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Mila Atmos: Moving the Needle

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Mila Atmos: Moving the Needle

Mila Atmos is the host of Future Hindsight, a podcast about civic engagement that gives listeners action items so that they can better participate in our democracy. In this episode, Mila discusses voter engagement and persuasion.

Mila Atmos:

This is where Republicans are very good. They're in it for the long haul.

I mean, look at the Dobbs decision. This was a decision that was 50 years in the making. They never gave up. They just kept at it.

And I think that people who believe in any cause have to be the same way. Any little difference makes a difference.

Ken Harbaugh:

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

My guest today, is Mila Atmos. Mila is the host of Future Hindsight, a podcast about civic engagement that gives listeners action items so that they can better participate in our democracy.

Mila, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Mila Atmos:

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate inviting me onto the show.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, of course. Your podcast, which I love is in its sixth season, and you've had some amazing guests, especially lately. And I so appreciate the show's hopeful tone.

But when you began hosting Future Hindsight in the wake of Trump's election in 2016, did you ever imagine that we would be staring down that same barrel again, that in spite of having all pulled together and beaten Trump, he would be back. How does that feel?

Mila Atmos:

That's a good question. How does it feel? Well, I think it feels both slightly desperate, but also, at the same time, (this sounds almost cheesy) I think there is a hopefulness in here. Which is that even though he continues to be on the scene, I think people continue to be motivated to turn out.

I think when you look at voters last election cycle, when it comes to abortion rights, I think people continue to, just like Republicans continue to dip into that fountain of Trumpism I think, so are liberals.

Although I will say, Trump was not on the ballot last fall in 2022. And a lot of people ran against Trumpist candidates or against Trumpism. And in some senses, I think that wasn't always necessarily working, but it continues to motivate the base.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you see your role as activating like-minded people, engaging Democrats and getting them to turn out? Or do you think there is still room for persuasion?

I always worry about that in how we message, because you certainly have to do the first thing, but in order to build bridges in order to get to a better future that I want for my kids, we also, have to do some persuading, right?

Mila Atmos:

That's a good question of whether we should be doing persuading. I think what I've discovered in the five years that I've been doing this podcast is that political leanings are like a belief system and you're not really going to persuade the other side. I think that's very, very hard.

Having said that, I think it's really important to continue to have open dialogue. And I think if you go into any conversation thinking that you're going to persuade the other person of your own viewpoint, I think that's a dead end.

But I think if you can come to the conversation and say, “Let's have an open conversation and I really want to understand your point of view, and I hope that you can also understand mine.” I think that's the best you can do. And I think if you can approach it that way, then I think you can see each other's humanity.

I like to say that if you can just see each other's humanity, I think you're in a better place because then you can find a way, you can find the places where you still have common ground. And I think from there you can pursue perhaps, a third path.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I'd love to hear more about that third path, because in American politics today, it really is, there's two choices. And you had this great blog post recently about, not persuasion per se, but seeing the humanity and people on the other side of that divide, which is all good and well.

But when it comes to existential elections like we're facing in 2024, what is the benefit of seeing the humanity of the other side if we wind up with an authoritarian president who is once again trying to destroy democracy?

Mila Atmos:

Yeah. Well, so, I would say the path to 2024 is still relatively long. It's now, April of 2023, so there's time. And think we can't predict the future, so who knows what's going to happen between now and then.

But speaking of the third path, I think one way to do this is to get around policies that people really can agree on. For example, I think even though people want to dog infrastructure, everybody benefits from better infrastructure.

And even though Republicans in the Senate didn't vote for it, they love to come home and say, “We got some federal dollars to build highways in our state.” And so, I think if people could just be less hypocritical about it, I think people can rally around things that really do work and really do affect everyday lives.

Ken Harbaugh:

For every example like that though, something like infrastructure that both sides are able to get behind, because there isn't as deep or powerful of a cultural element, there are 10 other issues that broadly speaking Americans agree upon.

But because of how our politics are structured, because of how extremists are empowered in primaries, nothing happens.

And this poll just came out, (I'm going to flip over to it) and it was a Fox News poll about gun reform, and the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of doing something. Background checks for all gun sales, 87%. This is a Fox News poll. Legal age of 21 to buy all guns, 81%. 30 day waiting period, which is anathema to the right to the NRA, 77%.

When you have numbers like that and still nothing can get done, I mean, that has got to undermine belief in the power of democracy to actually affect change on things that matter, things that are literally taking kids' lives.

Mila Atmos:

A hundred percent, I agree. I think it definitely erodes our belief and our faith and democracy. And I would say, and I know that you have spoken to many people about this, that the secret is to turn out in big numbers. And we're still really short on having big voter turnout.

I think the only antidote to gerrymandering and voter suppression is to go out and vote. And of course, unfortunately, gerrymandering and voter suppression work exactly as their design, which is to say, it reduces the number of people who come out and vote.

But I would say the immediate antidote to this feeling of things are just not working, is to really pay attention to state and local politics, because there is where we have the lowest number of voter turnout, but actually there is where you have the most power.

In every election cycle, in recent past, you hear news of people winning elections by 18 votes or 112 votes or whatever, something really tiny.

And if you were to think about that and say, “Wait, I have at least three friends that I can compel to go out and vote, and if we just do a little bit of a voting circle, we could make a difference.”

I had Daniel Squadron on the show on Future Hindsight, he works with the States Project. And he was saying that basically in the last cycle in state and local elections, they raised an additional $60 million, six zero. Which is a tiny amount of money when you think about federal politics, running for Congress, running for Senate, or even gubernatorial races.

But 60 million made all the difference in getting people to elect better people at the state and local level. I mean, look at Michigan, that was one of the states that they worked in, and now, that's a trifecta for the Democrats.

And the thing is that I think at this point, whatever your political persuasion may be, I think people have to point to the policy successes of administrations that really delivered for the people.

Ken Harbaugh:

You describe that as voting close to home. I love that phrase, and we're seeing the power of that. We just saw it recently in South Carolina, and I believe it was Nebraska, where they turned back these draconian anti-abortion proposals in their state legislatures.

But on the other hand, you have super majorities in states like Tennessee. You have minoritarian rule in states like I believe, Wisconsin, where you have a purple, maybe slightly blue state. And the State House has managed to stay in the hands of Republicans through repression.

Do you really believe that massive … my fear with counting on massive turnout is that you have overwhelming numbers of supporters for your handful of democratic representatives, but you still have a red legislature.

I mean, I see that in Tennessee's future. You have the Tennessee three who are going to be going back as long as they want to because they have established themselves as voices for their constituents, for the whole country, really.

But the Tennessee Republicans just don't care. They just don't care because of how the system is set up.

Mila Atmos:

Yeah. Well, that's a totally legitimate point. But the idea that you are not then going to try to turn out your voters would be also, wrong.

And the other thing about that is a lot of these state and local races are uncontested. And that happens in both states that are overwhelmingly blue or red, let's say. There are lots of places in New York, for example, that are uncontested only a Democrat runs depending on where in New York, of course.

If you're in upstate New York, then only a Republican runs and there's no Democrat. And I think that's really bad for democracy. I think if you don't have both parties running for any given seat, it's really not a contest.

And I think that probably happens in Tennessee. I mean, I haven't looked at all of their races, but I would be surprised if there is a Democrat running for every race that's up for state and local legislature.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think the Republican party can return to any semblance of normalcy? Will they be a party that at some point in the future can operate in good faith, can make good faith policy arguments instead of these straw men cultural issues that are only intended to divide?

Should we be looking at a third way or trying to return to this bifurcated political system in which we have opposing sides that operate with the same fact basis and try to support the interest of their constituents?

Mila Atmos:

Well, it's hard to see a return to normalcy within the Republican party in this moment. But having said that, about 50% of all Americans are independents or unregistered with a party.

And so, if you think about it that way, really only a quarter of Americans, let's say (doing the rough math, you have to look at the numbers more closely) are Republicans. So, there are 50% of all Americans who are not following actually party doctrine or party talking points.

And I think they vote in a way that's really more like a popularity contest as opposed to a contest about the ideas.

And I think that's really where we need to do the work. And I think this is where a successful candidate who can articulate his or her, their views really clearly about what's at stake in the election and how this person will represent their constituents and govern. I think that's really where we have an opportunity for a way forward.

But I think that's a very difficult thing because most people rely on consultants and they're like these robot candidates.

I was talking to Chloe Maxmin who ran successfully as a Democrat in rural Maine, and basically it was sort of like getting a candidate in a box when you talk to these consultants. And I think that's true for both sides.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is that partly an argument for a third party when you talk about not being able to picture a pathway for the Republicans back to normalcy? I mean, certainly we don't want a uni party system, but how do you feel about the efforts underway?

And we had Miles Taylor on, and we've had other third-party advocates on. How do you feel about their efforts to create an alternative?

Mila Atmos:

I think having a third party if it's viable would be a great idea, but I don't know how it would actually work in the system in this country, because it's not really made for that. I think the American system is not sort of like the system that exists in European countries where you form a parliamentary government in coalition with multiple parties.

So, if you have a third party in this moment, all it does is create a spoiler effect in elections. And so, I think the more effective way is to find a way to speak to the 50% of Americans who are not registered with any party.

And of course, the thing with these people, of course, they're not a monolith. They're not in the middle. They could be on the far right, the far left, and anywhere across the spectrum.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. When you talk about being a citizen changemaker, what are you saying?

Mila Atmos:

What I'm saying is that you should take an interest in your community and you should participate in making that community thrive. And that can take many paths. You could for sure be a good voter, vote in every election. I think that's actually something that people always say, “Oh yeah, yeah, of course everybody's to vote.”

But actually, a lot of people don't vote. I mean, I live in New York City where the mayoral election is on an off cycle and an off year. And on average, the voter turnout for mayoral elections in New York City is 23%. People don't vote, that's the reality.

And so, when you think in a place like New York that people would turn out, but they don't. And so, this idea that quote, “people in blue areas are good citizens,” that's not necessarily true.

And then the other thing is, of course, you're in New York, actually, if you look at land use, it's actually really easy to come to community board meetings. And that's another way to show up and be a good citizen, be a citizen change maker, because that's where the city council member can hear about what you care about.

And these things happen all the time, but people don't unveil themselves of this opportunity. In fairness, sometimes it's 7:00 PM and that's when you are feeding your children or giving them baths. And so, it's not always convenient, but it is available.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I spent some time going to school in Australia where they have mandatory voting. And I don't think that would work for a variety of reasons in this country.

But what are some of the ways that we can elevate those numbers in a way that actually informs people and isn't just raw populism, but sending informed voters to the polls hopefully, to stem this tide of authoritarianism?

Mila Atmos:

Well, actually I'm a big fan of mandatory voting.

Ken Harbaugh:

Say more.

Mila Atmos:

Yeah. I saw we had E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport on, they wrote that book, 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Civic Duty Voting. It's a great book, very short. Talks a lot about Australia.

But the idea is that in Australia, as you know, you don't actually have to vote for a candidate. You can just write in Mickey Mouse if you wanted to. And also, you can say none of the above, you don't want to write any candidate in.

But it becomes this cultural event where people turn out. And after they vote, I think they have these barbecues and eat sausages in Australia is my understanding. I mean, I've never been to election day in Australia.

But the idea that you make this sort of a cornerstone of your democracy is totally possible, I think in this country. I mean, people talk about culture change and, “Oh, this is not possible or that's not possible.” But our culture has changed in this country over the decades.

I think people today, are much more, let's say, pro-gun than they used to be 30 years ago. And from people that maybe wouldn't have spoken in those ways 30 years ago, but do today.

And I think this can also, be changed about the culture around voting. I mean, I think we're not these helpless agents that can't figure out a way forward. I think there's a lot of possibility for people to think about voting as something that is as routine as paying your taxes or getting your car checked or getting your car inspection.

Which is a total pain to do every year, is to get your car inspected. But if you can do that, you can go and vote.

Also, I think you have to make it easier to vote. I mean, there are many, many places where it is easier to vote. I think like Oregon, Washington State. In these places where you have automatic voter registration, same day voter registration. If you make it easy, you have something like 70% voter turnout.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that Australian model for civic engagement is probably one I could get behind, but voting and elections have just become so divisive and high stakes in this country that I sometimes long for the days when politics was boring.

I mean, as engaged as I am and as existential as I think this fight is, do you ever miss the Clinton or the pre-Clinton era when politics compared to now, it just seemed mundane?

Mila Atmos:

Well, I don't know if it was mundane in those days. I think some people would beg to differ.

Ken Harbaugh:

Compared to now.

Mila Atmos:

Compared to now. Well, I think it depends on who you were in those days. I would say that politics anywhere but especially in this country is always high stakes. And I think what a lot of people miss is that whatever happens in the United States is followed around the world, and that there is fallout everywhere from what happens here.

And so, I think if you think of yourself as somebody who can be a high stakes participant in politics, that your voice really matters, I think you would approach your choices in a way that makes you feel more empowered.

And that sounds almost … how can I say? It sounds almost like I'm encouraging you to think that you have more power than you have.

But I think a lot of people think that they don't have enough power. A lot of people think, “Ugh, I voted and still there's this silly outcome. Why is that still not happening?” Well, it's because only 23% of New Yorkers voted, for example, in the mayoral election.

One of my favorite anecdotes that I like to tell is that I love to ask Yellow Cab drivers if they voted for mayor and 9 out of 10 times they will say no. And then also, at the same time, they'll tell me, “But I voted for Biden.” And it's like, “That's great you voted for Biden, but you really should have voted for mayor because you as a cab driver, it makes a huge difference for you.”

But they don't understand that. They don't know that it makes a difference to them voting close to home.

And so, I think if we could like talk about that constantly and if you don't talk about it constantly, then nobody will hear it. I feel like a broken record often. But if you could just impress upon people that if you want to make change, you have to vote. That's the beginning. And if you don't win this time, there's another time.

And I think this is where Republicans are very good. They're in it for the long haul. I mean, look at the Dobbs decision. This was a decision that was 50 years in the making. They never gave up. They just kept at it.

And I think that people who believe in any cause have to be the same way. Any little difference makes a difference. Any little thing is good enough and is important in the big scheme of things.

Ken Harbaugh:

What role does anger play? One of the hallmarks of your show is just how levelheaded your conversations with guests are. But there's this Augustinian quote that anger is the first step to courage.

And when I see real, especially sudden change happening, it often seems to be the result of angry people having experienced too much. You see the mom's demand action movements in state houses now, across the country.

I wonder if there's a way to tap into that peacefully, of course, but to channel it for change. And I'm asking you because that is very off brand for your show.

Mila Atmos:

Well, yes, that's a good question. Well, I am a big believer in using anger as a motivator, actually, but I'm not an angry person on the show. I feel like that doesn't work very well.

But I agree. I think when you've had enough, that's when you step up and say, “You know what? I just can't take it anymore. Why do people think I'm just going to take this lying down?”

And I think when it comes to the Dobbs decision, I think a lot of women are angry. In fact, a lot of men are angry because abortion rights works for everyone.

I had a conversation recently with two men I was at a lunch with their wives and their sons, et cetera. So, it was like a family lunch, and we were talking about abortion rights. And they did not understand that this would also, prevent miscarriage care.

And so, they said, “Oh, but there's an exception for that.” And I said, “No, there isn't. You have to basically wait until you have sepsis.”

And one of the men, he just said, “What? But by then you're at death's door.” And I said, “Yes, exactly. This is what we're talking about.”

And I think when you're not really having these conversations in private rooms, because it's just in the news, it's just one more thing. It's so annoying, you don't want to talk about that. I'm too busy for this, whatever, whatever.

That's when you don't have this opportunity to say, “Listen, this is incredibly extreme.” It's not that we say you can have as the right likes to say, an abortion on demand for as a way to have birth control. But it's really because a lot of people require this healthcare.

And most people who end up having a miscarriage are people who really wanted to have a baby, and then they need to get abortion care as a result in order to stay healthy.

Ken Harbaugh:

You said with respects to the Dobbs decision that Republicans are in it for the long haul. And I understand that perspective retrospectively looking at their 50-year campaign to end Roe v Wade.

But on the other hand, they've had 50 years to plan for this moment, and their plan is falling apart. It appears to me that they have no plan for the future when it comes to this issue because their measures are so extreme. They're alienating a vast majority of voters.

Maybe their plan is permanent minoritarian rule, but that is really the only way they can cement the gains that they've won post Roe, because state legislatures and voters are rebelling. What in the world were they thinking?

Mila Atmos:

Well, I heard this many years ago now. I think this was maybe in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, and we had a discussion about republicans becoming increasingly anti-abortion, because I think for a long time they were pro-abortion rights.

This is why Roe versus Wade was passed in 1971, because a lot of people said, “We really need this because women are dying.”

And this person said to me, “Being anti-abortion is the gift that keeps on giving. It's never going to get done. But in the meantime, it motivates the base and turns out voters.”

And so, now, here we are, Roe was overturned. And now, I think they didn't actually think it was going to happen, and they are a little bit surprised, if I may say so myself. And that's why they don't have a concrete plan.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I think we're giving them a little too much credit having campaigned for 50 years for this moment that they have no plan to actually capitalize on. And I can't think of a better indicator of the intellectual hollowness of the right today, and the GOP in particular.

Mila Atmos:

Well, I would say, I agree with you, of course, that they wanted to win this forever, and that their plan has always been to control women basically, and to control one subset of the population.

Let me rephrase that. It's actually, it's more like this. They believe in the patriarchy and that it's top down and at the top of the patriarchy, it's white men and they determine who gets to do what. And that goes for everybody underneath the pyramid.

So, the way that I understand it, it's like, well, if you are at the top of the pyramid, you get to decide if my wife is going to have an abortion because it's good for her and it's good for her health, or if my daughter is, or whatever.

But other people don't have that privilege, so I want to make sure that nobody else gets the privilege. It's really more like that in my mind, or that's the way that I understand it in any case, and maybe that's inaccurate.

But if you look at the current trends I think, that's really what they want. They want one specific class of people to be at the top, and then for everybody else to be underneath them in whatever shape or form. And that could be in a serving class or just the people.

I mean, if you look at these laws that allow young teenagers to work, I just think, “What's happening? Who do they think is going to do these jobs?” And I mean, we know this, of course, it's going to be poor people and poor people are primarily people of color. But of course, there are also, lots of white people in rural areas who are going to have to do the same thing.

And I think there's this deep misunderstanding across the board that what hurts other people hurts us too.

Ken Harbaugh:

What's truly scary is that they are enacting that vision in parts of the country. And in spite of the massive pushback, especially in urban areas, this vision is actually being cemented in large swaths of the country.

You had a guest on your show recently who was talking about the slow Civil War. And I'm growing increasingly afraid that we are dividing in such a way that our values are being geographically organized.

And you have parts of the country in which Democrats are going to be afraid to go to, and certainly their rights will be impeded upon if they go there.

I mean, my daughter is graduating from high school this year, and I can't tell you how many of her classmates are thinking about colleges based on the rights they will have in that state.

I don't think that's something that we have thought about for a long time in this country. It certainly happened in the past, but you have to go back to a time in American history that is really terrifying. And the fact that we're at the doorstep of that again, is alarming.

Mila Atmos:

Well, I would argue, as my guest did about the Civil War, that we are already in these terrifying times. That we are not at the doorstep, we're in it. Because these skirmishes between far-right groups and Antifa, they happen like every weekend.

And the fact that we have mass shootings that are politically motivated are also, at an unprecedented number. Not just personal vengeance, not the post office employee who got fired. A lot of them are politically motivated.

And so, I think if you think about it that way, we're already in these terrifying times. And it's the kind of thing where we have to be honest about that. And it's really difficult to be honest about that because it's incredibly uncomfortable.

You don't want to say we're already in a slow Civil War because that makes you want to cry and you think, “Oh my God, I really can't make a difference.”

But I don't believe that everything is lost. I do believe that there's a lot of fight in the heart and the spirit of American people. I think we need to, as everyday people, as politicians, speak plainly about the stakes, because I think people are afraid to do that.

When we think about wanting to be politically correct, or in today's term to be quote, “woke,” which I don't even fully know what that means. But in my mind, I substitute political correctness for wokeness, let's say. And that's maybe the closest approximation.

But I would say that if you are mealy- mouthed about what you believe in, then nobody understands what you're saying. And then nobody understands the stakes. And I think you need to make that plain. And only then can we have the opportunity to get people excited.

This idea that you're sort of like a middle of the road candidate and you are quote, “more reasonable” than the other candidate. Well, nobody cares. That's not going to get people excited to go out and vote for you.

Ken Harbaugh:

And it doesn't fit the times either as deep into this crisis as we are. What gives you the most hope, not just going into 2024, but looking at the road beyond?

Mila Atmos:

What gives me the most hope is that there are so many people who have dedicated their lives to making their immediate circle better.

In the work that I've done in the last five years, in interviewing people who are civically engaged, I am always so heartened by the dedication of the people that I interview and the people that they work with, and the people that they engage everyday people.

Especially when you talk to people who are engaged and turning out the vote, whether that's volunteering for candidates, or working as a poll worker, or just standing on the side of the road to get you to find out what's happening with the candidate.

My older son was volunteering for one of the district attorney candidates in Manhattan, and he literally stood next to subway stations and talked to people about the candidates that were on the ballot. And of course he volunteered for one.

But what he found is that he talked to a lot of people who didn't even know who was on the ballot, who didn't know what the difference was, who didn't know when election day was, because the primary noise was in June.

And so, he was right around June, always out there in order to make sure that his candidate was going to be on the ballot.

But I think when you hear that, that people are willing to have these conversations with strangers, I think that's incredibly hopeful.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, me too. And I'm so glad to hear that your son is out there. This is incredibly unfair burden to put on a whole generation, but I think that Gen Z cohort is going to save us.

Mila Atmos:

Yeah, I hope they will. But I think everybody in this country is paying attention actually to the politics, and that's one of the reasons it feels so divisive because so many people are in it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Mila, it's been wonderful having you. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Mila Atmos:

Thank you so much for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks to Mila for joining me. Make sure to check out her podcast, Future Hindsight. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael Dealoia and David Moss.

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

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