I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
There is a howling sense of loss and fear animating the modern right, a belief that progressives won the culture war, took over American institutions, and are intent on nothing less than driving their enemies into the sea. From the progressive side, this mentality can be a little baffling. Have Democrats really won that much? And if so, why does so much feel so frustrating? Why can’t Joe Biden pass a climate bill, or a public option, or universal pre-K, or voting rights reform? I used to call this the Iron Law of Opposition. The other side always looks more ruthless, organized and effective to their opponents than they do to themselves. But politics runs on feeling much more than on fact, so whether this perspective on American politics is true, you cannot understand the views, the rhetoric, the tactics, the leadership of the rising populist right without first trying to inhabit the way they see politics over the past few decades. So that’s what we’re going to do today. But I want to take a moment to set up this argument, because this conversation, and some of the very real surprises it contains, is going to make much more sense with a little more context. My guest today is Patrick Deneen. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He’s author of the book “Why Liberalism Failed,” and co-author of the Substack “The Post Liberal Order.” And Deneen is fascinating to me, because he has undergone this profound radicalization just in the time I’ve known him. “Why Liberalism Failed” came out in 2018, and received a very respectful hearing among liberals who were grappling with some of the same questions and problems that he was. Barack Obama even promoted it on his “Books I’m Reading” list.
But since then, Deneen has moved towards embracing something more like total political war, counseling conservatives to abandon niceties like pluralism, to use the power of the state to crush their enemies, and to treat this moment at every level as a civilizational struggle. In an essay called “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism,” Deneen describes the world he sees. Quote, “the national trajectory over the past 75 years has been one of a continuous movement to ever more extreme forms of liberalism.” And that, if you’re liberal, may sound good to you, but he doesn’t think so. He writes, “liberalism’s internal logic leads inevitably to the evisceration of all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue, family, ennobling friendship, community, university, polity, church.” In another essay, he writes, “liberalism offered to humanity a false illusion of the blessings of liberty at the price of social solidity. It turns out that this promise was yet another tactic employed by an oligarchic order to strip away anything of value from the weak.”
And as that quote suggests, Deneen doesn’t see the problems of modern America as an accident. He sees it as malice. Take a speech at the 2021 National Conservatism Conference. In it, he attacks America’s ruling elites, “who have mutually benefited from the decimation of the working class of all races in this country, and of all geographic regions of this country. The full flowering of the reality of this ideology reveals it to be an ideology of rapine and plunder, the stripping of the wealth from a ship that they are sinking, while busily stocking the lifeboats until the last moment, when they will be able to cut loose.” If you see your enemies like that, if you see them as that sinister, but also as always winning, as having an almost unbroken record of success, well then, of course, the stakes are high. Of course, you would do almost anything to defeat them. But for all the force of Deneen’s rhetoric, for his fury at people like — I mean, I guess me, who he believes have destroyed the country he loves — I often find it hard to figure out what he’s actually saying should be done, what he would do or counsel others to do with the power he wants the right to win and wield so ruthlessly.
And so I asked him on the show to tell me. One quick note — we taped this episode before the Alito opinion overturning Roe leaked, so just keep that in mind. As always, my email for guest suggestions, things I should read, or watch of hear, feedback is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Deneen, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me back, Ezra.
So you and I, I think, are going to have some pretty real disagreements here. And so I thought it’d be good to begin with some goals for the conversation. So I want to better understand how the world looks and feels to you, because when I read the way you describe it, it’s not always how I recognize it. And I want to get a more specific understanding of what you do with power. And I want to try to make my positions a little more real to you, because I don’t always recognize myself in how you see my side of the debate.
But I also want to ask the same of you, if there are some goals you have for the conversation.
Sure, well, in some ways, I wonder whether we see a lot of the same things and understand them differently, or if we really just see fundamentally different things. So that’s one of my goals.
Yeah, I think that’s a very good framing question. So then let’s begin here. What is defensive crouch conservatism?
So this is an adaptation of a phrase that I first encountered, actually, in a blog post by Mark Tushnet, the law professor at Harvard University who condemned and called for an end of defensive crouch liberalism, or progressivism, and accused the progressives, especially in the Court, of seeking too little, and of achieving too little of the ends and purposes of the progressive movement.
And this is one area where as a conservative, I see the world in completely opposite ways, in which progressives have achieved a lot of the ends that they’ve set for themselves. The goals keep pushed further, but their goals seem to be achieved through such institutions as the Court in recent years, whereas the goals that at least once were stated as desires, or positions that were desirable to conservatives, have been increasingly abandoned in the face of that advance.
And so I wrote a piece for a Substack that I write for called “Post Liberal Order,” in which I called for the end of defensive crouch conservatism — in other words, not merely retreating to the next most defensible place, but rather seeking to advance to a goal, a place, a space, that represented more of an advance than a place of defense.
I want to hold on the Rashomon nature of victory here for a minute, because as you say, you took the inspiration of that from a law professor who believes that liberals, particularly in judicial issues, have gotten nowhere, and have completely given up on their long term goals, and are in a pure defensive crouch. So what do you think we’re not seeing about you — when you write that since the Reagan years, conservatives have consistently lost and lost overwhelmingly to progressive forces, tell me what you’ve lost.
What is the bill of what progressives have won?
Well, I mean, I guess we could look at a couple of areas. So one would certainly be that set of issues that are related to family and sexuality. And so you know, a generation, or two generations ago, the burning issues were whether divorce should be either legalized or liberalized — divorce laws. Other burning issues was premarital sex and whether that was or should be normalized. Things like gay marriage weren’t on the horizon at that point.
But they were issues, often related to sexuality, as related to especially heterosexuals. We’re now in a place where most of those issues aren’t even debates. You would more or less regard those as settled. And indeed, we’re at the point now where what was once a hotly debated topic just a decade ago — right, or less, so when Obama ran in his first term, he had to — sort of publicly felt that he had to publicly declare that he was not in favor of gay marriage.
That position was relatively briefly held, whether genuinely held or not, but it was deemed to be politically expedient at the time. And I think people on both the Left and Right regard that issue as largely settled today. So where once there was a kind of sense that we’re defending traditional institutions relating to human sexuality, human marriage, the norms of marriage, the governing customs that shaped and governed human sexual relationships, we’re in a completely different place today in that regard.
And so today, the battles tend to be fought more along the lines of, how far should the kind of now dominant, much more liberalized understanding of these kinds of issues, how far should these extend into the very institutions that once or even today hold traditional views of these relationships, and in particular, church and church affiliated institutions.
And so we’ve gone from a world in which you once had — to use the Reagan era — you once had claims about a moral majority, to an era in which now many of the battles that take place are between those who seek to advance a progressive agenda and those who are trying to create a kind of shield of religious liberty behind which their institutions, to the extent that they have any health in them, and vitality, their institutions can remain in some ways their own.
That’s a very different place that we’ve traveled from the 1980s, and 40 years later through today.
What’s interesting about that account to me is that I would probably agree that issues of human sexuality are almost unique in the political environment for how much change has been in 30 years, let’s call it. But when you write about the political atmosphere, you write very broadly, right? You didn’t say in that sentence I quoted, the conservatives have lost on issues of human sexuality. You say they’ve lost.
I mean, Mark Tushnet, in his piece, is not primarily talking about issues of human sexuality. He looks around and thinks we’ve lost, and he’s talking about things like campaign finance funding and reform. Obviously, where the court seems to be going on abortion is to deliberalize it. Across a broad range of questions of business regulation, of universal insurance, of how taxes and tax increases are understood in the electorate — that to progressives, there’s no narrative of overwhelming victory here.
And in fact, there’s a deep feeling of continuous disappointment and unfulfilled expectation. Do you think you might be over-reading one particular area as a generalizable fact about politics?
I actually think that it’s precisely in many of the — what you regard as the losses, or the lack of advances, for the progressive cause, that has actually led to something of a kind of realignment that we’re seeing in our politics today. And that is to say, the people who have been, I would gather — I would guess, I would stipulate — who have been most negatively affected by the supposed triumphs of conservatives, so-called, which I would call — which I think we would agree, probably we would call them neoliberals, economic libertarians.
That these triumphs have fallen particularly hard on the working classes, the lower classes, regardless of race in the United States, and has led to not only, of course, the rise of — on the one hand, a pushback against some of the woke aspects on the more social conservative side, but have also led on the Right to an internal battle in which the progressive side of the Republican Party is seeking to overthrow, overturn, limit, if not outright banish, the more economically libertarian figures, and share many of the same concerns that you just expressed about the lack of success among — in the progressive movement — on many of those issues.
So one thing you say in this piece is that conservatives, in your view, have spent several decades denying that objective truth had any claim in the political order. What is objective truth?
Well, I guess you know, we might agree on some things as being objective truth, that human beings need — seem to require certain kinds of conditions to flourish. If we want proof about this nature of human reality, we might turn to the occasional social science study that demonstrates that when human beings have very limited sphere of friendships and relationships, they tend to be unhappy. The more they feel isolated, the more various kinds of pathologies arise.
Obviously, the less economic support they have, the provisions that are material and needed for life, the more likely they are to develop certain kinds of both health as well as mental pathologies. These, both economic and relational aspects, have been under continual assault, from both the Left and the Right, I would argue. And that was the argument of my last book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” that both the Left and the Right, in their various liberal guises, have advanced an economic program and a social program that has particularly affected in a negative way those of less means and less education in our country.
And of course, here, reality again — what is truth? Reality again intrudes in the form of deaths of despair, suicides or overdoses, all kinds, again, of both health and mental pathologies that we see in the country today. And here, I would say that this is one area where we might disagree on the causes, but I think we would probably recognize in the sort of feedback from the world that we recognize, and that we can objectively sort of study, that we would say this is a reflection of something that’s true about the human condition.
But there’s a shift in what you said in that answer that I want to pick out a little bit here, because what you wrote is that conservatives in this case — but as you say, also liberals — deny objective truth. And you say the objective truth is that human beings need some conditions to flourish, that friendship is good, that loneliness is bad, that poverty is destructive. I don’t know anybody, conservative or liberal, who denies any of that.
Now, there’s a lot of disagreement, difficulty, disappointment in how to combat some of this. And we can come back and talk about what gets called depths of despair, which I think is a very complicated set of issues. But one thing I see sometimes in your writing is a tendency to make a very strong claim about how everybody else on the other side, the liberal order, has given up on caring about people, has given up on believing in fundamental institutions, when my experience of them is that they actually believe in many of the same things that you say you believe in.
But for a lot of reasons that are — I’m sure we will end up talking about — these things are harder to control or build through government than one might expect. Now, maybe you could say they failed and, they should be replaced by people who have your policies. But it’s a really different claim to say they don’t believe in these things, from — you think that, say, trade policy was poorly constructed, and that the promised gains didn’t materialize.
Like, I don’t believe in friendship and I was wrong about trade policy are very, very different views of the opposition.
So I think one area where maybe you would find that what seem like strong claims on my part have some foundation is that all of these ways in which what I just described as sort of objectively measurable forms of reality that relate to the truth of the human being, and ways in which our society is not well founded and well formed in such ways to support those necessary goods of life, I would place, and conservatives would place, the greatest stress, the sort of most foundational stress on the health of the family.
That, in some ways, the health of all of the rest of these aspects of life, whether it’s relational, whether it’s economic, whether it’s developing the kind of virtues and goods of human life, that those — in some ways, they’re not guaranteed within the family form and the family structure. But in a sense, it’s the necessary, if not sufficient condition. In almost all cases, it’s the necessary condition.
And here, I think I would primarily fault what I see as not just a kind of benign neglect or failed policies, but an actual hostility that is increasingly articulated and become a kind of central tenet in the progressive movement, that regards family with a growing and palpable sense of suspicion, that the family is a structure of inequality, of hierarchy that favors certain types of relationships, that is a structure of patriarchy and injustice.
And look, I’ve been teaching in universities long enough to know that this is a widespread sentiment, especially in the intellectual classes. And it filters down in lots of ways, through journalism, and all the manifold ways that the intellectual class sort of gets the message out. Now, I don’t think, for that matter, that conservatives have done a especially good job of articulating not just a support of family values, but articulating the kinds of both political and social and economic policies that would be more supportive of family.
But I do think that is one area where if there is going to be a successor to the sort of Reagan era conservatism, this is going to be — and really is becoming a central area focus among contemporary, new conservatives.
I’d like you to substantiate that a little bit more than you did there, because I see it, as somebody who is progressive, pretty differently. So on the one hand, I don’t really know that many people — I’m not actually sure I know any — who are abstractly suspicious or hostile to the idea of the family. Everybody I know is tangled up in complex family, loving, critical, difficult, beautiful family relationships.
If I look at our last two presidents, Barack Obama is a pretty profound family man. Donald Trump, who I think more represents this form of populist conservatism to many in it, very much is not. Now, I don’t think you’re wrong to say — and I’m sure it’s somewhat true in academia — that there are critiques of the family, because of course, the family is a site of some amount of suffering, of difficulty, of abuse, of sexual abuse, of people being hurt in many ways that they have to carry with them through their lives.
And there are questions about what to do with that. But I don’t really think of progressivism, or for that matter conservatism, either — but I’ll defend progressivism here — as having an abstract anti-family agenda. In fact, in my experience, in the time I’ve been covering politics, there’s just a constant, endless stream of discussions about what policies can we pass that will make it easier for families to go about their business — child tax credits. If you look at Build Back Better, universal pre-K.
If you look at — you know, go back to the Obama administration, there was tons of these in his budget. You know, how do you deal with the transportation questions for parents who need to work a job? It can go on and on like this. And again, I’m open to the idea that many policies failed, or policies that should have been passed weren’t. I think there have been destructive effects on family. But I think there’s something strange here. I don’t see the hostility you see.
So I’d like to hear you substantiate the hostility better, not the fact that there are problems in families, but the idea that you’re really facing a movement that doesn’t believe in families.
Yeah, hostility — again, I’ll just invoke the university world for a moment. But one sees, for example, efforts in the legal world, increasingly, to throw a kind of spotlight of suspicion on the traditional family form, you could say.
So some of these are, for example, taking on the idea that parents should be seen as in some ways the default guides of their children, efforts that are being undertaken in some legal theories that are attempting to redefine the role of and relationship of parents to children as one of a kind of — in which parents are kind of trustees that are understood to work on behalf of the values of the state or the political order, and that the relationship of parent to child is understood in the light of a kind of deputizing of parents in that role.
So that, what it does, is it creates a situation in which if it’s deemed for whatever political reasons that the parents are not working on behalf of the values of the state, that the children are no longer in some sense — sort of should be understood as the wards of the parents, primarily. In other words, the stress is given to the role of, and the relationship, of the political order in the next generation.
Can you be specific here? Is there a law that has been passed like this, or is it —
No, this is — no, this is development, basically, in law reviews, where a lot of this begins. So it’s developments in the legal world, theoretical developments in the legal world, as is the case in many — this is how arguments about gay marriage really get their start. They begin by appearing in the law journals. They get — you put up a flag, you see how it flies. I’m not predicting, necessarily, these are going to become outright law, but these are efforts of construction by law professors at elite universities.
And you’re seeing it as well in arguments about home schooling, and beginning to move in the direction of the German state and its banning of home schooling. So — just a kind of effort to construct, reconstruct the understanding of the family as basically working for and on behalf of the values of the state, and the presumption being a largely progressive state. Now, you may regard that — this is crazy talk. And you know, where is the proof of this?
But this is precisely the kind of intellectual development that begins at the level, very high levels, very theoretical levels, very intellectual levels, but sifts its way and works its way down into journalism and legal cases. And I think this is a major sort of next step, or next development, arising from the very transformations about family and sexuality that we began by talking about.
I don’t regard it as crazy talk. But I do regard it as a bit of a two step. And the way I regard it that way is this, that I’ve read — I read a lot of your work for this. I spent a lot of time in Patrick Deneen’s head in the past couple of weeks.
I’m really sorry about that.
It was a pleasure in many ways, and a little unnerving in others, but that’s how it always is. You are describing — you are mounting an assault on politics as it exists. You do not write about, well, I think there is this one marginal legal theory movement that I think should be stopped. Depending on how it actually is, it’s hard for me to know from how you describe it, maybe I’d even agree.
But I want to steel man the position — you could tell me if this is wrong. I want to steel man the position I think you actually hold, because what I think you’re saying in a lot of your work, the way I read it, is that progressivism, liberalism has actually done tangible things, not in law review articles, but in law, that matter here. And I’ll name two. As you mentioned earlier, there was a Supreme Court decision applying a constitutionality to same sex marriage, making it sacrosanct under our law.
I view that as a pro-family measure, but I think you don’t. And then there is, of course, over the past however many decades, been the rise of no fault divorce laws, which allow people to dissolve family structures. Which, I think, if I read you correctly, you have some real concerns about. But I’d like to use those as an example here. I mean, is this what you are talking about? Is this what you’re saying is the hostility to the objective need for a strong family, that we have made it easier to get divorced and made it possible for same sex couples to have a family and raise children together?
Well, I would say those are two very visible examples of forms in which a general skepticism, slash maybe hostility, but certainly a general effort to displace the norm of the family for the sovereignty of the individual, and the sovereignty of individual choice. So you go from a relationship that’s regarded as sacrosanct, that’s blessed not only by the state but by the institutions that believe themselves to be carrying on the commands of divinity of God.
And you turn it into a contract of consenting adults. The family is, of course, it’s the last of the really hard institutions for the liberal order. The fundamental premise of liberalism is that we are free and equal human beings, right, that we are self sovereigns, creators of our own destiny. But of course, every human life begins without choice. It begins without me choosing my parents, and without parents choosing their children. It’s a kind of existing contradiction to this ideal of the liberal human being.
And so in some ways, what you’re discerning in my writings isn’t just, oh, I’m looking at this policy or that policy. What’s the general trend and trajectory of all of these things we’ve been talking about, altogether? And let’s add into this what we could see as the burgeoning technologies, the technologies that already exist — right, contraception, abortion, the ability to abort a child.
But also the technologies of reproduction, ones that perhaps promise or suggest the possibility of creating human life outside of the womb, outside altogether of the need of individual human beings to be even knowledgeable about the creation of new life so that we can begin to move to the point where we can select the characteristics of the children that we might wish to have.
These are all part of a general trajectory that I think is a reflection of the belief that the family is the last frontier that has to be overcome for us to become the vision of human beings that lies at the heart of the liberal anthropology, of the belief of what human beings genuinely are.
Overcome is a word I wouldn’t use, but I do understand why altered would be relevant here. But this is a place where I do want to ask you to be specific. So I’m a child of a divorced home. My parents split up when I was 12. I think something you know as a child of a divorced home is that your parents splitting up does not end they’re bonds to you, doesn’t even end their bonds to each other.
Once chosen at any level, for the most part, in one way or another, these relationships have to maintain some kind of cable between them forever. But my parents made each other unhappy, not through anything horrible. It made us unhappy, as children in that household. Should they have not been allowed to get divorced?
Well, I think we live in a world in which that argument conforms to exactly the liberal presuppositions that I was just saying inform so much of the background assumptions that we make in the world.
But this is a policy question, not just an argument.
It is, but in other words, when you frame it — well, should unhappy people stay in an unhappy marriage. In terms of the assumptions that underlie that question, well, you know, who would want someone to be unhappy? If you change the frame of that question in certain ways — so in the first instance, we know, at least social science tells us, and I’m not speaking about you personally. I’m just talking about the aggregate — that children of divorced households do worse by a whole range of measures.
Economically, as a result of all of the upheaval that often puts children through, especially young children, but also psychological, mental issues that arise — in other words, that it seems to be the case, if we are going to give some credence to these measures, that divorce actually makes children, and the children that elicit from marriage, it makes children unhappier, and that civilization has understood that marriage, relationships between human beings, and maybe marriage above all, is a relationship that is difficult, it’s trying.
And it needs external supports. And one way you support that externally is to make the default that it’s difficult to exit that relationship, so that you — in some ways, you’re required to work on the relationship rather than exit the relationship. That might seem like an idealized form or way of putting it, but it builds on an older insight by the economist Albert Hirschman from his book, “Exit, Loyalty, and Voice.”
What Hirschman proposed — he was looking at this in economic terms — and what Hirschman proposed was that there are sort of two responses to a situation in which we might be unhappy. There is the option of exiting that situation. But there’s another way in which we can relate to the condition of unhappiness, which is through voice, which is through the effort to work through, which is to call for reform.
And I think — really, the question we’re faced with is, what is the default when it comes to something like marriage? And here, the sort of social norms, and even social laws will play a big role. What is the default when it comes to this relationship that’s so key and critical in the raising — propagation, and raising of the next generation? And here’s where I would say, I would like that default to be one in which encourages loyalty and voice, in which the easier route of exit is more difficult.
I’m not saying it has to be impossible, but it’s more difficult, and it’s more difficult for the sake of the children that elicit from that marriage, because even children who are in a marriage — an intact marriage of a mother and a father who might be unhappy tend to do better in life. I’m not saying it’s true always and everywhere, but I’m talking about defaults here.
Well, the social science on that, I do want to note, is very sensitive to what you control for, in terms of the divorce. We don’t tend to do random, experimental trials, of getting some people divorced and some people not. And so these things very much have to do with what you control for. But I don’t necessarily think it’s implausible that if you could do that, you would find that kids who are in a family that stays married relatively happily will do better than kids who aren’t. I think that would be intuitive.
I’ll say two things, and then get your answer, and then move on from this topic. One is that the sort of movement there, to this idea of voice — I mean, I’m sure you know, Patrick, people get divorced. Every family I know who’s gotten divorced, there’s a lot of voice before that. In the very few examples I know of when there is simply a falling of the curtain, unexpectedly and instantly, it’s usually due to a rupture, like an affair or abuse.
Divorce is horrible. People go through it — not quickly. And it’s not easy, particularly with the children. Nothing about it is easy. It’s unbelievably trying on everybody involved. So I can imagine ways you can make it easier for people to work on things. Andrew Yang proposed in 2020 that marriage counseling should be fully subsidized. I agree with that. I think it’s actually a great idea. But I don’t really know what it is you are saying here.
This is what I mean by, I want to understand what you are proposing you would do if you had the power to do it. Would you make no fault divorce not an option? Would you say that the state is going to have marriage counseling, and you’ve got to go through that for a year? You’ve accused sort of liberals of being hostile to marriage. You said the way, or at least one way, in which they’re hostile to marriage is that divorce has become too easy.
And OK, if the post liberals had their chance, or when they look around the world at other regimes — because there are many other regimes — they think what they would do is?
Oh, well, I’m actually completely in agreement. I wasn’t aware of that proposal by Andrew Yang. I think it’s a great one. In fact, not only should it be subsidized, but you just suggested a policy I think would be perfectly legitimate, which is that marriage counseling would have to be undertaken for a year, particularly where there are children involved. That’s exactly the kind of thing where it makes exit just not necessarily the most immediate option. Let voice have its turn and its play.
And let the public order support the expression of voice. And that’s one way that the public order would support the exercise of voice. Let’s have some form of counseling for a period of time. One of the interesting studies that I’m always fascinated by is the measures of happiness and unhappiness in marriage. And over the course of a marriage, what studies consistently show is that people are happiest at the beginning of the marriage and into the later part of their marriage.
The time of the greatest stress and unhappiness is, not uncoincidentally, the time when you have children, and especially young children. And having now just gotten to the point where I’m in an empty nest, as they say, I’m very familiar with this phenomenon.
I got a three-year-old and a 6-month-old.
Yeah, so you know what I’m talking about.
I love my wife. I’m not suggesting we’re having problems, but it’s a lot of stress.
It’s a lot of stress. And now, looking back at it from the other side, I recognize just how much stress we were experiencing compared to where we are now. So I think part of the wisdom, I would say, of a civilization that values and honors the long marriage — and I’m not talking law and policy now. I’m talking the sort of general, let’s say, tenor of a civilization, that a long marriage is celebrated.
It’s something to aspire to, the same way you want to have the most followers on Twitter today, or the most followed Instagram — whatever the thing is that people think is the biggest deal. A good civilization, in my view, would be one that honors and celebrates the long marriage, in which the parents become grandparents, and even great grandparents, and they become the sort of senior elders of the family. And they’re celebrated by that, not just by their own family, but by the broader community as a whole.
And I think that backdrop recognizes that marriages wax and wane and happiness. I’m not saying there aren’t marriages that are just deeply, profoundly broken and unhappy, but that maybe in a context in which the default is we celebrate and honor and encourage a marriage of longevity and multigenerational relationships is one in which more and more people would come to realize that one of the goals is to reach the other side, where happiness will bloom in a new and different way, even if you go through those times of trial, difficulty and even, yes, unhappiness.
What is striking to me about our conversation here is — I don’t know. I want to see if you’ll agree with this. When we last spoke, you had written “Why Liberalism Failed.” And that was a book that has had an influence on me. I’ve thought about it a lot since. And it had an influence on a lot of people. Barack Obama, President Obama, put it on his end of the year reading list that year.
So it did not exactly find a unwilling audience to hear what I take is your core critique, which is that liberalism — using it here as the broad push for individualism, not just the left of the American political spectrum — has created a society of too much choice, too little tradition, and too weak institutions, in a way that has left many people behind. And since then, where it seems to me there’s a lot of possibilities for you to work with people, for there to be some ideas around this — in fact, every time I bring up an idea you’re, like, yeah that’s a good one.
Andrew Yang, that’s a liberal who has a good idea.
Your writing about liberals, Patrick, has gotten incredibly slashing. It has become very much that you are an embattled minority going to war against a majority that hates and oppresses you. And I mean, I can read you a bunch of quotes here. I’ve got them if you’d like them. But there’s a — I actually want to ask you about this directly. There’s a gentleness to your tone as we talk, a desire to look for coalition, an alliance, that strikes me as very true to a lot of the things you believe.
And then there’s, at the same time, in the Patrick I read now, a belief that we’re in this almost apocalyptic struggle, that everything that is good is being destroyed by people who intend to destroy it, watch the common man flail, and take the riches for themselves. And I mean, I can actually read you a quote of yours just like that. And I’m having trouble, because I want to understand that critique of yours, but I’m not eliciting it in this.
And so do you feel there’s a difference between you in this conversation, and you sometimes in the Substack, and some of the pieces you’ve been writing. And if so, why?
I don’t recognize it. Maybe it’s just in interacting, one seeks to try to find some degree of overlap. You know, in many ways —
Can I read you a quote?
“The managerial elite came to see itself as opposed to everything the working class embodied. Its representatives denounce deplorables who cling to their guns and Bibles, backward looking, loyal to declining places and benighted, they died deaths of despair that were their own fault.” So —
And that’s not — OK, seems right to me.
OK, so that’s great. So then this gives us something specific to sort of unpack here. So one thing in terms of the people, like, say, Obama here, who you quote when you say cling to their guns and bibles. I’m saying here that the people you’re describing, myself included, who I think is probably part of the managerial elite — I managed a publication for many years, I’m part of the laptop class.
I probably am too, I’ll have to admit.
Right — that we have this really vicious view of people dying depths of despair that were their own fault. Right, that’s what you write. But let me read you what Barack Obama says before the part of that that you quote. He says, “you go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania. And like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration.
And each successive administration has said that somehow, these communities are going to regenerate. And they have not.” And so Obama I think very much regrets saying cling to their guns and Bibles. But he explicitly, explicitly — the whole point of that quote is that it is not their fault that people are angry and justifiably so because they have been failed for decades by policy. And so when we talk here, I think we might even agree on some of the policies, and could come to an agreement on them.
But what you want to say, and what you do say, is that people, like, from this class, believe it’s all their fault and they should be left to their despair. And not only is that, I think, not true, but it also really narrows the space for alliances to work on things that could be a value here. That’s the kind of difference that I’m trying to get at.
So in part, I think some of what you’re hearing from me is — clearly, I’m a critic of some part of your tribe, and I assume the tribe of people who are going to be listening to this, which are people on the progressive side, who have, I think, often condemned, or been prone to condemn the backward thinking people who live in flyover country, who by their own decision live in flyover country, who could through you know, their own hard work, had they applied themselves, could have gotten out of those backward towns and made something of themselves in the modern economy.
President Obama might have lamented this condition, but I don’t necessarily think he was — his presidency was a model of commitment to making the kinds of policy or jawboning the kinds of encouragement of what our country would need to do to make these places bountiful and viable places for people to live, and for, in particular, those who are not part of the managerial class to thrive.
But I — also, what I want to stress is I hold the same set of critiques toward people who arguably, I guess, are in my tribe, although I don’t even know if I identify in the tribe of conservatives — who hold the same view. A quote that I often juxtapose to that kind of an observation comes from Kevin Williamson, from an essay that he wrote, in which he was quite explicit in condemning the sort of backward, rural, supposed Springsteen hero who simply should just get a U-Haul and pull himself up by his bootstraps, and go somewhere where he can be productive. And this kind of sentiment is bipartisan, of a certain part, of both of our political parties today. The managerial elite is not left or right. In some ways, it’s a kind of uniparty that has notionally split up the left and right, but which has both advanced policies that I think have been — as well as just kind of priorities — that have been very damaging to the ordinary working person in this country.
And to signpost this, so you understand what I’m trying to do here too, there’s two sides of that that I’m trying to pull apart. One is your view of at least how the managerial elite think about what they’re doing. I think I just read you a quote, from a quote you used, that directly contradicts the way you described, say, Obama, in this case, as understanding what is happening in a lot of these Midwestern communities.
He is saying that they were failed, and you are saying that he said they are failures. And those things are just not the same. Now, you say then, which I think is a very fair critique, it’s not fully what I agree with, because I have different policy views, but I would at least agree partially, that the Obama administration, certainly in your view, was not a model of trying to address the underlying weaknesses, failures, policy regimes, that have led to a fair amount of economic and social devastation in poor communities.
So that’s why on the other side of this, I’m trying to elicit what it is you want to do. I mean, we talked about this question of divorce, and I don’t think I’m still all that clear about where that ends up. But tell me your positive agenda. If there’s been so much failure among the elites of both parties, and I think that’s completely reasonable — you know, if you had 72 votes in the Senate and the presidency, what would you be passing? What would you do that they all have not?
In certain respects, it won’t shock you, Ezra, probably to hear that I’m a former man of the Left, who certainly isn’t comfortable in today’s Left, but doesn’t feel extremely comfortable in today’s Right, either. In a lot of ways, what I would say is that — what I would propose are things that were once recognizably, probably, at the heart, formerly, of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party I grew up in.
I’m an Irish-Catholic guy. My grandmother had a picture of the Pope and John F. Kennedy up on her kitchen wall. And that’s the kind of world I grew up in, but that party doesn’t seem recognizable to me anymore. And if it seems that party is recognizable to you, maybe we’re just not seeing the same thing. So that answers part of the question that I began with.
But here’s what I would propose. So conservatism arose — and you know this story, and maybe your listeners know this story, conservatism arose in the ‘60s, ‘70s, as a kind of effort to put together three parts of the American electorate — what’s often described as fusionism, the sort of economic libertarians, social conservatives, Christians — Catholics, particularly — and foreign policy hawks who were anti-Soviet, anti-communist. Those are the three legs of the stool.
And I think the election of Donald Trump, and the wheres he was able to put together — in discovering where the electorate, in this case, the Republican electorate, maybe not even Republican electorate, where a new majority could be born. And it turns out that it wasn’t the old fusion, it’s a new fusion, but it’s also an old fusion in a sense that it’s the old fusion of something of the old Democratic party.
And the first instance, it’s economically — it’s not libertarian. It seeks to promote, especially, an idea of the economy and markets that serve ordinary people. I could broadly call that the common good, but especially make it possible for people to flourish even if they’re not among the top 20 percent earners of America. And that’s clearly the case today, that the people who are in the bottom certainly 50 percent just simply are not flourishing. And that’s not a good civilization. That’s not a good country.
What would this look like in terms of policy? It would mean pro-worker policies. And it would mean the encouragement, through government policy, of domestic production. It would be to move the values of our economy, and more broadly our society, toward production and not consumption. It would become fiercely anti-monopolistic, which I think that’s something we might agree upon.
And yes, it would have to address issues of immigration. That seems to be especially an issue that negatively affects those who are at the lower end of the economic scale. And we can debate over that. But I think it’s not unreasonable to suspect that immigration is more beneficial to the wealthy than to the working class. It would mean to go back to what we’ve been talking about, social policies that don’t merely just tolerate the family, or say a family is good if that’s what you want, but actually encourage and support family.
And that can and should, I would argue, take the form of monetary support, especially for parents of children — remove some of the stress that we were talking about earlier. And this would mean not merely child tax credits or even payments so that a parent can pay for child care outside of the home, but giving parents, young parents, parents of small children, the option for one or both parents to stay home through direct payments, direct transfers from the federal government to families of children, so that if a parent wants to stay home with children and raise those children, it’s possible for them to do that.
So this would be, in my view, social policies that would give priority, would switch the default in some ways, to one in which we publicly praise and support the ideal of the family. And third, a revamped fusion would adopt a foreign policy that decreases the U.S. efforts, in some ways, to advance a kind of imperial liberalism in the world, that recognizes that we live in a multipolar world, and that abandons the foreign policy of which we have to have boots on the ground everywhere and at all times.
And I think those three changes, if you will, or different stresses in what was once the fusionism of the Right, resemble what the old Democratic Party used to be. But for whatever interesting set of reasons, and ones we could discuss, it seems to me that those have gravitated today from the Left to the Right.
What’s funny about that to me is that they seem to me to resemble what the current Democratic Party is. I mean, let me go through this, like, piece by piece. Immigration, you and I disagree on the empirics of that. I don’t think — I think the evidence is terrible that it’s bad for low wage workers on average. And I think the evidence is there that it’s actually good for them. And there would be a lot of ways to construct it so be even better. But let’s agree that we are going to disagree on immigration.
On the other pieces, though, this sounds frankly a lot like Joe Biden, or at least directionally like Joe Biden is. So on antitrust, Biden has brought in the absolute most aggressive antitrust team we have seen in years. You have Lina Khan at F.T.C. You have Tim Wu at the National Economics Council. Every key member of the new, much more aggressive antitrust movement, almost, is in the administration.
On the issue of children, the Biden administration passed this very big child tax credit. I know you said you don’t just want a tax credit, but the child tax credit is $3,000 or $3,600 per kid, depending on how old the kid is, up to certain income limits and so on. But that is a step in the direction, certainly, of paying parents for having children. And one could go further, but that’s further than we have gone.
In terms of foreign policy, Joe Biden’s foreign policy isn’t mine, but the very big foreign policy thing he’s done with incredible levels of public criticism, and I think a lot of it unmerited — although some of it merited — is withdraw Americans from Afghanistan, and bring that seeming forever war to a genuine close. And I bring all this up not to try to get you to endorse Joe Biden.
But to say that — there is, again, for me, this sort of strange gap between what I hear described as the liberal hostility to the family, to the agenda — nobody’s talking about any of this — and actually what I see covering politics, which is that, particularly on the Democratic side, they may not agree with you on other issues of human sexuality or social issues. But in terms of the economics, there’s a tremendous amount of space for coalition.
And so when I read you describing how you have to give up on pluralism, or you know, how there’s this terrible fight that must be won, there actually seems to be a lot of coalitional possibility here. You seem to be describing something that is much more within the boundaries of not just the politically possible, but the politically in vogue, than I think you either realize or see yourself as saying.
It’s really interesting. And I think you’re right, that everything I described is in some way, shape, or form recognizable in Joe Biden. And it’s a striking thing, because Joe Biden is in some ways the last gasp of that Democratic Party I was just talking about. I mean, he’s literally you know, the last generational connection, or among the last generational connections to that old Democratic Party.
But I don’t see that that’s the center of gravity. I see him as in some ways the last gasp, and the one candidate that the Democrats and especially African-Americans in South Carolina believed that could defeat Donald Trump. But the future of the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to me to be Joe Biden, and it doesn’t seem to me to be all of those things that I just expressed.
But why? I mean, Joe Biden, everything —
Well I mean, you tell me why.
Well, but I want to ask you about the actual alternatives here, because everything I just described — and I didn’t mention the Buy American and onshore manufacturing provisions, but I could have and should have. But most of those were in — not literally every one, but most of these were in Barack Obama’s budgets. And then if you look at the alternative in the primary, the runner up, Bernie Sanders’ plans for every single one of these things were bigger.
It’s not like he didn’t agree with them. It’s always funny to me, J.F.K., I assume you’re — J.F.K. was a very modest president in terms of the amount he wanted to support families or do anything. It was far, far, far more incremental than what we’re talking about with—
Oh, sure —
— Biden, or just about anybody. And he was much more expansionist in his foreign policy, too. So it’s funny to me to have J.F.K. — you’re nostalgia for the Democratic Party seems a little misplaced, and maybe your pessimism about its future also feels to me — maybe this will be good news — a little misplaced. I think there are things you don’t like about where the Democratic Party is going, but I think those things exist in parallel to all the things that you just described.
It strikes me as fundamentally pretty near the consensus of the party right now.
Well, that may be the consensus of the party because Joe Biden is currently president. But I don’t know that it’s the consensus of where, certainly, the — let’s say intellectual and political energy going into the future is. I think Biden was, in some ways, the kind of — again, miraculous choice. He wasn’t the first choice of most of the people I was talking to during the primaries. He seemed like the afterthought all along.
I thought that if the Democratic Party had the good sense to nominate him, he would be the one guy that probably could defeat Donald Trump. But it doesn’t seem to me from where I’m sitting and from what I’m reading — and again, maybe we’re just seeing the world quite differently — that the future of the Democratic Party is going to be Joe Biden’s party.
But I’m asking you about Bernie Sanders, or someone like that, because it sounds to me like what you want is a more economically populist Democratic Party. And I agree with you that Biden has some distinctive qualities. But where the Democratic party is going is much more expansive on things like child tax credits and onshoring manufacturing. I mean, it’s not moving in a neoliberal direction. Like, Bill Clinton is very much the past of it.
Whereas the future — that’s what I’m trying to get you to consider the alternative, Joe Biden as fact, not something else. Like, which one of these things do you think that Bernie Sanders didn’t support?
It’s interesting that when Bernie ran, he came out — for example, he came out against immigration, arguing that it was a Koch Brother agenda item.
In an interview with me. Although that was, to be fair, about open borders, not broad immigration bills.
Yeah, OK, so fair enough — OK, all right. Yeah, well — OK, that’s relevant. In other words, I think to the extent that Bernie represents this kind of populist working class movement, he is someone who could and should — and I think did receive a lot of support. He won Michigan. He received a lot of support from the working class.
The problem is that can the Democratic Party — or let’s say, progressives within the party, which I think is now the younger part of the party, where the energy is — can they support policies in which not only will they support, let’s say, some of the economic policies that support the working class, but the ways of life, the values of the working class, people who work the kinds of jobs with stuff, in construction sites, and electricians, and HVAC workers.
They live in places, often places where they and their family have lived for generations. They are proud of their histories and their traditions. They love America. They fly the American flag on the back of pickup trucks. They espouse values that today do not conform, and indeed are often held in low regard, by the mainstream — I would think the mainstream of what, certainly, the future of the Democratic Party or the progressive movement is oriented toward.
And I think this is why it is now the case that the Right finds it easier to move left on economic issues than the Left finds it to move right on social issues. And this is why, whether you like it or not — and this is not going to result from our conversation, but whether you like it or not, the Republican Party is becoming the working class party, and the Democratic Party is becoming the party of high tech managerial elite, the college educated, and so forth.
So the question to you is not that you should convince me that I should be a supporter of the Democratic Party. My question would be, why is this party that you’re trying to convince me I should be supporting — why is it no longer supported by the people that once, a generation ago, would have supported your party?
Well, I’d say two things. One, I’m actually not trying to convince you to support the Democratic Party. I’m trying to —
It sounds like it.
— differentiate. Well, what I’m trying to do is differentiate the revolution you see we need to have from what people are already proposing, because there’s an intensity to the politics that you now espouse that kind of puzzles me when I try to net it out to policy making. But to the question you just asked, I’d say two things. One, I don’t think what you’re picking up there is false. I do think that there’s a genuine out of touch-ness that is a problem for the Democratic Party. On the other hand, I do think it’s empirically untrue what you’re saying. I mean, if you look at exit polling from 2020, Biden wins 55 percent of voters who make less than $50,000 a year, and 51 percent of voters who make more than $50,000 a year. So in terms of who’s winning lower income voters, it’s actually the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party. Which isn’t to say I don’t think the Democratic Party has its issues there, in not finding itself profoundly culturally out of step with people whose material interests it both claims, and in my view, does represent, is a genuine challenge for it.
But at the same time, I think what I’m trying to understand more in your political project here — and more of a challenge for it than I think sometimes that you admit — is a lot of what you’re proposing is being proposed. A lot of the tangible things you want to do to appeal to the people you say are left behind are already being proposed, offered. Campaigns are being run on them — which is why I’m trying to elicit this, what is the agenda here that is new?
What is the agenda here that is carving out a different future for people than they can currently expect under one of the two parties that can currently vote for?
Part of what I find myself arguing against is both what I see as the hostility, or at least the suspicion on the left, of what we might broadly call traditional institutions, institutions — we talked about family, obviously church, religious institutions, smaller communities, localities that are often seen as the locus of prejudice and backwardness. And even today, the nation — right, the political unit that was once regarded as the one thing we could all sort of agree on, that we have affection for the nation. And increasingly, it seems to me the progressive strand of the Left regards the nation with a great deal of suspicion and even condemnation. On the Right, at least under its sort of Paul Ryan form, it was especially the economic policies, the kind of libertarian economic policies that effectively were also working to undermine those sets of institutions, that created the economic conditions of economic concentration, offshoring, the weakening of our industrial and manufacturing base, that also combined to weaken those institutions.
In other words, without a reformulation of both the contemporary political Left and the contemporary political Right, I don’t see anything really getting better. I see, actually, everything continuing to get worse than it is. And for as long as we keep dividing the world between these false choices of liberal left or progressive left and neoliberal right, it seems to me that we’re given this false choice that only will end in a worse situation. So if my writing is strident or seeks to set a very strong set of claims against another set of claims, it’s because in some ways I see that it’s the entire political class and economic class that have to be taken on. And I guess that calls for some rhetoric, and a stance that’s not going to be soft pedaling the situation.
You do say that. And it’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about in this, because let me pull something out of that comment that I think is really valuable in your thought, which is starting with the question of institutions — asking what institutions it is you want to strengthen. And I see you as having — you could tell me if this is wrong — but I read you as having two primary levels of critique here. And one level of critique is that over a long period of time, a set of policies and cultural understandings have come into force which have given people too much choice, and given people too much cultural license to exercise that choice in ways that have really weakened institutions for people in the bottom half of the income scale, let’s say. So we have geographic mobility that takes people out of the communities they grew up in, and they move to big cities where they can make more money.
We have no fault divorce and gay marriage, which allow people to form or unform family units in ways where you think the default, at the very least, is in the wrong place. We have a general view that people should go off and find their loved ones wherever, and we can kind of keep going through. So one question I’m interested in there is around what choices you think we have today that we should have less of. But on the other level — is I think you believe that all these choices have created a kind of elite class that is so detached from guild, ward and congregation, as you put it, that they are now a corrupt elite. They cannot possibly represent or help guide the people they need to represent, or help guide, because they have no authentic connection to them. And it’s that connection of a high choice society, creating an elite, making fundamentally different choices, that you see as the fundamental corrupting force.
Did I get that in a way that is recognizable to you at least?
Yeah, that’s actually probably better than I could have put it myself, but yes. And you know — that in some ways, the rise of the success of that elite class that you — the second point — has considerably relied upon precisely the weakening of the institutions of guild, ward, and congregation. In other words, what liberated this increasingly — let’s say, cosmopolitan, globalized, urban ruling class, was precisely the weakening of those institutions that might once have been sort of the limiting features in which they would have likely led their lives. So the very thing that might be regarded as the sources of success by that ruling class, it turns out, is premised upon a set of consequences that has fallen and rebounded with profound negative effects upon the people who are not members of that class.
And so then let me ask the two levels of question here I have. And so the first question is, if the ability to make these choices has helped create these problems and weaken these institutions — and I know this somewhat relates to our conversation about marriage. But which choices do you think should be harder to make? And I’m not asking you here for the policies, just which choice sets do you wish were not as easy as they are today? Which — what kind of freedoms do you want to see us roll back?
Well, once you frame it like that — boy, you know —
But that is the question.
How far — you know, what year do I want to turn the clock back to?
But am I—
This is —
But I’m not trying to stack the deck on you. I do think you think we have too much freedom to make these choices. So I think that the — I mean, isn’t the defensive crouch getting out of it, saying, which things need to go backwards, to before we screwed them all up?
I think you’re right. I think we have reset the default in a very different way. And so the question becomes, how do you change the default? It’s not a matter of taking away this freedom or this choice, but rather the presumption, for example, I’ve taught at some pretty elite universities. And the presumption is that the students who go to those universities will all enter the economic order at its point of greatest economic opportunity and reward, which in some ways, you could say they also have limited choice once they accept those set of presuppositions.
Right, they’re all going to end up working in New York City, or Washington D.C., or Chicago, or what you will. So once you set up the defaults in that way, the presumption of many choices actually turns out to be, which city am I going to end up living in? Which consulting agency will I end up working for — whereas a different set of defaults is, in what way will I be a contributor to this or that community?
And it might be the one that you came from. And in many ways, of course, that was the default. That would be turning the clock back. Whatever the town, the hamlet, the city, wherever it was that you grew up, that’s where the kind of person who today goes off to Harvard or Princeton or Yale and ends up living in New York City or London, that’s the kind of person that once lived in that town and became the trustees of that town, the major contributors of that town.
These are the George Baileys from Bedford Falls, right, who don’t get out of the town, but end up making the town a much better place. And so the question, to my mind, is not how do we force those people to stay, but how do we rethink a world, if it’s possible — I don’t know, but it seems to me a question worth asking — but how do we think about a world in which we don’t just funnel off all of the talent to like six cities in the world, where they’ll end up contributing to an economy that I think we would both agree is not a very just or good economy right now.
And unless we’re asking that question, then we’re really not going to be addressing this vast, gaping divide in those two features that you just described, of those weakening institutions that are harming especially those who are left behind, and the benefits that are enjoyed by an elite class that have actually, today, a vested interest in having those institutions remain weakened, in sort of securing their places as members of the ruling class.
So it seems to me, just a basic old fashioned class analysis, but what do we do to begin to make the ruling class more responsible to, and more in touch with, and frankly, living among the people whom today they largely seek to escape from?
And so this is where I think it’s actually a very hard question. I mean, everybody I know in politics is worried about this. There’s a great book by Simon Johnson and Jon Gruber, “Jump-Starting America,” which is all about how to manage regional inequality. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign was at least partially all about this idea, although he was from your town of South Bend.
And there was always something about portraying himself as the icon of rural America when he was working with that kind of university in his backyard. But the tough thing that I don’t hear you talk about that often is technology, because a lot of what has made this both appealing to people and possible for people is technology. It is the speed of travel. It is the low cost of calls. It’s shipping. It is the — I mean, it creates really big agglomeration effects when you can put all the intellectual capital in one place, but then things can be moved anywhere at very, very low cost.
I mean, now you can go on job boards that are nationwide, rather than looking at the job board in your local newspaper. So of course, you’re going to see more opportunities that are nationwide. And I’d be curious to hear you reflect on that a bit, because this gets framed as ideological. But I think in your answer, I hear that you don’t really think there’s a policy or freedom to turn back there.
But what strikes me is even more central is that technology has unlocked a lot of this. And that’s a tougher problem for everybody, because you don’t want to say no more — no more low cost air travel.
Right, although I think maybe we would agree that that might be something to put on the table as well — and maybe more for more environmental concerns. But here again, I agree with you, that clearly the technological changes have a considerable amount to do with this. But in some ways, everything you mentioned, or almost everything you mentioned, were exacerbated by certain policies.
So to use your favorite subject, the move away from a productive economy, a manufacturing economy, or an economy that — whether through policy or just simply default produced, it seems, the kinds of businesses, and businessmen, and business community, that saw themselves as in some ways rooted in communities. Not to be nostalgic about it, but the kinds of people who would become the philanthropists of their communities, and the benefactors of their local theaters and civic — you know, operas and performance art centers, and so forth.
And what we’ve increasingly done is rearranged, both through policy, but also through valorization, through what we honor, through what we praise, through what we regard as constituting success, we’ve again changed the default so that being in some scintillating you know, exciting, urban space, working for certain kinds of companies, this is what we regard as the mark of success.
And it’s not merely what we jawbone, what we honor, although that’s I think a significant part of it. And I do think it would be something that would be, I think, have a potentially profound effect if, for example, institutions like my own — elite institutions like a Notre Dame or Harvard, if we began to make it a real key point of what we encourage and praise and place as a kind of goal, for our students to become not merely what we regard as leaders in the national or international system, but as leaders in more local or regional kinds of communities.
In other words, encouraging in various ways, through both what we present to them — the kinds of majors, the kinds of options, the kinds of opportunities, the programming, and so forth, but also the kinds of policies that begin to rethink how we concentrate college graduates, how we concentrate the most economically viable to some select set of places.
So I want to ask about the second level of that, because a lot of your work is about elites. A lot of your work is a pretty searing critique of today’s elite, this managerial elite, this disconnected, globalized, cosmopolitan elite that has lost touch. But you don’t take it to pure populism.
You say very clearly, quote, “the cure lies in the development of a new elite who are forthright in defending not merely the freedom to pursue the good, and to then shrug the shoulders when ordinary people drown amid a world without guardrails or life vests, but instead is dedicated to the promotion and construction of a society that assists ordinary, fellow citizens in achieving lives of flourishing.”
Now, obviously, from what we’ve talked about before, I disagree with that middle clause there, and how today’s elite look at problems in the world. But nevertheless, tell me about your view that we should move from one elite to another, because I think one way to understand the problems of elites is that they are intrinsic to elites, to having people who have more power and status. And they, over time, protect that power and status, and try to perpetuate it.
And you get the kinds of worlds that we’re talking about in one way or another. So you want to say this shouldn’t be pure populism. We need a different elite, just your elite. What makes you confident you can create an elite that will do what you want it to do, and remain immune to the corruptions that virtually all past elites have been afflicted by?
Yeah, no, this is the — it’s always the question, of course, because once one concludes, as I would conclude, that no society can exist, no society has ever existed without a ruling class, without elites, then the question necessarily becomes, well, what should that elite be like? How should it be formed? What should its values be? So when I speak of the formation of a new elite, I think on the one hand, we have a very badly formed elite.
And that’s partly because we’re not actually thinking hard and seriously about what a good elite would look like. So part of that is to think about some of the things we were just talking about — in what ways are we responsible to those people who don’t enjoy our status and position? How much are we examining our own role and complicity in the set of arrangements that — I think we agree, and we recognize exist today — but giving ourselves a pass, because we are such pure and profound believers in our egalitarianism.
And this is where I would begin, by giving a big fail to the elite institutions, especially the universities, which spend, it seems to me, almost no time examining their complicity and their role in perpetuating this system that, on the one hand, they’ll condemn, but never, it seems to me, spend any time examining their own role in those set of arrangements. When I begin to speak of a new elite, I’m thinking of a very old strain of political philosophy — that’s the area that I teach and that I write in.
And it used to be a dominant strain in political philosophy, which was the idea of a mixed constitution, the idea of how we mix the classes, how we mix elements of the lower classes and elements of the upper classes. And by this, they didn’t just mean separation of powers and mixing of powers like we think about it in our constitution, but genuinely the mixing of people so that some of the values of the lower classes will correct the tendencies of upper classes to disdain them.
And at the same time, some of the refinements of the upper classes will elevate the position of, and the disposition and tastes of ordinary people. And as long as we have this kind of bifurcated society, it seems to me the prospects of such a mixed constitution in that classical sense are really thwarted and impossible. So this book I’m working on, and I don’t have a title to give to you yet — we’re working on it — is proposing, or reproposing for a new time, this idea of a mixed constitution in our current context, precisely because it seems to me we have both a bad elite and a bad populace.
Say a little bit more on that. What does it mean to have that mixed constitution, and what do you mean by the fact that we have a bad populace?
By bad populace, I mean — as our conversation has suggested, I’m the first person to criticize what’s taking place in contemporary universities. But I’m also someone who has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what a good university would look like, what I think a really excellent education would look like, what especially a liberal education would look like. And I wrote about this a bit in the last book.
And that a liberal education, as John Adams argued, you know, hundreds of years ago, a liberal education should not be limited to merely the elites and the society, those people who benefit from a top education, but should be encouraged and available to everyone in the society. Our more populist — both political figures, as well as a general sentiment that’s been encouraged — has simply become, in many ways, dare I say, kind of anti-intellectual, or anti-professor, or anti-university, anti-higher education.
And it seems to me this is a kind of — on the one hand, politically understandable position, when you view modern universities and you see the proliferation of wokeness, and the shouting down of conservatives on campuses, and all the various things that get discussed on Twitter, and so forth, that one way to work up a crowd is just to denounce the universities and to denounce the professoriate.
But that’s, in some ways, of course, to leave things in a — not just a debased condition, but a condition that doesn’t potentially improve the entire disposition and condition of the society as a whole, in which an education, higher education, is something that should refine and elevate.
So I think there are lots of ways we could discuss how contemporary populism has been degraded precisely because — I would lay this in considerable part at the feet of today’s elite, that there’s been this kind of feedback loop in which an increasingly both disdainful and geographically separated elite has generated and deepened the corruption of the populace as a whole. And so that both, in a way, are in a condition, it seems to me, in which they are making each other worse.
Now, when I say mixed constitution, we could explore this in a lot of different ways. But I think about this especially in terms of — at least one way I think about this is, how does one begin to put people who see themselves in one of these camps or the other put them into conversation with each other, allow them to interact, to mix them, in ways in which that interaction could, and I would hope, both moderate their view and disposition toward each other, but also potentially educate each one.
I think both about, for example, the ways in which we should be thinking a lot more about how to give a place of pride and honor to the crafts, the handwork of a certain kind, both in our elite institutions, but also as a society, right. And so we think about — I mean, my wife is German. We spend time in Germany — but the pride of place that’s given to those who are undergoing a kind of training in the trades.
And that’s a serious undertaking in Germany, for example. That’s a — it has a very significant standing in the educational system. It’s not held in low regard. It’s something in which the state, the public authority, invests a considerable amount of time and energy in. And the people who work in the trades are held in some regard and esteem. And how can we introduce some of that ethos, even in our large institutions, would be something I’d like to see more of. I teach at Notre Dame. We’re surrounded by farmlands. How many of our students know anything about what goes into farming? Why do we send our students to London and Rome and India and China as if they’re going to encounter something really different, when what’s really different lies about 15 miles away from campus?
I think that this suggests to me that your view here of what’s possible and how to get there is actually pretty pessimistic. So you have a quote that this made me think of — “in a good society, the goods that are common are daily reinforced by the habits and practices of ordinary people. Those habits and practices form the common culture, such as through the virtues of thrift, honesty, and good memory. However, once such a common culture is weakened or destroyed, the only hope is a renewal and reinvigoration by a responsible governing class.”
And so you really have a model here, where if you’ve got in a bad populace, if you’ve lost your common culture — and I think you believe that’s true, that people are taking too many drugs, and getting divorced too often, and watching too much porn. And it’s become a weakened culture, and you think the elites are corrupt and out of touch. Is this something, at that point, you can do through democracy?
I mean what is your relationship, then, to political change, particularly once you believe that kind of both the demos and the governing class are different kinds of, but interlinked, disasters?
So the record of human history is not necessarily a hopeful record of the score. And so there is some cause, maybe considerable cause, for pessimism. That quote that you just read — once those conditions of a kind of common culture and a culture that cultivates, once those have broken down, it’s almost always the case that especially when you experience the divide that we have, which is — it’s increasingly a class divide — that the likelihood is either some form of oppression by one class or the other class.
And I think that’s — in many ways, that describes our politics today. It’s a politics of fear of being governed either by the populists or by the elites, and that’s — it’s not, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s underlying a lot of the panic of our politics today. So it’s either a kind of impending tyranny, and or some form of a civil war, a stasis, whether it’s a kind of hot Civil War or cold Civil War.
I don’t want to simply just arrive at a pessimistic conclusion. And that’s why I try to frame this in terms of, if we don’t want our elites making the people worse, and the people in some ways making the elites worse, especially by a kind of panicked effort to dismiss or cordon off those populist concerns and demands, then the hope lies in both making each other better.
And here, I’m not sure — I don’t have any crystal ball to suggest what the possible mechanism might be. But I do think it will be probably a combination of two things. It would be a combination, number one, of the populist threat forcing elites to behave better, forcing the managerial elite to govern on behalf of the condition and concerns of everyday people, forcing them to concede, in some way, some of the benefits of their position, and a fear and a defensive posture may result in some beneficial outcomes.
But I also think that it’s not unlikely — and I guess I would place myself in this category — it’s not unlikely we will see something of a rebellion from within the elites. And this is always the case in revolutionary moments. Revolutions aren’t just the people picking up pitchforks and overthrowing the elites. It’s someone like a Lenin, who grew up as an elite, who becomes a kind of class traitor and calls out the deficiencies of his own class.
And I do think that there are growing number of voices from the managerial elite who are deeply concerned about the corruptions that we’re seeing in our own institutions, and are calling for and demanding and amplifying, I think, the charges that you’re seeing coming from the populist direction. So I think, in some ways — again, I can’t say what the mechanism will be, but I think if there is going to be some kind of improvement rather than a kind of devolution, it’s probably going to come — it would have to come from both directions.
I’ve had a good opportunity here to push you on your thinking here. Is there anything before we end that you think is crucial to your thought that we didn’t cover, or didn’t cover well, or that as a representative of a corrupt managerial elite, you want to push me on?
Well, I guess I — and sometimes it reminds me of our earlier conversation. I think maybe we — in part, we inhabit slightly different worlds, or reads of the world, because I tend to have a very — at least a modest view about the role that policy can play. I think it has to play a role, and an important role. But I also think that unless that there is a healthy culture, and we might differ on what that would look like, but unless there’s a healthy culture, any number and amount of policy in the world is really not going to suffice.
And the conundrum that I constantly confront is the question you just asked, which is once the culture has decayed to a certain point, can anything in a sense revive something like a healthy culture? And you might disagree that — you might think that we have a pretty healthy culture, and all we need is the policy to help shore it up.
But if it’s the case that our culture seems to be in some condition of dire straits, or at least a condition of decay — will politics save us, I guess would be my question, especially because so often when I talk with you, you go instantly and directly to questions about, what is my policy on this, that, or the other? And my approach tends to be, do we have the philosophy right? Do we have the political philosophy correct?
And if we have that right, sort of policy and culture will follow. And if we have that wrong, any particular policy approach is not going to save us.
I think I’d say two things to that. One is that I don’t disagree that politics is downstream from culture, though I don’t love that metaphor, because I think —
Neither do I. I think they’re interactive, yeah.
It’s interactive. It’s a dynamic system. One reason I push you on policy, and one reason I often think in terms of policy, though, is that it forces a rigor sometimes in what is actually being said or claimed that is valuable. So I’ll give an example. It’s been in the back of my head as we’ve been talking, which is — you brought up deaths of despair. I think this comes up a lot in these conversations.
If you do the real analysis, though, on deaths of despair, which is this rise in death rates from drugs, from alcohol, from suicide, from accidents, particularly among white men in middle age, you’ll see that you’re really talking about a huge, huge, huge rise in opioid deaths. I mean, that is the fundamental driver, not to say the other things aren’t real. They’re just — you wouldn’t have this conversation if you didn’t have that.
And at this point, that’s not primarily a problem just for white men. Black males are seeing higher OD deaths than white men are. And opioids are a really hard problem. They are not just a sick culture problem. They come from Purdue misleading the medical community and many people about whether or not these kinds of things were addictive. They come from chronic pain, as people live longer and in more sedentary conditions.
And then the shift that people often make to fentanyl when they can’t get the opioid prescription anymore is really tough, because fentanyl is very hard to stop, because it’s a technological advance. It’s so unbelievably small that it’s very hard to stop fentanyl from making its way places. It’s much easier than it was to grow heroin and transport it, because you can do it all in a lab. So it’s one of these problems that — it actually requires a lot of wrestling with annoyingly nonpartisan, non-philosophical issues.
And people want to turn it to the philosophy. And so you’re right that I try to push you on policy, but I do it because you’re making really profound claims. And since the first time we’ve spoken, the anger of those claims, the heat of them, has really increased. And I think that’s fine, and it’s reasonable. And there’s a lot one can look at in this world and be angry about.
But if you’re going to accuse so many people of abandoning so many others, of not caring about these problems, of letting things linger in something in between callousness and maliciousness, then I think engaging with how they’re actually trying to solve them and what it is you are proposing that will work better is important. So I don’t disagree with you. Culture is really important. It’s very hard to change. And I’m a policy and political guy, so I focus where I know.
But I also think policy forces a realism about what it is you’re actually talking about, and what it is you’re trying to do. I get nervous when people are too abstract, because I’m a good rhetorician. I’m a reasonable debater. I think rhetoric is really slippery. There’s an old Joe Biden line I like. He says, don’t tell me what your values are. Show me what your budget is, and I’ll tell you what your values are.
And that’s how I sometimes feel about these conversations. I want to know what your budget is, not because it’s the only thing that matters, but because it helps me see how different what you are doing is from what others are trying to do, and whether or not then you’re right that they’re actually not trying to do anything at all.
Right, no, I appreciate that very much. And I guess I would say to Joe Biden into that, in order to be able to read the values of your budget, I have to understand what those values are. So that is my world. That’s what I teach. That’s what I read and write about. And so I often feel personally less on my own ground when I’m asked to speak specifically about policy. It’s not my area of expertise.
But I just want to be clear that I — of course, I don’t dismiss, or I wouldn’t want to diminish how ultimately important it is. But if we’re going to approach a budget or a policy, or whatever it might be — of course, if that’s an expression of values, we have to have the values right. And that’s where I begin, and that’s where I probably will end, is that I think right now, whether it’s in our budget or whether it’s in our values, we have taken a wrong turn.
And it seems to me that the mainstream of both of our political parties right now need a good deal of correction. But I we disagree on at least part of that, but seems to be a topic worth disagreeing about.
Well, I’ve enjoyed having the disagreement. Always, then, our final question, what are three books that have influenced you, that you would recommend to the audience?
Well, I think since last time we talked, a book appeared, unfortunately, right at the beginning of the pandemic, which I wish had gotten more attention. And it touches on a lot of the themes we’ve been discussing today. It’s Michael Lind’s book, “The New Class War.” And in fact, one of the passages you read, which spoke of guild, ward, and congregation, was — actually, that’s his formulation.
And it was quoting — I think that was a review of that book. And so if this conversation interested you, I think reading that book would be really valuable. A second book that I just somewhat recently finished is a book by Tom Holland, not the Spider-Man actor, but an author in Britain, who was a student of an author about the Roman world. And he became extremely interested in the question, how did this world sort of cease, and how did the world that we know come into being?
In particular, what transformation. In particular was wrought by the rise of Christianity? And the book he wrote was called “Dominion,” and it would be a book, I think, again, maybe of interest to many of your listeners, because his question in some ways is, if we value many of the things that we regard as modern, secular, humanist values, and we recognize how many of those come out of the inheritance and legacy of Christianity, how confident can we or ought to be about the longevity of those values if we are entering into a post-Christian world?
So it’s really, I think, just a wonderful bit of history and a great storytelling. And he’s a wonderful writer. And he’s asking this question in all sort of honesty, without guile or ill will. The last book would be, to touch on a theme we’ve been talking about, which is culture. And it’s not expressly a political book, but whenever I have an opportunity to recommend any book, I’ll usually try to recommend a book by Wendell Berry.
And one of his more recent books is called “The Art of Loading Brush,” and it’s a book of essays about agrarianism, about more local forms of economy and work. But there’s one essay in that book that I found particularly of note, and it’s called “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age.”
And I think many of the things that I talk about, although I don’t think I used the word in our entire conversation, but many of the things I talked about here today is, what are the things, and what are the institutions, and what are the practices that teach us the limits?
We live in an age, a technological age, in which it seems like the idea of limits is what we’re most taught to try to overcome. And to encounter an argument by someone who spent his life farming, for the case for limits in a prodigal age, it seems to me something worth encountering and mulling over.
Patrick Deneen, thank you very much.
Thanks very much, Ezra. [MUSIC]
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion, and it is made by an amazing team of people. It is produced by Roge Karma, Annie Galvin and Jeff Geld. Original music by Isaac Jones and Jeff Geld. This episode is fact checked by Michelle Harris and Rollin Hu. Mixing and engineering by Jeff Geld. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristina Samulewski and Kristin Lin.