BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company is there no limit to the cash the rich can throw at elections? The Supreme Court will decide.
HEATHER GERKEN: Politicians are always hungry for more money. Right now we limit the ways they can get that money. But what McCutcheon wants to do is make it easier for politicians to get that money.
BILL MOYERS: And…
JOYCE APPLEBY: Curiosity depends upon your imagining something different from what exists. This radical notion that we aren't bound by everything that we see and that we're told.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. It will take a long time to recover from what’s been happening in Washington. But we now know the insurrection against the rule of law didn’t happen spontaneously. It was hatched months ago. Not by rank-and-file folks across the country who look on Michelle Bachman as the incarnation of Joan of Arc, but by old hands at right-wing politics who are burrowed deep into the culture of Washington. Like this man, Edwin Meese, who was Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General and has been hanging around the Heritage Foundation more or less ever since. Heritage is where the faithful receive communion and pick up their talking points.
According to reporting by “New York Times” journalists Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire, just after Barack Obama began his second term, Ed Meese and the leaders of three dozen conservative groups met to decide on a “take-no-prisoners” strategy to defund Obamacare, even if it meant shutting down the government. They gathered big bucks from the billionaire Koch brothers -- over $200 million from one Koch-related group alone. One of the plotters, Michael Needham, CEO of the Heritage Action Fund, told "The Times” that what happened was “a groundswell that changed Washington from the outside in.” Not so. This was an inside job by dissidents of long-standing, who, having slipped to minority status, attempted a coup d’état against majority rule. The story’s far from over, and we’ll be coming back to it the weeks ahead.
But for now, there’s something else deserving your attention – an important story that more or less got pushed to the side by the storm over the shutdown. Conservatives sent their lawyers to the Supreme Court to argue for a green light to flood politics with a lot more cash.
Keep in mind that we already have in this country what the watchdog Sunlight Foundation describes as “an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office.” That thin sliver of the very rich – the one percent of the one percenters – has so much money it wants to keep on giving. So here was the Supreme Court hearing a big case that could take the lid off, allowing the rich to spend even greater sums of cash to influence our elections. Although its official name is McCutcheon v. FEC, let’s call the case “Citizens United: The Sequel.”
Here to talk with me about this is Heather Gerken, described by “The Boston Globe” as “one of the most closely watched young stars in the legal academy.” That’s because of her provocative and innovative thinking about election and constitutional law. She’s a board member of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan, non-profit organization founded by someone familiar to viewers of this broadcast – the Republican reformer Trevor Potter. Heather Gerken clerked with Supreme Court Justice David Souter, practiced law, then taught at Harvard before joining the faculty of Yale. She is the brains behind the “Democracy Index,” a new plan for fair elections. Heather Gerken, it’s good to meet you.
HEATHER GERKEN: Thank you so much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: What's at issue in this case?
HEATHER GERKEN: As you know when you give in a campaign, you can only give a certain amount of money to a candidate. But there's also a limit that most people never notice because most people don't have nearly enough money to reach it, but there are limits on how much you can spend in the aggregate. So you can spend about $123,000 on federal elections all told.
BILL MOYERS: In one election cycle--
HEATHER GERKEN: In one election cycle.
BILL MOYERS: --in one two year period--
HEATHER GERKEN: Exactly. But what's being argued in this case is that you should be able to spend as much as you want, that is you can have limits on the amount you can give to each candidate and each party committee and each party, but you can give to as many candidates as you want and as many party committees as you want and as many PACs as you want. All of those things are capped right now, which would mean just in real terms that instead of about $123,000 being the cap, one donor could give $3.5 million to political parties and candidates
BILL MOYERS: There was this moment during the oral arguments when Justice Scalia told Solicitor General Verrilli that compared with the billions of dollars already spent on federal campaigns by parties, candidates, political action committees and super PACs, he said, I don't think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money. Does this surprise you to hear that from a Supreme Court justice?
HEATHER GERKEN: Well, I will say two things. One is $3.5 million is a lot of money, I think, to just about anyone except for the, you know, the Adelsons of the world. But the other thing that I will just say, and this was made by another commentator, talk about chutzpah. So the reason that these people are spending millions and millions and millions of dollars in the last election is Justice Scalia. You know, they're the ones who allowed this to happen in the first place. And so--
BILL MOYERS: Scalia and the majority on the court?
HEATHER GERKEN: Scalia and the majority on the court. So for them to say, well, we've got a giant problem on one side, so the solution is to create a giant problem on the other side, well, they are the reason for the giant problem that they were describing--
BILL MOYERS: Citizens United?
HEATHER GERKEN: --Citizens United.
BILL MOYERS: In response to Scalia, Solicitor General Verrilli said, "I don't think that's the right way to look at it, Your Honor. If you think that a party's got to get $1.5 billion together … that's about 450 people you need to round up, less than 500 people," the solicitor general said, "can fund the whole shooting match."
HEATHER GERKEN: It's a remarkable statement. Although I'll just tell you my worry is bigger than General Verrilli's worry. So he worries that 400 people will fund the whole shooting match. My worry is that once 400 people realize they can put funding in like that, there'll be 800 of them or maybe 1,200 of them, that more money will move into the system because people will realize just how far their money's going to go, just how much influence their money can buy.
HEATHER GERKEN: That takes us to a world where money plays an even more powerful role in politics than it does now. And I'll just say, I mean, I believe in the first amendment. But it's hard to imagine money playing a bigger role than it did in 2012. And yet it looks like we're heading in that direction in 2016.
BILL MOYERS: But can it be worse than it is now?
HEATHER GERKEN: You know, I actually was one of the people who thought it couldn't. But it never occurred to me that the Supreme Court would be striking down contribution limits. So we actually could see something that's much worse than we have now.
This is a deregulatory court. And in Citizens United made it very difficult to regulate what was called independent spending, that's the money that you spend on your own in favor of your candidates. And right now it's the Wild West in independent spending. You can spend basically as much as you want often without anyone even knowing that you're spending the money.
So what we're looking at now on the contribution side, which is the amount of money you give directly to the candidate for him or her to spend as much as she, in the way she wants, that looks like it's moving into the world of the Wild West as well.
BILL MOYERS: I read some research last evening that in the last election cycle there were 1,219 of the wealthiest donors who reached or almost reached the limit now prevailing.
HEATHER GERKEN: Yes. Well, I will just say those numbers actually could increase for the following reasons. Reaching a limit of $123,000 isn't really that influential.
That's the point of the limit, that even if you reach the cap of it, you're not going to be the person who gets a seat at the table automatically. So $123,000 is just not that much money in politics nowadays if you're thinking about how much is spent for all the campaigns.
However, if you're someone who can fund an entire senatorial campaign, if you're someone who can give a chunk of the president, what the presidential campaign needs, you're get a seat at the table. So those numbers may underestimate the number of people who are going to want to do this. But when you can spend $3.5 million, you can get a lot more influence and people still start to say, hmmm, that sounds like a really good use of my money.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you say seat at the table, but don't you really mean they can set the agenda, they can buy the ads that determine what we talk about in a campaign? They can actually destroy an opponent with spending money in negative advertising? It's more than a seat at the table.
HEATHER GERKEN: It's actually worse than that though. I worry not just about their ability to influence the election, but they're going to influence the governance agenda. So if you know that the people who are funding your campaign are against this legislation or in favor of this legislation, it's going to be very hard for party leaders not to pay attention to that fact. So it's not just a seat at the table on election day. Is a seat at the table for the next four to six years when they're governing.
BILL MOYERS: It means they can in effect buy the policy outcomes they want for the legislative process because the incumbents they have supported with $3.5 million or more are going to be paying attention to them when they come to the table?
HEATHER GERKEN: It's not the direct kind of thing, bags full of money in exchange for votes, but it's actually more pernicious in a way because it shapes the whole background of politics about what's allowed to be talked about and what isn't allowed to be talked about, about what kind of votes are going to happen and what kind of votes aren't going to happen. So what it means is Wall Street is going to be controlling the congressional agenda, but Main Street is not.
BILL MOYERS: But, the majority in the court would disagree with you because remember in Citizens United they said well, if corruption were the issue here, if we could, if you could prove a corruption, Ms. Gerken, we would listen to you. But you can't prove corruption. This is just the politicians give gratitude to their donors, but it's not a quid pro quo and you can't demonstrate that it is buying these policy outcomes.
HEATHER GERKEN: That's right. The Supreme Court in Citizens United changed the standard. So it used to be in fact that what Justice Kennedy called ingratiation and access, that was corruption. And that was corruption under Supreme Court precedent. In the early 1990s, in the early 2000s that's exactly the definition because the rest of the Supreme Court, the majority that once held understands that politics is more complicated than, you give me money, I give you a vote.
They understand that corruption can run through a system in a way that's far more pernicious and deeper but subtle. Justice Kennedy has a much narrower view of what constitutes corruption. And that has been the source of deregulation in Citizens United.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, if we saw a baseball player before he bats hand a wad of cash to the umpire, we'd know that that's corruption. But we don't see the donor handing, the politician, the incumbent senator or congressman handing a decision to the donor, we never see that.
HEATHER GERKEN: We never see it, but we see it in the aggregate. Just take a look at what happened when we had the biggest financial crisis in history. Wall Street was right there helping write the legislation, working on all kinds of pieces of blocking things they didn't want. Look at what happened when we had health care, something at the core of the interests of the American people, the insurance industry was right there. Those are the people who have the money. Those are the people who are capable of setting the agenda when they can give this much money. And they're the reason why legislation looks like it does nowadays.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think's been the main impact of Citizens United?
HEATHER GERKEN: To create what I think are shadow parties. So in the olden days, right, money went through the parties, money went through the candidates. But now Citizens United has made it possible to raise inordinate amounts of money outside of the party system. So this is Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, this is the super PACs.
And the thing that's amazing about these organizations is they're not really independent. They're technically independent, but they're being run by the campaign staff. They are constantly interacting with the campaigns, which means if you're a politician you can have your cake and eat it too. You can be part of the party which has lots of limits right now, before McCutcheon on what it can raise. But you can have your shadow party with your guys raising money in exactly the way you want them to and running ads for you.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you call it a shadow party?
HEATHER GERKEN: They’re doing all the kinds of things you can do in a campaign, they're framing issues, they're running ads, they're helping candidates get elected.
The one key difference though is that the party faithful who are the people who knock on doors, the foot soldiers of our democracy, the people who show up at rallies with donuts, the people who put signs on their yard, the people who go drive people around to get them out to vote, they're in the regular party. They're not in the shadow party. The shadow party is for the big donors, the elites, the top campaign staff. But the regular everyday people are still stuck back in the old party.
BILL MOYERS: Which is more powerful, the old real party or the shadow party?
HEATHER GERKEN: Right now, we're seeing both of them sort of neck and neck in terms of power. But I'll just say if we continue with this deregulatory strategy, we may see the shadow party by virtue of the fact that all the money is there be the one that really matters. I mean, there's a great story that was run in Politico right before the election about Romney. And Romney didn't have enough money inside the party to get him through November.
And so what Politico asked is will Karl Rove whose independent money is what's really bringing Romney through to the end of the election, will he just cut Romney off? So now imagine for yourself you're an important player in Republican or Democratic politics. Do you want to work for Romney or do you want to work for Rove? Who is the most powerful? So the worry over time is that the people who can raise these giant sums of money are the ones that are going to be the most powerful.
BILL MOYERS: You call this a deregulatory court. Explain that.
HEATHER GERKEN: So one of the things that's been really interesting about the Supreme Court is that in cases that people know about, Citizens United and in lots of cases that they don't know about they're gradually pulling away at the regulation that was passed by Congress in McCain-Feingold.
So McCain-Feingold was actually a big campaign finance bill that changed the system entirely. And people thought it was working. But little by little, quietly the Supreme Court just pulled one thread out of that cloth after another. And as we see now, they've pulled enough threads out of it that the system has begun to unravel.
And now what we've seen is, thanks to Citizens United and the court's deregulatory impulse, we're seeing these donors are coming back. You know, the empire always strikes back. They're coming back fiercely and they've got a huge amount of money in the system.
BILL MOYERS: I have to think this is somewhat if not all well-coordinated. I mean, James Bopp, who is the lawyer who was the intellectual architect of Citizens United was a player in this McCutcheon case. He didn't argue the case, but he signed onto it. Mitch McConnell, leading Republican is a vacuum cleaner for money in Congress. The court that's come into play as appointed by one conservative president after another. Is it wrong of me to be skeptical?
HEATHER GERKEN: I would say this is a movement. This is a group of people who decided they wanted to achieve a goal which is deregulation, and they have been working bit by bit, case by case in order to achieve that goal. Now, in some senses that's what everybody does. If you think about the olden days, you know, the NAACP litigated some cases to build the precedent that led to Brown v. Board of Education. So Jim Bopp is doing that for a slightly different kind of purpose. But for the last ten years, he has been bringing case after case. And it used to be you'd read his legal arguments and you'd think, there's no way that could win. Under current precedent that's plainly wrong.
But what Jim Bopp has done is change what the precedent is. And now we are at a point we're seeing arguments and briefs for example that public finance is unconstitutional, that a variety of challenge, of things that have been sort of the base of campaign finance over time are unconstitutional. And that's because this group of lawyers using test case after test case has managed to push their agenda through the courts.
BILL MOYERS: What is their goal as you see it?
HEATHER GERKEN: I think their goal is to simply deregulate money in politics. I mean it's hard to see what's left when they're done. If you look at the arguments they're raising below, pretty much everything is going to go. And if everything goes, we're going to be back to the days pre-Nixon where--
BILL MOYERS: Pre-Watergate, which--
HEATHER GERKEN: Pre-Watergate, where there's a lot of, there's money in politics and it's virtually unregulated.
BILL MOYERS: Anybody in that movement would say to you, this is really about free speech. The court has said, free speech trumps all other priorities in our society because without free speech we have no dissent.
HEATHER GERKEN: I think that they're right to think that the first amendment is squarely implicated. You always worry when the government regulates what people can do in terms of political speech. So there's no question that all of these things should be subject to scrutiny, to a look by the court. But we also have another value in our constitutional system which is called equality. And the worry is that if you interpret the first amendment in such a wooden way and such an extreme way that you're eventually going to undermine equality which is another deep value embedded in our system.
BILL MOYERS: How would it undermine it?
HEATHER GERKEN: It would undermine it because people like my parents would have no say at all in the political system because they're not the ones with money enough to get the attention of politicians.
BILL MOYERS: They can vote. Isn't that what it's all about, voting?
HEATHER GERKEN: People can vote, but you need to get your message to them. People can vote, but you have to help have a campaign that's going to help them get to the polling place. People can vote, but you have to have an opportunity to tell them what the issues are, to shape the way the conversation takes place. So one great description of politicians is that they're conversational entrepreneurs.
They're the ones who frame the agenda and tell the American people, here's what we're talking about and here's some ways to think about it. If one set of politicians because of the of the money backing them is able to dominate that conversation, then you worry in the long run that the vote isn't going to be nearly as meaningful as it is now.
BILL MOYERS: And now you have the independent groups that can frame that conversation. They're really these outside groups with all the money at their disposal are now determining what's discussed in the campaign.
HEATHER GERKEN: Well, I mean, I will say that the best argument from McCutcheon's side is that once you have Citizens United, which is giving these independent groups so much money, you should let the parties catch up. And some-- McCutcheon's arguments would let the parties catch up to what's going on independently. And I understand that argument and I believe that it's important for the parties to be able to hold their own with the independent spending.
But the more obvious answer and the one that the Supreme Court talked about during argument was, well, maybe we should rethink Citizens United. Because again as I said before, just because we've created the Wild West on independent spending, it doesn't mean that the right answer is to create the Wild West on the party side. Maybe the answer is actually to go back to a world where we have some regulation on both sides.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think Citizens United can be reversed?
HEATHER GERKEN: Citizens United depended upon one vote, which is Justice Kennedy's vote. It was a very close decision. And when it was made we didn't really know what the effects were going to be. And oftentimes the Supreme Court does change its mind when it makes a decision and the facts on the ground turn out not to be what they thought they were. So it is perfectly acceptable for the court to rethink what it was doing because the facts on the grounds turned out to have changed.
BILL MOYERS: What do you worry about most with this McCutcheon case?
HEATHER GERKEN: So the one thing that we've always sort of hoped about the way money is working right now is that maybe in the long run the incumbents who are inside the parties would feel like they were being beaten by the independent spending and they might have some reason to regulate it. But if you create a world where the incumbents can get all the money they want from inside the system which is what McCutcheon is pushing us toward, the worry is that no one has any incentive to regulate who's in power.
And in a world where no one has any incentive to regulate, we're not going to get regulation. The core problem in election reform is that the foxes are guarding the henhouse. And so every politician would like to preserve his seat. And if the regulation helps the politicians and the incumbents, they'll keep it. And if it doesn't, they won't pass it. So my worry in the long term is that we pull all the incentives out for change because the people who are most interested in these questions and know the most about these questions are the politicians who will be opposing the regulation. And in that world it's almost impossible to get reform passed.
BILL MOYERS: Everyday people, the polls show they realize, 70, 75 percent realize that there's too much money in politics. And they just say, they throw up their hands and turn away. Is that your experience?
HEATHER GERKEN: I think the better way to think about it is there's always going to be money in politics. But it matters where the money goes and how it gets there. So just to give you an example, even with independent spending which has been really terrible in the last few years, if we could trace where the money came from, that would make a big difference.
If when you see one of these ads run by Americans for America and it seems really wonderful and it tells you how great coal is, I think if people -- and people hear Americans for America and they think it's just an ad. I think if people heard at the end of that ad, this was paid for by the coal industry, they'd think differently about the ad.
When we, you were talking about, you know, this all goes back to voters. If we just give voters the tools they need to see what's actually happening to realize where money is in the system, it might give them the weapon they need to fight back.
BILL MOYERS: Well, in his majority opinion written for the court at the time for Citizens United, Justice Kennedy said disclosure is perfectly acceptable here, if we're going to make the system work. But when the disclosure provision was put before the Senate, Mitch McConnell and Republicans filibustered it in effect, they throttled it, they did not let the Senate vote on disclosure.
HEATHER GERKEN: Well, this is another example of what you would call chutzpah. Because when McCain-Feingold was being passed, what Republicans like Mitch McConnell would say over and over again is, we don't need to cap anything. We don't need to shut down the money, we can just have disclosure and transparency, and that's all we need.
Now, a few years later, it's not just that they're refusing to pass basic disclosure and disclaimer rules, but it even gets worse than that. The lawyers are now arguing that corporations are intimidated if their money was disclosed. So you see lawyers in court and outside in the public arguing that giant companies like Walmart or Target or Exxon are scared to give money into politics because they're feeling so intimidated by threats. Now and this is just where it goes beyond the level of absurd.
They invoke precedent from the Supreme Court from the battle days in the, when the NAACP membership was being threatened with lynching. So it's one thing to say that, you know, in the 1940s and 1950s people might get lynched for expressing their political viewpoints on race in the south and that there's reasons to protect that. But it's quite another thing to say that we should worry about Walmart and Exxon when they're giving money in politics. That is not a first amendment concern.
BILL MOYERS: If in fact the Supreme Court says disclosure is fine as the court said in the Citizens United decision, yes, we should know and it's okay to know and it's legal to know, why are Senator Mitch McConnell and others in Congress preventing disclosure from happening, from passing it, from approving it, from saying, yes, let's disclose the source of this money?
HEATHER GERKEN: Because the people who support Senator McConnell and the Republican party would prefer to give this money anonymously, secretly through shell corporations. An example, the insurance companies put a lot of money into the Chamber of Commerce. And it was the Chamber of Commerce that was saying things about the Obamacare, not the insurance industry.
It looked clean, right? It looked like it was just the business interests being expressed by the chamber of commerce. But it was really insurance money funding that. That's a problem. That's a problem because you can't evaluate the message if you don't know who the messenger is.
BILL MOYERS: Heather Gerken, I've enjoyed listening to you and learning from you. And I thank you for taking this time to be with us.
HEATHER GERKEN: Thank you so much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Historian Joyce Appleby came to town the other day, and I was eager to meet her.
Her new book is out this very weekend, in which she ranges across 400 years of history with characters from Christopher Columbus to Charles Darwin. Shores of Knowledge explains how the curiosity of Old Europe broke free of church dogma, creating the world we inhabit today.
Her earlier books also follow threads that connect our past to our present. Read The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, and you’ll get an interesting take on how and when capitalism and democracy do and don’t get along.
And above all, read this one, Inheriting the Revolution, in which, as one reviewer put it, she “perfectly captures the world created by the sons and daughters of the American Revolution.”
Joyce Appleby taught for years at San Diego State and UCLA, where she’s now a professor emerita. She served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. She still lectures, reads widely, spends time in the garden, and continues to feed the curiosity that drives every book and article she writes. Welcome.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Thank you, Bill. Pleasure to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You have had such a long and prolific life as a historian. What were you looking for? What were you after?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Oh goodness, what a question. I don't think that I ever had a long-term goal in mind. But you mentioned curiosity. I was curious about things. And I think that is the key to an historian and probably a key to all knowledge makers.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, curiosity? What is it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Curiosity is kind of an itching desire to have a question answered -- and an answer doesn't exist. I used to tell my students that everything they learned at the university was the answer to somebody's question. And if no one had asked a question, that answer wasn't there, that knowledge wasn't there.
So I think that's something that's fascinating about curiosity. And of course this last book is all about curiosity and its being unleashed. Because curiosity was not held in -- by respect in the Catholic Church or the Christian church. It was just seen as a lust for knowledge and asking questions that only God knew, so you weren't supposed to ask about eclipses or tides or comets or anything of that sort. And so the origin of The Shores of Knowledge was my curiosity about how curiosity was liberated.
BILL MOYERS: You describe how the foundations of our knowledge, of life, of the sciences of life began in that 400-year period from Christopher Columbus to Charles Darwin. What was the question you wanted to have answered about it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, as I said, curiosity had been proscribed. And Europeans, hard to believe, Europeans weren't very curious. They didn't travel much, they are very secure in the knowledge that they knew everything that was needed to know. And then they encountered these two continents and a cluster of islands in between them with this exotic flora, these strange animals, and even stranger people.
And they didn't know what to think because their understanding of the cosmos was that there was Adam and Eve, there was Noah's Ark, and that contained the world's population. But where did these people come from? And this was such an insistent, it was really an imperative question. Because they had to figure out whether-- how they were going to maintain their orthodoxy or maybe move outside of it. And a lot of them did move outside of it.
BILL MOYERS: You said they had to be blindsided when they took these journeys, made these discoveries. What do you mean?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Blindsided. I mean, just smacked. "Wow, who are these people? What is this topography?" I suppose blindsided sounds sort of violent. This is more, "Oh my goodness, what a revelation. This exists?"
BILL MOYERS: But to get there, they had to overcome what you've described as this lid on curiosity that the church had kept on the natural world. And despite men like Galileo, the church succeeded in making ignorance a doctrine almost.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right. Well, it was ignorance of doctrine, it was a dogma that had to be protected. And a dogma, for its effectiveness, had to assume that it knew everything. But I don't think curiosity drove Columbus to the New World. I think he was an adventurer and a very religious man. I think he wanted to get to the Spice Islands. He wanted to get to Asia. It was the people who came along with him and were just astounded and in particular, a group of men who wrote about what they had found, they wrote histories.
They even drew pictures because they had such trouble describing what they'd seen. And it was those men and their-- it just came back at a good time in Europe. They came back when there was a vernacular press, that is to say a press outside of Latin. And printing was getting cheaper and they wrote these books, there were a hundred publications about the New World produced in the first 20 years. So I think that's where the curiosity came in.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that burst of curiosity?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Oh, I think there are so many things to-- I mean, you know, was the puma a tiger? Was the llama a camel? Was the alpaca a lamb? You know, they tried to fit everything-- they do what we all do. We try to fit what's new into what we already know. And it just didn't work.
And the more they tried to fit, the more they had to look at this phenomenon and examine the hoofs or the tails or ears. And this led to, "Oh, well, we could find out more about this." And the more they became curious about the exotic things, the more they became curious about the things around them.
BILL MOYERS: You've said we can’t have curiosity without imagination. Why is that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, because I think curiosity depends upon your imagining something different from what exists. I think it absolutely has this radical notion that we aren't bound by everything that we see and that we're told.
And what's astounding to me is that it's not just curiosity, but within two or three generations of the discovery of the New World, they're not only questions, but there is the capacity to invest hundreds and thousands of hours into getting the answer. That's what science takes. It can't be casual curiosity. A lot of people can have casual curiosity. But to move forward, you've got to have people with an intense persistence. And there again, imagination comes in. Imagining answers.
BILL MOYERS: Who were these people?
JOYCE APPLEBY: One of my favorites in the 17th century was van Leeuwenhoek who was in the cloth trade. And in the cloth trade, he dealt with magnifying glasses to look at the threads, the weaving threads to assess it. And then he started making what turned out to be the microscope, magnifiers with greater and greater and greater power.
And then, he wanted to put things under his microscope. He's the first one who had a microscope. So he would put a frog's leg under it or a fish fin or a grain of wheat. And then one day, he put under his microscope a drop of water. And guess what he saw? He saw what he called all these little "beasties" wandering around. He had discovered microbes. He had discovered the world of bacteria.
Well, this had the effect of creating a sense that there's a difference between appearances and reality. There is a reality that can't be seen by the naked eye. And this, of course, was a great spur for the curiosity.
BILL MOYERS: I'm taken with this sentence from the book. "Passing from amateur passions to sober investigations of biology, geology, and astronomy, [curiosity] upended the grand Christian narrative of the origins of life and the place of our planet in the universe." With what consequences?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the consequences, I suppose, are you and me.
BILL MOYERS: A frame of reference, right?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right. There's also a real intellectual difference. Because the enemy of curiosity is dogma. Dogma is certain, this inerrant, “this is truth.” But that's not true about science.
Scientists, inquirers, these amateurs, they know it's a process. And what they're finding is tentative. It might be replaced or returned by someone, or modified. And I think that's why today those people who are dogmatic have so much trouble with science. Because they think that science is like dogma. It's inerrant. They're saying, "Absolutely that this is true," when they're really saying, "This is as much as we know now. But we're going to know more." It's a very different intellectual approach.
BILL MOYERS: The church was trying, at its best, to protect believers and everyday people from the terrors of the unknown, from hell, from fantastic creatures that occupied the seas. They were trying to protect believers with the safety of dogma.
JOYCE APPLEBY: And that's what's so interesting about the beginning of the science is that they produced a different kind of stability. They produced the stability of, "Well, there weren't sea monsters out there, maybe there aren't sea monsters. These fish aren't going to do something I don't expect a fish to do." You know, so that there is a slow replacement of the stability of dogma to the stability of at least knowing something, of having the world friendlier.
BILL MOYERS: I remember we visited the place from which Columbus set out on his first visit--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And being struck with the thought that, as they said, no one knew what was out there. No one knew where the oceans led or what lay in the oceans, right?
JOYCE APPLEBY: They had a lot of speculation, there were human beings with dog heads and sea monsters that were going to erupt from the ocean. I mean, there was a lot of speculation, which really made it difficult for Columbus to convince a group of men to sail with him. It's an amazing story. But it's one of intrepidity. Just intrepid. Just, you know, "We're going to do this. We're going to try it. We've got the courage and the guts to do this."
BILL MOYERS: But here's another perplexing thing. They were curious to come to this New World, to find out what it looked like, what it was made of, and they found these amazing people, the native, indigenous people. But very shortly, their discovery of these indigenous people led to their exploitation and enslavement
JOYCE APPLEBY: It's very interesting, the exploitation of the people, because the people led to a great deal of speculation, "Where did they come from?" One man went through, "Were they Phoenicians, were they Finns, were they Scythians, were they Romans, were they Greeks?" They went through all the possibilities and finally concluded that they were something new.
And I think the exploitation came with the need. Because the people who followed Columbus, most of them are adventurers. They're just out there to plunder, as we know with Pizarro and Cortés. And then they -- if they're going to exploit it, they need workers.
BILL MOYERS: I didn't know until I read your book that I think it was by 1526, 1530, some, there were more slaves imported from Africa--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: --in this area than there were Europeans.
JOYCE APPLEBY: That's right. There were six times more Africans than Europeans I think by 1565. It's just staggering.
BILL MOYERS: So in a way, the unintended consequences created an American experience, so to speak, that was founded on a vast system of slavery.
JOYCE APPLEBY: That's true. That's true. But then that's a part of capitalism, that desire to produce goods for the market and to use whatever you can to produce them. And they were busy, you know, one thing they did was create sugar plantations.
Think of a world that doesn't have any sweetness except for the occasional honey that comes their way. Think of introducing sugar. This is-- these are the richest islands in the world when they were producing sugar. Took incredibly intensive labor. Just such a cruel system.
BILL MOYERS: Your cast of characters in The Shores of Knowledge ranges from Christopher Columbus to Charles Darwin, this period of 400 years. Did you come upon one thing they all had in common?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the great ones had genius. I mean, when we get to the 19th century and Alexander Humboldt and Charles Darwin, they have genius. They have this sense that we could understand how nature operates, what the powers of nature are.
BILL MOYERS: I confessed that I had heard almost nothing if anything about Alexander Humboldt. What did he do for us?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, he's really the world's first ecologist. He had a great desire to understand how the natural systems interacted. He was a mineralogist, he was a geographer, he was a geologist, and he traveled -- these guys traveled heavy. He came with sextants and quadrants and meters that could tell you how, what the intensity of the blue water was. And he just measured everything.
And Darwin had read all of his travel journals. And when he got to the New World, Darwin said, "I used to admire Humboldt, now I adore him."
BILL MOYERS: Darwin called him a "grand progeny of scientific travelers."
JOYCE APPLEBY: Exactly. It's amazing. You hadn't heard of him, I hadn't heard of him before I studied this. And yet in his day, he was seen as second importance only to Napoleon.
BILL MOYERS: A contemporary?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Born the same year.
BILL MOYERS: And on the centennial of his birth, it's amazing to learn in your book that one word appeared on the front page of The New York Times. One word.
JOYCE APPLEBY: "Humboldt!"
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: As I say, I think they were so thrilled with the man, and he wrote about 50 volumes, unlike Darwin. He just wrote books all the time.
BILL MOYERS: He, like Darwin, was stinging in his comments about slavery. I learned this from your book. But when his famous book appeared in this country, the American version of his famous book, all the references to slavery had been excised.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Isn't that astounding?
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I only know that they did that because he said they did that. The other thing is that Darwin also rejected this idea that there was a difference in the races. And this is phenomenal because in the middle of the 19th centuries, when we get these theories of racial hierarchies, they're just, you know, and--
BILL MOYERS: And we begin to get the development of eugenics, I mean, right--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right, exactly. But even before eugenics, that white race at top and you go down with each color. And they just both, both, really the two greatest scientists in the natural sciences of the 19th century, both utterly rejected that. And what a shame that they weren't listened to.
BILL MOYERS: Humboldt, Darwin, and many others, as you write defined our modern world while loosening the hold of religious dogma over the imagination and over scientific inquiry. How then do you explain the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in our time?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think it was just too shocking to think of human beings as being what they are because of descent through modification. I mean, what a concept, as opposed to thinking you were created by God or that you had some essence, essence that was always there.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this was--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Isn't that true today? Isn't evolution still the enemy?
BILL MOYERS: Well, there are several parts of this country, including my home state of Texas, where there are significant numbers of people who would like to return us to the belief system of 1492. And I'm not exaggerating--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Where does this lead us?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, it doesn't lead us to curiosity, I'll say that. It doesn't lead us-- I mean, we do have an attack on science now, cutting back on funding, you know, we have certainly in our politics, we have the resurgence of dogmatism rather than curiosity about how programs might work out.
There's an insistence, "We know how they'll work out and if we don't like them, they shouldn't be." I mean, there's certainly an attack on Obamacare. You might just take this, "Well, let's see how it works out. This is a very important goal to offer healthcare." But no, “this is wrong, this is bad.”
BILL MOYERS: As a historian, what does that tell you? Looking back over the span of time, what is what's happening to these currents of resistance to science, to knowledge to imagination, what do you draw from that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I don't know. That's a very difficult question, Bill. I really can't explain it.
BILL MOYERS: Can societies evolve backwards?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I don't think so. One of-- no. I don't think so. I mean, one of the fascinating things to me is that we have a political system today, probably only in the last ten years, I don't know, that seems sort of moribund and rigid.
And also, you've got to recognize the element of racist in this. This long sense of a dominant, white male authority in the country and today you have, you know, this racial diversity, you have women in positions of power. I think there's-- that’s why I don't think this is going to last.
BILL MOYERS: So you think-- what's not going to last?
JOYCE APPLEBY: This rigidity. It's not going to last. And this is a terrible thing to say, but I am old person so I can say it. I believe in reform by the grim reaper. I don't think it's going to last because I don't think there’s a rank of young people who are that frightened by the diversity, the demographic diversity and the presence of women and the changes in our society. They've come very fast, really, you have to admit.
BILL MOYERS: Last 25 years of our life.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Exactly. We didn't ask question about women or slaves or Hispanics in American culture until about 40 years ago. So we didn't know anything about them. We didn't teach anything about them. But, you know, I don't think Americans can get away from how central the issue of race is. It's pretty -- it's quite a foundation when you introduce an enslaved population and it's a significant one and with it, it's not just enslavement, it's the racial prejudice that has to exist in order to defend and accept it. That's a heavy legacy. And I think we're making amazing strides. But it--
BILL MOYERS: And yet?
JOYCE APPLEBY: But it takes time.
BILL MOYERS: So where do you see this racism playing itself out today?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the hatred of Obama might be one place. It's not just a hatred of him. I remember, I grew up during the New Deal. People really hated Roosevelt. But they didn't delegitimize him. And I think that Obama, there is this, just, unwillingness to accept that he's president. How many people feel that way? I'm sure it's no more than 10 percent or 15 percent. But it's a very vocal group. I don't-- that's just one explanation, but I certainly see it. And there are all kinds of other places where we see racism playing out.
And I think that many people who are optimists like me want to say, "Oh, we've made such progress." And we're unwilling to see until it's brought home to us by some event. "Well, it's fluctuating progress here and there." And it's moving forward, but not in a strong phalanx moving forward.
BILL MOYERS: Put this new book, “Shores of Knowledge,” in the context of your earlier works on America, “Inheriting the Revolution and then The Relentless Revolution” -- is there a thread that connects these three books in your life and your interest and your curiosity?
JOYCE APPLEBY: I suppose there is. And it's a kind of a chauvinistic motive. I mean, I think I've always been fascinated by the freshness of the United States and the tolerance for things and just that wonderful openness to possibilities.
It was fascinating to me, curious again, that the first generation of people born between 1776 and 1800. And I thought, "Hmm, I wonder what these people who had never been subjects of King George's, never been colonists, how did they react differently?” And I was interested in how they interpreted what had been given to them, kind of encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence.
And it's kind of interesting, they didn't have the accomplishments that Europeans had. They didn't have any great art, any great architecture, any great novelists. So they celebrated what they did have, which was their initiative, their hard work, their go-getted-ness. And these are all sort of clichés. But there was a lot of truth in it when you look at how fast that nation was settled. People leaving nice, comfortable little farms and taking their sons and daughters and moving into the Ohio Valley and then beyond.
BILL MOYERS: In Inheriting the Revolution, you told how this first generation after the Revolution took the Founding Fathers' gift to them, the Revolution, and infused meaning into it. Succinctly, how did they do it?
JOYCE APPLEBY: They certainly, you know, gave all the proper vows to freedom and liberty and also equality. There was an equalizing movement among the whites. Not with black relations, but among the whites after the Revolution. And there was a tremendous admiration for ambition. And they did this in part with biographies. They had their heroes and they wrote about them.
And they also celebrated their accomplishments, but they weren't traditional ones from a highly cultured point of view. They were doing things, you know, taking medicine out to Cincinnati, Ohio, and founding a medical school. Or moving the line of settlement further and further West. They did this obviously because they had writers, they had novelists, they had newspapers. Newspapers, Americans had about four times the number of newspapers of any other country in the world, despite its small population. BILL MOYERS: And what did that mean practically?
JOYCE APPLEBY: It meant that everybody was up on the news. They were--
BILL MOYERS: On the same page, so to speak--
JOYCE APPLEBY: Right, yeah, right. And you know, America got a lot of travelers in the early 19th century. People wanted to come see this place. But they call commented on the phenomenon that people in the country were not rubes. They knew as much as people in the city. They were reading the paper. That's really different.
BILL MOYERS: But what does it say, Joyce, that Americans today, many Americans today, no longer feel as this generation of Americans did, about their capacity to shape their destinies? There's a great deal of futility and despair in the country, as you know.
JOYCE APPLEBY: I think it's because the economy is not serving them as well as it once did. I think one of the things that I discuss in “The Relentless Revolution” is the dominance of the financial services in our economy. But the financial services have changed dramatically themselves.
They used to be facilitators of enterprise. The bankers, they lent you money or they issued stock for you, or what not. But they had become players in themselves with their own goals and their own goals are often inimical to those of the country as a whole. There's very strong short-termism. I mean, we find that bankers, for instance, are playing a greater and greater role in the management of corporations and they want results for their shareholders.
Well, often quick results are antithetical to what's needed for long-term development. So that seems to be a major problem. But we have-- money brings power, but it doesn't bring responsibility with it. Now power without responsibility is pretty dangerous. And capitalism brings creative destruction. Well, creative destruction is very-- it's great for the economy, but it's hard for the society.
BILL MOYERS: Some of us believe that the defining issue of our time is the relationship between capitalism and democracy. What do you think about that?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think it is. And I think one of the most troubling aspects of that relationship is that they have a different-- capitalism really is amoral. But democracy is not amoral. Democracy is moral. It has a sense of the well-being of the whole. So I think there is that tension. But what has changed, through complicated processes of fundraising, one another, is that government is really no longer such a neutral player. It's kind of a patron of business now.
So I think that the government ought to be much more concerned-- well, I was mentioning the creative destruction. You know, this sounds great, "Yeah, get rid of this old method of making metal or producing wood," whatever. But it closes down factories, it shrinks towns, you have all the social problems, and it's up to democracy to protect that. The other thing is, capitalists act like they don't need government.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
JOYCE APPLEBY: They need a strong judiciary, they need to have a legal system that guarantees the contracts, they need to have clean police and clean politicians. They need all of these things that create the stability that is essential to capitalism.
BILL MOYERS: You know, all these early explorers, or many of these early explorers and discoveries you write about were state-sponsored or sponsored by the king or self-financed. And we forget that about capitalism today. It depends upon this culture.
JOYCE APPLEBY: I don't think we forget about it. I think we're bamboozled. We're told over and over again that it's a natural system, like aerodynamics, and you can't interfere with it. Well, it's not a natural system. It's a totally social system that has changed dramatically from generation to generation. Composition of the factors in capitalism, but also the changes in the way in which the government acts.
Look at the New Deal. Here you have capitalism absolutely down on its knees, and you have a program that put people to work, program invested in our infrastructure. I mean, that spending brought us out of the Depression, and --
BILL MOYERS: Well, look at the--
JOYCE APPLEBY: --and we're not having that today the way we should.
BILL MOYERS: You say in “Inheriting the Revolution,” that this generation of Americans quickly established a new identity for themselves as Americans, given the raging inequality today, given the vast diversity in this country, given the clash of opinions and values and beliefs, can we create a new identity as Americans? What is an American today?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Do we want to create a new identity? I think we want to recover what's best in us. A tremendous respect for each individual, a belief in expanded ambits for action and thinking, an admiration for innovation, a respect for the law, a belief in an independent judiciary. I know I'm sounding like a terrible chauvinist, but I do admire the best qualities in our country.
BILL MOYERS: Joyce Appleby, thank you very much for joining me. The new book is The Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Been a great pleasure, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, there's a rogue’s gallery of the people really behind the government shutdown, the big money ideologues pulling the strings of congress. That’s at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.