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MATT BURGESS: Welcome back to the "Free Mind Podcast," where we explore topics in Western history, politics, philosophy, literature, and current events with a laser focus on seeking the truth and an adventurous disregard for ideological, and academic fashions. I'm Matt Burgess, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies, and a faculty fellow of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. My guest today is Kevin Priola. Kevin Priola is a state senator of Colorado where he represents the 13th District, and before that, the 25th District. He prides himself on being one of the most bipartisan legislators in the state, and he made headlines recently when he crossed the floor from Republican to Democrat in August, 2022. In the media, he has cited frustrations with Republican positions on the 2020 election, and climate change as key motivating factors for his decision to cross the floor. But he has also faced a recall effort from Republicans in response. Our conversation today focuses on the challenges and opportunities facing moderates in today's extreme and polarized political landscape, both in electoral politics and in the broader public arena. 

Kevin Priola, welcome to the "Free Mind Podcast."


KEVIN PRIOLA: Thanks for having me, Matt. Pleasure to be here.


MATT BURGESS: So we have a national, certainly, possibly an international audience. So for those of us who don't know you, tell us a bit about yourself, specifically what were you doing before you got into politics, and why did you decide to get into politics?


KEVIN PRIOLA: Well, grew up in Colorado, fifth generation native, and grew up in the ag business. Our family had a commercial greenhouse. We grew flowers for florists and such. And then, I also had a property management company. And I'd always kind of been involved, and politics is like a hobby, hobby on the weekends, just being involved in current events and issues, local issues. And apparently, I was involved in college, and soon after college. And about 2008, some folks were looking for people to run. They approached me to run for the state legislature. That's how I got started.


MATT BURGESS: And then you were in the legislature, and now, you're in the Senate, correct?


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yeah. Well, I was in the House. The legislature's considered both the House and Senate.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah, sure. Sorry, that's what I meant.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yeah, I was in the House for a eight year term there, and then ran for the state senate seat. I'm termed there. I've got two more years.


MATT BURGESS: Great. Tell us a bit about your district. Is it urban, is it rural? What are the major industries there? Anything else you think we should know?


KEVIN PRIOLA: It used to be more rural, especially growing up, and it has definitely a rural component, but I would describe it as more of a bedroom community. A lot of people that commute into Denver and commute to the more industrial parts of the suburbs that are not necessarily in Senate District 25. I'd say the average age of most homes is 20, 30 years old. Some are five or 10 years old. There's been a lot of new construction. There's still some agriculture that's still there as far as truck farms, and there's a lot of dry land farms out east. And then there's, there's even an urban sliver in Aurora, the Adams County portion of Aurora.


MATT BURGESS: What do you think are the most important issues in our state and in your district?


KEVIN PRIOLA:  Well, it generally kind of stays about static year to year. Education's always a big one, jobs and the economy, so on and so forth, traffic issues. And you can't even go back decades, and those will, it's kind of bubble up to be near the top. But lately, issues have been trending higher as far as the environment, air quality. Also, things just relating to election integrity and so on and so forth. So those seem to be the hot button issues now that weren't necessarily there five or 10 years ago.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah, and it's really interesting, your observation, that even though the news cycles change a lot, the core issues don't as much, which is I think totally true. But people don't often, I think, realize that, maybe unless they're knocking on thousands of doors, like you probably are.


KEVIN PRIOLA: I got to chuckle. I was reading or I saw some piece about someone who ran for something 60, 80 years ago, and some of the very issues that were important then are still important now, so.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. Okay. So you've been in the news a lot lately for switching parties, and so I wanna ask you two basic questions about that. And the first is, so you switched from the Republicans to the Democrats.




MATT BURGESS: So first, why did you initially choose to run for the Republicans?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I registered as a Republican when I was 17. So when I was approached to run for office, I didn't have this grand plan of making it a career. I was already registered as a Republican. Quite honestly, the seat I ran for was very hard for a Republican to win. I was fine with that. I wanted to work hard and give it a shot. I even told my wife, you know this, I said, like I said exactly like this, February of that year, I said, "If I wanna be a political guy, this isn't the year, and this isn't the house district to run." And she was like, "Well, why are we working so hard?" And I was like, "Well, that's just what we do."




KEVIN PRIOLA: So I just had identified with a lot of the Republican values in the late 80s, early 90s, my perception of what Ronald Reagan stood for and many of the other more moderate folks, like the Bush family, so on and so forth. They led our country through the Cold War. They led us through economic upheavals. So back then, maybe the climate issue wasn't necessarily as front and center as now, but the Republican Party had had a strong history of being pro-environment. They weren't anti-environment. I felt comfortable, especially as a small business person being in the Republican Party. And yeah, so, but I do remember a conversation I had with one of my high school history teachers, it was actually an AP American history class I took, and he talked about how parties changed through the years and political coalitions realigned. And it always stuck in my mind 'cause I thought, "Gee, I wonder what that looks like." I'll probably never live through that, but I wonder what that looks like, feels like. And as time went on, as I was elected, I started realizing that that's kind of what we were going through, was like a political realignment of sorts. And I think Trump, his run in 2016 and his election, kind of solidified that, and that kind of, the voters he was appealing to were your blue-collar, male, Rust Belt kind of voters that had traditionally been in the Democratic Party.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah. So just to put a little bit of a finer point on it, it sounds like, and actually, I heard this also in your description of what the most important issues are, but it sounds like your, the things that drew you to the Republican Party were basically kitchen table issues, so limited government, small business, personal responsibility, anything I missed?


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yeah. I mean, and I think those are true. And what I've noticed through the years is like, the Democratic Party, at least in Colorado, has adopted a lot of the limited government maybe through the fact that TABOR's in place kind of forces that. So I think that's part of what is affecting the election cycles and the kind of legislation that gets run and the kind of state government we have in Colorado. So yeah, I still am generally, fairly, fiscally conservative. And as a small businessman, you wanna do the most you can with the least amount of resources. It's just a smart way to organize a business or a society or a government. So I hope to bring that to the Democratic Party and to be one of those moderating voices to fix things and solve problems without messing it up.


MATT BURGESS: Cool. And just a quick aside for our listeners who aren't from Colorado, TABOR stands for the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which constrains government spending and the rate at which it can grow. And if we make too much money, then we have to give checks back to citizens, which I believe. I've been in Colorado since 2018, and I believe I got my first and only TABOR check a few months ago.


KEVIN PRIOLA: That would be correct because TABOR refunds don't kick in that often, maybe about once every 10 years. But they do kick in and they're a subtle reminder to the electorate that TABOR's there and got a little bit of a refund, a little bit of a dividend, if you will, for being a taxpayer.


MATT BURGESS: And that's an interesting issue that possibly divides Democrats in the state. Am I right that there's some Democrats who oppose it? I believe there was a controversy where our governor changed the name of the refunds this year.




MATT BURGESS: Possibly because he didn't want to be visibly sending TABOR refund.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Well, I voted against the bill. The bill actually moved the timing up so they would've gone out next year. So they moved it forward and renamed it. And so I thought it was just a little too political and didn't necessarily need to be, but I mean, you gotta hand it to him. It was very shrewd to do what he did.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah. It's certainly the kind of move that I'm used to seeing in American politics. I'm actually Canadian originally, not a citizen yet, but hope to be one soon. So you've hinted a little bit at, I think the answer to this next question in reference to the former President Trump and the political realignment. But just to put a fine point on it, why did you choose to leave the Republican Party?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I mean, to be honest, there were 1,000 reasons. I wrote a letter I posted on Twitter and sent to the press and it listed the top two reasons, and it was, the top two reasons were election denialism in the Republican Party, and then just the lack of taking climate issues seriously in my opinion. I've followed the climate issue for 30 plus years, and you would think that both political parties at this point in time would be arguing over how to manage and deal with climate change, not if it exists or not. I think you just have to talk to insurance companies or farmers to find out, yeah, things are definitely different than they were 20, 30, 40 years ago. And they're making those adjustments in their business and their actuarials or how they're taking care of crops. It's time policy makers take it seriously and work on mitigating it. So those were the top two things, but they were, a lot of them through the years, just things here and there. I saw the Republican Party going down this road that just was not, it wasn't the moderating, they weren't the adults in the room to put it in more of a direct way. 

The Republican Party I was attracted to in the late 80s, early 90s, they had solid ideas and they worked for solid solutions. And it's my recollection that growing up in the 80s and 90s that the Democratic Party maybe got into more of the theatrics. I remember a lot of die-ins around the Nuclear Freeze movement and stuff like that, circling Rocky Flats here in Colorado, and holding hands, so. But it seems like as time went on, it was more and more the Republican Party that was giving shrill and out there, and I mean, I think January 6th was just the icing on the cake. It just totally showed how far it had just descended into really unbecoming bad behavior that's outside the bounds of what, I think, the framers ever intended, and then the obfuscation of that, and so on and so forth. But I think it was really the lack of Republican Party leadership, kind of showing Trump the door a year and a half after January 6th that it just dawned on me. Plus, I saw a lot of his hand-picked candidates winning primaries around the country. And so it just solidified in my mind that the party that I thought was one way had really changed a lot in the last five or 10 years. And it wasn't something I wanted to be associated with. I said in my letter that I don't think either party has a monopoly on the truth, but I think in general, the Democratic Party has been more thoughtful and deliberative, trying to come up with solid solutions to solve problems in government. 

The last 5, 10, 15 years were the Republican Party, and someone tried to ask me when did I think this started happening, and I might have to point back to the beginning of the Tea Party. That's when it seemed like-


MATT BURGESS: 2010, about?


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yeah. It seems like that's about when the people that were on the fringe that I had noticed in the late 90s, early 2000s, that's when they got emboldened, and more of them started getting active and involved, and then the counter was a lot of moderate, reasonable conservative voices just kind of threw their hands up and walked away 'cause it just got really intense and a lot of caucuses and, yeah, and it didn't just happen here in Colorado, I think it happened around the country. And so you saw candidates running in primaries becoming, trying to outbid each other for moving further and further right, and further and further. And honestly, I didn't think it was moving more right per se, it was just moving more extreme. It was almost to the point they were advocating for things that 30 years ago, you would say, "That's that's a left-wing thing." 

Case in point is I think Congressman Buck is on some bill to reign in social media and stuff because they don't like what they're saying and how they're saying and how they're managing their business. Being a limited government Republican from way back, you would think that that would be something that wouldn't necessarily be a Republican view, but given there are folks now at the extremes, the Republican Party that don't like being told, they can't say that, they can't just spout off whatever they want, whenever they want. They're advocating for government power and government control over private sector entities. So that's just one example.


MATT BURGESS: So before I go to my next question, I have one quick follow up. So you pinpoint the start of what you see as the drift towards extremism with the Tea Party, and then the culmination maybe being the Trump presidency, and certainly the events after the 2020 election. As an outside observer, again, I'm Canadian, not part of any party, it seems to me that I find your chronology plausible, and yet, a really interesting difference I'd love to get your take on between the Tea Party and the Trump movement, is that the Tea Party, at least as I heard it, seemed at least somewhat animated by what you might characterize as an extreme version of economic Libertarian concerns. Whereas the Trump movement was almost the opposite of that, right?

In the primaries in 2016, I believe Trump intimated that he might even be open to supporting things like universal healthcare, and it was really cultural issues that he animated his campaign and his base around. So is that, am I right about that? And if so, what's the connection? 'Cause I agree that there are, if you look at the people that were involved in both movements say, in Congress, it is a lot of the same people.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yeah, no, and I understand your point of view, and to an extent, you're right. But I think what the Tea Party brought was not necessarily issue by issue platform, but it was more of a militant activism, if you will, a willingness to get shrill and blame others for the problems in this country, and marginalize others. And so that's where I saw Trump really kind of explode in the primaries when he started talking about building the wall and going down that road of blaming folks south of the border for the problems that people in the Rust Belt were dealing with, jobs going away, and living standards not being what they were in prior decades. So in that sense, I think it kind of metastasized, but the running thread that I think is consistent that started, and don't get me wrong, there were people I talked to 20 years ago that talked about fighting harder, but they were a smaller and smaller minority in the activist Republican Party. Most Republicans were family, small business, and went to church on Sunday, but they didn't tout gun rights, and they didn't take videos with the AR-15s, and they didn't talk about storming Capitals. 

The stuff they've done in Michigan, they tried to kidnap the governor. That wouldn't, you would've, people would've not liked even talking about that or thinking about that 20, 30 years ago. And now, in a lot of arenas, it's like it's justified. They justify it by, they have to save this country and the country is going away as they know it if they don't fight hard enough. And what they mean by fight hard enough is to do stuff like obfuscate every way they can and actually try to stop the election certification, January 6th. Those are the kind of steps that they're now taking that I think just crosses a line beyond the pale. It's far from what the Republican Party I signed up for, I thought, believed. Lincoln was the first Republican president, and his whole thrust was to hold the union together, not disband it and split the country up, and, "You go your way, I'll go my way. We'll do what we want." So it's just, political movements never stay static. They start metastasizing and changing, and they'll keep changing. Something will happen down the road where Trump will no longer be seen as a winning horse and someone else will pick up the banner or whatever. And I don't know exactly what it looks like, but the reason I changed is I saw the trend and the trend was getting worse and worse and worse, and it just didn't fit with my values, it didn't fit with the people I represent in Adams County and this part of Colorado. 

So I just decided the only thing I could do with the limited power and time I had in office was to make a statement and just switch parties, and maybe get other people thinking like, how shrill and how extreme has the Republican Party gotten that a longtime member has decided to switch parties to the other party? And my hope is also to help moderate and keep the Democratic Party on the rails, and not going off, you know, an extremist direction to where you have two parties that aren't really parties. They're just extremist groups following strong men fighting it out in the streets.


MATT BURGESS: Your dystopian imagination scenario reminds me a little bit of the Senate race in Wisconsin. Anyway, so one more follow up about some of the things you said. So one of the things that people have noticed in political science research on polarization is, on the one hand, actual support for violence is a lot lower than people think it is. So if you sort of ask people, "Do you support violence?" And then you ask people, "Do you think other people support violence?" Vast, vast majority of people do not support violence, but a lot of people think that a lot of other people do support violence. And a related phenomenon that comes up in polarization a lot in political science is this idea of preference falsification or spirals of silence, that basically the extremes much more so than they actually persuade the majority to be extreme, they cow, in one way or another, the majority into silence or into preference falsification, meaning into lying about but what they believe. And so in terms of the extreme threads that you described, and probably the answer depends a little bit on which thread, right? 

For example, there's a difference between people having concerns about the 2020 election and people supporting kidnapping the governor of Michigan. I would hope that the support for the latter is pretty low. But in terms of the general current of extremism that you see in the Republican Party, to what extent do you think that republicans in government actually believe these things versus they feel pressure to at least not oppose these things publicly for one reason or another, but they don't believe them?


KEVIN PRIOLA:  I think it's the latter. I think when you have conversations, real conversations, they're like, "Yeah, the election wasn't stolen, we lost." But they don't have the balls to stand up and tell the people in their district that because they don't wanna get primary, they don't want to be called a RINO. And it's like what you've spoken about in your studies and in theory that, yeah, there's not just the marginalization but there's people that know better that don't stand up and say, "The emperor has no clothes," if you will. And that's what I see going on in the Republican Party. It's like, I'm an example of someone who was moderate and was pushed out 'cause I would speak up and say things and subtly get browbeat or called a RINO or especially in the latter years. But there were also other colleagues that I still respect and admire. I know that they're thoughtful and reasonable, but they're trapped in these far right-wing districts where the saying is, if you're explaining, you're losing. If you have to explain your reasoning, you're not doing so well on the issue. 

So they choose just to, I guess, make the devil's bargain that it'll blow over and go away in time and they'll be able to weather the storm. And not that I wanted to weather a storm to run for higher office, but even I thought, after January 16th, Trump's, I was like, I don't know how he survives this. This is just crossing the Rubicon. There's gonna be enough people that stand up and show him the door, both parties in the middle, that he can't survive this 'cause it's obvious what he did. He basically organized and turned a mob on a sitting branch of government to try to, at a bare minimum, scare the bejesus out of them, or worse, actually spilled some blood. Yeah, but he still, he raised 100,000 or $100,000,000, and was still getting all this earned media, and people wanting to support him in 2024. And still, people running for primaries in 2022 that were parroting exactly what he said, the same election lies that I knew weren't true 'cause I was knocking on doors in 2020, and I knew he was gonna lose in 2020 by July, just the conversations I'd had with voters. 

And that gets into one of the other of the 1,000 reasons I switched is like, I had a story to tell about my personal experience in not only campaigning in 2020 on the ground, but in 2016, and seeing the difference firsthand between those two races where I could see how Trump could have pulled it out in 2016 'cause most voters were kind of over the Clintons, and Trump was kind of this shiny new toy they wanted to take for a spin. But after 2020, they were tired of the drama, they were tired of the tweets. They wanted a calm, grandfatherly presence in the White House, and I think that's why they voted for Joe Biden in my opinion.


MATT BURGESS: So that's a good segue to my next question, which is, when you announced that you were switching parties, what was the reaction of your constituents?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I didn't hear a lot directly from constituents in my senate district. I heard from people all over the country, and I expected it to be like 60-40, 60% positive, 40% negative. But in all honesty, other than maybe people were protecting me from the negative or people that were negative just didn't have the guts to light me up, it was like 90-10, positive versus negative. I had people sending me money from all over the country, sending me emails. Probably the underlying story I heard more consistently from anyone is they would be like, "Yeah, I was Republican and I switched in 2016 because of Trump." Something that I realized I wasn't the only one that's having these feelings and shaking my head is like, what is going on? 


MATT BURGESS: Yeah, it really speaks to the preference falsification idea. And it reminds me of an interesting way of, we had a speaker at the Benson Center last year. It was a series called The Canceled. And this was somebody who'd been made somewhat of a pariah on campus for a fairly, in the context of American political opinion, I won't bore you with the details, but it was a fairly mundane moderate statement. And he described a similar thing that you described, which is that he got mailed from all over, and I think he said something like, you know, 75 to 80% of it was positive. But changing topics a little bit, I heard you, I think a couple of times, say that you are, describe yourself as a moderate. Would it be fair to describe you as a moderate?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I mean, I think I've definitely had conservative proclivities in a number of areas, but I'm moderate and that I want institutions to succeed and move in a measured direction through stake-holding and discussion and deliberation and science from a conservative perspective, of course. But I just don't see that, I don't see that being the Republican Party anymore. It's just trying to come up with some clip or meme or something to get salacious engagement on Fox News or some talk radio. And like, don't get me wrong, I have listened to talk radio since the mid 90s, early 90s. I listened to Rush Limbaugh for 20 plus years. I get it, but it's gotten just more and more shrill. And I read an article a few years ago that kind of crystallized it in my mind and it pointed out how, and it was talking about political outlets for political discussion now and social media and podcasts and talk radio and cable news, so on and so forth. 

But it likened political discussion 40, 50 years ago to the Playboy magazine in the 50s. It was technically nudity but it was done tastefully, and you had to have a subscription and it was, you know, your dad hid it wherever in the closet or the, where now, there are so many outlets for free just blasting stuff all over the place. It's like some of the free websites you can find online that just have everything in any kind of smut you'd ever wanna see nonstop. And so that, the point of the article was that that's how the political ecosystem has devolved in this country, and it's part of what has led people that follow politics and are engaged in politics to feel more emboldened, to be more extreme because there's not, it's not tempered the way it had been in the past where you had one or two major newspapers in the town. You had the three main networks with the "Nightly News". 

I remember watching the "Nightly News" in the 80s, and it was a half hour and they told you the facts and they didn't kind of snark, and they didn't have little jabs at the president. They just told you this is what happened in Reykjavik, or this is what happened on Wall Street. And then you decided what was going on. But that just doesn't exist anymore. It's kind of entertainment news more than it is actually news.


MATT BURGESS: Right. And the other side of that is individual citizens, not only had that shared news source, but then they had private low stakes venues to sort it out amongst themselves, amongst people that they trust. They could try different ideas and weren't gonna blow up on social media. And the current media landscape has kind of inverted that, right? So instead of us having a shared set of facts that we then go out and talk about in small groups of people we trust, we now have fragmented sets of facts that we talk about all together in this mosh pit on Twitter.




MATT BURGESS: It's kind of the worst of both worlds. So back to this idea of moderation, So I describe myself as a moderate. And sometimes, the world that I live in is much more of a left-wing world on a college campus than probably the world that you live in. And I've had some, I've gotten some interesting questions from people a couple of times about, "What is a moderate? Do you just flip a coin on every issue?" It's like, no. And so the two ways that I've thought of to describe it, and I wanna see if any of this resonates with you. One is, a moderate is somebody who has opinions and is thoughtful, and is open to changing their mind, and above all else, isn't on a team. Because being on a team makes you stupid, as Jonathan Haidt, a famous psychologist said. 

The other way I think of it is, I'm a moderate in the following way, I'm a moderate because, on the one hand, I'm a liberal because I see that there are things in society that need to be changed. And on the other hand, I'm a conservative because if I look at the things about our society that I like the least, they're really easy to find in history, time and space, and worse, almost everywhere else and everyone else. And if I look at the things about our society I like the most, they're virtually unique in history, time and space. And so the idea that we would cavalierly blow up our society over the things we don't like seems naive and dangerous. And certainly, when the communists tried that, they found out that it was naive and dangerous.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yes. That's exactly-


MATT BURGESS: That resonate?


KEVIN PRIOLA:  It totally does. And I've actually made that point numerous times, like in the, well, speaking on certain issues. But to try to reinforce the idea amongst my colleagues and then whoever's listening at home, that the system we have in this country, the United States, is very precious, and it was given to us by the founders 230 some years ago. But it's not a given, it's not something that always will be or always should be. It's precious, and we need to try to hold on to it because we've had a lot of success with it. Is it perfect? No. Are there things we need to adjust? Yes. But this modern mindset that I've seen kind of takes over the Republican Party of like, "We just need to blow it up. And if we can't get our way, we're just gonna blow it up and start all over." And the quote from Trump a few weeks ago about suspending the constitution, I was like, "Oh my god." I guess I'm not surprised, but I'm still surprised that those kinds of words would come out of anybody who's trying to be taken seriously in the political arena. 

We have a system of government with checks and balances, so there's no one dictator, there's no one king that can decide, if you're in their good graces, well, you get the spoils, but if you're not, you get taken off to the guillotine. It's just, you know, and the fact that both parties and the unaffiliates don't really strongly believe in that, is what's starting to really concern me. It's dangerous. 'Cause you see what happens around the rest of the world. Why are people fleeing our southern border from Venezuela? Because their system has collapsed in the last 20 years. Venezuela was a wealthy country in the 80s and 90s. They have lots of oil wealth, and they had a democracy, but it short-circuited, and it short-circuited in other areas. I think you make an argument that Russia's a failed state. Part of the reason they're doing this war is because their leaders are kind of backed in the corner. They only have one main industry for the entire country, and it's oil and gas. And they can't dare let Europe move into green energy 'cause one of their major markets is gone. So you have a lot of examples around the world where other nations are failing and their citizens are paying for it because their system is collapsing. And we take for granted the system our founders put in place 200 plus years ago, is just going to automatically survive 'cause we're Americans, and it's always been this way as long as we can remember.


MATT BURGESS: Just one quick clarification. It's certainly the case that Russia depends on natural gas and fossil fuels for a lot of its economy, and that they have, before the war, spent a lot of effort trying to create a dependency among Western European countries on their fossil fuels. But do you think that clean energy motivated the war in any way?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I don't think it's the only motivation, but I think it's a motivation that doesn't usually get talked about. And I try to look at it through the lens of, if I was running Russia, why would you go to these extreme measures to embarrass your country and blow through all your military hardware and completely alienate your brethren? 'Cause the Ukrainians, I mean, they have a lot in common with the Russians. They should be getting along and prospering together, but there's something economically going on in that country where they're really worried about their budgets collapsing, their industry collapsing. And so I say, well, what would that be if it's not for the oil and gas industry? Because I think the oil and gas industry is 40% of their GDP. You don't go to Russia to get computer chips, you don't go to Russia to get-


MATT BURGESS: Right. They come here, and that's what some of the sanctions are about. I mean, that is interesting. I had not heard that theory. The theory that I've much more often heard was that Putin is aging. He's obsessed with his legacy. He's been, for decades, obsessed with the decline or the fall of the Soviet Union is a big geopolitical failure in his opinion, and Ukraine as this strategically important country, and his idea of the empire, and also, just this geographic buffer between him and the West. I mean, if his goal was to protect his economy and slow down the energy transition, it seems like it's spectacularly backfired on both of those fronts, right?




MATT BURGESS:  It's only accelerated it.


KEVIN PRIOLA: They didn't think that Europe and the United States could pivot and get compressed natural gas or what is it? LNG on ships. And, I mean, I've read articles like, the kind of ports they've built in the last year there, and he thought he strategically had a strong bargaining chip with Europe to get them to not support Ukraine, and it hasn't worked out. And I think that's part of the reason. If you look at what they're doing now, if they're trying to take out the energy infrastructure in Ukraine to try to make them hurt, goes to say that that doesn't spread to Europe as well. I mean, they've already tried some. Nobody knows exactly who put a hole in that Nord Stream pipeline, but I suspect it was the Russians. Yeah, I don't think, I'll never think that there's one reason any country ever invades another, but I think it was definitely one of them. 

And what you had mentioned as far as Putin trying to cobble back together the old Soviet Union, I think that also has merit as well. Things are still economic. And if, I suspect if Russia had a burgeoning young population, their population shrinking. I don't know if you've heard that, but if they had a burgeoning population, and if they had 10 strong, growing, diverse economic sectors, everything from like nanotechnology to electric vehicles to entertainment to software to oil and gas, was like 3% of their GDP, I don't think the population would support them invading anybody for any reason. They would all be too happy with the economics of the current situation. But I think Russia, it's been slipping the last 10 or 20 years, and I think smart people in that country realize that the oligarchs have just taken too much capital out of the country, it can't invest in its future, and it's becoming a failed state. So I think it's all kind of in one big mesh.


MATT BURGESS: So this is fascinating, and I have a zillion follow up questions, but we should pivot back to, yeah, really interesting. We could do a whole another episode on this. Okay. But so back to the idea of moderates, and how to exist as a moderate in today's political landscape. So your strategy has been to switch parties. There are other politicians that have taken at least two other strategies that I've seen. So there's some like Kirsten Sinema, recently, who left her party to become an independent. There are others like Andrew Yang who started their own party, their own third party. And so what do you think about those strategies? And maybe you don't have to go into both of them in depth, but why were neither of those the right strategy for you?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I mean, I did consider them strongly. But even if I would've registered unaffiliated, I would have to caucus with a party. And then at the time, I thought the numbers would probably be closer after the 2022 elections. So I didn't want every day for there to be this overarching concern of like, "Is Priola gonna switch? Who he caucuses with?" Or, "Where is he on this bill?" Or, "Where is he on that bill?" Or committee assignments, and leadership, so on and so forth. So, and plus, in all honesty, I've admired the Democratic Caucus, especially in the Senate the last three plus years. They've been very measured and very careful with, not only the legislation they introduced, but the process of passing it. And of course, I voted against a number of bills, but I could tell they were at least trying to put something together that worked for Colorado, and where I wasn't necessarily seeing that coming from the Republican Party. It was more obstruction and statement bills, and so on and so forth. A lot of the things I would hear, this is going back 8, 10, 12 years when I was first in the House from my Republican colleagues, was, don't make a bad bill better. And my point was like, "Well, it's gonna pass. Don't we want it to at least marginally work or not be a total train wreck?" But the philosophy is let them put a train wreck into law, then they own it. 

But at the end of the day, people in the state of Colorado, they pay for it. They pay for bad legislation. They pay for bad decisions by the legislature. And I think every single legislator has the mandate to make sure what we pass, what we put in the law is thoughtfully crafted, and is able to be implemented in a reasonable way that doesn't create a bunch of unintended consequences and problems for the citizens of Colorado. So that's just kind of a general feel I've had from both caucuses the last 3 to 10 years, and was part of the reason I just decided to move all the way to the Democratic Party. And I did so with the thought of like, "I'm not gonna switch back in the near term." This is a 10-year decision. I'm not gonna play this game where I'm unaffiliated now, and then I decide to run for something in the future, and then I affiliate as a Democrat. I'd thought about it for years, and the way things were headed, it was just, it felt like the right thing to do. And I have no regrets. If anything, I should have done it sooner, but I honestly didn't think I was gonna win in 2020. I didn't think it would be an issue, so.


MATT BURGESS: Well, and congratulations. It's really interesting that you… that the idea of being the lone swing voter didn't appeal to you. I think that speaks a lot to your humility. It reminds me of the scene from "Gladiator" where the emperor asks Maximus if he wants to be the emperor, and he says, "With all my heart, no." And then the emperor says, "That is why it must be you." But okay. So we're almost out of time. So I wanna tell you two stories about, hypothetical stories, about how we get out of it. And the first one is based on something that was written by Francis Fukuyama. It also jives with some research that I've seen that I've incorporated into some of my own research on how to do polarized climate change. So I'll tell it to you and you tell me what you think, and then I'll tell you the alternate story. 

So basically, the first story is the following, depending on how you measure the extreme, there's these various polls that ask people their opinions on various issues, and then try to cluster them, the Six Americas kind of thing, depending on exactly which numbers you use. The republican wing, what you might call the kind of the Republican extreme is something between 1/3 maybe and 2/3 of their base. And the Democratic fringe is less than that, it's smaller than that. It's something like 8% only of the country. And so, but on the other hand, the Democratic fringe arguably has enormous power in cultural institutions and academia, that I can tell you from experience, that's certainly the case. Mainstream media, big tech maybe with an asterisk in terms of the last two months. And you could argue that the Republican extreme doesn't have any power in those institutions except for ones that are specifically designed and built for them, right? So Fox News, Newsmax, OAN. And that contradiction creates this interesting phenomenon where the Republican and Democratic extremes have almost exactly the opposite political strengths and weaknesses. So the Republican wing is big enough, and especially since extremes tend to vote more in primaries, they're very hard to get past in a lot of Republican primaries I think you alluded to. 

And if you look at, for example, which party in terms of its voting behavior has moved more extreme in the last 10 years or so, it's been the Republicans. Whereas the Democratic extreme, they're great at making noise, right. They're great at pushing for their ideas in cultural institutions, even when those ideas are unpopular, like defund the police, for example. But because they're not a very large group of people, they can't win primaries. So they lose primaries in Minneapolis, they lose primaries in New York, they lose primaries to Biden. There's a, what you might call a Progressive wing Democrat who lost a DA race to a Republican in Seattle. So they're just really bad at winning elections. And so Francis Fukuyama, the conclusion that he draws from that is that the way out of this polarization is that moderates have to take power, and they probably, initially, are much more likely to do that in the Democratic Party. They have to explicitly, he argues, tamp down on the Progressive cultural extreme wing enough that it disarms the Republican reaction to that, which sometimes can win in purple areas, right? Think Glenn Youngkin, think Ron DeSantis winning in Miami-Dade. And then the moderate Democratic Party needs to basically win enough consecutive elections against the Republican Party that the sting of losing forces them to draw the extreme poison from their veins, however slowly and painfully. Do you buy that story? Do you have hope for that story? Are you somewhat implicitly making a bet on that story in terms of your decision to switch?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I think you nailed it. That's kind of, those were kind of the thoughts I had and just my observations, and those ratios you'd mentioned of 1/3, 2/3, and then 88% extreme on the Democratic side, those kind of fit, which is my gut reaction to what I've seen through the years and experienced. And so I think going forward, the Republican Party will have to have a come to Jesus moment, if you will, and have conversations with the extreme factions and be like, "Look, this isn't working. We're losing election after election. We need to grow the tent. We need to have a big tent." Reagan was about a big tent. Reagan was about the 11th commandment, don't speak ill of a fellow Republican. Well, that in and of itself is completely out the door with Trump. Trump consistently on the stump, would just call other Republicans RINOs. That's a complete anathema of what Reagan ever stood for, so. But the wisdom of Reagan was knowing how to build a big tent and attract a lot of people that wanted to be on the team. And unfortunately, I think the Republican leadership is just repelling people at all costs. I was approached to run for the ACD as a Republican six months, well, 10 months before I switched. And part of my thinking about not wanting to do it was not wanting to help empower even at the margins, people like Kevin McCarthy, who, in my opinion, did the most dishonorable thing by just trying to brush under the rug what happened January 6th, and just downplay it and not take it for the serious fact that it was.


MATT BURGESS: Let me tell you the opposite story. I'm all about steelmanning and trying to understand both sides. So here's the closest thing I can think of, and it's less clearly crystallized by one article kind of in the way that Francis Fukuyama's story is, but it's kind of the best, the most plausible red wave, you know, we get out of it through a red wave story that I can think of. So let me run it by you and see what you think. So the red wave story is that even though electorally, the Democrats could get away from their extreme, they're too addicted to adoration from the mainstream media and Hollywood and the talk shows and Progressive Twitter, that they don't wanna piss them off enough to tame the popular energy against their extreme that has led to elections like Glenn Youngkin's. And so then along comes someone, and probably the most likely person at least in the near term, to be this person would be Ron DeSantis. And the idea would be that Ron DeSantis is, he's pure enough as a populist culture warrior to win the GOP primaries, right?




MATT BURGESS: So even if he bucks some of his parties on popular vices on things like climate, which is, I understand he's better than some Republicans on climate.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Florida are because they realize sea rise is a, multi million dollar houses are gonna be underwater.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah. Well, I mean we could do a whole nother podcast on this. There's actually, this is a direct thing of research there. There're more signs of hope for bipartisanship on climate in the last couple years than some people think. But anyway, so somebody like DeSantis. And basically, the idea is that he's beloved enough as a culture warrior, pushing back against the left extreme that animates some of the reactionary right that he can get through the primaries. But then he's also seen as a competent economic manager. He's somewhat more modern, issues like climate change. There was a recent article, I can't remember who was in the New York Times or the Walls, no, it was neither. It was somewhere else. But it was on DeSantis Democrats. Basically, they went and interviewed Democrats in Florida who'd voted for DeSantis, and they cited things like he's a good economic manager, he's run a big surplus, et cetera, et cetera. 

Now, you could argue that even though he's far from perfect as a big tent candidate, I believe he was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, for example. And he's, although he has pushed back on Progressive vices that are unpopular, kind of in ways that are winning him more votes than they're losing, probably it's also true that he's kind of gone far enough on some speech issues, for example, that he's drawn the ire of, often, Libertarian friendly groups, like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, who I think sued him over the Stop Woke Act, and successfully. But despite all that, he won. You could say that he won a pretty large and diverse group of moderate Democratic voters in a purple state like Florida. I think he won the Hispanic vote overall by a decent margin. And so do you think somebody like that can win? And if so, do you think that that would force the Democrats to maybe tame some of their vices and then get back to the Fukuyama story? Or do you think that that would just enrage the Democrats, Progressive wing, and around and around we go in a spiral polarization?


KEVIN PRIOLA:I mean, that's more of a tough answer to give because there's so many variables and so many unknowns, especially in the next two years. Do I think no Republican is gonna win office anywhere in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years? No. But I think there's gonna be a trend of, at the margin, fewer and fewer wins. And part of it too is the whole Roe v Wade decision, or I forget the.


MATT BURGESS: Mm-hmm. The Dobbs.


KEVIN PRIOLA: The Dobbs decision. That basically localized the whole pro-life, pro-choice issue at the local level, state by state. So there are gonna be a lot of state legislatures that start flipping my opinion going forward. So the Republican Party, and I'm pro-life. I don't apologize for that. But that Dobbs decision is kind of an example of, when the dog finally catches the car, what happens? I think that's a real outlier there that's gonna affect state legislative races for at least a couple cycles.


MATT BURGESS: And it'll have an interesting dynamic, I think, internally to the party. It reminds me of a conver, I won't name names, but I had a conversation recently with a Republican, not a politician, but you could say an operative who said, "We lose the most, our spreads are the worst in terms of public opinion on climate and abortion." And he said, "I'm fine with us losing on abortion because it's a life and death issue, but we shouldn't be losing on climate." Basically meaning that, the argument that we should be doing more on climate.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Yeah. I mean, the climate issue, pro-life issue too. There's nothing more pro-life than ensuring that the planet exists in a relatively habitable manner.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah, there's a well-known climate scientist named Katharine Hayhoe, who's also in an evangelical Christian, and I believe she's married to a quite famous evangelical pastor, and she does a lot of really cool outreach on climate change with exactly that lens, that basically that, there are lots of good Christian regions. Okay. Two really, really short questions, and then we'll wrap up. The first is, are you hopeful for the future of the country?


KEVIN PRIOLA: Oh, yeah. I definitely am. I think these recent years, there'll be a bump in the road, and folks will sober up and get back on track. This wouldn't be the first time we've had political strife in this country, nor will it be the last. It's just, Trump was kind of this outlier in presidential politics that, in my opinion, did a lot of damage. But there's still hope. Happy to see the process being worked through with the January 6th commission. And it does seem like he's starting to lose a little bit of sway over the party, but I still think he gets the nomination in 2024, and then, of course, loses in the general election, but we'll see.


MATT BURGESS: Yeah. There's recent polls that suggest that he's actually behind DeSantis now in the primary polling. But as you said, a lot is gonna happen in two years. Okay. Speaking of two years, my last question is, you mentioned your term limit. I know this is the kind of question that you should never ask a politician and expect a straight answer, but what's next for Kevin Priola?


KEVIN PRIOLA: I mean, never say never, but I think I'm pretty much on my way out the door. I've already been in politics longer than I ever really attended to, so, but we'll see. I mean, I never wanna say, for sure, never, but as of now, I'm not leaning towards running for anything else ever again.


MATT BURGESS: Cool. Thanks. Well, thanks so much for coming on. Whatever one's principles are, I always respect people who stick to them, especially in a time of high polarization, and high preference falsification, and high spirals of silence. And so I really respect that. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for you whatever that may be.


KEVIN PRIOLA: Well, thank you, Matt. It's been great talking with you, and look forward to seeing you again in the future.


MATT BURGESS: Great, thank you. The "Free Mind Podcast" is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback at freemind@colorado.edu or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson. You can also find us on social media. Our Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube accounts are all @BensonCenter. Our Instagram is @thebensoncenter, and the Facebook is at BruceD.BensonCenter.