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Transcript: "Face the Nation" book panel, December 27, 2020

Navigating a divided country: "Face the Nation" book panel
Navigating a divided country: "Face the Natio... 31:29

The following is a transcript of an interview with authors Jon Meacham, Peter Baker, Susan Glasser and Isabel Wilkerson that aired Sunday, December 27, 2020, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We like to honor tradition on FACE THE NATION, and each year we talk to authors whose new books have all been named some of the year's best. Four of them join us now. Jon Meacham's new book is "His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope." Peter Baker and Susan Glasser are the co-authors of "The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III." And Isabel Wilkerson is with us to discuss her latest "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents." Good to see all of you. Isabel, I want to start with you. You tackle the very difficult subject of race in your book and which you describe a caste system in our country where you say skin color is really kind of the metric for where you fall in the hierarchy. Does the awakening within our country this year to the issue of systemic racism begin breaking that apart.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Despite the record turnout for this election, we have seen the, you know, the ruptures that are as deep as they've ever been. We still face, you know, disturbing levels of division in our country. This idea of racialized polarization still continues. But I do hope that some of the things that have happened over the last year, this past summer, particularly involving the sense of awakening and- and outrage over what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so, so many people who have become part of our conversation. I hope that this has been leading us to some type of awakening to get past these divisions.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Jon, you profiled one of the giants of our civil rights struggle in this country, John Lewis, who we lost this year. And you wrote about his famous march to Selma, where he was severely beaten by lawful- by law enforcement, even though this started out as a peaceful protest. You said when that footage was shown to the country, there was revulsion all over America. "Revulsion, then redemption. Is there anything more American?" Right now in America, we have revulsion that Isabel just described again at what happened. Are we at the point of redemption yet?

JON MEACHAM: Well, redemption is a complicated thing, and that's something that we have to work on every day. John Lewis represents, I think, faith in two fundamental forces in life. He was on that bridge because of a faith in God, and he was on that bridge because ultimately of a faith in America. Frederick Douglass once said there is no soil so conducive to the growth of reform as American soil. And so there is- progress is possible. And John used to say when people would say, well, nothing's ever changed. He would say, when he was a senior member of Congress, come walk in my shoes. Now, that's easy for me to say. I'm a white southern male Episcopalian. Things tend to work out for me in this country. I wrote this book and I wanted to profile John Lewis because he represents the embodiment of the best that the religious impulse can play in our public life. And more than any other person I've ever known he closed the gap between a profession of allegiance to the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount with the practice of those virtues. And I think if we look at stories of people who walk among us and who just walked among us and we see what they did and they did something so remarkable that should give us some faith, some inspiration that we can do the same.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And part of that process, Peter and Susan, is figuring out how to turn what the country is experiencing into action that falls upon our political leaders. I mean, you- you cover Washington, the both of you. We're seeing a lot of pressure on the president-elect to do something about race and division in this country. A lot of that early on is focused on representation. Does it end there? How does the president elect begin dealing with this problem, Peter?

PETER BAKER: Well, look, you know, it's not just a question of who you put in your cabinet. That's only a start. There's obviously great wounds out there in this country to heal. And this is a president who has talked about doing that. He's talked about being a bridge builder and talked about being a healer and a person who wants to bring America together. You know, we talk about, in our book, we talk about James Baker not so much as a race healer but as a bridge builder. We talk about how he tried to work with the other party to make things happen. He tried to work with people from other countries and across the Cold War divide with the Soviets to bring the world together. And I think that what Joe Biden is talking about doing is the same kind of thing where we can cross these- these lines and cross these divides and begin to reimagine America in a better way. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Susan, it just feels so different. The divides feel more bitter and deep. How do you do that? Is there something unique to the challenge ahead?

SUSAN GLASSER: You know, MARGARET, I think the thing that was so striking is just how profoundly the political incentives in the country have changed. It is not just that we had a uniquely divisive president. You know, we're often used to presidents more like Joe Biden, who at least talk and pay lip service to wanting to be a uniter, not a divider. So we certainly had a divisive president, but it is also that we have had a country and a political system that- that's just lost the ability, it seems, for politicians to work together across the aisle. The question is, have that- has that incentive structure changed so fundamentally that it's actually going to be impossible for even a Joe Biden to come in and sit down and work when the- the incentives and the reward system has gone in the other direction to be ever more extreme.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And- and Isabel, you in your book start off with a pretty stark image of choice and the moment in time. You describe a photo from 1936 in Germany in which a lone man stands in a crowd full of other men. They're all giving Nazi salutes and his hands are- are folded. It appears defiant almost. Why did you start on this? What does that signify to you?

WILKERSON: Well I started with that -- It's the photo of August Landmesser. He was surrounded by people who were caught under the spell of the Nazis. And yet he alone was the one who was on the right side of history. And we all would like to believe that we would be on the right side of history in a situation such as that, that we'd somehow find a way to stand up in favor of justice in this- in- while we are surrounded by injustice and people who are falling under the spell of that. And so it calls upon all of us to recognize where we happen to be, what each of us can do, the responsibilities that each of us has. And the reason why I speak about hierarchy in "Caste" is because this is part of our inheritance, an inheritance of- of this hierarchy that- that dates back to the time of enslavement that has been- that essentially was in place for far longer than it was not in place in our country from Jim Crow, which only ended in the 1960s, and how we live with the aftereffects of that. And it falls upon each of us to learn the history and to- to be able to reckon with it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm interested in this idea, though, of what you are describing as a caste system, because in at least political narrative, the past four years have been about disruption. They've been about breaking apart systems. They've been about, you know, trying to break apart the establishment in particular. But you have a very different view, right? You- you think and have pointed to the 2016 election in particular as about reinforcing those caste systems.

WILKERSON: Well, you know, a caste system essentially is an artificial, arbitrary, graded ranking of human value, and it dates back to the time of enslavement. And so we've inherited the assumptions, the stereotypes, the rankings that are- have- have essentially been assigned to people based upon what they look like, which goes back to the time of enslavement. And I- I want to take a moment to- to remind ourselves of how long this has been a part of our country, that it's the foundation of the power structure that we have inherited.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, Jon, you- you have used the phrase "the soul of America," one we hear that phrase from the president-elect quite often. We've had the election that was supposed to be the fight for the soul of America, where are we now? Where does that fight go? Are we at absolution? Where- where are we?

MEACHAM: No, we're- we're a long way from absolution and- and will be until what Faulkner called the last red and dying evening. My sense of the soul of the country is that the soul is not wholly good or wholly bad, but is an arena of contention in which our better angels, to use Lincoln's phrase, do battle against our worst instincts. Many of the worst instincts that Isabel's remarkable work has- has cast light on.  And every day is part of that struggle. To go to what Peter and Susan were saying, division in American life is- is not the exception, it's the rule.And disagreement and the impulses of appetite and ambition and the clash of interests, all of these things are perennial, universal human forces. What we have to do, what we're called to do by history and by reason and to some extent by faith, is to devote ourselves to the idea and the reality of making real for everybody the promise of the country, which is that we were all created equal and we're endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And at every point, Isabel mentioned the right side of history, at every point from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, the right side of history has been those who stand on the side of individual rights, of the sanctity of the individual, of liberty under law and of openness, not of- you know, we build bridges in this country when we're at our best, not walls. And that may sound like a homily, but it has the virtue of being rooted in history. Go around Washington. What are the monuments to? The monuments are to imperfect people and imperfect events, but they are ultimately about liberation and not captivity. And that's what our- the work of politics should be. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Trump as we- as I referenced, was elected on this agenda of disrupting the status quo. Kamala Harris is a symbol of change. Joe Biden, though, is seen as a return of the establishment. What is the choice we are making here as- as a country? I mean, in some ways, the Biden platform was about restoring where we were.

GLASSER: Well, look, MARGARET, it's very hard to imagine a world where we're just going to pretend that the last four years didn't happen, right? You know, I think there was a palpable sense of returning to normalcy that- that powered and animated Joe Biden's campaign. But I think, you know, the question is really whether identity politics is the choice that people on both sides of the aisle are making right now. Was it really about a policy platform for Biden or even for Donald Trump? You know, to me, the lesson of the last few years is that people are much more likely to embrace identities and tribalism that they find to be comfortable in our politics right now at the expense even of a program.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Does the disruption become the new foundation here or is it about restoration?

GLASSER: MARGARET, that, to me, that's the thing that's so notable. You might want a more normal world, right? That word normalcy, you know, has never had such political resonance. But the truth is, is that, you know, the world has moved on. And there are a number of areas, the Middle East and the recognition of Israel sort of midwifed by the Trump administration, by several Arab countries, obviously is a- is a different faction and a different reality than the one that was there four years ago. Biden so far has assembled a government that suggests that- that a sort of certainly a return to competence and expertise, bringing people who served already in senior positions in the Obama administration. So, there's a continuity. And then I think the message to people is that Trump represents a discontinuity in American politics and policy. But I- it's unclear that that's really the case. And I think, you know, to Jon's point, we're not just going to wash away the last few years. That's not how this is going to work. It's not over. It's not even the beginning of over. We're not just going to wake up one day and it's all going to be some--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

GLASSER: --crazy dream and, you know, tweet storms.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, Peter, you know, as Americans, we always think it's about us and we're talking here about us as a country. But for the rest of the world, when- when they hear the president-elect say America is back and we're ready to lead. Hasn't the world moved on? Hasn't the world changed? Does the world really want America to organize it?

BAKER: Yeah, that's a great question, and I think President-elect Biden probably recognizes that it's not simply a matter of returning to where things were four years ago. And if he doesn't, that's going to be a challenge for him, because, in fact you're right, the world has moved on to some extent. They've seen in the last four years, what it's like when America goes in a different direction. I think there's a lot of burned feelings out there about international agreements. What- you know, who's going to want to enter a new international agreement with the United States, if they feel like four years from now, it might just be reversed by the next administration? And that's why I think President-elect Biden does have a- a challenge in terms of deciding what to keep and what not to keep of what his predecessor has done, partly because of this- the idea of not seeming like we just swing back and forth radically every- every term. He probably will adopt more of- of Trump's positions on China, for instance, maybe not the specific tactics on tack- on tariffs, but a stronger position against China than the Obama administration had. You can't just simply rerun the past. You're going to have to adapt to the future. And that will include at least some of what the last four years has- has brought to us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thanks to all of you for the conversation and joining us today. And happy new year. Stay healthy. We'll be right back.

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