To call Chris Hayes prolific is an understatement. At the tender age of 39, he has already written two books, began hosting a cable news show at 32, and has covered politics for nearly two decades. He is now branching out into podcasting, and his maiden voyage in that medium, Why Is This Happening? is a thoroughly engaging effort at explaining complex issues of the day.
In many ways, the podcast format plays more to Hayes's strengthens than his eponymous hour-long TV show and harkens back to his original effort on MSNBC, Up With Chris. While the eight-o'clock hour requires devotion to a structured format with multiple guests covering the news of the day in staccato segments that often elide deeper understanding, Why Is This Happening? allows Hayes to stretch his legs and let his full nerd flag fly.
The podcast is Hayes interviewing a subject matter expert for more than a half-hour in an effort to understand today's world. This allows Hayes's innate intellectual curiosity to shine. As an interviewer, this is critical - you get the sense that Hayes has not only read the books, articles, and essays written by his guests, but the books, articles, and essays his guests read in putting together their theses and the books, articles, and essays that contradict his guests' arguments. What results is a robust, deep discussion that informs the listener in ways that a five-minute TV segment is simply unable to do.
It is Hayes's fluency on so many different topics that makes Why so compelling. Compared to another wunderkind of his era - Ezra Klein - Hayes avoids the starry-eyed naivete of his wonkish colleague. Whereas Klein came into the public sphere through a college dorm room blog, Hayes was pounding the pavement in Chicago, experiencing, at a granular level, how policy, politics, and everyday life intersect.
This distinction is important. While both Hayes and Klein are well-read and thoughtful, Klein is too quick to offer benefit-of-the-doubt absolution for public policy that is abhorrent. Hayes, while unabashedly progressive, is clear-eyed in what has gone on in this country over the past several decades. For example, in his interview with Corey Rubin, Hayes concedes up front that the conservative movement has largely succeeded over the past 40 years in kneecapping regulation and redistributing income upward. But the genius of Why is in how Hayes is able to tie together these actions not just as a form of corporate domination by the elite class, but how it reflects what is now a centuries-long tradition of consolidating power by the white majority.
Rubin’s observation that wealthy whites have successfully turned poorer whites against even poorer minority groups for more than a century is echoed in Hayes’s conversation with Brittney Cooper, as they discuss the different ways the struggles of whites and blacks are framed in the media and culture. Cooper’s interview also delves into the black experience in America and circles around everything from white male privilege to “Mean Girl” attacks on Beyonce for having too much. As Hayes point out (not ironically) it is a struggle to be human, but not everyone’s struggle is the same. When the conversation shifts to the competition among upper class parents to help their kids get ahead, Cooper rightly notes that is precisely the problem - the idea there are a limited number of opportunities in a zero-sum game where the air is rarefied - instead of making the effort to lift more people up.
In speaking with Dexter Filkins, listeners will grasp not just the complexity of Middle East politics, but how easily small missteps might lead to the type of regional conflagration metastasizing into a global conflict that happened in 1914 and led to World War I. His fascinating discussion with Brittney Cooper is a master class on understanding identity politics not as a slur too often hurled to dismiss your political opponents, but a core tenet of how each of us views the world. These are not small ideas and the one-on-one conversation Hayes has with his guests gives them room to breathe, the conversation to meander into different directions, and has the salutary effect of giving the listener the feeling of sitting in on a friendly chat with really smart people.
Of course, the question begged by Why Is This Happening? is Does Any Of This Matter? In delving into the theories of Edmund Burke or the millennia-long fight between Sunni and Shia, the podcast is certainly erudite, but can also come off as precisely the kind of "East Coast" elitist discussion that conservatives have inveighed against since George Wallace bemoaned pointy-headed intellectuals and Nixon fumed against the editorial board of the New York Times. Ultimately, forty minute deep dives into political theory, identity politics or military history is fine for the Georgetown cocktail party circuit, but how useful it is when the President can send out a tweet that consumes news cycles or makes stock markets gyrate wildly is less clear.
That is not to criticize Hayes's work - once upon a time, the public intellectual, not to mention good public policy informed by research, historical analysis, and its effect on people, was valued. No longer. But to Hayes's credit, he has never tried to sugar coat his bookishness or love of political theory. Now, unshackled from his anchor's desk at MSNBC, he has the opportunity to explore topics with the seriousness and attention to detail he clearly relishes. If Hayes's early podcasts are any indication of where this will lead, Why Is This Happening? will be a regular addition to your podcast rotation.
Ep 1 - Corey Rubin (B+)
Ep 2 - Dexter Filkins (A)
Ep 3 - Brittney Cooper (A)
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy