successful democratic civic liberal nationalist countries exist in the world that people of wildly different cultures came together for an ideal or group of ideas that we could use as a model going forward?  Especially one that survived new entrants of wildly differing cultures arriving against their laws in waves that equal up to 10%+ of the current population?  There are empires that pulled that off for a time such as the Romans, but are their nations?  Brazil maybe, India maybe?  I am sure others more familiar could come up with some better examples but the US seems unique in this regard and it is odd to create a category (liberal nationalism) when there are few examples and even fewer that created their own identity instead of were given one by other powers.  India split off Pakistan because “liberal nationalism” was a weaker force/story than ethnic and religious identity.  

 How about “illiberal” nationalism where ethnicity roughly= nation.  That was everywhere in the world until very recently. It seems to be working fine for Japan and many nations where the ethnic questions were resolved in favor of a national identify long ago.  An interesting question might be can an ethnic nationalist country like France transform into a liberal nationalism like the US?  Can the US survive as a civic nationalist country while undergoing social upheaval of an ethnic and cultural kind?

Apr 22 2019 at 1:12pm

I would have liked to see Mr. Roberts take issue with Ms. Lepore’s use of the term “intellectual violence,” which she used in reference to the perceived preference of some Americans’ for a rosy history of the United States to the exclusion of the history of people who have been wronged by the United States.  Speech, especially academic speech of the type Ms. Lepore’s comments specifically addressed, is not violence.  And a member in good standing in American academia should be more responsible, judicious, and precise in her use of language.

Insisting that one’s point of view is correct (and implicitly morally superior) while the other’s view is “intellectual violence” is a not-so-subtle attempt to force the other to conform to one’s own position; the penalty for nonconformity is being publicly associated with having committed “violence” against others (usually historically oppressed people and/or protected classes).  Ms. Lepore’s use of such a rhetorical maneuver is interesting in light of her lamentations over American politicians’ use of the term “un-American,” a tactic which she interprets as a cheap and cynical gambit whose intent is to marginalize one’s political opponent and invalidate their views.

Speech as violence is a pernicious and insidious idea, and proponents of classically liberal values should challenge it when they encounter it.  And bright and talented academics such as Ms. Lepore should encourage a robust market place of competing ideas, not seek to shame people of differing perspectives out of it.

Bob Calder
Apr 23 2019 at 10:41am

Russ, this is one of the best interviews ever. It occupied the center of our social dialog and I enjoyed hearing you two talk about the extreme views. As a HPS reader, I am dismayed by the bizarre comment about eugenics. It’s part of one extreme historical  narrative that attempts to freeze science in a place it occupied for a short time.

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: March 1, 2019.]

Russ Roberts: Our guest today is Jill Lepore.... Our conversation for today draws on a recent essay she wrote for Foreign Affairs, "A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story".... Now, you opened your piece talking about the last part of the 20th century as a time when nationalism was on the wane, and historians were not very interested in it. Why do you think that was the case--both of those points? Why was nationalism on the wane, and why had historians lost interest?

Jill Lepore: I'm not so convinced that nationalism was on the wane. It's a little bit difficult to see. You know, you don't enter the room with a candle; you enter the room in the dark. You have to have the historian there to light the candle to see it. And, historians really weren't paying enough, a lot of attention, to nationalism, I think largely wishing it away as many people were. I would class political scientists in that group, as well. But if you think about that moment in the 1980s, there are a lot of different forces that might lead American intellectuals in particular, but intellectuals in Western Europe as well, to come to the conclusion that nationalism was all but dead, especially in the West. Kind of a stock-taking moment in which people who were leading lives that were highly global--people who were affiliated with new global studies institutes--that the 1980s really was the rise of global studies kind of replacing area studies programs, which [?]--you know, come out of the national security state in the 1950s, part of Cold War. Those were replaced into, to a large degree, in the 1980s and 1990s, with global studies programs. People were really interested in globalism. Thinking about global trade. Thinking about the success of global institutions. And so, there's a kind of--the--especially after the triumph, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, a sense that the world was turning a page away from the kind of manikin battle between Communism and Americanism. And toward a new, more fully global world order. And, that nationalism had run its course. That nationalism had historical origin, and it was about to have an historical end.

Russ Roberts: And, you can think about the start of that. That run that it had, I guess--you could pick a lot of different start dates. My first thought was 1914. It's not a bad start date. You could think about the 1870s, with the consolidation of Germany and Italy around that time. And that, by 1985 or so, which is when you talk about--was it 1986, a speech by Carl Degler--that that, that nationalism was being neglected. Degler's point was, in a speech: You could feel like it was a scourge that had finally been eliminated, with the horrors of WWII. And I think, certainly in the intellectual class, nobody had any interest in seeing it rise again.

Jill Lepore: Yeah. Although there's another force that we should probably also take stock of, with regard to the lack of attention to nationalism. Which is, within the historical profession, the kind of breakdown of interest in the nation as the unit of study. Which had to do with a lot of American academic historians' loss of faith in the American nation during the 1960s and 1970s. And the belief that, to pay attention to the nation, as the object of your historical analysis, was to contribute to nationalism. And, that--and that's a fair point. I mean we can talk, historically--I think nationalism, we could, I would push its origins back quite a bit back into the 19th century. Not to 1914 but as a really tangled relationship between the writing of national history and the, uh, emergence of what we would think of as illiberal nationalism. So, there really is a very troubling past in the relationship between historians and nationalism. But in the 1960s and 1970s, remember like the academy was finally opening up to women and people of color who were entering graduate programs and getting Ph.Ds. and entering Departments of History and Departments of Political Science and, so, objects of their inquiry tended not to be the nation state, which had been the object of a lot of scrutiny. They were more interested in thinking about groups whose experiences had been left out of the national stories. So, women and people of color. And, you know, founded ethnic studies and black studies and women in sexuality studies programs within the academy. And looked--the nation was not the unit that they were curious about. They were curious about other constituencies. And they were interested in conflict among groups. So, they were taking down what historians call the consensus school of American historiography: the idea that American politics had been as consensual politics, and said, 'Well, yeah, if you only look at certain people, you could see consensus. But if you look at everybody else, you see a story of conflict.' So, there was a real revolution in the research agenda of American historians in the 1960s and 1970s. And, Carl Degler, who is a Stanford historian I write about in this piece in Foreign Affairs, who had been part of that revolution: He had been an early feminist; he was one of the founding members of the National Organization of Women. His own scholarship was largely about race and Jim Crow enslavery. But, by the 1980s, when--I think it's maybe by the late 1980s that the American Studies Association actually proposes dropping the word "American" from the title of the organization--by that point Degler has kind of blanched at it all and said, 'You know, it's really important that we study--that we kind of have this much more inclusive and broad, deeply researched and nuanced history of the peoples of the United States. But it's also dangerous to fail to study the nation.'


Russ Roberts: This is an aside from our main theme, but you sent me a copy of your book, These Truths, which is a great title I'd mention, as well. And I was struck by--it's a bold achievement. It's 961 pages. There's a lot of footnotes. But, still, it's a very long book. It's beautifully written. The opening--it's worth reading--you can cheat if you want. I hate to encourage listeners, but you can go pick it up at a bookstore and just read the first few pages while you are staying there. It's quite beautiful. It's eloquent. But it's hard to write the history of a nation. It's much more tempting to think about, say, Robert Caro's massive enterprise. He's also writing a history of the nation, but he's doing it through a sort of great-man lens: LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson, U.S. President]. And, you know, people who think, 'Well, why would I want to read an n-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson?' The answer is, 'Well, he's a lot more interesting than you think; and the book is more than about just LBJ. It's really a history of the country starting in the 20th century.' So, that's an amazing achievement. So, to do it from a longer forum as you've done--it's daunting. And so I would assume a lot of people would find it easier, or more attractive, to do a great-man- or great-woman-theory of history, and to focus on groups. Or tension, or conflict. As you mention. Just reflect on that.

Jill Lepore: Yeah, no. It is really, it's really hard. It takes a lot of audacity. It used to be, though, a kind of conventional career capstone. Most distinguished American historians, for many years, when they got to a certain point in their career, they would do this work, that was in some ways kind of giving back--a sort of sense of civic--meeting civic obligation. You spend your career studying American history; you know a lot about it; you teach year in and year out, and it's kind of an obligation to the country that you present a book of American history. Now, if you are studying, if you are an American whose specialty is medieval France, you don't have that obligation. It's not a burden that you bear. It's not an obligation as a citizen. But, for an American historian, especially an American historian whose work is wide-ranging and far-reaching, it was just a thing that you did. If you go back and look at, you know, the distinguished or even the not-very-distinguished American historians of earlier generations, there's always someone who says, and be honest, it's a kind of an act of bravado. Right; like, it is--

Russ Roberts: Sure. It's a [?] tour de force.

Jill Lepore: Like, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, like, The Winning of the West. And Woodrow Wilson wrote A History of the American People. You know, there are these kind of big, sweeping--there is an equivalent in European history at least--

Russ Roberts: Churchill--

Jill Lepore: is kind of like March of the Monarchs books, right? You know, from King John to Henry the VIII. And that is a whole--there's a whole tradition of that in the United States. And that kind of historian who paid very little attention to anybody but the Presidents or the acts of Congress--that kind of historian stopped being produced, really, in some ways, right? It's both that kind of training: a specific interest in the great glory, the great men, the march of the monarchs, the parade of the presidents. That--there isn't--that really doesn't go on in academic history any more. So, we're--I think, to be honest, much to the better. There are a lot more stories to tell about how change happens, the role of economic forces in history, the role of technology in history; why the law is essential for understanding larger patterns of change. How social movements work. Like, there's a lot else to study. And, it's been nothing but enriching for people to do other kinds of work. But that tradition continues in popular history, which is generally not written by academic historians but written by journalists--

Russ Roberts: yup--

Jill Lepore: but instead [?] written by journalists--I would put Caro in a different category. I would Bob Dallek in a different category. There are people who write Presidential histories who are writing in an academic way. They are biographers, but they meet the standards of evidence and the rules of exposition that we have, as in academic history. But, then there's a kind of big batch of Presidential biographers who are not actually asking big questions about how change happens. They are offering us intimate portraits of Presidents. And in a way, and that's the kind of history book you see when you wander into the bookstore, you know, in the mall. And in a way I think that actually is a challenge for our public culture and our political culture, because it magnifies the role of the President. It kind of contributes to presidentialism. Like, we--I think that American political history really is about what different Presidents said and did. And it really is not. Right? Like, we know--as an enormous a character as Donald Trump is and as influential as his decisions are in American political culture, you couldn't possibly write the history of the last few years without attending to, you know, the immigration debate, locally, the Me Too movement, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or, you know, all manner of events going on in the United States and around the world that aren't actually--that don't really revolve around the day-to-day biographical details of Donald Trump. And, because we magnify the role of the President so much, because of the way our popular history is chiefly constituted of Presidential biography, we are less able to see those relationships.


Russ Roberts: And, of course, he is a manifestation of a lot of the things that you'd want to write about [?] if you are going to understand what's going on right now. He's not simply the great-man or not-so-great-man moving events on his own. My naivetŽ, which I'll confess, as an economist looking at political events: I've always believed--now I think foolishly--that presidents and parties, of course, are embedded in forces of economics and politics, we call incentives and market forces in economics. And that politicians are forced by those forces to act in ways that aren't necessarily what you'd expect in advance. They often turn out to be more like their opponents than you expected. I think what we're living through right now is a wake-up call for that view. A little bit of, 'Hey, don't be so naive. It's not as straight-forward as it seems to have been.' I used to even argue that it's not so important who the President is, because they are subject to these forces. And, there is some truth to that. If we look at data on, or even policy decisions, it's [?] very hard to see whether it's a Democrat or a Republican. But, I feel like those days are over. And a different perspective is warranted. You know, when you talk about the audacity of writing that history, you are saying something more than that in your article. Which is: It's important to write that history. The national story we tell about ourselves, or come to believe about ourselves, is more than just a bedtime story for our children. It actually affects the way the world looks and the way it then turns out. You want to talk about that?

Jill Lepore: Yeah. I mean, I'm going to just jump back to what you were previously reflecting on, which is sort of your vantage on how change happens as an economist. And I absolutely agree that, those of us who do work in an intellectual discipline all day tend to think the world actually--

Russ Roberts: I know--

Jill Lepore: subscribes to the models that we carry around in our head. It's helpful to think that--

Russ Roberts: Sorry--

Jill Lepore: You're going to have more of an economically deterministic model than I do. I don't often feel like I see much evidence of--it's just not how the world works in my imagination. I think the public tends to have at, at the moment, given our popular culture, a technologically-deterministic model of how change happens. Like, if it's the new--you know, you can kind of track change over time by which iPhone you have. Like, people just think that it's technology that drives history, at this moment. I, myself, don't believe that. I don't think markets drive history. I think social movements drive history; that tends to be where I see most animation. But, the obligation of the historian is to take all of those forms of explanation, or also faith driving history--religious organizations and institutions and beliefs and practices driving change. Right? Or changes in the laws. Like there are a lot of different ways for people to understand how change happens, and surely we're not all right; and we're also not all wrong. And the obligation of someone trying to take on the big sweeping story is to kind of try to set aside even your disciplinary predilections and say, 'Let's just take this as a whole and figure out what's like a plausible set of explanations to give that people can read and digest and make legible to them, identify patterns, and then people can quibble with it.' Like history is an ongoing argument; and it should be. And that, to get to the second comment in the question you raised, is: Why it is important for historians who care about evidence and argument and fair-mindedness to try to do the work of pulling together some kind of a national story, knowing that it's not etched in stone and doesn't become the law of the land, but it's just a continuation of the argument. Because people need that. People need to have an explanation for why the nation exists. I mean, it's not--the boundaries of the United States are not natural. Well, yes, there's [?] oceans and there's some mountains--topographical features--but, you know, nations are an artifice. They are a creation--they are created at historical moments, and this particular nation is largely the creation of a set of political ideas that are hard ideas. They are really difficult ideas. And, you have to get them in order to have a sense of belonging. And in order to really get them, you actually have to have a sense of where they came from. And you have to be able to ask yourself, 'Are these ideas true?' And if they are true, 'Do I care about them?' and 'How do I express my concern for them?' That's the obligation of the citizen in a democracy. And if people who care about writing decent history that's fair and broad-minded don't do it, then other people step in. And they offer up, you know, a kind of garbage history that's narrow and instrumental and deeply partisan and about propping up a particular vision of the past of the country in order to promote a particular vision for the future of the country. And that's really complicated. And that, in fact, is what a liberal nationalism is. Right? It's when you make an argument about why the nation exists that is an argument about a kind of destiny that holds the nation above all others, that asks for loyalty to the nation above all other loyalties, and that refuses to subject the nation to scrutiny, or to the attention of possible critics. And that really is dangerous.


Russ Roberts: You called that 'illiberal' nationalism, a second ago. Correct?

Jill Lepore: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: I thought you said 'liberal,' but you said 'illiberal.'

Jill Lepore: Illiberal. Yeah. I mean, there's a convention in writing about nationalism, and it's highly controversial to do this, but a lot of people who write about nationalism would draw a distinction between liberal and illiberal nationalism, which are sometimes called 'ethnic'--illiberal nationalism being ethnic and liberal nationalism being civic nationalism founded in the idea of the government itself, of the citizenry and its relationship to the government. There's a lot of criticism of that division, but I think it's useful.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. For some people, 'liberal nationalism' is the good kind, and 'illiberal' is the bad kind. And you'd throw in there if you want. I just want to clarify one thing: When I said I have an economic perspective on history, I meant, not a material one, but more an incentive one. So that, promises that politicians make that turn out to be quite expensive to keep, they don't keep. They are just pushed aside. That, forces of, that can be ideological, or they can be faith-based, or they can be many, many things--cultural is a better way to say it--that those matter. And that politicians come to represent those things rather than lead. And so, that's my, what I want to reject a little bit in recent times.


Russ Roberts: You said something kind of powerful a second ago when you were talking about the importance of a national story. You said, you talked about belonging. And belonging is something I've been thinking about. We talk about, a reasonable amount on this program, because of what I would call the rise of tribalism--and you mention that in your essay and that it's really not the rise of it: it's been there all the time. But we do like to, as human beings, belong to something. And, it strikes me that fewer and fewer people want to see their nation-state in America, until recently--that fewer and fewer saw that as a place to find and express that tribalism. To find that sense of belonging. They'd rather find it in their sports team, or in their religion, or their race, or their gender--or, anything but America. America, it seems to me, until very recently, has gone out of fashion. And that's some of what Donald Trump is bringing back. For good and bad. It's certainly something that when I was younger, didn't feel very much. And certainly didn't feel it in the circles I swam in. And I'm curious if you think that that's--is it passŽ? Or is it coming back? Where are we on that?

Jill Lepore: Yeah. I think I might quibble somewhat with the way you frame it. Because, I'm not sure that this is a brand new crisis. I think the attachment to a vision of the nation on the part of ordinary people waxes and wanes--as in fact it must, and it's unsurprising that that happens. You know, it is--that kind of passion is often whipped up during wartime or in the years before a war. It tends to fall into a crisis after a war, especially for people who bore the brunt of suffering in a war. So, there are a lot of patterns that we might detect there. Where--and that seems to me kind of as it should be. There are other kinds of communities that we really care about. You know, I really care about the city that I live and I'm really attached to my city as a place; I have a fair amount of loyalty to the State that I live in. And I'm not a States' Rights person, but I think to myself--I'm a regionalist. Like, I so am a New Englander. Like, I understand myself as a New Englander. So, it's not inconsistent to have many different kinds of belonging. I'm a Catholic. I think of myself as a member of the Catholic Church. Like, we have many--and that's fine. So, it might be that in some points in your life, or my life, or on the, you know, on the timeline that the attachment to the idea of being an American is--is stronger or less passionately felt. All of that seems fine, and that solidity seems completely understandable. What's tricky is when that divides along Party lines. And, where that becomes a source of--becomes a kind of partisan weapon for one Party to call another Party, or even just a wing of the Party, kind of un-American. Or insufficiently patriotic. And that, too, has happened a lot over time. At fairly regular intervals. Because it's useful in waging political battle to invoke that as a kind of the, um--it's a ballistic missile, right, to call your political opponent un-American? And I think should be pretty far outside the realm of political discourse any self-respecting politician would engage in. Because that's just making, you know, your fellow citizens into enemies of the state. That's nuts. And it's just subjectively bad. That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen a lot. I guess, in thinking of the last half-century, it has become kind of complicated because of the schism over the Vietnam War, where the New Left, which emerged, you know, in the 1960s, was essentially, essentially emerged out of the anti-War movement. And the New Right, which began its rise to power in the 1960s, emerged--you know, both of these political persuasions had many different sources. But were very much kind of on opposite sides with regard to the War; and then dug their heels into that, into those positions. And you see, by the time you get to 1975, which is the beginning of the Bicentennial Celebration--you know, the bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1776, going to be the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence--that the Right really wants to celebrate the bicentennial; and the Left wants to essentially protest it. And this becomes a kind of--it's just like a kind of proving ground about Americans are willing to say about their attachment to the country. So, I don't know if you remember this, but Lyndon Johnson started this Bicentennial Commission, like in 1964, because there was already like the anniversary of the Sugar Act and, you know, the resistance movement that leads to the American Revolution; and, put a whole bunch of people on trying to make a really inclusive Board to think about how to celebrate the Bicentennial in the age of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and kind of have an inclusive vision for how to celebrate the Bicentennial. And when Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he basically kicked all those people off of the Bicentennial programming Board and put on a bunch of other people, who wanted a much narrower vision of how to celebrate the Bicentennial. So, then there was an opposition commission, called the People's Bicentennial Commission, which was kind of like the anti-Bicentennial Commission. And they were promoting two completely--this is like, academic historians were not involved in any of this--but they are promoting two completely different visions of American history. You know, one was--the Official Bicentennial Celebration would be, you know, the march of freedom from the Founding Fathers and their tri-cornered hats and their knee-britches, all the way down to the great Richard Nixon. And then the People's Bicentennial Commission was essentially history of American atrocity, all the way down to the Vietnam War. And, so, both of those are actually American.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Jill Lepore: Right? Like--

Russ Roberts: Both part of the story.

Jill Lepore: Like, we can disagree--they are both part of the story. But that's the point at which American historians stopped writing national history. Because people kind of just threw up their hands and said, there's no winning at this game. Because, you know, Howard Zinn, out of that, writes the People's History of the United States. He's involved in that People's Bicentennial Movement. And he decides that the country needs a new history, and he writes this essentially Marxist history of the country. So, that sort of--on the Left that becomes the national history. And on the Right, there's this whole series of things like all the way down to Glenn Beck's like schoolroom studio, teaching American history. And these really kind of quacky, kooky descendants of that Nixon Bicentennial Commission, history where we're like, 'We will just whitewash the story of American history.' And, so, there's no--there's no bridge between those two camps, which are purely ideologically driven accounts of the United States that are a part of political warfare, over the agony--the political anguish--of Vietnam and its legacy. Right? So, you can sort of see why historians--like, 'I'm not going to write a [?] history anywhere during those years.' But then you come down to the 1980s and globalism, and now all the talented people are writing global history and engaged in global studies; and that's where Degler[?] finally kinds of gives his kind of wail of despair: Like, 'Well, but the country still needs a story that's not kind of just one of these two ideological stories but something that attempts to be fair.' And it's--like, that's the spirit in which I wrote my book: was like, it's been a really long time since someone has tried to do that. I mean, there are U.S. history textbooks, and many of them are fantastic. I don't mean to dismiss--

Russ Roberts: Are they as good as yours? Come on. Hmm, hmm, hmm.

Jill Lepore: They are, you know, textbooks written for college students. And they tend to be written by a team of people. And, you know, they are what they are. You won't meet a lot of people who say they really loved their high school American history textbook. Because they are not, they are not beautiful. They are not meant to hold people together or stir. They are textbooks. So, it was kind of in heeding the call that Degler had made that I wrote this book that tries--you know, that tries to pull all the pieces together to not be undertaking it ideological, partisan warfare in the writing of history. I'm not re-waging the Vietnam pro-and-anti-War movements in this book. There are many other things I could easily stand accused of. There are many absences. There's all kinds of, you know--there are errors in the book--

Russ Roberts: It's only 900 pages

Jill Lepore: It's long. But, I guess I stand by--it's still a useful thing to do. And I would say that since the book came out--I mean, the day the book came out, I got an email from someone who had pre-ordered it and had got it on the publication day. I was, like, going to New York for like a party with my publisher to celebrate the book being published. And, before I got to the party I got an email from this woman--she had pre-ordered, she'd got it that morning, and she spent the entire day reading it, and she had finished it. And she sent me this unbelievably--email, and said, like, 'I learned so much. I'd so needed this book. And I think I can love my country again.' Like, it was this--I was like in agony, just crying reading this email, because that's why I wrote the book. The book is not that March of Freedom. It's not the History of American Atrocity. It's kind of the whole kit and caboodle. And it asks readers to do their own moral and political reckoning from what historians have been finding in the archives in the last 50 years and what we know and what we still don't know and how we can't say where the country should go, but here's what the evidence tells us. And, I get email every day--like a huge amount of reader response from the book. And it's really powerful to hear people say how much they didn't realize how much they needed this book until they read it.

Russ Roberts: It reminds me of--I'm thinking about our parents. I don't know if this is a good analogy or not. But, our need to tell a consistent story when we're young: My parents are awful; my parents are great. And, in fact, like most things on EconTalk, they are complicated. Complicated usually doesn't sell so well. People like the good guy/bad guy theory and story and narrative. And so, nuance is awkward. But, it strikes me that the United States has done a lot of bad things and a lot of extraordinary things; and it's complicated. And that's not necessarily the story that people want to hold to their breasts. They want to have either love or anguish, only. And I think that's a human impulse that, you know, I understand that.


Russ Roberts: But, let's turn away. I want to come back to your essay and the question of nationalism. Why do you think it's on the rise? And, of course, it's not just the United States. It's on the rise in lots of places around the world that it was quiet in before. What do you think has changed?

Jill Lepore: Well, I do want to get to that, but I can't help but say one thing about your family metaphor. Because, it's a little bit trickier in a nation, where if you what you want is the story that the United States has only done good things. You are actually kind of committing a kind of intellectual violence against the people to whom the United States has done terrible things. You know, I mean, like, if you can't confront squarely and in the eye the story of slavery, the story of Jim Crow. You [?] then you're just erasing the history of your fellow citizens. And similarly, if you want to tell a story that's only about, you know, the genocide of indigenous peoples, well, what about the heroism of people who gave their lives to defend democracy around the world as representatives of the United States. You can't--

Russ Roberts: It's a betrayal.

Jill Lepore: You can't pick and choose your own version of the nation's past because you're not the only person in the country. We're all.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree with that. I think the difference is--and I try to extend and defend my parental analogy for a minute. Sure. Like, when I go to a funeral--and I try to go to funerals because I think they are powerful experiences and I, even for--I tend not to go to funerals of strangers, but it's an interesting idea. But I tend to try to go to funerals of loved ones and friends, and friends of loved ones and friends. And, I'm always struck by how saintly the person was. And, I always wonder: Is that the natural hyperbole of a eulogy? Or maybe the people really were extraordinary; and many people are, of course. But, I also recognize that, you know, at a funeral, it's not a time to bare the warts of the people we come from. And, similarly, although I might recognize that the United States is deeply flawed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident' is pretty extraordinary. And, I might choose to focus on that, and hold that close to my breast and be ashamed of, when I'm forced to remember, the bad stuff. Or vice versa. Now you could go the other way, of course, and say, 'I think the United States is a bad country. Of course, I concede it's done some good things.' But I think it's very natural to try to have a vision of what, let's say, it could be. And I think that's an important part of the national story that a somewhat un-nuanced history allows. And, even to defend it a little bit further, I think that, while, certainly, the Founders were incredibly hypocritical, in their statements they set an ideal that forced the people who came after them to live up to. Even if they didn't want to. So, I think there's something there.

Jill Lepore: Yeah. I still think--I grant all of that. But I think that's really civic myth. And we might agree that there's a real place for civic myth in a culture. And I--you know, I spend a lot of time in public schools in my city, and I love watching the third graders dress up as, you know, Benjamin Franklin and do the Revolutionary Pageant. And that's important. And it's a national folklore. And I recognize that it is--that is not the time, in the third-grade classroom, to think about the regime of immigration restriction in the 1924 National Origins Act. You know, like, that's not--

Russ Roberts: Well said--

Jill Lepore: You know, like, that is national folklore. And history is an academic discipline that has rules and standards of evidence, and criteria for argument. And I think it's a mistake to expect that, because American history happens to overlap with the national folklore, that we accept, as adults, the national folklore. It's a little bit like telling a chemist, 'Well, chemistry seems very interesting. But I don't like alchemy.' I think alchemy is really fun and it makes me feel good to imagine that you could make gold this way. Or, telling an astronomer, like, 'Astronomy, you do some fascinating calculations there. But at the end of the day I just want to read my horoscope. I believe in astrology.' Like, I don't think--it's weird that we accept that there is a lesser version of a careful, cautious, honest, evidence-based historical scholarship that we should just put up with because it sort of suits us. I think it's tricky. I mean, not that I don't concede that that other thing is important. I just--where the boundaries are between that and what we--we just don't happen to have different names for it. Like, the way you could separate alchemy and chemistry, and astrology and astronomy. We call both of these things history.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's true.

Jill Lepore: And I think it gets a little bit complicated. In any case. We could spend forever thinking about what makes history [?]--


Russ Roberts: But I want to stay on this for a sec. We'll come back to the nationalism question I raised. In your title of your piece, you say "Why a Nation Needs a National Story". And I guess what I'm thinking when I said what I did is, we've had various national stories in the United States. Some of them were grotesque. They left out a role for all kinds of groups and different people. Some of them ignored important things that were healthy and helpful. And that's your Vietnam--your Bicentennial Commission. Those are two different national stories, neither of which was "accurate." It just strikes me that in today's world, the idea of a national story that the American people could somehow accept, or come together on, or embrace, is very far away. And I'm struck by your remark about calling your opponents 'Un-American.' When Sebastian Junger was on this program, we were talking about his book, Tribe, he talks in that book, and I think we talked about it on the program, about how destructive it is when you describe your opponents as un-American. You are basically calling them treasonous. Which is usually comes with a death penalty. It's, um--so I worry a lot about whether the country is irrevocably torn right now. Does that worry you? And does my worry make sense about a national story?

Jill Lepore: I worry about it, too. But one of the reasons I don't really panic about it is: We actually have a magnificently enfranchised democratic populace right now. And that, in American history, is fairly new. So, women didn't get the right to vote until 1920; or weren't guaranteed it--I mean, they had it in many states. And African Americans weren't really guaranteed on the ground the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. So, we are wrestling with a much bigger political community, and have been for the last half century. And that's hard work. And, I don't think it has worked as well as it should. But I do think it can work better. I guess I just--it doesn't seem to me like, 'Oh, for hundreds of years we've been struggling this and we've gotten nowhere.' It seems to me like, 'No. People are completely silenced politically for hundreds of years. And now that everybody can talk, it's harder.' It's harder to listen. It's harder to engage in the conversation. The conversation is messier. It's a little more painful. We have had some national political figures who have been very good at calling people to be their best selves in the public forum. And we've had national leaders who have been very effective at instructing people about how to be their worst selves in the public forum. So, it--I guess, it's a hard road. But, that we don't currently seem altogether keen on sharing a national story and a common political ancestry isn't an argument against trying to provide one.

Russ Roberts: I love your optimism. I used to feel that way. I used to think we were part of this great process, very self-correcting: we muddled through, this great, respectful transition of power, past leaders respectful and helpful to the country; once they get out of office there's a great tradition of mutual respect among living Presidents. I feel like we're entering a different set of uncharted waters there. But, maybe I'm too pessimistic.

Jill Lepore: Well, I guess I would say, you know, some of my most beloved political and literary heroes made a very strong, have made very strong arguments for the importance of public figures modeling hopefulness. So, mine[?] might be faking it. But I can actually fairly determine: You can't have a political future if you can't imagine it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, there's some destroyers out there. I don't know.


Russ Roberts: But, let's go back to my other question: Why do you think nationalism is on the rise? In Europe, and here?

Jill Lepore: Yeah. I mean, it's the same set of forces behind populism, which chiefly, historically, populism and nationalism rose in the United States and other parts of the world when large swaths of the population were both fairly recently politically enfranchised and quite dramatically left behind economically. And, so, have a political voice. But the thing that they want to say is: 'I have nothing.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. 'What about me?'

Jill Lepore: And, that's really an important protest. But, it can be very easily turned to ill political effect by authoritarians, who can gather up all that misery, put it in a sack, throw the sack over their arm, and kind of march to the national capital and take power. So, that's where we're at.

Russ Roberts: You write, at one point,

A few years later, after the onset of civil war in Bosnia, the political philosopher Michael Walzer grimly announced that "the tribes have returned."
You continue,
They had never left. They'd only become harder for historians to see, because they weren't really looking anymore.
And I do feel like, in the populist movements, and certainly in the United Kingdom, in England, and the United States, the call to nationalism and the attraction of nationalism is a feeling of tribal belonging that has either eluded those folks elsewhere or just suddenly is more appealing.

Jill Lepore: Yeah. I think, it also has--I didn't write about this in the piece, but I think it has--a lot in common with religious revivals. Which, I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now. Because religious revivals tend to happen in the aftermath of a very significant, like, essentially, a sea-change in the body of knowledge. And, you know, or received notions of the, how we understand the natural world. So, I think the kind of, you know, the accelerating, the sort of knowledge-vault[?] metaphor of the Internet and the kind of revolution of machine learning and artificial intelligence and all the anxiety about a world of knowing that most people don't understand, at all, is just the kind of thing to set off a religious revival. And is just the kind of thing that also invests people who are left behind economically with a deeper and quite reasonable anxiety. I mean, I don't think it's important to state about the appeal of any kind of populism left, varietal or any kind of nationalism. That the appeal, the emotional appeal, the political misery that drives that attraction: Those are real. Those aren't fictive.


Russ Roberts: I, I want to agree. Um, although, I do think there's a lot misunderstanding. As long-time listeners know, actual state of affairs here: the challenge, of course, is that--it's hard to figure out what caused those problems. But if you are in that situation of, say, economic anxiety, insecurity, loss, misery--you don't really care about the causation. You just want to line up behind someone who says they are going to fix it, even if their tools are not going to do the job.

Jill Lepore: And especially if they are willing to point the finger at someone else. You have other reasons to kind of hate. So, it's the attachment of blame--

Russ Roberts: Yeah--

Jill Lepore: It's an attachment, which is an explanation. Right? Like, it's not your fault. Things are hard for you, and it's true it's not your fault, but it's actually this person's fault. That's very appealing.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's good. It's bad, but it's good.


Russ Roberts: You have an essay in The New Yorker on facts--a fascinating essay that we'll link to; and we'll of course link to the essay on foreign affairs as well. And you talk about the challenge of--you alluded to it a minute ago talking about the Internet. Figure out what's going on. And I'm struck by this paradox that there has been no time in human history that as large a share of human beings can find out stuff as right now. So, the access that people have to facts, data, stories, theories, models, narratives, is unparalleled. You can find an unimaginable amount of stuff relative to 25 years ago. Stuff that you used to have to used to journey to the library to find, or the public library, the university library. And even then you'd struggle to find a bunch of it; and it would be tedious. And so most people never bothered. And so, we did the best we could. Now we have this unbelievable access. We have, even programs like EconTalk, where people can hear world-class historians talk about American history. And yet, at the same time: Nobody's quite sure--or at least they shouldn't be--of what's true or not. And I find that juxtaposition quite extraordinary and quite fascinating. And you allude to it in your piece when you talk about the fact that, um--you write,

Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error.
And, that's all in play right now, it feels like. And I don't know how that's going to play out. It doesn't feel so good.

Jill Lepore: Yeah. It's a very, it's a very tricky moment. And I think the other element of that in terms of the authority most easily available to most people historically--it's certainly the full history of the United States as a Republic, was the daily newspaper. I have a piece in the New Yorker from a couple of weeks ago called "Hard News" that says sort of an assessment of the state of journalism, looking at a lot of recent work but also the longer history. And, you know, the daily newspaper, for all its flaws, was a place where people went to find out what happened and what's about to happen. And, that--how newspapers worked, in terms of the editorial judgment used--and they were this is a guild, this is a profession. There are standards. There are rules. People get fired for breaking them. It's really important arbiter. Of information. And, I would say, broadly, culturally, the Editor--the work of editing, is hugely important to the political stability of most the world, through most of modernity. And, it's one of those things we haven't paid a lot of attention to. But, having people whose sole job it is, is to decide, like, 'Is this something of interest to the public? Should it be on the front page?' If on the front page is the best-prepared reporter to write about that, and this reporter submits this piece has it--it is written with fairness? Is this statement really well-enough supported or should I cut it? Should I ask the reporter to go back and get a statement from this person who stands accused of something here? Then, is this piece going to go to legal counsel? It's like, there's a whole process--it has come be called 'fact-checking.' But it's a whole process of establishing whether or not something should be in the newspaper. And, what you do when you subscribe to a daily newspaper is rely on that editorial process. And you could still disagree, and you could say, 'This newspaper should have covered that.' And there are all kind of problems with daily papers, in the golden age of American journalism. But there's a certain surety around--at least the no[new?]-ability and accountability of the process. And, I--it's not much often written about. But, we live in a world where there are hardly any editors. Right? Most of what is published day-to-day, minute-by-minute, is put online without the consultation of any editor. And I do think it's why traditional news organizations are far more important than they ever have ever been before. You know, NPR [National Public Radio] or the Wall Street Journal or the Economist or the New York Times, there's not a local equivalent that is thriving, but national news organizations are extremely important. The trick is, and has been widely observed with the exception of something like NPR--which is obviously both subsidized and run on philanthropy and on gifts and memberships--all that stuff is expensive. So we have an asymmetrical world of information in which, if you can afford to pay for it, you can get very good information. But, if you don't have any money to pay for it, or you're not willing to pay for it, all the information is bad. So, that is very politically volatile: it's an extremely politically volatile situation.


Russ Roberts: I love what you said, although I suspect--I have some romance about it, and when I think about that romance I wonder then if it's true. Those norms of what goes in the paper and the reliability we placed on the daily paper--I think they were there: there were certain guardrails that kept things within certain boundaries. And those rails are more or less gone now. There are a few publications that still have them. But in general news organizations are driven by their economic incentives--I've talked about them in a recent episode and a couple of essays: That, you sell stuff that makes people feel good about themselves. You don't, you're not trying to create a civic record or the news that you think is appropriate or important. Now, that process was flawed. It was biased. It had--some of those safeguards were illusions. But it's certainly different now. Now, I would say the same thing is true of the political boundaries--things that were unacceptable, the things that a President says or that a Presidential candidate cannot say--those are off the board right now. We'll see if they come back, with different kinds of candidates in the future. But I expect that the 2020 election, no matter who the Democrats pick, is going to be rather different from past elections. And the campaigning will be different. I understand America's always had some ugly sides to it in the political process. But I think the important thing is this issue of truth and being informed. I'm just increasingly post-modern myself. I'm nothing of a post-modernist. But I certainly have their respect for the elusiveness of truth. And I--there are so many things today that I'm unsure of, and agnostic about. And I hear a lot of people who aren't. Who are very confident. And that just is really hard for me, because I know none of us are well-informed. At all. So, I find this climate extremely unmooring. And challenging.

Jill Lepore: Well, I would say two things about that. First, I would say, I have a lot of students who go into journalism. And do incredible work. And I have huge respect for reporters, including reporters who are risking their lives to get at the truth. And I think--I work for a national news organization, for which I have huge respect. So, we can share a lot of cynicism about what's going on with mass media at the moment. And a lot of things are off the guardrails. But not everything is off the guardrails. And, it's, like it's important--it's like when people bash public schoolteachers. It's like, you know what, they don't like the best people in the world. Like, let's think about good people doing this work, how hard it is to do; it's hard to make a living at it; there are not a lot of jobs. It's vital to our democracy. So, I think it's important to sort of celebrate all that is good in that world. Secondly, though, I think, it is a problem that we all feel just as unmoored as you do. Because, for young people in particular, I don't think they enter adulthood from a place where they once knew how to found something out and know if it was true; and now they don't, which is how most of us, I think, feel, my generation feels. They enter adulthood having never really known. And what they are often taught--like, my students come to class, when you ask them to look at a piece of evidence, what the tool, the one tool they have, I mean I think of it as they want to play the game, 'Spot the bias.' Like, they are very good at doing that. You can give them a document and they can tell you how worthless it is. But it's really hard for them to figure out what its worth is. Like, all right: We're grownups. Like, post-modernism happened. Like, we understand all knowledge is situated, everything is socially constructed. Like: Fine. But now we still have to find out how to know, like, should I fry beans today, or do I only have peas at home? Like, you--there are still things to know and to make decisions about. And so, what are our rules of evidence? What are the standards in which we engage in argument? How do we make sure that we are engaging in argument fairly based on what we know, and what our opponent has presented? And how can we check? Like, it's a sort of a weird--it's a weird moment. It's like people kind of throw up their hands if there are no tools, when all of human civilization has been about the acquisition and refinement of tools for knowing why things are the way they are in the world. So, so that people can lead lives and make good decisions. So, I--there, too--I'm not faking optimism here. I do actually think that, it actually requires a kind of commitment around--all right, here are some things that are not working for us: Social media doesn't work. And it doesn't help you arrive at the truth. But, it's not that we haven't been in this situation before. I often think of, and I tell the story, in These Truths, the story of the Scopes Trial in 1925--John Scopes, a biology teacher in Tennessee. And he's sort of put up by the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] to attest[?] to this new law in Tennessee that bans the teaching of Darwinism. And, it becomes, basically, a celebrity, a show trial. Because William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist, comes down to prosecute him on behalf of the state of Tennessee, and the great defense attorney Clarence Darrow comes down to defend John Scopes; and they have this big show trial in this town, this little town of Dayton, Tennessee. But there's this great essay written about the Scopes trial by Walter Lippman that's just--incredible journalist. And, Lippman imagines that, 'Oh, Bryan is dead. And Bryan and Thomas Jefferson are having an argument in front of Socrates in the afterlife.' And it's just a hilarious essay. But the essay is sort of about, you know, Jefferson saying, like, 'I believe in religious freedom. And I also believe in the rule of the majority.' And Bryan saying, 'Well, the majority--that is, the democratically-elected legislature of Tennessee--decided that Darwinism is wrong. It is an error. And so therefore it cannot be taught.' And so, it would be--it's a violation of majority rule. And, Jefferson [?] say, 'But it's a matter of religious freedom, intellectual freedom if you wish to be able to evaluate Darwinism.' And they kind of come to a very terrifying impasse where Lippman is trying to point out that we have erected a system of knowledge and of politics, of government, in which the majority can decide what's true. And that was 100 years ago. That's before the Internet and social media. Right? Because now we really do have that system. We didn't quite have it then. Like, there is still a kind of battle of fact and error that goes on in the 1920s, but we do have that world now, where, if it rises to the top of your Google search, it's knowledge. Suddenly. And it is a kind of endgame version of direct democracy. But it's at an intersection with a kind of system of rule, or in this case, algorithmic rule, with a system of knowledge; and they don't really--they don't really intersect very well. I mean, in that piece, the New Yorker piece, after the fact that you mention, I quote Larry Page, founder of Google, saying, yeah, that 'eventually we'll have implants in our head, whereas if we just want to know a fact we'll just have to think of it and we'll be told it.' And I was like, 'I don't know what you mean by we, Larry, because like, I'm not getting that implant.' Like, we [?] you were really close to there. And it's terrible. Because nobody knows anything.


Russ Roberts: Well, I want to defend social media for a second. Which is: I've spent a lot of time on here complaining about it at various times, but I have to confess that for all the negativity that I see on Twitter, it's a source of tremendous intellectual exploration for me--because of the people I've chosen to follow, and their creativity, and their reading, and what they find and uncover and unearth for me to explore and send me to. And, yes, there are some really unpleasant people. I've decided I'm going to block them. I feel horrible doing it: it's just so unnatural to me to block somebody who, I fear I might be blocking because I disagree with. And it turns out, I'm blocking them because they are nice, at all, and not nice to me, and make me feel bad; and I don't really have to read what they write. It's a choice. So, it's very liberating; and I've got a better feeling about--I've only blocked, like, two people. But it's somehow, it's very empowering and liberating. I think the fear--so, I'm not so--like you, I'm not so keen on an implant. I don't like having Alexa in my house who might be listening in. And, so, that whole thing creeps me out a little bit; and I think reasonably so. But what worries me is the silo-ing of people into groups that only consume what makes them feel good about themselves--who consume narratives and--so I think we're really good at figuring out things about whether our car is going to be a good car for us, or this restaurant is a good choice for me, or this movie, or the books that Amazon recommends for me. Those have gotten a lot--that part of my life has gotten so much better than 25, 30 years ago. Music, for sure, with Spotify. It's glorious. It's the political part, the philosophical part, the ideological part that makes me nervous. Because, it's hard to know the truth about these things, anyway. They are all complex. And so people just--they [?] the narratives that make them feel good. Which is a human impulse. And it's cheap. It doesn't cost them a lot to be wrong. We can hold beliefs that are wrong and thrive. So, that's what makes me uneasy: the ability to manipulate that implant, the ability to feed people stuff that makes them angry--that sees the other side as not just wrong but evil. That's what I worry about.

Jill Lepore: Yeah. I mean, I guess my--I don't have anything redemptive to say about social media. But, I--what I do recognize, and warn, is the exchanges that it replaces. Because, just to kind of circle around to where we began, because we are coming to the close here: Belonging really matters. And, belonging online is illusory. Belonging is something that we as mammals experience in physical proximity to one another. And there are other--you know, phone calls make a difference, and FaceTime with your granddaughter makes a difference. Like, there are plenty of incredibly fascinating and powerful, technological devices that bring people together with one another. So I don't mean to suggest that the only meaningful human contact is in a room together. But, one of the things I took stock of a few years ago was the history of public opinion poll, and which I actually write a lot about in these [?] because I had written a long essay for The New Yorker about it. And, really interesting to me was: One of the things, when campaigns started relying on, in-house pollsters, and elected officials relying on in house--pollsters, the political machine as it had been previously constructed--which had plenty of problems with it--attenuated significantly. And, we are in a much more attenuated version of that. Because, you know, pollsters used to go door to door, and knock. Gallup's pollsters in the 1930s, when modern polling started, had manumit[?] conversations with people. Then, when enough people got telephones, they started making phone calls. Well, you know, not enough people have landlines any more, so that kind of polling has fallen by the wayside. But now, actually, you don't have to ask anybody anything. You can just find out what they believe through the acquisition of their search history and whatever other forms of data that you can collect and pay for. But, even before the door-to-door polling, how campaigns knew how a neighborhood was going was their neighborhood workers. Precinct workers. Neighborhood by neighbor who, who would kind of go door to door. They would kind of go to the bar. They would go to the PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] meeting. Go to the playground. They would just kind of canvas the neighborhood, you know, in teams or one-on-one, and spend endless hours talking to people. So, that kind of chit-chat of the campaign worker was replaced by the pollster just going to a statistically representative sample of the population, which was replaced by the polling telephone company making a few phone calls of statistically[?] and is now, doesn't exist any more at all. But think about this glue--the incredible social and political glue, that going back to the start, all those workers going around to the playground and talking to you at the school bus stop[?], or going to the grocery store and standing outside and asking voters questions. Those conversations, that's what holds a political community together, right? It's those, in those endless hours. It's like the man-on-the-street interviewing that kind of, you know, a certain kind of newspaper used to do all the time. To just get the read of how--they'd send out a lot of people to just talk to people on the street. And like kind of Kermit the Frog in his trench coat and microphone on Sesame Street. Like, that was a thing that people did. That, that kind of political conversation was like, 'What do you think about that?' We don't do that, because everybody's Tweeting, and the data is just gathered by campaigns. That's a piece of a kind of observation about political change that, I don't know, I find very striking. Because that's a lot of hours of face-to-face political conversation lost. And what's replaced it--you know, as you say, can often be very edifying. Either there can be a lot to learn from it. But, it's not the same thing.


More EconTalk Episodes