Audio Astra: We often say ‘political’ divide when we mean ‘cultural’ divide – Kansas


Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

The Ghislaine Edition

The Slate Political Gabfest, Dec. 9

Where do we go from here on COVID-19?

Chillin’ in the Statehouse, Dec. 6

A World Cup for Kansas City?

Kansas City Today, Dec. 2 

In the years before 2010, the Slate Political Gabfest was my personal gateway drug into the world of podcasting. It lured me into listening as I folded laundry and mowed the yard. I plugged my iPod with its rotary dial into a desktop computer each week to sync the available episodes and delete the few podcasts that I had listened to that week. Streaming was years away.

Much like the Political Gabfest itself doesn’t know when it officially began, I’m not sure exactly when I started listening. But it’s surely been more than a decade of listening, and those weekly chats lured me to my current podcast habits involving please-app-don’t-tell-me-how-many hours of audio each week.

In listening to David Plotz, Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson report and comment on politics, I received my most focused poli-sci education — much more detailed and accessible than Poli Sci 110 at the University of Missouri.

Nevertheless, and likely because of Poli Sci 110, I constantly wondered about a useful definition of “politics.” Because I have read too many students start research papers or persuasive essays with a Webster’s dictionary definition, I won’t bore you with that.

My working definition through hundreds of Gabfest episodes that spanned the Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations is much less about policy, elections or governing, and much more about raw power. The roundtable discussions, without always using the word “power,” often frame political might as the axle around which issues revolve. Who was consolidating power? Who was squandering it? Who was abusing it? From Abu Ghraib to the “deplorables” to injecting bleach to selecting a female vice presidential running mate, power was either text or subtext.

As The Ringer helpfully recaps each week, power is also the core of the HBO show “Succession.” Each week The Ringer provides an NFL-style power ranking update on each of the show’s characters — and sometimes, a pet — to track who’s pulling the narrative strings. It follows Logan Roy, a intermittently senile media tycoon, as he coaxes his children to behave like sociopaths as they angle for his affection and power. The show is a mercilessly cruel comedy wardrobed as prestige drama. And I love it.

In the show, the Roy family wields both political power (who controls government) and cultural power (who controls the stories that inspire our habits and ambitions) through their conservative TV network. While the Roys are so wretched that they would be aghast at being caught in Kansas, some of this week’s podcasts here in Kansas pressed on this intersection of political and cultural politics.

This week’s “Chillin in the Statehouse” podcast considers whether some Kansans are already treating COVID-19 as though it is endemic, while trustworthy public health officials still classify it as a pandemic. Topeka Capital-Journal reporters Jason Tidd and Andrew Bahl describe how some Kansans would prefer the still-uncontained virus to be treated as nothing more than the common cold. Others believe, like former Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman, that our response should be more robust — and honest.

Right now, political differences are solidifying into cultural differences more quickly and radically than I have witnessed in my lifetime. The political parties we root for dictate the way we live our daily lives.

How does this COVID distinction link culture to politics?

Right now, political differences are solidifying into cultural differences more quickly and radically than I have witnessed in my lifetime. The political parties we root for dictate the way we live our daily lives. Political opposition to President Donald Trump nudged some families to continue sequestering themselves almost completely. Their risk calculations seem influenced, if not determined, by politics. Sure, the pandemic poses threats for the unvaccinated, but does it mean that your vaccinated children should still be held apart?

Likewise, some Americans know that they are essentially divorcing loved ones as they refuse vaccines that have been proven safe and effective. Is following conservative anti-vax conspiracists worth missing years with at-risk family members?

In both cases, politics becomes not just a belief system about government. Instead, it dictates how we live our lives out in the world.

Previously, Americans felt an allegiance to a particular politician or party. However, abandoning that loyalty was simple. Maybe you found an emerging politician on the other side who “you could imagine having a beer with.” We were pliable in our political affectations. Our daily lives were also less rigid — and we were more forgiving.

This political fickleness (or at least flexibility) was helpful because our habits didn’t calcify into culture. We didn’t choose our nightly activities based on political beliefs. The network evening news was a common cultural fireplace to gather around for all political types. Now, we can’t agree about what to watch, where to eat, who to marry or what to sing.

Increasingly, those cultural choices seem mandated by politics.

On cue, Thursday’s Political Gabfest about our current topsy-turvy economy contained this exchange between Plotz and Bazelon:

“Political partisanship and sorting have so pervaded everyday life,” Plotz said, “that people are unable to think clearly about their own economic circumstances because they are colored by how they are thinking about what’s happening politically. … What do we do with the fact that people think they are better off or worse off depending on who the president is?”

“We just realize how much political polarization is affecting and coloring people’s views about every issue,” Bazelon answered.

We are experts in acknowledging the gulfs between our politics. We point it out in conversation, on Facebook and in journalism. Unless we find ways to reach out to the other side in an effort to understand, we will continue this drift into different cultures fueled by those politics. This is not to say that we allow that drift to preserve a dominant culture of white power or economic inequality — quite the opposite.

It may sound cheesy, but compromise on politics might be the only way to prevent the shared culture of our country, our way of living happily together, from drifting inexorably apart. I understand that these paragraphs are not a solution, just an observation that, as one excellent new podcast acknowledges, America is an unfinished country. And we are shaping its cultural and political story.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.



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