350 episodes

Coronavirus! Climate! Brexit! Trump! Politics has never been more unpredictable, more alarming or more interesting: Talking Politics is the podcast that tries to make sense of it all. Every week David Runciman and Helen Thompson talk to the most interesting people around about the ideas and events that shape our world: from history to economics, from philosophy to fiction. What does the future hold?
Can democracy survive? How crazy will it get? This is the political conversation that matters.


Talking Politics is brought to you in partnership with the London Review of Books, Europe's leading magazine of books and ideas.
Become a member at https://plus.acast.com/s/talkingpolitics

TALKING POLITICS Talking Politics

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    • 4.7 • 1.8K Ratings

Coronavirus! Climate! Brexit! Trump! Politics has never been more unpredictable, more alarming or more interesting: Talking Politics is the podcast that tries to make sense of it all. Every week David Runciman and Helen Thompson talk to the most interesting people around about the ideas and events that shape our world: from history to economics, from philosophy to fiction. What does the future hold?
Can democracy survive? How crazy will it get? This is the political conversation that matters.


Talking Politics is brought to you in partnership with the London Review of Books, Europe's leading magazine of books and ideas.
Become a member at https://plus.acast.com/s/talkingpolitics

    Michael Lewis on the Pandemic

    Michael Lewis on the Pandemic

    We talk to Michael Lewis about his new book The Premonition, which tells the story of the people who saw the pandemic coming and asks why they couldn't get a hearing. It's a tale of short-term failures and long-term trends in US government and it follows on from his previous book about the risks America has been running in hollowing out the administrative state. A sobering account with glimmers of hope for the future. 


    Talking Points: 


    Old timers at the CDC say that things began to change after the 1976 swine flu outbreak.
    - The CDC rushed a vaccine program, and some people got sick. Then the swine flu basically vanished.
    - After that, under Reagan, the head of the CDC became an appointed, political job. This made the CDC overall more political and less independent. 
    - Most people who interacted with the CDC before this pandemic realized that it wasn’t very good at managing disease.


    Doing a public health job well carries a high risk of getting fired.
    - The experts in Michael’s story are consistently right about the trajectory of the disease; but they are often wrong about politics.
    - Should experts pay more attention to politics? 
    - Experts can create discomfort for politicians, or they can give them cover—but that’s not their job. Michael thinks that politicians should be providing cover for the experts.


    Why was it so hard to learn from the experiences of other cities in the heart of the crisis?
    - In the 1918 pandemic, the difference between Philadelphia and St. Louis was the timing of the intervention. 
    - It’s hard to see the effect of the interventions in the fog of battle.
    - The failure of testing in the US at the start of the pandemic meant that there was no way to identify where the virus was.
    - Just-in-time manufacturing and taut-supply changes made the ‘health industrial complex’ less able to respond quickly.
    - Will the pandemic make Americans care more about how the government actually functions?


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Michael’s new book, The Premonition, a Pandemic Story
    - Richard Neustadt and Harvey V. Fineberg, The Swine Flu Affair
    - The Nuclear Threat Initiative 2019 report
    - Our last episode with Michael


    Further Learning:
    - David J. Spencer, ‘Reflections on the 1976 Swine Flu Vaccination Program’
    - Lawrence Wright, ‘The Plague Year,’ The New Yorker
    - How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic
    - More on the San Quentin COVID epidemic


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 46 min
    After Merkel, What?

    After Merkel, What?

    We talk to Hans Kundnani about the prospects for German politics in the run-up to September's federal elections, now that the cast list of possible successors to Merkel is known. Can Laschet escape from her shadow and does he want to? Would a Green led government be radically different from the alternatives? Is the age of the 'grand coalition' over? Plus we consider the historical parallels, from Bismarck to Adenauer to Kohl: do long-serving leaders ever manage a successful transition?


    Talking Points:


    To wrap up the second season of History of Ideas, on 11 May, the LRB is hosting a conversation between David and Pankaj Mishra. They’ll discuss the thinkers we did—and didn’t talk about. To book tickets, follow this link.


    Armin Laschet is the new CDU leader.
    - So far, his candidacy has been underwhelming. He is generally seen as being a Merkelite candidate who would probably continue her centrist, grand-coalition style.
    - Is the CDU pinning its hopes on the vaccine? If Germany gets it together in the next few months, the party in power will likely reap the benefits despite current polling woes.
    - The personality of the lead candidate is less of a determining factor in German politics; you don’t vote for an individual chancellor. 


    Is the era of grand coalition politics between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats coming to an end?
    - There is a real possibility that the party that has run Germany for the last four electoral periods might not get a fifth.
    - Of course it’s still likely that the Christian Democrats will stay in power, but even the possibility that they won’t contributes to a new sense of dynamism. 


    The German Greens hope to be in power too—with the Christian Democrats.
    - There’s been a convergence during the Merkel Era.
    - The Christian Democrats have moved to the center on social issues. 
    - It’s no longer clear that the Greens would prefer to be in coalition with the Social Democrats. They have moved to the right, especially on economic issues.
    - Geopolitics may push the Greens more toward the Christan Democrats, especially re Russia.


    Mentioned in this Episode:
    - Hans’ book, The Paradox of German Power
    - Our last episode with Hans
    - The letter written by French generals


    Further Learning: 
    - 5 things to know about Armin Laschet
    - The Astonishing Rise of Angela Merkel, from the New Yorker
    - More on the German Greens


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 47 min
    Union at the Crossroads

    Union at the Crossroads

    David and Helen talk to Mike Kenny about what devolution has done to the politics of the UK as seen from Westminster and Whitehall. How have we ended up with a Unionism that is both complacent and aggressive?  What lessons has the pandemic taught about the need for co-operation? And can the UK survive without a fundamental constitutional rethink? https://bit.ly/3xc7Kns
     
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    • 44 min
    Wales, England and the Future of the UK

    Wales, England and the Future of the UK

    As part of our series about the future of the Union, David and Helen talk to Dan Wincott of Cardiff Law School about the history of Welsh devolution and the possibility of Welsh independence. How has English dominance shaped Welsh attitudes to the Union? What did the Brexit vote reveal about the different strands of Welsh and British identity? Has the pandemic made the case for more devolution and even independence for Wales stronger? Plus, what happens to Wales if Scotland votes to leave the UK?


    Talking Points: 


    The Anglo-Welsh union is a story of conquest and incorporation.
    - Wales was integrated into the English legal system under Henry VIII. 
    - There are strong cultural institutions in Wales, and the persistence of Welsh as the vernacular language limited the reach of English laws for a long time.


    It’s hard to understand the rise of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century without seeing its relationship to questions about the Union.
    - Welsh Labour politicians played a critical role in tying the UK together during that period. 
    - Labour moved away from home rule after WWI, but as things got more complicated in the 1970s, Labour ended up struggling with devolution questions without an English majority. 
    - When Labour came back into power in 1997 it set up the first version of the devolution settlements.
    - Labour’s weakness in England from 2010 is central to the current situation.
    - For New Labour, Welsh devolution was an afterthought. They were more concerned with Scotland.


    The majority of Wales who voted in the referendum voted Leave.
    - Wales is probably the part of Britain where patterns of national identity are most complex.
    - In Wales, those who prioritize British identity tended to vote Leave. But in England, those who prioritize British identity generally voted Remain. 


    People are at least curious about what more devolution might look like in Wales.
    - Although there is still anti-devolution sentiment in Wales in a way there isn’t in Scotland.
    - As long as the Labour Party can’t win a majority in Westminster, there is going to be curiosity about greater independence.


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - From our Union series on… Scotland 
    - From our Union series on… Northern Ireland
    - Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities
    - ‘Analysing vote choice in a multinational state: national identity and territorial differentiation in the 2016 Brexit vote’


    Further Learning: 
    - More on COVID in Wales
    - ‘Crisis, what crisis? Conceptualizing crisis, UK pluri-constitutionalism and Brexit politics’
    - More about Weslh independence


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 43 min
    Adam Curtis

    Adam Curtis

    This week David talks to the celebrated film-maker Adam Curtis about his new series Can't Get You Out of My Head, which tells the history of the rise and fall of individualism. Why do so many people feel so powerless in the age of the empowered individual? How has digital technology turbo-charged our feelings of alienation? And what has all this got to do with behavioural psychology? Plus much more: Nixon, China, Dominic Cummings, complex systems, Max Weber and conspiracy theories. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p093wp6h/cant-get-you-out-of-my-head


    Talking Points:


    In his newest series, Adam identifies the 1970s as the wellspring of a global system that feels irrational and beyond political control. 
    - The Nixon shock—when the dollar became detached from the gold standard—was something that Nixon, at the time, saw as temporary.
    - But as the Watergate scandal carried on, banks realized they could start trading currencies against each other. Out of this came the global financial system.
    - The opening to China was seen as a great stroke of statesmanship.
    - But what was happening at that time in China was the collapse of the certainty of Mao’s revolution. What emerged was a system run by Deng Xiaoping who essentially substituted money for ideology.
    - Deng turned China into a giant production house of cheap goods. 
    - The generation that came out of WWII was terrified of big ideologies. What replaced ideology? Money.


    In an age of mass democracy, where individualism reigns, states become extremely difficult to govern.
    - By the late 70s/early 80s, politicians started to realize that you couldn’t assemble stable groups behind you. Instead of representing the people, they tried to become managers. 
    - Adam thinks that to call this neoliberalism is to oversimplify things.
    - Under Thatcher and Reagan, industrial policy essentially failed. The politicians gave up before we realized they had given up.


    On the surface, behaviouralism seemed like a challenge to the notion of the rational, self-interested individual.
    - But actually, behaviouralists concluded that if people are irrational, we need to find ways to nudge them to behave in rational ways so that the system will work better. 


    The Internet, as it is currently constructed, is like a modern ghost story. It’s always looking at patterns in the past.
    - The Internet as a feedback system can’t imagine something that hasn’t already happened. 
    - It’s a form of management that renders the world static and repeatable. 


    Fake stability has led to a kind of blindness: think about the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the financial crisis, or Trump.
    - Again and again the people in charge fail to anticipate what’s coming.
    - Has the ability of Big Data to predict been oversold? 


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Adam’s newest series, Can’t Get You Out of my Head
    - Max Weber’s ‘iron cage’
    - DId eBay just prove that paid search ads don’t work? 


    Further Learning: 
    - The Talking Politics Guide to... 1970s (with Helen)
    - Friedrich Hayek on Markets (for our History of Ideas series)
    - Crashed, with Adam Tooze
    - Adam’s, The Century of the Self


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 46 min
    How's Biden Doing

    How's Biden Doing

    70 days into the first 100 days we take the temperature of the Biden presidency and ask how he's doing, and how he's doing so much. What made sleepy Joe such an active president? Is it him or the people around him? And how should the Republicans respond? Plus we discuss what it would take to restore America's standing in the world - does anyone want that anyway? With Helen Thompson and Gary Gerstle.


    Talking Points: 


    The message of Biden’s early presidency is that he understands the challenge of the moment.
    - His first 70 days are more like FDR’s first 100 days than any recent president.
    - This has also led to a more critical reassessment of the Obama years.
    - Biden has put Harris in charge of the situation at the border; this is a strange move if he’s setting her up to be his successor.


    Biden essentially has a two year window to get things done—maybe less.
    - Biden is betting on his legislative achievements to get him through the midterms; he’s unveiling ambitious projects that will affect all Americans.
    - The pandemic has enabled some of this, but the stimulus and the infrastructure bill also reflect the monetary and fiscal environment.


    The reigning paradigm of U.S. politics since Reagan has been deregulation. There’s now a sense that this paradigm has exhausted itself.
    - Perhaps the paradigm really shifted in 2016. Many of the things that Biden has done—for example, infrastructure—are things that Trump said he wanted to do. 
    - Biden is trying to occupy ground that Trump was unable to occupy. Most Americans will benefit from the stimulus, and the infrastructure bill will create millions of new jobs.
    - Republicans are trying to focus on cultural issues. They are also gutting democratic institutions.


    What will happen when the pandemic ends? Will this create opportunities for a skillfully led opposition?
    - Joe Biden is not backed by clear legislative majorities. 
    - The border issue might become more politically salient when the pandemic ends.


    Is Pax Americana over?
    - There’s an increasing view both within and outside the United States that American leadership can’t be counted on.
    - There were foreign policy continuities between Obama and Trump. Key differences were on Iran and climate.
    - Biden has returned to the Paris Climate Accord and is trying to work with China on climate. 


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Biden’s recent press conference 
    - Samuel Huntington, The Crisis of Democracy


    Further Learning: 
    - More on Biden’s secret meeting with American historians
    - More on Biden’s infrastructure plan
    - Evan Osnos talks about Joe Biden with Ezra Klein


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 38 min

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5
1.8K Ratings

1.8K Ratings

IncognitoPenguin ,

One of my favourites

David and Helen always provide interesting and intelligent discussion on a wide range of topics. A must listen for those interested in politics

Podcastfanboy91 ,

David, Helen and Adam

David and Helen complement one another perfectly. David is endlessly listenable-to, a fantastic convener, but also a heavyweight whose application of theory to current events is so so engaging. Helen is a hard-as-nails intellectual thug-of-the-detail. She brings much-needed cynicism to David’s classic Observer-reading sensibilities. Then Adam Tooze comes in scatting monetary theory, realpolitik and obscure anecdotes. He’s an encyclopedia of all the most important historical decisions no one knows about (but which changed everything). Joyful.

Aberporth Don ,

Climate Change

Episodes involving David , Helen and Adam Tooze are nearly always the most interesting , most challenging and lead to greatest levels of post blog thought.
This episode was amongst the most complex and urgent topics that Talking politics has tackle. It was fitting that it avoided settling for the over simplified easy answer but has broadly dimensioned the issues for further consideration.

Aberporth Don

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