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Getting to the Bottom of Ben Shapiro’s Popularity

Robinson’s article is both interesting and useful because it summarizes neatly and cogently almost every argument that those on the Left might make against Shapiro. However, it also begins to lay out a broad notion of why critiques of Shapiro usually fail.”

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro is a polarizing figure, like very few others. In the popular imagination, he is probably best known for videos in which he “destroys,” “eviscerates,” or “annihilates” leftists and liberals—mostly college students—with “facts and logic.” Much has been written about his influence, style, and positions, with both high praise and strong criticism. A profile that appeared in the New York Times’ opinion section praised Shapiro for his rigorous argumentation, his ability to appeal to younger generations (unlike some other conservatives), and for his principled stances. Of course, not everyone accepts this characterization. In a piece for Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson takes issue with virtually everything said in the New York Times article, as well as much of the rest of Shapiro’s work. Robinson’s article is both interesting and useful because it summarizes neatly and cogently almost every argument that those on the Left might make against Shapiro. However, it also begins to lay out a broad notion of why critiques of Shapiro usually fail. This is relevant because, as I will try to show, there is a very close relationship between why critiques fall short and the reason why Shapiro has such a dedicated following.

In his Current Affairs article, Robinson points out those of Shapiro’s positions that he identifies as either inconsistent or as dishonest characterizations of facts. Robinson eventually concludes that Shapiro is a racist—or, at the very least, that he engages in casual bigotry. Robinson mentions, for example, Shapiro’s position on the racial wealth disparity in the United States, which Shapiro attributes to black American culture. Robinson argues that the evidence Shapiro uses to support this claim is selective. Robinson contends that Shapiro neglects to mention, for example, data that shows that African-Americans have more barriers to finding a job than whites, even controlling for background. This is even true, argues Robinson, for people of both races with criminal records. Finally, argues Robinson, Shapiro ignores the historical legacy of policies that—from slavery to segregation—introduced significant financial barriers to Black Americans’ ability to acquire wealth well into the 20th century. Given that wealth is transmitted intergenerationally, it seems nonsensical to suggest that contemporary culture is solely responsible for Black Americans’ obstacles. For Robinson, these are all realities that Shapiro does not engage with but, instead, leaves unmentioned.

Even as he comes to this conclusion, Robinson acknowledges that by calling Shapiro a racist, he is likely playing right into Shapiro’s hands.

Shapiro’s view on Black America, along with comments he has made about Palestinian Arabs, leads Robinson to argue that Shapiro—despite his assertions to the contrary—is racially-prejudiced. Now, here is where I think Robinson hints at the reason for his popularity. Even as he comes to this conclusion, Robinson acknowledges that by calling Shapiro a racist, he is likely playing right into Shapiro’s hands. After all, one of Shapiro’s most popular talking points is that the Left—lacking any willingness or capability for argumentation—inevitably reverts to labelling its opponents as bigots and racists, rather than giving meaningful critiques of contrary viewpoints.

Now, before continuing, I want to make clear that my intention is not to agree or disagree with Robinson on the issue of whether or not Shapiro is a racist. While I essentially agree with all of Robinson’s factual points, I also believe that the Right and the Left have different conceptions of what racism means. This distinction is a topic that merits more attention than I can give it here, so I will limit myself to saying the following: I do think both sides definitions legitimately constitute racism, but that each side has an interest in sticking to its own definition as much as possible. I believe that the Right’s definition is probably more morally problematic on an individual level; however, I also think that the Left’s definition is potentially much more harmful. In that sense, it is easy to see why there is disagreement about what constitutes racism, why the Left is more eager to call it out, but why the Right is wary of being labelled as such. To go back to the main point, Robinson is correct when he says that invoking racism is playing straight into Shapiro’s hands; thus, it is bound to be ineffective. In fact, I would go so far as to say that trying to debunk Shapiro’s arguments and factual claims is a largely futile task. It is probably still necessary, however, because factually incorrect assertions should still be challenged. But pointing out why Shapiro is incorrect will never convince his followers that he is, in fact, wrong—just as Shapiro’s own rhetoric will, in all likelihood, never convince someone on the Left that the Left is wrong.

Now, even if I disagree with many of Shapiro’s positions, I can still acknowledge he is probably a very intelligent individual—and certainly highly effective at what he does.

I would argue that the reason for Ben Shapiro’s popularity can be summarized in three points. I will look at each in more detail, but—just to enunciate them first—it comes down to the following:

  1. Shapiro has an essentially Schmittian conception of politics: that is, politics can always be reduced to a conflict between friends and enemies.
  2. His distinction between friend and enemy maps directly onto the division between Left and Right. In other words, if it were possible to decide what constitute the most widely shared leftist positions, the opposite of those would be Ben Shapiro’s positions—more than those of any other conservative commentator.
  3. He is willing to comment on virtually every issue, even if it is outside his area of expertise and, in line with the previous two points, his point of view will always be decidedly opposed to that of the Left.

As I said, I will elaborate on each of these; but if we accept, for the sake of argument, that these are accurate, his incredible popularity should be no surprise. He is, in a way, the perfect reference source for any occasion when someone might desire an argument against a left-wing position. Now, even if I disagree with many of Shapiro’s positions, I can still acknowledge he is probably a very intelligent individual—and certainly highly effective at what he does. As a Harvard Law School graduate, it is unsurprising that he is a skilled debater. Of course, winning debates has little relationship with being right, and it has more to do with rhetorical skill. As Ben Burgis has pointed out before, Shapiro often relies on arguments that are quite effective at re-framing a debate in his own terms but that, nonetheless, are logically fallacious, such as presenting false dichotomies. But this starts to make sense once it is framed in Schmittian terms.

In The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt argues that, just as the ethical is about distinguishing between right and wrong and the aesthetic between beautiful and ugly, the political rests on the distinction between friend and enemy. Strictly, Schmitt makes this distinction specifically between a political community and its external enemies. In this case, that is not so (since Right and Left are two parts of the same political community), but there is no reason why we could not apply the same kind of analysis. In fact, some points that Shapiro himself makes during a speech that he gave for Young Americans for Freedom, confirm this. The subject of his talk is his personal rules for debating the Left. His first rule, for example, is “hit first.” He goes on to explain that broaching politics—even in just a discussion—is necessarily a battle. The use of the word “battle” is quite telling. There is no such thing as a battle without enemies. Furthermore, out of Shapiro’s ten rules, only two are moderately related to arriving at the truth: “spot inconsistencies in your opponents’ arguments” and “admit when you don’t know something.” Even these, however, are perfectly consistent with one’s own argument being wrong. Admitting ignorance does not preclude using fallacious arguments, and spotting the mistakes in opposing views does not mean one’s own are free from errors. The rest, however, are entirely about winning. The second rule, “frame your opponent,” could be just as easily be recast as “paint your opponent in a negative light.” Throughout the talk, he stresses the importance of staying on the offensive and forcing the opponent into difficult positions. 

This alone would not, in my view explain, his popularity. It is how this relates to the other two points that I laid out earlier. In the New York Times article I cited earlier, Shapiro is quoted as saying, “I am trying to militantly defend conservative ideas[…]I’m not going to be anti-left for the sake of it.” This particular claim is interesting because, it could be argued, it can be true or false from different points of view. I have no problem believing that all of Shapiro’s arguments come from sincere belief. In this sense, it is true that he is not anti-left for the sake of it. However, he does not really need to do it. His sincerely held positions are already as anti-left as possible. This is notable because—even out of pure chance—one should expect to have at least some areas of agreement with one’s opponents. Looking at other conservative commentators, it is easy to see that this is the case. Tucker Carlson frequently speaks about the dangers of corporate power and even praised Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of conservatives’ favorite targets, for her proposal to cap credit card interest rates. Tomi Lahren has spoken in favor of abortion rights.. Even someone like Charlie Kirk, whose career consists almost entirely of making online content against the Left, will agree with the Left on issues pertaining to war. It would be impossible to go over every position that Shapiro holds, but we can review a few notable ones. At the moment, most people in the United States support raising taxes on top income earners. This is a left-wing policy with which, according to polls, even 54% of Republicans support. Yet, Shapiro continues to argue that we would all be better off if taxes on the wealthy were lowered. He has advocated for military action against Iran when even an overwhelming majority of conservatives preferred a diplomatic solution. Of course, he also holds very conservative positions on social issues, such as LGBTQ rights and abortion.

I think his Schmittian notion of politics, combined with his consistently anti-left positions, even when that puts him at odds with other conservatives, go a long way towards explaining his popularity. However, there is one last element, as I mentioned earlier, that merits a more detailed look. No matter how much I disagree with him because of this last one, I think the fact that he is able to do it speaks highly of him. It is worth repeating that I do believe everything he argues for, he sincerely believes. Yet there are issues on which he could simply not give his opinion, and little to nothing would change. Yet, he still does, even when these issues fall decisively outside of his areas of expertise. I say this speaks highly of him, mainly because doing so requires quite a thorough understanding left-wing sensibilities. One such example is his recent claim about rap. He recently interviewed rapper Zuby for his podcast, and Shapiro tried to make the case that rap is not real music. This is a claim that I have a hard time conceptualizing as anything other than plainly anti-Left, even if I grant—and I do—that he sincerely believes it. The moral panic over rap is largely a thing of the past, as it had become a staple of mainstream popular culture. Yet, rap is an integral part of black youth and anti-establishment culture. As such, comments like this one are bound to have left-wing outrage as their main effect. What is even more striking in this case is that the claims are very easily proven incorrect. His argument, in this case, relies on the way he defines music—and how that definition relates to rap. Music, he claims, requires melody, harmony, and rhythm, but rap only has rhythm; therefore, it cannot be music. 

There are several problems with this line of argument, which are very easily identified. For one, the idea that music necessitates all these elements is suspect. According to University of Arizona professor of music Gordon Epperson in his entry for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, music is, “art concerned with combining vocal or instrumental sounds for beauty of form or emotional expression, usually according to cultural standards of rhythm, melody, and, in most Western music, harmony.” The most elemental definition, then, is simply the combination of sounds, which rap certainly fulfills, even if did not have melody or harmony. Drummers are still musicians, not rhythm makers. Shapiro’s list is just some of the elements that music generally has, some of which are culturally defined. But even if we were to grant his definition, his claim is still demonstrably wrong. Rap does have melody and harmony. As Zuby, his guest, points out, the backing tracks have plenty. And even the vocal tracks still have a melody because they hit different notes. They also have harmony because they need to be in a particular musical key in order to complement the backing track. The important takeaway from this is not that Shapiro is wrong about rap. Rather, it is that he is willing to make easily disprovable claims in order to make what, I believe, is a very effective polemical statement.

Furthermore, I sincerely doubt that the primary effect of the existence of Ben Shapiro as a political actor is to persuade leftists that their side is wrong. Rather, it is to energize those who already side with him.

This claim is of an entirely different nature than his claims regarding the racial wealth gap, for example. As Robinson suggests in his piece, Shapiro could easily critique the sociological findings that are contrary to his position. Social scientists do it constantly, and social phenomena are complex and multifaceted, which makes definite answers complicated. But, in this last instance, that is not the case. It is a very basic, almost definitional mistake. Now, Shapiro is an intelligent and educated individual who could have easily figured this out, which leads me to conclude that the most likely explanation is that he wasn’t trying to put a defensible claim up for debate. Rather, he was looking to express a highly polemical opinion. To put it in colloquial terms: he is willing to go there. This, as I stated previously, is the last element that explains his appeal. In particular, I think it can be quite effective at eliciting a positive emotional response from those who might sympathize.

This also explains, I believe, why debunking his arguments is bound to have the same effect as calling him a racist: namely, none. His appeal comes from his claims and argument themselves, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Furthermore, I sincerely doubt that the primary effect of the existence of Ben Shapiro as a political actor is to persuade leftists that their side is wrong. Rather, it is to energize those who already side with him. The anticlimactic conclusion of all this is that there is probably no effective response to Ben Shapiro. This is not because his arguments are hard to counter, because, as it has been shown before, I do not think they are. Rather, the reason is that the function that Shapiro fulfills is one that, by its nature, cannot be effectively countered by someone coming from an opposing point of view. That does not mean that leftists should stop engaging with him; to do that would be to play into his hands, even more so than continuing to engage with him. But this should be done while keeping in mind that the outcome of the engagement is all but decided from the outset. Minds are not going to change. If anything—and this is still highly subjective—the winner will probably be whoever can make a more effective case to their own side.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be reached at nestor.kyat@gmail.com or on Twitter @nestor_d

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Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

“In fact, I would go so far as to say that trying to debunk Shapiro’s arguments and factual claims is a largely futile task.”
Where does one go with an argument like that? Where does a statement like that come from?

Jorio
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Jorio

I think you might be misattributing Shapiro’s bouts of sophistry when you claim that they’re inspired by Schmitt rather than a general lawyerlyness.

Néstor
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Néstor

So, my intention was not to claim that Ben Shapiro is consciously following Schmitt’s view of politics, just that his general attitude is consistent with that outlook