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Nathan J. Robinson’s Curious Critique

If people’s convictions about those particular issues are weak enough that they could be changed by watching Rising, they surely could be changed in many other ways…”

A recent piece in Current Affairs, written by its editor Nathan J. Robinson, has caused a considerable degree of controversy among many on the Left. The piece, entitled “Isn’t ‘Right-Wing Populism’ Just Fascism?” revolves around the idea of the potential for agreements, disagreements, and collaborations between the so-called populist left and populist right. While this is the broader subject that Robinson’s article seeks to discuss, the question is largely framed in the context of the popular online news show Rising, from The Hill, hosted by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, as well as their 2019 book A Populist’s Guide to 2020. (Krystal Ball is a former MSNBC host, a network with which she has cited many ideological conflicts even during her time there. Saagar Enjeti is the former White House Correspondent for Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel’s The Daily Caller.) The term “populism” has competing—even if somewhat related—definitions, sometimes with negative connotations. The way that it is used in this context, on which both Robinson and his opponents agree, is a more neutral one. Essentially, populism means opposition to the elites and “the establishment” in favor of policies that benefit the majority of people.

Nothing about this definition suggests that populism has to be necessarily a phenomenon of the Left. It could very well appeal, for example, to a more socially conservative rural population, or to religious sentiments in a deeply religious country. Robinson’s argument, however, attacks the notion of right populism and, by extension, the premise of Ball and Enjeti’s show in two different ways. On one hand, Robinson questions how much contemporary figures characterized as populists really fit into the definition. On the other, as the title suggests, he casts doubt upon the basic moral worth of right-wing populism in general. At the very beginning of the article, Robinson even goes so far as to assert that two populists from the Right were Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The idea, then, is that by presenting populism as one unified force with just some disagreements between its left-wing and right-wing variants, left populists are sanitizing the views of fascists and other unsavory characters.

Michael Brooks, host of the left-wing podcast The Michael Brooks Show, did a segment criticizing the broad brush with which Robinson paints right-wing populism as identical with fascism, while also stressing the importance of conceptual clarity.

Robinson’s piece caused considerable controversy among many popular media figures on the Left, some of whom wholeheartedly agreed with Robinson’s assessment, while others criticized his approach. Krystal Ball herself did a segment responding to the article, in which she argued that there is no reason why left-wing populists should not collaborate with populists on the Right on issues where they agree, while remaining true to their principles where they disagree. In the segment, she cites examples such as Senator Bernie Sanders working with Tea Party Senator Mike Lee and former Republican Congressman Ron Paul on several bills in congress. These include one to audit the Federal Reserve and another to end the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Yemen. Michael Brooks, host of the left-wing podcast The Michael Brooks Show, did a segment criticizing the broad brush with which Robinson paints right-wing populism as identical with fascism, while also stressing the importance of conceptual clarity. Robinson then wrote a follow-up article in which he argues that—while he agrees that it is healthy and useful to debate the Right—his problem is not this but the fact that a show like Rising exaggerates the degree to which there is an agreement between the Left and Right while downplaying disagreements. Particularly, Robinson stresses his view that Rising specifically downplays disagreements on topics on which the Left not only disagrees with the Right but might also find the Right’s positions morally objectionable.

My intention here, however, is not to relitigate any of these issues. I think the real problem with Robinson’s analysis is that it rests on one fundamentally flawed premise, which I will discuss in detail. However, in the interest of clarity, first I want to state briefly where I agree and disagree with Robinson and his interlocutors on the specific issues that they have discussed. I do think Robinson is fundamentally wrong to say that all populism coming from the Right is—to quote his own title—“just Fascism.” It is true that Fascism is a form of right-wing populism; however, it serves no one to use such a label so liberally. I also think that, as Ball says in her reply to Robinson, it is more useful to engage than to shun—and even collaborate if possible when there are areas of agreement. Now, Robinson does argue in his follow-up article that he also believes it is better to engage than to shun but that his intention was never to argue against this. Finally, I do think that Rising sometimes fails to properly characterize certain positions properly, or at least live up to the standards that the hosts—and particularly Enjeti—set for themselves. A recent segment, in which both hosts discuss Senator Sanders’ immigration policy, illustrates this. In it, Enjeti argues that Sanders’ policy represents a capitulation to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party by basically embracing an open border policy that would only drive down wages and hurt American workers. Ball vehemently disagrees and counters that there is no empirical evidence of immigration actually driving down wages, and she goes so far as to say that such arguments are often simply a cover for cultural chauvinism or outright racism. Enjeti then replies that his argument is a purely economic one, and that he wants nothing to do with anyone arguing against immigration from a racial or cultural point of view. I have no trouble believing that he sincerely is making a purely economic argument; the problem is that, as Robinson points out, Enjeti often cites Tucker Carlson as an example of the populist right. Yet Carlson often frames his arguments in cultural or demographic terms.

Incidentally, this segment from Rising also shows that Robinson’s criticism of Ball for not calling out certain positions from the Right is unfounded. But this also showcases part of what I believe is fundamentally wrong with Robinson’s assessment of the issue. As I said previously, I do think Enjeti is sincere about the economic nature of his position, but we can assume, for the sake of argument, that he was not and his concerns were really cultural and demographic. We could even go further and imagine he was explicitly making cultural or racist arguments. What Robinson’s argument would suggest is that—by appearing on the show with a leftist co-host—making those claims as he shares the space with her—and by virtue of their agreement on other unrelated topics—these claims become sanitized. Suddenly, the culturally chauvinistic or outright racist points that this hypothetical version of Enjeti made would become more palatable to people on the Left.

First, it seems to suggest that, for some reason, show viewers from the Left would be vulnerable to persuasion, but viewers from the Right are not, or—at least—that viewers from the Left are significantly more prone to being persuaded.

This line of reasoning has, in my view, serious issues. First, it seems to suggest that, for some reason, show viewers from the Left would be vulnerable to persuasion, but viewers from the Right are not, or—at least—that viewers from the Left are significantly more prone to being persuaded. At first glance, this makes no sense to me, especially coming from someone on the Left like Robinson. Presumably, Robinson would believe that Left positions on immigration are more persuasive than positions from the Right, and, if that were the case, it should even be seen as a positive. After all, why would the reverse logic not apply? I think it would be equally valid for someone criticizing the show from the Right to argue that Enjeti’s participation in the show is sanitizing Krystal Ball’s pro-immigration views. And if Robinson truly believes his side has better arguments, should this latter effect not actually be stronger? Sure, maybe some people on the Left might be won over, but, overall, it should be a lesser number than former conservatives being persuaded, thanks to Enjeti’s sanitization of Ball’s positions.

But now, assume that—for whatever reason—people on the Right are completely immune to persuasion while people on the Left are not. Even under these conditions, I believe Robinson’s worries would be unfounded. Being susceptible to persuasion or receptive to opposing arguments does not mean, of course, that one will be persuaded by just any argument one comes across. Badly argued positions generally do not convince many people. Further, I think it is completely uncontroversial to say that this is even more true for issues that one deeply cares about or that form an integral part of one’s moral core. I also think it is fair to say that questions about racism, for example, are important to most people on the Left. This is true even for so-called “class reductionists” like University of Pennsylvania Professor Adolph Reed Jr. Reading something like his recent essay “The Myth of Class Reductionism,” it is clear that he is committed to a notion of justice in which people’s races do not negatively impact their life prospects. The one caveat is that these so-called class reductionists see an economic logic beneath problems such as racism. But the point is that even in such cases, there is a genuine concern with racial equality. With that in mind, it makes little sense to think that listening to Krystal Ball occasionally say that Tucker Carlson raises a valid point in terms of corporate power, for example, will also make a leftist audience agree with his arguments on culture and demographics.

There are, then, three possible justifications that would support Robinson’s position, none of which we have good reasons to accept. The first is the one that I already outlined, namely that only (or primarily) leftists are susceptible to persuasion. If the opposite were true, then exposing people to arguments from the Left would also have the ability to persuade, effectively neutralizing both effects. But even if we were to grant this, one of two things would still need to be true. One possibility is that people on the Left are generally unable to draw distinctions between the principles that animate someone’s policy positions—and to understand that it is possible to agree on some issues and not on others. This seems to me like an indefensible idea. In fact, the Left should be acutely aware of this. Most leftists would agree with liberals on social issues but not economic ones. Moreover, I think anyone on the Left understands that the reason why liberals seem to think it is very important thatcorporate boardrooms are diverse but leftists do not is because these two groups have vastly different ideas about what equality entails. To say then that Krystal Ball is priming leftists to embrace cultural conservatism and demographic paranoia by virtue of her agreement with her co-host on some economic issues means ignoring Ball’s own clear outlining of her principles and the fact that most, if not all, people on the Left are clearly capable of making these kinds of distinctions.

The other possibility, however, is that some portion of the audience that is nominally on the Left simply does not have very strong convictions on these issues. Again, I do not believe that this is likely, given that the specific issues which worry Robinson are, in my opinion, issues that tend to be central to the Left’s values. Now, this argument may leave some people unsatisfied, but, if that were the case, I think there is very little that could have been done even without someone trying to amplify the issues in which the populist left and populist right agree. All of these ideas are readily available in countless other places. If people’s convictions about those particular issues are weak enough that they could be changed by watching Rising, they surely could be changed in many other ways, so there is little to do about the few people who might fall into this category in the first place.

I think this is an interesting case as a whole because it showcases important tensions within the Left. Anyone who accuses Current Affairs of being a platform for the overly censorious or moralizing discourse, the kind that the Left’s opponents try to amplify as if it were the only kind of discourse coming from the Left, clearly has never read the journal or is acting in bad faith. If anything, I would say it is among the Left’s media outlets that most consistently engage with conservative ideas rigorously and in good faith. Robinson’s two pieces on this subject are not aimed at “cancelling” Krystal Ball or anything that one might associate with some ultra-moralizing sectors of the Left. Yet they betray a tendency towards ideological purity that I do not think is helpful. One might consistently engage with opposing ideas and try to refute them in the most detailed fashion yet always try to keep them or their exponents as far away as possible in other regards. I think this is unhelpful because ideological purity accomplishes little and, for all the reasons I outlined before, I do not think audiences need to be somehow shielded.

However, I do think it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. It is certainly possible to focus so much energy on what some on the Left might perceive as the common enemy that both they and conservatives have that one ends up becoming a useful idiot for the Right. That is a whole topic on its own and not the subject of this essay. I only bring it up to say that there are certain cases in which concerns like the ones Robinson is expressing could be valid. While the Left would do well to keep those concerns in mind, I also think the scope of their application should be very limited.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

2 thoughts on “Nathan J. Robinson’s Curious Critique

  1. This is such a dumb argument. Hitler gave free medical care to German citizens. Does this make him less objectionable? Can you really separate that from his atrocities? Tucker Carlson should never be acknowledged by the left. Period.

    1. Wow Jeffrey, another Reductio ad Hitlerum….compare people you don’t like to Hitler, that’ll show them! Do some actual thinking, get a brain, and stop using the most tired trope in the entire world

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