A love letter to democratic institutions

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The problems of disinformation, conspiracies, and cancel culture are probably familiar to many of our listeners. But they’re usually talked about separately, including on this show. In his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, Jonathan Rauch ties these threads together and shows how they contribute to a larger problem of a departure from facts and truth in favor of feelings and falsehoods.

The book reaches back to the parallel eighteenth-century developments of liberal democracy and science to explain what he calls the “Constitution of Knowledge”—our social system for turning disagreement into truth. The institutions that Rauch describes as “reality-based communities,” universities, media, government organizations, and the courts, need our support now more than ever as they face attacks from illiberal forces across the political spectrum.

But are the problems on the left and the right really the same? Rauch argues they are. Michael Berkman and Chris Beem consider that equivalency after the interview.

Rauch is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program and the author of eight books and many articles on public policy, culture, and government. He is a contributing writer of The Atlantic and recipient of the 2005 National Magazine Award, the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. He has also authored research on political parties, marijuana legalization, LGBT rights and religious liberty, and more.

Additional Information

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought

Jonathan Rauch on Twitter

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Episode Transcript

Michael Berkman 00:04
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, I’m Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem 00:10
And I’m Chris Beem.

Jenna Spinelle 00:11
I’m Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to democracy works. Our guest this week is Jonathan Rauch, who is a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings and author of a new book called The Constitution of knowledge, a defense of truth. And as sometimes is, is the case, Jonathan, and this book really does a great job of tying together a lot of what we’ve been talking about on this show for the past three plus years on a very succinct, very readable book. But he really focuses on the idea of epidemic polarization and disinformation and sort of some of these trends that we’ve seen on both the left and the right. So Chris, why don’t you kick us off here help unpack that a little bit? What are what are the stakes here? What are we talking about?

Chris Beem0 1:05
I think the phenomenon that we’re talking about is is pretty evident to most people. It’s just that, you know, partisan groups, partisan tribes will look at the other side, almost exclusively, right. But when we talk about things like the big lie, and the the idea that we can continue to present as true, an argument for which there is no evidence, and no, no institutional support, ie judicial cases, or what have you, and still argue that that claim about gli has the same epistemological standing as the truth, which is that Joe Biden won the presidential election is, on the one hand, right. On the other hand, you have this argument on the left, that says that there are some claims, that are some arguments or even some questions that are so hurtful, or so demeaning, or so inclined to undermine the status of marginalized people in this country, that those questions must not be asked those arguments must not be made. And therefore, argument is shut down the kancil culture, right, that that the person who made it is not only is the argument that made it, but the person who made it is illegitimate. And his argument, Jonathan Rauch, his argument is that both of those things are ultimately the same. Both of them ultimately undermine the prerequisites upon which any democracy must proceed.

Michael Berkman 02:55
You know, I sometimes think of this podcast series as an extended seminar. And I find myself making connections back to guests that we had a while ago. And I really like when every once in a while we come across a guest or a book or something, or body of work, that really ties things together nicely that we’ve talked about before. And, and that that’s kind of the context in which I read rouses book, you know, discussions we’ve had about Russian propaganda techniques, and about polarization in its many forms, about epistemological polarization in particular, about the big lie, which we’ve talked about, at some length, and canceled culture, which I think we’ve talked about less. But going forward, we’ll probably need to talk about more. And I think what he’s trying to do, Chris, I guess I would take issue with one thing when you said something about the truth. And the big lie is not the truth, right? That’s why we call it the why but, but I think Rauch is trying to say something else, you know, even in scientific, you know, when we’re doing hard science kind of work. There’s always some uncertainty, there’s always some element of probability truth is always kind of elusive. But we have mechanisms, we have processes, we have institutions that are designed to help us to get there.

Jenna Spinelle 04:19
I don’t remember if this is something that’s in the book, or if you said it during the interview, but the book is something of a love letter to institutions and the people within those institutions. And he defines institutions, as universities, news outlets, the government, those those types of things. And so, you know, he sort of talks about how people sort of took those institutions for granted perhaps for a while and now you know, the the big lie all these other factors are eroding trust in those institutions. And we’re living with the ramifications of what happens when that trust Yeah,

Michael Berkman 04:58

Yeah, really well, well put Jenna, and you know, university scientific research is one institution that’s been set up to discover knowledge and essentially the truth. And then our job as professors is to profess it. Right? That’s what we do. But we have, you know, we have peer review, we have grant reviewing agencies, we have all of these different mechanisms and rules and procedures, in journalism, which has just taken such a hit over the last four years of being accused of being nothing but a bunch of partisan hacks, also has, you know, its professional methods and its techniques and its approaches. And it too, is a way of discovering certain truths, as our courts which have their own sets of procedures, and frankly, as our legislators and you know, inquiries and other sorts of ways and, and his point, and I think he’s so right about this, his address, sort of nihilistic attack on all of them. And then where are we left?

Chris Beem 05:54
His argument is not that there’s other institutions doing this, but there’s a methodology to all these institutions that’s very similar, and that when you undermine one, you undermine all and so science works this way. law works this way. Journalism works this way. And politics works this way. And so it’s only by acknowledging that at once you understand that and then acknowledge that you realize just how much rests on these on these methods.

Jenna Spinelle 06:27
Well, that was a very helpful framing of I think, some of Jonathan’s arguments and the perspective that he comes from. So let’s go now to the interview.

Jenna Spinelle 06:43
Jonathan Rauch Welcome to Democracy Works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jonathan Rauch 06:47
I am so excited to be with you.

Jenna Spinelle 06:50
So before we get to your current book, The Constitution of knowledge, I want to go back a little bit to your book, kindly inquisitors, which came out in the early 90s, which is, as I understand it was a period when people who are proponents of liberalism and liberal democracy, we’re somewhere between taking a deep breath and doing a victory lap after the fall of communism. But I also understand that you maybe saw the landscape a little bit differently. back then. Can you start us off by talking about what you saw, then what trends you were starting to see emerge at that time?

Jonathan Rauch 07:30
Well, in February of 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa, a decree, a death sentence for Salman Rushdie, a novelist. And I was astonished actually, at the time with the weakness of the response of much of the West, you know, it was kind of equivocal Well, of course, they shouldn’t issue a death sentence. But on the other hand, he shouldn’t write such an offensive book. At the same time, we started to see the rise of what was then called political correctness at that point in the form of speech codes on college campuses. And those started working their way through the courts and into the culture. And we started to see a lot of professors, mounting ideological arguments against free speech and free thought. And we saw other challenges to to science, from people saying science is oppressive, because it omits the experiences of minorities, gays, blacks, and so forth. And I said, you know, this is something new, this is something a little different, we may have won the Cold War, but now we’re seeing a lot of attacks from within on the premises of, I think the two pillars of culture that cares about truth. One is freedom of speech. And the other is discipline of facts.

Jenna Spinelle 08:46
As you look back on that book, and as you you’ve been working on the Constitution of knowledge, I mean, did I guess the short way of asking when thinking about is did it get as bad as you thought that it might have, at that time thinking about, you know, where where we are now,

Jonathan Rauch 09:05
it got different. So one thing I constantly say I’ve been a free speech, not since I was a teenager in the 70s. And one of the things you learn is that the idea that speech which is offensive blast from us, seditious wrongheaded, bigoted or just plain false should be not only allowed, but protected by the government is the craziest, wackiest, most counterintuitive idea of all time, bar none. And the only thing that saves it from the ash heap of history is that it’s also the most successful social idea of all time, bar none. But because of that, because it’s so counterintuitive. I realized that people like me, free speech advocates, Free Thought dynamic inquiry advocates who just have to wake up every morning and defend this principle from scratch, and so will our children and their children and their children forever and we just have to be cheerful about that. So you know, you can go back to Galileo and the Inquisition, there are always forces that are arrayed against what I call now the Constitution. And although they just changed and they did change, so in the early 90s, when I wrote kindly inquisitors, a lot of it was coming from things like formal speech codes that were being imposed by universities, and from formal doctrines that were being propounded by, you know, very ideological people, or my free speech was oppressive. And some of that got pushback. So it’s nothing quite new under the sun, but things have definitely changed.

Jenna Spinelle 10:33
Right. So let’s, let’s dive a little bit further into the Constitution of knowledge and that framework that that you created in this book, you know, you quote, I believe it goes back to Ben Sasse. But correct me if I’m wrong, the the notion of you know, democracy needs a shared set of facts. I feel like I’ve heard that over and over again, certainly, on this podcast, we’ve set it on on other other things that have come out over the past couple of years. How do you think about that notion in relationship to the Constitution of knowledge framework?

Jonathan Rauch11:05
If it’s okay, I’ll just start by saying what I think the Constitution of knowledge is, since we’ll be referring to it quite a lot. So that’s our social system of institutions and rules that keep us collectively more to reality. And that allow us to settle our disagreements, civilly, peaceably, without going to war. And it’s a revolutionary change. It’s actually a species transforming change. And it resembles the US Constitution. In many ways. Although the one constitution is written down and has the force of law and the other doesn’t. They’re both trying to basically do the same thing, which is say we’ve got these very important complex social decisions. Instead of putting a ruler in charge, we’re going to have a set of rules, which everyone high or low, regardless of race, color, creed status, everyone’s going to have to follow these rules and abide by the results. Well, in the US Constitution, we don’t require that everyone agree on anything. In fact, the system is designed so that we harness the force of disagreement, the Constitution forces us to compromise in order to get things done and requires us to go through checks and balances and elections. And it works because we disagree. And we harness that energy constructively. Something no other political system has succeeded in doing constitution of knowledge. So do we all need to agree on all facts? Well, that’ll never happen. And if it did, it would be a terrible thing, because science would grind to a halt. Because a lot of this stuff we agree on would be wrong, and we wouldn’t find our mistakes, we never see our own mistakes. whole point of science isn’t to avoid making mistakes is to make them super quickly. So constitutional knowledge works the same way. It doesn’t say we have to agree on all our facts, but we have to agree on a system for reaching facts. And on any given day, we’re having a lot of arguments about a lot of factual things. But we should be in general agreement that we have these systems under the Constitution and knowledge, I call it the reality based community, and that it does a pretty good job, and that sometimes you or I might lose an argument, but still the account of the consensus about knowledge, objective knowledge that comes out of that on any given day, that’s as close as we can come that day to truth. So we do have to agree on that. And Senator sass is, right, if that’s what he means, yeah, we’re definitely losing that.

Jenna Spinelle 13:16
Can you say more about who who’s in or who’s part of those reality based communities who creates the Constitution of knowledge.

Jonathan Rauch 13:25
So lots and lots of people and organizations, mostly professionals, true seeking is primarily a professional job. But there are really four big pillars. The most important if you had to name just one would be science research in academia. That’s what you folks are doing in State College. And that’s the search for truth in labs and in journals in academic work in research. The second big world of the reality based communities, the one that I’m based in, and that’s journalism. The third is law. A lot of people don’t know this, but the concept of a fact originates in law, not in science. Because Law Courts before we had, you know, modern science Law Courts needed some kind of account of truth in order to decide who is right and who is wrong. Law is very fact based and very truth seeking. That’s what juries do. And so advocates present their cases and judges decide and if you don’t think that courts are reality based as Donald Trump, who tried dozens of frivolous lawsuits that were not factual and was thrown out on his ear, and then the fourth big realm, which is government. So government does all kinds of things like NIH research institute, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts, the weather, Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, many, many branches of government are about facts, finding and settling on an account of facts that we can use to make public policy like you know, maybe I think Elvis Presley is still alive and I’m entitled to believe That, but the government is not going to send them a social security check. So those are the big four. And those are the big four that are also under attack right now.

Jenna Spinelle 15:09
Right. And in terms of how those big four groupings of organizations and institutions are being attacked you point two in the book, both the threat mostly from from the right conspiracy theorists fire hose of false hoods, all of those things. And also, as you’ve already been been discussing, the the sort of cancel culture, mostly from the far left. Now, those issues are often talked about separately, I don’t know that I’ve encountered anyone who kind of threads them together in in quite the way that you do here. Can you walk us through that? How you see those those two threads kind of fitting together? Or how it might make sense to to think about them together?

Jonathan Rauch15:52
Yes, thank you, Jenna, you’ve kind of reached the core of the second big message of the book. The first big message is the one we’ve been discussing that there is a constitution of knowledge, just a marketplace of ideas. Free speech is not enough. You need all that structure, all those institutions and rules to actually turn free speech into knowledge, turn information into facts. The second big message is you’re being manipulated. And that’s that although they seem very different, both the chaos that’s being produced by disinformation. And the social coercion that’s being produced by canceling are both forms of information warfare, which is the way I define it is as organizing and manipulating the social and media environments for political advantage specifically to dominate, divide, disorient and ultimately demoralize the target population. So what disinformation does is it weaponizes some very deep cognitive vulnerabilities that human have in terms of how we believe things, and whom we believe, like, for example, even without being aware of it, we tune not only our beliefs, but even our perceptions, to what people around us are saying, and seeing and believing. Well, suppose you can spoof consensus, suppose you can deal with algorithms, and celebrity endorsements and search engine optimization to make it look if you get online, who and type in vaccine, what you get back makes it look like most of the world thinks that vaccination is dangerous anti vaxxers figured that out in 2014. What they’re doing is spoofing consensus, they’re making it look like a lot of people believe something only a fringe belief, and that plays with our brains that makes us think, well, there must be something to this. conspiracy theories, which you mentioned, are another favorite way of doing this plays to our weakness to always be looking for explanations for things. You mentioned firehose of falsehood. That’s when you put out so much disinformation and misinformation so quickly, that Steven Bannon, Trump’s strategist said, You flood the zone with shit, the media can’t keep up, the public gets disoriented cynical, where you can use out and out social coercion, and that’s canceling. That’s where you intimidate silence people just by threatening their careers, their reputations, their professional and personal associations, you can actually make people feel profound guilt and shame by organizing a pylon against them. So what these have in common is all the one may be used at the moment by the left and a different one may be used by the right, they’re all tools that are used to manipulate us cognitively. And they’re all quite sophisticated and they’re all quite effective.

Jenna Spinelle 18:32
So with with all that in mind, I I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of the community part of reality based community I’m I’ve been wondering whether you know, some of this boat this this behavior you’ve just described, both on the left and the right people kind of finding or or seeking out this consensus is that the result of not feeling welcome in the community of the institutions of journalism, of law of government of academia, which I’ll talk about journalism, because it’s what I know best, but, you know, newsroom diversity is at best stagnant, if not worse than it was over the past decades. And, you know, I just I wonder how, you know, if you don’t feel like you’re you’re welcome somewhere, or it’s not speaking to people like you, you go and find community somewhere else. And I just wonder if that might have been happening here or might be part of why where we’re seeing these things that we are,

Jonathan Rauch 19:36
Well, maybe a factor it’s it’s part of a larger social problem, which is that a lot of the the kinds of civic institutions and organizations that we just relied on, to give us a sense of agency control in our lives have become less effective. Everything from unions are the mainline churches, civic organizations, like the clubs people are members of Boy Scouts is in trouble. You can go through all of society. And these are places that we trust and gave us a sense of meaning in life, and then they’re getting more scarce. And that increases mistrust. And then, as you say, a sense that maybe we’re not as welcome. And I definitely agree there’s a problem with lack of viewpoint diversity in mainstream media. A lot of media organizations are becoming aware of that. But you know, if everyone in the newsroom is on the left, then they’re going to miss stuff, then important questions won’t be asked. I think it’s an even bigger problem in academia. And we should talk about that. But say, so here’s, here’s the big button. Here’s where I’d push back against the premise of the question. We often talk as if you know, societies walking along one day, and then institutions start to fail, people lose confidence in them, they lose trust, and they don’t feel welcome, and things go to pieces. And that’s not the account that I want to focus people on. I want to say this is being done to us. For the last 50 years, starting in the 70s, we have seen a succession of very pointed attacks on the institutions and norms and values that we rely on as a society to tell fact, from fiction, it begins, in academia on the left with attacks on objectivity and truth. It then continues on the right, with the birth of conservative radio and people like rush Limbaugh, who, for example, would rail against what he called the four corners of deceit, by which he means academia, science, journalism and government. The reality based community continues with Newt Gingrich, who will say anything to when you get conservative media, which has a very different business model than traditional media, and then you get the rise of Donald Trump, a step change. This will sound like a partisan comment on the least partisan person you’ll ever meet. I’m center right I voted for and admired many Republicans. Donald Trump is different. Because Trump and his MAGA forces now with the concurrence of the Republican base in the Republican Party, adapted and applied Russian style mass disinformation techniques against the United States public. And that’s never been done before. No one had the audacity or imagination to think that you can put out so many lies and conspiracy theories so quickly that you would swamp the system deliberately caused divisiveness, disorientation, domination, all the things we’re talking about.

Jenna Spinelle 22:22
Right. And I think, you know, a lot of of our listeners are part of those institutions, and probably, you know, it’s easy to kind of feel helpless or think, you know, what can I do, given that there’s such the degree and scale of these things that are happening? How would you advise listeners to sort of move beyond that, perhaps feeling of of helplessness that that they might have?

Jonathan Rauch 22:48
Well, yeah, let’s start with the feeling of helplessness. You may have noticed that in my formulation of what information warfare what I really call epistemic warfare is trying to do is it ends with the phrase, demoralize it’s about dominating, dividing disoriented and ultimately demoralizing. The target population, what all of these techniques are trying to do is inculcate a sense of futility. There’s nothing I can do to change things I can’t know the truth about who hacked the DNC server, maybe it was Russia, maybe it was Ukraine, I can’t be sure about the path of a hurricane. I don’t know who to trust about vaccines. If I speak out on campus, I’ll be investigated. I’ll be shunned and there’s nothing there’s only me, this is all about trying to get us to feel demoralized because demoralisation is demobilization. The people who are doing this know that if they can divide us and demoralize us, we will be ineffective. So the very first place to start is with the premise of the question, which is correct, which is not to let ourselves be demoralized, that when we throw up our hands and say it’s an impossible problem, we let them achieve their goals. The last big theme of my book I mentioned, maybe I mentioned there three, it’s they’re not 10 feet tall we are. If we get our act together, the Constitution of knowledge is incredibly robust and incredibly successful. It has transformed our species from 2000 years of basically tribal ignorance, oppression, and war, to being able to mobilize millions of minds and 1000s of organizations on multiple continents to decode a viral gene moment days, and put this vaccine in mind. unheard of. It’s fantastically effective, but we have to defend it, we have to understand it’s under attack. So then I’m filibustering, and I don’t want to keep filibustering. But then the next question is, having said all that, once we’ve decided we’re going to fight back, we’re going to defend our values. We win this thing, if we push back.

Jenna Spinelle 24:52
The other thing that I think people kind of scratch their heads about I mean, if you if you would ask people who follow q anon For example, they might tell you that they think they live in a reality based community. So how might you, you start to make inroads there when the degree of separation between reality and not reality seems to be so, so great.

Jonathan Rauch 25:15
Yeah, it’s pretty stark. And it’s getting a lot harder to reach people in these epidemic bubbles now because they’ve got through a media, not just social media, but you know, stop the steel has conservative media, it’s possible to go all the time and not even really encounter some of some of the mainstream reality views. So so that makes it harder. And something else you alluded to earlier makes it harder, which is belief systems IQ and on they may seem crazy to an outsider, but then, you know, I’m an atheist and a lot of mainstream Judaism, Christianity, that seems kind of crazy to me, too, you know, like born of a virgin died, came back, you know, what’s that about? So a lot of these beliefs serve an important function in people’s life. And it can be a positive function. There are a lot of people on q anon who are feeling like disempowered, as you said earlier by mainstream culture, they may feel detached from religion unmoored from their local community, then they get online. And there’s these people saying, hey, join us, we’re in a mighty crusade to save the country from a bunch of Democrats who are and Jews who are sucking the blood of babies, there’s going to be a big storm, there’s going to be justice, there’s you can be part of it, you can play a heroic role. And then you get on there and you start talking to people. Yeah, this is fun. This is filling a hole in my life. For those people, it fills an important need. So part of dealing with this means trying to reach at least some of those people, the hardcore may be out of reach. And that’s not going to be done by confronting them with with facts that just never works. What does seem to work is you come alongside people, you ask them questions, you express curiosity, it’s I think, Dale Carnegie said it best you can’t make people agree with you. But you can make people want to agree with you. But at the social level, not just the personal level. Again, going back to that important point you you made earlier, it’s a long term problem. But how do we restore some of these other sources of meaning in life, my late uncle, who is a union man, and you know, he could no longer walk toward the end of his life, but he would go to those weekly union meetings, even though he was long retired, that was such a sense of meaning and purpose for him. So a lot of this has to do with repairing parts of society that we’ve we’ve allowed to languish. Does that make sense?

Jenna Spinelle 27:27
Right, so to end here, we’ll go We’ll come back to some of what you had started to talk about earlier, in terms of the solution or one solution here is to to organize. If you know people in reality based communities who support the Constitution of knowledge can organize we are far we far outnumber the people who who don’t support those things. And I know you you have some some examples of organizations that are out there that our listeners might want to learn more about and are already starting to do some of this work. So if you wouldn’t mind sharing what some of those might be.

Jonathan Rauch 28:04
Yeah, I’ve been blown away actually, by how many new organizations have formed in the six months since I had to close the book and send it to the printer and counter mobilizing to defend our values. Our constitution and knowledge is the key because of a focused, energetic organized minority will beat a large, unfocused, disorganized majority every time and that’s what’s been happening. These forces attacking constitution and knowledge, don’t speak for a majority of Americans. But they’re well organized, and they’re very clever and very aggressive. So we’ve seen just over the last few months, the rise of the academic freedom Alliance, which is a national organization of professors on a NATO like model, which is a violation of academic freedom anywhere against one professor is a violation of all and they’re going to defend professors who find themselves under the gun being investigated for having heterodox views. There’s foundation against intolerance and racism. This is focusing largely though not exclusively on schools that are promulgating illiberal viewpoints illiberal versions of, of certain views, and they’re trying to build a curriculum, for example, anti racism that is pro pluralist and they’re also providing assistance to parents who feel that their kids are being inoculated counterweight. Think their websites counterweight support calm, is supporting employees who come under pressure for speech, you know, these some of these HR exercises which try to make you say you’re a racist if they’re exposed to that kind of thing, or if they’re bullied. This becomes a resource for them. Jewish Institute for liberal values popped up out of nowhere. It’s brand new. It’s exactly what it sounds like. There are more there are many more princetonians for free speech, existing organizations are doing more the foundation for individual rights and education is stepping up. So What we’re seeing what needs to happen is a society wide mobilization of people who believe in the Constitution of knowledge, who believe in pluralism and robust debate, and sometimes being humble about what we believe, being willing to talk to people who think we’re wrong, that mobilization I think, is beginning. And there’s something that each of us can do by that braver angels to that pile. And it’s, it’s one of a lot of organizations as well that are working on the polarization problem. There’s bridge USA, there’s, I think it’s called Living Room conversations. There’s all kinds of things that individuals can do, to start detoxifying their own world, their own environment.

Jenna Spinelle 30:38
Yeah, and and your book, it really is a both a clear indication of why it’s important to do that. And also, I think, a rallying cry to really, you know, now, now we’re never, and and I’m glad that, that we have your book to guide us on that journey. And I’m glad that we were able to have this conversation today. So, Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us.

Jonathan Rauch 31:00
was so privileged to be with you. Thank you.

Michael Berkman 31:08
Well, that was a terrific interview, I hope it whetted your appetite to go out and and read the book and, you know, really appreciate the nuances of what he’s got to say. So Chris, I think one of the really interesting things that Rauch is trying to do here is to draw an equivalency on the left and the right. And so we talk about, you know, there’s a rush of propaganda techniques and spewing out lies from public officials and undercutting of epistemological institutions, but he’s arguing that’s going on on the left a bit too, especially in university settings, especially with this idea of canceling. And, you know, I find myself first of all aware of potentially my own self defensiveness, since, you know, I’ve worked in universities for a lot of time for a lot of years, and a sense that maybe these two things aren’t really the same.

Chris Beem 32:06
They’re not really the same, in what way in terms of their impact in terms of in terms of how they operate.

Michael Berkman 32:14
Yeah, in terms of the sort of threat to democracy that they present. Yeah. And in terms of really how big a problem they are. Now, I know, and believe that, you know, some of the attacks on the left about canceled culture and about universities are very important. And they’re important, not only for the work we do here, but because I would argue they are really undercutting public support for universities for university research for university funding for what universities do. And you know, where, right where we were recording this, in the aftermath of several states, telling universities what they can and cannot teach, when it comes to issues of race is kind of a new world. So that that’s,

Chris Beem 33:04
Well, I think that’s really interesting, because I absolutely agree with you that there’s no comparison between whatever happened with regards to Halloween costumes on what was at Yale or Princeton on may remember, and the big lie, I don’t think there’s any way you can see those, as, you know, the same in terms of their impact on American democracy. But I think and I don’t think Rauch would say that either. I think what he would say is that both of them are enough undermine the possibility of democratic argument, you know, when you say, Alright, so we know how, you know, the big lie does that right? It undermines the idea, the integrity of institutions, the integrity of the journalists that cover this, the judiciary that makes rulings on it, all of these are undermined by the big lie, and that makes it hard to sustain a democracy. But when on the left, you see people saying, and he calls this emotional safety ism, which is a hell of a phrase, but his argument is that when people say, in response to an argument or a claim or a question, that statement offends me, and therefore it is not acceptable, it may is a threat to my identity, and therefore, a it is not acceptable for you to raise that question and be you are subject to some form of ostracism or cancellation, because you made it and when you do that, you destroy the possibility of democracy, because the point of democracy is that you’re going to have people disagree with you and raise questions about claims that you take very, very seriously. But to say that anytime that my feelings are sufficient grounds For ruling out any claim, democracy cannot be sustained under those conditions. And I think he’s right to say that both examples a lot right and the left undermined democracy.

Michael Berkman 35:17
On the one hand, I think that, as you put it, you know, this notion of excessive safety is that, you know, you just get to determine what bothers you and hurts you. And so therefore, that can’t be said that that does affect the university, for example, since we’re talking about the university right now as a, as a as a place of democratic dialogue and deliberation. And that’s a bad thing. And we need to be wary of that. You know, I think that we’ve seen more of that ad sort of particular types of schools than at others, I think this is, you’re more likely to see this at some of the smaller liberal arts schools, with particular types of students, and you necessarily are at a land grant institution, I don’t think it’s as much in the culture here it’s not. But I do think that that he describes quite well passionately, and importantly, a kind of self censoring that might go on within a university setting where people feel like there’s certain things they really shouldn’t say, not even because it necessarily violates the norm. Universities are also epistemological institutions, where we are responsible, you know, where we are trying to find the truth within our respective disciplines. And he has made the point and Jonathan Hite, who we’ve also had on has made the point as a leader on this point, that we need to have more diversity here. Because the kinds of questions that we approach, the kinds of questions that we address are limited, if we’re not a more diverse population, and, you know, the way we may go about answering them is somewhat different. And, and in particular, in terms of ideological diversity in any part. I agree, and I don’t and and, you know, one thing that kind of bothers me about it is that, you know, so I’ve been teaching for 30 plus years, and I have seen a lot, I have seen dramatic changes in university settings, I think they’ve become far more diverse, both in terms of gender and in terms of race. And I think that has led to institutional changes within universities with the developments of different kinds of programs and departments and, and research initiatives and all of that. And I see lots of questions asked, now that weren’t asked in the past because of this. And this is a good thing. Yet, I feel like this is almost not really acknowledged by him and by some others, because they’re like, well, where are the conservatives? Where are the conservatives? And you know, I can find you the conservatives here. They’re in the engineering department, some of them are in the economics department. They’re not really in the English department. And, you know, I agree, I suspect there probably are questions that would be asked in the English department with more conservatives. But you know, it is also a bit of a selection issue there about who chooses to become an academic, and the fact that there are certain kinds of questions not being asked, good point, I’d like to see some acknowledgement of the kinds of questions we actually are asking now that we didn’t 30 years ago, you know, and there’s sort of a suggestion in this book that things have degraded, you know, here that we become almost more homogenous. But actually, the opposite is true. We’ve become less homogenous.

Chris Beem 38:39
Yeah, I think that is a fair criticism of the book. And I think it’s a really good point. However, the one thing that I want to say about his point of view, is I think his book, because it comes from a conservative point of view, is evidence of why a more diverse is itself evidence of why a more diverse ideological perspective is useful, because at bottom, his argument is very conservative. It’s conservative politically, because he’s arguing that bringing people together who are going to argue and disagree dramatically about what should happen, forces or almost forces, compromise, and compromise compromise means you’re making little steps. So there’s something in our politics that almost rules out radicalism, whether from the right or the left, and I think that’s exactly how a conservative would like it. The other point is that he is culturally conservative, because he’s saying that the way we sustain these things is by honoring traditions, traditions within the law, traditions within journalism and traditions within the Academy, and that is a very Burkean notion, Edmund Burke, right, the conservative, that the only the best way to sustain these very difficult practices, these unnatural practices of accepting the fact that you’re going to say things that I take to be not just wrong, but threatening is to work to sustain the traditions that make it possible

Michael Berkman 40:35
For our listeners, you know, if you watched the series, the chair and the sort of cancel episode that occurred in that show, the way that it was all led by, you know, a small group of students, that’s what he’s talking about.

Chris Beem 40:49
We could talk a lot longer about this book. It is it is provocative, is contentious. It is very readable. And it’s absolutely worth your time, because it’s it really does kind of occupy the Zeitgeist to where we are right now. So thanks to Jonathan for for coming on the show. Thanks to Jenna as usual for a terrific interview. I’m Chris Beem.

Michael Berkman41:14
I’m Michael Berkman, and this has been Democracy Works.

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