President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of the conversation can be heard at The first part appeared in the November 5 issue of The New York Review.
—The Editors

Pete Souza/White House
President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the airport in Des Moines after their conversation, just before he boarded Air Force One, September 2015

The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.

Marilynne Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.

The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.

Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….

And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.

Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.

Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.

It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

Robinson: I think that in our earlier history—the Gettysburg Address or something—there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods—which is not to say one we will never return to—the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing—not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.

The President: A source of optimism—I took my girls to see Hamilton, this new musical on Broadway, which you should see. Because this wonderful young Latino playwright produced this play, musical, about Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. And it’s all in rap and hip-hop. And it’s all played by young African-American and Latino actors.

And it sounds initially like it would not work at all. And it is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant. We haven’t seen a collection of that much smarts and chutzpah and character in any other nation in history, I think.

But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today.

And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.

But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.

If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Robinson: Exactly. I believe very much in teaching history. I spend an enormous amount of time working with primary sources and various sources and so on. And I think that a lot of the history that is taught is a sort of shorthand that’s not representative of much of anything. I think that’s too bad.

The President: Do you pay a lot of attention to day-to-day politics these days?

Robinson: I do actually. I read the news for a couple of hours every morning.

The President: Right. And how do you think your writer’s sensibility changes how you think about it? Or are you just kind of in the mix like everybody else, and just, ah, that red team drives me nuts, and you’re cheering for the blue?

Robinson: Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be. I think in my essay on fear I was talking about the assumption of generosity in this culture, you know?* We have done some very magnanimous things in our history.

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Which seem in many ways unifying, defining. And then you see people running on what seem to be incredibly mean-spirited, tight-fisted assumptions, and you think, this is not us. This is not our way forward. Well, I’m getting all too political, but insulting people that you know will become citizens—however that’s managed—giving them this bitter memory to carry into their participation in the national life. Why do that?

The President: We’re going through a spasm of fear. And you’re seeing it elsewhere. This is not unique to the United States. You see the emergence of the far-right parties in Europe. I think that it’s a moment of great change, and the change happens fast. And there have been periods in our history where change happened fast like this, and people just are trying to find firm footing.

When you’re looking for firm footing, one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame. And the market system globally right now does create a situation where workers—ordinary people—have less control.

When you were growing up, when I was growing up, the majority of people had confidence that if they lost their job, it would be temporary, that they often would be with the same company for years, that there would be a pension in place, that they would be able to support a family, and that their kids would probably have a better life than they did. And people feel less confident about that because workers have less leverage, and capital is mobile and labor is not. And we haven’t adapted our systems to take into account how fast this is moving.

What’s frustrating to me is just that it wouldn’t take that much for us to make the system work for ordinary people again.

Robinson: If I could strike one word out of the American vocabulary, it would be “competition.” I think that that is the most bogus thing that has been entered into our [laughter]—

The President: Now, you’re talking to a guy who likes to play basketball and has been known to be a little competitive. But go ahead. [Laughter.]

Robinson: But what we’re really telling people is that if they do not acquire nameless skills of a technological character, they will not have employment. It will be shipped out of the country. So basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecific fear that makes people—it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama presenting the National Humanities Medal to Marilynne Robinson at the White House, July 2013

The President: Right. Now, the argument would be, though, that that’s the reality that people are feeling because companies can go anywhere and—

Robinson: Exactly, but when I look at these other economies we’re supposed to be competing with, they’re fragile. They’re very fragile. And we’re seeing that now. So all the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low. Look at, frankly, China. China has a vile ecology around its industrial centers. It’s running out of appropriate cheap labor. And it’s going into crisis. And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that’s relatively more advantageous. So what are we competing with? We run China into the ground, is that our great mission?

The President: Well, in fact, historically, the way we “competed” was we educated our kids better. We put more money into research. We believed in science and facts, as opposed to being driven by superstition. We welcomed talent from all around the world. We put in place a social safety net so people felt that they could take risks without—

Robinson: That’s crucial.

The President:—without being utterly destitute.

Robinson: And having good bankruptcy laws. We have very liberal bankruptcy laws. But you know, we generate fantastic ideas—ideas move as fast as capital does. We can have the most brilliant population in the world, and if the best ideas that we have are sent offshore, we’re still in the same position.

The President: Right. We made progress on all these fronts. Slowly but surely. Where I completely agree with you, Marilynne, is that we have everything we need to thrive. And it is interesting watching the current political season for me because I’m not on the ballot, so although obviously I still have a huge stake in the outcome as a citizen, in addition to soon being an ex-president—and there are times where I’m listening to folks make these wild claims about how terrible America is doing, and I want to just press the pause button here for a second and remind them that by almost every economic criterion we are hugely better off than we were just seven years ago; that we have done far better than almost every advanced country, and certainly every large advanced country on earth, in terms of growing the economy, driving down unemployment, managing our budgets.

And the only thing that right now is holding us back is Washington dysfunction. We could knock off another percentage point on the unemployment rate if we started rebuilding roads and bridges and airports. You travel—it’s embarrassing when you go to other airports in other countries. Ours used to be the nicest ones.

Robinson: They were nice first, and then all [laughter]—

The President: Yes. Now they’re a little worn down. We got to keep them up.

The same is true with our education system. It is outstanding, but we’ve got—everybody else is caught up. We got to step it up.

So one of the reasons I’m here in Iowa is to talk about two years of college education—or two years of community college education for everybody, as free as high school was before. Research—we have fallen behind in basic research that created all these amazing technological wonders upon which our economic engine ran.

And finally, making sure that people get paid enough money that they can support a family. Because all the evidence in history shows that when workers get paid a reasonable salary, then they spend it, businesses do better, the economy does better, and our political system does better. I mean, what is true is that when people feel pinched, then the generosity that you describe narrows to my immediate family, my immediate community, my immediate group.

Robinson: It’s amazing. You know, when I go to Europe or—England is usually where I go—they say, what are you complaining about? Everything is great. [Laughter.] I mean, really. Comparisons that they make are never at our disadvantage.

The President: No—but, as I said, we have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed. If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.

Robinson: Restlessness of, like, why don’t we do something about this yellow fever? There’s generous restlessness.

The President: That’s a good restlessness.

Robinson: Yes, absolutely. And then there is a kind of acidic restlessness that—

The President: I want more stuff.

Robinson: I want more stuff, or other people are doing things that I’m justified in resenting. That sort of thing.

The President: Right.

Robinson: I was not competing with anyone else. Nobody knew what my project was. I didn’t know what it was. But what does freedom mean? I mean, really, the ideal of freedom if it doesn’t mean that we can find out what is in this completely unique being that each one of us is? And competition narrows that. It’s sort of like, you should not be studying this; you should be studying that, pouring your life down the siphon of economic utility.

The President: But doesn’t part of that depend on people having different definitions of success, and that we’ve narrowed what it means to be successful in a way that makes people very anxious? They don’t feel affirmed if they’re good at something that the society says isn’t that important or doesn’t reward.

Probably the best example for me is the teaching profession, where I can’t tell you how many kids I meet—and I used to meet them in law school when I was teaching there—who had taught for two, three, four years, they loved teaching, and they thought it was just the most important thing. And you could tell that this was their calling, and at a certain point they couldn’t afford to raise a family on it and they got discouraged, and—

Robinson: Somebody was looking over their shoulder.

The President: Somebody was looking—or they’d get some comment from a classmate who had gone on to become an investment banker, they just eventually got discouraged and you didn’t have a society that supported what they were doing, despite the fact that—talk about a complicated, magnificent art. Teaching. Being able to transmit ideas to young minds.

And so I like your definition of what America and freedom should be. But it does require all of us to have different definitions. And you have systems—or it requires a broader set of definitions than we have right now. And that’s true for businesspeople, as well. I can’t tell you how many businesspeople I meet [for whom] their joy is in organizing things to create products and services, and to help people be useful in various ways. And because they’ve got quarterly reports to shareholders and if they’ve made a long-term investment that may pay off way down the line, or if they’re paying their employees more now because they think it’s going to help them retain high-quality employees, a lot of times they feel like they’re going to get punished in the stock market. And so they don’t do it, because the definition of being a successful business is narrowed to what your quarterly earnings reports are….

So my last question to Marilynne is, when you think about your books and you think about your faith and you think about your citizenship as an American, when do you feel most optimistic? What makes you think, you know what, this experiment is going to keep going, I feel encouraged?

Robinson: Well, you know, I mean, when I do book signings, for example, and people come up one by one and talk to me about their lives, if there’s time [to] do that, how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on—there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.

And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.

The President: And I’ll try to make a better argument the next time.

Robinson: Exactly.

The President: I’ll try to persuade more people the next time.

Robinson: And I think in little groups, like my department at the university or something—people get together, talk something over, take a vote, and that’s it. And it’s a little microcosm of democracy. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

The President: Yes, but that does require a presumption of goodness in other people.

Robinson: Absolutely.

The President: And that’s not just what our democracy depends on, but I think that’s what a good life depends on. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.

Robinson: I believe that.

—This is the second part of a two-part conversation.

  1. *

    Fear,” The New York Review, September 24, 2015.