In this episode of The Vital Center, host Geoffrey Kabaservice and Jonathan Rauch discuss the “deliberate, sustained, sophisticated, and very effective attack on the system we rely on to make and obtain knowledge” in our democracy. Fighting back against disinformation involves more than throwing up our hands and wishing it never happened. We have to understand why the attacks on our institutions, our systems of knowing things, and our democratic way of life are working. “We have to understand this as an attack by identifiable people and organizations for power and for profit, and then we have to rally and push back really hard,” says Rauch. Today’s episode gets to the root of what’s causing these illiberal attacks on truth, facts, and knowledge, and what we can do to stop them.
Jonathan Rauch: We have to give up on the idea that, “Well, we’re just walking along and faith collapsed in our institutions and we can’t really tell why, or maybe we deserve it.” We have to understand this as an attack by identifiable people and organizations for power and for profit, and then we have to rally and push back really hard.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello. I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m thrilled to be joined today by Jonathan Rauch, a contributing writer for the Atlantic and National Journal, as well as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But more relevantly to today’s discussion, he is the author of an enormously important new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Welcome, Jonathan.
Jonathan Rauch: Good to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jonathan, as many of you will know, is the author of many books and a slew of magazine articles, all of which are really distinguished by his luminous intelligence and scrupulous honesty and his capacity for offering original perspectives on issues about which seemingly all that could have been written already had been written a dozen times over. But Jonathan’s writing really has reoriented my thinking on politics and life in general more times than I can count. I’m really just delighted that you are able to spend some time with me talking about your book today, Jon.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, after that introduction, it’s bound to be hard to live up to. Maybe I should quit now while I’m ahead. But it’s such an honor to be here because your work has enlightened and informed me for years. You’ve been a principled voice, a marvelous historian, and a real source of context about what the Republicans are going through right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, thank you, Jon, that’s very kind. Your book is another mind-blower, and of course I do want to talk about it. But I actually want to take a minute to dwell on the last question you answered in an interview you did last week with your fellow Atlantic writer, Pete Wehner. Pete asked you about what your aspirations had been as a writer and public intellectual, and you answered by going back to an aphorism you wrote to yourself in your mid-twenties. You wrote, “I don’t want to be a big shot. I don’t want to be a hot shot. I want to be a deep shot.”
And you added that the people you admired most at that time in your life were those who had a quality you thought of as wisdom. I wonder if you can tell me more about who some of those people were, what their wisdom consisted of, and how your desire to be like them has guided your career?
Jonathan Rauch: Well, that’s a conversation. Wisdom is… I know this from my last book on happiness, in case you’re wondering, or in case people want to investigate and buy it. Wisdom is a real thing. It’s a concept with actual scientific validity. It is not the same as knowledge, experience, skill, or intelligence. It has to do with the ability to rise above your personal emotions and convictions, transcend that to some extent, and judge the complicated social situations you find yourself in, and try to figure out ways for yourself and others to maneuver them.
Wisdom is actually a social quality. And to me, what appeals so much about it is it’s constructive — in fact it’s contagious, because one wise person in a group can really help the whole group to thrive. I didn’t know all that wisdom science when I was 25 in 1985, because that science didn’t really exist. But I did understand that I wanted to be constructive, I wanted to be dispassionate, and that the people I admired the most were the ones who helped other people solve problems. So that’s why I wrote that aphorism when I realized that.
People I admired for this included some prominent people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bill Galston of Brookings (whom I’m proud to call a colleague as well as a mentor), and lots of others. But they also included people that were just in my life. One was the dispatcher when I was driving delivery as a teenager for a little company in Phoenix, Arizona. His name was Smokey. He was an Okie. I don’t think he had anything past a high school education, but he understood how to manage people and their complexities and their egos.
And for example, when one driver insisted on turning on the air conditioning, which would stall the car — this was in Phoenix in the summer, I can’t blame the guy — Smokey just went out to the parking lot one day and came back smiling gently. And I said, “What’s up?” And he said, “Oh, I just solved that problem.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I just disconnected the AC.” He said, “That’ll work better than confronting him about it for the nth time.” I remember that. I remember lots of things other people in my life have conveyed. And I thought, “That’s what I want to be.”
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, that’s interesting to me because my first book, The Guardians, was really about the successor generation to the “Wise Men” who Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson had written about. Although it was really just kind of a term used to apply to some of America’s elite civil servants, I thought there really was something to it: that wisdom actually is a quality that is found widely through society, but it’s particularly, I think, necessary to the functioning of a society that some of its leaders in fact be wise. I worry that some of what actually made America great in previous years is missing in today’s landscape.
Jonathan Rauch: We all worry about the political system — especially the primaries, I think, place wisdom pretty low on the list of what people are voting for. I’ve known wise politicians, people who were just good at figuring stuff out, solving problems. But they tended to be unflashy people, not ideologues. I think a big problem that we don’t really talk about is that the biggest compliment we pay someone these days is: “Geoff Kabaservice is a very smart guy.”
And smart is down there on the list. There are lots of people who are very intelligent who also happen to be antisocial, sociopathic, stupid in many ways. Wouldn’t it be better if the highest compliment we paid kids routinely — or really grown-ups — would be, “That Geoff Kabaservice seems like a wise fellow.” You never hear it. I don’t believe you’ve ever heard that, and not because it isn’t true.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s certainly something I aspire to. But you’re right, it tends not to be a way that we describe people.
Jonathan Rauch: Or a value that we laud.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he’s known for many quotes, but one of them is the famous one that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But unfortunately, like a lot of venerable wisdom, that seems to have been overthrown in recent years. One of the worst aspects of the present moment is a growing illiberalism on both the right and the left. And your book does so much to point out how a lot of that illiberalism is amounting to an epistemic crisis.
Epistemology, if I have this right, is a philosophical term for the study of knowledge, which explores the question of how we know what we know. And that’s not abstruse, it’s horribly relevant at the present moment when growing numbers of Americans seem unable to tell fact from fiction and are assaulted by trollish propaganda from the right and censorious attacks on free thought from the left. Tell me how you came to think of the present political moment in these epistemic terms and how that explains where we are today.
Jonathan Rauch: My interest in how societies make knowledge, how freedom and structures interact so that we turn information into facts and conflict into truth, goes back to a book I wrote now 28 years ago called Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, which… I call it a free speech book, but it’s really about where knowledge comes from and the liberal process for finding it. It argues that there are three great liberal systems, not just two. We of course always think about markets and democracies in those terms, but science is one too.
By science, I don’t mean just the hard sciences. I mean what I call liberal science: all the truth-seeking fields which include journalism and law and humanities and much more. I argued that this, like other forms of liberalism, is a rules-based, decentralized system for stimulating social cooperation on an enormous scale and solving problems and adjudicating conflicts. And it works way better than anything else. And then I wrote about some attacks on that 28 years ago, some of which are still around. Then I went off to do gay marriage and other things for a long time, kind of thinking, “Well, I got that out of my system.”
Around 2014 I began to notice some, as it were, disruptions in the force field. They were things like the beginning of cancel culture. The chief executive of Mozilla was fired virtually overnight after some people called him out online for having contributed to an anti-gay-marriage proposition six years earlier. That was new. I and some other gay marriage advocates actually wrote a public letter saying this should not be happening, but we thought it was just one bad thing that happened.
It turned out it was the beginning of a bow wave of the use of social media and just regular media to demolish people’s reputations, to exert social coercion, try to silence them, intimidate them. Around the same time, we began seeing the Russians and anti-vaxxers and Gamergate begin exploring ways that they could propagate conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation, trolling.
I began to realize something was going on here that was just more than a little bit of mischief. And that all turns into a whole other ballgame in 2016 when Donald Trump enters politics and brings Russian-style disinformation tactics, mass disinformation, to American politics. In 2016, according to PolitiFact, 70% — seven-zero percent — of what he said during the campaign that they checked (which is a lot) was either entirely or mostly false. The equivalent for Hillary Clinton was about 25%. What Trump was doing was unprecedented. And he continued every day of his presidency.
He starts his presidency by lying about the size of the crowd, by lying about the weather. That’s not ordinary lying, that’s disinformation designed to confuse, to bewilder, to disorient, to signal that he’s going to make his own weather where truth is concerned. He continues in that vein. Around 2017, I realized, “It’s time to get back in these waters,” because what we were seeing…
People talk about polarization and the decline of working-class wages and the alienation from religion and lots of other sources causes for polarization and social unhappiness. But I realized, “Well, that may be happening. But something else is happening too, which is a deliberate, sustained, sophisticated, and very effective attack on the system we rely on to make knowledge, the Constitution of Knowledge. And it will succeed and is succeeding if we don’t understand what’s happening and figure out how to fight back.” That’s why I wrote this book.
Geoff Kabaservice: As you point out, Jon, these developments really started coming to the fore in 2014-2015 — in other words, before Donald Trump was a real political player and had thrown his hat in the presidential race. Why do you think that was? What was it about that moment that would explain not just Gamergate and other developments on the right, but also a real movement into censoriousness and cancel culture on the left, particularly on university campuses?
Jonathan Rauch: I think it was kind of a perfect storm, sorry to use the cliche, but several vectors that all operated simultaneously. One, of course, was the technology. When you had to go circulate a petition and print it and deliver it by mail in order to get Geoff Kabaservice fired from the Niskanen Center because of something he tweeted, that was complicated and difficult and it would take a while and wasn’t likely to work.
When it’s as easy as pushing a button to summon hundreds or thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of people to go to Jerry Taylor and demand the firing of Geoff Kabaservice, it’s a whole different ballgame. Jerry’s got a crisis on his hand, his board is calling him. he seems like he has countless people demanding your head. You’re befuddled. You don’t know what to do. You’re not even sure what their charge is against you — they probably took something you wrote out of context. And it’s all over by the next day, in many cases.
So this is new, the sheer speed and ease of organizing to use these tools. The same is true of trolling, conspiracy bootstrapping, firehouse of falsehood, and the other disinformation tactics that Trump and MAGA were using. Those are trivially easy to do on the internet. In fact, because the internet is designed as an advertising vehicle, basically, to get people’s attention regardless of truth, it is perfectly optimized for spreading conspiracy theories and outrage and trolling, because they get people’s attention. People can’t stay away from them. So there’s that. And there’s the fact that the illiberals — the cancelers, the forces of chaos — were much quicker to realize the potential of those technologies than anyone else.
A second thing you have is the rise of ideologies, like emotional safetyism, which… It’s been around for a while. I actually wrote about a version of it in Kindly Inquisitors a long time ago. But for reasons I don’t understand — some psychologists like John Haidt and Greg Lukianoff say it has to do with how kids are being raised and the media environment, but who knows? But for some reason, we suddenly saw this wave of people entering universities with the notion that it was the university’s job to protect them emotionally from encountering harmful, hateful, upsetting ideas.
That was a new thing, and it likened being offended or upset to — literally — physical violence. What it likened… In effect it basically said that the critical culture that a university tries to inculcate, where you’re deliberately put in the way of ideas that will offend and bother you — you’re criticized, and that’s often emotionally quite painful — it says it doing that is a human rights violation. So that becomes a new factor.
You see the rise of some ideologies: some people call it wokeness, successor ideology, CRT, all kinds of labels for a big soup of stuff. But a lot of this stuff has in common that it’s quite intolerant of alternatives. It doesn’t just say, “So here are some ideas. What do you think? Let’s debate them.” It says, “Here are some ideas. These are the only permissible ideas. None others shall be debated.” So that’s the ideological side.
So you get those two things going on, and then you get the biggest thing of all… I know this will sound to some of our audience as partisan. I am center-right. I have voted for many Republicans. I say this because I think it’s an accurate description of the facts, though some will disagree. The biggest single factor is the rise of Trump and MAGA, their takeover of the Republican Party, and their turning the presidency (and now the Republican Party) into organs of propaganda on a scale that we have never seen or imagined before in the United States.
That is a game-changer. We have never had that happen here. We have never had, for example, an entire party embrace a completely false conspiracy narrative about an entire election and then seek to effectuate that. In Phoenix right now, my hometown, there are those people supposedly recounting ballots…
Geoff Kabaservice: Cyber Ninjas.
Jonathan Rauch: Cyber Ninjas, they’re called. This is a completely uncalled-for, unnecessary, so-called audit by people who have no idea what they’re doing, the head of whom has publicly associated himself with Stop the Steal and conspiracy theories. And the point of it isn’t to do an honest recount, because they don’t know how. It’s to do what they’re doing, which is bring in advance teams from other states and MAGA supporters around the country to show them how you can do this at home too. These are entirely new developments.
And if Donald Trump had not come along, and had he not been I think the greatest propaganda genus since the 1930s — I can defend that, others may disagree — I think we’d be in a very different place right now. But unfortunately, he’s there and the party is there, conservative media are there. And here we are.
Geoff Kabaservice: The activities of Cyber Ninjas seem buffoonish and remarkably incompetent, and Trump himself has seemed to a lot of people in center-left and center-right circles to have been a buffoon. What’s so interesting about your book is you actually do present Trump as an incredibly sophisticated (in his way brilliant) practitioner of disinformation. And you do actually say that he ranks only with the original generation of evil geniuses in countries we could name in Europe in the 1930s. So I would like to hear more about that, Jon.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. I’d love to know what you think about this, whether you found that point persuasive, or perhaps you thought it all along. So maybe if we have a minute, maybe I can turn this around after I make my pitch. But here it is… There’s this thing called information warfare. I call it epistemic warfare. I define it as the organization and manipulation of the social and media environments for political gain, specifically to divide, dominate, disorient, and ultimately demoralize your political opponent. This has gone on for years. Lenin was very good at it. National Socialists in Germany were even better. It’s based on some very sophisticated techniques that exploit cognitive vulnerabilities that we have. Things like, for example…
When things go south for us, we don’t like the world, we naturally look for explanations, people to blame. If someone comes along with a conspiracy theory and says, “The world is rigged against you. And by the way, you can be one of the few select people who know about this and you can save the world from it. Here’s a heroic narrative” — that’s a very attractive proposition. It took many, many decades of designing the Constitution of Knowledge to be able to protect ourselves from those attacks.
Another attack, trolling. People think, “Haha, joke, funny.” It’s not funny at all. It’s attention-hijacking. In the Constitution of Knowledge, our liberal epistemic order, probably the most important resource is the ability to direct resources and attention and minds to the most important problems out there, like finding a COVID virus. Well, you can subvert that by grabbing people’s attention and pinning it to the thing you want. And how do you do that? It’s very hard for us to resist rising to the bait if our identities, our sacred beliefs, and our tribes are insulted. We feel like, “Well, we can’t let that go unnoticed,” and if we do, we’re tacitly approving it. Plus we’re outraged. We just feel the need to say, “I’m against that. That’s a terrible thing.”
Well, of course Trump was doing that every day. We know that he did it on purpose, because he told people. There was one day when Ivanka had a bad news story, and so he tweeted out that Israel should ban liberal Democrats or something from having visas — which is an outrageous thing for a president to say. And then he turns to a staffer and says, “There, that’ll hold them for the rest of the news cycle.” And it did. So every day he would bombard us with trolling, hijack our attention. Hitler said in Mein Kampf… I’m paraphrasing because I’m terrible at quoting, but he said, “It doesn’t matter if they laugh at us or insult us. What matters is that they can’t stop thinking about us.” That’s what trolls are doing. Again, really sophisticated stuff, hard to resist even if you try.
And then there’s “firehose of falsehood.” That’s a tactic especially associated with the Russians. Vladimir Putin uses it every day. And that’s where instead of censoring you do what Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategist, called: “You flood the zone with shit.” You just put out so many lies, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, half-truths — sometimes you drop a few truths in there just to keep them guessing — and you push them out simultaneously through so many channels. Never mind if they’re logical, plausible, consistent — doesn’t matter. There’s no way that the fact-checkers in the media can possibly keep up with them. There’s no way that the public can figure out, sort through this mess, figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.
So: “Ukraine hacked the Democratic servers. Russia hacked the Democratic servers. No one hacked the Democratic servers. It was done by some 400-pound guy on his sofa.” This creates a state of confusion, disorientation, cynicism. People don’t know what to believe. And when they don’t know what to believe, that is ripeness for a dictator, a demagogue, someone like Trump to step in and say, “Well, you can believe me, or you can believe in me, because you can’t believe in anyone else.” Again, very sophisticated stuff, very effective stuff. What Trump did is… [He was] the first person ever to imagine that you could apply these Russian-style tactics to U.S. politics, and then figured out how to adapt them and make it work. He had a lot of help. Conservative media — they weren’t originally on this page, but they got there. Republican politicians discovered that they couldn’t really resist this stuff if they tried, but they weren’t inclined to try.
And so now the genie is out of the bottle. Now 70% of Republicans believe the election was stolen in 2020, and a plurality of independents believe that either it was stolen or we’ll never know for sure. And this is uncharted territory, Geoffrey. But that was a long answer. I apologize. I’d be curious to know, if you feel like telling us, if you think I’m right to rate Trump as this level of innovator.
Geoff Kabaservice: I do think you’re right, and I’m going to answer your question in a somewhat sinuous and indirect way. The audience won’t see this, but I am actually holding up your last book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. And it is a fantastic book, another fantastic book. I myself am a bit behind the curve in this, as in many things, partly because of the present political moment. I had a talk with Ezra Klein a little bit before the pandemic, and I was kind of giving what I sincerely believed, which is that [historical] politics is a great lens through which to try to understand current politics, and maybe a little bit of scoffing at political science, since that was always how I saw myself in grad school. It seemed to me that historians had a much better grasp of even contemporary politics than did the political scientists.
And Ezra Klein came right back at me and said, “That is nonsense. History is actually pretty useless in our present moment. And not just political science but so is psychology useful because most political actors, most voters, don’t really know what it is that moves them. They are moved by forces of which they are largely unaware.” And I’ve actually come to believe that he’s largely correct about that. Because I do think that Trump was a real innovator in our politics, in the worst possible way. And although I can allude to factors that paved the way for Trump — in particular the decline of the Republican Party’s moderate wing, its transformation into an ideological monolith of sorts that didn’t permit any dissent, something that actually also didn’t really have guardrails anymore of an institutional establishment variety that could have kept a bad actor like Trump out of the system…
But anyway, Trump comes into this territory almost like a parasite coming into an environment with no natural defenses against him. And he’s really able to reorient both the party and our politics because he actually did have a grasp on the dark side of human psychology that you really have to go back to the 1930s to see its equal. And I think Trump’s main goal, in a weird way, was not actually to win over the American population so much as to take over the Republican Party. And he broke that party down systematically in a way that, again, you have to go back to the 1930s to watch the destruction of the political system, especially in Germany, to find a real parallel. And I often wish that Republicans in Congress, such leaders as there were out there, had stood up against Trump. But reading your book really brought home how difficult it is for regular people to stand up against the firehose of falsehood and all of these other fairly sophisticated techniques to break down people’s certainty about even the difference between truth and falsehood.
David Frum is fond of a quote from Goethe, which is that “Unhappy is the land with the need for heroes.” Most people simply aren’t heroes. They would rather just throw up their hands in despair or disgust and stay away from politics. And I think from my reading of history, certainly in Russia and Germany, was that was more or less the situation there too: a small number of true believers and a vast majority of the population that just threw up their hands and let whatever happened happen.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, all of that seems exactly right. We’re on the same page on the important point that I still think a lot of people haven’t really got their minds around, which is, you know, Trump is not some buffoon who got lucky. He’s a very sophisticated actor and a very malevolent actor. Another point you make is worth mentioning. Sad to say this, but the best in a democracy, a liberal democracy, the best defense against the kinds of information warfare that’s now being waged against the American public by Trump, MAGA, the Republicans, is not to use those methods to begin with. And actually we succeeded at that since at least the 1850s. The secessionists got up to some really bad information warfare stuff, but not since then. We kept it out. Now that it’s here, it’s here, and that puts us in a new zone.
I’m sympathetic to falling into this trap as a country, for a couple of reasons. Just from the point of view of sort of strategy… I’m not saying that MAGA is like ISIS or like Al-Qaeda — it’s not. I’m not implying that. But simply from a strategic point of view, you can think of what happened as… You remember when ISIS — when was it, 2012? — when they just stormed through Iraq. They seemed 10 feet tall because they had the advantages of surprise, motivation, and organization. And in that situation, even comparatively small forces can strike with amazing success. And they did, because the rest of us had no idea that these tactics could be used. We weren’t organized. We weren’t really mobilized or motivated. We were completely surprised.
Another analogy I sometimes draw — again easily misunderstood, so I’m sure some people will get me wrong but I hope they’ll try not to — is to 9/11. And there what you had was a threat that had been working its way for a long time, and specialists had said, “Hey, pay attention to this thing, it’s getting really bad.” And we didn’t because of a failure of imagination. We just couldn’t imagine it would ever happen here. So when it did happen, it was shocking and devastating, but it did have the effect that at last we could see before our eyes this long-germinating threat in its fully-matured form. We saw its capabilities, we saw its intent, we were shocked. We should have the same attitude now about the forces now arrayed against the Constitution of Knowledge. They have shown their intent, they have shown their capability, and in Stop the Steal they have shown that there are really no limits to their audacity.
Geoff Kabaservice: This term “the Constitution of Knowledge” — could you put a definition on that?
Jonathan Rauch: Sure. That’s our system as a society for collectively finding truth, staying moored to truth, and turning our disagreements into facts. Of course, one could say a lot more, but that’s the one-sentence version.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you’re right that when you entered into the journalistic profession way back when, I guess as a cub reporter for a Winston-Salem newspaper, you were sort of brought up into this dense network of norms and rules that define the journalistic profession: things like the importance of truthfulness and fact-checking, relying on multiple sources, relying on the expertise of professionals. It was what you called a kind of foundation of shared values and a trust in institutional norms. And this is part of the Constitution of Knowledge as well, is that right?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, that is really the Constitution of Knowledge. This is not just a metaphor, a literary figure. There really is a Constitution of Knowledge. It doesn’t happen to be written down and ratified the way the U.S. Constitution is. But then most of the real U.S. Constitution wasn’t written down and ratified. It’s all the institutions and norms that grew up around things like political parties, and judicial review, and direct democracy, and civic virtue above all — the ways we behave. We hold the Constitution in our heart with things like recognizing that we lose an election sometimes, but without subverting the whole system. Oops!
So the Constitution of Knowledge, apart from not being a written document and not having a Supreme Court, is very much the same. It’s a system that substitutes rules for rulers. And it says, “After millennia of deciding what’s true by dividing into sects, religious tribes and sects, each certain that it has truth, going to war with each other, oppressing each other, killing people who have the wrong idea, getting unmoored from reality and basically living in ignorant and oppressive societies — let’s try something else. Let’s go with some rules.”
And there are lots of those rules. But the two key ones are first, no one gets to end the debate. It’s an ongoing conversation. Even the things we’re surest of we should tolerate and accept that people will question, and maybe we’ll have to re-prove them at some point if there’s new evidence. But that means that no individual or faction or organization or government can ever say, “Case closed, settled, no one else gets to talk about this.”
And the second big rule is the empirical rule, which is really a social rule, which says if you want to make knowledge, you’re going to have to go check and you’ll have to do it in ways that anyone else, regardless of race, color, creed, where they live, what language they speak… But in principle, if you do an experiment, it should be replicable. Anyone else should be able to do the same experiment. If you float an argument, others should be able to evaluate it, regardless of whether they already agree with you or not. If you want to present evidence, you have to be able to show it. You can’t say, “Well, it’s revelation. God told it to me. You can’t see it,” and so on. And that forces us into this constant social negotiation that can expand and has expanded to be worldwide, so that people are floating hypotheses, making errors, finding those errors at incredible rates.
The great advantage of liberal science, with the Constitution of Knowledge, is not that it doesn’t make errors, because of course humans make errors. And it’s not that it doesn’t have biases, because of course humans have biases. It’s that it uses the bias. It pits the biases against each other to find mistakes, and then it makes mistakes and finds mistakes incredibly quickly. And that’s how in less than a year, we get the vaccine that’s protecting you from Covid right now.
So that’s a very brief version of the Constitution of Knowledge. I argue that it’s easily the most successful social system that humans have built. It’s species-transforming. It changes us from small tribes whose knowledge increases by essentially zero for the first 200,000 years to what we see now where literally hundreds of thousands of minds around the world and hundreds or thousands of organizations and multiple dollars can all pivot in a matter of weeks to decode the genome of a new virus and to come up with a vaccine in less than a year. This is a miracle of social organization. Its output is objective knowledge, humanity’s greatest product. It’s a thing. Some people deny it, but you could go to a library and look at it. If you drop it on your toe, it will hurt. And if all humans died off, aliens could come here in a million years and decode our books and open our databases and use all that knowledge. That is our greatest product.
Geoff Kabaservice: The Constitution of Knowledge as you describe it truly is, I think, one of civilization’s greatest achievements. The problem is that, as you say, many of the bases on which it rests are unwritten norms, expectations, values. And there actually isn’t that much to prevent someone like Trump from coming along and shattering them if he simply steps outside of the expectation that people will follow and obey those norms and values. So I don’t want to be overly pessimistic here, but it does sort of feel that we have come to the end of a golden age in which people of all political persuasions saw themselves as bound by these norms, obeyed them, worked together in some sense to actually produce the kind of outcomes you’re talking about. And maybe now that’s going away. Maybe Trump has shown that, in fact, we’re kind of back to the 1930s — that if you actually want to believe that Lysenkoism is the school of thought that holds in biology, then if you can force it to be so, it will be so. It’s easier to smash things than it is to build them up.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, trolls and agents of chaos and cancellation. We haven’t really talked about canceling yet, so maybe we’ll get there. That’s another aspect. They are, as you say, completely parasitic. They can tear down, not build, and that’s an advantage. It’s much easier to tear things down. That said, people — to a degree that surprises me, frankly, Geoffrey — say that my book is optimistic. And I don’t mind that, but what I really think it is is hopeful.
Because I have several messages. One is: They’re not 10 feet tall, we are — if we get our act together. But it’s like, remember how Al-Qaeda seemed or how ISIS seemed at the peak of their power because we were so unprepared, we had become so complacent, we took so much for granted. Well, now we’re on notice and we’re beginning to see lots of responses — at institutional levels and also in the public at personal levels — to the tactics that are being used. It’s a long road to go down. But never forget, we have some advantages that the other side doesn’t. First, we have institutions that have incredible wealth of knowledge and organizing power that go right back to the Royal Society in Britain, which Isaac Newton headed in the mid-1600s. It’s still there. So we have fantastic institutional depth.
We have reality. The other side doesn’t have that. One of the big problems propagandists have is they go down their own rabbit holes. Over time, this is happening to the Republicans right now: they let their public sort of lead them. Disinformation is a participatory sport, not a spectator sport. And Republicans are finding, once they released conspiracy theorism as a linchpin of the party — well, the public loves that. The Republican base says, “Well, we’re going to invent lots of new stuff.” So they go down QAnon and they keep coming up with new stuff, and no one at Fox News or Kevin McCarthy are willing to stand up to that. So they’ve lost control of it, and that means the party’s losing its grip on reality — and that’s a severe strategic disadvantage. And then we have in mind the sheer fact that we can offer something the other side can’t: They’re not going to put a vaccine in my arm. They’re just going to proclaim the godliness of Donald Trump or whatever QAnon is saying today.
So those are big advantages. The question is: Can we mobilize them? Abraham Lincoln, writing in I think it was the late 1830s, warned us how vulnerable we were to a demagogue, someone with a lot of charisma, a lot of energy, a great leader. He was thinking of a Coriolanus kind of figure who could persuade us to surrender our democracy.
And he said, “The only defense of that is in our brains and in our hearts. We need to understand the arguments that the founders made. And we need to believe in our hearts in the rule of law, because that’s our only defense.” And he said, “If we do those two things, we’ll be okay. But they’re difficult.” Well, Abraham Lincoln, a few years later, understood better than any living human being how difficult that would turn out to be.
But it’s always been difficult. There have always been threats. They morph over time. It goes in cycles. We’ve had repeated epistemic disruptions. The first one, the printing press, unleashed waves of warfare across Europe, in which people think maybe 30% of the population of today’s Germany was killed. This went on for decades. We don’t want that.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s not reassuring, Jon.
Jonathan Rauch: That’s not reassuring. We did a lot better within the U.S. with the media crisis of the 19th century. And what happens there is the subscriber model, penny presses plus offset printing come along, enable these mass newspapers which then do very much like what social media is doing now, which is begin chasing subscribers wherever they want to go. And subscribers love conspiracy theory and extremism. So they began publishing all kinds of hyper-partisan nonsense and totally made-up news. “Yellow journalism,” people called this. Well, it turned out that this was a terribly toxic information environment and readers didn’t like it. Publishers began to realize it was not in their interest to continue this, because it was antisocial and it was bad for people — they hated the product. It’s very much like what Facebook is discovering now.
And so they do what works in these situations. They begin formulating guardrails, guidelines, institutions. They formed the American Society of Newspaper Editors early in the 20th century that then promulgates the ethics codes and standards that I learned as a young journalist: things like run corrections, don’t make stuff up. Seems basic now, but someone had to come up with it. They create journalism schools, they create the idea of a professional journalist: someone who knows and transmits these values. They create prizes like the Pulitzer. Pulitzer was a yellow journalism news baron, but these prizes and incentives incentivize journalism to adhere to these rules. And within actually a few decades, we have Edward R. Murrow. We have the great journalism of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. So it can be done. We have done it.
And what I try to convey to people is we can do it again, but we have to get our act together. We have to understand the nature of the attack that’s being waged, the sophistication of it. We need to be able to name the players, have to give up on the idea that, “Well, you know, we’re just walking along and faith collapsed in our institutions and we can’t really tell why, or maybe we deserve it.” We have to understand this as an attack by identifiable people and organizations for power and for profit. And then we have to rally and push back really hard. If we do those things, I think we squash them like a bug. If we don’t, it’s jump ball.
Geoff Kabaservice: So that’s the optimistic case for repelling…
Jonathan Rauch: The hopeful case.
Geoff Kabaservice: … the hopeful case for repelling the attack from outside upon the Constitution of Knowledge, from the Republican Party led by Donald Trump. And you had a debate of sorts with Andrew Sullivan a few weeks ago, where Andrew Sullivan was saying that the threat from cancel culture is greater than the threat from the Trumpist firehose. And you pushed back on that. But the way to, I guess, play devil’s advocate here is that what’s happening at the universities, what’s happening in newsrooms, is a corruption from within. And in that sense, that may be more dangerous to the Constitution of Knowledge than the attack from without.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, it might be. I could argue it both ways. I’d love to get your view on that, actually. Maybe again, when I’m done, you could weigh in. The point you make is exactly right, although I guess you could argue that MAGA has pretty much raised the bar in terms of sheer audacity and ruthlessness. Right now they’re doing stuff like physically menacing people who count votes, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: Right.
Jonathan Rauch: The attack primarily from the left, it’s called canceling, it’s social coercion. Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville comes to America and says the biggest threat to American freedom is not from the government, it’s from what he calls tyranny of the majority — meaning tyranny of majority opinion. Meaning if people sense that they’re on the wrong side of public opinion, they just shut up, they freeze, shut down.
He didn’t realize this at the time, but it doesn’t have to be a majority. It can be tyranny of the minority if the minority is ruthless and equipped with social media and in a position to make a lot of noise —demanding the firing, the sanctioning of, say, Geoffrey Kabaservice if you tweet something that they don’t like, or if they want to make an example of him. Or they can demolish his reputation so that anyone who Googles him will see “racist.” They can go after his job…
Geoff Kabaservice: Don’t give them ideas.
Jonathan Rauch: They go after his friends… I’m laying out the whole roadmap, you’re in for it now, Geoffrey.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay.
Jonathan Rauch: They go after his friends, so that he becomes radioactive. They go after his professional acquaintances. And the worst thing they do is they go after your psyche, because suddenly everyone’s turning their back on you, you’ve done something terrible. This is a soul-demolishing situation to be in.
So they’re good at this. They’re very good at… On university campuses, they can start an investigation if they hear something they don’t like, and you feel like your whole career is dangling by a thread and your reputation will never be the same. They do it online… There’s the famous case of David Shor, who is a left-leaning, a very progressive Democratic analyst who just tweeted out a correct summary of an academic study. But some people decided to make an example of him. They went to his employer, they said, “Come get your boy,” whatever that means. He was fired the next day.
Geoff Kabaservice: Mm-hmm.
Jonathan Rauch: So this is a powerful weapon, and it works in a couple of ways. The first is basically direct intimidation. It says, “You better watch out for us, because we can hammer you at any given moment of our choice. It doesn’t even really matter what you say. We’re perfectly happy to take your work out of context, take your life out of context.” So they just chill your speech in a direct way.
But there’s a more subtle information warfare aspect of this which is really important, which is what they’re doing is what I call “consensus spoofing.” Others call it preference falsification, false consensus. So people decide what to believe and even what to perceive subconsciously by noticing what people in our community, what our peers, what our tribe thinks and perceives. And we tune to that. So if everyone out there in our group is saying “The election was stolen” — well, I might initially have my doubts, but I’m likely pretty soon to come around to that because all my reference points are saying that and because I’ll be shamed and ostracized if I don’t say it.
This has been shown in scientific experiments that go back to the ‘50s. If you put people in a room together, and you create a false consensus by putting seven actors in the room and one experimental subject, and the seven actors all say something clearly false – a third of the time, the eighth person will go along with that. They’ll say…
Geoff Kabaservice: That was the Asch experiment, right?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, it’s the famous Solomon Asch experiment of 1951. Interestingly, there’s a variant of that where only one of the other actors says the right thing. In that case, the experimental subject will almost always say the right thing. So it doesn’t take much to break one of these “spirals of silence,” as they’re called. But they’re very effective. They actually distort how we perceive consensus and thus they change, they work on our minds. So this isn’t just silencing, this is actually changing how we think. It’s sophisticated stuff. So that’s what canceling is all about: social coercion, using these tactics, faking consensus.
So yes, it has unfortunately taken root in the heart of the reality-based community. We’re seeing these tactics now used in universities. We have survey evidence, lots of interviews of people in my book all saying versions of the same thing. These are professors and students saying, “There are whole subjects I won’t touch anymore, I’m just too fearful.” And you have whole disciplines now where there are no longer enough conservatives, or enough centrists, or enough libertarians — there is no longer enough viewpoint diversity to sustain a robust conversation. And that means people go down rabbit holes, because all they’re hearing is their own biases being confirmed by other people who say the same thing. I call that “zombie science.” It looks like science, but it’s not. And so it’s worrisome, it’s corrupting. And sorry to go on so long, but I’ll finish here…
Until November 3rd, I would have said it was a horse race as to which of these two things is worse. Now, cancel culture and all that is in newsrooms, it’s in corporations, it’s not just on campus, and of course it’s online. As of November 4th, I really don’t even think it’s very close anymore. Because one of these sets of forces controls an entire political party — of which we only have two. It has a whole branch of media that it has conquered. It has massive grassroot support and energy from millions and millions of Americans. And it may have the presidency of the United States again, four years from now. And that to me is just… That puts everything else in the shade to me. Maybe I’m wrong about that, though. What do you think?
Geoff Kabaservice: I think you have the correct ratio there. But again, I think in the long term Trump won’t be around forever. The Republican Party either will send us all back to living in grass huts or, far more likely, it’ll overplay its hand. I don’t think, frankly, that the party top-to-bottom has the courage to go along with an actual coup in 2024. If they do, I think they would end up the worse for it — maybe even proscribed, who knows? But I do really believe that what’s happening on college campuses is dangerous to the longer-term ability of the society to function in a way that it has in the past, and particularly to the Constitution of Knowledge that you so eloquently describe in your book.
I think that maybe things are even worse on college campuses than in the newsrooms and HR departments, because so many particularly of our elite universities are communities as well as the venues where research and teaching takes place. And as hard as it is to stand up against those seven strangers in the Asch experiment, it’s even harder when these are the people whose love and respect you most crave in the whole world. And you did point out several times that the threat to free speech on college campuses is not really coming from woke professors, the tenured radicals that we heard so much about before. It’s really coming from students, fellow students, who really will do everything they can to marginalize and destroy dissidents, really — I guess that’s the best way to put it —who appear in their midst. And that is worrisome.
You know, I wrote my first book about Kingman Brewster, who was the president of Yale during the 1960s. And in some sense, he was a pioneer of the kind of meritocracy that George Packer describes as Smart America in his recent book, Last Best Hope. And I agree that that meritocracy has become its own form of aristocracy and that that’s a problem. But George was on a podcast recently with Marshall Kosloff and Saagar Enjeti where they kind of pushed back against him saying that, as far as they were concerned, Smart America is Just America (or Woke America). And I think it’s true that there has been remarkably little pushback from the meritocracy against what’s going on on college campuses.
And that was not true in the 1960s. Kingman Brewster was very interested in this new activist movement among students, but he didn’t assume that they were the bearers of unquestionable truth. The only recent case I can think of where a university figure has really tried to engage and disagree with students is actually an episode that you wrote about in the book where Nicholas Christakis, who was then the master (as it was called) of one Yale’s residential colleges, was trying to have a dialogue with students about their anger over his wife having published a letter saying that they should actually treat themselves as responsible adults when it came to Halloween costumes as opposed to having directives from above from the administration.
And the students found this a soul-destroying thing and said, “No, we actually want the authorities to tell us that certain things are proscribed.” And really, Christakis was trying to talk about the importance of the university campus as a place where people can be made uncomfortable by thoughts that maybe seem threatening to them, but that’s part of intellectual growth. And the students came back to him, “No, we’re dying, you’re killing us, this should be a place of comfort and home, not a place of intellectual discovery.” And I think the rest of the university administrators have really fallen in line ever since. There has been no pushback whatsoever, with a few isolated examples (like Mitch Daniels at Purdue), against these kinds of developments. And I find that really sad. For me, the university was The God That Failed. I believed in it that much once upon a time. So this is part of my ongoing disillusion.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, that was so well put, and I don’t disagree with you. The interesting question is: What happens next? Because I think what I said earlier about responding to the MAGA information warfare threat also is the same in the canceling, wokeness, and all of that threat, which is… Everything depends on whether people like us get our act together, figure out how to push back and do it. And I could argue it both ways, because we really don’t know yet. It’s hard, in a book like this, because you want people to have some confidence that there’s important stuff they can do that will really turn the tide without making them complacent and thinking, “Well, it’ll take care of ourselves, it’ll burn out.” It won’t necessarily burn out. These ideologies that you’re referring to on campus are very aggressive and they believe themselves to be right. They are not subject to falsifiability. If you deny them, you’re only proving that they’re true and they see no need to tolerate alternatives because that just helps the oppressor.
But just for a minute, I think it’s also important to look at some other developments that may signal a brighter future — or at least an end to the downward spiral and the opportunity for institutionalists like you and me to begin reconstructing. One is that invariably, and sure enough currently, environments that are ridden with social coercion and the exploitation of all available tools to silence and confuse, disorient people, spoof consensus — these are toxic environments. People hate living in them. Students don’t like them. And what’s happening on these campuses is that typically a small group of students, a numerical minority, are the activists who are really doing things like weaponizing the course evaluations, demanding the investigations, shaming students who get out of line or even commit some so-called microaggression — which really just means either (A) they offended me or (B) they didn’t really offend me but I want to make an example of them.
This is a fairly small group, and people are starting to notice that and resent it. Surveys are showing that two-thirds of American students feel reluctant to express their true political opinions for fear of social consequences. And interestingly, by the way, the number’s almost as high in the general population. But it’s not just conservatives who feel chilled — far from it. In the last couple of years, partly because of the examples that we’ve been citing, progressives have tumbled to the fact that they are the biggest targets of canceling. They’re the people who are kept in line.
Conservative students and faculty, they know they’re on the spot and they’re often… They’re going to have the Federalist Society supporting them or whatever. But if you’re the open-minded progressive or liberal who comes to campus to learn, and then you’re told there all kinds of things you can’t even talk about in class because your fellow — two students in the class are going to like patrol you, report you, call you out — you hate that. So they’re starting to figure that out. And that creates an opportunity that didn’t exist, even a few years ago, for a coalition of pluralists, left and right, who believe a university should be a place for robust debate, real pluralism, where people should encounter ideas that are offensive and have to debate them.
So I think that’s a new opportunity. Another thing that’s happening, which I think is significant — we’ll see how significant, but it’s certainly an important step in the right direction — is… You remember my analogy to ISIS and 9/11?
Geoff Kabaservice: Sure.
Jonathan Rauch: You know, one side’s just completely unprepared. Plus who doesn’t want to be on the right side of racism, right? You know, there’s some natural sympathy with minority groups like gay people (of whom I’m one) who say, “We’ve been oppressed.” There’s some responsibilities here, there’s some sense of sensitivities here. But in terms of the anti-pluralistic, the totalistic tactics that were being used — those caught a lot of people by surprise and there was no counter-force on campus.
So if you’re an administrator, even if you’re not a politicized student affairs dean — and I think most are not, most are just really trying to do the right thing by their students and by their faculty — but all the incentives are to knuckle under, as Yale did in the Christakis affair. They actually wound up giving prizes to students who I believe arguably physically menaced a professor.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, that changes if both sides are organized, if there are significant factions on-campus and off-campus who are calling out the administrators who don’t stand up: the college presidents who knuckle under, the employers who throw the employees under the bus. And we’re seeing that. We’ve seen renewed activity by existing groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is a big one… Heterodox Academy, which argues for diversity in the academy from an academic point of view… But also an outpouring of new groups, civic organizations that are rallying behind the liberal side.
And that’s everything from the Academic Freedom Alliance, which is a kind of NATO of professors to defend each other from these kinds of campaigns to silence or chill them, to the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, which is getting busy defending parents whose kids come home saying, “So am I a white supremacist?” They’re developing an anti-racist curriculum that’s not illiberal, for example, and giving people tools. There’s Counterweight, which is supporting employees: explaining situations, strategizing, giving them resources when they feel they’re being coerced in these kind of struggle sessions that employees are forced to go through. And I could go on and on: Princetonians for Free Speech, Jewish Institute for Liberal Values…
Geoff Kabaservice: And Braver Angels, of which you were…
Jonathan Rauch: And Braver Angels, of which I was a founding board member. I’m not on the board anymore… But there’s a lot of civic activism against polarization. And that’s hugely important because the more polarized the society is, the easier it is to propagandize. And the more propagandized it is, the more polarized it becomes. So this is all a long way of saying, with lots of examples, that if our side mobilizes, organizes, becomes confident — and that’s crucial; we have been so demoralized by this wave of attacks and feeling it’s futile, and no one is on our side, and all the students are against us, and the faculties are totally overrun… Well, if we can get past that demoralization, I think our hand is strong. And maybe, maybe, maybe that’s starting. You think I’m crazy?
Geoff Kabaservice: I want to believe you, Jon. I want to believe. In fact, I think it’s more likely that the elite universities in particular will change their ways only when it begins to have significant costs, only when the quality of research visibly declines, and maybe only when the universities get to be caught up in political warfare more than they have so far. In 2017, the last time the Republicans had control of Congress, they actually passed a tax on elite university endowments that is starting to add up at this point into the millions. But Tom Cotton has put forward legislation that, if Republicans get their way, would actually take billions away from the elite universities. I think they never should have let themselves get into a position where they would be completely aligned with one side or other in our partisan alignment. And I think some of them are belatedly waking up to the dangers of that situation.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. Both of the things you mentioned are already happening. One is political consequences. As you know, a few states have passed and many other states are considering measures that would basically forbid teaching, for example, Critical Race Theory at universities and in public schools. Now, some versions of that are going to be unconstitutional, but this is a clear shot across the bow to universities that the time when they could go about their business of allowing small groups of radicals to basically dominate the environment without external political consequences is over.
Great Britain actually just passed a law, I think yesterday, which creates a regulator for universities. They can do that there; we can’t do it here. But it’s a new regulator which basically enforces free speech and opinion diversity on campuses. And it creates free speech champions on campus, institutional offices — kind of the equivalent of the Diversity and Inclusion Office — that says, “Well, we’re here too, and we’re looking out for intellectual diversity and free speech.” And there’s already a row in Britain about… The left is saying this is unnecessary and oppressive. I’m not familiar with the legislation. It might not be great. But we’re seeing that there, and we’re going to see more of it here.
And as to the quality of the research, that’s also declining. And that has been documented, and interestingly it’s being documented by progressive scholars, not just conservative scholars, who are increasingly concerned that too many questions are not being asked and too many progressive shibboleths are being assumed. And the way you get at this, actually, is: Remember, most academics are there to make knowledge and sincerely want to do that. And many of them are uncomfortable in intellectual monocultures, where there are lots of things that they can’t think and write about in an honest way. And if they can be mobilized — and they are increasingly coming to recognize that there is a problem, including on the left — well, we’ll see. So where I really disagree with Andrew Sullivan in our argument is I think he thinks we’re kind of in the second half of the last quarter of the game, and we’re really taking a beating, just way behind. And I think we’re in the first part of the second quarter and our team is only just putting its suits on. We’re only just fielding a team.
Geoff Kabaservice: I like that, Jon, particularly since you don’t use a lot of sports metaphors. I think that’s a good one.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, you notice I didn’t say what sport that was because I can’t tell the difference.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, that’s okay. Speaking of Andrew… I guess I met you in Washington about a decade ago. I think David Frum introduced us. And I do maybe for that reason associate you and Andrew and David and some other politically heterodox DC, mostly DC-based writers from the tail end of the baby boom generation. Maybe also add in some people like, I don’t know, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens… I’m wondering who are the writers who you have associated with most closely and maybe have defined yourself against?
Jonathan Rauch: One huge influence is David Frum, who you just mentioned. We went to college together. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. He’s been to me a model of conservative integrity and I so admire how he has stood up. And wow, so many writers, it’s hard to know where to begin. In Gay Land, where I’ve done a lot of my writing, there’s Andrew Sullivan. Our temperaments are very different. I’m a “Let cooler heads prevail” guy and he’s, can we say, not. But in terms of commitment to liberal values, understanding those, and in terms of my thinking about the place of minorities in society, the importance of free speech — he’s been super important. There’s a writer you may never have heard of, David Boaz. He was actually vice president of the Cato Institute back in the ‘80s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Sure.
Jonathan Rauch: He gave me what amounts to a graduate education over pizza on libertarianism. He wrote a very good book about it (which I still recommend) in the ‘90s called Libertarianism: A Primer. So he was hugely influential. And then all the reporters… You know, I’ve written this book and it’s full of philosophy, but I’m really a reporter, a journalist at heart. I’m really looking for new ways to see the world and stories that I can tell and people that I can rip off for their best ideas and convey to the public. And there have been just so many reporters who’ve inspired me. One — maybe very high on the list, maybe top — is Robert J. Samuelson, who I first encountered when I was an intern 40 years ago at National Journal. He became an economics columnist at the Post. But he was just so totally no-bullshit, so data-driven, so committed to facts. And I thought, “Okay, that’s what I want to be.” No matter how I might feel politically, I always want to try to be fact-driven. So let’s not forget the plain old reporters too, you know, the ones who do the actual work. They’ve been in some ways the biggest inspiration.
Geoff Kabaservice: As a kind of way of finishing up, Jon, you called yourself center-right at one point in our talk, and you described the movement for gay marriage that you helped lead intellectually in the 1990s as a conservative movement. And yet I run into this difficulty when I try to talk about the ideological orientation of the civil rights movement… You used conservative means as a way of achieving political success, but the very idea of gay marriage was a radical idea at the time that you were advancing it. So how do you see that movement now — one of the most successful social-political moments, really, of our time — and your own politics? How do you describe yourself? And do you identify with the term “moderate” or is that not really useful anymore?
Jonathan Rauch: I don’t know what I am any more, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: Welcome to the club.
Jonathan Rauch: I’ve used the term “radical incrementalist,” which I define as a person who favors fomenting revolutionary change on a geological timescale. And recently I saw someone try the label Burkean liberal, as opposed to Burkian conservative. And I like that too. It captures something about Burke — who, remember, in his day not only was the father of conservatism but also was a reformer. He struggled for years to tame the abuses of the… was it called the British East India Company?
Geoff Kabaservice: Right.
Jonathan Rauch: And I saw same-sex marriage as being in that spirit. Yeah, it’s radical in the sense that it rethinks a major institution, and we can’t rationally say that that’s not the case. But it’s conservative in doing what Burke tries to do, which is say, “Okay, times change, the world changes. How can we conserve the core values that we’re really out to protect here in the best way?”
Jonathan Rauch: And I thought the answer to that is obviously you’ve got this new constituency and they need to be plugged into community. They need a destination for their love. They need a culture which is not toxic, not devoted to sex and parties all the time, so that they can settle down. They need to get into the hospital room. They need the Social Security benefits. And they’re ready to give back, support their communities. And those are all conservative goals. That’s to me, that’s kind of the definition of a social conservative: incentivizing people to do things that are good for their communities and not just sort of short-term and for themselves. So in that sense, I saw no contradiction and I still don’t. I think it was a conservative movement and that’s ultimately why it prevailed.
I’m concerned about where things are right now. A lot of people are. I have trans friends. I am as committed to trans civil rights in terms of day-to-day living, and everything from pronouns to bathrooms, as anybody else. But there are aspects of gender radicalism that I’m increasingly uncomfortable with — not so much the doctrines as the ways that dissent against them are stigmatized. We talked about this earlier, you know, that dissent is not allowed. I worry about that. I don’t really think any ideas are extremely toxic if they’re introduced in a climate where they can be robustly debated and people aren’t afraid to challenge them and they have to stand on their own two feet.
And I’m also worried about what’s now called the LGBTQIAA+ movement. We saw ourselves — or at least I saw myself and I think many of my breed in my generation did — as unifiers in the sense that we were talking about civil rights for all Americans, the ability for all Americans to live according to the dictates of their conscience — gay or straight, religious or secular. We saw ourselves as joining, taking a place at the table rather than upending the table. And in doing so in the marriage movement, the military movement, the mentoring movement — the three M’s — we were pursuing those goals.
We were saying, “This isn’t just a gay rights movement, it’s a gay responsibilities movement.” It was in that sense very anti-radical. But then we got marriage, we got the military, and for the most part we got mentoring. People like me went into retirement or moved on. And some of the far-left types came back out of the woodwork and are now in the ascendance in at least parts of the movement. You’re seeing now, for example, some of the Gay Pride marches have excluded police, gay police. That’s shocking to me because we worked so hard to change those departments.
They persecuted us. They used us for sport. They would send handsome 20-something officers dressed up as gay guys to go into the parks, approach a gay guy in his car who’s sitting there doing the crossword puzzle and proposition him. And the gay guy might say, “Well, no, not really.” And then they’d keep at it, and the gay guy might say, “Okay, well then why don’t you get in? You can go home with me.” And they’d book him on the spot: solicitation, that’s a crime. They’d publish it in the newspaper the next day and the guy would be fired, right? Gay people knew canceling long before it was fashionable. So we worked for decades to get those people on our side. And now we’re saying they can’t participate?
So yeah, I am worried. But then, I kind of always am. And I try to remind people that liberal ideas require… They’re a very heavy lift. They require trust in these total strangers, in these rules that we didn’t write, in institutions that we didn’t build. They ask us to forego certainty. They say, “You’re going to have to lose elections and live with that and transfer power peacefully. You’re going to have to trust some scientist to tell you more about Coronavirus than what your next-door neighbor says.”
This is really hard. It will always be hard. We will always have to get up every morning and defend liberal ideas like free speech and the Constitution of Knowledge from scratch. And our children will have to do that, and their children will have to do that, through the end of time. And we just need to be cheerful about that because actually, all considered in the big sweep, we’re doing incredibly well. I take a lot of strength from reflecting on that.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s very heartening, Jon. Thank you so much for your friendship. Thank you so much for giving us this wonderful new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. And thank you for talking to me today.
Jonathan Rauch: I am so privileged to be here with you. Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.