Usually the American political news cycle is simple. Every four years, America gears up for a presidential election and political news is everywhere. Then, sometime after Inauguration Day, political news fades away and life more or less gets back to normal.
As we all know, 2017 is not a normal year.
Since the election of Donald Trump, the political news cycle hasn’t slowed down one bit. In many ways it’s been accelerating, with an increasing number of political controversies, scandals, and close votes in Congress. American politics is difficult for many to understand even in the best of times. During the Trump era, it can seem impossible.
That’s why I’m so glad The Weeds, one of several great Vox Media podcasts, exists. Journalists Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Sarah Kliff break down politics and policy, explaining how complicated legislation gets passed, and what its implementation means for your life. The podcast was already a worthwhile listen before President Trump. Now, it’s absolutely indispensable.
The Weeds excels by illuminating the often counterintuitive motivations of various political players. Take a recent episode on universal basic income (UBI) – a proposed policy where every citizen receives a monthly payout from the government – that’s a hot topic because luminaries like Elon Musk championed for it in life of further automation of jobs. The Weeds quickly disproved the theory that both liberals and conservatives equally support UBI by doing a deep dive into whitepapers and arguments advanced by both sides. Conservatives often support UBI as a replacement for the welfare state, while liberals often look to it as a supplement to it. Even though both sides are superficially supporting the same policy, they are doing so with very different motivations.
In another discussion, Matt Yglesias noted how hardline senators sometimes intentionally torpedo legislation by pushing for an even more “pure” version of the bill, when in fact their real goal is to kill the legislation. A senator might claim to oppose anything except a full repeal of Obamacare, when in reality they know that refusing to compromise actually makes it much more likely Obamacare will survive, thus protecting their constituents from losing healthcare. This allows them to publicly appear loyal to the party—and gain support among the base—while actually avoiding big problems in their state.
You definitely can’t find this level of nuance and detail on cable news, and it’s also lacking from many other political podcasts. The Weeds manages to thread the needle between discussing timely political battles while making clear its broader policy implications.
The Weeds also discusses a different academic whitepaper each week, taking the discussion beyond the realm of politics and into a more theoretical direction. These discussions are a real highlight because they focus on the policies of the future and opportunities for political innovation.
A recent episode discussed how lead exposure probably increases crime (which is all the more reason to ensure you're drinking filtered tap water). Matt Yglesias noted that while many government intervention programs have an inconclusive track record, science has shown beyond a doubt that reducing the level of lead in our water will improve well-being. But because the effects of lead are long-term and not on the political radar of most people, the problem goes unsolved.
The Weeds isn’t a show where the hosts argue about politics. It’s a show that really illuminates the complicated, nuanced decisions that face politicians and policymakers, helping you understand how government and society actually work.
The enactment of President Trump’s “America First” policies and his personal intervention in trade and corporate deals means that business and government are becoming increasingly intertwined. Whether you’re listening to understand changes that could affect your business, or simply doing it to stay informed, The Weeds is the best podcast to understand politics today.