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Politics

GOP-Controlled State Legislatures Are Taking A Sharp Right Turn, Journalist Says

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Though this year's proliferation of bills restricting ballot access in red states has commanded national attention, it represents just one stream in a torrent of conservative legislation posed to remake the country. GOP controlled states have advanced their most conservative agenda in years, and one that reflects Donald Trump's present stamp on the party. That's what my guest, Ronald Brownstein, wrote in a recent column in The Atlantic, where he's a senior editor. He's also a senior political analyst at CNN. Earlier this year, he wrote a column in The Atlantic titled "How The GOP Surrendered To Extremism." One of his books - unrelated topic - is titled "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington And Polarized America."

Brownstein is a former national political correspondent and national affairs columnist for the LA Times and covered the White House and national politics for the National Journal. His latest book, which was published in the spring, is titled "Rock Me On The Water: 1974 - The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, And Politics." It's about the period when pop culture started reflecting the vanguard of culture and politics, taking a more watered-down version to the mainstream. Our interview was recorded yesterday morning.

Ron Brownstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a long time, glad to have you back again.

RONALD BROWNSTEIN: Oh, it's good to be back with you, so nice.

GROSS: So what are some of the conservative bills passed by Republican state legislatures?

BROWNSTEIN: I mean, we are seeing, as I wrote, just a torrent of bills. I mean, let's start with guns. Half a dozen states, at the point that I had written, had passed legislation allowing gun owners to carry their weapons without a permit. We've had roughly half a dozen states pass severe abortion restrictions that are, essentially, designed to prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas are among the states that have passed, virtually, complete bans on abortion. We have seen the most aggressive year on legislation in red states to target transgender individuals. Many states are passing laws that bar transgender athletes from competing in school sports. You mentioned that we are seeing the - you know, in some ways, the most visible evidence of this is the proliferation of laws, restrictive laws, making it more difficult to vote, which is obviously now kind of in the center of things in Texas. We've seen several of these states - Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, others - have passed laws stiffening penalties against demonstrators after last summer's Black Lives Matter protests. And a new kind of - right, in a similar vein, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, through executive action, trying to bar critical race theory from being taught. So you've had states - Florida, Georgia and Texas, for example, have passed laws that make it more difficult or penalize cities that try to reduce their police budgets, right? In Texas, they passed a law that's saying any county that wants to reduce its police budget has to go through a public referendum. But it only applies to counties with a population of a million or more.

GROSS: And that's because those are likely to be Democratic?

BROWNSTEIN: Those are Democratic counties. And if you look at it all in totality, it is just a remarkable statement of defiance and rejection not only of the direction that Biden is setting at the national level, but also of many of the underlying demographic and cultural changes that are remaking American life.

GROSS: Well, you describe this pattern of red state, very conservative legislation as remaking the country? So can you expand on that? How do you think it's remaking the country or trying to?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think it is essentially - I mean, you know, I look at it almost as a form of intellectual or policy secession. You know, essentially, you have roughly half the country saying that we are going to do everything we can not only to nullify or negate the direction that Democrats are setting at the national level, but we are going to affirmatively move in the opposite direction. You know, most of these policies that we're talking about are the inverse of what the Democratic-controlled Congress and Biden administration are trying to do on LGBTQ rights or guns.

I mean, I didn't even mention all the states that have passed versions of prohibiting local law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws. And I just look at this as kind of a manifestation of the extent to which we are now dealing with two very different Americas, you know? And it's not even as simple as red states and blue states because even within the red states, the metro areas, by and large, are becoming more Democratic, whether we're talking about Atlanta or Phoenix or Dallas or Houston. But you have a Republican Party in all of these states that controls the statewide power through its dominance of predominantly white, predominantly Christian, small-town, rural areas - in some cases, exurban and still suburban areas - and is using that power to impose the agenda of kind of that America on the diverse, secular, info age metros.

GROSS: Well, I think Philadelphia is, in a way, an example of what you're talking about...

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Because, like, Philadelphia is a very Democratic city. But the Pennsylvania state legislature is very conservative.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Right. And, you know, Pennsylvania is an excellent example of what we're describing because, you know, when you - you know, 50 years ago, you know, the suburbs of Philadelphia were not a Democratic stronghold. I mean, we used to talk about mainline Republicans. That was the - you know, that was the phrase. And conversely, Democrats were more competitive in a lot of the mid-sized and smaller places, blue-collar places, around the state. But we've lived through this generation-long resorting of the electorate, where now Democrats like Biden not only dominate Philadelphia itself, but starting with Bill Clinton in '92 - and, really, reaching a peak with Biden in 2020 - you know, just enormous numbers in Montgomery and Delaware and even Chester and Bucks.

I mean, Biden's margin of victory in those suburban counties is what won Pennsylvania for him - same story, really, in Georgia, you know, and his ability to compete in the suburbs of Phoenix and Arizona, same story there. Conversely, you know, as - what James Carville once said, it's, you know, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between. It's more Alabama than it was even when he said that. And that's kind of the pattern that we are seeing. And, you know, in many ways, I look at the - you know, I've described the voting laws, in particular - I guess you could say this about many of what we're talking about.

But particularly the voting laws, as Republicans in these states stacking sandbags against a rising tide of demographic change, because if you look at a place like Arizona or Georgia or Texas or North Carolina, half or more of everybody turning 18 every year in those states is a kid of color. And so I think, you know, in many of these places, the Republicans can kind of look down the road and see what's coming. And they are using the advantage they now have, through their dominance of these small-town and rural places, to try to erect barriers to delay the day when this emerging Democratic coalition might be able to vote them out of power.

GROSS: You know, something we neglected to mention, I think, in the conservative legislation being passed at the state level is legislation related to COVID and masks.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Really, COVID crystallized the conflicts between red states and blue cities in state after state - whether it was Georgia, Texas, Florida, Arizona - Republican governors and legislatures, responsive to a coalition rooted in small-town and rural parts of their states, moving aggressively to overturn decisions by Democratic mayors and county executives in the biggest parts of the states from the outset, whether it was requiring masks, whether it was limiting business hours, and now, in kind of the contemporary context, on the issue of requiring vaccines or proof of vaccine in any circumstance.

And it really just dramatized this larger trend of Republican-controlled states, where the GOP strength is rooted in the rural and small-town area, using that statewide power to block the Democratic tendencies and trend in the largest metros.

GROSS: You write that the Republican agenda is being driven by a combination of confidence and fear. Where is the confidence coming from?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think the confidence is that Democrats devoted an enormous amount of money to dislodging these Republican majorities in the state legislatures in 2020 and failed. In 2020, Democrats spent a very large amount of money in Texas and North Carolina and Georgia and Florida and Arizona and other states - Iowa - trying to flip the legislatures. And they failed as part of kind of the down-ballot disappointments for Democrats in 2020, and I think that emboldened the Republicans.

And then the fear is twofold. I think one of the fears is what I mentioned - that in - particularly in the Sunbelt states, they are looking down the road at a demographic reality that grows more challenging, and they are trying to create - fortify themselves as much as they can before that fully coalesces. And at the same time, I think they're fearful of the Trump base and a fear of primary challenges if they don't organize around this agenda. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who is kind of the leader of the most militant conservative faction in the state, I think was very open about, you know, driving this historically conservative agenda forward by saying, look; this is what the base is demanding, with a not-so-subtle message to legislators who are hesitant.

GROSS: Redistricting will be happening soon based on the recent census. So what is that looking like about - like, which direction do you think it will change politics in?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, this is where the Democratic failure in 2020 to make bigger inroads is so consequential because you have the ability for these Republican legislators to gerrymander - draw districts in a way that essentially, virtually guarantees that they will maintain control of these chambers for several years to come, into the 2020s. I think redistrictings (ph), you know, kind of age over time as population shifts happen, so it may not guarantee them a full decade. But certainly, the Texas Legislature can draw lines that virtually guarantees that they are going to be in control for the next couple of years, especially when coupled with what they are trying to do on voting rights.

And really, you know, this is the core - in some ways, the core issue that the whole debate over voting rights at the federal level is coming down to because one of the key provisions in the Democratic bill, H.R. 1, that attempts to set a nationwide floor of voting rights, is to try to combat this gerrymandering in the states. And I can tell you it's - the sense of urgency among the sponsors about acting on passing some version of H.R. 1 at the national level is that, on - in the middle of August - so roughly a month from now - the census will transmit the population data that the states use to redistrict, and the fear is that the red states, like Texas and Florida and Georgia, will try to redistrict as quickly as possible to create facts on the ground so that even if Democrats pass national standards that inhibit gerrymandering later, they can argue to this Supreme Court that they shouldn't apply to them because it would be retroactive. And so that is the real deadline that many of the advocates on Capitol Hill are looking at.

GROSS: That is a really close deadline.

BROWNSTEIN: It's a really close deadline. I mean, it's - you know, it's hard to imagine they're going to be able to pull this together in the next few weeks. It's not clear they're going to be able to pull this together at all. But it is - you know, it just underscores what we're watching - this kind of dialectic between red states that are moving on many fronts to, as aggressively as possible, say, we are not going to be part of this - what you are doing at the national level and the question of whether Democrats can use their national power to create some nationwide floor of policy and rights on a whole series of areas, but voting rights being the most consequential.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ronald Brownstein. He's a senior editor at The Atlantic and a senior political analyst for CNN. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he's been writing about how the Republican Party has become more extreme, as reflected in the conservative bills being passed at the state level.

You write that the conservative bills being passed at the state level reflect the stamp of Donald Trump. In what way, both in terms of the policies and the political approach, do they reflect Trump's stamp?

BROWNSTEIN: What you're really seeing at the state level is a manifestation of what Trump made very clear at the national level - that the driving engine of the modern Republican coalition - I think the glue of the modern Republican coalition is resistance to, hostility to the cultural and demographic changes remaking America.

You know, there was polling by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center earlier this year. Ninety percent of Trump voters said Christianity in America is under assault. There was polling by the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank, in which roughly 55% of Republicans said the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast we may have to use force to save it. And in that same poll, three-quarters of Republicans said discrimination against whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. And this legislation that we're talking about in the state level reflects those kind of viewpoints and priorities in the same way that Trump's messaging was much more about racial identity than it was about tax rates.

You know, this was not Ronald Reagan, the government, you know, is the problem; this was, who should be running the country? You know, we are the real America. And we are under assault from minorities and immigrants who threaten us and elites who disdain us. And we should - you know, we should be holding the power against these forces that are trying to transform America into something unrecognizable. And I think that is what is driving the state agenda much more than any kind of conventional, you know, line of division between the parties about the size and role of government.

GROSS: Do you think a lot of Republicans have taken on the tone of Trump's politics - the anger, the hostility, the mocking?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. Look; I mean, it all goes together. I mean, I think - look; I think the core Trump message is that Democrats are a fundamentally alien force that is trying to steal your America and transform it into something unrecognizable. It's - you know, it's what people have described since 2016 as the Flight 93 argument among conservatives, referring to the passengers who crashed one of the hijacked plane on 9/11 rather than allowing it to be flown into Washington. And Trump offers a version of that, which is that, you know, the country is at the brink. He said frequently in the 2020 election - Mike Pence said, at the convention - that this is not about whether Democrats or Republicans control Washington; this is about whether America remains America.

And so once you have put out the argument and once a substantial portion of your base has accepted the argument that any win for the other side will irrevocably disfigure and transform America into something unrecognizable and alien to its, you know, founding principles and beliefs - I mean, it is a really short step, I think, to convince them that the other side is literally stealing the election or that the consequences of allowing the other side to take power are so dangerous that it justifies a literal assault on the Capitol. It's all rooted in the broad swath of the base that is so fundamentally alienated from the way America is changing that they are willing to support any means necessary in order to maintain power.

I mean, you probably saw a poll out this week from CBS in which a majority of Republicans and Trump voters describe the attack on the Capitol as defending freedom, and only 20% described it as an insurrection. That's kind of where we are. And I think everything we're talking about, both at the state level and the national level, is flowing out of that sentiment, that deep well of alienation among a substantial portion of the base.

GROSS: How much power is Trump perceived as still having in the Republican Party? 'Cause, you know, he's been having his rallies, but he's not on social media the way he used to be. We don't see him and hear him every day the way we used to. And I'm wondering if you think Republicans feel they need Trump anymore or whether they've adapted enough of his style that they can carry it on without him and still get the support of his base?

BROWNSTEIN: That's a great question. Look; I think Trump's personal power is still substantial. The larger power is it this - what we call the Trump base - is the Republican coalition at this point. And that's why I think the 2020s - one of the reasons why, I think - I've written I think the 2020s will be the most difficult decade for the country in many ways since the 1850s because whether or not Trump himself is personally leading this parade, this is a reality. You know, something like 35, 38, maybe 40% of the country is so alienated from the way America is changing that it is willing to undermine the basic pillars of our democracy if that's what it takes to keep power. That's not going away even if Trump never runs again. Others will, in various ways, in the party, pick up that mantle. It's a demand-side phenomenon as much as a supply-side phenomenon. There is a portion - a majority, I think - of the Republican base that want something Trumpian, and someone will step in to do that.

Now, having said that, can I just have one caveat? The one thing Republicans don't know is whether they can get the superheated turnout that Trump personally inspires among these voters. There's no question that a Republican delivering this message is going to win three-quarters or four-fifths of white evangelicals and is going to win 62 to 67% of noncollege whites. But will they get the extraordinary level of turnout, pulling people off their couch into the voting booth, that Trump did? They don't know that. And I think that, in many ways, is his residual power in the party - the fear that his voters will not turn out in the same numbers unless he is enthusiastically encouraging them to do so.

GROSS: Well let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic and senior political analyst for CNN. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH'S "THINK OF ONE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic and a political analyst at CNN. He's been writing about how Republicans are limiting access to the ballot and how red states have been advancing their most conservative agenda in years, reflecting Donald Trump's stamp on the party. He's also been writing about how Republicans have been blocking Democrats in Congress and the ongoing debate over whether Democrats should end the filibuster. His new book gave him the chance to depart from today's politics. It's called "Rock Me On The Water: 1974 - The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, And Politics."

There's a big debate now within the Democratic Party about whether to end the filibuster or to end the filibuster on a limited basis, for instance, just for voting rights issues. And what would you say is the state of that debate right now?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I'd start by saying it is - I wrote in January and still believe it is the biggest single choice Democrats face in this Congress, whether to end the filibuster to pass a national floor of voting rights. I think that is far more important than how many bridges, ultimately, they fund in southern Indiana.

GROSS: You're talking about the infrastructure bill there. Yeah.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Yes, I am, yeah. So it is an enormously consequential decision because - you know, I was talking to an historian for another story I was writing. And if you think about the 1960s and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the Southern segregationists were trying to prevent the federal government from changing Jim Crow - from uprooting Jim Crow in their states. They weren't trying to export Jim Crow to new states. They weren't trying to make Jim Crow a national standard. They just wanted - it was a defensive maneuver to keep the federal government out. What we are seeing now in the red states is more like what happened in the 1850s, when the South was trying to use - trying to achieve a national expansion of slavery, to override and undermine the limits on expanding slavery into new territories and maybe, ultimately, even into the free states.

This is analogous, you know, because what's happening in the red states on voting is not just about preventing Democrats from electing a governor in Texas or Georgia or Arizona; it's about flipping the rules or tilting the table in a way that makes it easier for Republicans to control the Senate and to control the House or gerrymandering and to win the presidency, both through voter suppression and maybe even subversion of the results with these enhanced powers in some of these laws to take over, you know, local election boards. So this is not only about controlling the red states; this is about changing the rules in the red states in a way that will allow you to control the country.

And given the magnitude of that, it would be pretty extraordinary if Democrats unilaterally decide not to use the one lever they have to fight back against an effort to create a tilted, permanent or lasting majority, right? I mean, the Supreme Court has made very clear it is not going to stop what's happening in these red states. I mean, their decision on the Voting Rights Act made that very clear. The six Republican justices are not going to override what the red states are doing. Democrats don't have the votes in the red states to stop what's happening, as evidenced by the flight to Washington of the Texas Democratic legislators, that extraordinary step that only may delay the inevitable.

The one lever that Democrats have to try to push back against this broader effort is that their control of Congress in the White House allows them to set a floor - a nationwide floor of voting rights. And the idea that - you know, what Manchin and Sinema - Senators Manchin and Sinema are essentially saying is that Democrats should do this only if Republicans in the Senate agree to undo what Republicans in the states are doing - highly unlikely, highly illogical, ahistorical. So that is the choice they face.

GROSS: So Senators Sinema and Manchin are asking for bipartisanship in an era when that is most improbable. So say President Biden decided, yeah, we're going to go for ending the filibuster for voting rights, just for voting rights issues. What are the odds, do you think, that Sinema and Manchin would actually agree to that? 'Cause he needs their votes. I mean, would it even be possible to end the filibuster if he - if Biden decided he wanted to?

BROWNSTEIN: The short answer is no one knows, Terry. So let's kind of recap the state of play. The House passed a very expansive bill called H.R. 1, which establishes a nationwide floor of voting rights, allows - requires every state to provide automatic and same-day registration, requires every state to allow early voting and mail voting on demand, limits gerrymandering, has new fundraising and ethical provisions. I mean, it was kind of covering the waterfront. That passed the House, went to the Senate, and Republicans filibustered it, and obviously, that was the end of the line for that bill.

Where they are now is that Senator Manchin, who is a former secretary of state of West Virginia, put out a series of principles about what he could support as an alternative to that. And it wasn't as sweeping as H.R. 1, but it went further in that direction than I think most Democrats and voting rights advocates expected. So what they are doing now, somewhat fitfully because it's being overshadowed by the infrastructure and budget talks, is Democrats are trying to unify behind a bill based on the Manchin principles that every Democrat in the Senate and presumably in the House would endorse, and the goal at that point is to then say to Manchin and Sinema, OK, here is a reasonable bill, your principles; go get 10 Republicans, and if you can't get 10 Republicans, let's talk about some kind of carveout for the filibuster for this.

There is enormous optimism that they will be able to reach this policy agreement. There is virtual certainty they will not get 10 and probably not any Republicans for a bill that establishes any national floor of voting rights. But I think after that, it's kind of a dark room. They don't know if, when push comes to shove, after that - at that moment, whether Manchin and Sinema ultimately will carve out a voting rights exception, what Jon Alter calls the democracy exception to the filibuster, or not. But I do think it is premature to assume the answer is definitely no. I will say that. I mean, I think there are people in the press who just feel this is absolutely doomed. I'm not there. I don't think it is guaranteed that Manchin, in the end, will allow the red-state offensive to go forward and unilaterally disarm in the face of that.

GROSS: So how many years have you been writing about politics, Washington politics?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I came to Washington, if you can believe it, in 1979. And I have been covering national political campaigns in the White House since 1984.

GROSS: Do you think that your way of writing about politics has changed to reflect the time that we're living in now, when, you know, so many people in the Republican Party and our former president, Donald Trump, have put out so many statements that are just factually wrong and are presenting them as the truth?

BROWNSTEIN: I think unequivocally. Unequivocally. Look; your job as a journalist is to tell your readers what's happening as best you can and as best you can understand it. And, you know, many of the things I've said to you in the last hour, you know, I think there would be a lot of reporters hesitant to say as explicitly because they would worry it would taint them in some way as not being objective or not being fair. But this - the reality of what we are living in is that we are in a different era. I mean, we are in a position that I don't think the country has really ever been in, except for, maybe, the Southern-dominated Democratic Party in the 1850s, where you have a substantial and, I believe, the dominant faction in one party that is moving in a consciously anti-democratic way - small D - as a means of maintaining majority power in a country where the evidence is they no longer have majority support.

And I feel like your - if that's what's happening, that's what you have to unearth and describe and track and, you know, respectfully. But I think, you know, clearly. And so - yeah. I do think that the role of - and obviously, that plays out as well at a kind of more tactical or micro level day to day in responding to things that aren't true.

The - you know, the commands of being fair do not require you to willfully blind yourself to what's happening. In fact, that's just something - I could not imagine anything more perverse than saying, out of a desire to be seen by some as fair, I am going to willfully mislead my audience as to the magnitude of what's happening. I just think that just is an incredible inversion of what your priorities should be. I think some in the press are kind of stuck in that mode. But I do think, by and large, reporters have moved toward understanding that this is a different moment. And you may have to be more assertive than in the past about describing what's actually happening.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic and senior political analyst for CNN. We'll talk more after a break. And when we do come back, we're going to talk about his new book, which is called "Rock Me On The Water: 1974 - The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television And Politics." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ronald Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he's been writing about how the Republican Party has become more extreme. He is also a senior analyst at CNN.

You have a new book, which must have been a refreshing departure...

BROWNSTEIN: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: ...From writing about today's politics. It's called "1974 - The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television And Politics." And there's kind of, like, an overarching, like, thesis in the book, which is that real culture is always ahead of pop culture and pop culture is usually ahead of politics, and that the '70s was this turning point in the relationship between those three. So talk about how you see '74 as a turning point.

BROWNSTEIN: So writing "Rock Me On The Water" was, in one sense - you know, felt like a vacation from all the turmoil of our modern political life the last few years because its focus is on the simultaneous renaissance, really, in television, movies, music and politics in LA in the early 1970s. But ultimately, I felt there was a really strong parallel to what was happening then and what was happening now, because the story I tell in "Rock Me On The Water" is how the critique of American life that emerged out of the social movements of the 1960s - you know, a greater suspicion of authority, greater autonomy for women, demands for inclusion for previously marginalized groups, environmental thinking - all of these ideas were really brought to the masses, the mass American audience, by being cemented into pop culture. And that happened in the early 1970s when shows like "All In The Family" and "Mary Tyler Moore" and "M*A*S*H" went on TV. And we had movies like "Chinatown" and "The Godfather" and "Five Easy Pieces" and "Shampoo" and "Nashville" that brought a more critical lens to American life.

And we had the whole southern California music explosion around Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and the Eagles. And all of this was happening within a few blocks of each other. And it was all driven by the same underlying force, which was these big cultural industries had to respond to the growing buying power of the baby boom, which was an increasing part of their audience. And they felt the need, in ways that I describe, to produce programming, to produce content that was relevant to the experiences and the values of the baby boom. And this is the moment, I argue, that these ideas were cemented into American popular culture, never to be dislodged.

Now, what was happening politically as this cultural transformation was going on? Well, you know, to some extent, as I talk about with people like Jerry Brown, these ideas were making their first entrance into the political arena. But the bigger political story was that Richard Nixon won two elections in 1968 and 1972 by mobilizing the voters who are most unhappy with all of the changes in society that were, at that very moment, triumphing in popular culture. And I think it was a reflection in many ways of a basic truth - that culture is ahead of politics in reflecting the way the country is changing because culture has to be more attuned to young people. And I think we are in a very similar position today.

GROSS: You know, in the period you're talking about, you also have different levels of popular culture. You have, like, mainstream pop culture, and I put "All In The Family" in that category. But you also have, like, alternative newspapers and magazines. You have the beginning of independent film, experimental movies. One hand you have The Eagles. On the other hand, you have Lou Reed.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, you do. Right - the New York story.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly. You have punk rock.

BROWNSTEIN: A little later. Yeah.

GROSS: A little bit later. Yeah. So you have all these conflicts within pop culture, too. Tell us about one of the movies that you think really shows how Hollywood is changing to - you know, in reaction to what's actually happening in youth culture at the time.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, the key point about this period is not that the avant-garde was adapting kind of ideas that were considered insurrectionary in the mainstream because, as I think you're noting, that's always true, right? There's always an avant-garde that is pushing at the accepted boundaries of everything. What was unique about this period was that CBS and Paramount and big record labels were accepting these ideas and advancing these ideas in a way they had not before.

I mean, you know, during the 1960s, while the social movements of the '60s were at their apex, both TV and movies in particular did their absolute best to ignore everything that was happening. I mean, the top-rated shows in the '60s were "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" and "Gomer Pyle" and "Green Acres." I mean, and the movies were "Sound Of Music" and "My Fair Lady" and "The Longest Day" and "The Great Escape." It was all defiantly, deliberately looking away from the really dramatic stories that were unfolding around them for fear of alienating this older - you know, basically Nixon's silent majority. But as I say, when you get to the late '60s and early '70s, I tell the story at great length of how "All In The Family" got on the air.

And obviously, after "Easy Rider's" success in 1969, both the TV and the movie studios recognized that they couldn't keep putting their head in the sand. And that opened the door to the mainstream embracing and debating ideas that previously had been limited to the avant-garde. And for me - look. The movie that most reflects this, above all, probably is "Chinatown."

GROSS: It's such a great movie.

BROWNSTEIN: It's such a great movie, right? I mean, and I talked to Robert Towne, who wrote the movie, and others who were involved in it. I had a great time. I found the photographer who took the on-set photos - you know, publicity stuff, most of which was never published. And he was showing me shots of the last night of shooting because the last night of shooting is the great ending of "Chinatown." You know, forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown. And you can just see the chilliness between Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski, who battled throughout the whole movie. But "Chinatown" really does.

You know, "Nashville," in some ways, as I argue in the book, which is not as great a movie as "Chinatown" - "Nashville," I believe, though, is kind of the "Moby Dick" of early '70s cinema, the attempt to wrestle into one story all of the themes. But "Chinatown," I think, really captures this period both in American life and in popular culture where the idea that you can't really trust those who are making decisions in your name, there are wheels within wheels, we don't know as much as we think we do - it's just an incredibly powerful expression of those ideas done in a classic film noir.

GROSS: Well, Ron Brownstein, I want to thank you so much for being on our show. Thank you for talking with us.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh, thanks for having me - always a great time.

GROSS: Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a senior political analyst at CNN. His latest book is called "Rock Me On The Water: 1974 - The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, And Politics."

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GOLDSMITH'S "LOVE THEME FROM CHINATOWN")

GROSS: After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will review a film he recommends that won a directing prize at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANTSUI SONG, "BEAUTIFUL DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.