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Al Franken: Has Democracy Reached a Tipping Point?

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Al Franken: Has Democracy Reached a Tipping Point?

Former Senator Al Franken discusses the radicalization of the Republican party and the threats facing American Democracy.

During the interview, Al had this to say about his Republican colleagues:

“I stay in touch with some of my former Republican colleagues and I will give them crap. I'll text them and I send them Christmas cards. And I ask them about their families and I know them and we joke and stuff like that. I got along pretty well with my colleagues, I thought. I will just chide them and basically say, "Why can't you just come out and say that Biden won the election?" And they'll be, blah blah blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It ultimately comes down to, "I'd lose my primary". That's what it comes down to. I finally get them to say that. And these guys, I understand. They want to be senators and they want to stay in power and they want to be senators.”

Al Franken got his start as a stand up comedian, and was a writer on Saturday Night Live for 15 seasons in between 1975 and 1995. He won five Emmys during his time on the show, and also won two grammys for his comedy and spoken word albums.

Later in his career, Al noticed that conservative narratives dominated radio airwaves, so he created The Al Franken Show in an attempt to even the playing field. Al said this about creating the show: “I’m doing this because I want to use my energies to get Bush unelected.” The show aired on Air America Radio from 2004-2007.

In 2007, Al announced he was running for the senate seat in Minnesota. He won the general election by only 312 votes. He served as senator from 2009 to 2018.

Now, Al hosts the Al Franken Podcast, and is currently on tour.

He is also the author of nine books, four of which were #1 New York Times Best Sellers. You can find them all here.

You can find Al on Twitter at @AlFranken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Al Franken:

I saw some polling, like 70% of Americans think democracy is at risk. And some of them are right wing people who think we're communists or socialists, and that that's the risk. But a lot of people know it's this, it's the election denying and all that stuff. But only 7% says it's their number one issue, and boy, this just feels like how democracies go away.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Al Franken. You know him as the former senator from Minnesota and Saturday Night Live writer. He's also the author of four number one New York Times bestsellers and the host of the Al Franken podcast. We have a genuine celebrity on the show today for a change. Al, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Al Franken:

Well thank you. It was great meeting you in LA.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, likewise. Great meeting you too. You're back on tour now. As your website says, you're the only former US Senator currently on tour. I have seen clips of your set and I have always been surprised at your ability to maintain a sense of humor even as our democracy is hurtling towards a cliff. How do you do it?

Al Franken:

Well, you're assuming that the clips you saw, those are a few months ago, and right now I'm having a hard time keeping my sense of humor. It's very, very dangerous right now. Our democracy is threatened. I was talking to Sheldon Whitehouse the other day. He's written a book about how the Supreme Court was captured and we were both kind of talking about tipping points and I think we were kind of coming to the conclusion that maybe instead of the tipping point is coming, is that we've already had the tipping point in terms of the destruction of our democracy. And we started to go back to, well, first of all, Citizens United, which has allowed all this dark money in. And if you're watching the campaign ads, those are all those horrible, horrible, disgraceful negative ads about crime, et cetera.

I have a former counsel, judiciary counsel, Josh Riley, who's running in the 19th District in New York. He's from there. He's a brilliant guy. He was my judiciary counsel for four years. And they run an ad where, first, they have a guy cold-cocking a guy on the street. You've maybe seen this because they have, these are cookie cutter ads and they go like, "Violent Josh Riley and his allies want to get rid of cash bail and his allies want to defund the police." And they run a thing going ‘Defund the Police’ across his face. He and I together gave millions of dollars, millions and millions and millions of dollars of funding to local police forces for crisis intervention training. That was my bill that I did with Cornyn, was my lead co-sponsor. He worked with Cornyn's judiciary council to get this. And this crisis intervention training is training for cops to recognize when they're in a situation that's fueled by either mental illness, or in some cases, drugs, and to how to de-escalate. It's a cookie cutter ad and it's paid for, it's all dark money. It's all dark money.

So there's Citizens United, Shelby County, Garland, not taking up Garland, and then Trump. And I'm just very worried right now about our democracy. So many of these Republican candidates all over the country who are running in key positions like secretaries of state, et cetera, are deniers and it's very dangerous.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, you were sounding the alarm about this long before most people were paying attention. I'm thinking about your first book about Rush Limbaugh and then your-

Al Franken:

Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right, and other observations.

Al Franken:

And then Lies and Lying Liars.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. It seems like you're working your way through the media conduits that are most manipulative of people on the right. You started with Rush Limbaugh and AM radio. You went to Fox News with Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. The dominant force now seems to be this social media ecosystem in which literally an alternate reality has been created. Have you begun to think about how to take that on after tackling AM Radio and Fox News? We're in a brave new world now.

Al Franken:

I think we should look at section 230 of a, what's that, the Internet Decency Act or something. And that was at the beginning of the internet. And there's a reason for this, which was basically say that Facebook or those platforms are platforms and they're not publishers, so they can't be responsible for the content. So people can put content on there and they can't be responsible for it. And that was a First Amendment impulse and they just did not understand what was going to happen. And if you look at Facebook, Facebook has all these sophisticated algorithms. They feed this stuff to the people on Facebook. The algorithms that Facebook has, their whole algorithm is, what's going to keep you on. And so they're feeding and they know that agitating, people getting agitated, keeps them on. So the idea that they can't control this is absurd. They're the ones with the algorithm. They're the ones pointing people to this content. So I think that we have to revisit Section 230, which basically said these platforms can't be responsible for the content and they need to be responsible. And we have to… There needs to be a way to do it where you're not stopping any kind of legitimate discourse, legitimate discussion of opinions and stuff, but you can't have just these lies going out.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, we have mechanisms in other media that address this, libel laws and certainly other countries can provide some instructive examples. The idea that American exceptionalism requires us to put up with this, I just think is false.

Al Franken:

Yeah, libel laws, I suppose, still hold. I think Alex Jones hopefully will cough up the billion dollars and be forced to, and that will chase him. But think about how pernicious and painful and awful that was and how dangerous all of this is. And part of that tipping point is social media obviously and sort of the dumbing down in our discourse. Twitter, I use Twitter, I have a lot of followers on Twitter, I tweet. But basically, people like to get reaction and followers and it seems like there's not much room for sophisticated, thoughtful dialogue very often.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you surprised at how quickly this has all happened, how fast the right has descended into this pit and this alternate universe? I'm thinking about your very competitive election, which you won by 312 votes and both sides accepted it. That was not that long ago. There was a Washington Post editorial that brought it up and the title of that editorial was Americans Care about Democracy, Just Not Enough to Save It. I cannot imagine if your election had happened today that both sides would've accepted the result.

Al Franken:

Well, certainly the other side would not have accepted the results. As it was, there were some jerks who would go like, well, they had this many people show up who weren't legal, that bullshit, but very, very little of it. Part of it was that we did it so transparently. Part of the reason it took so long for me to be seated is that we're Minnesota and we had ... First of all, in other states, I would've been seated right away. I won the recount in time to be seated with my colleagues. But then we had an election contest, which, the legal thing, and that took forever. We had a three judge panel and they were just so thorough. And actually, I think I had won by 260 some and then it went up to 312 after that. But we did it so transparently, every vote in the state was on paper and every vote was hand counted with a member of, a Coleman person there and a Franken person at the table. And you could challenge a ballot and it would go up. And then there were so many challenged. But at a certain point we winnowed the ones that were legitimate challenges. We put them up online. Every ballot was online for everyone who wanted to see it, to see.

I don't know if that happens today. I mean, that was the rules. Those were the rules. But no, the person running for Secretary of State now in Minnesota, the challenger, the Republican challenger is an election denier. And the fact that this has happened is just frightening, it's frightening. And I think the horse is out of the barn. I don't think we're ever getting this horse back in the barn.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I hate to hear you say that. And you've talked about the tipping point and the implication is that you don't return from a tipping point. But I can't live there, so what are the urgent actions we need to take today to at least have some hope of recovering?

Al Franken:

Well, one, we have to win these elections. And right now, the trends aren't great. But if you're watching this, you might want to door knock. I won, as you said, by 312 votes. Think about that. The people that door knocked for me, won that thing for me. One person door knocked more than 312 people in the last week. I mean, so get out there, vote, obviously, but do everything you can between now and the election to try to persuade people. And door knocking is a great way to do it, also door knocking, you learn a lot. You learn what people are really thinking. It's the best kind of polling there is. You give money to Unite Here, which is a hospitality workers. They are on the ground in Nevada, in Arizona, in Pennsylvania. They're the hospitality workers I always ... My PAC, Midwest Values PAC always gives to them. I think we just raised $245,000 for them with a Zoom call. I had Conan O'Brien and D. Taylor, the head of Unite Here. They were key in Georgia two years ago. There's stuff you can do.

The best thing I can do on this podcast is encourage your viewers and listeners to vote and to get out there and help phone bank, text bank, do any of that stuff. That's what we can do right here, right now, you and me. I can talk about it. But this is really scary and the court is scary. And this North Carolina case is very scary. This independent state legislature doctrine that they're talking, which is basically that the state legislatures can decide elections without and how elections are conducted in their states without subject to the courts. That's extremely scary. And they've taken that, I hope that they don't decide for North Carolina state legislature because two-thirds of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. And you know what they'll do, this would've enabled Trump to win.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, I'm glad you're bringing up those threats because they don't get quite as much attention as the loud election deniers. But it's not just about casting doubt on the integrity of our elections, and it's not just about gerrymandering and voter suppression, it's about vote counting and who the legislatures send, I think.

Al Franken:

Yeah, and the court is all about other things too. It's about, obviously overturning Roe, but it's also about the EPA not being able to have authority over greenhouse gasses and to do something about it. And it's really frigging frightening in many ways.

Ken Harbaugh:

You've said that the Republican party, and this is a quote, "has ceased to participate in good faith in our democracy." I see that every day because I pay close attention. But for the skeptical Republicans, for my parents who don't pay attention every day, what are a couple clear examples in addition to the loud election deniers of the Republican party literally giving up on governing, on democracy.

Al Franken:

I think one of the best examples is the RNC saying that the insurrection on January 6th was "legitimate political discourse". I mean, come on. ‘Hello. We no longer believe in democracy.’

Ken Harbaugh:

What is the point for them? If you can take us inside the mind of some of your Republican colleagues in the Senate, what is the point of winning power if that's what it costs? Undermining the very basis of that power, democracy.

Al Franken:

I know what it is. I stay in touch with some of my former Republican colleagues and I will give them crap. I'll text them and I send them Christmas cards. And I ask them about their families and I know them and we joke and stuff like that. I got along pretty well with my colleagues, I thought. I will just chide them and basically say, "Why can't you just come out and say that Biden won the election?" And they'll be, blah blah blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It ultimately comes down to, "I'd lose my primary". That's what it comes down to. I finally get them to say that. And these guys, I understand. They want to be senators and they want to stay in power and they want to be senators. And each of them had different, Lindsay Graham, of course, went from just hating Trump to playing golf with him. And Lindsay wants to be part of the action. He also wanted to get reelected in South Carolina. He wants to be in the game. And I think that's his whole life basically. And that's it, it's great to be senator.

Ken Harbaugh:

How does that make you think about apportioning moral responsibility for January 6th? There's a lot we could point to, but I think that's a pivotal moment. When I think about all the people on the wrong side of the barricade there. How many veterans, for example, were among them? How many sincerely believed that they were the ones fighting for the Constitution? And then I think about the cynics who drove them to those barricades from a safe distance. It is hard for me to decide who to be-

Al Franken:

Or, who were attacked that day and who left. I mean, who were there? It's disgusting. I don't know how many it was, 12 or something senators who signed on to that thing saying, we're going to challenge the certification. And what they wrote is, more Americans than ever doubt whether it was fairly decided. Well, you know why, because you guys have been saying this and Trump has been saying it and lying and lying. And then the sad part is, is that all this, these January 6th hearings have been really brilliantly put together and presented and it hasn't changed anything for these people. And that's really frightening. I just was assuming, okay, some of these people got to watch some of it and it just hasn't changed Republicans at all. And I guess I saw some polling, like 70% of Americans think democracy is at risk. And some of them are right wing people who think we're communists or socialists, and that that's the risk. But a lot of people know it's this, it's the election denying and all that stuff. But only 7% says it's their number one issue, and boy, this just feels like how democracies go away.

Ken Harbaugh:

There used to be some kind of glue that held the Senate together. It operated on tradition as much as trust. You said recently that McConnell broke the Senate and have proposed what seemed to me some pretty simple reforms. How far gone is the Senate today in terms of a lawmaking body and are there simple tweaks that can help bring it back? Or is it just culturally so corrupted that it has reached a tipping point as well?

Al Franken:

It's funny, the first day I got there, finally, I was just talking to some of the veterans and some of the alter kockers, as we say in Yiddish. So it was like Lautenberg and Carl Levin and maybe Lieberman and anyway, Cole. And they were going, "It's worse than it's ever been." They said, "This is like 2009, July, 2009." And so Levin says, "No, it's been worse." Carl Levin, Michigan, great senator. So I said, "When?" He goes, "1854." And I said, "Sumner being caned." He goes, "Yes." And I said, "Well, okay, that was in the lead up to the Civil War." He goes, "Yeah, but that was worse."

Ken Harbaugh:

Every time I hear people say we've been through this before as a country, it's the Civil War.

Al Franken:

Right. Yeah. But it didn't go well. 600,000 dead. But we ended slavery. Anyway, for a while. And then we had reconstruction. But then it just got worse from there.

And McConnell, the reason I said that about McConnell is that he, after Obama was elected, they had a caucus. I think they had a retreat or something and he told the Republican caucus, "We're just going to make him a one term president." And this is the start of the great recession. We've had this horrible financial meltdown and it's really serious. And they filibustered more executive, the exact number of executive appointees or nominees that Obama put forward as had been filibustered in the entire previous history of the country. And that broke it. And then obviously, the move on Garland. And he lied, of course. He said it was the Biden rule. You remember that?

Ken Harbaugh:

I do. I do, which is totally different.

Al Franken:

The Biden rule. He quoted this speech that Biden had said, I guess, let see, it would've been, let's see, when did, I guess, 92 or something.

Ken Harbaugh:

He was talking about the death of a Supreme Court justice.

Al Franken:

Well, what Biden was talking about in 92 was not the death of a justice. What he was talking about, this was in June, which was at the end of a Supreme Court term. And he was saying that if a justice was going to retire so that he could be replaced by another conservative, that they wouldn't take up a nominee unless we were consulted, or even absent consultation, a moderate. That was the speech. McConnell basically took a little part of the speech to say the principal was, we will not take up anyone during an election year. And of course, this is June, someone leaving so he can be replaced by a conservative as opposed to someone dying in February. And I remember him saying, "We're sorry, already been primary votes cast in New Hampshire." And of course, Coney Barrett. Absentee ballots had been in. She seated like eight days before the election. So the bad faith, the obvious bad faith is so ugly.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I'm looking at your background. I see your American flag and I've seen the challenge coins over your shoulder at other points during your interviews.

Al Franken:

Let me see. There it is. I got that in Afghanistan and it's beautiful. I don't know if you can really see the work there because it was made by an Afghan artist. I've seen a number of these. You've seen that kind of triangle, but this is so gorgeous. And I got that Camp Phoenix. I did seven USO tours. I did four to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait.

Ken Harbaugh:

Believe it or not, when I first became a fan, as a young Navy lieutenant. I'm wondering now how Democrats should talk about love of country like that. How do we talk about patriotism? It seems everywhere we turn the language of patriotism, the symbols of it have been hijacked by the extreme right. No one can forget the scenes of American flags, the flag poles being used as weapons on January 6th. How do we reclaim that?

Al Franken:

I think we just talk about what we think the principles of this country are. It's a sophisticated argument or discussion that we should be having. We have all this flawed history and I think it's quite racist for them to do critical race theory as something that's not taught in any K through 12. Younkin using that and Desantis passing a law saying that a teacher can be fired for making a kid feel uncomfortable about our history. So how do you teach American history? That's one of the things, is we have to teach American history. Our education system is not what it should be, but we've got to talk about what we believe America is. And America is, first and foremost, about democracy and elections. And there's nothing more antithetical to America than what happened on January 6th and who this president was and what he has been saying, what he continues to say. And this denial is just lying and we're supposed to be for truth, justice, and the American way. And that's what we're for, and that includes economic justice.

Paul Wellstone, you see right underneath that.

Ken Harbaugh:

I see it. Yep.

Al Franken:

Paul said, "We all do better when we all do better." And this country is the strongest when there's a strong middle class. And I think we have to talk about that. And we have to talk about this enormous gaps in wealth and how that's not good for the country. It just isn't.

Look, we're Democrats, we have our faults. I understand. I represented all of Minnesota. I met everybody. I saw really great people who were Trump supporters. I remember in 2017 when the Republican healthcare bill would've gotten rid of Medicaid expansion. Over 200,000 Minnesotans got their healthcare through Medicaid expansion. But not only that, but what that did was, was amazingly beneficial to red areas of the state because rural hospitals would have to eat it when someone came into the emergency room and wasn't covered. Well now suddenly, all these people recovered and suddenly the rural hospitals were flush with money. So what could they do? They could get more nurses and doctors and more technology and expand their scope of care. They could do home healthcare, they could do all this stuff. And in many cases, the rural hospitals became the largest employer in the county. So when the Republicans said what they were doing, I would go to these red counties and have a town meeting in a hospital and people were crying and nuts about it. And these were people in red, red counties. And so you have to be there, you have to go.

Remember when Cruz went to Cancun?

Ken Harbaugh:

Of course.

Al Franken:

And so then he lied and said, "I was only going there to drop the girls off." That was a lie. But then Ben Shapiro said, "Well, what could he do anyway?" I don't know if you remember this, but that really struck me because I learned so much during disasters, during floods and tornadoes. And also, you can do stuff. You have a big staff. You're one of only two statewide elected federal officials. You're in touch with FEMA. You can have FEMA get a diesel generator to a water treatment plant because the grid's down. But you also learn an amazing amount about people, and one of the things you learn about people is how great they are and how they step up for their neighbors. And you don't give a shit what their politics are. And we need to, as Democrats, show up. We need to show our willingness to listen. We also need to deliver strong messages and stand up for what we believe.

Ken Harbaugh:

What are we getting wrong as a party in our messaging and what are we getting right as well? But be critical here.

Al Franken:

I think people are just too afraid and too cautious and too colorless. I know that very often you have, and I had really good advisors and media consultants and stuff like that, but a lot of it just starts to sound the same. And there are people who have, some people are more compelling than other people. It does help to have a compelling way of talking. But I do think that we're very afraid sometimes to go outside our box and to go outside what's been determined by pollsters and consultants to be what we should be talking about. And it just gets very, very politician-ey.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Al, this has been great. I want to end with a quote from a young Navy lieutenant, written almost 20 years ago. If I'm not making it obvious enough, it was me in a US Naval Institute piece writing about you. Here we go. "Recently, comedian and activist Al Franken toured Iraq with the USO. By all accounts, the soldiers loved him. And Franken, though a critic of the war, praised the military personnel unabashedly. The ghost of Vietnam may not be completely exorcized, but Americans can still love their military even if some loathe its assignments. Still, too many of our leaders fear that missions will fail if a majority of Americans reject them. So be it. Billy Mitchell said it best, 'Changes in military systems come about only through the pressure of public opinion or disaster in war.'" And I closed with, "God willing, the wisdom of an informed public will save us from tragedy." I don't know how to feel about that 20 years later, but the lack of an informed public seems like it's dooming us to tragedy.

Al Franken:

Yep, you're right. I mean, you're wrong. I reverse that. No, there's no real choice other than to keep trying. And I hope I'm wrong, I hope the tipping point hasn't happened yet.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm with you. Thanks for all you're doing, Al, and thank you especially for your tireless support of vets. If I'm not mistaken, one of your first actions in the Senate was supporting the PAWS Act, service Dogs for vets. Is that right?

Al Franken:

That was my bill. What happened was, so again, I won my election. I won the recount, but I was in court, so I went to the inaugural, and I had done a lot of USO tours, so I was friends with Paul Rieckhoff, who was head of the IAVA. Iraq and Afghanistan Vets of America. So I went to their celebration and I met a wounded vet in a wheelchair who had a service dog, Luis Monteleon. He said, "I couldn't be here if it weren't for Tuesday." That was his dog. I said, "What? Tell me your story."

He was wounded in Iraq. He came back, lived in Brooklyn, was isolated. Never left his apartment, was drinking. Some organization contacted him and said, "We want to pair you with a service dog." He goes to Connecticut, gets paired with Tuesday. I said, "What Tuesday do for you?" He said, "Well, he can sense a smell when I'm going to get a panic attack and nuzzle me and prevent me from having it. I sometimes have these nightmares, these debilitating nightmares, and he'll jump on the bed and wake me up. If I don't take my medications at the right time, he'll grab me by my sleeve and take me for the medicine." He said, "I was isolated." You have to take a dog out twice a day. And people don't like going up to scruffy looking wounded vets. They do like going up to scruffy looking wounded vets who have a beautiful dog. He went to grad school, became a writer. He wrote about it.

So I had six months until I was seated and the only thing I could do is raise money. I didn't talk about it at all. I was told, shut up, just let it go. So I just made it my business to find out about service dogs. And so as soon as I got to the Senate, I dropped a bill to do a study to see what the effect of having a service dog for a vet with PTSD would be. It was a three year study matching 200 vets with PTSD with their dogs. The VA fucked up the study over and over again. It took 10 years. It took 10 years, and I was gone by then. But finally, when it came out, the effects were enormous. The benefits are enormous. And that's when we got the PAWS Act. And so now, more and more vets will be able to get service dogs. 20 vets commit suicide every day. And there's nothing like a dog. There's nothing like a dog and a service. Service dogs are amazing. So when the study came out, I just cried.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, yeah. Well, you're making me emotional too now, Al. So we better wrap it. Thank you so much for doing this today.

Al Franken:

This has been fun.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Keep your sense of humor. We need at least one former senator on tour who's funny.

Al Franken:

Lieberman, not so funny.

Ken Harbaugh:

All right. Thank you, Al.

Al Franken:

You bet. Thanks, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Al for joining me. Make sure to check out his show, The Al Franken Podcast.

You can learn more about Al and his “Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour” at alfranken.com.

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