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October 29, 2021
With Friends Like These
Adam Serwer: What Texas Can Teach Us

In This Episode

Writer for the Atlantic and Author of the book The Cruelty is the point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America, Adam Serwer, joins the show to talk about Texas’ politics, the misconceptions about the state and how to create a better America using Texas as our teacher.







Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. This week I am talking with friend of the Pod Adam Server. He’s a writer for The Atlantic and coined the phrase “The cruelty is the point.” He’s also the author of the book “The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America.” If, like me, you find yourself using that phrase a lot, you’ll want to hear his thoughts on what he thinks that means, and the kind of thing he thinks it truly describes. But we spend most of the show talking about Texas. Adam is not from here, but he currently lives in San Antonio, and he’s written a bunch about what’s going on in our state. The reason I wanted to talk to him is that I think, and I know he agrees, that what’s happening in Texas provides some important lessons for the rest of the country. So a conversation about Texas that’s really about everyone with Adam Serwer, coming right up.


Ana Marie Cox: Adam, welcome back to the show.


Adam Serwer: Thank you so much for having me.


Ana Marie Cox: So you’re a fellow Texan. You live in San Antonio, just up the way from me here in Austin. I understand Austin’s grown so much some people think of San Antonio as like a bedroom community of Austin.


Adam Serwer: That’s so weird to make of the vibes are very different.


Ana Marie Cox: I agree. [laughs] I entirely agree.


Adam Serwer: Like to me, and I don’t mean this as an insult, Austin feels something like a mash up of like Nashville and San Francisco. I don’t know if that makes any sense.


Ana Marie Cox: I not going to call that insult but interesting. Go ahead.


Adam Serwer: It’s not an insult. There’s like this music culture aspect, but there’s also like this tech culture aspect, and those two things are sort of mashed up together. And there’s like a kind of a southern flavor to it, but also kind of like a West Coast like, you know, thing.


Ana Marie Cox: All right. All right. Tell me about San Antonio.


Adam Serwer: I mean, San Antonio is, I mean, it’s an interesting city because I mean, it’s one of the oldest cities in Texas. It is a majority Mexican-American city. It Is also a very military city, you know, substantial military population. And you know, I think it has a it has a, you know, like a lot of other cities in America, it has like a kind of progressive counterculture aspect to it. But it’s also not, I would not describe it, I mean, it’s obviously it’s a Democratic city, but I would not describe it as a liberal city in the way that Austin is a liberal city, if that makes any sense. That you know, it’s a different flavor of liberalism than Austin, I would say.


Ana Marie Cox: It’s had some pretty progressive mayors, though.


Adam Serwer: Yes. Our current mayor is kind of a funny guy. He’s like a very norm-y type, but he’s also like a weightlifter. So it’s like, there’s like an article in the paper here a couple of years ago where it was like it was some, it was something that was like, you know: Ron Nuremberg is pumped to be running. And there’s like a picture of like putting up a couple of plates. It was very funny. But he’s like, we have like nonpartisan elections, but he’s somebody, but he’s like, obviously like the liberal candidate and he’d beat like the police unions guy, like, you know, last year, which was, you know, I think it was not necessarily a foregone conclusion given the trends around the country.


Ana Marie Cox: I would only add to your Austin mash up, Madison, or another college town. I mean, that’s maybe just my perspective because I was a faculty brat here, but the university, it’s one of the largest state schools in the country, if not the largest. So like, it exerts an incredible amount of influence on the culture here. And of course, there’s just a bunch of weirdos, that’s also the San Francisco element. And I’m actually glad we started off this way because I want to talk about Texas. And one of the reasons I want to talk about it is I feel like it’s a bit misunderstood. And in, specifically, people do paint it with a broad brush, and forget that even the cities here have differences between them. And yet, since it is, almost it’s diversity actually is what makes it a snapshot of the country as a whole, in many ways. And other people have made this argument, and I just want to drill down deep on it with you, which is that Texas has some lessons for the rest of the country as far as the future of politics goes. You’ve made that argument as well.


Adam Serwer: Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think, you know, even if you look at what’s happening right now, I mean, Texas has this reputation as this, as this kind of place, you know, a sort of cowboy state. And the truth is, a lot of people come here to play cowboy. I mean, one of them, obviously was George Bush. His family is, you know, aristocratic blue bloods from Connecticut and Maine. But then, you know, guys like Dan Patrick, who, you know, is like, famous for running off at the mouth on Fox News and stuff like that, you know, he’s originally from Maryland. And you know there is, a part of the lesson there is that the way that Texas is organized and the Texas Legislature is working on this right now is they, the Republicans have been very effective in gerrymandering the state in order to ensure that, you know, Republicans and particularly conservatives are overrepresented in the government so that, you know, in part accounts for, you know, why every time you know, Texas keeps finding like 50 different ways to ban abortion every year instead of dealing with the state’s actual problems. That’s not to say that Texas is not a conservative state, but it is a state of tens of millions of people. So there you know, there are more Democrats here than in like, you know, any.,Just about any five states you can put together. So there’s you know that the Texas’s reputation among liberals and it’s sort of, you know, I think this is largely an East Coast thing, you know, I feel like, it’s, you hear less from liberals on the West Coast or the Midwest, but they’re, you know, the, you know, blue Texas is erased by the reputation of Red Texas, which both the state leadership and Republicans outside of the state have an interest in overstating. And Texas, you know, is still a red state, it still a conservative state, but it’s gotten like 10, 15 points bluer over the past 20 years. In keeping with trends that, you know, our president in the United States, in the rest United States, but also in some cases in the rest of the Western world.


Ana Marie Cox: And we talked about this a little bit, and I suspect you’ve had the same experience that I have, which is since moving here, I have had friends expressed condolences to me about living in Texas, or be kind of outright snide about it, like judgmental.


Adam Serwer: Yeah, I mean, look, there’s, sometimes, you know, I’ll invite people to visit, you know, because housing is more affordable than Texas and we have, you know, space to have, you know?


Ana Marie Cox: Well, not in Austin, but OK. Yes..


Adam Serwer: But in San Antonio, it’s still the case even though San Antonio has had some trouble, too, particularly when it comes to low income housing for the same reasons everybody else has, which is that people don’t want to build more housing. It’s extremely frustrating. But you know, when I invite people, a lot of people are just like, why would I ever go to Texas? And it’s like, because there’s a lot—I mean, it’s pretty, it’s politics aside, and there is a lot more to life than politics, there’s a lot to like about the state in terms of its culture, music, food, people, you know, everything is not, everything about a state is not summed up by the color it turns on a on a map on election night when someone running for president. Ironically, you know, this is like Barack Obama’s point in 2004, that like rocketed him to the Democratic nomination, which is, you know, the blue states and red states is a reductive shorthand for describing the politics of the country, and it still is to this day, but because conservatives elevate this particular aspect of Texas’s culture, it becomes a kind of bait where liberals, where some liberals, look at the state and that’s what they see is the conservative caricature, which you know, really does not reflect the diversity of culture and people in the state.


Ana Marie Cox: And I think this is one of the biggest lessons I hope people take away from our conversation, although I like I said, I want to drill down to some specifics, which is that when you make these assumptions about Texas, you’re actually playing into conservatives hands. You are elevating this image that perpetuates Texas’s conservative state. And the other thing you’re doing, and this is a way that Texas’s is representative of the whole country, is you’re doing the same thing that the rest of the world does about America a lot of the times, right? Like because I have traveled abroad and had a similar reaction when I said I’m from the U.S., like, not everyone gets that. And some people are a little more polite about it. But it’s the same pattern, right?


Adam Serwer: Yeah. I mean, look, and you look at how you know what’s happening down here, which is that, you know, Greg Abbott is governing to the right because he has a pair of primary challengers and he does not want to lose the, you know, he does not want to have either Fox News or Donald Trump coming after him. He doesn’t want to lose their good graces. So he’s governing to the right of where the state actually wants him to govern, even though it is a conservative state. And then you look at the, because he thinks that if he wins this primary, then you know, the rest of the general election will be easy because Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since, like Star Trek, The Next generation was one. So he yeah, it’s been a long time. And so, you know, and then you look at the state legislature, which despite some gains, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley with Latino voters, is like drawing an extremely effective racial gerrymander of the state in which they’re deliberately diminishing the power of black and Latino voters in Texas to make sure that Republicans can be elected, regardless of how the public feels about how they govern. This is happening in other parts of the country as well, but it’s important to look at Texas because it is such a populous state, because it has so many big cities. You could see, you know, Texas has long been a kind of on the vanguard of figuring out ways to make politicians unaccountable to the citizens they represent. So this you know what they’re doing in the state legislature now, you know, not just with the voting law that they passed a while ago, but with the drawing of the legislative districts is fundamentally an attempt in insulating Republican politicians from any backlash they might incur from, you know, governing in a way that most people in Texas don’t actually want them to govern. And then there is a there is the sort of cycle effect of that, which is that liberals look at the way Texas is is governed and look at Republicans getting elected over and over again and just assume, Oh, well, people in Texas must love that, when that’s not actually, you know, that’s an obvious oversimplification.


Ana Marie Cox: I would encourage people to look at some of the maps that have been drawn because they are objectively hilarious. There is one that is shaped like a donut, like literally, there is a district inside another district in order to dilute the people of color’s the vote in that area. And there is, there are districts that are like, you know, basically a mile wide and an inch deep as it were like, they’re incredibly thin. There’s a few sort of shaped like a dumbbell, I would say, you know, like really thin on the interior and then capturing the suburbs on the exterior. My understanding is that these are going to face some challenges in court.


Adam Serwer: They are. But you know, there are six conservative appointees on the court, and the Conservatives are basically said, actually, it’s more racist if you notice that they’re discriminating against persons of color.


Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] That’s right. That’s right.


Adam Serwer: It’s actually more racist to the do that. It’s not racist if you deliberately try to disenfranchise voters of color. And you know, what’s weird, and I want to be careful about this because the fact that Republicans are so committed to not being accountable to black and Latino voters does not mean that they cannot win those voters over. I mean, I think if you look at Trump’s gains in the Rio Grande Valley, you know, what Democrats in the state have told me is that there’s a couple of reasons for it. One is that, you know, in a lot of these places, Hispanic voters are very culturally conservative. You know, in some of these counties, you know, other authority figures are Hispanic, all the cops, the judges, you know, so the kind of multiracial alliances you see against like discrimination in law enforcement in cities, those don’t, that kind of rhetoric doesn’t have the same salience, doesn’t have kind of the same meaning in a county that is like 90% Hispanic. The other thing that is said to me is that, you know, when you look at extraction industries, you know, oil industry stuff like that or you look at, you know, border agencies employ a lot of people in these counties along the border. And so there’s like, it’s not just, there is an economic interest in supporting the party that is going to support the fossil fuel industry and is going to support uncritically, you know, border security agencies. You know, when Biden said during the last debate, you know, we’re going to have to wean ourselves off of oil, you know, that may be like a realistic assessment, obviously, if we don’t want to cook the entire planet, but people who work in the oil industry, you know, and are worried about their jobs are going to take exception to that. And that’s just, you know, this is the way that it works. So, you know, I think it’s one thing to say and observe that Republicans are discriminating against, you know, Black and Latino voters in Texas. It does not necessarily mean that by virtue of them doing that, that Democrats are automatically going to win their votes. And I see that assumption a lot, and I think it has a terrible effect because it mobilizes, you know, the party from attempting to persuade those voters or give them reasons for voting for the Democratic Party because they think the Republican Party’s racism or acts of discrimination are going to do that work for them. And that’s, you know, we should know by now that that is not the case after Donald Trump won in 2016 and almost won in 2020.


Ana Marie Cox: I’m just going to go down our list so far, which is gerrymandering, Texas is leading the country as it were, and then also I think that Texas has these lessons for Democratic politicians about making assumptions about how we were going to get those voters. Like, you can see the racism and everyone can see the racism, but you still can’t, you still going to have to win the votes. And I just wanted to point out that we were talking about how progressive the cities are and they are very progressive, but I was just reading an interview with Sylvester Turner, who’s the mayor of Houston, very progressive in many ways, but he’s super friendly with oil and gas. You know, I think Shell underwrote one of their climate change, you know, platforms. So you have to do what you have to do, I think. I’m not going to criticize him for that.


Adam Serwer: You know, it’s Texas, there’s a lot of people employed by the energy industry. There’s a lot of politicians who get contributions in the energy industry or rely on the energy industry for jobs. They don’t want their constituents to be unemployed. You know, there’s you know, there’s a lot of rational reasons why the politics of the state are the way they are that are not just simple, like, you know, I’m a cowboy bang bang.


Ana Marie Cox: The other thing I want to point out about the assumptions about how you win voters, I think it’s basically intersectionality, which is looking not just at race, right, also at employment and also at class. And there are tons of demographic studies that looked at Trump voters and found that they might be rural, but they also tended to make more money than other voters. And I think that’s also true in the Rio Grande Valley, that what I’ve seen as far as studying that voting pattern is that it’s the immigrants who have been here for a while, have established themselves economically, have established themselves culturally and socially—those are the ones that are gettable for the Republican Party.


Adam Serwer: Yeah, I mean, look, and you know, there are, I think there are things that people, you know, it’s, you know, obviously a lot of the rhetoric around illegal immigration in the United States has historically focused on Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants but, you know, in South Texas, there are families who have lived there since before Texas was Texas, you know, so they’re not necessarily going to see themselves the same way as like the son of a second generation immigrant family is going to see themselves. They’re not necessarily going to look at immigrants the way people outside of the state who think, oh, you know, if Trump says something racist on immigrants, you’re going to be offended by that because you’re Mexican-American. There are a lot of assumptions about people’s politics on a basis of cultural backgrounds that they don’t necessarily understand or are more complex than they think. And again, this goes back to, you know, this issue of like just assuming that Republicans being atrocious is going to do the work for you. It’s just not. And I think that’s, that’s something that sounds simple and I think, you know, nobody would disagree with that in the abstract. But I think if you look at sort of the way things have unfolded, in practice, people do expect that to do a lot of work.


Ana Marie Cox: Speaking of Republicans being atrocious, should we talk about SB8, the tattletale abortion law that’s gotten so much attention? You’ve written about that from a legal point of view and what it means for how anti-choice forced-birth laws might make their way through courts.


Adam Serwer: The law is designed in such a way as to evade judicial review. So the point of the law is to nullify a constitutional right in such a way that the courts can’t do anything about it. And if you think about it, it’s one of the most cynical things you could possibly think of, which is, you know, the Texas Legislature passed a law that they are now claiming that because they have an outsourced enforcement to private citizens that, you know, the Constitution doesn’t matter anymore. Now I realize that it’s impossible for these people to think about, you know, and to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, but it’s a ridiculous concept. It’s a ridiculous concept, because then you can just nullify every amendment to the Constitution, one by one, every constitutional right everybody ever had, in theory. Now, obviously, it doesn’t work like that in practice.


Ana Marie Cox: Theoretically, it would make lynching legal.


Adam Serwer: Right. And to be honest, I mean, there was a period in American history where that was, you know, the courts accepted that kind of argument.


Ana Marie Cox: It was legal. Yes. Yep.


Adam Serwer: Right. When you look at the, you know, the Cruickshank case, you know, the judge was just saying this doesn’t violate the Fourteenth Amendment because, you know, the lynching was by a private person and not a government. You know, so this sort of, you know, post-reconstructionist, like redemption philosophy, you know, it’s the kind of legal philosophy you can only adopt if you are, you think of yourself as being in a demographic majority that will never be subject to this kind of power. You know, it does, in practice, you know, I’ve heard people like, well, the Supreme Court wouldn’t accept this if you did this with gun rights in a blue state. And I don’t actually agree with that because it would be so much easier to drum up a challenge. Like right now, the designers of this law are trying to persuade people not to sue anybody because they want the law to remain on their books. They don’t want anybody to get standing, which would, you know, circumvent the procedural rationale that the Supreme Court, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court, is used to avoid ruling on the issue thus far.


Ana Marie Cox: And some of the suits that have been filed, the private citizen suits that are tattletale informant document, what to call them, are from nutters, you know? And they show up how, this, the flaws of this law.


Adam Serwer: So I mean, like so it just sort of just like, I feel like I jumped in talking about it before defining what it was, but you know, the law says you can get $10,000 if you could prove that somebody facilitated an abortion after six weeks, which is before most women know they’re pregnant. And when other people have tried to take advantage of the bounty here, the people who, the supporters of the law had urged courts against litigating this stuff but if you, if you were in New York and you said you can sue anybody who has a handgun, you would basically have like NRA members around the block being like, OK, sue me, because they know that if the case gets to the court, you know it’s going to be six votes, this is this law is unconstitutional. They’re not worried about, they’re not worried about the same things that you would be worried about in challenging this law as an abortion provider, because you know that there are six justices on the court that are hostile to Roe and want to chip away at it. And that doesn’t mean that the Texas law is going to survive. It doesn’t mean that, you know, they won’t uphold other restrictions, necessarily, but it does mean that this framework where they just nullify this particular constitutional right is only available because there are six justices on the Supreme Court who have made more or less clear that they don’t think that women should have a constitutional right to decide whether or not to end a pregnancy.


Ana Marie Cox: And I think that lesson, I think that there are two lessons for the rest of the country in this instance. One is this type of law and this strategy that may be employed elsewhere. And then two—which is something I feel like a lot of us know intuitively, but you’ve been great at articulating explicitly—the court system is no longer following the logic of constitutionality. It is partisan. Pure and simple partisan.


Adam Serwer: So I don’t think it’s simply partisan. I think it’s highly ideological. I think it’s, I think it’s highly ideological. So look, you know, I mean, you look at the post-Reconstruction court, those guys, some of them were union veterans. They were most of them were Republicans. You know what I mean? But when the country turned against the Reconstruction amendments, when it turn against racial equality, those justices had this philosophy of liberty that simply did not include the government defending the rights of Black people and Black men in particular in terms of, you know, the right to vote. And this court, I don’t think like literally they’re sitting there thinking, well, what, what is the Republican Party want. What is good for Republican Party?


Ana Marie Cox: Right. Partisan was the incorrect term.


Adam Serwer: But to the extent that they are, they are engaging in motivated reasoning based on their ideological priors. I think that is 100% clear. I think if you look at, you know, I think there is one set of rules for the things that they like and another set of rules for the things that they don’t. And you can see that in their jurisprudence and, you know, the sympathetic hearing they give to certain arguments and not others, the deference they give to certain presidents and not others. And you can see this simply in like the quantitative research on the court and how they decide certain cases, which cases they accept, which case they decide by shadow docket. You know, which clients, which plaintiffs they give the benefit of the doubt. I mean, it is just like a statistical reality. And the other thing is that the conservative movement has worked for decades, you know, at least since Nixon to, you know, since, you know, and really before that, since the Warren Court to turn this court right. They have spent billions of dollars over generations, over decades, to put these people on the court. And the people who are currently on the court are on the court because they worked extremely hard to put them, to make themselves, make it clear that they were ideologically sympathetic to the conservative legal movement and met the credentials for being both ideological and scholarly to be appointed to the court. They pursued their lifetimes with this ambition to be elevated to this institution. And now they’re all telling us, no, actually, we didn’t, we don’t care about this kind of stuff, we’re completely impart—it is such an atrocious obvious lie. And the reason why they’re engaging in it is because they don’t want anybody to question why they’re doing what they’re doing and whether they’re doing the right thing. They want everybody to assume that their every decision, regardless of whether it contradicts their own, you know, arguments, their own descriptions of the law, their own standards of behavior—they just don’t want anybody to criticize them for pursuing the ideological agenda that they have worked for generations and decades to put themselves in a position to pursue.


Ana Marie Cox: We’ll continue our discussion of the lessons that Texas has for the rest of the country, after these messages.


[ad break]


Ana Marie Cox: All right. We’re back with more talk about Texas. We were just speaking about the ideological turn of the court, which has been in progress for decades. And again, I think something that’s been acknowledged in all kinds of ways, explicitly when it comes to the Supreme Court and in presidential elections, but I do think that a lot of progressive still hold on to an idea that there is some, there is a value in thinking of the court as somehow—I don’t want to say nonpartisan, non-ideological—but it has in the past helped the goals of progressives, and it does not anymore. It seems unlikely at the very top to change any time soon. How should this change the way that progressives think about their tactics, or think about their electoral strategies?


Adam Serwer: They need to think about the court the way the conservatives think about the court, which is, you know, a battlefield of politics. I mean, there’s sort of an irony here, which is that because the legal world, the legal world has so many liberals in it, they are very much invested in the prestige of the court. And that is true of writers. It is true of elite litigators. Look, if you have to go before the court, you know, and argue cases for clients, it doesn’t make sense for you to talk about what a bunch of hacks they are. You know what I mean? If you want to send, you know, if you want to be a law clerk, you know, if you want to send your students, you know, to be law clerks to the co—you know, there’s just, if you are a reporter who covers the Supreme Court, you are in some ways invested in the credibility of the institution. And a big constituency of the Democratic Party is lawyers. It’s elite lawyers, and those elite lawyers are invested in the prestige of the court. And because of that, they have continued within the party to uphold the court’s legitimacy as an institution and blunted the critique from other segments of the party, you know, regarding the court’s partisan lean, I mean, you could see all these Op-Eds from people who are left wing in almost any other regard who are like “actually the court was pretty moderate this year”—no, it wasn’t. Bu if you’re an elite legal, you know, an elite lawyer, you have every institutional reason to make that argument and to downplay the radicalism that we’re seeing. And the truth is that historically there’s a very unrealistic, liberals have very unrealistic understanding of the court that has been shaped by pop culture depictions that center the Warren Court and decisions like Brown v. Board. There was a short period in American history where the court was progressive. For the most of, for most of American history, it has not been. It has been a graveyard of constitutional rights for people without power, rather than a defender them. The Supreme Court has consistently sided with the most influential and powerful elements of American society, in its history. I don’t mean this, you know, just this court. I mean, historically, in the long term. The Warren Court was an exception, and it was such an exception that it created this massive backlash that brought us, that gave us the court, that the Supreme Court and the conservative legal movement used to shape the court to its liking today. And it’s partially because they were, saw themselves as outcasts in this elite legal community, even though they are themselves an elite legal community, that they were able to motivate their base against, you know, to make the court such a prominent part of their political pitch to their supporters and voters. And despite Bush v. Gore, despite all these other things, you know, Democrats have, you know, for a lot of structural reasons, been unable to do the same with their own voters.


Ana Marie Cox: I think—you might be shocked to hear this—there might be a way that whiteness, that whiteness plays a part here, as related to structural reasons as well, which is that I think—and I’ll include myself as having this is a blind spot for years—which is that it’s almost a nostalgia for the kind of court that the Warren Court was and a belief that’s easy for white people to have that it’s the court that made the difference, that it’s the court that created civil rights in this country. Right? And not the millions of people of color who pushed for it, you know, over decades. I think that we tend to privilege the idea that like, oh, you know, there is all this activism and then the court made a decision and that’s what turned the tables.


Adam Serwer: I think there’s a way in which John Roberts has been a very effective manager of the court’s reputation. And one of the ways he’s done that is, you know, you can have decisions like Obergefell, you know you can have decisions like the recent one where Neil Gorsuch defended the right of trans people to be protected by civil rights, anti-discrimination law and these more liberal decisions on particular issues make it look like the court is more liberal than it actually is. So, you know, just to look at, you know, when the court is striking down bans on same sex marriage, it’s also gutting the Voting Rights Act. It’s also saying, you know, racial gerrymandering is fine as long as you’re doing it for partisan reasons, which basically, you know, pretty much nullifies any prohibition on racist gerrymandering. I mean, the court has, you know, Roberts has done a very good job of making the court seem not as conservative as it is by mixing some of these important decisions, these crucial decisions that expand rights for people who are being denied them in the country, while limiting them for lots of other people who you know, I think are not, do not necessarily, those stories don’t necessarily penetrate as deeply precisely because the court is occasionally doing these other things.


Ana Marie Cox: And I think that another way to look at it, I think, I’m just restating what you said is that Roberts has been careful to make the court look like it’s above the culture wars, but it plays very deeply in the structural inequality, in maintaining the structural inequality, which is, you know what the culture wars are really about anyway. The culture wars, you know, happen in order to perpetuate the structure, right? But a lot of smart politicians know you can kind of play around with that culture war level and make it look however you want it to look to your advantage, but as long as you’re controlling the gerrymandering, as long as you’re protecting cops, as long as you’re, you know, doing the kinds of more deep structural things that this court has done, you’re not going to look as bad.


Adam Serwer: I mean, to my mind, the worst thing the court has done because it’s so difficult to unravel is this, is the court’s assault on democracy, of which John Roberts has been, you know, the primary leader when you’re talking about the things that they have done to make it possible for politicians to shape the electorate to their liking so they no longer have to be responsible to citizens, that is a, you know, that short circuits the feedback loop that’s necessary for democracy to function properly. And Roberts has been at the forefront of that, and he has held these beliefs that efforts to rectify discrimination are more harmful than discrimination itself since he was a lawyer in the Justice Department in the 1980s in the Reagan Justice Department. Like you can, you can see memos where Congress was trying to expand Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to say, you know, if a law has the purpose or effect of diminishing the rights of Black people to vote, then you know, then it violates the act. And he’d say, and he was saying, you know, well, why is it just the effect? And the obvious answer is that if you simply are good at hiding the discrimination, then you can get away with it. And that’s just something that the people are, the conservatives on the court simply do not care about. If you simply do not—and that you saw this again in Roberts’s ruling on the Muslim ban—as long as you simply don’t see the naughty words, the racism doesn’t count, even though, even if it has the exact effect that it would have if you were consciously discriminating, it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter to Roberts as long as you don’t say the magic naughty racism words. And to me, this is, you know, this is the most dangerous thing the court has done. And the one that I think has been most obscured by Roberts’s careful management of the court’s reputation, and these occasional big cases that have gone the liberals’ way. Now the thing that’s interesting or that’s dangerous about this particular moment is they don’t need to placate Roberts anymore. Roberts is always the one, despite the fact that he’s very conservative, he’s always been the one who’s pumping the brakes, saying, you know, let’s do this a little bit now, a little bit later, a little bit later, a little bit later. He had tried not to say—let’s not show all our cards at this particular moment, because then it might cause a backlash. But now they don’t need his vote any because Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was replaced by Amy Coney Barrett. So they’re not, they’re no longer interested in placating Roberts, which is why you see things like this Texas law where it obviously violates a constitutional right, and the conservatives are not on the court through up their hands and say, well, gee, you know, we don’t, we don’t know what to do with this. I mean, they know exactly what to do. They just don’t feel like doing it.


Ana Marie Cox: That law is so pernicious. I feel like, I’ll just explain a little bit more why it works even without the challenges that are supposedly the enforcement mechanism, which is that you can’t take that risk as an abortion provider. That the possibility that you’ll have to, you know, respond to suits, that you’ll be, you know, in litigation forever is what is taking people out of the, you know, business of providing reproductive services.


Adam Serwer: Right. I mean, everybody, you know, everybody understands litigation risk, right? Like if you’re going to get sued, you’re not going to do it.


Ana Marie Cox: So one last thing before we have to wrap up, which is Texas leading the nation in the failure of public services. And you know, we got a really dramatic example of that during the big freeze. I know you were affected by it. I mean, who wasn’t?


Adam Serwer: Everybody in the state was affected by it. Did you see those TikToks? There were people who were doing things, like their hot tub was frozen solid. They’d like walk outside and be like knocking. You know, it was crazy. I mean, like and Texas, it is just like the vegetation in Texas, the homes in Texas, like nothing in Texas, is built for a freeze of that magnitude. And yet when that it happened 10 years earlier and the Legislature just did nothing about it because, you know, there were abortion bans to pass.


Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, it killed a tree in my yard and also killed some cactuses—actually killed a ton of cactuses in my neighborhood. It’s very sad. Like, these are the hardiest plants in existence, you know, and they’re just like, and also, they started to smell really bad. And this is an example of a few different things. I think the first thing you just referenced, which is that Republicans are governing in order to get positive coverage from Fox News and not to serve their constituents, right? Because it doesn’t make sense from, if you think of democracy in a logical fashion, you would want to provide public services to your constituents, right? Like that makes sense. But in Texas, that’s not how they think about it.


Adam Serwer: How Fox News covers you determines how the Republican primary electorate perceives you, and the outcome of the Republican primary determines whether you stay in office, then you are now governing for like 25% of the population. And you are governing for that 25% of the population that bases its opinions entirely on, you know what Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have to say. And that’s just, you know, that is a really distorted way to manage a state because, you know, you end up with situations like Greg Abbott not simply not doing a vaccine mandate, but trying to prevent, you know, San Antonio from, you know, compelling its public employees to get vaccinated, which is absurd because, you know, we don’t have an option about whether or not to interact with a public employee. If you have to go to school or if you, you know, if you’re pulled over by a police officer, you know, I don’t have a, you don’t have the option of whether or not to interact with this person. And if they’re a public safety person, it’s actually it is so absurd to think that, you know, they can refuse to be vaccinated and therefore endanger every person that you know, they come into contact with. But that’s just, you know, that is, that’s the very strange dynamic that exists here in the state right now. And it’s extraordinarily frustrating. And what you saw in the aftermath was that obviously, you know, Texans were very angry about the freeze because, you know, none of our homes are built for this. You know, I had pipes burst, you know, like people’s entire, some people’s homes burned down because, you know, the fire department couldn’t get water out of fire hydrants because they were frozen and immediately they were like—


Ana Marie Cox: Or couldn’t get there. I mean, we were in Austin, you were, there was a citywide order to stay off the streets because people don’t know how to drive in this shit.


Adam Serwer: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: And they don’t have the services to clear the roads and so they were having trouble getting emergency vehicles, any emergency vehicle to any location. Not just fire trucks.


Adam Serwer: And then, you know, what did they do? They went on Fox News and we’re like, it’s all the solar power. It’s like, yeah, you know, because Democrats who haven’t won statewide office in 30 years, they forced you to rely on solar power, which, you know, it was a lie. Like the natural gas pipes were frozen. It wasn’t, but this was, their instinct was to turn it into a culture war issue. So instead of you thinking, man, these guys who have been running the state for the last, you know, 20 years or whatever, didn’t do anything to protect me or to make sure that the energy companies could keep providing power in the event of a freak storm. Instead, they were like, oh, the libs did this to you because, you know, they made us use solar power, which is, you know, completely now what happened. And then, like the Legislature came back and they were like, yeah, you know, energy companies, you can go ahead and like, make sure that you insulate your energy providers from extreme winter weather, you know, when you get around to it, just, you know, on your own time.


Ana Marie Cox: Well, I’m going to say this way again, like this is this is creeping across the country, in part because of this rhetoric. And also, I wanted to point out when you say, if you’re governing to get good coverage on Fox News, you’re governing for the 25% of your constituents that pay attention to Fox News, that 25% is also the 25% that might not be that affected by the failure of public services. Right? Like, and that’s dramatically illustrated with the freeze. But also, you brought up vaccine mandates. That is a form of public service, that is a form of public health and public safety, and what’s interesting to me about that turning into culture war is you can’t buy your way out of a pandemic, really. You know?


Adam Serwer: This whole thing is such a terrible trag—I mean, like, I’m so sick of saying how many people are dying every day for no reason. For no good reason. It’s just a terrible situation. And it’s so frustrating that there are so many people in this state who are so beholden to getting that good coverage from Fox, and to getting that kind of attention that they’re, you know, completely disregarding the welfare of their constituents over an extremely effective vaccine that was produced so quickly in order to get us back to normal. And it’s like they want to this horror to last as long as possible.


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Ana Marie Cox: Well, that brings us to a place, perhaps to wrap up, which is the phrase that you coined, it’s become something of a motto. Or we’ve applied it as a motto to to this era of conservative conservatism, which is “the cruelty is the point.” Right? When I said the pandemic, you can’t buy your way out of the pandemic, and I, too am in grief and disbelief, still, even though it’s been happening for almost two years now, that we have a party in charge in Texas that is killing off its own constituents, right? But more, not their constituents, those are those are actually the people that are dying in higher percentages, that, I almost want to believe is “the cruelty the point” there? That seems so beyond the pale to me.


Adam Serwer: I mean, I think the obvious thing here is that this has become an absurdly polarized issue where it’s like if the libs want vaccines then the vaccines must be bad. It is, it is a nightmare for public health that’s something that was, you know, a wide consensus not that long ago, and you were considered a kook if you had these theories about, these conspiracy theories about vaccines. This is now like, you know, a regular part, this is now part of part of mainstream politics. It is extremely unfortunate. And I think that, you know, you could see this in the way that Republican primary discourse operates, which is that whatever makes the libs mad must be good. And you can see that to some extent among Democrats. You know, there is a, you know, it is human nature to have this kind of knee-jerk reaction in a polarized atmosphere, but you don’t see it to the same degree, which is that people are literally putting public health at risk because of this ideological polarization around vaccines. And I think, you know that phrase, you know, I try to be careful because I feel like it gets misused a lot, but it’s not a question, you know, cruelty as a political phenomenon is not confined to the right to one party. It’s a part of human nature. The distinction now is that it has been elevated to a political phenomenon by a political party that has, as part of its project, the exclusion of particular people from the political process because they fear, you know, sharing the country where they’re being accountable to those people. And this, in part, is the result, I mean, it’s not just Fox News, but this sort of apocalyptic worldview where it’s like the liberals want to destroy everything you hold dear, you know, your countrymen are your greatest enemy, and therefore you are justified in engaging in acts of cruelty towards them because after all, they’re threatening your entire way of life and everything that makes America great. So if we, you know, if we need to disenfranchise them, if we need to strip them of, you know, particular groups of people, a particular race, then that’s all justified because otherwise those people would try to destroy us too. Trump used to talk like this all the time. So I’m not sure if the vaccine, like the specific vaccine dispute, fits under that rubric inherently. I mean, I could see the argument for it, but I think the larger issue is this, is the sort of underlying, underlying structural issues within our politics, which is that you have a party that can wield power while not necessarily winning a majority of the votes. And they do that by cultivating a sense of apocalyptic dread in their base and what that does is their base now wants, they want to be defended, so they want bad things to be done to the people who they feel like are threatening them. And again, you know, you looked around American history, this is not confined to one type of person, one type of ideology, one type of party, but you do see it as an operating of the principle of the Republican Party in the Trump era. And I think until the Republican Party becomes beholden to constituencies that do not see the world that way, that is, it becomes more beholden to a more religiously, ethnically, ideologically diverse constituency, you know, we’re going to see that type of politics. We’re going to see American politics still being dominated by this type of dynamic where cruelty is elevated as a virtue.


Ana Marie Cox: Well, that’s a very sobering thought. And maybe we’ll just sit in silence with the sobering thought, but I wonder if you have any ideas about the way out of this situation?


Adam Serwer: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think, you know, there have to be structural changes to the system, which Democrats have been thus far unwilling to make so that, you know, whether it’s malapportionment in the Senate, whether it’s gerrymandering in the House, whether it’s the Electoral College—you have a system that enhances the influence of this particular group of voters, you know, that allows the Republican Party to wield power, you know, only with a minority of the votes. And so, you know, when you look back in American history, the Democratic Party was once the party of white supremacy, you know, was once the party of Jim Crow. And what changed that was this coalition of labor unions, of Black voters, of liberal whites in urban spaces who, you know, banded together to steer the Democratic Party in another direction. It was a bottom up process. And what happened was that these constituencies forced the Democratic Party to towards civil rights and away from Jim Crow. And the only way out of this I can see is if the Republican Party becomes beholden to constituencies that steer them away from this radicalization against democracy. And I’m not sure how that works. I think, you know, it is not a coincidence that unions played such a big role in that progressive push in the mid-20th century. I think that unions are de-polarizing institutions in the sense that they facilitate relationships across cultural divides that lead people to see people, to see others who may be different from them in some ways as being in the same boat with them. And I think that as their diminishment has not only led to a over influence of capital in the halls of power, but it is also, you know, in such a way that, you know, if you look at the way the legislating of the infrastructure bill is going right now, it just it feels like the lobbyists are passing notes to particular senators and saying, oh, you can’t, you can’t support this. And then all of a sudden, you know, you think you’ve reached an agreement and they’re like, oh, well, you know, as a matter of fact, I actually don’t think I can support this. If you had like a, if labor was stronger, if it exerted a countervailing force on a business lobby in Congress, I think you’d see a very different legislative process. But more importantly than that, on a social level, I think America has lost a lot of these mediating institutions that help people come together across various cultural, religious racial lines in a way that turns down the political temperature. So I think there’s like a cultural aspect, and I think that there is a structural aspect. And you know, the distinction is that there’s a, you can use legislation to alter both, but the Democratic Party as it exists today, has been unwilling to do that.


Ana Marie Cox: I may be able to help us stick a landing back in Texas, in responding to your thoughts there, which is that, you know, we began this conversation by talking about some of our experiences with people judging Texas and painting Texas with a broad brush, even though there are more Democrats in Texas than many other states and there are incredibly progressive cities and districts in Texas. And there’s a part of me that gets some hope from the way that Texans still identify as Texans still. I was talking with a friend of mine about Austin, and Austin sometimes likes to define itself against Texas, you know? But you scratch an Austinite and you’ll get a Texan. You’ll get someone that’s ready to defend Texas. And I was at a football game over the weekend—and this is just so cliche—but like, it was kind of great to see a really diverse crowd just hanging out together. You know, it was college football, which I think the audience is more diverse than for the NFL. And no one, I don’t know. I mean, am I painting my college football game memories with a little too rosy a glow? Or do you think that there is some hope in the fact that maybe a way that Texas can be an example or be an opportunity to have an identification that goes beyond politics and goes beyond identity?


Adam Serwer: I think there, the emergence of Blue Texas, if it ever happens, is going to substantially moderate the politics of the state, not simply because it’ll be a blue state then because I don’t necessarily think that’s going to happen. I just mean when a Democrat is elected to a statewide office, I think that what it does is it compels you to pull back. Like, I think the only, the only check on this kind of extremism from politicians is when their interests are to moderate. And that’s, you know, in some ways, that’s what we’re talking about here. So, you know, I can imagine a future in which Democrats, if they do not continue to take particular groups of voters for granted, somehow managed to win a statewide election in Texas. And that, you know, it doesn’t necessarily mean that, you know, they will dominate the state from that point forward but it may compel the Republican Party to pull back and say, OK, if we want to stave off, you know, if we don’t want to, if we don’t want further political losses, we need to be more responsible in our governance and we need to stop trying to exclude particular groups of people from the political process in order to win rather than trying to win people over. You know, that’s optimistic. I don’t necessarily know that the future is going to unfold that way, you know? But you know, I would, I would not be tremendously shocked if it did happen.


Ana Marie Cox: I think, well, we can sort of end there, but I’m also going to offer something which is, I think, what you might—to translate what you’re saying and the cultural side of things, I think right now we were talking about a GOP that governs for its base and not for its constituents. I think the problem may not be that there are liberal Texans that think of themselves as liberals first and not Texans, to the extent that being a Texan is important, and maybe it is. Yes, it is in democratic politics because you want to think about your whole state when you’re voting, right. You don’t want to think just about your tribe.


Adam Serwer: But also Texans are proud. You know? They’re very, you know, Texans are very proud of being Texans, whether they’re liberal or conservative Texans. It’s like, it is a part of their identity.


Ana Marie Cox: What I was going to say, is it maybe the mistake here isn’t that like liberals aren’t really Texans, it’s that the Republicans in Texas have forsaken their Texas identity for a very narrow slice of their constituency. They’re conservatives, ideological conservatives first, and by definition, are not thinking about the good of the state because they’re ignoring 75% of it.


Adam Serwer: I think that they have tried to define Texas in such a way, such as that the only way to be—


Ana Marie Cox: As that 25 percent right.


Adam Serwer: And the only way to be an authentic Texan is to be a right winger, which is not unlike the way that Republicans do the whole thing with real America. And I think, you know, that kind of politics is only viable as long as you have, you know, these structures that sustain minority rule. You know, and again, the only thing that can beat that is for politicians’ incentives to shift. It’s, you know, relying on their goodness of heart, just doesn’t work.


Ana Marie Cox: That’s a new, depressing place to end.


Adam Serwer: Sorry. This is, I’m extremely fun at parties.


Ana Marie Cox: I don’t know. What? You can’t count on college football to bring us all together? I don’t know. Adam, come on.


Adam Serwer: I mean, in some ways, yeah, I mean, in some ways, yeah. I mean, look, there are, there are like nonpolitical cultural touchstones that can bring people together. The problem is that, and you know, the reason why those things bring people together is because then, you know, if you have things that you like that another person who disagrees with you on everything else but also likes there are points of commonality that can be used to build a relationship. I mean, I do think there is something to that. The problem is we don’t have enough of those things that are not just, you know, not just college football games, but actual like institutions in American life that are bringing people together across those backgrounds so that we’re not relying on media caricatures of each other to make to make political decisions, which is, you know, I think, partially our fault, partially, you know, the way media works today, the way it functions, and also partially the way that political leaders have understood the way that they can win votes, you know? But look, nothing lasts forever. I don’t know when this particular political dynamic that we’re in right now is going to end, or under what circumstances it will end. Hopefully those circumstances will be favorable. But I don’t think your instinct is wrong to say, you know, people who have very different political views coming together to celebrate this particular thing and therefore spending time around each other and knowing each other better is one small way to get past these, you know, this sort of apocalyptic vision of politics. I just don’t know. I’m not sure that there’s enough of it in the world that we currently live in.


Ana Marie Cox: I’ll take that bone you have thrown to me. Thank you. Adam, thank you so much for coming on the show again, and thank you so much for being a friend to the show in general. It’s always—


Adam Serwer: Thank you so much for having me.


Ana Marie Cox: I won’t say it’s a pleasure to talk to you, because you are not fun at parties, but you’re great. And I always learn so much, and I just really appreciate you taking the time to be with us.


Adam Serwer: Thank you so much.


Ana Marie Cox: A big thanks to Adam Serwer, who is an amazing writer and again author of the book The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America. Be sure to pick up your copy wherever books are sold. This show is a production of Crooked Media. Leslie Martin is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. Take care of yourselves.