Donald Trump may be going away, but the coalition, movement, and intellectual tendencies that grew up around him aren’t. For many, Trump seemed to herald a new dawn for reactionary conservative nationalism political thought aligned against pluralism, social justice and even liberal democracy itself. In a fascinating series of essays for Niskanen and the Bulwark, political theorist Laura Field has been probing to the philosophical underpinnings of the emerging illiberal right more insightfully than just about anyone.
In this episode, we discuss the underlying assumptions animating thinkers like Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermuele, Yoram Hazony and Attorney General Bill Barr, among others. Why do they think liberal democracy is self-undermining? Why are they hostile to multicultural liberal pluralism. How do they think they know that liberalism leaves us empty, alienated and estranged from a profound human need for deep social connection? Are these guys like Captain Ahab on a deranged and futile hunt to destroy meaninglessness? We talk about all that and lots more, including whether left-wing postmodern thought is destroying liberal education. (Hint: It isn’t.)
Laura field is a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center and has taught political theory and the history of political thought as faculty at Rhodes College, Georgetown and American University, where she is currently a scholar in residence.
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Readings: “Meet the Reocons,” “What the Reactionary Right Gets Dead Wrong about Liberal Democracy,” “Love and Loyalty in the “Liberalocracy,” and “Dear Republicans: Welcome to the New Establishment” by Laura Field, Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen, and Moby-Dick; or, the Whale by Herman Melville
Will Wilkinson: Hi, Laura, how are you doing?
Laura Field: I’m doing well. Well, how are you?
Will Wilkinson: I am, you know, about as good as can be expected in the midst of an attempted coup by the president.
Laura Field: Yeah. Yeah. We are all hanging in there.
Will Wilkinson: Hopefully it works out. Thanks for coming on Model Citizen. I really appreciate it. I wanted to talk today about a bunch of your essays that you’ve written recently on what would you call them? Anti liberal conservative thinkers.
Laura Field: Yeah, Trumpy intellectuals of one variety or another. I mean, they’re not Trump supporters necessarily, but sort of all the people who have sort of rallied to give some sort of intellectual sustenance to what’s happening on the right.
Will Wilkinson: Right? So like when Trump goes away, you know, if he goes away, knock wood, he’s got a big coalition, there’s a movement and a bunch of intellectual machinery and framework that’s built up around him. Now, Trump, obviously isn’t an intellectual guy. He clearly isn’t driven by any ideology other than make money, stay out of jail, be famous, like he seems to be a very crudely motivated person, but his ascension to the presidency seemed to a lot of people on the right to held a sort of new dawn for a kind of respectable conservative nationalism that is aligned against everything that liberals love, you know, pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, social justice, and even liberal democracy itself. And you’ve been paying closer attention to all of these strands and developments than just about anybody else. And you’re really illuminating about the sort of philosophical assumptions and the errors that these people make and are making.
Will Wilkinson: And so I think that’s really worth digging into, because these people aren’t going away even when Trump does. So there’s a bunch of different strands of this that we can navigate, but they all relate in various ways. And I found it striking the extent to which people really aren’t putting it all together. Like the people are treating everything as kind of a fluke, but there is a persistent strain of thought here.
Laura Field: Well, I think it’s important to say that the strain of, I don’t think it’s a coherent group, right. That we have to be careful about. And it sort of developed, I think, partly it was sort of organic ahead of Trump or sort of in the years, leading up to him a kind of populism or anti liberalism on the right that developed independently of Trump, I think, and that are part of the sort of Republican longstanding traditions within republicanism.
Laura Field: So there’s sort of different threads coming together, not to form something coherent, but some of them sort of were there before then others have kind of use this as an opportunity, sort of real opportunists to come in and just, and use Trump and defend Trump on the behalf of something more serious, or trying to turn Trumpism into something that has some sort of intellectual coherence. And that sort of started, I think with Anton’s essay right before Trump was elected the [inaudible 00:05:03] anyway, I think there’s sort of different things happening, some of which are more sort of sincere philosophical efforts, some of which are more opportunistic and I mean, I have the schema in mind that we can talk about.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, let’s just let our listeners know some of the characters involved. So like, as I see it, there’s a kind of highfalutin Catholic integralists strand to it, like Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule. And I guess Bill Barr, the Attorney General of the United States would kind of count as, I don’t really know exactly where he’s coming from, but……..
Laura Field: Yeah, I think so. I don’t exactly either my suspicion is that he’s pretty deeply embedded in that stuff. You know, I kind of am approaching this. I haven’t done sort of a serious academic study or tried deep, you know, to really dig into each one of these guys. But my impression is he’s pretty much in the thick of it, I just emailed you a little chart that I made, which I think, well, I imagine it’s, there’s sort of, yeah. The religious traditionalist is the most serious group, the one that with the sort of most intellectual coherence.
Will Wilkinson: And I mean, it makes sense that the sort of reactionary Catholics would have the most sort of texture and complexity. This is a body of thought that’s been developing for a millennia, so, Oh yeah. You’ve got a, you know, we’ll have to share this in our show notes, so yeah. Okay. This is pretty much how I got a broken-down too. Because then I was going to, so you’ve got the religious traditionalist, you get like the first things crowd involves Patrick Deneen, who we’ll talk a lot more about his political theorist at Notre Dame as I crack it, is that where he still is or is it Georgetown?
Laura Field: Yeah, that’s right. He was at Georgetown until maybe, I don’t know, 10 years ago or so.
Will Wilkinson: Okay. Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari and Bill Barr. So we got those. And then the next group I was going to mention were the folks that we associate with the Claremont Institute the kind of West Coast Straussian natural law types. So that would be people like Michael Anton, the Federalist you have as being part of that strand. And there’s an online fringe.
Laura Field: Well, I mean, they’re sort of closest to, I think the conspiratorial right. And some sort of really radical stuff that’s happening sort of with like bronze age pervert and you know, these guys. These influencers right. On the far right. And so I think that the Claremont Institute people, some of them they have the whole range of in sort of their ecosystem. There’s the Claremont review of books at the top where it’s sort of still, has a veneer of respectability and then the American mind, their blog. And then down from there, I mean, in American mind and some of these publications, they will summarize some of the work of the online fringe and, or like the really alt-right and they sort of are attentive to that and they don’t sort of support it overtly, but I think they’re sort of tapped into that. And I think they feed off one another a little bit is my impression.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. That’s my impression too. Like the people writing for the Claremont review of books, aren’t super into bronze age pervert or something, or maybe they are personally, but it’s not their mode of argument and discourse.
Laura Field: Yeah, but they’re sympathetic and they sort of pretend to this fascination with it and they act like they have this awareness of something really exciting or not exciting, but interesting that nobody else understands. It’s really powerful. That’s happening.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. There’s a reason all this stuff is bubbling up.
Laura Field: And people don’t even know what’s happening on the, you know, there’s this whole world they act like they’re tuned into. And I think that they’re also sort of really trying to give marching orders to Trump, unlike the other people, I think they take Trump seriously and sort of are they’re the ones sort of developing the schema for the coup and the rhetoric and the propaganda for that.
Will Wilkinson: And that has been really striking that you see stuff coming out of American mind or the American greatness sort of website that is just straight up, you know, state legislators ought to try to invalidate the election results and decide ex-post at the way they’re going to seat electors is by the legislatures just get, you know, they can’t do that.
Will Wilkinson: Like the state legislatures already wrote laws about how they choose electors. And so a lot of that stuff clearly is an acknowledgement that the election has been lost, given the laws that are in place for determining who gets electoral votes. But they’re saying it doesn’t matter. Like if we win, we win and if we lose, we win because the other side is illegitimate. They’ll be a disaster for our culture and civilization. We can’t allow them to have power because they’ll destroy everything. And obviously that’s a pretty dangerous.
Laura Field: Yeah. And that goes back to what Anton was arguing for Trump, I think early on with this essay, this “Flight 93 Election” essay that argued basically everything is on the table in order to stop Hillary Clinton from winning, because she will be the end of civilization as we know it. And that the left just poses such a threat that basically every extra legal, I mean, he didn’t say that, but I think now it’s sort of all the thing they’re sort of declaring this, a state of exception or something where everything’s on the table, you know, burn it all down because Democrats are evil.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah the strange thing that’s really ballsy about the whole election denialism and the attempt to simply invalidate the results is that it’s not close, there isn’t some sort of like unrest or civil insurrection, right?
Laura Field: No, it’s manufactured. I mean, they’re trying, and they’ve been doing that all summer. I think trying to make my impression is with some of the stuff they’ve published about the protests and riots, that they were really trying to push things to the brink.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And you say, you know, Trump’s obviously been doing this for his entire presidency. I mean, before he even got into power, he was insisting that the vote was rigged in the election that he won and that was just crazy. But he’s like, I did not lose the popular vote. Right. There were all sorts of shenanigans going on. All dead people were voting, blah, blah, blah. And he was saying that in the election he won. And he’s been really consistent in trying to question the validity of mail-in ballots. And from day one, he was trying to describe big multicultural cities as misgoverned hell holes that are so degraded and the people who run them are so irresponsible and dangerous that they shouldn’t have any power. And that’s all a long game set up for invalidating the votes of black people from big cities.
Will Wilkinson: And I’m always frustrated by people who don’t think the guy’s smart. I mean, he’s like smart in a dumb way, but he understood, you know, he’s been invalidating the results of the next election from before he took power. He’s thinking ahead. All right. So, we’ll get into a little more about why it is that these thinkers think it would be such a freaking disaster if Joe freaking Biden, you know, clearly a dangerous radical were to assume power, but we can step back for a second and finish our little taxonomy. So you had those, you described that set of people as the Neo Republicans, the Claremont people, people the Federalists, Michael Anton, some of the alt-right folks.
Laura Field: Yeah. I mean, they do premise everything on, they’re the true defenders of the American founding.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And these are the, you know, we’re a Republic, not a democracy types. And they were constantly wrapping themselves in the flag and the founders as a justification for invalidating things that Democrats want to do. And then your last group, you just have the straight up nationalists, you include Yoram Hazony, John Bolton, Tucker Carlson, you know, people from other countries like leaders like Orbán in Hungary.
Laura Field: And that maybe sort of an umbrella category. Because they sort of all to varying degrees would maybe think of themselves as some kind of nationalists. It’s kind of a formal political effort to group people together. And they had a conference last summer and then another one in Rome last year. So that’s
Will Wilkinson: Yes, I was at the one in D.C, the National Conservatism Conference that Hazani’s organization sponsored. And the thing that was really striking about that to me is that that guy is a kind of hardcore Zionist, Israeli nationalist. And he’s arguing for American nationalism as a way to justify nationalism in his own country. So there’s some weird geopolitics going on here where you have this alliance of sort of authoritarian nationalism. That’s why they all like Orbán and things like that. So,
Laura Field: Yeah. And it’s an internationalist movement, which is strange.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:14:22]
Laura Field: Exactly. And Hazani I think is also American. I think he’s Israeli American.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I think so too. But it was just, I left that conference actually really befuddled and it took me a while to get what was going on because I was like, why is this Israeli guy encouraging American nationalistic impulses? Because there’s clearly a lot of antisemitism in it. Like he’s stirring up the kind of passions that threatened the welfare of diaspora Jews. And it took me a while and some conversations with some Jewish friends to understand that he doesn’t think there ought to be diaspora Jews. That there’s nowhere that you’re safe except for the homeland. And so it’s not such a bad thing if you’re whipping up nationalistic sentiments elsewhere, which threaten Jews abroad, because that’s the force that will push them to go home.
Laura Field: I cannot make sense of him either. It just, in terms of the basic history of the 20th century. I mean, that’s what I keep coming back to with each of these guys. How do you find yourself just even using that word to describe yourselves, given the 20th century.
Will Wilkinson: Just nationalist?
Laura Field: Yeah, I don’t get it.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. It does not have a sterling historical record, but they’re all pretty uniformly aligned against liberalism, which does have a comparatively sterling historical record. And maybe this is a good way to like transition into your work on Patrick Deneen, who I think you see as the kind of most coherent and clarifying of these theorists in his book, Why Liberalism Failed.
Will Wilkinson: Like that whole book is an argument against liberal democracy. You know, basically arguing that liberal democracy ends up undermining itself is unstable in some fundamental way because it destroys its own foundation. And so we have to go to something else. And that kind of argument always just stuns me because I’m trained as a political philosopher, but I’m more of an empiricist than most philosophers. And my first method for deciding whether a regime type is good or bad is you just look like how are people doing? And liberal democracy is just like the world champion of every indicator of human flourishing that you can come up with.
Laura Field: Except for some of theirs.
Will Wilkinson: Except for some of theirs, so they think that those are degraded criteria, like longevity, health, choice, income, but then that raises the question, like, what are they after? So why don’t you tell me a little bit more about what Deneen thinks is wrong with liberalism?
Laura Field: Yeah, I think that as you’ve seen, I mean, I’ve read that book a couple of times pretty carefully, but I haven’t read it in a while. So I’m kind of just talking off the cuff here. And these is sort of like, I’m just going to be a little impressionistic and possibly unfair. But my impression is that there’s just a real, it’s almost like an aesthetic aversion to democracy and to sort of just the liberal the way of life, right. That there’s a kind of sensibility that undergirds his dislike of it. I mean, he’s quite explicit. He thinks it destroys community. Right? One of the reasons why that book was so powerful and also popular is that he gives a good diagnosis in some sense of like late stage capitalism. And there’s a lot there that would resonate on the far left was, you know, Cornel West gave a blurb for the book.
Laura Field: And if you read Cornel West work there’s sort of some resonance there. Anyhow. So, but his critique of liberalism is that individualism and the sort of modern attitude towards nature act as solvents on human community and sort of pit humanity against the natural world in this unnatural, there’s this sort of unnatural relationship to, well, we’re sort of denatured selves, right? We don’t, we’re not at home in the world anymore. There’s no structure to our lives. We don’t know how to get along with one another. We don’t have real relationships. And this is because of sort of the two big undergirding principles of liberalism, there’s this argument, right? Which is individual, this individualism, individual freedom, and the sort of anti-natural anti-cultural relationship to nature. So he just sort of spins this whole thing out of that.
Laura Field: He isn’t very clear ever about the criteria. He never does what you just did. Right. And says, well, this is what I’m judging it by. Human flourishing longevity. How do people say they’re doing. He will often appeal to social science and like public polling and stuff about, Oh, nobody’s satisfied. Everyone hates government. People are cynical, but he doesn’t link to the studies. First of all, I think that kind of research is really valuable. I’m not against that but you really have to, you know, why are people more dissatisfied now than they were 5 or 10 or 20 years ago? There’s a lot to unpack when you’re appealing to that kind of thing. So he appeals to social science to make his sort of just sweeping contemptuous portrait of liberal democracy.
Laura Field: But he’s never clear about what the standard against which he’s judging this failure. So I think he’s actually appealing to sort of this standard from like the 1950s, right. Like compared to when you had sort of a typical white picket fence, white communities, what he’s looking at and that, or there’s also places where it’s like very medieval, like you just, frankly, I think really wants to live in some sort of medieval Catholic feudal commute village or something. I mean, I don’t know what to say about it.
Will Wilkinson: When I read it. I mean, it’s like the thing that’s interesting to me and the thing that puzzles me a little bit about why liberalism failed was such a sensation is that, to me, it feels like a rehash of every argument against liberalism ever. Like going back to 18th, 19th century, you know, German romantics who are criticizing an enlightenment conception of reason, a notion of individual rights as fundamentally antisocial as unmoored from the thick culture that infuses our lives with meaning that’s the argument against liberalism always, right? Like you get it in Nietzsche you get it in Heidegger, you get it in the communitarians of the 1980s like that’s the era that I started doing political philosophy. And there’s a big argument against communitarianism versus liberalism. It’s exactly the same stuff.
Will Wilkinson: And so what it just is it’s a kind of view of solidaristic rooted collectivism versus a very familiar view of liberal, democratic individualists, diversity, pluralism, all of that stuff. And the argument is that there’s just like some sort of profound, deep problem in the way we live and the assumptions of liberalism, but what I never hear, what I never feel like I get is what is the evidence that there’s a problem. Like it just tends to be asserted. And what the problem just is is that there is this romantic idea of a life that’s full and embedded and deeply attached that we don’t have. And they’re so attracted to that, that they think it’s a giant problem that we don’t have it.
Laura Field: Yeah. There’s a deep sort of yearning for that, you know, supposed community of deep ties and roots and sort of folkloric. And I think there’s a deep spiritual thing going on here too, which isn’t upfront and center in his work. I mean, he doesn’t write this as a Catholic, but I think you can feel that. And I can kind of get some of that. That seems to be very tangible. And it’s sort of a question of whether you share that yearning or that belief that, that existed in a way that is worth yearning for ever historically. It’s one of the questions I have. And I sort of am a latecomer to a love of liberal democracy. I think liberal democracy is kind of hard to fall in love with, or I think there’s like a vulnerability there. There’s a very, it’s got some real vulnerabilities as a sort of philosophy, a political philosophy.
Will Wilkinson: I mean, that is one of its vulnerabilities. That it’s not lovable. It’s the same vulnerability that market orders have. They’re abstract, the principles by which they distribute goods are completely detached from merit. They depend too much on luck. They’re like, you know, there’s all these problems that the system that actually does seem to work best is not intuitive. And it doesn’t map cleanly on to our sort of visceral moral instincts. And that always makes it fragile because any time it’s not working as well it might people see.
Laura Field: Yeah. And I mean, I think to give them some credit and to kind of, you know, I think Deneen’s book is not really worth like teaching to students, but I certainly think like Russo or Nietzsche and like, Marx right. These critics of modernity are very, they have some really important things to say about sort of the spiritual state of people in liberal democracies of some kind or another. And so I think someone like Deneen, I think there is a sort of emphasis on technology or a way of looking at sort of materialism and the universities.
Laura Field: And if you kind of look at it sideways, I think there’s something there that is really worth thinking about, right? Like there is sort of the problem in our culture of shallowness and consumerism. I mean, there’s, those are massive problems. And I think they lead to impoverished lives sometimes, but I’m with you. I mean, I think I’m a fan now.
Laura Field: I mean, completely sold on liberal democratic systems. I think it still needs a ton of work. You know, there’s a lot to be done. There’s tons of work and there’s a lot of potential that hasn’t been explored cultural potential, right. In liberal in sort of constitutional democracies that I think Deneen can help us see, right. The sort of need possibly for richer community lives and that kind of thing. But he just, I mean, I hate to say it, he throws the baby out with the bath water, right. He just.
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Laura Field: I hate to say, he throws the baby out with the bath water. He’s not clear about what parts of the law he would keep or human rights regimes or anything. So I really have a hard time seeing where he stands as a political thinker at the end of this.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Some of our listeners might remember this sort of heated debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. And Ahmari is just incredibly reactionary, conservative Catholic and …
Laura Field: I want to make a quick joke at his expense. I’ve got my three circles of the different kinds of … I think he’s the only guy that fits in the middle and just sort of encompasses all three.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. He’s both got that highfalutin kind of get like Catholic Scholastic side and also like an alt-right troll all at the same time. It was still like this argument between him and David French. David French is a very, just principled consistent what you’d call a fusionist conservative, classical, liberal. He’s very culturally, socially conservative, but is an ardent defender of a notion of liberal rights as the structure that creates the space for the freedom to exercise your religious conscience and stuff like that so he’s …
Laura Field: He’s quite admirable in that sense. I mean, you can just sort of feel how deeply he believes in that and on behalf of everybody, even if I disagree with him although I’m sure around social questions across the board, but …
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And David French is a good example of how he’s completely an authentic liberal in the broad sense that what liberalism is for, it’s a structure for the accommodation of diversity and plurality that leads to fundamental political disagreement. Like disagreement is intractable, people are going to disagree about what kind of life is best, what the rules ought to be, how we ought to live, what gives meaning to life. There’s no way you’re going to get people to agree about that. And people are going to bitterly believe that other people are undermining the conditions for good lives, from the perspective of other philosophies. And so diversity and plurality inclines toward a kind of civil war. And that is the roots of the liberal tradition is the wars of religion in Europe in the 1500s-1600s. And at some point you have to call a truce and say, we’re just going to decide to get along with each other. And we’re going to create a bunch of rules that create a structure where we can live according to our conscience, but we can’t impose our …
Laura Field: Particulars. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Like our rich substantive view of the good on others whose conscience does not independently endorse it. Right?
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: And so that’s liberalism, right? It inherently endorses pluralism. You don’t have to like pluralism, you might be an intensely religious person who thinks that everybody who doesn’t agree with you is going to burn in hell and that their influence in the culture is malignant and dangerous, and they’re leading people astray. But you still might believe that there’s no way we can all live together without the kind of guardrails of liberal rights so you’re going to have to give these people the freedom to worship their own gods, to not have gods, to believe things that are wrong. So liberals are pluralist, no matter what, even if they don’t love pluralism. And to be anti-liberal is in a way is just to say that pluralism sucks. Right? [crosstalk 00:03:49].
Laura Field: Well, I think these guys would all agree that the cost has become too high for them. The cost of pluralism and the sort of the paganism or atheism, and decadence of the culture at large has become such that it is destroying their local cultures or their capacity to live their lifestyle, to actually have that thick life that they want is being hurt by the broader culture. And I think there’s probably truth in that if we’re honest with ourselves, right?
Will Wilkinson: There’s absolutely truth in that. And so that’s the trade-off. So it is true that in a sort of authoritarian, monoculture that enforces a particular religion, enforces a particular vision of the right and the good; that you can live a kind of life that you can’t live if everybody isn’t forced to participate in that lifestyle, isn’t coerced into acceding to its terms and its rules. There is some loss, if you just say, okay, people get to decide how they’re going to live, because then obviously you can’t have that …
Laura Field: Yeah. There is a major conflict there.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So it’s not wrong that liberalism takes options off the table that it doesn’t … That’s always one of the complaints about liberalism is that it’s hypocritical. That it says that it’s open to diversity, that it affirms pluralism, but it is constantly ruling certain conceptions of the good out of bounds because they’re inconsistent with letting other people live their lives. So, and that’s completely right. It is, inconsistent, but like …
Laura Field: No. I don’t think it’s inconsistent. I think it does have a kind of standard the basic line. I mean, there are rules that it imposes. There are sort of some clear limits to the kinds of lives that you can live and impose on others. And so it’s not open to everything I think it’s not wildly pluralistic. It’s there are real limits to its pluralism …
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. liberalism is not open to religious dictatorship.
Laura Field: Well, I think the serious question that I think when I’m trying to get in their heads, I’m trying to grapple with is I think a fully liberal society really does threaten even other authoritarian impulses within a smaller sort of enclave community. So it doesn’t have to be a fully authoritarian little regime. Say there’s a little Benedict option community somewhere. This idea of a religious community within a liberal society that has sort of retreated into itself to live a sort of truer, thicker religious life and … Think of the Amish. Right? I think that within those communities, there can be norms and sort of teachings and rules that are pretty authoritarian, but they can exist within a liberal culture. But then I think if the outside culture gets more and more sort of freewheeling and liberal-like. Right?
Will Wilkinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Laura Field: Though even those rules start to look really dangerous to the people outside those communities. And sort of this comes up in some of the cases about conversion therapy, right?
Will Wilkinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Laura Field: And whether institutions that can have public funding that support any kind of conversion therapy, religious sort of adoption by homosexuals of children, those kinds of things they’re public. So there are these hard cases. And I think there are these clashes and it comes to a point where from their perspective, they really are not able to sort of live the teachings of their belief system in their communities and they really aren’t. And I think it’s true that they’re not. And I think there’s something about Ahmari, I kind of respect because he’s just so honest about this stuff …
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. He’s very frank about it … [crosstalk 00:32:43].
Laura Field: Even though I was just like, and I think he’s right …
Will Wilkinson: I’m sorry, we’re going to have to impose religious authoritarianism on you because you’re living the wrong way. I like it when somebody just comes right out and says that.
Laura Field: And I think sometimes, at some point we have to say, no, you don’t get to do that. And our laws are the way of the future. And we don’t think it’s right, that you have conversion therapy and we’re not going to allow, we’re not going to have public institutions where that’s the norm like we are … Honestly, I don’t know these are really hard things and I don’t know what I think about it, but at some point there’s a clash there and we fight the fight. Right?
Will Wilkinson: Well, you’ve identified part of the reason why there’s this animosity not only toward liberalism, but in particular liberal democracy, because these disagreements are intractable. You can’t get rid of them. You just have to decide the question and come to a settlement. And we do that democratically. And so people are going to fundamentally disagree about certain basic facts about human nature. Things like the dispute between people who think conversion therapy is a good idea because homosexuality is fundamentally disordered on the one hand. And then on the other hand, people who think that gender identity is more or less detached from your biological sex. And that if a kid identifies as a girl, even if they’re biologically male or a boy, if they’re biologically female, that they ought to be allowed to do that. And even given hormones as a teenager. Like you see those sides completely rage against each other because they have fundamentally incompatible views of human nature.
Laura Field: Yeah. About things that everybody cares deeply about. It’s not just like … These are questions that everyone cares deeply about.
Will Wilkinson: It’s interesting that these things that are so hot are things that are like about gender identity, about sexual orientation. Because there is something fundamental and deep about the relationship between sexes and the reproduction of a society. Right?
Laura Field: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Will Wilkinson: They are sort of elemental basic questions, but there’s no way you’re going to just going to work it out. That argument, isn’t something that you just resolve by arguing, it’s something that you resolve by voting. Like that’s the only way out, right?
Laura Field: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Will Wilkinson: Like that’s why we have democracies is that those fights are so severe that if you can’t channel them through a mechanism that just makes a decision and says, everybody has to live with it, then people are just going to go to war. Right?
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: And that’s what we’re trying to avoid. That people like Ahmari get fed up with democracy when the culture gets to a position where the democratic decision is going to disallow conversion therapy.
Laura Field: Yeah. That’s why he’s frustrated right now.
Will Wilkinson: Right. That’s when democracy seems tyrannical because it’s taking one view of how to live a life. What a human is, what a good life is off the table in a way. And I see how somebody could think that’s tyrannical, but I always want to back up and be like, what is the alternative to that? And he understands that the alternative to it is war. And he just wants to fight the war and win. It’s a coherent position, but it’s incredibly dangerous.
Laura Field: And he’s going to fight this war using the institutions as much as he can and who knows where it will lead. And that’s, I think true of most of these people, they’re fighting different wars, but they’re going to … I mean that’s what I can’t figure out, I don’t know how far they’re willing to go, but they’ve gone along with Trump. So I think that’s what we’re left with. So I think that’s the question now. Where do these guys go? Can they become a coherent group and sort of leverage the different dynamics on the right right now, and then sort of get behind a candidate who’s willing to go pretty far with them? Or how far could they get someone like Rubio to go or Tucker Carlson, I guess. I think he’s the sort of most dangerous possibility.
Will Wilkinson: Do you think Tucker Carlson is going to run for president?
Laura Field: No, I just sort of hear it floated. I have no idea.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah.
Laura Field: Do you?
Will Wilkinson: I don’t know. I don’t have any information, but just my instinct is that the guy has designs on power. And he, I think he would be a very very effective demagogue. He is a very effective demagogue that’s why he has the top rated show on cable television. But the thing is I’m not sure the extent to which … In here I think there’s almost always this breakdown and it’s sort of a release valve or something that protects us, which is that political ambition is intense and people will do anything to get power. But what they’re really interested in is having power, not enforcing somebody’s vision of the good.
Will Wilkinson: So people like Tucker Carlson, or if you think Marco Rubio is just like really ambitious. If they think they can ride a set of ideas to power, they’ll adopt them and promote them. But it’s a ladder they’ll climb up and throw away. As soon as they get into power, then they’ll just do whatever they need to do to stay in power. And if actually pushing forward, the agenda that they ran on, ends up being counterproductive for them, they’ll just drop it. That’s always frustrating for everyone. Like, it doesn’t matter what your politics are. People with political ambition just don’t care as much as you do about the agenda.
Laura Field: They’re not Zealots in the same way that some of these other people that we’re talking about are. And if they were, they probably wouldn’t be running for office. You know what I mean?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah.
Laura Field: Like Patrick Deneen even Bill Barr doesn’t want to be president.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Because it’s difficult. I mean, if you have a really deep principled, philosophical view of the way people ought to live their lives, you’re going to be a lousy politician because you’re just not going to be able to constantly shift with the wind.
Laura Field: And coerce them. That takes a ton of force too.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So you have to be willing to just give something up at a moment’s notice if it’s not pulling well. You need to be able to reverse course. You have to have a kind of pliability malleability that dogmatists just don’t have. Don’t go down with the ship every time. That’s what makes them dogmatists.
Laura Field: I think that’s true. I think we have to be pretty careful though. Just in terms of some of what they would do to people who are especially vulnerable.
Will Wilkinson: Well, absolutely. The thing that’s super dangerous about people with a comprehensive illiberal view of the good that they think not only is permissible, but obligatory to impose on everyone else is that those people almost always adopt and justifies the means sort of ethos, where you’ll do any … And this is one of the reasons why, as a lot of people point out that authoritarian or fascist regimes are always just up to the gills with bad faith. That hypocrisy, isn’t something that you worry about. If you are trying to get power, you just live with it. Mitch McConnell, doesn’t worry about hypocrisy. He thinks hypocrisy is something to keep people interested in so that he can leverage it against other people. But he’s never going to let anybody leverage it against him because he doesn’t care. And so really good zealous authoritarians don’t care. And so they’ll lie to you and then you call out the lie. They’ll just say, I didn’t lie. You’re lying about the fact that I lied.
Laura Field: Right. I mean, you’re saying they don’t have any sort of intellectual integrity to begin with, but the dogmatists does.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I might be contradicting myself because there’s a certain kind of true believer who can’t help themselves and has to say what they think. But that person isn’t that dangerous because they immediately reveal themselves. They always show their hand. The dangerous kind of dogmatist is the person who thinks their dogma is so important that you ought to be able to willing to do anything, including lying about … If saying what you really think is going to get in the way of taking power, then you shouldn’t say what you really think you should just get power and then do what you think ought to be done.
Laura Field: I think I do see some of that in the more serious intellectuals here. Some of that real caginess and unwillingness to openly say what they believe, because they are actually interested in getting the power. And I think that’s true of like Adrian Vermeule, but it’s kind of a wilderness because in some ways he’s very forthright, but and same with Deneen, there’s quite forthright, but then there’s a certain sort of place where they are very cagey. And I think they’re sort of talking out of both sides of their mouth and that’s what I find most worrisome. I do. I mean, that’s my impression. Do you know what I mean?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. That’s why I find … To me, one of the most concerning and chilling figures in American public life is Bill Barr. The guy’s, the attorney general of the United States and that speech he gave, was it at Notre Dame?
Laura Field: Well, there were two speeches in the same period that were pretty chilling. There was one at Notre Dame and one at one of the Federalist society.
Will Wilkinson: Do you want to relate basically what he was saying?
Laura Field: There’s the one about that, where he talks about the left and they’re sort of being on a Holy mission and how progressives are always, I mean this major projection onto the left. That the left is always trying to transform society and seek these ideals in this dogmatic ideological way. And so they’re sort of a constant threat to any given society. Is that the passage you’re thinking about?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Let me find it because I want to read a bit of it because it’s just a really crazy thing for a city. And he’s attorney general when he said it.
Laura Field: I’ve got a bit here. Well, I think so, “In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursuing a deific end. They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications. They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides.” And then he goes on to talk about how conservatives are not like this. They they’re sort of grounded. They don’t seek an earthly paradise. They have these ho-hum pragmatic ideas about politics, unlike the sort of radicals.
Will Wilkinson: That’s why that passage was coming to mind because the claims that he’s making about progressives are exactly what I worry about with this kind of religious conservative, where they do have a certain kind of vision of perfection and they seem to be willing to do whatever it takes. And that kind of projection of your own ethos onto your rivals is just such a characteristic element of authoritarian and fascist thought that you always accuse your opponents of whatever it is that you’re going to do. And that’s what it felt like to me, but …
Laura Field: And it feels like that’s a big part of the discourse, like [inaudible 00:44:56] of the right, they’re constantly saying all these really crazy things about the left. And they’re actually doing it. They’re trying to do this stuff right now, like ferment violence. They accused the left of being racist against whites. And they take the anti-racism movement and project racism onto it, and it just goes on and on. And it’s sort of part of the whole false equivalency that I think it’s so much part of, or at least they’re leveraging some of that really effectively.
Will Wilkinson: Exactly. I agree completely with that. The thing that’s discomforting about Barr’s statement beyond whatever suspicion you have of him, projecting his own authoritarian designs on the progressive left is that independent of all that he is as the attorney general of the United States, essentially saying that the majority faction of the American political system is so antithetical to the conditions for liberty, as he sees them, that they cannot be allowed to have power. But that’s what it sounds like he’s saying.
Laura Field: No, it’s completely antithetical to what you need to have a constitutional democracy. Where you need to have to, you have to have legitimate opposition that goes back and forth and you have to treat them as legitimate opponents, not enemies. And so by saying that, he basically said that the liberals and the left they’re a permanent faction. If you think about what faction originally meant. They do not have the interest of the country at heart. They are operating for their own power and designs, which is just like the most de-legitimating thing you could say about your opponent. So it continues to just shock me every time I look at that passage, because it’s the attorney general saying that the opposition is illegitimate and always is and always will be. I mean, it’s a complete … I don’t know if he understands that. I think the guy just is habituated to talk that way, frankly.
Will Wilkinson: That something that I’m always puzzled by the extent to which it’s sincere or not. I just can’t tell. The obvious thing … What I assume about people I disagree with in a liberal democratic system is that they have beliefs and interests that they want to see represented and protected through the political system. That the system is representative that different parties represent different interests, different groups of people. And there are different factions within the parties that represent different groups, different interests. And like in a big parliamentary multi-party democracy, you’ve got a bunch of different parties that sort of more closely target these various identity and interest groups in a system like ours, the way it’s designed, you’re always going to just get two parties. So they have to encompass a pretty wide range and, or at least one of the parties encompasses a fairly wide range.
Will Wilkinson: And what he’s implicitly saying is that like the democratic party is not there to represent the interests of the people who vote for it in elections, urban white professionals, black voters, Hispanics, right?
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: That somehow it’s a conspiracy …
Laura Field: It’s all a conspiracy.
Will Wilkinson: … to impose a radical conception of liberal equality on everyone. And it’s just so fundamentally not what it is. Since, I became a Democrat in 2015, while those primaries were going on, I’ve become more interested and active in democratic politics. And internal democratic politics are just always just a giant [inaudible 00:24:13]. And if you think they have anything to do with some coherent ideological agenda, you’re just crazy. There are definitely … it’s so much less. I spent most of my life vaguely on the right, as a certain kind of libertarian. The American left is not even a fraction as ideological as the right. I mean, I’ve lived with Federalist society people. People who’ve clerked for the chief justice. Worked at the Cato Institute, been around Republicans forever. It’s just so much more of an ideology.
Laura Field: Yeah. No, and I think that’s a real weakness of the Democrats in a way. Not like … I mean, a practic or like a political weakness. That they don’t have an ideological pro …
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:50:04]
Laura Field: Political weakness, right? That they are not… They don’t have an ideological program that they’ve been working on for two decades that is very articulated and coherent and can fight a good fight. I think even when you come down to these really fundamental clashes that we talked about earlier… I think liberals just go along thinking… They’re just not good at arguing. I think you say we have to go out and vote, and I agree with you, but I do think that we need to get better at making arguments, and making them candidly and honestly, but I’m not sure whether that’s just playing with fire or whether… And I think it’s happening more and more now. I think that people see some of those weaknesses and are doing some of that work.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Part of it is that there’s just not as much agreement among Democrats as are Republicans.
Laura Field: That’s true.
Will Wilkinson: The Republican Party is just much more homogeneous. It is a party of non-urban White Christians very dominantly. So they share an ethos, and it is a bit of a coalition between the non-urban White hoi polloi and corporate interests that are still an important part of the Republican Party, which has very consistently over the years exploited right-wing ideology to get tax cuts. They don’t care about culture war stuff. The CEO of Chase isn’t really that interested in whether teenagers are undergoing gender reassignment surgery, but if that gets the base all hopped-up so that they get a tax cut. Great.
Will Wilkinson: So there’s a lot of uniformity, just ideologically, intellectually, culturally on the right. The left is just like a complete hodgepodge and it’s always a disaster. Like the party is dominated by people like you and me, which are highly-educated, urban White people who are the most ideologically progressive people in the culture, more or less, as a group. But they’re out of step with their own party. They just run it.
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: African-American voters, Hispanic voters are… just like white voters, run the gamut from conservative to liberal in their inclinations and dispositions. So it’s just a very ethnically diverse party. It’s a very dispositionally diverse party. And it’s hard to create a doctrine that binds all of those people together. The doctrine that does bind them together, in my opinion is, just a very simple and vague conception of basic equality. That’s it. That’s why non-white voters overwhelmingly prefer Democrats. That’s why-
Laura Field: Women.
Will Wilkinson: … Republicans have been losing a number of women voters. It’s that… This is just the party that says, “everybody actually ought to be equal under the law. Discrimination, officially and in the marketplace isn’t okay. And we have a history of oppression along the lines of gender and race that we ought to try to rectify.” I think that’s really just the basic common theme which has just bundled with… The modern liberal democratic social insurance state is a good idea. Beyond those two things, I don’t think there’s really anything to it.
Laura Field: No I don’t, but I think there could be a little more to it. Right? Like they could learn to tap into some of the concerns or just the ways in which Republican… I think Pete Buttigieg… he kind of flopped as a candidate, I thought, but when he was running for the DNC, I thought he was pretty good at articulating some of those things. And just have more full-throated defense of a vision of freedom and opportunity and justice and family, right? I’m not advocating actually, Pete, honestly, like I just think that he had some good ideas about how to speak about these things and about our values in ways that could be more robust. And I think that… I’m completely in agreement with you about what the Democratic Party… how it is, and how it functions and its leadership and stuff. Which I don’t have a very good grasp of it. And I do think it’s out of touch, but I don’t think it needs to be. I think they can just be… think they could be far more direct. Biden has been pretty good on some of this stuff too, and…
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, but you see that it’s not ideological. Like that-
Laura Field: No, I don’t mean… but I mean it could be more… I don’t mean that they need an ideology, except for just to be more forthright about what they believe.
Will Wilkinson: Here I am wearing my Biden-Harris T-shirt-
Laura Field: Yeah, it’s great.
Will Wilkinson: … People can’t see that. Yeah, but I just don’t think… It’s funny, Trump is the least ideological Republican presidential candidate in my lifetime, really or at least in my lifetime that I can remember. I don’t think Gerald Ford was very ideological, but since Reagan, the Republican Party has been… a certain ideological conservatism has been the backbone of the party. The Democratic Party isn’t like that.
Will Wilkinson: During the last primary, the most coherent and ideological candidates were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who are both identified with the left. And Bernie has a real ideology. It’s just a pretty mundane, normal social… Democratic socialist view. It’s basically one of the main political views in Europe. It’s just not something that’s ever been a big option in the US, and Elizabeth Warren is something a little bit different. I’ve written about her. I actually see her as a kind of really principled small “r” Republican.
Laura Field: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Will Wilkinson: And I think that is where the ideological future of the Democratic Party is, is a more articulated Republican vision. I think that the small “l” liberalism as a creed has become a little bit exhausted.
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: There’s not like there’s anything wrong with it. I’m a liberal. I believe in liberal rights. I believe… I’m a pretty across the board liberal, but what it isn’t is… It’s not a fighting creed, right? Like it doesn’t have… You could be… To the extent that any type of liberal is aggravated about things. It is like libertarians who are worried that the state’s stomping all over them. But what I think that they’re really worried about is less what they think of as liberty as non-interference. The state getting out of our way.
Will Wilkinson: I think people really do worry about liberty as non-domination as the Republicans say.
Laura Field: Yeah, no, I’m with you there. Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: And that’s why… because it seems puzzling when you hear classical liberals and libertarians who explicitly promulgate a view of liberty as non-coercion or non-interference, to complain incessantly about how authoritarian it is that Twitter has terms of service, right? Or just that private organizations exercising their freedom of association can impose rules. And the reason they’re aggravated about it is because they actually don’t agree with themselves. They don’t actually think that freedom means nobody officially coercing you. What freedom really feels like is that nobody is dominating you. That you’re not at the mercy-
Laura Field: Mercy of a particular-
Will Wilkinson: … of the will of others.
Laura Field: Yeah, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: And I really do think-
Laura Field: … An arbitrary will of others, right? Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Exactly. And I’ve come to think that, that really is the more intuitive conception of freedom. That’s what people care about. And that’s why it’s just, I think inauthentic to see a lot of the things that the liberal democratic welfare state does as antithetical to freedom. Stuff like social insurance is just pretty clearly freedom enhancing in the sense that it puts you in a position where you’re less at the mercy of the arbitrary will of other people.
Laura Field: I guess the question for you then is on the political side of things. What does that mean tangibly for Democratic politicians? Because, I don’t know… I think that’s how we’re living as Democrats and it’s a matter of articulating that differently and defending it differently. I guess, what does that mean for you in terms of a candidate talking to or appealing to the electorate to talk about this small “r” Republican with them? Is it just a general version of it, or more-
Will Wilkinson: I think Americans like freedom. They like freedom in… at least in principle, and that’s the rhetoric that resonates with us mostly. I think the Democratic Party is held together by a conception, more of freedom-
Laura Field: Equality.
Will Wilkinson: … equality. But it is a conception of equality that really is about a republican vision of freedom, right? Like racial hierarchy, gender hierarchy are views that are pro-domination, right? And the-
Laura Field: And that’s where we really can pit ourselves against the right.
Will Wilkinson: Right. That’s what… I see the future as being very clear about who’s dominating whom, and our right to not have those people on our back, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about… I’ve got a long-term project on how people feel dominated today, right? The obvious things are… Clearly there’s still… Police brutality is obvious, right? Urban Black populations who are subject to vast-
Laura Field: Well, yeah-
Will Wilkinson: … disproportionate amounts of police violence are dominated in an obvious way. The stuff that ICE and the Border Patrol does is dominating in an obvious way. But I think there’s a lot of non-obvious forms of domination that are underneath populist efflorescence. And I think some of it is like stuff that’s in… I don’t know if you know, Don Moynihan and Pamela Herd’s book called Administrative Burden. It’s basically… I feel like we feel like under the thumb of the HR department and bureaucracy. We have to fill out so much paperwork. We have to wait so long for things. Everybody makes everything so complicated. It takes so long to do your taxes. If you want to apply to get food stamps, they make it just an absolute nightmare for you. And I feel like those are things that really feel like a dominating imposition on your life.
Laura Field: That seems like a pretty… That all seems fair, but it doesn’t… What about the other structures that are not actively dominating, but are preventing a kind of equal… I guess, equal opportunities is how I would put it, right? Or economic systems. They don’t look like oppression, right? But they’re preventing… they’re forcing people into certain kinds of jobs or certain kinds of gig, work or non-employment or underemployment.
Will Wilkinson: And that’s exactly why I… I think that’s very… That kind of thinking is very strong in the Democratic Party as part of its history of unionism. That when you’ve got real relationships of asymmetric power in the economy. That the people with more power get to call the shots, and the people with little power just have to accept the terms that they’re given. And that ends up being exploitative, and that’s a form of domination, and that justice and freedom require pushing back against that. So people have the discretion to say no to exploitative of terms of employment, to things like that. But I think they could be more articulate about that. What the Democratic Party is, is just, it’s just conservative about its legacy coalitions. It’s conservative about unions. And so it’s very thoughtless about the ways in which people feel hassled and stymied by the obstructionism of teachers’ unions, for instance, because they just think of the union movement as good.
Will Wilkinson: And the good part of it has mostly been obliterated, which is just collective bargaining in the private sector that makes sure that the working class gets a fair cut of the economic surplus, right? That’s the kind of thing you want. You don’t want to be really just empowering a bureaucracy, like the educational bureaucracy to stymie any change that citizens want, but that’s how they end up. They end up in this incoherent position where they’re in principle for… in favor of equalizing power so that people aren’t dominated by large institutions and economic interests, but defacto, they’re reinforcing the power of some of those dominating interests. And so they just don’t have a coherent-
Laura Field: So you’re essentially saying that there’s just better… there are better programs and policies to ensure non-domination than some of the traditional ones. And the Democrats should reframe their ambitions in those kinds of terms.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I guess, I guess so. But now you’re interviewing me Laura-
Laura Field: [crosstalk 01:03:32] I’m sorry, We’ve gotten in a big, big tangent.
Will Wilkinson: This is very sneaky. So-
Laura Field: It gets to liberalism, I guess, and whether it has a future, right?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, Yeah. So I wanted to circle back to some of the stuff that… The [inaudible 01:03:45] as you call them. Think a lot of it… all of these arguments come back fundamentally to some picture of human nature, as you were saying, the objection is that liberal culture somehow obliterates some objective needs that are inherent in our nature as human beings. And that it’s at war with the natural order, is that right?
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Is that a good way to characterize it?
Laura Field: Yeah, I think so.
Will Wilkinson: And I’m just wondering where they think that view of nature comes from… You were trained by Straussians weren’t you? In political theory?
Laura Field: We’ll come to that.
Will Wilkinson: No, I know. I’m just asking.
Laura Field: Yeah, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Because it reminds me of a stock, Straussian talking point that… It’s not just Straussian. It’s just a 20th-century German view that there is an inherent problem in modernity. That somehow we forgot something fundamental about what human nature is, and we became alienated from nature in a way. That there’s some… this great forgetting. It’s really clear on Heidegger, I think.
Laura Field: Yeah, yeah. Heidegger especially.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And that we don’t even know how to think about how to live because what is really real about human reality has been occluded by the categories of modernity, and that we have to find a new language to understand the way we slot into existence, in the way that’s going to infuse our lives with the sense of being at home and belonging.
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: But why do people think they know anything about that? It just seems completely arbitrary to me.
Laura Field: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know if I’d agree, “it seems completely arbitrary.” I think it’s a really… I agree with you on some levels. It’s an outrageous claim historically to say that we’ve lost… to just decide that people now are out of touch with everything and don’t understand what it means to be human. On some level… Like Deneen talks about or will tweet about how people don’t think about death, right? And they’re disconnected from our mortal nature. This has been a big line of these guys throughout the pandemic. That we’re so out of touch with death that we’re obsessed with staying alive. It doesn’t… It’s not coherent, this view. And I just puzzle over this constantly. I’m like, “well, people still do die. We often know people who die. We have grandparents, parents who die.” We’re constantly… Even in decadent, liberal, modern society, it’s still… I think it’s pretty hard to get through much of life without being aware of death. And so I puzzle over where they get this stuff, right? What universe are they living in?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. How would you know that people have changed their minds about-
Laura Field: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: … whether our being toward death has fundamentally changed? My mother died when I was 16-
Laura Field: My father died when I was 14. There we go.
Will Wilkinson: My life has been shaped by the death of people close to me. I think about it constantly.
Laura Field: Me too. Maybe we are outliers?
Will Wilkinson: I think about my children dying. I about my-
Laura Field: Any parent is just obsessed with that question, it seems to me. And I think it’s a tell because I think on the one hand, they want to believe that human nature is consistent, right? That there’s something deeply natural transcendent about nature, right? And about being and existence and all sorts of things, right? And then they… On the other hand, think it’s possible for us to be so denaturalized that we have no access to anything real as human beings. So I think there’s a big contradiction there.
Will Wilkinson: Well, I think that’s the source of the frustration where scholars like Deneen, won’t tell you the standard that they’re measuring against, and they have a slight… a kind of internally consistent argument for not having a standard because the deeper argument really is that there’s something we used to know and we’ve forgotten what it is and we need to get back to it. But the problem is exactly that we can’t say what it is because we’ve-
Laura Field: We don’t know.
Will Wilkinson: … it’s so irretrievably lost. And then that raises paradoxes, “how do you know that there was something that we lost if you can’t say what it was that you lost?”
Laura Field: We all want it. So it’s compelling, I think. We don’t like to know.
Will Wilkinson: I think it is compelling, and I think there’s something really deep about this longing for meaning… strangely, right? Reading some of your essays… Reading your essays on Deneen and others, I started thinking about my favorite novel which is Moby Dick and… which I think is like about this, that, you know, like the whale.
Laura Field: Oh, it’s frankly formerly my favorite novel too because I’ve always been obsessed with whales. I’m not just saying this… With whales and then Plato. And then you kind of get the stuff together and it’s the most beautiful thing.
Will Wilkinson: What’s the connection between whales and Plato?
Laura Field: Well there is a lot… Well there’s… Well, the book is… I’m just making a joke, but the book is… There’s a lot of Platonism in Moby Dick.
Will Wilkinson: Oh yeah.
Laura Field: Yeah, Right? And so… And then it’s about whales. So I’m just… as a kid, I loved whales. And then as I was growing up, I really liked Plato. So I love that novel, is my point.
Will Wilkinson: Because my reading of it is, to Ahab. The whale is a symbol of the utter blank meaninglessness at the heart of existence. And he’s been injured by that. And that he thinks that if he can destroy meaninglessness, that he will… there’s something… that somehow meaningfulness will supervene, but that’s not how it works. All you do is sink the ship, right? And I feel like this… what it’s telling us is longing for meaning, which is like, “what is it? What is it that we’re longing for?” But we want it so badly and what that leads us to is a war against meaninglessness, right? So we look for all the sources of meaninglessness and try to destroy them-
Laura Field: I see, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: … All the sources of enemy, estrangement, alienation and stuff, but destroying that stuff doesn’t-
Laura Field: Doesn’t bring [crosstalk 00:20:27]… yeah.
Will Wilkinson: … a sense of fullness-
Laura Field: Yeah. It’s nihilism. I think it’s… there’s a sense in which that the deep longing and… I think of this in Nietzschean terms, so there’s a deep longing and idealism, right? That you can… I think it’s part of human nature, right? Or at least it’s part of our culture in the so-called West since Plato, right? We’re just reaching for these truths and these ideal, eternal or transcendent meaning. And then when you start to see that crumble or you see that it’s not real, then you become so disillusioned that you lash out against the real, right? Or you lash out against this world, is how Nietzsche puts it in. You have this major chip on your shoulder about existence. And Nietzsche says this is the challenge of the next millennia, right?
Laura Field: You’ve got to work through that stuff. You got to deal with it, right? Because otherwise you’re just going to destroy everything and it turns into this… and for nothing, right? You’re destroying it because of a sense of resentment against your own disappointment. And instead… So, that’s silly. But I do see that’s what’s going on with some of these people. And I think it’s what’s going on with the wackos on the right online and stuff. They’re just… They’re so disappointed in the mundane realities.
Will Wilkinson: It’s not enough.
Laura Field: I don’t think it has to be… I’m not there, right? And I don’t think Nietzsche was, and I think there’s plenty to celebrate and enjoy and create in the world. But I’m just such a liberal about these things at this point. But there’s so much to do in the world and there’s so much to get joy from. They are so disappointed that they can’t have the romantic village, I don’t know, singsong life and patriarchy that they wanted.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. You’ve mentioned in one of your pieces on Deneen that… because one of the ironies of these arguments from conservatives is that the people that they’re most indignant about, which is like urban white professionals are objectively the healthiest group of people in the culture, on their own terms. They’re most likely to stay married. They’re more likely to get more education. They make more money. They… Just all these signs of just healthy families and flourishing. And that’s really annoying. If it’s people who you think are snots, who are looking down on you with their fancy lattes or whatever, are actually the people doing best in the culture. Then you’re like, “what do you say to that?” Right? You just have to say that, “well, there’s got to be something other than this.” And then you just get back-
Laura Field: Then you try to tear it down.
Will Wilkinson: … You just get back to the point that it’s like, “there’s got to be something else that’s better.” And if you push them like, “what is it exactly,” either they won’t tell you or they’ll be like, “just read this encyclical by Pope-“
Laura Field: Not the current pope.
Will Wilkinson: “… Aloysius, the second,” or whatever it is. And that feels so desperate and grasping, that there’s this hope of finding something else. And to me, the ironic thing is what you’re getting from a lot of these thinkers and the people who are really enlivened by them is… You’re getting a confession of their own alienation and estrangement from their culture. And it’s like one of those people who’s in… one relationship after another just goes bad and they keep thinking, it’s the other person, but the only common denominator is them.
Laura Field: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Will Wilkinson: Right? It feels like that to me. That there’s something they’re struggling with, and they don’t know how to process it. So they have to externalize the problem.
Laura Field: I completely agree with you, but I also think there’s something… I feel like I happened into a pretty lucky life, right? Where I got to study all this literature and find things I love, and I love things that… ideas I like… I got exposed to all kinds of works of art. And then… And I’ve been… And that curiosity and radical questioning. That’s really given sustenance to my life, right? If I’m being very honest. And so, I’m a fan of canonical studies. And I think a lot… the liberals I know and my friend and stuff. They have stuff that gives their lives, meaning too.
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Laura Field: … and my friends said stuff. They have stuff that gives their lives meaning too. But I don’t think that’s just easy for people to come by. So these guys have some of that through their… Obviously many of them Catholicism or the Claremont guys, they love their Cicero or whatever. But that’s real. They are longing for that. There’s a good natured appeal. They want that for more people. I think they seriously think it has enriched their lives. So I agree with you. There’s this alienation from the actual society and their own culture. But I think they’ve also found a home for themselves that they have a benevolence. There’s a benevolence in wanting to share that. And I think that we should be honest that our culture doesn’t do enough of that. I think there’s tons of ways in which it does that they don’t recognize. There’s all these amazing sort of… There’s performance art, there’s new TV shows. I think there’s all kinds of ways in which we can create these things. But I do think we have to be honest that it’s hard to find and it shouldn’t be so hard.
Will Wilkinson: Oh, it is. Like everybody, I struggle with it. What is my life for? What does it all mean? And I’m a philosophical person. I don’t think there are a lot of people like me who are just okay with the sense that human life is a biological accident. That there isn’t any overarching narrative or purpose to the human species. That my life is just a like weird arbitrary, cosmic gift that really has no significance beyond itself. And that I can make the most of it or not. That’s a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow and I don’t think they need to swallow it. I think it is hard for a lot of people to deal with the fact that you’re just here, you’re going to die. It didn’t really mean anything beyond what it meant to you when you were there. But that’s fine. I’m happy for them to have something that gives their life a sense of significance.
Will Wilkinson: And I think it’s also true that, as you said, lots of people do lack that. But I think that a lot of the problem is that people don’t have the liberty to pursue a lot of these meaningful things because just the structure of our economy is broken and people don’t have help and they don’t have the means. And all they really can afford to do is sit around and play their X-Box, which-
Laura Field: Well, and they’re exhausted.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. When I was working on stuff about the differences between urban Democrats and non-urban Republicans. And there’s this big differences between the economic prosperity of cities and outlying areas because economic production is more and more concentrated in the city. So outside of the city is stagnating more and more. So people, their material welfare is stagnating or declining and you see public health problems, addiction is rampant, depression is rampant. There are these deaths of despair as like Angus Deaton and Anne Case document. That’s real. And that is the Republican party’s constituency. But the thing that frustrates me is I think there really is a crisis in health and meaning for large swaths of our population. But just going on a jihad against liberal democratic, multicultural pluralism doesn’t deliver a darn thing to any of those people other than a distraction momentarily from the suffering or boredom or enemy or whatever it is that they’re going through.
Laura Field: Yeah. And I think they’re actively closing down some of the avenues available to people with their hatred of the liberal elite. I’m not saying everyone should go to college and find meaning in books, but that is sort of… But they’re actively shutting that down, I think, with their rhetoric. And plus not to mention any other solutions that come down the pipe.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. In states like mine that Republican majority legislatures are just positively and explicitly hostile to the universities because of fake populist right-wing rhetoric about their Marxist critical theorists teaching boys that they should be girls or something. They literally think that it’s just this hive of crazy Marxism and stuff like that. And they don’t understand partly because people in universities are dumb and they don’t drive 50 miles to the state capital and talk to the few representatives. But they don’t understand that this is where all of these working class kids are exposed to the great works of the Western tradition. And it’s not a big deal.
Laura Field: Well, they don’t believe they are.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. They don’t believe that they are, it’s false. And somebody needs to tell them that they are, that this is where people are learning about their own culture. And it’s not like really a big deal if they also have to read The Bluest Eyes or something.
Laura Field: Yeah. And often they still don’t. It’s my impression that there’s still a lot of good liberal arts education happening.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. In the courses that you’ve taught, what are the standard books that you teach?
Laura Field: I’ve taught in four different colleges, all very classical political theory. I mean, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, a lot of stuff. I’ve taught all kinds of different stuff. I have made efforts to decolonize my curriculum and my syllabus because I think it’s important. I get pushback and challenges from students because that’s what students are for. In my classes at least it was always just there was not any… The idea that these books aren’t getting taught, I think, is not true. But it is tricky. These questions are really difficult. And I was lucky because I have a very traditional education and I was given the opportunity to teach that stuff. And I don’t know how it all balances out in terms of what stuff gets taught.
Will Wilkinson: I think some students avoid it. Almost every university has some major humanities, Western civ core courses, it’s really hard to avoid having to read Plato and Rousseau if you go to college at all. And, but the thing is like the people who are avoiding the people who are most likely to read that stuff are also the people who are most likely to get into like critical theory. Like the people who are avoiding it are just people who want to go to business school or be a doctor. It’s like people who are going to be Republicans anyway are the kids who are more likely to avoid it because they’re like, Ah, what’s this good for? What’s the ROI on reading Spinoza? I just need to learn about viral marketing. That’s why I’m here. And so I just feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how universities work and how our culture isn’t being reproduced in younger generations. And that there’s just such a panic about kids learning anything at all about history that’s true.
Laura Field: Yeah. I don’t think I have a good comprehensive sense of what’s going on in humanities departments across the country. I want them to be healthy and I want students to take those classes and I want them to take the critical classes. I want them to take way more history. And I think that the Republicans are doing huge harm to that project, including people like Deneen. Because I think they’re fabricating part of the crisis. They’re fabricating a big part of that crisis with their nonsense, which isn’t to say that there aren’t problems within the incentive structures of the universities themselves and what kind of questions that get asked and the…
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. There absolutely is. But it’s just very different from the picture that you get. I went and got an MFA when I was like 40 years old and the MFA program was inside an English department and we had English lit requirements. And the requirements, we had to read the greats of British and American literature. That was the best thing about it is that I got to read Jane Eyre and Moby Dick. And the people who taught it to me also are people who do gender critical theory readings of great books, James [Joist 01:24:32] or something like that.
And the thing is, to a person, they have a love of these great works and they do what they do because of fairly arbitrary incentives in the structure of their discipline. When they went to grad school, you did a certain kind of like gender erasure colonial theory. You read books through that lens. And the thing is they have lots of incredibly interesting insights about those books through those lenses. They’re not ruining them. They’re augmenting it. And in a few of them think crazy things about political economy. Because people who get degrees in English literature don’t understand international economics very well. And so they have some dumb sort of pop Marxist views about things. But that’s not what they’re teaching. They’re teaching Jane Eyre. Anyway, that’s a weird rant.
Laura Field: Yeah. I’ve known my fair share of people who would certainly fit in the right wing box of like Marxist post-modern, whatever. And they’re doing really thoughtful, careful thinking and they’re teaching students really thoughtful, careful, systematic modes of critical thinking regardless. Even in the so-called the worst case, the most radical, it’s still… I don’t know.
Will Wilkinson: Exactly. You can draw an activist professor and learn and have everything focus entirely on the atrocities of colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy. But the thing is, it’s all going to be like good academic research.
Laura Field: Yeah. And usually you’re still reading really masterpieces of some kind or another, you know?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. But I think that is actually the… So this whole initiative for what is a patriotic education? Are you aware of that whole…
Laura Field: Yes. I can’t even look at it, but I will. I should.
Will Wilkinson: It’s literally revisionist. It’s basically saying that teaching accurate history is illegal.
Laura Field: It’s like, let’s put ourselves in the cave.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. But I think that is where a big part of these conflicts are. There’s this fundamental disagreement about what the country is and they-
Laura Field: And how much truth people can take.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And there’s an existential battle for control of the narrative about our national identity. Because I think a lot of the illiberal reactionary, right is right in a sense that if most of us just come to have a fairly mundane correct view of the history of gender, race, colonial settlement, stuff like that, that makes their politics impossible.
Laura Field: Yeah. It’s hugely disenchanting of what they’re trying to achieve because it becomes just untenable, I think, from the basic historical and humanitarian perspective.
Will Wilkinson: All right. We’re running out of time, but let me ask you one more question just to circle back to some of this work. Where do you think this is going? Do you think that there will be a real intellectual fight for the soul of the conservative movement and the Republican party or do you think this stuff has already reached its apex of relevance with Trump and might just fade away?
Laura Field: I don’t know. I really hope they just fade away. I don’t think that these are intellectual rock stars who are poised to seize the future in any obvious way. So I’m glad for that. But their willingness to go this far with Trump. And by that, I mean, someone like Deneen is certainly not out there stumping for Trump. I’m pretty sure he has total disdain for Trump, but he never speaks out against him. And he’s definitely interested in what’s going on in Hungary and Poland and stuff. So I think that’s really the danger here is something like that, which is obviously not as easy to achieve, I don’t think, in America because I think it’s so much more dynamic here. But I think that’s what they would be trying to accomplish with.
Laura Field: Now that Trump has lost, I think you’re looking at that… I think Trump is actually a major problem for that project, that he is this wild card who’s going to be in the game on the sideline. Who knows what’s going to happen with him if he fades out. And so they’re going to be trying to achieve something tangible, but Trump’s always going to be looking on to mess with it. Who are they going to put forward as their next guy that Trump’s going to hate. So that’s maybe a good thing that will upset the dynamic. I think their willingness to go this far with Trump indicates a complete lack of integrity. And they’re unmoored. They’re not very clear or accountable for anything.
Laura Field: And so I think it’s hugely worrisome, but I don’t want to be paranoid either. Who knows? I guess we’ll have to see. What do you think?
Will Wilkinson: I think that just because you’re not paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get ya. I really don’t know. I think that a lot of them are just making a mistake in thinking that. I do think that some Republican politicians are going to try to take on some of the stuff and forge a more intellectually, ideologically coherent Trumpism, but I don’t think there’s actually any appetite for that. What Trumpism is is a politics of grievance that is mainly oriented toward making it okay for people to say who they hate out loud. It’s not anything much beyond that, I think. And so trying to have some highfalutin, conservative, nationalist wrapper on it. I just don’t think that’s going to resonate with the people who are excited about Trump. They just want to be free to loath the people they loath.
Laura Field: Yeah. And I don’t think someone like Deneen is on board with that. I don’t think he’s a racist in the sense of old fashioned racist. I don’t think he’s excited about that part of Trumpism. And so I think that there’s just a massive tension. I think he wants a populist policy for the working class that’s pretty similar to what the left wants and wants to harness that for the GOP. But I don’t think the GOP is going to be comfortable with it because [inaudible 01:31:45] the money and stuff.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Holly and Cotton, a little bit Rubio are getting into some of that stuff, but it’s hard to see where the uptake is going to come from. What it actually does is creates a confrontation between the… I think they’re right that those policies are popular with most of the people who vote Republican. But they’re staunchly opposed by the people who bankroll and control of the Republican party. And the party is going to be very averse to allowing that clash to be set up because they don’t want to have it. It fragments their coalition. So I think they’ll try, the powers that be, will suppress any upswell. And if that more nationalistic, industrial policy view were to get a grip, you would have to have a charismatic guy come in from the outside who could carry it past the party establishment in the way that Trump just completely went past them-
Laura Field: Well, that’s where I think you see Tucker as the problem.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Tucker is the guy who I think would be most likely to be able to achieve that sort of thing. He is in fact the guy I’m most scared of in a way because I think we are at a culture where basically you have to become a celebrity to be president. And so I’m just looking forward to the 2028 race between Tucker Carlson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Laura Field: [inaudible 00:01:33:26].
Will Wilkinson: No, it’s The Rock. Everybody knows The Rock.
Laura Field: The primary did you say or the…
Will Wilkinson: No, he’d just be the president. Who thinks Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wouldn’t just… But that’s where our culture is at. I really do think a pro wrestler movie star as pre-staged by Jesse “The Body” Ventura is basically-
Laura Field: Yeah. So I agree. So what do you think needs to happen? You can’t go down the romantic delusion cave of the reactionaries, but-
Will Wilkinson: I think this is a weird place to be. In post-modern politics, you either need to make your best political prospects that are coming up inside the party, you need to help them become celebrities or you need to recruit celebrities to run for you. That’s why the democratic party cannot win against Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. If she’s causing them trouble, if she’s losing them votes in swing districts, there’s nothing they can do about it. They can’t shut her up because she’s better at all of it than they are. She knows how to be a celebrity in our current media climate.
Laura Field: They need to cultivate her.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. She’s got more juice than anybody else in the party-
Laura Field: And I don’t mean that in a demeaning sense. I think she’s learned a lot and is pretty impressive.
Will Wilkinson: I think she’s incredibly impressive. She’s so incredibly smart and is so adaptable. But her talent for media is incredible. And that’s what makes her such a thorn in the side of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. To them, she’s a pipsqueak who has no standing within the party hierarchy, but she can get more attention than they can with a snap of a fingers. So she can drive the agenda despite having no official standing. And that drives them nuts. But they need to get used to it because that’s just how it works. And so they just need to come around to it. If they don’t want her to be their party standard-bearer, then they need to find somebody who can do that who will represent their position. Because I just think that’s where politics is at. And that’s why I think Tucker Carlson is way more likely to become president than Marco Rubio.
Laura Field: Well, that seems right.
Will Wilkinson: [crosstalk 00:20:54]. It is depressing, but we live in depressing times. So hopefully by the time listeners hear this, the president will finally agree that he’s lost the election. But that hope is going to be dashed because our president will never admit that he lost the election.
Laura Field: We know the truth.
Will Wilkinson: But someday in Trump’s fourth term he’ll die and America will be free again. On that note. Thank you, Laura. Thanks for coming on. It was a fascinating conversation. It’s always meandering, but that’s how I like it the best because it’s just like exploring ideas, man.
Laura Field: Yeah. Well, that was really fun to talk. Thanks for having me on.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely.
Laura Field: Thanks so much.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit niskanencenter.org. That’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N center.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs, go to niskanencenter.org/donate.
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