Listening to America

By Paul Taylor

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The idea is to go in search of America as it exists today - a journey informed by an intimate understanding of its history - to better understand our troubled time, all of which puts its future in context. Our objective is to find people and places that help us understand what the country is thinking, what we still have in common, where the innovative work is being done, where the best practices are occurring, and who the less well known innovators are. The collision of technology and society and the fallout consequences can be hard to figure out. History can help. Our Editor-at-Large and resident humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson probes important questions about where we are going by first asking about where we have been and why.

Episode Date
Living A Good Life In A Broken Republic (Ep. 27)

Governing’s humanities scholar in residence, Clay Jenkinson, lays out four coping strategies for dealing with the troubled state of America. One of them demands something of us for the common good.

Oct 06, 2021
Seven States in Jeopardy as Prolonged Drought Threatens Power Generation (Ep. 26)

A new report from the federal government brings urgency to a veteran geologist’s longtime warnings about the crippling of the Colorado River.

Geochemist James Powell is a longtime observer of the complex interworking of Lake Powell, Lake Mead and the Upper Basin of the Colorado River. He has written 14 books on the subject – including, aptly enough, Dead Pool.

Oct 02, 2021
Looking For Leverage: Moving America Forward (Ep. 25)

The country is long on problems but short on levers that might help lift it out of a quagmire of its own making.

Clay was recently invited to attend a retreat in the badlands to talk about the future. The organizer called to talk logistics yesterday. As the call was winding down, he said that he and the other organizers are really worried about “the situation.”


Sep 24, 2021
The High Stakes Dilemma of America’s Everyday Infrastructure (Ep. 24)

In the 1930s, the United States became adept at building world-leading infrastructure to support its national economic needs, competitive instincts and social aspirations. Almost a century later, the advantage has slipped in favor of China and other global players. It remains to be seen whether America can build back better.

Sep 17, 2021
An Origin Story that America Needs (Ep. 23)

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and witnessed the removal a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA. The events reflect on the country’s changing national identity, symbols and myths - and the cost that comes with them.

Our Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson finds insight in the national epic of Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid. He asks, can the classics help us forge a new national narrative?

Sep 11, 2021
America’s Standing in the World After 20 Years in Afghanistan (Ep. 22)

The world changed on August 6. The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, triggering a hasty and desperate withdrawal of American nationals and others. After twenty years, it also changed the world’s perception of the United States and caused Americans to question the state of the national soul.

Aug 27, 2021
America’s Standing in the World After 20 Years in Afghanistan (Ep. 21)

The world changed on August 6. The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, triggering a hasty and desperate withdrawal of American nationals and others. After twenty years, it also changed the world’s perception of the United States and caused Americans to question the state of the national soul.

Aug 27, 2021
Is “All Men Are Created Equal” A Declaration, Promise or Question? (Ep. 20)
Thomas Jefferson’s meaning has been up for grabs since he penned the phrase in 1776. The country has proven to be all too comfortable with the ambiguity. Depending how we answer the question, it could help redeem the reputation of the third president or leave us with a lesser Jefferson.
Aug 12, 2021
National Causes, Sacred Spaces and Cultural Presence (Ep. 19)
Palestine and Israel, each now with their own strong and vocal supporters in the United States, are at the center of competing narratives about people groups seeking sovereignty over their own destinies. Is there room for both in the heads and hearts of Americans?


Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, an endowed chair named for Said, a professor, public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. Khalidi has written a number of books on the history of Palestine and the Middle East. With his latest effort - The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance: 1917-2017 - Khalidi heeded the advice of his son and sought a more personal approach in his work. The result is an approachable account of a Palestinian people that has long been defined in the American consciousness, the author contends, by a narrative it didn’t write. Inserting himself into the story, Khalidi uses archival accounts of generations of family members from the region – mayors, judges, diplomats and journalists, to insert a Palestinian perspective into his chronicle of the last century of conflict. Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with Khalidi about the book and the need, the possibilities, and the probabilities for a new Palestinian narrative. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jul 16, 2021
America’s Declaration of Independence on its 245th Anniversary* (Ep. 18)

Are the postmodernists and critical race theorists correct when they say America and some of its founders should appear with an asterisk behind their names from now on? The legacy of the Enlightenment and the American Experiment is in the balance.

Jul 10, 2021
Black Motherhood Shaped America: A Hard but Hopeful Story Played Out Against the Odds (Ep. 17)

A new book makes a multi-generational examination of the origin stories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin to understand how they were shaped and by whom – their mothers.

Anna Malaika Tubbs excavated the lives of these extraordinary women – Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin – who, in raising and nourishing and shaping their sons, pushed them to greatness. Tubbs’s account, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation is a fascinating and nuanced celebration not only of these women and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, but to the Black mothers throughout American history who resiliently pushed back against abhorrent efforts at dehumanization that went so far as to legally declare their children as someone else’s property.

Jun 18, 2021
America's New Gilded Age: The Cycles of Constitutional Time (Ep. 16)

In The Cycles of Constitutional Time, Jack Balkin takes an overarching look at the dynamics of constitutional government over the history of the United States. To understand what is happening today, he argues, “we have to think in terms of political cycles that interact with each other and create remarkable — and dark — times.” Single-term presidents, Balkin notes, often coincide with the ends of these cycles, moments where an existing approach to political life has run its course. Since Reagan’s ascendency in 1980, Balkin contends, the dominating approach has been characterized by a lack of trust in politicians and big government. But, he suggests, the single-term presidency of Donald Trump could be another iteration in the pattern, and we may be moving towards a more progressive era. Balkin is the founder and director of Yale's Information Society Project, an interdisciplinary center that studies law and new information technologies. He recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson.

Jun 11, 2021
America’s Constitution: Its Surprising Evolution from 1788 to the 21st Century (Ep. 15)

In an earlier episode, Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson described America’s three constitutions: The capital-c Constitution drafted in 1787; and the small-c constitution of norms and traditions not specified in the written Constitution and the ways the American people actually constitute themselves. In this third in a series, Jenkinson suggests that even — or especially — in our norm-busting times, a president’s bully pulpit has grown bigger, stuffed as it is with extra constitutional executive actions.


Jun 09, 2021
What Happens When a Branch of the Armed Forces Opens to Women (Ep. 14)

Long before Admiral Sandy Stosz retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2018, she knew that she wanted to write a book on leadership. With nearly 40 years of experience to draw on, from her early days as an ensign on polar icebreakers to her final assignment as the first female to serve as deputy commandant for Mission Support, Stosz had gained a wealth of experience worth sharing. Though her career abounded in firsts for her gender — she was, for example, the first woman to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy — Stosz wanted to focus her literary lens not on the trailblazing aspects of her career, but rather on the extensive and varied leadership lessons gleaned from her experiences. The result is Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, published this month by Koehler Books. She recently spoke with Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson

Jun 04, 2021
The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and MLK in the Time of George Floyd (Ep. 13)

The author of a new book on the pioneers of the civil rights movement says, as different as the two were from each other, they were also each other’s alter egos in the struggle against racism.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X rose from markedly different backgrounds to assume leading roles in the civil rights movement, and though each died violently while playing his respective part, neither man fully exited the stage. Both remain to this day celebrated figures in the fight for racial and economic justice.

Their much-publicized differences, most notably violence versus nonviolence, have rendered portraits of the two men as opposing figures, but Dr. Peniel Joseph, in his dual biography The Sword and Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., argues that these contrasts have been taken out of context. The two men eventually grew into alter egos of one another, he asserts, and each transformed the other in important ways as their visions converged. Dr. Joseph recently spoke with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson about these two iconic African American leaders.

May 26, 2021
Grab a Dictionary, Save the Republic (Ep. 12)

The author of a dictionary-like book spent two years recovering the lost language that Americans need in order to talk with each other about things that matter.

Distressed at the dearth of civic understanding in the United States, Ed Hagenstein worked for over two decades to create The Language of Liberty: A Citizen’s Vocabulary. Its purpose is simple: the constitution demands consensus and our form of government requires discourse, which depends in turn on a precise and nuanced vocabulary of its own. Hagenstein has set out to recover 101 words that are essential to the American experiment, many largely lost to disuse or misuse.

Show notes:

Mary Page Wilson-Lyons | TEDxBirminghamSalon




May 22, 2021
America’s Enduring Habits of the Heart: How We Constitute a More Perfect Union (Ep. 11)

To borrow a starting point from Alexis de Tocqueville and the founding fathers, let’s pause to consider America’s enduring habits of the heart and how they can help us constitute a more perfect union

 Our resident humanities scholar and Editor-at-Large, Clay Jenkinson contends that the country is the combination of three constitutions – Written, Mediated, and Lived – and your experience with them may vary.

Audio courtesy of The Bush Library, The Clinton Library, YouTube, CupsofChamomile, Miller Center, CNN, FOX News Channel, MSNBC, NBC News, PBS, CBS, CBC, Tuts+.

Incidental music licensed from HookSounds.

May 14, 2021
Supreme Court Packing: A Bad Way to Get Even - or Ahead (Ep. 10)

The Constitution is silent on the number of justices on the Supreme Court. The independence of the judiciary is put in jeopardy when partisans settle political scores by rebalancing the courts.

Clay has been thinking about the promise and pitfalls of court packing.

Apr 30, 2021
20 Years Later in Afghanistan, Considering the Cost of Quagmire (Ep. 9)

On April 13 President Biden announced  his plan to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Currently there are approximately 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan.

With no consensus at home on the decision to withdraw US troops, Afghanistan remains a Grave of Empires. True to Thomas Jefferson's formulation that most wars end with the restoration of the status quo ante bellum (things go right back to the way things were before all the loss of blood and treasure). 

You can listen and subscribe to the full series of The Future in Context at


Apr 23, 2021
Could Biden Be The FDR We Didn't Know We Needed? (Ep. 8)

A prolific and outspoken author contends the term "populism" has been turned on its head, and not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has the White House been occupied by a man of the people.

Thomas Frank is an unapologetic liberal and populist. Those characteristics shape his writing and worldview. He finds promise in the country’s original populists, who adopted the term in 1891, and who were protesting “unbearable debt, monopoly and corruption … forcing the country to acknowledge that ordinary Americans who were just as worthy as bankers or railroad barons were being ruined by an economic system that in fact answered to no moral laws.” Frank sees distinct parallels between conditions then and American capitalism as it exists today, complete with the stains of racism, sexism, economic inequality, and contempt for ordinary Americans.

Apr 16, 2021
The Promises and Pitfalls of a Modern-Day Boomtown (Ep. 7)

A decade ago, Williston, N.D., became a magnet for desperate men, thanks to oil in the Bakken Formation. In an interview, author Michael Smith talks about life in an oil patch and the human cost of fueling the nation.

Apr 01, 2021
Nicholas Christakis and Understanding Our Year with Covid-19 (Ep. 6)

An important new book, Apollo’s Arrow, precisely targets what America got right in its COVID-19 response, and where it must do better next time. And there will be a next time.

Mar 19, 2021
Guy Fawkes and the Plot to Blow Up the United States Capitol (Ep. 5)

In this companion audio version of a Clay Jenkinson essay, we explore two efforts - separated by four centuries and an ocean - to decapitate governments.

The preparations for President Biden’s as-yet-unscheduled State of the Union address are haunted by a 400-year-old conspiracy to decapitate the British government. What can we learn from the Gunpowder Plot?


Audio samples sourced through the US House of Representatives, CSPAN, ABC, Bartje Bartmans, RTSD, NatGeo,Travel Sounds Project, and Hooksounds.

Mar 05, 2021
Donald Trump Has Earned Membership in the President’s Club (Ep. 4)

When a president leaves the White House, he enters one of the most elite clubs. A book by two of America’s leading journalists looks at what binds these individuals together, given their personalities and politics.

Governing’s Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson spoke with the authors of The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.


Feb 26, 2021
Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: A Tale of Two Revolutions (Ep. 3)

This is the audio companion to Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson's essay about communication revolutions, including the one we are living through right now.

The printing press and social media democratized communication in their respective times. They both turned the order of things on its head – for good, for ill, and forever.

You can find past episodes on


Feb 19, 2021
The Bill of Rights, Federalism and the Struggles of a United America (Ep. 2)

With incoming President Joe Biden pledging to unify the country, author David French talks with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson about the nation’s current divide, whether the country is in decline and the prospects for a lasting union.

You can find more from the occasional series, including other podcast episodes and Clay's essays, at


Jan 06, 2021
The Republic: Don't Know What You've Got Until Its Gone (Ep. 1)

The republic for which it stands.

Just what does the republic stand for?

And will the republic stand during a season of tumult?

Before America, the Roman republic stood. And then fell.

Is Rome our destiny? Is its experience a useful lens for understanding America at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century?

Governing’s Editor at Large and resident humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson probed these questions with author and historian Ed Watts as part of our continuing effort to put the future in context.

You can find more about Clay's work and The Future in Context at

Jan 03, 2021