Mark McKinnon is a former political strategist and the creator and co-host of The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth on Showtime. In this episode, McKinnon explains why he is worried about the state of American democracy, gerrymandering, partisanship, the politicians he believes could lead a reform movement, and why despite his many concerns, he remains “a prisoner of hope.”  

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce  0:04  

Hi, welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And today a heavy dose of the letter politics. And my guest is Mark McKinnon. He’s the co founder, or I’m sorry, the creator and the co host of the circus on Showtime. Mark, welcome to the power hungry podcast. Glad to be in the saddle. Robert, how are you? Fine. Thank you. Thanks. So I didn’t warn you. But guests on the show introduce themselves. I’ve given your title. But imagine you’ve arrived somewhere no one knows who you are. They don’t know what the hell it’s about. Tell them what that’s telling the story. Who are you? Ah, I’m a I’m a professional hack. I don’t think I had anyone introduce themselves that way. But I’m sorry to interrupt a professional hack. Okay.

Mark McKinnon  0:51  

Yes. I’ve been hacking for about 30 years or so in American politics. I worked in Texas for many years, I worked for Lloyd Doggett, Nan Richards. And then I crossed the bridge and worked for George W. Bush did his reelect for governor and then stayed aboard and did the presidential campaigns in 2000 2004. I worked for john mccain, as well. And I’ve done a lot of reform work. In the space, I helped start an organization called no labels in an effort to bring these the partisan parties together. steep hill big rock these days, but it’s doing very good work, I think. And then I have an idea for a television show called the circus. That was actually back in about 2003. It took me about 10 years to get it on the air, but it is now and I had hoped that we’d have one season. And that was really all I expected. And we’re now signed up for we’re in the middle of our sixth season and signed up for another season next year.

Robert Bryce  1:59  

That’s a good intro. And so the second half of the season six will start airing on Showtime on Sunday nights, if I recall the second half of this season six in September starts. Gotcha. So let’s follow on that directly, then. So what’s the state of American politics today?

Mark McKinnon  2:18  

It’s it’s really depressing. Robert, and I was thinking a lot about that just this morning. It’s frustrating. I mean, I’m I literally am concerned about our democracy. I you know, this is an experiment, you know, and there’s not a lot of history behind it. And I don’t think it’s faring very well, right now. I don’t think it’s working very well. I don’t think it’s working for people. I think it’s working for partisans only. And I think it’s in a really unhealthy state. You know, I mean, I, we could talk for a long time about, you know, why that is what it is. But I, you know, I sort of stay in the game, to some degree. Um, because I’m so worried I, you know, otherwise I wouldn’t care. Or I’d be apathetic about it. But I’m genuinely started, you know, like, lose sleep about this. And I think we, we came very close to, you know, having an autocratic overturn of our democracy in this last election. And I and I, and I don’t think it’s gotten much better since then.

Robert Bryce  3:32  

III think it was that close. Because I mean, you know, I’ve looked at the, you know, what are the antiques and I think that’s the right word antiques around Trump in the, in the January 6, you know, Riot at the Capitol, and I couldn’t quite believe it as I watched it, and even watching it again, I’m thinking what, when did we move to Caracas? I mean, when, when, because that’s it, but it seems like that was only the symptom of what of a deeper divide a very deep divides, I guess, in America. How? How do you? Well, let me just ask about January 6, what was your reaction to that?

Mark McKinnon  4:09  

I just stunned and your analogy to Caracas is a good one. I used to do a lot of work in foreign countries. I, I had a, you know, I worked for a number of years for a guy in New York City named David Sawyer, who was one of the preeminent American political consultants who was one of the very first to work around the world who bring American style campaigns to emerging Third World democracies that had never had any experience in election. So we go in there and kind of help them out. But a lot of times, the sort of things would happen in those countries or what happened on January 6, where you’d have you know, the loser just just throw down the notion that there was a you know, that it was a fraudulent election and people rioted and overturn the government and You know, I was thinking, Robert about. I thought a lot about January 6, I thought a lot about that day. And I actually thought that there’d be a really interesting and compelling television show to do about it. That would start with, you know, say a week before January 6, and you’d focus on maybe some Trump supporters that were going to the Capitol, maybe some some congressional aides, maybe Khamees, Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence, maybe some Capitol Police, you’d start with them, you kind of follow their wives prior to January 6. And then you’d get to January 6, and use actual documentary footage of what happened that day I was at the I was at the speech at the Capitol, my colleague john Heilemann went to the Capitol. So we are right in the middle of it. And

Robert Bryce  5:57  

the speech you heard you heard Trump’s speech?

Mark McKinnon  6:00  

Yes. And I’ll tell you that I only would have been surprised if people hadn’t gone to the Capitol and rioted, given the tone and tenor of his remarks and Giuliani’s remarks and his son’s remarks.

Robert Bryce  6:11  

I mean, I was so you think they incited? No question.

Mark McKinnon  6:13  

I mean, I was looking for a pitchfork. I mean, that’s, that’s what it was like, I there’s no question about it. But but the turn of the concept of the television show that I I was thinking about was that you, you sort of use real documentary footage January 6. But then what would happen is Nancy Pelosi gets taken hostage, Mike Pence gets hanged, Donald Trump becomes it stays president. And we sort of see what could have and might have happened. But for it, you know, but for a few things that held the guardrails in place, but barely,

Robert Bryce  6:51  

right? I mean, it did seem like it was so close to being what could have really been a bloody mess. I mean, people could have a lot of people. I mean, there were a handful of people died, including that in the capital policemen has memory serves. But I mean, the crowd was clearly out for blood. And that was the part that to me. The UN was just a staggering about, well, who are these people? But But well, let me let me jump back to the circus, because you mentioned when you put it yourself your professional hack, I’ve been in the journalism business for a long time. And as I thought about this, and a full admission here, I don’t I don’t have Showtime. So I haven’t seen you in action. But I’ve seen you on some of the the, you know, the TV shows, I think you’re on msnbc the other night, or you’ve been on a number of TV shows, but your show is the circus. Well, how much is how much of the circus is the media itself? I mean, is the circus part of the circus? Well,

Mark McKinnon  7:45  

you know, we write books about this for years. You know, what, what, what were the constituent components of how we got here, and the media is part of it. I mean, it’s gotten incredibly partisan. And so it feeds confirmation bias among viewers. You know, we try on our show to really be balanced and show, you know, all sides of what happens and just show hold a mirror up to what’s happening. But it’s, you know, it’s a, again, you know, it with the advent of the Internet, talk radio, cable television, all those things kind of feed the partisanship, and it’s just it’s a very unhealthy situation where, you know, be we just had Well, I mean, I have a really good examples, you know, some very good friends of mine, that I found out yesterday, haven’t talked to Joe since the election. And they were best friends. And they literally don’t talk to each other. And that’s, that’s where we are as a country. And that’s, that’s why I’m super concerned about it. And but I don’t have any easy answers.

Robert Bryce  8:59  

Let me experience some of that myself. I mean, you know, I live in Austin, and this is very, you know, is what the mayor call it the the blueberry and the tomato soup bowl. Right, you know, one little bit of blue. But my views on energy don’t tend to, you know, follow the democratic line. And it’s been interesting to see interesting to see how that plays on an interpersonal dynamic. Because it’s, there’s a almost Well, I think there is a religious affiliation now that a tribalism that I has become more extreme than any time in my career, and I’ve been watching politics for a long time. And you and I think I’m following on what you said here, but I would call it maybe the atomization of the politics in america that there are smaller and smaller groups. They are, you know, the confirmation bias and that were the right ones. And we got it all correct. And those other I mean, you see this every night on Fox and you see it every night on CNN, Oh, those idiots on the other side. Look at the outrage at Biden to look at the outraged about January, you know, it’s the outrage factory never stops. And it just feeds this kind of. I don’t know. I mean, I saw it myself here in Austin just the other day this guy was, I mean, he just went off went off. I mean, it’s just disdain for anything about the other party that or the other view that is not familiar to me. It costs you friendships as well. what’s what’s, how does that figure with you?

Mark McKinnon  10:23  

It’s got it’s really dicey. For sure. You know, what? I mean? It’s just folks that I just won’t, I will just don’t talk politics to anymore.

Robert Bryce  10:33  

But, you know, even though this is your business, yeah. But that’s, this is already talk sports. What do you What? What’s the fallback? Yeah,

Mark McKinnon  10:42  

sports, music, television, whatever, anything, anything. But, you know, I mean, it’s, it’s in my, in my own family, I mean, we, we’ve got issues in the family, and, you know, where people won’t even come to parties anymore. Because they, you know, because they support one team or the other. But that’s why that’s why I helped start the organization on labels.

Robert Bryce  11:03  

Let’s come, let’s come back to no labels, because that’s one of the things I’ve written down here. But um, yeah, I wrote a piece a long time ago. Remember, john Kennedy, Jr. Started George magazine, actually. And it’s one of the many, many publications failed publications for which I’ve written. Yeah. It’s a long, long time ago now. But that I think the magazine was interesting, in a lot of ways, in that it saw politics as entertainment. And are you an entertainer? Well,

Mark McKinnon  11:36  

I hope that I’m more of an explainer than an entertainer. I mean, the reason that I do

Robert Bryce  11:41  

and I asked that not didn’t I was a put down by me, you know, Tucker Carlson got sued, right, and defamation. And the fox, his defense was, well, he’s not really a journalist. He’s an entertainer, right, which is a remarkable position for Fox News to take. Right. But, but at the George ification of politics, it seems like that it’s become in the broader scheme of what people are concerned about, and maybe just another form of entertainment for people. Yeah, no,

Mark McKinnon  12:08  

I mean, I am about to write a column myself. Sort of on that a little bit on on that topic, just about, you know, when we dial up the notion of the circus, it was kind of a joke, you know, calling it the circus, and this was before Donald Trump. And then of course, it really became a circus. Not in the way that we imagined not and not funny, either. And we’re thinking right now about the sort of Trump ification of pot, or the celebrities celebrities ation of politics. And you know, Matthew McConaughey is an example. It’s sort of like, the only people who are running now, or considering running for office are, you know, big celebrities? I mean, the rocks thinking about running for president. You got the kinda you got

Robert Bryce  12:54  

shorts, Schwarzenegger, yeah. JD Vance running, running for Senate in Ohio. Yeah,

Mark McKinnon  13:01  

it’s sort of like, that’s the, you know, the, the key to entry anymore, you you know, there has to be sort of a celebrity factor that that makes, I think, adds to this notion that it’s not as serious. And, again, this feeds the whole circus nature of the thing. Right.

Robert Bryce  13:24  

So how do you you called yourself a hack? Well, you said, You’re an explainer. Are you a reporter?

Mark McKinnon  13:30  

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we, we try very well. We have four hosts on the show to, to our, our reporters, trained reporters, Alex Wagner and john Heilemann. And, and then we have two political strategists, former strategist, myself and Jennifer Palmieri. And, you know, I did a little bit of journalism work back in the day myself. And but but my main role in the show is being a former strategist to help explain the things that I see going on in politics. And but the way we do the show is, I mean, Jennifer is a democratic strategist as republican strategy. So we try and provide a view of what’s happening and in and it’s very, it’s documentary. So I mean, we, we do a documentary every week. We, you know, we start cameras rolling on Monday, we start editing immediately, and we roll it up and edit it and put it up every Sunday night. And it’s just it’s a reflection of what’s going on in society. And we do our best to do it a little different way, get behind the scenes and talk to people but not everybody talks to her show vantage points that aren’t always seen or, you know, do deep dives into issues like climate change and other issues that are relevant. And Is

Robert Bryce  14:49  

that why you think it’s been successful? I mean, six seasons now that I mean, you know, you said you’re only hoping for one,

Mark McKinnon  14:54  

or get way more successful than I ever thought. I mean, I was designed to be a show about campaigns. I have been worked on campaigns all my life, I thought it’d be really interesting to show a lot of the behind the scenes stuff that I see in campaigns, I thought it’d be, you know, 99% of what the public sees, is, I mean, 99% of what happens, the public doesn’t see, they see like 1% of it, right, a lot about other 99% is really interesting, informative, important, and sometimes entertaining. So that was the idea behind it. So, you know, the purpose for doing it is, is to inform and to educate and to help people. You know, I got into politics initially, because I thought it was kind of a noble calling, and I appreciate the people that ran for office, and that, that’s why and so my initial thought behind the show was to show some of that. And it does, but it’s also I mean, just because of the timing of the show, it’s, you know, it’s, it’s at a time when we’ve just had a really dramatic period in our history. And, you know, as a result, I thought we’d be done after season one, and maybe come back in 2020, or the next campaign and they said, keep going, and it hadn’t stopped since then. You know, I believe it’s now the most watched unscripted show in the history of the network. And I thought, I thought a good time to stop it would be the last election. I thought it’d be a pretty good book. And, and,

Robert Bryce  16:27  

and how many shows are you doing per season,

Mark McKinnon  16:29  

and I thought the ratings would be pretty, you know, would fall off a cliff with sleepy Joe Biden, but they’re higher than ever. Now. We do about you generally about 26 episodes a season.

Robert Bryce  16:40  

Gotcha. So who’s the most interesting politician today, today? Well,

Mark McKinnon  16:54  

I mean, interesting. Dan. Crenshaw is an interesting character out of Texas. I think he’s a guy who really watching the Republican Party, I think he’s, he’s, in some ways, kind of like a republican version of AOC, just in the sense that he’s young, understands media really well. I think that, you know, he will be in a leadership position very soon.

Robert Bryce  17:22  

You know, and he has the credentials of being in you know, in the military, that iPad she’s got, and kind of the straight shooter. And he’s from Texas, which is always an advantage in politics.

Mark McKinnon  17:34  

Exactly. Yeah. So he’s got a he’s got a lot of the components that make for an interesting character. And, and it’s getting a lot of attention. You know, I think it’s, I think the next election will be interesting to see, you know, who rises to the surface? I mean, obviously, you know, Joe Biden says he’s gonna run again, I’m not sure that he really will. If I were him. I, I, you know, you, you never want to say you’re not running because you instantly become a lame duck. Right. But if I were Joe Biden, I’d say, you know, the reality is that I’m probably slowing down and losing a step and it’d be good to hand the baton to a rising star in the party, maybe Kamala Harris.

Robert Bryce  18:21  

Right. He does seem and, you know, I don’t consider myself Republican or Democrat. I’m just kind of disgusted with the whole thing. But in watching him, he, I don’t know that I’m not sure the elevator goes all the way to the top floor. Now. I mean, it just did, that he’s showing his age would be the the polite way to put it. And it’s worrisome to me because you’re dealing with Putin and some of these other guys. They’re not nice people. And they’re, you know, how much are they going to exploit that or? Or the other question is who’s actually running the White House? Right? That’s already been a lot of discussion, as well.

Mark McKinnon  18:56  

Yeah. Yes. I mean, listen, he, I mean, Fact is, he’s an old guy. He’s an old guy. And, but but I think, I think part of it is just kind of stylistically, he’s, you know, that’s kind of the way he is, I mean, he’s got a stutter. And, you know, I mean, some of that is just kind of an odd body language. But but but, you know, admittedly, he’s an old guy. And so that’s why I say, it’s probably in his interest in the party’s interest to, you know, get somebody from the farm team up for the next round. And but what’s what, of course, the greater drama and mystery will be what happens on the Republican side and whether or not Trump runs again, or whether they’ll be you know, Trump light or whether or not the GOP can recover from this

Unknown Speaker  19:40  

and recover

Mark McKinnon  19:41  

I you know, I I, you know, I I keep hoping that the Republican Party will will rebuild and, and and go a new direction. But there’s no sign of that yet. I mean, it’s everything is kind of doubling down with Trump and and really the guy besides who’s really on fire? Right now? It’s the governor of florida Ron Santas. Right? Who’s very much a, you know, a replica of Trump

Robert Bryce  20:10  

without maybe quite as many hard edges or quite as Yeah, no, I mean,

Mark McKinnon  20:15  

yes. I mean, he’s Trump without a lot of the baggage. Yeah, he’s smart. And he’s feisty. And he takes on the media and very anti establishment. He’s a smart guy, but you know, you you showed, you know, some empathetic muscles in the, in the recent tragedy there. So you know, he’s got that that Trump never could manage to.

Robert Bryce  20:38  

Yeah, empathy would not be one of the strong character traits that have Trump. So let’s look back a little bit because you advised you were a key part of the Bush administration, back when or key advisor back when. And I remember in fact, here in Austin on election night, we ran into each other odd, what was it the 12th in Congress, and I ended up quoting you in the Austin Chronicle about it how you feel when you said something like, I feel like I’m tripping or on acid or something resembling like the good acid or something. And I ended up quoting in your cleaners, it was like, Well, last night, it was a Yeah, it was a long night. But the US military just pulled out of Afghanistan. Yeah. And I looked at the AP numbers, cost of the war, 800,000,000,020 400 US troops dead, nearly 20,000 21,000 wounded, nearly 70,000 Afghan troops killed, 1000s wounded. And now we’re pulling out in the Taliban looks like it’s ready to resume control of the country or civil war is going to ensue. Every hindsight is always 2020. But how much of that? I mean, I guess Alaska bluntly, how much of that? Do you own? How much of that does the cheney own? How much does the bush and you know, George W. Own? And and was that the big? I guess the other question, I’m asking a bunch in a row here. mark the end of the American Empire? Well, you know, I’m,

Mark McKinnon  22:03  

I’m really worried about what’s gonna happen in Afghanistan right now. You know, we’re leaving Taliban’s taken over almost overnight. And it’s going to turn into, you know, a Taliban run state. And I think that’s really dangerous. I’m not sure that pulling the troops out was the right answer. And we’ll see. But, you know, sure. You know, we can all look to 2020 hindsight, but remember the 98 senators, you know, including every democratic senator except for to voted for the Iraq war. So, you know, a, you have to kind of put yourself back post 911. Remember, frame of mind, everybody was and we thought we were being invaded by, by, by foreign actors. And we thought, we’re gonna live with terrorism on our soil indefinitely. So listen, it’s when you have the facts at hand, and you do what you’re doing with you, you do the best you can. And like I said, you know, 98 senators thought that was the right way to go.

Robert Bryce  23:06  

Do you think? Well, you know, it’s interesting now to look back at George W. Bush and compare him to Trump and, you know, the likeability index, he’s, there’s not much contest. But what I guess the question I was going to get to is, how much of the How will history treat George W. And, and the and the Afghan and Iraq wars? How do you see it? I mean, a lot of them history is already being written. And a lot of people in military affairs are saying, Well, this was like, I know, that former military guy said, these were the greatest strategic blunders in American modern US military history. How do you how do you read it? I know, you just said, Well, at times hindsight is 2020. But there was,

Mark McKinnon  23:50  

I think, a rokoko down as a as a, as, you know, a great blight on our history, no question about it. So it was Vietnam, Vietnam.

Robert Bryce  24:01  

And Trump was a reaction in some ways against that foreign interventionism. Right, he made that clear, right, we’re not going to get we’re not going to go do that. We’re not you know, we’re going to reduce our footprint in Syria. But that was something that he kind of was running as the anti bush and made it clear as, as he has discussed or is, well, he hadn’t I don’t know who he likes, but except himself. But that was one of his maybe one of his appealing points to to voters was these were not going to go and do you know, declare war on everybody.

Mark McKinnon  24:26  

I don’t think that was the main attraction for most people, but as part of it, sure.

Robert Bryce  24:33  

So are you in touch with George W. Bush anymore?

Mark McKinnon  24:37  

Not I you know, I left Texas about five years ago, and I used to go up to Crawford quite often. The president or big mountain bike fan so we, we do an annual event with veterans a mountain bike event for wounded warriors, and so I see him at those every year but I know that I’m in Colorado. I don’t I don’t go to I’m not Texas. I don’t seem as often.

Robert Bryce  25:02  

I see. So you live in Colorado full time now? I do. Yeah. Gotcha. So in thinking about George W. Bush, I mean, you know, I covered him from when he first started, you know, went to some of his first press conferences when he ran for governor back when, and against Dan Richards. And his remarkable rise, and he was very divisive. And Trump, of course, was divisive. I mean, all presidents now I guess it’s all you know, there’s not much. I’ll just cut to the question here. Is there a center in American politics? I mean, you talked about no labels, and I want to come back to that, but who lives in the center? Right, because the It seems the electorate awards, the extremes, and only the extremes and not the center, when it seems to me the most most American voters are centrist.

Mark McKinnon  25:47  

Well, that goes to the, to the no labels issue. But right. But I just said, You know, I, I constantly feel like I’m a man and without a party, you know, I for for, for years, have just felt like, you know, that’s why I went to the Republican Party, because I didn’t feel like I, you know, my views were well represented the Democratic Party, but that I’ve never, or certainly recently not comfortable with the Republican Party. And I’ve always felt, I always wish that there was a an alternative, I wish there was a party with the socially progressive and fiscally conservative and but the system’s kind of, not kind of the system is rigged against any other options. I was part of an effort in 2008, for third party effort. And just you know, I spent $30 million just trying to get on the ballot in different states. And that’s just the ticket to get on the ballot. 30 million bucks. So

Robert Bryce  26:47  

and you have every Secretary of State, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, trying to keep you off the ballot. So it’s, and the 30 million I remember that now that you mentioned, where that came from various donors from different political activists, where’d the money come from? The money really came from from a guy, mostly who, who funded the effort. And is he to remain nameless, who was that?

Mark McKinnon  27:08  

It was called Americans elected. So if you Google it, it’s it. They were very upfront about it was not like a dark secret. But it was a hedge fund guy who had a lot of money and, you know, wanted to reform the system. So he paid for the ballot access for the program.

Robert Bryce  27:24  

Well, is that the so let’s come to no labels in just a minute. But is that the mean this, the push to the extremes, right that for if you’re running for the house, you’re running to the right or the left of AOC? Or or who or whoever, right, that you’re you’re but that success, particularly in the house and arguably him in the senate as well, rewards extremists not centrists? So is there anything that can change that is redistricting in the house? Could that make that better? Or what is the what’s the, what’s the key? I guess, if we’re going to talk about no labels? I said, but what’s the key to reform? you’ve identified yourself as a reform advocate? What’s the first step?

Mark McKinnon  28:03  

A lot of things I mean, redistricting reform is part of it. Because districts are gerrymandered to your points so that people running for office no longer have to appeal to the middle, they appeal to the extremists in the parties. But that’s why we started no light. And it was a it’s been an interesting. It’s been an interesting exercise. Because when we first started it, the idea was that the extremes are being rewarded by heavily funded groups, right? There’s lots of methods that that will, you know, reward bad behavior, reward really partisan behavior and put money behind those officeholders or candidates that are pushing these very extreme agendas. And there was nobody in the middle, rewarding people for what I call good behavior, bipartisan behavior, working together on both sides. So that was the idea behind starting the labels. And we have to be a voice for the middle. And but that became, we quickly recognize that that was strategically problematic. Because as we went to deal with members of Congress, who are in the middle, there’s a magazine national journal in Washington that does a study every couple of years, about just how much overlap there is in Congress between, we’ll call Progressive Conservatives and conservative Liberal Democrats, progressive Republicans, conservative Democrats, 20 years ago, there was like 248 members who overlap. The last time they did the study, there were four. So basically, our pool of people to deal with in Congress was four people. And we said, well, that’s not going to be particularly it’s

Robert Bryce  29:52  

not going to win many votes with four folks. Yeah.

Mark McKinnon  29:54  

So we, we really made a sort of mid course correction to say okay, The fact is, you know, the country has become very partisan Congress has become very partisan people. You know, there’s lots written about this, you know, the I forget the name of the book about Kansas. But,

Robert Bryce  30:16  

uh, what’s the matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank’s book?

Mark McKinnon  30:18  

Exactly right. So people are kind of moving by we’re mobile, they’re moving to, you know, places where there are other like minded people to more tribal, as you

Robert Bryce  30:28  

mentioned earlier, Bill bishops book the big sword, right. Yeah, identifying by zip code by precinct by Yeah, you have a concentration of voters and cell sorting. Right.

Mark McKinnon  30:40  

So we said, well, our mission should then be how can we bring these people together? And that’s, that’s what we have been doing since then, which is to become a sort of convener, to bring Republicans and Democrats together. Just get them. I mean, the first, you know, first bar was, can we get them in the same room? Joe Manchin had literally been in the Senate for two years before he even met with a Republican.

Robert Bryce  31:05  

You know, and that was arguably the most powerful man in the Senate. Yeah, no, no, it’s, it’s incredible. Well, let me follow up on one point you made just a minute ago, Mark, because you said this, that the way the system is set up, and I’m resisting using the word rig, the way the system is set up now rig rewards partisanship, but it seems to me that more I’m watching and particularly of late, the more rewards special interests, and I have to mention the December Omnibus spending bill 5000 What was it 5593 pages, the longest piece of legislation ever passed by Congress, and he had had so many carve outs for every special interest in Washington. And it just seems like the city in the businesses of government increasingly is run by these special interests who all of whom are all of which and I’m looking through the lens in particular when it comes to electricity right or I’m sorry, I particularly it comes to energy this this the carve out for ethanol carve carve out for solar power, the carve out for for wind, energy, carbon capture and sequestration, electric vehicles, hydrogen, they all give just a little taste, right? It is no, I just want to live with just a few billion. Right, but it’s, it seems like it’s the special interest dream to have this kind of gridlock and essentially a non functioning government where they have to pass some massive bill to just keep the government running, so everybody gets to tuck in their little earmark. I mean, it to me as a voter it’s disgusting. Is there any? Is this the worst example of this kind of? What when Joe concha called it the swamp best thing ever. Is this cat swamp gonna get swamp here? I guess after I’ve given you my homily here.

Mark McKinnon  32:44  

You don’t think there’ll be any special interest money in the in this infrastructure building? Oh, it’s

Robert Bryce  32:47  

it will be located. They say it in the in the coverage of it, there was something like five or $10 billion just reserved for earmarks. Okay, well, at least you’re being honest. And there, so you’re marching back with a vengeance?

Mark McKinnon  33:03  

No, I mean, it all comes back to special interests and that those special interests are driving their interests through their through the partisan lens of their donations. And, and that’s how they get rewarded. So anyway, they know no labels has worked very hard to be a convener bring the parties together. Like I said, it’s a steep hill on a big rock, but but they’re doing good work.

Robert Bryce  33:31  

Can you use steep hill and big rock in the same analogy, isn’t it? The rockin where’s the hill? Now? You’re losing me in this office? Sisyphean. So I looked at the no levels, no labels site, you have a big staff. Where’s the money coming from this for this?

Mark McKinnon  33:51  

Well, there’s lots of people who are interested in the parties working together. You know, they’re, they’re the woman who runs it as a former fundraiser, and she’s very good at it. She’s good at raising money for it. So it’s so

Robert Bryce  34:07  

what’s what’s their budget?

Mark McKinnon  34:09  

You know, I haven’t been involved in about since I’ve been doing this show. So it’s been six years or so. So I don’t really know. But it’s, you know, it’s several million dollars anyway.

Robert Bryce  34:17  

Right. Well, I mean, they had quite a large staff. I mean, it was not just, you know, not just it was a very sustainable organization as well over 20. So,

Mark McKinnon  34:25  

yeah, yeah, they’re, they’re the real deal. And they’re, they’re working very hard. And they’ve got a and they have about 40 or 50 members of Congress now, as opposed to the original four. And that’s a big bloc of voters. In fact, they’re right in the middle of the infrastructure negotiations right now.

Robert Bryce  34:42  

Right. Well, so you we talked about that reform, the question on reform, he said, and I’m just want to make sure that I’m clear about what you think of the keys. So Jerry, with a more honest drawing of congressional districts would be first and foremost, but Again, how do you manage that when it rewards the parties in power in the individual states to create those districts? I mean, parties, take it away from the parties. And it’s so then who decides?

Mark McKinnon  35:11  

I, you you have you have a civilian a civil board that doesn’t kick this California does

Robert Bryce  35:18  

they do and who appoints the board then? Ah, I don’t know. I don’t know. Okay. But you’re saying that there would be a board of independent more or equal or not elected, equal number of partisans, who would then decide the shape and the in the size of the districts?

Mark McKinnon  35:40  

Yeah, yeah. So California, I believe is? I know, California, I think there may be several others that are going to I think Colorado’s going to I think Colorado was went to that system, as a matter of fact. So

Robert Bryce  35:57  

Jerry, so fix the fix the congressional the shape of the district. So in other words, in to the extent possible gerrymandering, what else?

Mark McKinnon  36:06  

I don’t think there should be any dark money at all. I think

Robert Bryce  36:10  

so limits on campaign contributions?

Mark McKinnon  36:13  

Or are they least none of us should be anonymous. I mean, we should know where every penny comes from. And who’s spending it.

Robert Bryce  36:22  

So citizens united was a bad was a bad decision? In my opinion. Yeah. I think it’s been very bad for democracy. So you worked for McCain, is there? Is there an heir to McCain right now? I mean, you mentioned Dan Crenshaw before. And McCain was a deeply flawed guy, right. And you know, she can miss picking Sarah Palin did him no favors. But But is there an heir to McCain, that somebody who isn’t isn’t as beholden to the Washington system that can bring it because what you’re talking about? And what it seems to me is that there there’s a desperate need for widespread reform in in particularly in Congress. And yet, I don’t hear a drumbeat for this. I mean, I just don’t I hear that there’s just it’s not a popular, I mean, who’s the who’s the next Teddy Roosevelt who’s gonna come in and, and bust the trust? Who’s gonna come in and bust the big business and say, No, you know, more special interest? No more carve outs?

Mark McKinnon  37:22  

We don’t know. You know, I don’t know. I mean, there’s some guys out there like women, like Ben sasse, for example, from Nebraska, I think it’s kind of an independent operator. But not many of them. And but but, you know, we didn’t know about Trump until Trump happened. And you know, that we, so the next Trump could be the next Teddy Roosevelt. I mean, he could be the trust buster. You know, unfortunately. I mean, fortunately for us, democracy is a market. And and voters have a say, but unfortunately, it takes things almost to get to the breaking point before the pendulum swing. So maybe we’re at that point. You know, I keep hoping that we are. But I’ve been added a long time.

Robert Bryce  38:12  

When I interviewed Kevin Williamson from National Review recently, and he and I talked about this very thing. He said, we haven’t, as he put it, he says that we have a non functioning central government. Right. And and I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. But it’s a drastic statement. Right. And I quite admire his the way he approaches politics and journalism. I think he’s really prolific and thoughtful guy. But that was worrisome to me, because I think there’s some real truth to that. And that December spending bill seems to be the prime example of that. Oh, you create gridlock, gridlock gridlock until the 11th hour, oh, we have to pass this now. So everybody’s putting their favors? And that’s what you end up with? Is this this special interest ridden system in which there’s no possibility for reform? And in some ways it serves the existing parties?

Mark McKinnon  38:56  

I know, Robert, like I said, I I’m having very, very concerning thoughts myself just about democracy working is is like, you know, like I said, it’s, it’s an experiment that hadn’t been in operation very long, and it’s not working very well. But I don’t know what the alternative would be. That would be better.

Robert Bryce  39:17  

Well, I only have just one thought to that. Because I, you know, there’s, there’s a part of me that takes this really to heart and I look at what’s happening in Washington. It’s very discouraging, but then I think, Well, wait a minute. But as a as a Catholic priest told me a long time ago, he says the church is not Rome. Well, America, isn’t Washington, right. Yeah. So that the local governments still work pretty well. Right. You know, I’m in Austin, it’s fairly affluent, trash still gets picked up, the libraries are open, that it’s still working in a lot of localities because of the representative system, and the accountability. But,

Mark McKinnon  39:47  

I mean, one thing that gives me a little bit of hope, Robert, and this is, this is oddly where like I said, I thought the ratings for our show would fall off the cliff with Biden and they’re higher than ever. I think there’s just an elevated interest in government now. Which I think is good.

Robert Bryce  40:02  

voters are more activated.

Mark McKinnon  40:04  

I think they’re, they’re more activator. They’re more dialed in. And listen, Trump had something to do that COVID had a lot to do with it. But I think I think COVID particularly, you know, got everybody’s attention, in a sense that they said, Oh, my God, you know, we do actually need government, and we needed to do something, and we needed to work. And it didn’t work particularly well. Right. And I think that was a big wake up call for everybody to sort of say, okay, we do actually need a functioning government. So how do we go about that? So I think that’s maybe kind of, you know, an opportunity. You know, I’m a prisoner of hope. So I think, you know, maybe that’s something that with this elevated interest in politics and government, maybe we’ll we’ll start to ask more questions and get more answers.

Robert Bryce  40:50  

Well, I think in retrospect, the Trump administration, you know, with Operation lightspeed, the development of the vaccines were pretty damn remarkable. I mean, when particularly now looking in hindsight at the all these other countries who fumbled the vaccination, and I got vaccinated, you know, I live in Austin, I went to Bastrop, you know, a little town, you know, our backdrop is just southeast of Austin. And it was amazing to me, and really heartening to see all these people, volunteers, every one of them volunteers there to just help people get get the shot. And I thought, that gave me a lot of hope in America, honestly, you know, just to get that shot and see all these people activated out there. I thought, well, maybe things aren’t as bad as I think they are.

Mark McKinnon  41:25  

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I agree. It was great. Great to see people step up.

Robert Bryce  41:30  

So let me ask you, since I’ve written do a lot on energy and power stuff, how do you see the divide in terms of energy politics in america, because there’s also the Biden ministration is pushing very hard for a lot of renewables. The Democrats are not supporting nuclear power plants in the heavily democratic states, New York, Illinois, and California nuclear power plants are being closed, which is in my view, and I think the facts are obvious. It’s an own goal in terms of co2 emissions and the rest of it. How do you see the political divide around the energy business?

Mark McKinnon  41:59  

I would love I’d love to hear your thoughts about the expert on it. I mean, I, you know,

Unknown Speaker  42:07  


Mark McKinnon  42:09  

I believe that I’d like to see, you know, you mentioned Evie earlier in the conversation. You’re not a fan. So let me ask you, why are you not a fan?

Robert Bryce  42:21  

Well, you live at 10,000 feet now in Colorado, would you rather have an internal combustion engine on a morning when it’s 15? below zero or Thank you get around to the battery? I’d be willing to give it a try. Fair enough. We’re not fueling stations. Exactly. Well, right. And are there any charging stations near Blue River Colorado that you’ve seen there or not? Yeah. Well, so. Is it the chicken or the egg? You know, that’s a good question. But

Mark McKinnon  42:46  

what do you think we should incentivize charging stations, subsidize will?

Robert Bryce  42:52  

I think to some extent, but I think at the same time, the you know, where’s the customer pull it right now. He These are their luxury product. These are cars being bought by the Benz and Beemer crowd, and why would I subsidize not only their purchase of their Tesla, why should I search and search subsidize their refueling station to save maybe just a couple gallons of gasoline? Why? I don’t understand it. There’s this the the part that really sticks in my craw a lot around a lot of these decarbonisation policies is the the class issue, because who’s collecting the big subsidies for you know, solar panels, I have solar panels on the roof of my house, I got three different subsidies. But it’s a class issue. And the wealthy are the ones who are cashing in the poor in the middle class are paying the bill. What would you think about a carbon dividend that went back to middle class? Yeah, you know, and I followed this now for 30 years, this idea of the carbon tax and the rest of it, and, you know, it’s a perfect solution for an imperfect world. I’m for low cost, energy, carbon taxes don’t help the low the poor and the middle class and the light, it’s a returning dividend directly to them. Yeah, and But that requires a faith in government that I simply don’t get, we’re gonna return it all. Oh, man. My first book was on Enron, I you know, just who’s gonna get the carve out? I mean, this is one of the reasons why the carbon tax failed in Washington who got exempted Oh, aerospace. Oh, so Boeing won’t be included. But it’s, you know, I, you know, I’m just, I guess I’m just naturally skeptical, but let me so we’ve talked about what worries you we’ve talked about, you know, where conservatism goes after Trump. And but we’ve been talking almost an hour, we’ll be talking 45 minutes or so but I don’t want to keep it too long. Mark. And my guests, by the way, is Mark McKinnon. He’s the co founder, or I’m sorry, the creator and the co host of the circus on Showtime. They’re going to resume season six on Sunday nights on Showtime on Sunday nights. What are you reading who will know before I get to that one who are employed in politics, living or dead now? Your political heroes. McCain. And why? And you knew McCain pretty well, why? What was it about McCain? That was

Mark McKinnon  45:10  

he’s just wanting to buck the system and just fiercely independent. Kind of a no bullshit guy, as you said imperfect. You know, the, you know, obviously supported him for President. I’m not sure he would have been a good president. I mean, temperamentally. You know, he was he had a very short fuse, and that’s not good. That’s generally not what you want to press. But I loved his tenacity. He was great. I think of the great characters I’ve gotten to be around Charlie Wilson was, you know, the current former congressman from Texas. Speaking of Afghanistan, right, you know, that that

Robert Bryce  45:55  

was Charlie Wilson ever married? Yes. Yeah. Because he was in it. That was a different era where he was a known playboy. And I mean, you know, that how would you ever get away with that today and being in Congress? I mean, I can’t imagine but he was the kind of the last of the I know he’s from East Texas. What was his hometown? What was it Where was he from? He Lufkin Lufkin. That’s right. Yeah. And that he was the he was the focus of Charlie Wilson’s war, right. And then they that famous

Mark McKinnon  46:24  

bad boy of American politics and was, you know, the, I remember once he was a I’m trying to remember the story. He had been dating a Russian model. And the Intelligence Committee hauled him into as they were concerned about, you know, him passing along secrets. And he said, gentlemen, the only secret she’s getting familiar Victorians.

Robert Bryce  46:55  

And he’s been he’s been dead. What? 10 years.

Mark McKinnon  46:58  

How long? Has he been? A while back? Yeah, yeah. And another one just died. A guy is the first guy worked for one race. When I had worked for Mark white. And Lloyd Doggett in Texas, they both lost and there, I worked for white when he was governor. And then on his reelected, he lost that. And somebody that I knew said, If you think you know anything about politics, go to Louisiana and get your PhD. So I went to Louisiana and went to work for a congressman at the time, named buddy roemer from Northeast Louisiana. Who was it was a hugely crowded field running against edwin edwards, who never lost a race in 19 elections. A real scoundrel and infamous character in Louisiana, and Romer was thought to have no chance whatsoever was barely mentioned in most stories. And we had a huge upset when and won that race. And Romer was a big reformer, a really interesting guy and, and especially on money in politics, and, and he just passed a couple of weeks ago.

Robert Bryce  47:58  

And that was the last. So that was the first race of edwin edwards last. That’s the first time he lost his famous quote, was he somebody he was asked if he was gonna win an exam, unless they catch me with a live boy which is one of the great political stories of all time, so Okay, so those are more recent politicians. But in historically, who do you admire?

Mark McKinnon  48:27  

Oh, I you know, the big tr guy. God historically, Lincoln. Sure. Yeah. Yeah, like all the 30 former guys, right? That’s, that’s kind of my wheelhouse. Sure.

Robert Bryce  48:46  

So who you’re reading now? What are you reading what’s on your bookshelf?

Mark McKinnon  48:49  

Well, I I generally, am a huge fiction fan. I get enough nonfiction in my everyday life. So right now I’m reading a really good book that I highly recommend right now called the confidence man. And the author’s last name, I believe, is Fox. Because there’s two confidence men books out there, so make sure it’s the one by Fox but it’s, it’s a terrific story about a couple of British prisoners of war in World War Two who are captured, and, and, and break out of escape prison through convincing the overlords of the prison that they had telepathic powers, and they made a Ouija board. And they they convinced the view, the guy ran the prison, that there was a buried treasure somewhere outside the prison and so they had to go find the treasure and they had finished it yet, but it’s an astonishing and real life story.

Robert Bryce  50:03  

So it’s not a novel. Yeah, this is. Yeah, it’s American guys, British guys who’s British British prisoners were under the Germans. Yes. Okay. Got it. So what else the confidence man, any other any other books, there are things that you’re reading that you recommend? Well,

Mark McKinnon  50:22  

if you’re a mystery lover, I’ve just stumbled onto a great mystery writer that if you’re a real mystery fan, you probably already know but Louise Penny is a Canadian mystery writer who written you know, a series of books that that kind of have the same characters and a little Canadian town. And it was a real fine for me. And now I’m kind of on a Jaguar I, you know, I’ve read seven of the 15 in this series now. So Louise, Penny, for you, Mr. fans out there.

Robert Bryce  50:51  

Okay, good. You’ve touched on this before mark. But it’s a question I always like to ask. So what would what gives you hope? Um,

Mark McKinnon  51:03  

you know, just sort of the American spirit in the human spirit, right. Like I said, I’m a prisoner of hope. And I think a lot of people are and just kind of our, our innate refusal to give up or give in. And I think get to your point, the pandemic was a great example of that is as as brutal and experienced that was for everybody to go out into the community and see the people. I think that the the people who get attention are the, you know, the people out there who are, you know, turn off their masks and a Wendy’s and getting in fights or whatever, but they’re, you know, the hundreds and 1000s of stories of, you know, people helping others to get food or vaccines or whatever, through this period. Those are the untold stories that happen in multitudes every day. They just, they’re there. They’re not notable because they’re not, you know, they’re not TV worthy, but, but their life worthy. And I just, as I come out of the pandemic, again, again, just in my I live in a town now of 800 people, but you know, I got a couple of, you know, scurry neighbors, but for the most part, people are really good. And, and they really did, especially in there. Now, their willingness but their desire to help others. And so I think, as messy as it all is, you know, I,

Unknown Speaker  52:25  

I’m going to,

Mark McKinnon  52:25  

I’m going to vote, I’m coming down on our side, because I think we, we ultimately find a way to get through it because our better natures overcome our worse and

Robert Bryce  52:37  

we’ll end it there. Then. My guest has been Mark McKinnon, who I’ve known now for Gosh, well, a long time. from Austin days. He’s the Creator, the executive producer, the co host of the circus on Showtime. There’ll be resuming the second half of season six on Sunday nights on Showtime, so be sure and tune in their marketing final thoughts before we sign off.

Mark McKinnon  53:00  

Just say kick it hard and carry on regardless.

Robert Bryce  53:03  

Alright, great. Thanks again, Mark McKinnon. Thanks to all of you for tuning in to this edition of the power hungry podcast rate us on your local podcast or whatever podcast platform, give us five 624 stars, whatever you can do, and I will see you on the next edition of the power hungry podcast.

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