Top Guest Insights From 2021

Speaking Truth In Polarized Times

purple principle episode artwork for part I of season finale featuring the top guest insights for 2021

The year 2021 would certainly be worth forgetting if its worst elements weren’t so clearly continuing on into the New Year 2022 and very likely beyond: the Omicron surge, the worst U.S. inflation in decades, and the maelstrom of misinformation swirling around the clear benefits of vaccination and the equally obvious outcome of the 2020 election.  

In this episode entitled Speaking Truth in Polarized Times, we ask what TPP guests in 2021 speak most insightfully to the challenges of this era. We’ve highlighted ten great insights, asking listeners to select the best of them to be announced early in 2022 along with listener comments. 

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We kick off our 10 nominees with Harvard University political geographer Ryan Enos on the trend of political polarization right down to the neighborhood level, where Republicans and Democrats cluster apart from each other.  Next, documentary filmmaker Nick Andert (who spent months in the company of flat earth proponents) explains the psychic appeal of conspiracy theories in our attention economy. While a few insights later, Dr. Jeanine Guidry, of Virginia Commonwealth University, speaks to the specific challenges of vaccine skepticism and how best to address them.  

Did we suddenly arrive at this moment of hyperpartisanship and rabid propaganda across broadcast and social media? Princeton historian Julian Zelizer explains that the blueprint for Congressional polarization was laid decades ago by a young firebrand named Newt Gingrich whose onslaught of accusations brought down Speaker of the House Jim Wright in 1989.  

Then Katherine Gehl, co-author of The Politics Industry, describes via Insight #4  the perverse incentives that have had us electing ever-larger numbers of Gingrich-esque wannabes over the past two decades. 

Are there any clear routes out of this gordian knot of political identities, where every issue is immediately politicized making consensus solutions all but impossible in our highly antagonized zero-sum polity and society?

New York Times Contributing Writer Thomas Edsall places the greater burden on the more rational of the two major parties, the Democrats, to ameliorate the sense of threat perceived by the American right. While Dr. Omar Ali, noted author on the African diaspora, finds some inspiration in the resilience of independent black American leaders as far back as Frederick Douglass and as recently as Lenora Fulani, 1988 independent candidate for President.  

There’s something for every inquiring mind here in our list of Top Guest Insights from 2021. Which of them speaks most directly to your hopes and concerns? We hope you’ll listen through Episode 22, Speaking Truth in Polarized Times, then click the link in our show notes to complete the website poll. And here’s hoping by the end of 2022 we’re far less beset by destructively partisan issues like COVID vaccination and election outcomes. Alas, though, it would seem pretty risky to place a big bet on that hope.


Robert Pease (co-host)

Hey, folks. Rob Pease here with a different kind of episode today — one that requires your involvement:  our year-end top-10 list of guest insights, from this year’s Purple Principle Podcast. It’s been a bit of a rough year, to say the least. Starting with Stop the steal. 

[Archival audio-News clips, Stop the Steal, Stop the Steal]

Robert Pease (co-host)

Leading to  The Jan 6 insurrection. 

[Archival audio: Treason, Treason, Treason]

Robert Pease (co-host)

Waves upon waves of COVID, including now — as we produce this episode — the fast-spreading omicron variant. 

[Archival audio-Omicron news headlines]

Robert Pease (co-host)

And like that wasn’t enough, the highest inflation rate in decades. Challenging times. The question is:  Which of these 10 Purple Principle guest insights speaks most strikingly — not just to the news of the moment but these challenging times we face as a democratic society? We need your opinion on this and will announce the top choice on our next episode, with listener comments as well. And believe me, it was not easy for us to get down to just 10 guest insights. There were literally dozens of great ones. So please consider these ten nominees closely, then go to our website,, to cast your vote for the top insight of 2021. There will be cues there to help you make the selection. And you can also leave a voice memo telling us what motivated your selection. Let’s get right into it then, with the first insight from Harvard University political geographer Ryan Enos. This comes from our episode entitled, “What’s Behind Those Red and Blue Maps?”

Ryan Enos: 

What we can see is that even within cities, you’ll see that Democrats and Republicans separate from each other; they live in distinct places. And what surprised us, even more, is if you go down to even smaller levels in those cities, if you go down to neighborhoods within the same city, you’ll see the Democrats and Republicans tend to separate from each other a little bit. Even within the same neighborhood, they don’t live in the same places. And it’s something that we think really demands an understanding of what’s going on, because as we started this conversation when people live separate from each other — but close by — it really increases these feelings of animosity. And it seems like we have that going on between partisans even in neighborhoods.

Robert Pease (co-host)

Pretty amazing, right? And frightening. These not-so-United States aren’t just red states vs. blue states or city mouse vs. country mouse. We Americans are actually polarizing right down into our neighborhoods. 

Next clip. From a neighborhood like yours, let’s zoom out for a more planetary viewpoint and the great documentary, Behind the Curve, on the astounding popularity of the Flat Earth movement. If you haven’t seen Behind the Curve, highly recommended. Filmmakers Daniel Clark and Nick Andert are not simply technically accomplished; they’re really astute social observers. Here’s Producer and Editor Nick Andert with Insight #2.

Nick Andert: 

But I personally feel — at least after working on this project for so long — that the internet’s enabled confirmation bias to such a degree where you can search out an opinion that agrees with you before you have to face or contend with any countervailing information. So let’s say if you were in some small town in Nebraska in the 1970s and you said, “I think the Earth is flat.” Chances are everyone around you is going to be like, “It’s not.” Now, if you come up with an idea or if you see something and you think, “Oh, that sounds like that could be true.” The first thing you do when you search on the internet — just basic human psychology — you’re probably not looking for proof that it’s wrong. You’re probably looking for things to prove that it’s right. I mean, you see it with QAnon, obviously, that there’s this giant cabal that’s holding us back or when you can start to create villains and then assign blame to them. Or when you can sort of become someone very important in some sort of fights where you can create a worldview in which you are fighting the good fight: you’re important, your purpose is suddenly meaningful, then that’s extremely attractive to people.

Robert Pease (co-host)

If only conspiracy theories could just kinda bounce around on the internet, then die, but they sure don’t.  They get weaponized by populist politicians, percolate in the real world, and our democracy suffers the consequences. But it wasn’t always this way. And in our first episode of season two which — we called “Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man” — Princeton historian Julian Zelizer profiled a political leader back in the 1980s who very deliberately and decisively pushed our politics in this more combustible direction.  

[Archival Audio-Newt Gingrich from House Floor]

Robert Pease (co-host)

Yup: Newt Gingrich. That’s Gingrich attacking Speaker of the House Jim Wright back in 1989. Two years later, these attacks would force Speaker Wright to resign. That’s the main event in Zelizer’s NYT-notable biography of Gingrich entitled, Burning Down the House. Here is Insight #3 from Dr. Julian Zelizer.

Julian Zelizer: 

When Tea Party Republicans stormed into town after the 2010 midterms election with their nihilistic view of government, as well as their insistence of doing whatever was necessary to bring down the status quo, and Donald Trump shocked the nation by winning the 2016 election against one of the most experienced public servants in modern political history, all of them had a debt to the anti-establishment conservative populism pioneered by Newt Gingrich that shaped an entire generation of Republicans. The Wright scandal was the beginning of this end and its shadow looms large and grows longer with each passing day.

Robert Pease (co-host)

How do we elect politicians like Newt Gingrich who have little interest in legislation or compromise or really anything but partisan division and their own re-election in mind? Our next guest explains that incentives have a lot to do with it. Katherine Gehl co-authored The Politics Industry with renowned strategist Michael Porter. She’s also the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation. Insight #4 from Katherine Gehl:

Katherine Gehl: 

You know that song, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places?” I always, if I could sing, I would sing that, which is in a sense, “We’re looking for a fix to our politics in all the wrong places.” The real place to look is at the incentives that are driving the behavior and therefore the results that we’re getting — or in most cases not getting — out of, for example, Congress. It’s the only industry I can think of where those people in the industry playing that game, their jobs and their revenue in the politics industry are the ones that make the rules that govern that industry. Like the politicians are the ones who set the fundraising limits. The politicians are the ones that in most cases, dictate and create the rules of how the elections are run. And so they keep altering rules and setting them in a way that benefits their own private organizations and their consulting firms, their media firms, their campaign firms, et cetera. And those people keep doing better and better, while the customers are doing worse and worse. 

Robert Pease (co-host)

And speaking of customers doing worse and worse, how about the COVID treadmill we’re anxiously riding while variants out-replicate our race to be fully vaccinated? This next insight is from an expert on the misinformation that slows that effort. Tragically, Dr. Jeanine Guidry, director of the Media and Health Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University presents Insight #5.

Jeanine Guidry:

I think that’s one of the interesting things: that vaccine hesitancy comes from different perspectives. And it’s because people have different concerns. Some people are concerned about civil liberties, about rights. Some people are concerned about health and safety. Some people are somewhere in the middle. And I think that’s what makes this interesting from our perspective because it means communicating about all of this can get a little bit more complex. Are they concerned it was developed too quickly? Are they concerned that there is a microchip in it, that the government’s going to get into you via vaccine? Are they concerned that it may cause infertility? It doesn’t. But is that something they’re concerned about? There’s all these different things. And I think one of the most important things is finding out what are someone’s concerns and addressing those and not trying to address every concern with every person without having any idea what may be their greatest fear about this vaccine.

Robert Pease (co-host)

Anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, science deniers. There are a lot of conspiracies and conspirators out there today, some of which evolve into full-blown cults, on- and off-line. Dr. Steven Hassan was recruited into a cult at a young age. He’s been a student of cult mentalities and respected cult therapist ever since. Author of the 2019 book, The Cult of Trump: here’s Steven Hassan with Insight #6. 

Steven Hassan: 

I also want to just say a bunch of people that I’ve talked to who are QAnon people were Bernie people. They were Democrats, they were liberals, they were progressives. And they didn’t like Hillary Clinton. They bought into the disinformation and whatever and then they got recruited into QAnon. So I think the most important frame isn’t left or right anymore. I think the most important frame is authoritarianism versus democracy and pro-human rights.

Robert Pease (co-host)

So many forces pulling us apart. Maybe at least some shared culture and entertainment and popcorn can keep Americans together? Rod Lurie is a West Point graduate, turned Hollywood creator and director, mining the recurrent themes of political and military leadership. Featured in our Hollywood Presidents series, Rod was the first TV creator to cast an independent president in Commander in Chief with Geena Davis, 15 years ago. Here’s Insight #7 from Rod Lurie on the challenge today of reaching a mass audience within a polarized society.

Rod Lurie: 

It has made it extraordinarily difficult. And you can just look at popular culture and you can see how the polarization has affected ratings. So that’s really what you’re talking about. You’re talking about, what kind of audience can we reach? I say part of it — certainly not all of it, but part of it — is due to the fact that there are a lot of the hardcore Trump-types who say, “I’m just not going to watch these liberal assholes lecture me on how to live my life or tell me who I should be.” And so they tune out. I’m not even sure if Trump is a conservative per se. But certainly, there is a polarized group that will refuse to watch certain bits of entertainment. And so, yeah, it should affect you if you want to reach a wide audience.

Robert Pease (co-host)

Insight #8 is a bit more personal, coming from one of the most personable of political podcasts today, Pantsuit Politics. We interviewed co-creators and hosts and close friends Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers in our episode, “Amazing Grace for Our Polarized Times.” Here’s Beth Silvers with insight #8. 

Beth Silvers: 

I think I will start with the premise that I think it’s really hard to know what “moderate” means here in 2021. There are so many issues where I think it is…where I would consider myself as having not a moderate viewpoint on criminal justice reform, for example. I’m quite extreme in my views about criminal justice reform. But then I have views that are probably extreme on other issues that would be thought of as more to the right than that. So I think moderate is a hard word. But I take your point that people who have some malleability — people who are interested in evidence versus sort of ideologues… I tried for a while to see my place in the Republican party. And I just couldn’t find it for now. And that’s hard. I wish that weren’t true.

Robert Pease (co-host)

Can indie-minded Americans help bridge our partisan divide? That’s one of the questions which kicked off and still frames this podcast of ours, The Purple Principle. Independents have been attempting to do that for many decades now, going back at least as far as the presidential candidacies of John Anderson in 1980, then Lenora Fulani in 1988. We spoke to author and historian Dr. Omar Ali about Lenora Fulani and many other independent Black American leaders throughout our nation’s history. Here’s Dr. Ali with Insight #9

Omar Ali: 

I love that quote. I love that. So she said that basically, she was asked, “Was it more difficult, Dr. Fulani to run as an African American, as a Black candidate, or as a woman?” And she responded, “Actually being independent,” because it was just incredible. And the reason why is because the laws have been designed to exclude independents, regardless of color, race, whatever. But it’s the overall culture that — again to go to the political scientists, has been buttressed by the political science establishment, with few exceptions — to make it seem like the only way you can function politically in this world is through parties and through ideology. But it’s a challenging time culturally in America, beyond the economic sort of hardships that many people are going through. But we have to push back on that, to be more philosophical, to be more playful, to be more open to work with people who we don’t agree with on many issues, but we might agree with on the issues of process and inclusion; that’s an important thing. And that’s the founding of this country. “No taxation without representation” is a call to arms around the political process, not just around the narrow idea of taxation; it’s about representation and inclusion. So I think that that is at the heart of the best of what our country has to offer the world. And we should bring that out more.

Robert Pease (co-host)

We promise this final Insight will be worth the wait. Thomas Edsall of the New York Times is one of the most unusual and exceptional mainstream commentators out there today, citing as many as 10 major scholars and studies in his weekly column that often focuses on our polarization. Edsall has been watching that chasm open up in US politics for half a century now, first for the Washington Post, then the New York Times. Insight #10 from Thomas Edsall. 

Thomas Edsall: 

Well, you know, I think even though the Republicans are sort of the aggressors in pushing the polarization issues because they work for them – the wedge issues of race, culture, and so forth have generally been ones that Republicans have found profitable on Election Day. I think the burden is on Democrats. And to explain that, I think the Democrats remain a rational party, and the Republican party has become an irrational party. If you want to preserve democracy — and democracy in a two-party system has a very hard time surviving in a polarized context — the burden then falls on the rational party to do something to lessen it. And I think the Democratic Party should take steps to reduce the sense of threat that it poses to many Republicans to just try to turn the temperature down.

Robert Pease (co-host):

We’ll be measuring and monitoring that as best we can here on future episodes of The Purple Principle. 

In the meantime let us know which of these 10 guest insights of 2021 speak most powerfully to you on our challenges.  Please click the link in our show notes or jump directly to our website to cast your vote. You may also leave an audio memo with additional comments, feedback, and suggestions. 

We’ll be highlighting the results as well as listener comments on our next episode which features Sarah Longwell. She’s a lifelong Conservative and Republican now working to push back on the many disturbing trends in her party as Executive Director of the Republican Accountability Project. 

Sarah Longwell: … especially if you think that the Republican party is as dangerous as we do, then you really are rooting for the Democrats to build a broad coalition and that’s not what’s happening at the moment. And so I think that we have to have like a clear voice about what we imagine for the country…

Robert Pease (co-host): 

Thanks for joining us on this final episode of 2021 and for sharing The Purple Principle with any and all whose sanity might be helped by it. We live in such an us vs them time. Yet we’re all in this together, as the COVID pandemic has so tragically illustrated. Let’s hope more Americans come to that realization in 2022. 

Meantime,  Happy New Year from all of us here on the purple principle team, myself and co-host Jillian Youngblood, Alison Byrne on Production & Audience Engagement, the Audio Guru who prefers the title Audio Engineer, Kevin A Kline,  Dom Scarlett, and Grant Sharratt, Research Associates, Emma Trujillo, Audio Associate, who, alas, is moving on.  Congratulations to Emma on your new gig. Music, as always, by the very talented Ryan Adair Rooney. The Purple Principle is a Fluent Knowledge production. 

Ryan D. Enos: WebsiteEpisode 3 

Nick Andert: Behind the Curve, Episode 8   

Julian Zelizer: Princeton University, Episode 1 

Katherine Gehl: Institute for Political Innovation, Episode 5 

Jeanine Guidry: VCUEpisode 6

Steven Hassan: Freedom of MindEpisode 7 

Rod Lurie: IMDB, Episode 11  

Beth Silvers: Pantsuit PoliticsEpisode 16 

 Omar Ali: UNC GreensboroEpisode 16 

Thomas Edsall: NYT, Episode 13  

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