An Interview with 'Civics 101': Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy of the "Civics 101" podcast in August 2020. You can listen to the interview here.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and on this show, we talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. 

Today, I have a show about some fascinating words related to politics and government in the United States. Like why we refer to our political parties as “red” and “blue,” why we call the president “POTUS,” and more. I hope you enjoy it!

Mignon: Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy from the Civics 101 show on New Hampshire Public Radio are with me today. They are now doing a four episode series called "The User's Guide to Democracy" that will appear on the "Unknown History" podcast feed from my network, Quick and Dirty Tips Dotcom. And they have some interesting stories about government and political words to tell us today. Hi, Hannah, and thanks for being here. Thank you for having us.

Nick: We're thrilled to be here and utter delight. Mignon, lovely to meet you as well.

Mignon: You bet. We are so excited about your series for us. And you definitely hooked me with the idea of explaining why the colors red and blue are tied to our two different political parties in the United States. So what's that story to get us started?

Nick: It is a super duper new phenomenon, the idea of red and blue being sort of how we define ourselves in the two parties.

Nick: The color TV started to enter the American household in the 1960s and '70s, and before that there was no sort of color relationship between the parties. But then when the color TVs hit, cable news networks decided to put yellow for one candidate or blue for another candidate. But it was entirely chosen at random. The first time a Republican was red, they said they chose it because it was red for Reagan. Oh, yeah. But 1992, one network used red for Bill Clinton. So it's that recent.

Mignon: Wow. I had no idea it was so recent.

Nick: Yeah. It wasn't until 1996 that all three major networks used the red and blue that we're familiar with today. But the big change, the huge watershed moment that made us a red and blue nation was the 2000 election when a whole country stared for a solid month at a red and blue map, waiting to hear, depending on the results of a Florida ballot, whether Al Gore or George W. Bush become the next president of the United States.

Mignon:Right. The hanging chads,

Nick: The hanging chads that we don't use anymore, thank God. David Letterman was the first. He made a joke, he was like, "Oh, OK. Well, the the blue states can have Al Gore as president and the red states are going to have George W. as president." And that was the first time that the expression "red states" and "blue states" was used. And it has become part of our vernacular. Now we have red hats and blue waves, but it's all thanks to this month of staring at a polarized map.

Mignon: That is amazing. That just blows my mind that it's so recent. I would have imagined it went back 100 years or something.

Nick: Right.

Mignon: What a great story. OK, so something besides hanging chads came out of that 2000 election debacle, right?

Nick: A complete revamping of our ballot system. Yeah.

Mignon: Wow. Cool and color TV. Neat. OK, so now I think that you were going to explain whether our nation is a democracy or a republic. I see people fight about that all the time online.

Hannah: They don't just fight about it online with each other. They fight about it with us a little bit, though, at a distance.

Hannah: So when I first started hosting the show, we've got this tagline that we're a show about the basics of how our democracy works. And we have listeners write in with, well, I mean, if you're going to write or talk about how our democracy works, maybe you should first get it right that we are not a democracy, we are a republic. And so this was something that in the early days, this is a semantics debate we would take to almost every expert who we interviewed just asking, well, are they right? What are we? So before I dig into it, I want to start off by saying we are both. And the framers did indeed refer to us as both a democracy and a republic. Both are correct. But why don't we just ask why America is a democracy, whether it is a democracy? So that sort of gets at the very root of the word. So if you look at "Democratic" right from "demos" and "Kratos" from power and people or people and power, that was Athenian democracy. That was the word used in Athens, Greece, to describe a form of government where the people were actually voting for what happened, and they were in ultimate political control of the political system. We refer to this as a "direct democracy." Is the United States a direct democracy? It is absolutely not a direct democracy by and large. Right. It is not an assembly of citizens getting to make decisions about what happens to them.

Hannah: But our nation is founded on these kind of groundbreaking principles at the time in Athens, Greece, of democracy, rule by the many instead of the one. So the ultimate idea we had was to keep the power out of too few hands, to avoid tyranny, to avoid a king, to avoid anyone, sort of, having too much power and controlling the people, because we didn't like how that went down when we were under British rule. Right?

Mignon: Right.

Hannah: So our first iteration of a constitution, our first form of self-governance here in the United States was the Articles of Confederation, which gave the states a great deal of power and the federal government comparatively little. But the Articles of Confederation didn't really work out. We didn't have an executive. Congress was only empowered to do things if the states told them they could. So the framers get together in Philadelphia in 1787. And the goal of this new form of government is actually to make the United States less democratic. So this is this is a myth that that a handful of our experts have tackled, which is like the Constitution was not actually made to make us more free. It was made to make us less democratic because the Articles of Confederation contained an excess of democracy, and it was really difficult to run the nation that way.

Mignon: Wow. Wow. Oh, my gosh. OK.

Hannah: So we did, you know, so you do have on both sides of the constitutional debate, both by people who wanted a Bill of Rights and people who did not want a Bill of Rights, people who wanted more power and rights for the people and who didn't. Both sides also wanted the excess of democracy to be reeled in. So, for example, the Electoral College was explicitly designed to create this barrier between the voting masses and the seat of governing power: the executive. But still our constitutional framers did in fact, give us a democracy. It's not a direct democracy. It's a democracy nonetheless. It is a representative democracy where the people are empowered to vote for individuals who represent them in the lawmaking process. And so when people say, well, that's not a democracy, that's a republic, they are correct, but it's still a democracy. It's a representational democracy, a representative democracy.

Mignon: So just to be clear, like what document was it? What document was it that technically made us a republic?

Hannah: So the constitution that we operate under today, which is the longest continuously used constitution in the world, so obviously it kind of worked out, did make us this different form of democracy, this republic that we are. But it is a false dichotomy to say that it's either one or the other. It actually is both.

Mignon: OK, so I bet that isn't going to solve the argument, but it's super interesting. That was really, really interesting. And so we're talking about the Constitution and one thing I know is at the time the Constitution was written, all the nouns were capitalized in English, which, you know, we don't do anymore. But it's sort of an interesting way that language has changed since then. And you were bringing up that the Constitution used gendered pronouns. So do you want to talk about sort of that and what that means?

Hannah: Yeah, I would love to. This is something that when we're writing the book was really a thorn in my side because I was writing about the executive, and what troubled me was that in the Constitution, the executive, as well as all members of the Senate, the House, Congress, generally, all office holders written in the Constitution are written as "he," "him," "his," right?

Mignon: OK, tell everyone what your book is.

Hannah: Oh, sure. Yeah. Let me start out with that.

Hannah: Our book is "A User's Guide to Democracy, How America Works."

Hannah: So if I was going to attempt to explain how the executive worked and, sort of, abiding by the language of the Constitution, how is it going to do that? I ended up using "he" with the very important to me footnote that I am only using "he" because the Constitution does. And in fact, "she"s and "they"s, et cetera of the world have been throwing their hat in the ring for a very long time. I want to really warmly recommend this very short, beautifully written paper called "Constitutional Pronouns" by a professor at Duke Law School, Darrell Miller. And he starts by exploring the "we" as in we the people, this non-gendered pronoun that was by no means inclusive when the Constitution was written, because African-Americans, Black Americans, women were not included in that "we" as a voting body, but "we the people" sort of transformed that word. And the same goes for the the "he." "his," "him" of the Constitution, the original way that we described these offices, you know, when women were first arguing for suffrage in the United States, they said, you know, "he" has been a term that has been used as a catchall for all humans for a very long time.

Hannah: And it does, in fact, go back to, I believe, the 16th century even earlier than that. So "he" refers to all sexes, and they were saying if there's a "he" in my state constitution, it shouldn't prevent me from voting. And then we had the first woman elected to her House of Representatives in 1914, Jeannette Rankin. That's four years before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Mignon: Wow.

Hannah: And, well, by the time you had women given the vote, more and more women in Congress, you had very few scholars arguing that that was somehow in violation of the Constitution, and in fact, originalists and anti-originalists agree that the use of the term "he" in no way bars women from running for office, from holding office in the United States. It's widely accepted by most mainstream constitutional scholars that that "he" is a catch all. And the same should apply for transgender, non-binary, non-gender conforming people who have also been running for and winning office for decades, if not longer, in the United States.

Mignon: That's fascinating. I mean, I would have thought that in the distant past they would have used that as an argument to try to keep women out, by saying like...but they never did. Is that right?

Hannah: Oh no, the argument was certainly used, but as early as the early 1980s, you had even male constitutional scholars arguing that, in fact, because "he" had for so long been used as in some ways a non -endered term, we should not read the Constitution that way. And, you know, I think an argument could be made for OK, then for those people who abide by originalism in the Constitution, maybe they have to reconsider what originalism actually means, given that "he" is so widely used in the Constitution. But generally, we accept that "he" does not bar people of other genders from actually running for and holding office.

Mignon: Right. Oh, that's so fascinating. So they they sort of go by what the word meant at the time, and at the time it was all inclusive, and language changes so much over time. I was just having a conversation with someone yesterday about how long, long, long ago that the word "girl" used to mean "any child," like it was all inclusive.

Hannah: Get out! I didn't know that.

Mignon: Yeah, a really, really long time ago, long hundreds, maybe a thousand years ago, but is very interesting. So, yeah, language changes. And if you have to look at what the word meant at the time it was used to get the correct interpretation. So that's fascinating. So, OK, so then how about the Declaration of Independence? You mentioned that it was written as an office memo, and I'm dying to know what that means.

Nick: This is we did a whole chapter on the Declaration and we've had some great scholars, we did it in some episodes on the declaration as well for our podcast. But it's this thing that we think of is written in flowery language that lives on walls and it looks just beautiful. And the prose is very difficult to sort of crack into. But it is one of the most straightforward documents that...it's such a legal document. It's an office memo. It consists of four parts. And those parts are sort of like there's a preamble. And that's sort of like the preamble is like, so when you're going to break up, it's probably a good idea to say why. The Declaration of Independence is the greatest breakup letter ever written. The preamble is just like...and then the second part is a statement of human rights. And that's like a little lesson in government. It's, hey, government is here to do some very specific things. It's to protect these certain inalienable rights. And if a government doesn't do that, it's our job as a people to rise up and replace it. That's part two.

Nick: The third thing is the reason. Well, why are we doing this? Here are the grievances. There's the long airing of the grievances.

Nick: And the grievances get a bit of a short shrift, like they're not read as often as some of the rest of the Declaration, but they're the part where you can really find some very good and very bad parts of American history. And then the last part is, sort of, the because of all this, we're doing this. We are therefore adopting Richard Henry Lee's resolution to sort of several allegiance with the British crown and all ties between us and Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved. One thing I didn't know until fairly recently about this sort of declaration is that it was not signed on the 4th of July. That is another great American myth. The Declaration wasn't signed until...People don't know they think around sometime in August by the time they got everybody's signatures on it. We actually adopted Lee's resolution on July 2, 1876. The July 4th is the day the official draft of the declaration was approved by the Continental Congress. And that's, I think, far less significant than "Yep, we all agree we're going to become the United States of America."

Nick: You know, kind of reminds me of writing a book like there's never a moment when your book is done or, you know, like you get the first draft, and then you get the copy edits, and then you get the author review copy, which has the cover, but it's not the final version. And then by the time you get the the physical finished book, and it's like you've seen it so many times, like you can't really even say what the date is that it's published. And even on the publication date, it often doesn't show up in stores that date because they haven't unpacked the boxes yet. So it's like this slippery...like, who knows when it was even published?

Nick: You are explaining our lives exactly right now, Mignon. We're looking at we're already talking about the second printing and the typo that we're going to fix.

Hannah: It's been a roller coaster.

Nick: Lowering upon our house. Yeah.

Nick: So and I guess the last thing I do want to add to the Declaration is that...I don't know if you're familiar with, like, any First Folio Shakespeare work. You know, a bunch of actors got together for, you know, pals of Shakespeare, and they put together the First Folio, which is how they remembered these plays were were when they were in them. And when you look at them, Hannah and I both come from an acting, as well.

Mignon: OK.

Nick: When you look at them, the instructions for what to do are written in the text. If it's a capital letter, say it this way. If there's a comma, do this. Like as little work as possible for the actors so they can do as many shows as humanly possible.

Nick: The Declaration, likewise, was meant to be read out loud.

Mignon: Oh.

Nick: The first printing was not written in cursive. It was typewritten. It was printed by a wonderful printer by the name of John Dunlap. These are called the Dunlap Broadsides. They're very rare. They feature heavily in "National Treasure." And these broadsides were typed up and, you know, meant to be read on steps. They're meant to be read on steps of state houses, to be read to armies who are about to fight. They were not to be looked at from afar like we look at it today. And if you look at the originals on the broad side, you really get a new feeling for what this Declaration was. One last thing, one copy found its way on a boat to be read by George the Third himself.

Mignon: Oh, wow.

Nick: I wish I could have seen that when he read it for the first time.

Mignon: As he got the breakup letter.

Nick: He got the breakup letter. Yeah, he went to his chamber with his pillow.

Mignon: Ate a pint of ice cream. Probably not on a ship.

Nick: Right.

Mignon: Well, let’s take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll talk about SCOTUS, POTUS, and FDOTUS, you may not have heard of that one.

Mignon: Well, now let's talk about these abbreviations like SCOTUS, and FLOTUS, and POTUS. And and my favorite is BOTUS. I don't know if you know this, but Mike Pence has a pet rabbit, and they they call him BOTUS for Bunny of the United States. Oh. So I want to hear about SCOTUS, FLOTUS, POTUS, and BOTUS.

Hannah: Yes, absolutely.That's very funny.

Hannah: So the first time I ever heard POTUS was during, I don't know if you are a "West Wing" fan, Mignon.

Mignon: No.

Hannah: OK, so the first episode, you've got Rob Lowe speaking to this woman, and he's looking at, it would have been his pager, not his cell phone. I don't remember exactly when the first episode was broadcast, but he refers to POTUS and she says, tell your friend he's got a funny name. And he says, "no, no, he's not my friend. He's my boss. And it's not his name. It's his title, President of the United States." And then the theme sweeps in. And that's how you find out this is going to be a show about the President of the United States, aside from the title "West Wing." But so these days, you hear POTUS all over the place. You also hear SCOTUS, FLOTUS, FDOTUS. And I should clarify, we're speaking about President of the United States Supreme Court of the United States, first lady of the United States, first daughter or first dog, depending on who you're talking to, of the United States, and these terms.

Mignon: Oh, how do you say that one?

Hannah: So that would be FDOTUS.

Mignon: FDOTUS? I haven't heard that one.

Hannah: And I've also heard like TOTUS for transcriber of the United States, COTUS for Constitution of the United States. People are fairly liberal with these abbreviations.

Mignon:  Oh my gosh.

Hannah: The first usages were back when telegraphed messages were the the quick and dirty way of getting a message across. But the telegraphs were charged for by length. So it is both cheaper and a little more secretive, a little more cryptic, to send a message about the president or the Supreme Court by saying POTUS or SCOTUS. The first usage was actually not POTUS, but was SCOTUS. And that's listed in this really great little book, "The Phillips Telegraphic Code for Rapid Transmission by Telegraph," which suggests using SCOTUS, and then POTUS showed up a few years later. So this is like in the late 1870s, between 1879 and 1895. And FLOTUS for First Lady of the United States, doesn't come around until they think that the Secret Service was using FLOTUS as Nancy Reagan's code name. So that wouldn't have been until the 1980s. And then things really started to blow up. You started seeing POTUS and SCOTUS used very fairly regularly. FLOTUS used fairly regularly. And then you had VPOTUS for vice president of the United States, which is just sort of cumbersome, the same way that FDOTUS is. So we tend to go for the much more elegant roll off the tongue "veep" for vice president of the United States.

Mignon: Yeah. And so where does that come? When did that start? Do you know?

Hannah: I honestly, Mignon, I don't know when "veep" was first used.

Mignon: OK, that's OK.

Nick: Do you know, Nick? No, I don't know.

Nick: But I was quite shocked when we were getting our book copy edited that whenever we wrote out "veep," we spelled it out V-E-E-P like the TV show. And he said, "No, no, no, that's just the abbreviation or that's you know, that's how you hear it. It's actually written out "VP," and it's just pronounced...

Hannah: Which I wouldn't even do.

Hannah: I would...go ahead, Mignon.

Mignon: No, I would write it "veep."

Hannah: Yeah.

Nick: I would too.

Mignon: Yeah.

Nick: So, this this guy is a political scientist, so I went with what he said.

Hannah: So I wouldn't know how to classify that, right? Because so when you're classifying POTUS or SCOTUS, those are acronyms, right? They are comprised of the parts of the phrase as well as pronounced as that phrase is written out. And then the other one is the initialism, right? So like CIA, Central Intelligence Agency. CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Mignon: Right.

Hannah: So what then is "veep"? Because it's "VP," but you're not...that's not how you would pronounce "VP."

Mignon: So that's a great question. You know, the same thing came up with FBI. I say FBI, but apparently some people say "fibby."

Hannah: No.

Mignon: Yeah. And I didn't know what to call that, the way they pronounced that. So, yeah, I don't know.

Hannah: I'm sure there are some theories out there, but...

Mignon: Yeah. So let's end today with...you had some Supreme Court lingo, and there was one that looked really interesting, but that I had never seen or heard before. I don't even know if I'm going to say it right, it's "Oyez, oyez, oyez."

Nick: Oh, "o-yay."

Mignon: "O-yay!" OK.

Nick: So it is part of the chant. At the start of every Supreme Court, the traditional chant is uttered, which is "The honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez, oyez, oyez. All persons having business before the honorable Supreme Court United States are admonished to draw near and give their attention for the court is now sitting. God save the United States in this honorable court. "Oyez" is the plural imperative form of the French "ouir," "to hear." So it is like, "Listen up, hear ye. Everybody listen at the kitchen table." "Oyez, the Supreme Court is about to talk."

Mignon: Oh, wow, and that's a great way to end because I know that a lot of government words did come into English, through French after William the Conqueror took over England, and French became the official language in England for a couple hundred years. And at that point, like a lot of government-related words like "jury" and "parliament" and things like that came into English. So it makes sense that it would come from French for our Supreme Court.

Mignon: Yes. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for being here today. We are really excited about your "User's Guide to Democracy" series for "Unknown History" for Quick and Dirty Tips. And that's the name of your book, too. So when when is your book out? And we just said, who knows what the publication date is, but what is the official publication date?

Hannah: The official date is September 8. And we're very excited and very nervous.

Mignon: No, it'll be great. Everyone go check out their book, "The User's Guide to Democracy." Nick and Hannah, thank you so much for being here with me today. Where else can people find you online?

Hannah: Oh, yeah, great question. So if you want to find our website, that is Civics101podcast.org. That's the real place to go if you want the information that we are regularly disseminating. If you want to listen to our podcast, we're on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts.

Mignon: Excellent. Thanks again for being here with me today. "The User's Guide to Democracy." Bye.

Hannah: Bye. Thank you.