Podcast Brunch Club

Power Corrupts Examines the Dark Side of Our World

by Jenna Spinelle on June 24, 2019.

An interview with Brian Klaas about Power Corrupts, a podcast that examines the dark side of our world

Power Corrupts is the podcast about the hidden, and often nefarious forces that shape our world. Some of the topics the show covers include election rigging, money laundering, and the spread of disinformation.

Unlike a lot of other political podcasts that focus on interviews or commentary, Power Corrupts takes a narrative approach, which makes it stand out from the crowd. The show is hosted by Dr. Brian Klaas, a London-based political scientist and columnist for The Washington Post.

Brian is an expert in authoritarian governments and saw Power Corrupts as a way to bring the things he saw in his research to a broader audience in a way that extends beyond the confines of a newspaper column or television appearance.

I asked Brian to share a little more about some of the topics he covers on the show, and how all of us can use it to give context to our own lives.

How did the for the show idea come about?

I conduct research around the world in a variety of authoritarian regimes — stuff where the dark side of politics is just part of daily life. I’ve interviewed despots, torture victims, spin doctors for dictators, journalists trying to expose corruption, and presidential candidates trying to create change. Their stories are often incredible, but you can’t do them justice in the 750 words of an op-ed or in a 3-minute TV interview. I figured a podcast was the perfect medium to highlight some of the weird and wild — and disturbing — aspects of how power corrupts across the world. My vision was to try to create something that was basically what it would sound like if This American Life and RadioLab had a baby, and that baby was obsessed with some really dark aspects of power.

You already have a regular column. Why a podcast?

Columns need to be both topical and timely. There has to be a news hook. Editors need you to be able to answer the question: why now? For podcasts, that’s not true. You can tell fascinating stories and deliver hard-hitting analysis about any topic, even if it’s faded out of the news cycle. Nobody was looking for a column to be written about a 1980s county-level election that was rigged by poisoning 1,000 local residents, nor were editors clambering to get me to write about General Butt Naked and what he can tell us about the ways that belief in magic or witchcraft affect politics and war. Podcasts are wonderful in that sense: they’re ruthlessly meritocratic when it comes to being interesting. If they are interesting, they succeed. If they aren’t interesting, they flop. And though I’m biased, I think I’ve packed a lot of interesting content into the episodes so far.

You mentioned that you’ve been studying these topics for a while. Was there anything you learned while making the podcast that surprised you?

I’m constantly being surprised. One of the things I like to focus on in the series is stuff that nobody has ever heard of before. When I’m picking content, I often try to think: if there were 100 randomly selected people in a room, how many would know about the nuclear weapon that was kept warm by live chickens, or how many would know that British intelligence used a corpse to help win WWII, or how many could correctly define what “cuckoo smurfing” is and how it’s used to launder money? One of the things that I learned about for an upcoming episode is that a former dictator of Myanmar (Burma at the time) destroyed the economy because he wanted to change the currency to be in denominations that were divisible by his lucky number, 9. He changed the currency to multiples of 9 such as 45 and 90, and he ruined the economy over night — which was not so lucky for his citizens.

How can people push back against the nefarious forces you describe in the show?

The important thing, in my view, is to recognize that Western democracies have immense power in the rest of the world and voters in those societies have a major part to play in pushing back against the corrosive forces of corruption and authoritarianism that destroy millions of lives across the planet. One of the things that I find most jarring about my research is that I often will have a bit of culture shock when I return home to the UK or the U.S. after meeting with, say, a torture victim or a dissident who has been jailed for simply speaking their mind. I’ve had many experiences where I’m fresh off one of those interviews and I arrive at an airport in London or Minneapolis and I overhear a person yelling at the barista for getting their Starbucks order slightly wrong. It’s jarring to see that disconnect, between how relatively few problems we have in Western democracies, and how people I’ve met are being killed simply to have more opportunities.

What’s next for the show?

I’m working on more and more episodes and I’m really excited about what’s coming up. I’ve got episodes in the pipeline about the death penalty, about blood diamond and blood chocolate, about money laundering, about nuclear weapons, about heists, about cults of personality in dictatorships, about nepotism, about biological weapons, and about miscalculation, to name but a few.


Jenna SpinelleAbout the author:
Jenna Spinelle is a writer and journalism instructor in State College, Pennsylvania. She is a leader of the PBC Virtual Chapter and hosts the Democracy Works podcast.


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