Our guest is Sean Casten, a scientist, clean energy entrepreneur, and cover band member who is running for Congress in Illinois’ 6th district. Want to send us feedback? Tweet us, email us, or leave us a voice message!
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: This is episode 38. Hey Brian.
Quinn: Today's question, what do you think? What's harder, building clean power plants or playing in a reputable cover band?
Brian: The way you made that sentence was so interesting. What's harder, building clean power plants? I bet it's harder to build clean power plants.
Quinn: I don't fucking know man?
Brian: Who knows though? I can't [crosstalk 00:00:38].
Quinn: Did you ever play music?
Brian: No. Trumpet in fourth grade.
Quinn: So, no. Our guest-
Brian: Trumpet in fourth grade.
Quinn: Okay, is that music? Our guest is candidate Sean Casten of the Sixth District in Illinois.
Brian: Woop, woop.
Quinn: Yup, more on that woop, woop in just a second. Sean's running against incumbent Skeletor ...
Brian: Oh, oh.
Quinn: It's all right, Republican Peter Roskam-
Brian: That's right.
Quinn: ... who called climate science junk science. Understand a number of other reasons, it's absolutely necessary we all put this gentleman into office. That means you listeners. He's got like 40 science degrees.
Brian: So many.
Quinn: He's built profitable clean energy, and we're going to dig in to all the reasons why he would be a massively influential part of the next congress, Brian. This is another conversation in partnership with 314 Action.
Quinn: How do you feel like those are going?
Brian: It's been so awesome. It's just incredible that we get to have all them on here and all our listeners get to hear what they have to say because they're backed and supported by a pretty great organization.
Quinn: Yeah. After a year, people are marching on the streets and going, "We need more science. We believe in sciences." These are the people that are going to go make the decisions. So anyways, 314 Action if we don't remember is a group formed to help with STEM candidates in office on November 6th. You can check at our previous episodes with founder Shaughnessy Naughton, Texas candidate Joseph Kopser, and Pennsylvania candidate Chrissy Houlahan right in your podcast player of choice, and we've got even more coming before November 6.
Brian: Yeah, the big date.
Quinn: Brian, to recap these shorter intros and the whole point of this, the intent of our podcast was and as I sold to you, remains to host evergreen conversations about specific existentialist questions or topics affecting everyone now or in the very near future. Building those conversations, not interviews, it is two parts. We're standing in for the people, for our listeners. We hope that we can engage back and forth with these folks. They can educate us and we can talk about things really and do back forth, but working towards specific action steps. Everyone can help take to save or advance the species or the planet, right?
Quinn: Right. So, we're sticking to that but these candidate conversations are a little different, obviously both in timing and in impact hopefully. On that note, how are you feeling about November 6? We're like 38 days away.
Brian: Yeah. Listen man-
Quinn: Short answer, one sentence.
Brian: You got to be hopeful. You can't not have hope, but all party means just like, "Well, we're just going to fucking see." History shows some not great turnout when it comes to-
Quinn: Not at all.
Brian: ... these situations.
Brian: So, I will forever be worried about that until it changes, but man, being in a position wherein I'm talking to these people and getting to hear them is ... I can't help but be fucking excited and hope that everybody who listens to these men and women are as excited and want to, maybe if they never have before, just fucking go vote.
Quinn: Right. So Brian, before we dive in here, why is this one important to you?
Brian: Well Sean's pretty special because Sean is running in a district that my fucking hometown is in.
Quinn: This is your hometown district?
Brian: Yeah. If I lived in Illinois still where I grew up-
Quinn: Sean's your guy?
Brian: This is my guy.
Quinn: Fucking rock and roll, let's go talk to him.
Brian: Yeah, pretty rad.
Quinn: Awesome. Our guest today is Sean Casten, and together we're going to ask questions like what's harder building clean power plants or playing in a "reputable cover band" as per Sean's website. Sean, welcome.
Sean Casten: How are you guys? That's going to be a hard intro to followup on, but I'm going to be here.
Brian: Hold the phone. Yeah, first of all, very glad to have you here and are you in a reputable cover band sir?
Sean Casten: I have never used the word reputable, which we have the ability to play a four-hour set, and as the guitarist says it, "We got a really solid hour."
Quinn: I love it. I love it.
Quinn: Honesty is really the best policy. You don't want to raise people's expectations too high.
Sean Casten: Yes.
Quinn: I love it.
Brian: Awesome, awesome. Sean, tell us real quick who you are and what you do sir.
Sean Casten: So, I'm the democratic nominee for congress in the 6th Congressional District, Western Suburbs of Chicago, formerly Henry Hyde's district, if that means anything to people, currently held by Peter Roskam who is sort of Paleolithic.
Quinn: Very generous way of putting it.
Sean Casten: Yeah. It's the district that Hillary Clinton won by seven points, and he's essentially a rubber stamp for Trump, if you look at his voting record. So, that's fairly the case here. I have not only never held public office before, but never ever ran for student government, was really never in the list of things I was considering. I spent essentially the last 20 years trying to do something about climate change. I started as a biochemist, biochemical engineer, worked on biofuels research, worked on engineering of fuel cells, batteries, some really hybrid electric vehicle stuff, and got the entrepreneurial bug back in 2000, I guess.
Sean Casten: Started a couple of companies with missions to profitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We built a couple of companies, built 80 or so clean energy projects. Every single one of them used really old, really unsexy technology, and every single of one of them was at least twice as fuel efficient as the US power grid, saved a lot of money, made a decent return on investment. Sold it in September 2016, and was trying to figure what to do next. I don't know how to get a real job at this point because I haven't had a job that existed in a company I didn't create. So, I was always into something entrepreneurial and then Trump happened.
Quinn: Then, that happened.
Brian: It's a common thread we've been hearing. Trump happened and then, "Oh, now I feel the urge to do something about it."
Sean Casten: Exactly.
Quinn: You know it's interesting. We don't usually actually, we don't spend the whole conversation talking about someone's life story, but it's going to be a point of context today when we dig back in, in just a sec here.
Brian: Yeah. So, let's get our conversation going. Sean, our main goal here is to have a great conversation with you, ask you some questions, and then by the end of this thing have some very actionable steps that our listeners can take to help support you and make a little dent in the world because the world, it seems fucked.
Quinn: In some ways.
Brian: So, if that sounds okay with you, we'd love to do that.
Quinn: So Sean, we start with one important question, something that sets the tone. Instead of like I said tell us your life story, we like to ask, "Sean, why are you vital to the survival of the species?"
Sean Casten: Well, because I make this thing called DNA, and our species if I don't propagate it, we might not make it. Do you have a more specific one?
Brian: That's right.
Quinn: That about is quite as literal as technical as it gets. It's funny, we've had an interesting discussion for a number of episodes on how gentleman wearing briefs are apparently cutting way down on sperm count across the world and-
Sean Casten: It's the unspoken killer.
Quinn: Yeah. It's not good. So that DNA, we got to keep that going.
Brian: [crosstalk 00:08:18].
Quinn: So listen, this is actually where we usually do a segment on setting up the context for today's chat which could be super wonky, or it could be policy based, or it could be education based. I know we're tight on time, so I want to give just some quick background on why you are a beacon of light of sorts for our listeners. Then, we can have a conversation about why context matters. It will be super [inaudible 00:08:42].
Quinn: So as you alluded to, you've got an undergraduate degree in molecular biology, and biochemistry, and a master's degrees in engineering management and biochemical engineering.
Brian: It's not that I don't know what all those are obviously, but what is that? What do you say? Biochemical engineering?
Quinn: Could you just spend a line telling us what exactly biochemical engineering is?
Sean Casten: So, I did a dual degree program at Dartmouth that was basically I applied to an MS/MBA program. The business school didn't accept me, so I go to the engineering school, and they turned out they had a joint degree with the business school. So, I did that one as well.
Quinn: Sure, why not.
Sean Casten: The engineering management was half of an MBA and a bunch of engineering classes. The other piece was I really wanted to do something around climate change and around trying to advance technology. So, what I was specifically doing was trying to figure out how to convert wood chips into ethanol. In other words, how to transition away from gasoline with biofuels and do it in a way that doesn't depend on corn and food crops as a feed stock. So, I ran reactors. I coaxed bacteria into cooperating. I cursed a lot when they didn't.
Sean Casten: Truthfully, the degrees biochemical engineering, chemical engineering at least at the time I was getting it is engineering because you can analyze it. You can predict things, and it basically works the way it's supposed to. Bioengineering is closer to basic science.
Sean Casten: Just because the systems are complicated and not as well understood.
Brian: Thank you. That's what I was going to say too if somebody had asked me the same thing, but I just want to clarify.
Quinn: Again, kind of going through things and there's a point to this. You worked for a couple of years as a scientist at the Tufts School of Medicine investigating dietary impacts on colon and breast cancer. You worked as a consultant in clean energy. Like you said, you've started a bunch of efficient power companies. You worked profitably reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and I think what's most important to me here though is throughout your education, and your entrepreneurship, and business life, you have gained what I assume is the ability to like you just did with your explanation of biochemical engineering to bring context to some of the most vital conversations pressing on our species in our planet right now.
Quinn: It seems like if we've realized anything at all over the past few years, whether it's clean energy, or the blockchain, or cryptocurrencies, or Facebook, before we can even get to with our large section of our elected officials are inherently evil people or completely paid off, in an overwhelmingly obvious number of cases, they simply have no fucking idea what they're talking about. So, that's why you and so many of the other folks supported by 314 Action, you and cannot only use that to inform your own vote and how you talk to your constituents or people like Brian, but hopefully set an example and literally teach your new colleagues what this new world looks like. That's why I feel like folks like you are so vital and going to make such a big difference. Am I off track there?
Sean Casten: I've never characterized it that way but as I'm sitting here thinking about it, I think I sort of agree and sort of don't agree.
Quinn: Awesome. Hit me.
Sean Casten: I would submit to you that there are some issues where the voters and elected officials are pretty well-educated, but there's this weird dynamic. I forget who is the guy, it's like the nerdy statistics writer, this thing about how you framed questions and formed people's knowledge.
Quinn: Nate Silver?
Sean Casten: So if you ask people that how many people are get shot every year in Michigan, the average person says like, "I don't know, a hundred." Then if you say, "How many people have ever get shot in Detroit?" People say, "Probably a thousand."
Brian: Oh right.
Sean Casten: So framing and context matters, right?
Sean Casten: It's always struck me that if you ask the average politician, the average voter, "What do you think of US foreign policy?" You get kind of blank stares. If you say, "What do you think about the situation in North Korea? What do you think about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis?" You have ... I'm not saying that everybody is a genius, but they're much more informed and they have opinions on it. With respect to climate and energy, the ignorance with number is higher.
Sean Casten: I think a big part of it is our framing because if you say to people, "What do you think about US climate policy?" You're getting into some dumb conversation about polar bears. Don't get me wrong, I love polar bears.
Sean Casten: But it's totally out of context, right?
Sean Casten: If on the other hand, and I'm going to make this nonpolitical but talk about where I actually have experienced. We set out to lower greenhouse gas emissions because I think it's imperative that we do so. If you're going to run a business doing that, there's no real value in saying to your sales force, "You can't sell something until you convince someone of the merits of our mission." So, you got to translate in language that they understand, right?
Sean Casten: So, if we can lower CO2 emissions by saving fuel because here's the thing, that's not that complicated. You can't increase CO2 emissions of the planet without burning fossil fuel and nobody gives fuel away for free, ergo, you can't reduce CO2 meaningfully without saving money. So, even if you have a full beautiful collection of tin foil hats at home, but you are greedy, we can communicate on terms that matter of we want to invest in your physical plant. We want to create jobs. We want to increase your asset values. We want to save energy values. We want to reduce your exposure to volatile natural gas markets, whatever.
Sean Casten: Now, you're in terms that people can understand and all of those things are benefits we will get as a society once we really make a commitment to doing something about climate change. If you ask people about the subtext that I choose, which all flow from doing something about climate change, people have opinions.
Quinn: Sure. I love that answer. We've talked to a lot of folks that we would probably disagree with on nine out of 10 things whether they're reverence or folks from the other side of the aisle as they say, but we try to meet them on big topics like this whether it's cancer, or antibiotics, or climate change, or clean energy, because a lot of times we have discovered that the messenger is more important than the message because that messenger can either understand, or even identify with, or has the same values as these people, so that you discover that that is actually where you need to meet them and where you can make the argument and things like you said, clean energy.
Sean Casten: I'm sure you're right in the politics context. The only thing I challenge you on is that in other areas of endeavor, you don't have the conversation about we could get this done if only we could have another Obama or another Martin Luther King, right?
Sean Casten: I think the challenge at least that I'm finding as I jump into this endeavor is that you have one political party in the country which shall remain nameless, that has a vested interest in uneducated voters.
Sean Casten: I mean, Fox News exists to make people stupid.
Sean Casten: So, you've created this thing where you need messengers who can articulate and everybody beats up on Democrats of why are you so wonky and in the weeds? Why can't you be more like Trump instead of like Hillary? That doesn't appeal to people who actually live in this universe.
Sean Casten: I don't know that I have any answer to that, but I think it's worth mentioning that that search for a charismatic leader is only in a political environment does it make sense. Then, we ought to talk about why that is. I don't know why, but I think we should assume that it's a requirement.
Quinn: It is fascinating isn't it? It is one of the very few sectors where that seems if not the only one, where that seems to apply. Fascinating, I love it. I'm going to chew on that for a while. So all of that said with everything you've worked for and watching it be completely dismantled over the past year and in the past, what was the specific moment where you basically said, "Fuck it. That's it. I'm running myself."
Sean Casten: Of course, a series of things but the point that really put me over the top, my personal belief certainly for me and I think this is true for a lot of people, you have the thing you want to do with your life, and then you have the tools that are available to you at various points in your life. Some people look like job hoppers but they're always pursuing the North Star. Some people are legitimately job hoppers but in my case, the North Star has never moved. There was a move from science to engineering. There was a move from engineering to business, and then we'd sold our company sitting there, trying to figure out what to do next. As we said, Trump happened.
Sean Casten: I was talking with my friend Katie McGinty, she was the chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Clinton White House, later secretary of Pennsylvanian, has done all sorts of neat things in her career. We were chatting about what to do next and she said to me, said, "I would never encourage anybody to run for public office but I'll make two observations for you to know on. Number one, if you have something you want to accomplish in your life, there is no neater job than be a member of congress because the levers you can pull are so big and the effects you can make are so huge," and she knew me well enough to know what I want to accomplish.
Sean Casten: She said, "The reason I don't encourage anybody is because if you want credit in this life for what you accomplish, there is no worse job than being a member of congress."
Quinn: That's right.
Sean Casten: She meant it seriously.
Sean Casten: She said, "Think about it," and we sort of sat there and said, "I don't need a statue built to me."
Quinn: Sure. Brian will build one to be clear, should this all work out.
Sean Casten: I do think this stuff clears well, and then that was available.
Brian: I've been getting into statue building. That's awesome. So, now you are running after never having even ran for treasurer of the yearbook club or whatever in high school, and now you run for congress. What are your biggest strengths? What are you bringing to the table?
Sean Casten: Desperately handsome.
Quinn: Check. There is a severe lack of that.
Brian: So, I should run. I should also be running.
Quinn: No, no, no.
Sean Casten: Yeah, sure.
Quinn: [crosstalk 00:19:36] Brian.
Brian: Got it, sorry.
Sean Casten: I had passable C blues on the piano. I think there's things that mean a lot to me. What keeps it, and sort of what we're talking about before, things that are entirely non-exceptional outside of politics, become this huge applause lines out on the stamp, and maybe that says something unique about me. I think it probably said something more about politics, but if you come from a scientific background or a business background, or some combination of the two as I do, you develop a discipline very early in life to never make decisions based on anything other than facts, and then deal with the political fallout.
Sean Casten: Whether that's you can't make payroll, whether that's you can't get the financing close on time, maybe a positive news as well, but you deal with it. So much of the political realm does that up the opposite way, but we make decisions based on politics, and then leave voters to deal with the factual fallout, witness the Kyoto Accord, witness breaking the ACA.
Sean Casten: So that's number one. Number two, if you have spent as much time as I have negotiating long term contracts, where you're going to be engaged with your counter party for decades, you never get a deal done. If you walk in by saying the only way I can succeed is if you lose, you've got to have a win-win approach to negotiation, and that also seems exceptional in politics but it shouldn't. The idea of not pursuing zero sum, and if that makes me unique, it's certainly the only way I know how to think about problems, but I think that's the thing I can offer that is not different from every member of congress, but on average is pretty darn different.
Quinn: I would just using first principles to create and instigate, and nourish long term thinking and planning. It feels pretty fucking unique at this point. Whatever you want to apply to, again from clean energy, to the ACA, to civil rights, to the immigration.
Brian: Okay, and how about your biggest weaknesses?
Quinn: Yeah. What do you feel is you're going to have to bone up on before January?
Sean Casten: The thing that scares me most is that I have been nothing but a CEO for 16 years, and I'm basically applying for a job to be a middle manager in a large bureaucracy. I don't mean that in any kind of a joke-y way, learning how to ... I have a friend who described me as an entrepreneur and she described herself as an intrapreneur, so that was a good characterization. She said, "I learned how to make changes inside an organization, but I don't have the skills to create and lead an organization." She's really good at that to be clear, and I like to learn that.
Quinn: Yeah. That is a hard one. Well, good news is, I feel like that is learnable, especially if you have a sense of self-awareness about that. I mean, there are coaches, and people, and mentors that you can certainly learn from, and it seems like you're learning because you've 500 degrees like Brian.
Sean Casten: Yeah. I sure get the sense that the congress is probably going to be pretty good at beating down whatever inflated ego I have within 30 or 40 minutes of my arrival.
Quinn: It seems like they do a great job with that.
Sean Casten: Yeah.
Quinn: So, if I'm one of your constituents, and this is a special one because Brian's actually from Chi-town.
Brian: I grew up in Westmont Sean, your neighbor.
Sean Casten: Oh, there you go. Our company was headquartered on Pasquinelli Drive just off 83 in Westmont.
Brian: I'm very familiar.
Quinn: So, if I'm one of your constituents or I'm Brian, how am I selling you to my friends against Mr. Roskam. Where does clean energy come in to play, etc., etc.?
Sean Casten: His litany for us, it sort of depends on where you sit, but certainly being a check on the president in a district that desperately doesn't like the president and desperately wants the congress to act like a check and balance is pretty good. Having a background that is scientific in a district that sits kind of between Argonne National Lab and Fermi National Lab, that's a pretty big difference against the current incumbent who says that climate change is junk science and voted to gut the EPA Science Advisory Board.
Sean Casten: Having experienced building and running companies where we created value, created wealth, and provided healthcare for all our employees is a pretty sharp contrast against somebody who created a tax bill that drove revenues below expenses in a very Trumpian business style, and voted to take away healthcare from 30,000 of his constituents. Then, I could go on and on down the grid, each list.
Sean Casten: Those are probably the big headlines.
Quinn: I think that feels saleable.
Brian: I'd buy it. So, one of our goals here is to shine a light on where we need to as a people go. So, what are the big and actionable questions that we need to be asking our representatives, wherever we are. I have friends that live in Downers Grove, what do you want them to ask you?
Sean Casten: That's a good question.
Quinn: You're welcome.
Sean Casten: I guess the first one is more for earlier stage in the process because this hasn't come up recently but when we were in the primary, one of the many forums we had, one of the guy was organizing it called all of us candidates. I presume he called all of us. I can't imagine he called me, but he called me up and he said, "What questions have not been asked in other forums that we should ask you now?"
Sean Casten: I said to him, "Seriously, ask us about any policy." This is a suburban district. I have a backyard tomato patch, but it's not [inaudible 00:25:59]. He said, "That doesn't really matter to the district," and I said, "I know, but any member of congress has to vote on hundred things and can't possibly be an expert in more than three, so find out how people think. Treat this like a job interview where instead of asking somebody what are you good at, say, "Tell me how you'd solve the problem."
Quinn: Right. That's so critical.
Sean Casten: Anybody can say, "Are you a good baseball player?" "Yeah, I played second base in college."
Sean Casten: It's a little bit a different question if you say, "Two outs, bottom at the eight. You're on deck. You're down by one. You're playing second base. There's a power hitter up. You got a lefty pitcher, man on first. Where are you shading those runner?"
Quinn: To be clear, I would have a whole other podcast with you just about that question.
Sean Casten: I don't know the answer to that question to be clear.
Quinn: Well, you can only know so many things Sean. You just said it yourself.
Sean Casten: I think like asking people how they think-
Quinn: I think that's a great attitude.
Sean Casten: ... and what their values are.
Quinn: I mean, so many of these issues while they feel overwhelming and international and connected and they are, like climate change and clean energy, or cancer, any of this stuff, so many of the effects that we can see, and feel, and breathe are local, and that's a great point of instead of saying, "Hey, do you support the clean power plant?" Going to representative and saying, "How are you going to fix how our air is rated or how our water is rated in our district?" Because that's not like a yes or no question, and that's not you can't get it political. That is, show me your fucking math on what you're going to do.
Sean Casten: There's a handful of things and you see politicians do it. It's so effective and it's so lazy. If you say to somebody, "What do you think about X?" Then they say, "Well, I want to talk to my constituents and decide." What they're basically saying is I don't want to answer the question.
Sean Casten: Because the reality is you're going to vote on a bill at 11:30 at night, page 300 is going to have a provision that conflicts with something you promised to do, but page 275 is good. Where are your values? To my mind, I would rather us ask our politicians, "Tell me what your values are. Tell me how you'll vote, and I as the voter will decide whether or not you reflect my values, but I'm not going to pretend that you're actually going to call me every time the vote comes up."
Sean Casten: There's so many other things like that. As Bill Foster said to me when I was first considered, he said, "You know, religion is what politicians talk about when they don't want to talk about ethics." So, every time a politician talks about their religion, in my dream, people like you say, "Shut up. I didn't ask you about which God you believed in. I ask you about your ethics."
Quinn: Right, right. As a pagan atheist, religious studies major, I can tell you that you can have ethics without talking about religion.
Brian: Yeah, fuck that, you can.
Quinn: You can want people to breathe clean air, and have kids to have good education and universal preschool, and not make the poorest among us the sickest without having to go church on Sundays, not that there's anything wrong with that.
Sean Casten: Remember that great Ricky Gervais line when he said, "Whatever religion you have, you and I both agree that 10,000 of all the gods that humanity has ever invented are totally insane and crazy."
Sean Casten: Let's not focus on the one where we might have some disagreement.
Quinn: Yeah, that's it. God it's so true.
Brian: He's good. Sean, how can we support your vision?
Quinn: I feel like we could talk to you all day but I know it's tight. So, I want to get into those specifics of how can our listeners, our army of folks really get in and support you over the next, Jesus, like 38 days or whatever the hell it is?
Sean Casten: Well, now that I know you're a sculptor, I'm thinking there's a spot on the national mall that we could probably pull aside now and build a monument to me.
Quinn: Okay. We'll just send Brian there with a shovel.
Brian: I'm on it.
Quinn: Definitely, we'll get the rest.
Brian: I'm drawing up plans right now.
Sean Casten: All right. So, in the next 40 days, if people are in the district and have the time and willingness to help out, so much of this race comes down to volunteers, and I'll give you guys some optimism, there are an amazing number of people who are stepping up right now.
Quinn: It's awesome.
Sean Casten: Last week, we either knock on doors or made phone calls to 50,000 people in the district.
Sean Casten: In one week.
Quinn: How many people in your district?
Sean Casten: Well, it's like every district. They're all 738,000 or something like that.
Brian: That's amazing.
Sean Casten: It's just amazing volunteer energy, and we need more of it because we're up against people who got a lot of money and no ethics.
Brian: They got religion though.
Sean Casten: So if people want to sign up and volunteer, castenforcongress.com/volunteer. If you're local, you can come out and knock doors. If you're not local, you can phone bank, and if you are not local, mute, but wealthy, or you're just feeling generous anyway, you can of course donate as well and that's on the website. That's how we make sure we stay on TV and do all the things we got to do to actually get this message out.
Brian: I will make sure my friends and family in your district know that they can help.
Quinn: Absolutely. We're going to get Brian over there. I'm sending hand signals to him. We've been doing our share of phone banking. We need to get him. Just send him Brian back home here. Listen, we're getting close to time here. I don't know if you have a time for quick lightning round or not, or if you need to get out of here if you want to-
Sean Casten: Go right ahead. Keep the fun.
Quinn: All right. So listen. These are sort last few questions we ask everybody. Brian says it's not a lightning round. I disagree.
Brian: It's not. You just wait until you hear these questions though.
Quinn: Okay. When was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Sean Casten: I want to go with meaningful.
Sean Casten: I mean change is probably like when you're two years old and you realized you can throw something at the floor and make people angry.
Brian: I still do that. Is that weird?
Sean Casten: Sure. You are a change agent. Somewhere after my junior high school, I got this idea in my head. I want to ride my bike across the country and I did it. So I did it with some friends, and we're just kind of one these cools things where you think you have potential. Your parents tell you're capable of things, and then you going to do something cool like that, and all of a sudden expands the ceiling of what you think is possible.
Quinn: Sure. My children are very young and there are so many of them, and we talk a lot about things like that, becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. My kid told me today as we're walking to school, he would prefer a scooter with three wheels instead of two because it was easier, and I said, "Well, you've spent the past few weeks mastering the harder one, and doesn't that feel better?" He just scootered away. He didn't actually answered my question because I don't think he gives a shit or he wasn't listening at all.
Sean Casten: Someday he will build a statue to you.
Quinn: Yeah. I don't want to see that statue. It's not going to be great. Sean, who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Sean Casten: I'm going to go with Bill Foster again, who's the congressman from the district to the south. He's just a wonderfully wise and kind man, and he called me up the day after the primary win. We had a crowd at the primary and everybody kind of knew this was going to be a race that was going to get attention, but with seven people, that's sort of theoretical.
Sean Casten: He called me up the day after and he first said, "I got a deal for you. I'm going to be the guy who tells you things that nobody else will tell you."
Sean Casten: He's kept true to his word and been just a great mentor, but then his second piece of advice for me was he said, "You don't realize this yet, but you have just become the vessel for a lot of people's dreams, and keep in mind in the upcoming weeks when you walk on stages, and you see hordes of people cheering and waving your name on signs, that they are not cheering for the vessel."
Quinn: That's really interesting. If we could take 10 seconds to talk about that, I think that was what inspired a lot of folks with Obama in a number of ways is he was emblematic of a thousand different dreams and things people had been hoping for. Everyone sort of cast their hopes on to them. I think that certainly, a lot of people have those who felt a lot. Some people, so those specific dreams disappointed because a man cannot do all of the things or he's going to do things you disagree with, especially if your expectations are high. So, I'm curious how you're dealing with that.
Sean Casten: I guess, looked to be honest, Trump is a vessel for a lot of people's dreams too, right?
Sean Casten: My nightmares, but some people's dreams. I think the reason I mentioned those point is that it's been so helpful because you're setting aside the policy differences between Obama and Trump, which is a hard thing to set aside. You always get the sense with Obama that he had a fundamental humility that he understood that he was just the vessel. None of that from Trump, right?
Brian: Not even close.
Sean Casten: That's the thing like you have to compartmentalize. I joke of my wife that as I've become this vessel and people cheering, you see your face on television, I now understand why Kanye talks about himself in the third person.
Quinn: I was going to say. Quick question, how often do you tell your wife and refer to yourself as the vessel for the people because I imagine that doesn't go so well. "I'm just a vessel."
Sean Casten: I will tell you I have slipped up where I'd be talking to somebody, and I'll refer to Sean Casten, and then I realized like that sounds so freaking weird.
Quinn: Slippery slope.
Sean Casten: I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about this sort of product that exists out there that people have some degree of intimacy and familiarity with, but it is a separate person.
Brian: I hope that, that's the situation with Kanye and he's not just the biggest egomaniac in the world, second to Trump.
Sean Casten: You realized you just lost your Kanye viewership or listenership.
Quinn: I'm thinking.
Brian: Fine. Sean, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed by all of this?
Quinn: Just many things. What do you specifically ... What's your self-care?
Sean Casten: It sounds weird. I don't get overwhelmed very easily. I had an old employee who used to refer to me as underdamped. He was an engineer, so that meant something but I don't celebrate too hard. I don't get to press too hard. I will say that we joked at the start about me playing in a moderately reputable bar band.
Quinn: There you go.
Sean Casten: I think everybody needs a creative edge. I'm not Dr. John on the piano by any stretch, but I'm good enough that I can sit down and whatever sort of emotion is there, kind of work it out and sometimes it goes to weird places. Sometimes it sounds like crap, but it's a way to activate another part of your brain and shut down another one.
Quinn: Sure. I think that's great. Dr. John, great reference.
Sean Casten: (Singing).
Brian: Just a couple more real quick. How do you consume the news?
Sean Casten: Twitter.
Brian: That was very lightening round-ish. I like that.
Quinn: Yeah. There you go Brian. It's everything you'd ever wanted.
Sean Casten: My advice to people on Twitter, follow journalists. Don't follow anybody else, and unfollow the ones who become polemical because they make you stupid. If you do that, you can see news happening in real time.
Brian: Good advice. All right. If you, Sean, could Amazon Prime one book to President Trump, what would that book be?
Sean Casten: Coloring book.
Brian: Take your favorite coloring book.
Quinn: So, to be clear. We have an Amazon wish list.
Sean Casten: What's the point?
Brian: All of our guests' recommendations and folks go there, and they can click on it, and it gets sent right to the White House.
Sean Casten: Oh really?
Brian: Whatever your recommendation, we've had quite a wide variety of this.
Sean Casten: What was the one about the ... He's probably got this already. The one about the gay bunny named Mike Pence? It was a coloring book. You know what I'm talking about?
Brian: What? Hold the fucking phone, what?
Sean Casten: Yeah, go check it out and Google. Somebody made a thing to troll Pence where it was a gay bunny and like that.
Brian: Was it John Oliver?
Sean Casten: Yeah, it might have been, but it is a coloring book. So, it's right at Trump's level.
Quinn: Sure, sure.
Brian: We're adding it to the list.
Quinn: These will keep him busy for a while. You're like, "Wake up and do that. Everybody's happy. They just wake up and do a coloring book for a little bit."
Brian: Oh my God, this is great.
Quinn: All right Sean, that's amazing.
Sean Casten: Marlon Bundo, is that the name? I think that's what Google-
Brian: We're going to find it.
Sean Casten: It's a classic of American literature.
Quinn: Oh, that's amazing. A box of 64 Crayolas in, just one thing is solved. Clean power plants.
Brian: We should include a box of crayons with it for him.
Quinn: We should, yes. We'll package all this together. Sean, we're going to let you go here. How would you like to use this podcast as if you don't have microphone already to one last time to speak truth to power. Anything you want to say to our listeners here?
Sean Casten: Here's my wish, and your listeners can't do this but this is just a wish for the country. I've long believed in the principle of noblesse oblige, "To he whom much has given, much is expected." If you are a politician, or aspiring politician, or some sort of a public figure, what you have been given much of as a public pulpit and there are things in this world right now that desperately need to be said, and they desperately need to be said by people from public pulpits. You can see every time people say them, the wing nut French coming back to slap them down.
Sean Casten: I made a comment a while ago. I'm not asking for sympathy, but I said, "There's a problem that there's Nazis in the White House." That put me on Tucker Carlson.
Quinn: Oh boy.
Sean Casten: How well un-American to suggest there's Nazis in the White House. I'm saying there's freaking Nazis in the White House.
Quinn: Just fucking Nazis in the White House.
Sean Casten: I don't think your viewers can necessarily solve that, but to be aware that there is this tension between the authenticity that we also desperately want in the way that we expect people who have public pulpits to communicate with a much narrower band of honesty than we're comfortable with. We need to lead people into discomfort when it's true, especially in these times. I'm trying to figure a way to do it, I'm not so naïve as to think there are times when that's not politically wise, but I think we could use more people who are willing to stand up and say, "Screw the politics. We need to talk about the fact that there's a misogynist racist demagogue in the White House."
Sean Casten: Hopefully talk about some other things that are not so depressing as well, but talk about that and recognize that just because that passes historic lines of civility doesn't mean it's not true, and doesn't mean it doesn't have to be said.
Quinn: I love that. I think that's so vital, and you're right. It can't be, every day there's Nazi's in the White House. There's amazing stuff happening, and there's constructive optimistic progressive things we can be doing to fight our fight, but establishing that baseline and having people who are willing to come out there, and especially not just random people on Twitter like Brian come out and say that, but people with the pulpit to come out and say that and stick by it even if they're on the show with the fucking bow ties.
Sean Casten: I forget. It might have been [inaudible 00:41:52] before he got off Twitter. I maybe confuse him with someone else but he said basically, "The country doesn't need another white politician showing up at the black church to say that racism is bad. The country has a white politician going to white church and saying we got a problem here with racism brothers."
Quinn: Well, it's the same thing as all these people saying. I have two boys and a girl as kids, not like locked in my room. I mean, sometimes I lock them in the room but the point is, everybody's got to-
Sean Casten: Somebody's got to mind that call.
Quinn: Yeah, exactly. The easy answer all the time is, you hear about these terrible domestic abuse things or sexual abuse things and go, "I have daughters. I'm so upset by that."
Sean Casten: It's so disgusting.
Quinn: Yeah. It's like, "Hey man, what about your fucking sons?" The daughters are not the problem. The sons are the problems, go teach them.
Sean Casten: The whole idea that Dick Cheney is incapable of empathy towards the LGBT community until his daughter comes out. Come on, if that's really the case, you're not fit for public service.
Quinn: You're just not fit for public service. Go to the problem area because this is the other side of the messenger is more important than the message. It's go talk to the people that you can influence that are actually the ones that are the fucking problem. Brian and I are very aware that our podcast is two white guys yelling at the world, but we try to have a diverse crew so we can have people tell us we're wrong and so we can influence those white guys that are hopefully for a short term still on the majority.
Sean Casten: Was it Jane Adams who said, "Two white guys with a podcast can change the world because nothing else ever has?"
Quinn: Not so sure. We're going to check on that one.
Brian: We'll look into it.
Quinn: Brian's going to fact check that. Sean, this has been awesome. Where can our listeners follow you guys online?
Sean Casten: Twitter is @SeanCasten S-E-A-N-C-A-S-T-E-N. There's an @ sign in front of it. Facebook is castenforcongress.com.
Quinn: Awesome. So, do you tweet from the piano at 4:00 AM, or is there another time and place where you do it?
Brian: Yeah. When do we get to hear this?
Quinn: So, I do all the tweeting. My campaign team is not always happy about that.
Sean Casten: That's me, and I'm not going to tell you what I'm wearing, or where I'm sitting when that happens.
Quinn: Okay. Fair, fair, fair.
Sean Casten: The other is more conventional communication channels.
Quinn: Sure, right. Awesome. Hey, listen Sean, we kept you way over our live time slot.
Brian: Yeah, thank you very much.
Quinn: We had a great time and we really appreciate it.
Sean Casten: Thank you guys. It's a pleasure.
Quinn: Brian's going to come knocking on doors real soon, maybe even yours. So, apologies.
Brian: Oh, sorry. I don't have to knock on your door. You're the ... got it, okay.
Quinn: He's already on board.
Sean Casten: My wife could use some persuasions though, later on our little-
Quinn: Mine too, right?
Brian: It's been really fantastic talking to you especially because you are running where I am from. So, thank you so much for doing what you're doing, and I will be sure to tell my friends who live and work in your district to get off their asses and kick some ass for you.
Quinn: Thank you Sean.
Sean Casten: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Quinn: All right. Good luck.
Brian: Thank you.
Sean Casten: Bye.
Brian: Go Cubs.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dish washing, or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: You can follow all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @Importantnotimp. It's just so weird. Also, on Facebook and Instagram @importantnotimportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. Please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this, and if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple podcast. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: Please, and you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys.