Very Fine Day #8: Chris Geidner
Currently, Chris is the editorial director and senior legal analyst at The Appeal, and has worked both inside and outside of politics. He has an expert knowledge on America’s legal system and is great at explaining the convoluted, deliberately-chaotic American political system in a way that doesn’t make your eyeballs dry out. This interview is a doozy, and we jump right on in.
VFD: The first thing I want to ask you about is like… what is happening in America? Trump isn’t President, but he’s saying he was robbed.
Chris Geidner: Well, a lot is happening!
VFD: I guess I'm asking you to convince me that the apocalypse is not coming, politically. And that the structure in place can sustain this, and everything that's going on. Or if it can't, then like… great…
Chris Geidner: Yeah, you should probably just keep your hands in your head, because I'm not sure how I'm gonna make you feel great.
So back in... I guess it would have been after what were the midterms for the Trump administration, so 2018, I think the real question for me was: are the democrats going to be able to get one chamber - either the House or the Senate?
And I really did feel like that was going to be important for understanding the future of the country. Because if Trump continued to have another two years of being able to pass legislation and get new nominees confirmed, both to executive positions but also judges, that was going to lead us in a very different direction.
And so when the Democrats did take one back, I felt like that was actually the first backstop on any of the the darkest possible timelines.
Chris Geidner: But then, obviously, he kept being Trump. And I think that if you had asked me in 2018, this question, it would have been like: Well, I think that Democrats need to win one chamber or we're going in a bad direction.
But then Trump found other things to do. And he found other ways to make it horrible. And the Democrats won the house and not the Senate so he was still able to get judicial nominations through, primarily, as well as other other nominations.
And that's what has led to, most notably, the ability to replace Justice Ginsburg when she died with Amy Coney Barrett. So we've sort of backed further into that bad place before we even got to the election of 2020. And what we saw was the way it turned out.
Although now, Mitch McConnell is like: I thought that it was fine for Trump to go the normal routes, but that's it. And Trump went far afield.
But basically, I think that there were a lot of Republicans who unfortunately took a path of: I'm not going to support this. But if he can do it, more power to him.
VFD: Why do you think that?
Chris Geidner: Well, because they were like: we're not gonna support this. Obviously, this is wrong, this isn't going anywhere. Like: He lost! The guy lost. But we're gonna let him carry on because… who knows? He has gotten out of jams that we didn't think he would have gotten out before. So if he can pull off a victory then we'd have another four years of a Republican president, and we'd get more of our judges and more of our tax cuts and more of deregulation and whatever other things we want.
Chris Geidner: So I think that there was an idea of: we're not going to support it, but we're also not gonna say he can't until we get past the electoral college. Even in December, when The Electoral College met, that's when Trump lost a lot of supporters in the upper echelon.
Chris Geidner: And what we're left with now is this situation…
I mean, Trump can talk about having nearly 75 million people, 74 million votes. But the truth is: it wasn't 74 million people at the Capitol. There is a loud group, and a dangerous group of people, who were strong supporters and are probably still strong supporters of Trump's, but when I think of those 74 million the question is: how many of them were voting for Trump versus how many of them would have voted for any republican. Literally any republican?
Chris Geidner: And they didn't actually care about Trump. They actually cared about four more years of Republican judges and tax cuts and deregulation. And we don't really have that answer yet. We know that there's an up-bump from having Trump on the ballot. That Republicans did worse over the past six years whenever Trump wasn't on it. So there is that.
But like, the question is: was that just an add-on? Or is it a different group of people? And I think that the Republicans are still finding that out. I think that the question for the Democrats is: how far are you going to go to govern? I mean, what are we going to see happen with this COVID relief bill, now that we're actually getting to it?
And that's even got this reconciliation possibility. I don't know the ins and outs of how that works. But basically, if it has to do with money, they can get it through on a simple majority vote.
The real question is going to come when they try to pass something that requires the 60 votes under a filibuster. And it seems like the way that they're proceeding is with the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act.
So really, we’re going forward with the next piece of legislation as a key piece of legislation that will help address some of the underlying issues that would continue to be problems if they're not taken care of for the continuation of democracy.
And I think that's when they're going to - assuming that they can't get the the 60 votes to move forward - I think that's when they're going to make a move to get rid of the filibuster for legislation.
VFD: How do you feel about the state of democracy? Wait, that seems like a very big question. But it's just… I'm not convinced.
I guess I should preface this by saying I'm very cynical about politics in almost every way. And for me, I look at the US, and I even look at what's happening in Australia, and you go: that’s democracy??? Well, is it? Is that actually what we call it? Is that what we're seeing in front of us?
Chris Geidner: Yeah, I mean, I think that there's two answers to that.
The first answer is: we're a representative democracy. We're not a direct democracy. We elect people to represent us in the legislature. We don't all meet in the town square every Friday.
And so a lot of the systemic problems that are being discussed and causing a lot of the drama in America right now are those issues of: what's the disconnect between the systems that we've set up for that Republic, and that Representative aspect of democracy and democracy itself?
And that's the stuff that you've been seeing. Like how Biden won by like 5 million votes, but if 31,000 votes had been different in three key states the election could have gone to Trump. So Trump could have lost by 5 million votes and still won the election.
Chris Geidner: The argument there is that democracy isn't working.
The other area is the Senate, which is two senators for every state no matter how big or small you are.
And so you have this issue with the Democrats - I don't know the exact numbers, I forget what the exact numbers are - But basically, the democrats have won a majority of votes in the Senate for I think all but two or four years in the past, like, 20 years in in the entire new millennium. But they have only controlled the majority half of the time. And so there's that issue.
And even now you've got this 50/50 majority. I mean, I live in DC. This whole Statehood for DC thing and the possibility of Statehood for Puerto Rico. This idea that we have more US citizens living in DC than are living in some states that have two senators.
VFD: But do you feel like the correct solution is more states or, like, a split up of America?
Chris Geidner: I think more states are a possibility, but there are questions about how you deal with the Senate. There’s also the issue of The House. The House hasn't changed in 100 years. They haven't added new numbers to the house, we've just redistricted every 10 years. And the question is: some of these problems of the House could be changed if you actually upped the number of House members, like, if you increased it by 100…
I mean, you've got all these systemic problems that are going to keep causing issues!
Now, in America, we're going into this next period of redistricting after the census numbers come out. And so now you've got all of these issues with different states. Even if they are a state. I mean, it's a complete disaster.
You've got some states like Arizona - they use a commission. And it's removed from politics. There are standards that they use to make sure that congressional districts are made so that they keep together communities of interest, and keep political subdivisions together wherever possible. And there's like seven different standards that they use to come up with a fair map.
Whereas in other states, it's literally: who’s the Speaker of the House? Who's the President of the Senate? Who's the Governor? Who's the Secretary of State? They get four votes, and then the minority house in the minority senate each get a vote.
And so you can have a state – if it's a very conservative state – and it’s basically four republicans and two democrats who are going to be drawing the boundaries. And that creates these gerrymandered districts where you can have a state that has, like, 48% Democrat and 52% Republican, but because of the past redistricting that gerrymandered the State House and State Senate, and the fact that they're 52% on the statewide, you end up getting… let's say they have 17 congressional seats, but you get 13 that are Republican and four that are Democrat.
And it's really troubling. And we're going to see that those processes build on themselves the way that I was just describing. State House redistricting is going to be controlling congressional redistricting this time, which makes it worse.
It makes more Republicans who are prominent in that state, or more Democrats who are prominent in that state, who then have bigger abilities to run for statewide office. And it just creates this system that builds on itself.
VFD: How much of the general unrest or anger with the Government do you think comes from people just not understanding all of that? And also... I feel like they shouldn’t be required to?
It seems like something that's so vastly complicated to get. For every citizen of America to understand that and to engage with that.
Chris Geidner: I mean, I think that there's a real failure of civic education.
I think that there's this idea of: we have three branches of government at the federal level, but then we have, in our state levels, three branches of government. And then we have a local government that has three branches.
And so you really have nine branches of government. And some places you might have a township trustee that is wanting its own thing, but then you have a county.
And then you could have up to four levels of government that are controlling things and that doesn't even count if your school board is separate. In some places, your water district is a separate governing board! It's not even under the city or county. Your public transportation is…
VFD: Wait, wait… so why did all that happen? Why did that disruption happen?
Chris Geidner: Well, here's a positive about that. The idea that like: “could Trump steal the election”… Well, here's how it's really hard for the President to steal the election.
Basically, you would have to know which counties in which states are going to be close enough that you need to change the votes in those counties. And you would need to know the people who control the counting in those counties. And you would need to know that the State Office holder who would review things is going to be okay with this, and not notice the way that it's handled.
And so that was honestly the thing with all of those levels of federalism. It was also what made it much more difficult to cause problems in the election, and we saw how many problems were able to be caused.
VFD: Yeah, like what?
Chris Geidner: Well, I mean: the fact that there are people dead. The fact that The Capitol was stormed. And the fact that, I mean, you had security needing to be called on State Office holders who, normally, nobody would have even known their name.
Chris Geidner: I mean, the fact that you had these boards in Michigan that had never been seen as anything other than a ministerial function of stamping the outcome of the election, and we get into this situation where the pressure was put on them by Trump. And you had a few people who did falter.
And yet, even in that situation in Michigan, it wasn't enough to ultimately change because you did have all of these different levels.
So I think that the idea of it being important for people to understand… We saw why it's important for people to understand that. Do they need to know the ins and outs of what percentages matter for each thing at every point in legislation? And in administrative rule-making and in elections? No!
But should they know that your county elections are actually run by this local board? And the issues about how your absentee ballots are being decided are decided by State Law?
So you should care about what your state lawmakers are doing. But then they're implemented by your county board of elections and you want to also care who those people are. And that sort of basic understanding is important. If more of that was being done when people are in 9th or 10th grade, as they are able to start voting, maybe the situation would be a little different when people get to be 45.
I mean, there's a lot of people who say that the reason why cable news is able to have the toxic effects that it can have on American culture at times is because people don't know what the system is supposed to be. They don't know what the rules are.
There was a series that I worked on at BuzzFeed that Katherine Miller and I called: Parts of the Constitution You Didn't Realise You Cared About.
Chris Geidner: And that's an example of: would an average person know that? Like: no. But should there be materials available for them to be able to understand where this came from when something does happen? Yes.
VFD: So how did you fall in love with politics and law, then?
Chris Geidner: It was sort of what I just said, actually. But the fourth and fifth grade version.
It was actually before 4th and 5th grade. I actually found a 3rd or 4th grade report that we had to do that was basically like: “rewrite from the Encyclopaedia.” And it was on John F. Kennedy. And I had done one on Abraham Lincoln as well.
But then when I got into 5th grade I was in this series of classes called “The gifted and talented” and we had this special class where we had to do bigger reports on things at an earlier age. And it absolutely was like: the first one had to do with the Civil War, and was looking through things about Lincoln and the Civil War, and doing a slight bit more than then the research of just copying the Encyclopaedia. But also going to the library and looking things up.
I mean, I had the most predictably dorky thing going. I definitely had a period where it was like: reading six books about the Kennedy assassination and deciding what I thought about it.
VFD: What do you think about it by the way?
Chris: Ha, I’m not going to answer that.
VFD: We're on the record! Was it the mob?
Chris Geidner: I came of age in the age of the “JFK” Oliver Stone movie. So I’m spoiled for life.
VFD: Oh, right. “Back and to the left.”
Chris Geidner: But then that became High School debate.
I was in speech and debate in high school and I was on the debate team, and policy debate, and we would spend a year going through different policy issues.
We had homelessness one year, health care one year, immigration one year… I forget the last one, but I was in it for four years. And that just led to when I was choosing college. I ended up choosing a school in Washington DC. I went to American University because I wanted more of that.
VFD: So were you a political reporter first? Was that your first kind of role?
Chris Geidner: No, I've had many, many, different roles. I've gone back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.
I was originally interested in politics. I was a volunteer intern at the Clinton White House, and then was an intern at the Human Rights Campaign.
And then… It was only after it a primary state senate campaign I was working for, and we lost, and the candidate’s wife was like: Politics is awful. You don't want to do another campaign. Why don't you go work at the newspaper that I used to work for and apply for a job there?”
And I did, and I got a job as a copy editor. And it was a paper called The Tribune Chronicle in Warren, Ohio. It was like a 38,000 circulation paper and I was on the copy desk and at times did some special project reporting. I was there 2000-2002 and I think it was really important to my career that I was there. One of my special projects was actually talking about how the Mahoning Valley, now Northeast Ohio, was going to fare in redistricting.
I was at the newspaper on September 11, 2001… I got woken up by a friend who lived in DC, but then got called into the newspaper that day. And then I was also there for the trial of representative Jim Traficant, who was our congressman. He had a corruption trial and got convicted and was actually the last member of Congress to be expelled, which is something which has been discussed in recent weeks in DC.
VFD: Just a little bit.
Chris Geidner: He was the last member to be expelled! And so I was there for two years and the the last six months I was there I was the editorial writer for the paper. I started at law school, I went to law school, and basically a year into law school realised that my ability to write well was being ruined by law school. And that's when I started my blog and started blogging.
So I started Law Dork. This was in 2003 when I started it. And I did that through law school and started working for a bigger firm in Columbus, Ohio.
VFD: What was it like to build that? The blog? Was it like… give me a sense of how big it got.
Chris Geidner: It was fun. I mean, it's the reason why it's still in my bio. There are still many people who refer to me as Law Dork. It was the early, early, early era of blogging, and it was so early that, basically, the professors who blogged didn't have enough people to talk to so they had to talk to the law student bloggers who actually took it seriously.
I mean… the truth is, it was probably, like, 50 of us. It was like 25 students and 25 law professors across the country who were blogging. I'm sure that it was more than that, but there are still people that I still see regularly on Twitter who were those bloggers.
So I was one of the top law blogs and went to the original web blog awards and stuff like that. And it was an exciting time.
I started the blog right around the time when Lawrence vs Texas came down - the Supreme Court decision that ended sodomy laws in the US. And it was that Fall that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down its marriage ban, which led to the first same sex marriages in the US. It was also the time when all of the marriage amendments were being passed when George W. Bush was endorsing the federal marriage amendment.
And so it was like, a good time, but a bad time.
But my writing about LGBT issues was getting attention and was pretty prominent in the blogging world. And it's how I met a bunch of people. It's how I got to know the blogging world out there.
Then I went into state government in Ohio in 2007 / 2006, so I had to shut down the blog. I worked for the state Attorney General’s office for two years and that was an experience – to be on the inside at the state level after having done some work at the federal level.
VFD: Because you've kind of been on both sides of it, right? Both journalism and within the machine.
Do those experiences change the way you look at the other side of the coin?
Chris Geidner: Oh, yeah. I worked in the state Attorney General’s office for two years and it ended with the Attorney General I worked for having to resign. And then the interim Attorney General had actually been my old law school Dean, so I stayed on throughout that time and then left at the end of her tenure.
So I learned a lot about government, I learned a lot about when things go wrong, what happens, and learned a lot about why things go wrong. I learned a lot about what people are doing day-in and day-out.
VFD: Do you think a lot of journalists don't have that exposure or don't have that understanding? And if they did, that might be a different way that information flows?
Chris Geidner: I think it does… When I left there that's when I quickly restarted my blog. I moved back to DC and I started working for Metro Weekly covering LGBT politics. And then Ben Smith came to me two and a half years later and was like: Hey, we're bringing some people to this BuzzFeed thing, and I'd love you to do the LGBT coverage that you've been doing for Metro weekly for BuzzFeed.
Chris Geidner: This is because - and it’s something he has said on the record in other places, but at Politico he had covered LGBT politics as sort of a side thing because he thought that it was interesting and was this up and coming beat. Until this reporter at Metro Weekly started getting all of his scoops. And that was me.
So I came to BuzzFeed and did that and was there for almost seven years and covered through all of the changes with marriage.
VFD: What was that like?
Chris Geidner: It was wild.
I mean, Ben and I thought it was gonna take a lot longer than it did. When DOMA was struck down in 2013, that's actually when we made me Legal Editor, because we thought it was going to be another four or five years until the big marriage cases got back to the Supreme Court. And it turned out we started moving within the next month.
A case that ended up being Obergefell - the original order in Jim Obergefell and John Arthur's case - was actually issued a month after Windsor came down. And it was when they wanted their marriage, their Maryland marriage, recognised in Ohio because John was going to die. And so they wanted it to be recognised on his death certificate.
And as those cases went forward, it was this experience of knowing that, like…
It's rare that you do know, as you're writing something, that you're writing the first draft of history.
Chris Geidner: But this was one of those moments.
Normally it's much more quick breaking news. It's something bad happening. It's like on September 11 that you realise that. On an election day, you realise that. But this was … it was not immediate, but it was also so fast moving.
Katherine Miller, my editor, we'd sit down and talk about how things were going and how to do it. And eventually, we were just like: well, you, you kind of need to write that story. And so we wrote a story like: basically, this is happening really quickly.
VFD: Why was it happening so quickly?
Chris Geidner: I think it was a snowball effect.
It was the fact that you had people getting married in states and moving people. I mean: we'll go back to the American system. See there – now everything ties up in a nice tidy bow.
So, you had the fact that you had these 50 states, and in DC you had different marriage laws, but traditionally, a marriage that's recognised in one state is recognised in another state.
And you had this issue that the only part of DOMA that was struck down was the federal recognition part. But DOMA also had this part that purported to say that states didn't need to recognise same sex marriages from another state.
But once the federal recognition was down, then you had these weird situations where it was like: a same sex couple is married in Massachusetts in 2005, and they eventually get a job somewhere else. And they move. And if it was before 2013, they would have to sue to strike down DOMA and sue to get their marriage recognised. But after that, it was like, you had this situation where if that Massachusetts couple moved, the federal government was still gonna recognise their marriage. And so what if you work for the federal government?
What if, say, you have an important job? Let's say you're a scientist, and you're transferred to a nuclear lab in Arizona, and you're a lesbian, and your wife is moving with you. And the federal government is still giving you health insurance, but this state health insurance board doesn't require non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. And so you could be turned down from certain treatment, or hospitals, or fired from your job, and yet still have health insurance under the federal government.
It was federalism working in our favour. Maybe if it had been 50 years ago it would have taken longer, but everybody moves so much more now that it was an impossibility of keeping other states from knowing what was going to happen. And Evan Wolfson, who had run Freedom to Marry, the thing that he always used to say is like: Once you had Massachusetts, the sky didn't fall.
And so the opponents of same sex couples marriage rights lost all of these arguments. Because it was like: Well, uh… look.
I mean, you actually see that. New England is a little different and more liberal… The Republicans are less social conservatives - but you saw that they did really spread out from Massachusetts. Because you did have this idea of that’s where it spread first, other than California.
Because if you're in Massachusetts you know people in Rhode Island, you know people in Connecticut, you know people in Vermont, you know people in New Hampshire. I mean, the head of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Mary Bonauto, works out of Boston, but lives in Portland, Maine. And so she was working for an organisation that had argued the case that got same sex couples marriage rights in Massachusetts, and then went home to a state where she couldn't get married.
VFD: Yeah, God.
How do you feel when you are on the journalistic side of things, and you're reporting on the rights of people - civil rights, I guess. How do you stay impartial to a certain degree, but then also… we're talking about stuff that ethically has questions involved with it, too, right?
Chris Geidner: Yeah, so when I left BuzzFeed, I went to The Justice Collaborative, which actually is an advocacy organisation. So I got my last part of the government / advocacy / journalism triangle finished.
And for two years I was working with The Justice Collaborative. We were mainly focused on criminal justice issues and then expanded to broader instability issues. We did a lot of work with COVID in jails and prisons this past year, and working with folks on different aspects related to the George Floyd-related protests, and racial justice protests that followed.
And now I'm at The Appeal, which is journalism. It was our editorially independent part of The Justice Collaborative. And we actually shut down the advocacy arm and we're just The Appeal. I'm the editorial director, and I think what I've sort of done - and that's a long way to get to what your question was - is that I've sort of found where I'm most comfortable. Which is: we are a mission driven media organisation.
And so the answer, from my perspective, is that I believe that there is an answer and I want to promote that. But I want to do it in a journalistic way. Like: if it's not right, if it's causing harm, if it's not leading to the solutions, if the facts don't support it, then I don't support it.
But the way that I answered this question before was: you might think you know how I feel about marriage equality but my answer would be: read my story. And if you think you have an issue with it, tell me what the issue is. Like, I basically put it back on them.
I don't think that whatever views I might have are going to bias my story. If anything, I think they inform my story. I think they inform my reporting more. And I think that's why I was able to do the reporting that I was able to do. That's why I was able to decide and convince my editors that it was OK.
I mean, I basically followed around the two different labor secretaries in the Obama administration because they weren't answering the question about whether they were protecting transgender people under an existing Executive Order. And I followed them around until they actually kicked me out of an availability, and then they got bad press for it, and then they let me come to the next thing.
But I felt strongly that transgender people who were being discriminated against in the workplace had the right to know whether or not the federal government was going to back them up. And like: would I have felt that way if I didn't think that was the right answer – that they should have that support? Maybe not. But does it matter if I thought that? If what I was trying to do was ask for a “yes” or “no” question from government officials?
VFD: Yeah, I see.
Chris Geidner: And because they refused to answer it I FOIA’d them and did a long series on things when we got to two years later. And I was able to unravel why they were holding off and why they were putting me at bay.
But I'm really excited now. We've only been in this new position for a month at The Appeal and I'm really excited to be working with people to figure out: what are the stories that government officials aren't willing to tell us? What are the proposals? What are the policies that aren't being advanced that academics, or experts, or activists, know work when they're being implemented?
VFD: Yeah, well how do you feel about, I guess, the era we're in? And I hate saying this term - but it’s like the Post-Tuth era, where the respect for journalism and media is probably, in America at least, as low as it's been in a long time.
And so having that knowledge, but then also thinking: if I put the facts out there, people will respect the facts. When it seems like they might not.
And that comes from politicians as well! There could be a situation where you're trying to get a question answered about transgender rights and they just lie to you. And you can point out they lie. But that's the end of the tale, right?
Chris Geidner: I guess my hope is always that it is all building blocks. And it’s all figuring out who the people are who need to be informed of what the facts are. And at different times that's different people. Sometimes it's a question of: do lawmakers actually understand what the problem is like on the ground? Other times it's: do people on the ground actually understand what our lawmakers could do to help them?
And so I think sometimes that fact, or truth, or lie… I think that it’s a matter of doing the work and informing people and figuring out what the truth is and getting that information out there.
I think that’s why it's really important that journalism that does that is supported. Another full circle, but if people who are trying to tell the truth are not supported in any way … we had some potentially very bad news in America that just broke a few hours ago that The Chicago Tribune is being eaten up by a hedge fund. And so that's not great.
VFD: On the record, again! Chris Geidner: “Well that’s not great!”
Chris Geidner: It's awful. And we do need to make sure that we have systems that are put in place to support those things.
All of these things that we've talked about: we need systems in place that support civic education, we need systems in place that support factual reporting. We need systems in place that support lawmakers who want to be factual.
And I think we've got people in the Republican Party who are facing that. And there is, whether they're ready for it or not, there are aspects of the Republican Party that are ready for a reckoning over whether they can still be one party or whether they need to start a new party, or whether they need to somehow excise the evil from the party.
I don't know what aspects of those things. Different people think different things are possible and different people think different things are necessary. But I'm never going to be the person to make that decision. In any of the roles that I've played. So I'll let the Republicans figure that out.
But I do think in all of those situations... the thing that I say about the facts and truth: It matters on all of those sides, and it's the reason why I think that there are people who, honestly, get a lot of shit when they go from government to journalism to advocacy, or whatever.
But I just think that I’m always me. For better or worse I was fairly transparent. I don't think many people were surprised about what my personal opinions were when I was at BuzzFeed, but I think they also knew that I was a fair reporter.
Chris Geidner: And I think that when I was at The Justice Collaborative I was still being trusted in my analysis of what was going on at the Supreme Court. And I think that I have very much centred my brand on logic. On like: This is going to be true.
Whether it's: I'm telling you what I found, and you need to figure out the rest. Or whether it's like: I'm telling you what I think we should do, and here's the facts that I found to support it. Or whether it's like: we should go in this direction. And here's why.
All of them are going to be fact-based and going to be based on where we think things should go. And I think when you look at what's happened with LGBT rights, when you look at what's happened with criminal justice…
Just with criminal justice we had, in the midst of everything else that was happening, the longtime district attorney in Los Angeles County, the largest county in America, got defeated and she was a Democrat.
But she was a Democrat in California who was still sending people to death row. And she was a democrat who had a rather retrograde, tough on crime policy. And George Gascón defeated her.
And we’ve had now, since 2016 - and basically there are some every year, because of our federalism — we've had basically five or four cycles now of elections for prosecutors on this reform agenda. We've seen that on the smallest area.
The county prosecutor is the smallest area where you're actually voting for one thing. Even if you care about criminal justice issues, by the time you're voting for Governor you probably have five other things that you might care about more. But when you're voting for DA, even if criminal justice isn't your top concern, you're gonna be voting for DA based on your thinking about criminal justice, because you're voting for your prosecutor.
So what we have seen there is this dramatic change in how people are voting when they vote for that. So I have now seen over the course of the past 10 years in two different areas, on LGBT issues and in criminal justice, that when things are taken to people, one on one, to communities by community, to lawmakers, in direct information, that facts do tend to win out. And the facts do advance.
VFD: Is that your main thesis to the people who are cynical or who look at this kind of spider's web of chaos?
Chris Geidner: I mean, I don’t know! That's the answer. I don't have Ben Smith's job. I don't want Ben Smith’s job. That's not what I do.
Thank goodness, I don't have the jobs of all of our friends who spend their time in the fever swamps of the disinformation beat.
Chris Geidner: Yeah. And all of those people. I mean, they would probably have a much less positive take than me. I guess I have the take that I've always had, which is: I'll do what I can do. And what I can do is talk the way that I talk online and do what I can do in the workplace I'm in.
Whether it's Metro Weekly, whether it's BuzzFeed, whether it's TJC, and whether it's The Appeal. But if I have something that I want to share with the world, and want them to believe that what I'm sharing with the world is worthwhile… I think my positive bottom line would be: Many people can be misled by disinformation. But that doesn't make it information.
Chris Geidner: It’s still disinformation. And there still is the ability to sort that out and say: well, that's not true.
And the real, complicated, scary stuff that all of the people on those beats are dealing with is: does it matter if we can sort out what's true or not if people don't care and they still listen to the stuff that's false? That I don't know the answer to…
If I have something that I want to share with the world, and want them to believe that what I'm sharing with the world is worthwhile… I think my positive bottom line would be: Many people can be misled by disinformation. But that doesn't make it information.
Chris Geidner: It’s still disinformation. And there still is the ability to sort that out and say: well, that's not true.
And the real, complicated, scary stuff that all of the people on those beats are dealing with is: does it matter if we can sort out what's true or not if people don't care and they still listen to the stuff that's false?
That I don't know the answer to, and I think the best examples I can give are that it takes work. I guess the answer is: I think it takes work. And I think it takes more than Ben Collins just being amazing and covering all of it. It also takes government leaders who are willing to stand up.
When you think about early in the fight for marriage equality - thinking way back to 2000 in Vermont, and we were dealing with the Vermont Supreme Court which had said that they had to give equal rights. And the question was: would they demand marriage or not? And Howard Dean was the governor at the time and they basically came up civil unions and that's where civil unions came from. Because they were like: well, we're not going to do marriage.
And then we fast forward to Massachusetts, there was a period where they tried. There was this discussion about: Did this ruling give us enough wiggle room to do something other than marriage? And I was in law school and I actually wrote a piece that got some traction that was like: No, you can't. There's no room for that.
But that was educating people. And we got to the point where...that's when I was in law school so that was like 2004, fast forward to 2014? And we had, in early 2015 was when Hillary Clinton launched her campaign.
VFD: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Geidner: And one of my first things I asked of them, like on the day they announced, was this question of: She said that she supports same sex couples’ marriage rights, does she believe it's a constitutional right?
And you can look it up, it was in WikiLeaks. They basically were like: we want to avoid this guy. He's trouble. And they basically said he's not gonna give up until we give an answer. And so they were like: just push him off for now.
So I do think we’re pushing people to face the fact, whatever it is. And there is this question of: Does the January 6 insurrection move some elected officials so that they're more willing to call out disinformation? And it seems like it did. It seemed like there were more people willing to call out the most extreme elements within the party.
But it's the tiniest of tiny first steps. Like, Marjorie Taylor Greene is still in Congress, we weren't even dealing with expulsion. They were getting her off committees, and we weren't even getting Republicans agreeing on that. So I mean, we've got a long way to go. But I do think that the lesson I've learned is that if you do have the facts, and there is organising behind it, you can, with careful organising, eventually inform people of those facts and win people over to the fact that those facts are reality.
VFD: Yeah, I think what happened in Georgia with the grassroots campaigning leading up to the election is a good example of that, too. Of just sticking to it.
Chris Geidner: Yeah, I think it was a 10 year process. That was a 10 year process that they went through.
VFD: I know we've been talking for a while. And I don't want to hold you unless you want to talk for hours and hours. I'm sure I'm very captivating. But there's two more questions. Everyone gets asked them, you can answer them together or separately. And those are: what scares you? And when have you failed? And what did you do about it?
Chris Geidner: Oh, wow.
VFD: Yeah. Save the best ones for last.
Chris Geidner: Just light questions for the end… In this dark winter of our discontent in America.
Well, my group of Aussie friends - I've been jealous of people for their gym pictures with no masks. And everybody together. So what I'm scared of is... everything right now.
But I mean, I do think, to keep with what we've been talking about- if this past election had come down to one state, or if we hadn't had a strong secretary of State in Georgia, if we hadn't had some some strong office holders in Michigan, if we hadn't had enough office holders who held things off in Pennsylvania - the same thing in Arizona and Nevada, the other two that were sort of iffy at points.
I think that we could have had - if we hadn't had federal judges who had tossed almost all of those cases which were ultimately ridiculous.
VFD: The fake voting thing, yeah.
Chris Geidner: Had we gotten a bad ruling, even if it had been overturned later, it would have given bunches of kerosene on this fire that Trump was trying to light. And I mean, we could have been in a much, much worse place come January 6.
Like imagine: Everybody talked about competing slates of electors - this is what we got on January 6 with no competing slates of electors. It was a done deal. There were no competing slates of electors.
Imagine if there actually had been competing slates of electors, like were sent in 1876. We wouldn't have been talking about 5, 6, 7 people dying – it could have been really horrible. And I think the fact that - in the lead up to that - Mitch McConnell is trying to get credit now for what he did on December 14 or whatever is ridiculous.
And the fact that we could be in that dangerous situation in the future if we don't get systems more set, and if we don't get all of the stuff that we were just talking about… if we don't get both civic education and journalistic realities set, and facts, and our system of governing, and voting, like all of these basic fundamentals need to really be in a better place before we have any more close cases than this one.
Chris Geidner: So that scares me.
VFD: That's scary. Yeah.
Chris Geidner: And a time that I failed… I mean, there are so many...
VFD: Everyone I ask is always like: which one do you want me to tell you about? Which I think is a good thing.
Chris Geidner: Oftentimes ,the times when I am most likely to fail are when I am most sure of myself and least likely to be hearing what other people are saying. And I think I got to learn that like I said: working for an office for someone who had to resign.
And I have had to watch that in my life before and since as well. I've talked a lot on Twitter and elsewhere about being sober. There are many, many examples of failure leading up to that.
And I think that a lot of what those things have taught me is that when I mess up, ask the people who were hurt, and figure out what I need to do better. And then do it.
I think that has led me to a place of being more aware and just trying to be self aware and trying to have people around me. I think it's also this: having people around me who I know will call me out. And that I don't care if they do, and that I want them to.
And I've got plenty of them! But it's really helpful and I think we've seen in dramatic ways over the past four years, from Trump, what happens when you don't have anybody who can tell you “no”, when you don't have anybody telling you when you've gone off the rails, so you don't have anyone who will stop you or call out your bullshit.
Chris Geidner: And that's literally the case across the country when it comes to business, or show business. When it comes to politics, when it comes to journalism. I mean, it's the journalism rule moved into the world: Like, nobody doesn't need an editor. Any journalist who tells you they don't need an editor isn't a good journalist.
VFD: They’re starting a Substack…
Chris Geidner: I didn't say that!
But any person in authority who doesn't think that they need people who are willing to call out their bullshit is going to have a downfall. They're going to. Eventually, they're either going to retire quietly and we're not going to know what they did wrong, or they're going to go out in a ball of flames. And I'm really grateful to have those people in my life, both at the level of people in my day-to-day life at work, but also just in my life among my close friends.
VFD: Well, I think that's a nice note to end on – that you have a lot of friends who check you. But thank you – thank you, again – for being gracious with your time and for going over what I prescribed as a 30 minute conversation. But yeah, thanks so much.
Chris Geidner: Of course.