‘We can do this’: Big ideas from the Crosscut Ideas Festival

The fate of democracy, the state of the Supreme Court and the indictment of Donald Trump dominated during the day-long in-person portion of the event.

Two people sitting in chairs on a stage in front of an audience

Crosscut managing editor Mark Baumgarten interviews President Obama’s attorney general, author Eric H. Holder Jr., during the session “Defending the Rule of Law” at the Crosscut Ideas Festival on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut) 

The fate of American democracy was on the agenda at the Amazon Meeting Center on Saturday as hundreds of curiosity-seekers filled the seats across two stages to see interviews with Ibram X. Kendi, Eric Holder and Michael Cohen, among others, during the annual Crosscut Ideas Festival.

The day-long event capped a week of conversations produced by Cascade Public Media. The first four days of the festival were almost entirely online with multiple virtual sessions each day, covering a wide range of topics, from the war in Ukraine to efforts to preserve biodiversitythe upheaval in the tech sector to the state of the Republican party

Saturday continued the big conversations about the biggest news of the day, but in person and in front of cameras there to capture some of the keynote sessions to be broadcast on KCTS 9, May 10-15. 

Ibram X. Kendi, right, author and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, is interviewed by Audie Cornish, CNN anchor and host, during the keynote session “Woke and the Debate About Race” at the Crosscut Ideas Festival on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

The sessions were wide-ranging, from the impact of plastics on the planet to anti-trans legislation to the evolution of antiracism. But three topics came up multiple times throughout the day: the Supreme Court, Donald Trump and elections.  

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During a live podcast taping of Slate’s “Amicus” podcast, New York University Brennan Center President Michael Waldman told host Dahlia Lithwick that it was time for liberals and progressives to “fall out of love with the Supreme Court as a place to put their emotional energy.”

“We are in a great fight for the future of American democracy,” he said later, encouraging  liberals and progressives to pay attention to the news out of the Court, both its opinions and the politics and controversies surrounding the justices, and to push back on the Court with their votes in state and federal elections. 

Dahlia Lithwick, left, speaks on stage with Michael Waldman during the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle on May 6, 2023. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Waldman said he’d like to see Congress pass ethics rules for the Supreme Court and supported the idea of an 18-year term limit for justices. In a later session, former Attorney General Eric Holder said that he supported both those ideas. (Washington voters would like to see term limits as well, according to a recent Crosscut/Elway Poll.)

During his session, Holder recalled the Supreme Court decision that dismantled a critical part of the federal Voting Rights Act. Since the Shelby County decision, he noted, states have been wearing away the rights of their residents, from gerrymandering and purging voter rolls to the proliferation of photo ID laws and cutting voting places.

He called the Supreme Court's decision an inflection point in his career and said it reinvigorated him to protect the right to vote. He says voters should pressure Congress — the next time there’s a Democratic majority in both houses — to push through voter protections, even if it would require lawmakers to do away with the filibuster.

He wants Democrats to be tough advocates for voting rights, including in the next election. His conversation at the festival dove into a discussion about Donald Trump’s legal woes, as did many of the sessions on Saturday, but he said his focus is really on the bigger picture of saving American democracy.

“Every generation of Americans has been called upon to defend democracy. This can’t be the first generation that fails at that task,” he said, adding that he is confident the country will succeed. “We can do this.” 

The Crosscut Talks podcast will be featuring two conversations from the festival every week through July. Subscribe to Crosscut Talks on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

A couple hours earlier, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang was sharing his vision for a functioning democracy. It looks a lot like Alaska, he said. That state implemented open-primary ranked-choice voting in 2020, which means voters rank their top five candidates for office regardless of party affiliation. Yang credits the system for Mary Peltola’s victory against former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in Alaska’s 2022 congressional race, and for the fact that Sen. Lisa Murkowski kept her seat despite voting for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Crosscut executive editor M. David Lee III, left, and Andrew Yang speak on stage during the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle on May 6, 2023. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

In a conversation with Crosscut executive editor David Lee, Yang argued that partisan politics have not only divided the country, but the national parties actually thrive on division to stay in power without enacting policies to help their constituents.

Yang recently launched the Forward Party, a third party that hopes to force action by Republicans and Democrats in highly partisan districts — like, say, deep-blue Seattle, where a Republican candidate is typically a nonstarter — by running viable primary candidates. Although the goal is to have a presence in all 50 states, the Forward Party has its sights on local elections right now.

“We’re talking about your school board, the county executive position, the nonpartisan mayor’s position,” said Yang. “If you support the Forward Party, the Democrats actually have to respond to you and shape up.”

An audience member takes a photo during the “Trump, the Truth and Consequences” session at the Crosscut Ideas Festival on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Michael Cohen was another speaker with an idea for preserving American democracy: make sure his former boss never sees the inside of the White House again. A former lawyer for Donald Trump, Cohen went to prison for the work he did for the former president. 

Cohen acknowledges that he encouraged Trump to run the first time, but “I never thought he would become the worst version of himself imaginable. I thought he would elevate himself to the job of president, not debase it.”

Since getting out of prison, Cohen says he has offered his marketing expertise to the Democratic party and the Lincoln Project, but no one has accepted his offers. He hopes the multiple criminal cases against Trump will help prevent him from returning to the White House.

Six keynote sessions — including interviews with Ibram X. Kendi, Eric Holder and Andrew Yang — will be broadcast on KCTS 9 every night at 7 p.m., starting Wednesday, May 10. Go to kcts9.org for more details. 

“I want to see him held accountable and responsible. Not because it makes me feel better. Because any one of us would suffer the consequences,” Cohen said. “It would show the American people that no one is above the law.”

Cohen said he thinks a Trump second term would be like The Handmaid’s Tale brought to life, from taking away our First Amendment rights to a military attack on our government — or a paramilitary attack like what happened on Jan. 6.

The 2024 presidential election also came up in the session titled “Artificial Intelligence Is About to Change Everything.”

Oren Etzioni speaks during a panel on artificial intelligence at the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle on May 6, 2023. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

“In the next election we're going to see a lot of that misinformation engendered by AI. And all I can say is somebody who's been working in the field is, I'm sorry,” said Oren Etzioni, founding CEO of the Allen Institute for AI. “It's already been weaponized in the previous election to some effect, the cost of doing that, and the cost of creating that misinformation very convincingly has gone way down.”

During that session, speakers weighed the drawbacks of this rapidly advancing science — its use in military actions as well as for speeding the spread of misinformation. They also considered the benefits, such as developing assistance technology to build mobility devices and aiding with future pandemic preparedness.

Etzioni also debated with moderator Chirag Shah, professor of Information and computer science at UW, over how to regulate AI. Etzioni warned against rushing too fast to make new laws, but rather starting with enforcing the rules already on the books.

In one of the day’s other sessions, with Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, the now-host said he wasn’t much concerned with AI’s impact on the legendary game show. “We still do the Olympics even though trucks are faster than people,” he said.

Jeopardy! champion and host Ken Jennings signs books during the Crosscut Ideas Festival in Seattle on May 6, 2023. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Donna Blankinship, Josh Cohen, Liz Giordano and Gavin Borchert contributed to this report. 

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