Populism and Identity Politics
The American Mind Podcast, Episode IV
In this podcast, Dr. Matthew Peterson, our Vice President of Education, is joined by David Azerrad and Henry Olsen. Recorded Saturday, September 1, 2018.
David Azerrad is the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is also a 2007 Publius Fellow with the Claremont Institute.
Henry Olsen is author of several books including: The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism and The Four Faces of the Republican Party, co-authored with Dante Scala. He is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor at Unherd.com. His work has been featured in many prominent publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Review, The Guardian, and The Weekly Standard. He is a contributor to the Claremont Review of Books.
The American Mind Podcast Episode #4: Populism and Identity Politics
“Welcome everyone, to the American Mind podcast, a production of the Claremont Institute. I’m Ryan Williams, president of the Claremont Institute and publisher of the Claremont Review of Books. This podcast is about ideas, principles, and American politics, usually hosted by yours truly or our vice president of education, Matthew Peterson. Our mission at Claremont has always been the recovery of the American idea—those timeless principles that have made America great since our founding. Visit our website for show notes, essays, editorials, debates, and more at americanmind.org and you can always reach us by e-mailing [email protected]. Don’t forget to subscribe to the American Mind on itunes or wherever you get your podcasts, spread the word to your friends and colleagues, and most importantly—thanks for listening.”
-Ryan Williams, President, The Claremont Institute
This is Matt Peterson, editor of the American Mind and Vice President of Education at the Claremont Institute. In today’s episode of the American Mind podcast, I speak with David Azerrad and Henry Olsen. David Azerrad is Director of the Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. He’s also the AWC Family Foundation Fellow there. He’s basically the Heritage Foundation’s political philosophy guy. I also speak with Henry Olsen. Henry is the author of several books. He writes a lot about what is going in contemporary politics as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and as Flyover Editor at Unherd.com—a very interesting new publication. Both of them have Claremont connections. David is one of our fine Publius fellows and Henry Olsen is a Claremont McKenna College graduate who completed his senior thesis with Claremont Institute godfather Harry Jaffa. I spoke to them both about two ideas or phrases that you hear kicked around a lot these days: “populism” and “identity politics.” Enjoy.
-Matthew Peterson, Vice President of Education, The Claremont Institute
Peterson: Okay, so we are here at the 2018 American Political Science Association meeting of minds, and lesser minds, and crazy people, and clown shows, and all the things we see walking around. And we’re here because the Claremont Institute every year has a number of panels with actually rooms full of people watching the panels because I think we talk about some very interesting things. And in watching the panels in the last two days, I have corralled two very interesting people with some of – well, we’ll see. We’ll see, we’ll see. Who is with me today? Introduce yourselves.
Azerrad: My Name is David Azerrad. I’m the director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation, where I’m also the AWC Family Foundation Fellow, and I did a Publius Fellowship with Claremont in 2007.
Olsen: And I’m Henry Olsen. I’m a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and an editor at Unheard.com. And I write about American and global politics, particularly about populism.
Peterson: Any Claremont connections?
Olsen: I was a CMC 1983 grad. And did my senior thesis with Harry V. Jaffa.
Peterson: And responsible for Willie Brown’s best comments.
Olsen: Yes. I was at the Rose Institute – I’m now on the Rose Institute Board of Governors, and I’ll be coming back to Claremont to participate in the Board of Governors meeting.
Peterson: So for all the things you’ve written and done in your life, I do have to say personally, that when I realized that you were that guy, when it came to messing up Willie Brown’s day, and making him say those things, that was personal here.
Olsen: Which things did he say?
Peterson: Well, he wanted to bomb Claremont, California, I believe.
Olsen: He wanted to bomb the Rose Institute, yes. Well, you usually want to take the war to the seat of the enemy.
Peterson: So the topics today. Today there were a number of political panels, and I think in this conversation, we want to talk about Trump populism, and identity politics.
But first, populism. Let’s define our terms. Populism is a word that many commentators have thrown around in the last two years. It’s a fascinating word. The way in which it’s used really draws my attention because it’s a fudge word at this point. What it means is good, is it bad, and it doesn’t really – I’m not even sure it has a connotation, it’s so elastic at this point. And both of you have written about what this means, and try to define I think – have tried to define that word. So I’d love to hear you each answer the question, what is populism?
Olsen: Populism is in the eye of the beholder. But I think we can argue that populism today is a series of movements arguing that the fundamental political economy within the countries of the West needs a serious restructure. And there are different types of populism, depending upon the critique. Bernie Sanders is one of the type that I call left populism, arguing that of one particular set of ills, and one particular set of prescriptions. The Trump blue-collar center right populist offers a different critique, and a different set of solutions, but believes just as much in significant restructuring.
And then there’s a anti-corruption, throw-the-guys out populism, that in some countries had their own political parties that are non-ideological, but also don’t share the critiques of either the blue-collar right, or the young millennial cultural left that argues for a different type of restructuring. But they are all populists in the sense that they come from the people, not from the elite institutions that govern our society. That the critique is against the people from elite institutions arguing that they have misled those societies, and arguing that we need more than a rearranging of the deck chairs, but we need a significant restructure.
Azerrad: I would agree with what Henry said. I’d define it even more simply as the claim that the people broadly defined are being screwed over by the elites. And the disagreements are over how you define the elites. So for Bernie Sanders, it’s in terms of which income or wealth bracket you belong to. So it’s more of a traditional progressive animus against the wealthy.
Trump doesn’t have as precise of a definition, but I think his is more correct. And it’s the people who live in big cities, they may be wealthy, they may not be wealthy. But they generally have a certain disdain, contempt for people who live in so-called flyover country. And they’re very dismissive of their views. They’re inclined to view them as being racists. They cling to their guns and their religion. Coastal urban elites are a bit ashamed of them when they travel abroad, that they need to account for their views.
So the example I would give is, if you’re a used car salesman in Omaha who makes $5 million a year, but you go to church on Sundays, and you’ve got a flag in front of your house, according to Bernie Sanders, you’re a one percenter. According to Trump, you’re part of the people.
On the other hand, if you make $50,000 a year blogging for the New York Times, and you went to Sarah Lawrence College, you majored in feminism, you have all the predictable progressive prejudices of someone who’d live in New York, yes, you’re part of the what, bottom 20% of the income distribution. But according to Trump, you’re part of the elites because you share their prejudices.
And I think the person whose written most convincingly about this, and who oddly enough has not been a big fan of Trump, is Claremont’s Angelo Codevilla. The essay he wrote for the American spectator called, America’s Ruling Class in 2010, and that was then made into a little book. Rush Limbaugh really liked it. Read large parts of it on air. I think it’s the closest, the thing I found to describing the nature of this divide between the elites and the people.
Peterson: It’s interesting, of course, Angelo lives in Wyoming in rural California, but he used to be in this town here teaching in Boston. And listeners should know as we’re speaking, we can see a very beautiful view of the entire city displayed out before us where things are going pretty well for what I can tell. And just after this trip in fact, tomorrow, I’m going to fly into Syracuse, New York, and drive into the heart of the deplorable side of New York State, where my relatives are from near Binghamton, New York, where just to cite the statistics, drug overdoses have quadrupled in the last few years. And things aren’t so great.
So your claim is that, you went into Trump’s understanding of populism versus Bernie Sanders. Henry do you have any thoughts about that. What’s your understanding of Trump’s populism?
Olsen: Trump’s populism is, I actually agree with what David just said. I think that Trump’s populism can be understood through a rubric of active citizenship. That what seemingly is inconsistent about his policy views can be put together relatively consistently if you think that being a citizen requires affirmative obligations, and not simply negative obligations. It’s not just keeping your hands off somebody and paying taxes, but it means that our government is supposed to look out for the well-being of all. That he argues that the average American has been ignored, and kicked to the side, and that they’re citizens too, and it’s time to put their values in charge. And that’s what animates virtually all of his political views.
And that is populist in the sense that there has been, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a coming together in the elites of the parties that differ on how to divvy up the pie of a globalized order, but to not dispute that as the end. That they are pro-free trade, they are pro-immigration, they are pro-international intervention, and they are at best, slightly dismissive of traditional social values.
And Trump’s populism says, “Hey, those few points are hurting a lot of people, and it’s time to bring them into the conversation.”
Peterson: So when you look around – when we look around at things here, it looks like everything’s going pretty well. There’s an argument to be made that things are going pretty well for this slice of the pie. So in other words, the elites are doing okay. They’re thriving. Do you think that’s true generally speaking?
Olsen: I think generally, you’ve got a lot of people who are doing very well economically, and you’ve got people who have been increasingly gaining status, influence, and power socially. So if you are somebody who is non-traditionally religious, or mildly religious who went to a nice college, and you’re part of a family that works in a knowledge, or an exporting industry, the last 30 years have been pretty darn good for you. But that’s not all of America. And what Trump says it that the rest of the Americans count, and we should do something to make sure, so that everybody’s viewpoints are heard. And in the current environment where that’s a novel claim, and a revolutionary claim, that is considered populis.
Peterson: So has there been a change in the dynamics when it comes to populism? And we just laid out a definition, and we described it in terms of Trump. So since he appeared, since he came down the elevator –
Azerrad: The escalator.
Peterson: Yeah, the escalator, sorry, to now, has there been any change? Has he been consistent in his message?
Azerrad: Before we answer that, if we want to understand the phenomenon, there’s another ism we need to add here, which is nationalism. Now that’s another term that can mean a lot of different things. There’s to many on the left, nationalism means blood and soil, Nazi, anti-Semitism. The ein volk, ein reich, and that hostility towards –
Peterson: You left out the last part of that trip.
Azerrad: Yes, ein führer. There’s also the aspirational variety of nationalism that the left actually likes. So all of the former, at the time, colonies in Africa fighting for independence, the left is very supportive of Timor-Leste, of Kosovo, of anyone who wants to become a nation. Or where I’m from in Quebec, trying to separate from Canada.
But I think that there’s a third sense of the term that has appeared in recent years, and it’s in response to the Post-Cold War Order, where you see two forces putting pressure on the nation’s state. One is globalization and transnationalism, so the interconnectedness of economies, and the rise of these transnational organizations, like the EU, and the fact that the INF, and the WorldMAC, and others have – make decisions that have profound repercussions for national sovereignty.
And then from within, you have this corrosive acid of identity politics, that in the case of American says, “We’re all hyphenated Americans, and what matters is what comes before the hyphen.” And that I think Trump, it’s nationalism. It’s not white nationalism, it’s not white supremacy, it’s an attempt to reassert the primacy of the nation’s state against these two forces. And I think this accounts for a large part of his appeal.
So one dimension to populism is, “I speak to the economic anxieties of the people, and I will defend them against those who despise them.” And then on the other hand it’s this undeniable patriotism that appeals to a lot of Americans, as it should. And this message that says, “I will defend the interest of America.” That’s what America first means, which to me, it’s still baffling that this is a controversial proposition, that the President of the United States of America announces that he will defend the interest of America. So to me, the phenomenon at the level of ideas, I think is these two isms are the key to understanding it.
Peterson: So, yeah. And I think that’s a very important point. Extremely significant. The connection between populism and nationalism is something that needs to be promulgated or explained to a lot of people who live in areas like we’re sitting now.
So just anecdotally a few stories. I remember in the last two years, someone who is a great conservative writer revealing to me that, well, of course, the concept of the nation’s state is, they thought, the concept of the nation’s state, of course that’s passé. That means nothing any more, moving into this new century. That’s completely gone. And I knew that that existed already on the left. That’s always been, that has been an increasing part of their explicit rhetoric.
But on the right, it’s been implicit for a long time. So I suppose this wouldn’t be – is Trump tapping into something that’s new, or is Trump tapping into something that’s always been there? Because it does seem to me, in middle America, or back in Syracuse and Binghamton, where I’m about to go, this is not a controversial proposition. So what changed? What facilitated this? First off, Henry, do you agree with what he’s been saying, and why is this all of a sudden a salient issue now?
Olsen: No, I do agree with David. I’d put a positive gloss on it, which is that I think that I chose my word, citizenship, very carefully. Because you can only be a citizen in a political entity. You can only be a citizen in a place where you have rights and duties. And that entity, unless we find another one, is at this point in time, the nation’s state. You’re not citizens, you’re technically you are citizens of the state, but most people would argue that they’re national citizenship is their primary citizenship.
And it’s not a coincidence that people who have similar movements to Trump in other countries always assert the nationality that it’s Austria first. In Austria, it’s Italy first. In Italy, it’s Sweden first. Usually exactly the same term. My favorite rip off that usually – they came up with it first. But my favorite rip off is the anti-immigration populist in Australia whose party is called One Nation. And after the ‘drain the swamps,’ she went and said, “We’re going to drain the billabong.”
And those of you who don’t know Waltzing Matilda back and forward, billabong is a creek in an outback area that figures in the unofficial national anthem. And it was just, that’s the Australian version. But it revolves around the idea that we are a people, that as a people we are distinct, maybe or maybe not better, but that we make decisions for us. And the forces on the left towards multiculturalism eliminates or waters down the distinction of that. And on the right, free market libertarianism argues that borders don’t matter. That the borders are artificial, and that what we should do is treat people everywhere the same according to the market forces.
And what that then comes back to is that what these populists are really arguing for is what in its previous age was called republican self-government. That republican self-government was not the code word for ‘the government should do nothing.’ It was the code word for nothing. It was a statement that we are a people, we are a sovereign people, we will debate, we will argue, we will decide, and we will set the direction for the country.
And so this type of populism is a new version of a very old sentiment that actually underlays the American Republic itself.
Azerrad: And we’ve been talking for 20 minutes on a Claremont podcast, and the Declaration of Independence hasn’t been mentioned. So I need to bring it in. We’re quick to jump to the second paragraph with the timeless truths about all men being created equal, there’s a tendency to skip over the first paragraph, which begins with one people. Declaring its independence, and setting itself apart from the other sovereign powers of the earth. So you begin with a people. That’s the starting point.
Peterson: And also, the rest of the document in some way can be said to not just be listing grievances, but setting forth in the next paragraph what makes us one people. Now the astounding thing to me is that, of course Claremont Institute for nigh upon 40 years has been promoting the principle of declaration as the key to all of American political life, especially the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and explicating what that means.
But we live in a day and age, and this is what we really need to move to next where as soon as you start saying the kinds of things that you both have been saying, especially the word nationalism. That really makes people nervous because the immediate response, the knee-jerk response, the framework, the rhetorical framework has already been set in American elite society.
As soon as you say nationalism, the next word of objection is racism. And this is the fruit of identity politics, I suppose. But we need to explore that because this is really a problem, and it’s a problem for people of good will on the right, who, when you start saying something that has nothing to do with race, absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s based upon the principle of equality and consent of being one people, these words all of a sudden trigger in their minds some kind of racial anger –
Azerrad: Or if it’s not racial anger, it’s the implication that if you love your nation, you hate everyone else. Whereas, that’s not the case. You can love your country, wish well upon everyone else, have sympathy for certain other countries, you will hate your political enemies, but I don’t see why you – the fact that you love your country, and you love your fellow Americans must mean, as many seem to think, that you must hate others. No it doesn’t. You can just wish them well, and be rather indifferent to their fate, so long as they don’t harm you.
Olsen: I think the sin of slavery was the original sin of the American rebel. It was one that founders were well aware of, it was the question of Negro slavery, as they would have called it then, was one that was fraught with tension from the very start of the constitutional confederation.
Peterson: And we see, many of them themselves called it a sin. They saw it as many of them saw it, as –
Olsen: So the question for Americans, as I see it, it is unnatural for a republican people to hold political sway over large swaths of territory who are not united by a common religion, by a common ethnic bond. The American republic was intended to overcome that problem. You can only overcome that, if people have a primary identity that it first sees people as people separate from their experiences, which is to say we had to learn how to see a black man as a man, not as a black man. And that is still an issue we are dealing with. And it means that you need to have, in some way, recognition of human diversity, so that there can be different customs, and different practices.
Religious liberty was the most obvious at the time of the founding, and they adopted that because you could not have an American republic based on a common religion. You had to allow different practices and different beliefs to co-exist as a secondary, but not a primary identity. That’s what modern left-wing identity politics challenges at its core. And consequently is a deep threat to the very essence of what it means to be American.
But how to take this idea, and translate it into a national identity, so that other people may – you go with the world, an American viewpoint has always been, everyone can be an American, but simply sympathizing with the views of the Declaration of Independence does not make you an American. And how to navigate that is a constant political challenge, and is the political challenge of our time.
Azerrad: I’d object to one thing you said, which is a term that everyone uses. I don’t like referring to slavery as the original sin because in Christianity, you don’t fix original sin by yourself. It requires divine intervention. And this implies that America will never overcome original sin.
Now, I know that’s not what you mean, but look, a lot of countries had slavery. What I find extraordinary about this country is that hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans died to put an end to slavery. And that the extraordinary progress that has been made on racial agents, so yes, it was a sin at the beginning of the country, but the Christian connotations of the term bother me because it implies that we’ll never overcome it. But I’m sure Henry wouldn’t disagree with me on it.
Olsen: Yeah, I did not mean it in that sense.
Azerrad: I know you didn’t.
Peterson: That’s fair enough, so clearly whatever one calls it, this contradiction, and that’s what it is, it contradicts directly the Declaration. Is there from the beginning, and it is resolved through really oceans of blood being spilt in American life, and we still face and have faced over the last century, all kinds of ramifications coming out of the Civil War. We still dealt with it until we sent the troops back in in the 1960s. That’s all far enough.
But, of course, as I like to say to students, the reason you can tell me that slavery is wrong is because you’ve internalized the principle that the slaveholder who wrote the Declaration also wrote condemning himself. And that’s the real miracle that he condemned himself in such marvelous words that have impacted the entire world.
Olsen: Which is why the apologist for the southern confederacy struck directly at that principle. That is more intelligent of them, rejected the idea that all men are created equal, and effectively argued that while they would argue that slavery was appropriate between white and non-white because of the inherent superiority of the white race in their minds.
There was no logical reason why slavery had to be limited to the black race, which is of course the point that Lincoln brings up in his debates with Douglas. Once you admit that slavery can be moral, there’s no argument that prevents it from being extended to you.
Azerrad: And the contradiction you point out, Matt, between the principles and the practice, is a fairly fundamental one in America in terms of how do you resolve it? So what we do on the right is we think that the principles are right, and we use it to condemn the practice of slavery. And what you see happening on the left, and this goes back to before the left, to Taney to Douglas is say, “Well, surely the principles are bogus.” Or, “Surely all men didn’t mean all human beings. It must have meant all white men because there was slavery.”
And you see the same argument in Stokely Carmichael in the ‘60s, all the way to today. This dismissal of the principles on the grounds that, “Well, there was a contradiction between the principles and the practice.” And it’s a decision you need to make. So you can take the position of the founders, or, “By the way, this was the position of MLK.” We all know about the dream. But it’s a dream “anchored in the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Peterson: Which he calls the declaration our creed. Our creed. And it’s from that principle that he argues. And that, regardless of what one thinks of MLK on right and left, that argument is the argument that finally turns public opinion. That speech is the speech along with the letter that’s still taught today in American schools. Now, so here’s my question. Given everything we just said, why is it then that if you start saying, “I’m a patriot, and I believe in nationalism,” all of a sudden this is turned on its head, so now you’re not appealing to the principle of equality.
Olsen: That’s why I don’t use the terms nationals. I think that there is a difficulty in arguing for nationalism because it has been used improperly. I think that, while it’s undeniable that any political leader should think of America first, I would have chosen Americans first rather than America first because of the way it was misused in the past.
And I think if we had people who could speak in that broad moral language again about the value and the dignity of the individual, the uniqueness of America recognizing it, and that we have overcome our blindness by looking at the formerly excluded, and saying, “You are people too,” that we would find a much larger majority for our points.
It’s when we fail to make that point that it becomes a – we de facto, fall into the question of the habit of arguing in an identitarian way, even if the identities we advance. So when a Christian conservative essentially argues that, “I will only support somebody – I’m arguing for the primacy of my Christian identity,” and Christianity than defined in a particular way that excludes many people who considers themselves Christian.
You are arguing for identitarian politics because you’re arguing for something that cannot be shared among all people. When you argue for the forces of the market to operate, regardless of they’re in fact human individuals. And when you say that you have no responsibility, or no common ties to somebody, you are effectively making an identitarian argument, even if you’re not doing it in the terms or the language of left.
Peterson: So when it comes to identify politics, this is of great concern, and it’s directly related to all the arguments about populism, and the fear of populism. My hunch is that we have at least a few decades of, especially on the left, the preaching of identity politics. And by that I mean just very simply, and David can correct me on this. This is my simplistic understanding. But by identity politics, I just mean saying you will identify based on your color. Or your sexuality, gender, etcetera. But especially color is probably the biggest, largest group.
So you’ll identify primarily as a person of color rather than an American. And what I think we see now is the threat of that same logic being used by aggrieved whites. All of a sudden, if you accept that logic, and you had aggrieved whites – so let me give an example. The newest member of the New York Times Editorial Board, so here’s someone who graduates from Harvard Law School, and has these tweets talking about hating white people, and whatever like that.
Now, it’s obvious to everyone in an elite society that this is all forgivable because she was Asian, and she’s a member of a privileged identity class. So this is all fair enough, and it’s forgivable. But if I’m a 17-year-old say, from a broken down city like some of the cities, a little far inland from here, I’m not buying that logic. Why can’t I respond in kind to her?
And that would make a lot of sense to a lot of people who maybe didn’t have fancy degrees. And it’s reprehensible, it’s something that everyone finds repulsive immediately because the majority were afraid of a majority that abuses the rights of minorities. But isn’t it the case that this is the threat of identity politics – it’s the threat of identity politics itself that is feared by the left in terms of a white underclass becoming “racist”.
Azerrad: I think identify politics is a misnomer. In the same way that multiculturalism is a misnomer because the implication and the term is everyone gets to have a culture, or everyone gets to have an identity they can be proud of. That’s not the case. In both cases, there’s a fundamental distinction that is drawn between oppressor identities, male, straight, white, and the various categories of oppressed identities of which you can be proud.
Same thing with the cultures. You can celebrate every culture except Western culture or American culture. And the real danger in identity politics is, if it were to generate a backlash, and create a form of white identitarianism that would say, “Well, hold on one second. Everyone gets to have an identity that they’re proud of. Everyone gets to claim a slice of the pie on behalf of who they are.” And not only can we not do it, identity politics robs you of patriotism. You can’t even fall back on an American identity because America is fundamentally racists, sexists, homophobic, you name it.
And the real danger there is that it’s putting a majority of Americans in an untenable position, where the identity they’re left with is one they should be ashamed of. And what’s demanded of them is constant self-flagellation in the public square and apologizing for the sins for being white, American, Christian, straight or male or you name it. So I view Trump not as the rise of white nationalism, but as an attempt to reassert an American identity that will overcome the divisiveness of identity politics.
Olsen: And that’s ultimately what the most important question is can we do that. That we have plenty of examples of countries that don’t have successful national identities for whom the primary identity is subnational.
Azerrad: I’m from one.
Olsen: Well, you are from one, but I’m thinking – and you don’t kill each other. I’m thinking of Lebanon.
Azerrad: We used to in the ‘70’s, very briefly, but that didn’t go very far.
Olsen: Yeah, yeah. You’ve got Lebanon, whether you are Sunni or Shia or Druse or Maronite Christian or Orthodox Christian, it’s enshrined in their constitution where you elect representatives to represent these preexisting identities, which means I have no Lebanese identity, which means that they are at war with each other. There is no country. Iraq is going through exactly that same question. I can go to many other countries.
Olsen: Rwanda was such a place and may be such a place again if Kagame isn’t successful. It’s a question in South Africa as well where – despite many African tribes, the African National Congress has succeeded to some extent in creating a super-national – a super-tribal Black South African identity with a grievance against a – admittedly, they were treated massively – grossly and unfairly by white invaders. But you have a question of, you cannot have a country if you cannot share something in common. If our identities below the national level are our primary mode of identification, you must either separate, federate, or tyrannize. Those are your only options.
And you have countries that successfully have federations like Switzerland where to speak German and be Protestant, you have significant ability to run your affairs in your cantons or states. And where you’re Catholic and French-speaking, you can do that, and there’s a lot of freedom and localism. But that would necessarily, in this country, mean that Alabama would have different social mores than California. And Californians seem unwilling to permit that.
Azerrad: Whereas the Alabamians are just fine with that.
Olsen: Well, they weren’t as recently as 10 years ago.
Azerrad: But today, they are.
Olsen: Well, they see the alternative as tyranny. And so that’s – but that’s the question. If we cannot unite and say that there is a – something in which we hold in common even as we differ other things, then we must either tyrannically rule one group over another or we must federate and devolve power to the groups. Or we must separate and become different countries. And the question before America is which of these four choices: unifying identity, redefine to meet the challenges of our times, separation, tyranny, or federalism are we going to choose?
Azerrad: And wouldn’t you say the first and the last one can go together? That there’s – you can have a national identity with a fair amount of room for regional –
Olsen: You can. That’s what Switzerland is is that there’s something that they hold in common, a common national story, a common national set of principles that allows for a great degree of variety and local customs and rule. You can have both going together, but they can also be distinct in the sense that you can have a strong national identity that maintains a degree of federal or national power that would be much stronger than that in, say, Canada or in Switzerland.
Peterson: Now Henry, what do you see, what do you think is ideally – what do you want to see happen in terms of solving this problem? What do you think of the steps forward that would be required to piece us together?
Olsen: I think the step forward is for people to begin to reassert the founding principles of America, which does not mean – means which were chosen in 1789 necessarily. Does not mean there should be as small of a government or as limited of a government as there was then, but that the fundamental promise of America was not no government or small government but republican self government. And that means, as we were claiming of sovereignty for people, that seeks to include all of its members equally in its political and basic rights.
And a reason you have popular appeal for things like some forms of feminism or some forms of non-traditional sexual behavior is because people look and say, you know, we really shouldn’t have police going in and beating up people who are gay in bars, which is what used to happen before 1969. We really shouldn’t have a position where if you’re a woman and you graduate number three in your law school, like Sandra Day O’Connor, that nobody will give you a job, because it doesn’t matter what your intelligence is, it matters what my prejudice is.
But to recognize that again, that looks and says, let’s find the common humanity. Let’s find the common dignity that we – and it means holding up practices against a principle and saying that we have sinned and now we will atone ourselves and that we will engage in redemption and admit you as equal members into this common brotherhood or common personhood. I think there is no way forward without that. That if we devolve into sectional or tribal arguments, we will inevitably face one of those other three choices. We will have tyranny; we will have separation; or we will have federalism, which will mean that the United States will cease to exist in anything that way.
Peterson: David, what do you think of the obstacles? What do you think are the obstacles?
Azerrad: I think the universities are a massive problem, and since we’re here at APSA, political science –
Peterson: Oh, no, the universities are fine. Everything’s fine.
Azerrad: This may get me booted from APSA, not that I care all that much. One thing that’s surprising is just how weak and pathetic these academics are, and how much they thrive on our cowardice. And I wish Trump or a Trump-like figure would do to the universities what he did to the media, which is to humiliate them. He didn’t arrest a single journalist. He didn’t shut down a single newspaper. Okay, this is America, it’s a free country. What he did is he humiliated them. He removed their prestige so that now they’re one of the least trusted institutions in America.
He should do the same thing with our elite universities. You don’t shut – one thing you should do is seriously look into the federal dollars going into these universities and what it is that we’re funding with our tax dollars. I’m all for –
Olsen: And what is the debt of thousands, millions of students is funding, yeah.
Azerrad: So there’s the money issue there, which doesn’t exist with the press, because the press is not being funded by the federal government. But more importantly, we need to adopt a much more confrontational approach with the – look, conservatives have been blathering about the media for over 40 years, right, since the Spiro Agnew speech about – I never know to pronounce this word in English – nattering –
Olsen: Nattering nabobs of negativism.
Azerrad: Nattering nabobs of negativism. And then Trump comes along and he figures it out. You call them out. You confront them. The universities are the same thing. Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale 63 years ago, whatever it is. And the universities – we haven’t put a dent in them. I think we need a much more aggressive and confrontational approach with the cancerous ideologies that are being promoted in these universities. I mean, they’re much worse than the worst monasteries were in the Middle Ages in terms of peddling dogmas that undermine the political community.
Peterson: Oh and like the worst monasteries – and I can say this as a Catholic – they were also wealthy, fat, and happy, and sitting around while everyone else suffered.
Peterson: With no idea what was going on out there. Hedge funds, right. Henry, that’s all very radical. But you also pop in and out of APSA every so often. What are your thoughts on the universities?
Olsen: I think there’s a political problem and there’s a philosophic problem. The political problem is to ensure that within the universities, American principles are being supported. And that means that I think there should be some move towards ensuring that anyone who receives federal dollars or any institution that receives federal dollars not only complies with Title IX and the Civil Rights Act but complies with the First Amendment. That might be a good idea.
Peterson: That sounds awful radical.
Azerrad: But that’s a radical idea.
Peterson: That’s beyond the pale.
Olsen: But the broader question is ideas have consequences, and we have seen for hundreds of years now, a concerted – that the arguments among the best philosophers have been an argument about the nature of the soul, and the nature of knowledge. And the argument has been increasingly won by those who believe that man has no soul, and that man’s choice is simply a selection or is a fiction, depending on how hard your materialism is, of the inputs in the brain.
And consequently, if you believe that choice is a fiction, if you believe that man has no soul that can understand the nature of the thing, reexamine it, and then order your actions by it, then you ultimately are driven to the logic that your actions are formed by your experience and your experience is not intelligible to another human being. And if that’s the case, you have no ability to have republican self-government. Because you can only then organize and communicate within groups, and you can only exert your will and exert your power through some degree of force, not through any degree of reason. This is a longstanding philosophical problem that no degree of political argumentation or political action can solve, certainly not one consistent with a republican self-government.
So the deeper question is how – our experience seems to indicate that we do have the ability to choose, and that we do have the ability to see things as they are, even if sometimes that is – and often clouded by our perception or our experience. That the very ability to communicate is not some idea of a word game that was somehow created by someone in the past then, which we simply edit the rules of. But rather something that is inherent and fundamental to us. Unless and until people begin to believe in that again, we’ll continue to have problems in the university. Because every ill that comes out of the modern university flows from the flawed observation of human psychology that says man has no soul. Man only selects, he does not choose. And that there is no such thing as right, there’s only power.
Peterson: I love where we ended up. What did we start with again? No, that goes right to the heart of it. And I think that that entire concept of nature, right, when you say soul, the entire concept of nature has been hollowed out since really the late 19th century in the American mind. And so that if you don’t have – in other words, there’s no human nature, right, and now there’s no nature at all. It’s pure will, and there is not soul and it’s all material coming from experience. And that’s the case –
Olsen: I think in the popular mind you have often competing senses and opinions. That you can’t argue that you have rights that other people are bound to accept without having something that supersedes your experience. But yet you have the same – you have, yeah. I’m an X. Pay attention to me because I’m an X, and I have rights that you have to respect. Well, they can’t – they are mutually incompatible. I’ll go to the end. I’ll be a little bit –
Peterson: So you – yeah. So let’s talk about the universities a little bit more. That’s real – I think what we’ve said so far is that what you’re saying is, there’s a fundamental philosophic problem in what they teach, and until you change that, you can’t have the principle of the Declaration, right? All men can’t be created equal, and you can’t have the democratic deliberation or deliberation or republican government that’s actually persuasive where we make reasonable arguments to each other about what justice is if we don’t have a non-material aspect to ourselves. We don’t have reason, really, then in the classical sense. We don’t even have a nature. But the problem is this traditional view is still around, but it’s not around at these universities that we’re talking about today. You’re suggesting, David, that they need to be mocked. I’m interested in this.
Azerrad: That’s not going to resolve – I mean, look, Henry raised a deep philosophical problem.
Peterson: Oh, but I like what you said, though.
Azerrad: I just begin at a simpler level of that they’re awash in money. They bask in prestige, because look, they could – they have a very important power. Namely, you get to say you went to this school for the rest of your life. I’m not from here. One of the things that I still haven’t gotten used to. I’ve been in America 14 years at this point, is this immediate question: where did you go to school? Or so and so went to this school. Where I’m from, people ask what do you do? Where are you from? I don’t ever recall anyone – whereas here, because if you went to one of these top schools, it’s the ticket for the rest of your life.
And I’m not suggesting we close them down. I’m not suggesting the federal government dictate that the philosophy department at Harvard eschew materialism and start teaching the anima. But you can definitely go after the violations of free speeches Henry talked about, especially if they’re receiving federal funds. You can cut off funds to all of these bogus, social science, ridiculous studies. And if you’re a college president, you can start closing departments. You can rejig admission policies.
Peterson: Well, college presidents, I don’t know if you’ve seen this article, the view that John Seery wrote who is at Pomona College, not a conservative by any stretch. But he’s from Pomona College and he wrote an article in, I think Modern Age or one of the ISI journals, about college presidents. And it’s one of the most searing – no pun intended – articles I’ve ever read, where he explains the problem, though, is that the administrative class at these universities, they’ve never gone to a small liberal arts college, right. That’s not who they draw their presidents from. And they’re certainly not interested in the life of the mind and the way that we would conceive of it.
So you have a – so look. We know the general picture here is probably one we all agree with, that Claremont has been preaching for a long time, because I think it’s just factually and historically true, which is that whether you think it’s right or wrong, good or bad, the American university comes from the German research model. John Hopkins being founded here is a pivotal moment. And we don’t even have advanced degrees until the latter part of the 19th century.
And then what happens afterwards is, from the time we have universities and advanced degrees, from the very beginning, it’s all modeled on something that’s very foreign, premises that are very foreign to what we would say would ground the Declaration of Independence, which is important because that is what – according to what you both said today – would give us a unified view of what it means to be an American.
And if that case is right, then we’re faced with the radical proposition that over the last hundred or so years, there’s been a deep problem at the – in the heart of the modern university, right.
Azerrad: Yeah, but this is where I somewhat disagree with Claremont is I can live with the progressives because they actually like America. They want to transform it, they don’t like the creed. They like big government, but they don’t hate this country in the way that the post-60s left does. And look, yes, in an ideal world, I would have scrapped the German research university and the post-60s university, but I would set my sights on kind of the cancer that grows out of the ‘60’s, the identity politics, in particular, that is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a country.
Let me put it to you this way, and this may get me fired from Heritage. I can live with Bernie Sanders. Does he have insane ideas on the economy? Absolutely. Does he like America and Americans? Without a doubt. I can’t say that for most academics, for many elite liberals, and for certain Democratic politicians. And to me, that’s the line that I have a hard time dialoguing with is that if we don’t agree on this premise that this is our country and they are fellow citizens. And I don’t blame the progressives for that. That’s the post-60s left, to me at least.
Olsen: The ideas that have been taking over elite thought are not the cause – are not the result of the German research university. They are arguments that were taking place hundred – two hundred years before that that you can see elements of it going back to Francis Bacon. You can see elements of it in the Scottish and the English enlightenments. And consequently, it’s not a matter of form, it’s a matter of idea. So I don’t share the –
Peterson: I don’t agree with that.
Olsen: I don’t share the modern Claremont view that everything changed when Woodrow Wilson became president and that there was a decisive turn. I believe that there – as a political matter, America has changed much less than intellectual thought on the right has wanted to believe, that republican self-government has always been something that Americans want and that’s what they were voting for in 1912 as much as they were voting for in 1812. And on the philosophical level, this was not something that was a radic – that if only we had resisted, you know, the lure of the German research university, this would never have come to our shores.
No, it would have come to our shores. It would have come to our shores because people were reading the same books. They were reading, and they were convinced by the arguments that man ultimately is an animal. Not an animal that is distinct by form of the person’s psychology that is locked in our nature. That’s the fundamental argument that has been made in philosophy, epistemology, and psychology for hundreds of years. And it’s very hard for people to – our natural experience runs up against that logic so that we always express ourselves and act in ways that are much more in conformance with the idea of genuine choice. But the way we explain our experience denies that. And so consequently we have this battle between our inarticulate experience and our articulate non-experience, and that creates a lot of political problems.
Peterson: And I would agree with some of that. What I – I did not mean to say that there was the form or structure alone of the German research university, but that’s shorthand for Hegel, Darwin, and an actual change in substantial ideas. But I would also admit that you’re absolutely right that of course, this material view of human beings has been around for a long time, since the very beginning as soon as people – this is a debate that’s been around since the very beginning of human thought. But in a particular train going back to yes, Bacon, Hobbes, and the early moderns. It’s been around for a long time.
But I guess my point would be, and I think if I was to say in orthodox Claremont doctrine or something that I just espouse, because I think it’s true, it’s that at the time of the American founding, you were still taught as Jefferson said about the University of Virginia, he wanted to have a professor of ethics who believed in the existence of God and would prove it. He didn’t like superstitious priests, because they taught people you needed faith. You could reason that there was a god. Of course, it wasn’t the Christian god, but it was a god, and he thought that the professor of ethics would teach morality according to reason. And he thought a large part of that overlapped with Christianity.
And that’s, in fact, why he takes the miracles out of the Bible, right. We don’t need the miracles, but he was not some esoteric atheist. In his private writings, he thinks there is – he’s a Deist. And he thinks there is a reasonableness to morality. In other words – and that’s Jefferson, who’s one of the most extreme of the founding generation. In other words, in the founding generation, you have a concept of nature in which you can say, human beings are created equal. There’s some order in nature that provides a standard for us to follow.
And what I like to say when people critique the American regime is how in the hell were you supposed to predict that what largely happened to be Protestant Christianity in America couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Catholicism didn’t do a good job either. But couldn’t withstand the onslaught of this new view of science, which certainly was around before, right. And so now you face the prospect of if this is – whatever the reason, this is the – this is what’s behind the ideas that are taught in the classroom, and anyone who thinks different is essentially persecuted or thrown outside the system.
Well, this gets us far afield. I want to turn it around to end this with a final question or final thoughts. David, do you have something you want to say here? You look like you want to jump in.
Azerrad: No, I mean let’s – I’ll give Henry the last word. He’s the wiser of the two of us, so he should speak lastly.
Olsen: Not convinced that that’s true at all. So what – you had a question you wanted to ask us.
Peterson: Yeah, so let’s pivot from – we went to the roots of the philosophic problems of the universities and explored that a little bit. And we were doing that because the universities promote a doctrine or a lack of doctrine. They promote the ideas or lack of ideas that prevent a kind of American unity, a notion of American citizenship that would allow us to have a healthy form of citizenship. So let’s bring that back to the very beginning of the discussion about populism. A healthy version of American populism is what we want or – what are we looking for?
Olsen: I wrote an article on populism about eight years ago at the height of the Tea Party, where I made the connection between populism and its ancient form, which would have been called demagoguery, and what distinguishes modern self-government, which is always things – when modern republican self-government makes changes in its political order, it does so in a way that always has elements in common with demagoguery, but difference – but makes important differences. It always castigates an “other.” It always extols a simple people against a greedy or corrupt or non-legitimate other. But it does not cross the line of the demagogue, and say that the other needs to be cast out, and that the other has no common humanity. That the demagogue, whether it’s in an Athenian city or whether it’s in Nazi Germany casts the other as having no what we would call rights, but I would think is better understood as no common humanity.
So I think what we’re seeing today is once again a people who feel out – different types of people who feel out of sorts with the regime, and that they are calling for a change. And I think if we were to recourse to our pattern, we would create a new order of institutions and arrangements that remain loyal to our common premise. Which is that all men, all people are created equal and that they have common dignity and common understanding and that they need to have the freedom to pursue that and the order to pursue it with security. And that means seeing the other, who is your political adversary as an adversary and not an enemy, and that you foresee an end where they can be part of this, too.
So in that sense, what we want is what we’ve always had, which is the good populism not the demagogic populism. And what we fear is that on both sides, we are moving into a us versus them, seeing the other side as an enemy rather than an adversary. And when you do that, you cannot have free – you cannot have a free government with an enemy. You must crush your enemy. You must tyrannize your enemy. And it’s our debate as to whether we will choose the bad demagogy of the left of the frightful demagogy of the white nationalist backlash right – white identitarian right. But that’s the question of our time, and yes, I think a good populism is what we have always had and that is what we must have again if we are to survive as a regime. A free regime.
Peterson: You give that a thumbs up, David? You okay with that?
Peterson: Okay. Well, thank you so much for being here and for taking this time.
Azerrad: Thank you.
[End of Recording]
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.