In the eighth episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman speaks with Fox News contributor and podcast host Ben Domenech. Domenech is the publisher and co-founder of The Federalist, as well as a host for Fox News Primetime.
In this conversation, Stepman and Domenech explore the futures of the left and right, the failures of America’s elite class, and the responses of the two parties to shifting political coalitions and the potential realignment of working-class and Hispanic voters.
They discuss the importance of the culture war and why Paul Ryan and other establishment GOP figures, as well as some on the “new right,” dismiss cultural concerns as unimportant compared with economic ones.
Tune in to hear one of the only political observers to get the roadmap right in 2016 give his best predictions for our future.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.
Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. It’s hard to describe the many projects of our guest this week, Ben Domenech, in a single introduction, but I will give it a shot. He’s the publisher of The Federalist, which he co-founded in 2013, and full disclosure, where I’m a contributing writer. But he also hosts a podcast over at Fox News, where he’s also frequent contributor, and recently hosted two week-long runs of Fox News Primetime. He’s also been a speech writer, a think tank policy guy, a columnist, a host of other positions over the years, I think tied together only by his love for his country, and also a love for what I think he would call the fray. So welcome, Ben.
Hey. It’s great to be with you, Inez. And I want you to know I really appreciate the fact they’re finally giving you, someone who I think is a very forward-looking and interesting thinker about the conservative movement and the country in general, this kind of platform. It’s really great to see you have it. And thank you for having me on.
Well, it’s wonderful to have you and thank you for those kind words. As I mentioned to you off air, I’m going to start this off by intentionally ignoring the excellent advice Ben gave me when I did start this podcast, which is to save the big gun questions for somewhere in the middle. But I really did want to kick this off by playing you a clip of yourself, Ben, in September, 2016.
The key to understanding the Donald Trump phenomenon is to recognize that he is neither a disease, nor a symptom. He is a beta test for a cure. Americans are turning to him because he represents the breakdown of the post-Cold War, left/right politics of the nation, a breakdown that has been happening in slow motion for the past two decades, fueled by a dramatic decline of trust in America’s elites. The percentage of Americans today with a great deal of trust in the presidency, the courts, the public schools, and the banks, are in the teens. Trust for unions, the justice system, big business, Congress, and the media, are in single digits.
This decline didn’t happen overnight. It began with Watergate and Vietnam, and continued through the financial crisis and the Iraq War. Real failures undermined confidence in the capacity of elite institutions to do good and in their capability to represent the interests of the people. Now working and middle class Americans are re-asserting themselves against a bipartisan, political, and cultural establishment utterly discredited due to their record of failure.
So in that clip, which again, I’ll reiterate, was in 2016, I feel like in the intervening years, this has become almost conventional wisdom for anybody who has eyeballs in the American political landscape that at the time-
If you have a ear to let you hear, yes, yeah.
At the time, it was controversial, right? This kind of focus on the failure of the elites and of our institutions. I mean, how were you able to see that for a lot of us early on, I would say perhaps not earlier than a lot of the American people, but certainly earlier than most of the people that we talk to on a daily basis, people who are in politics, or in commentary, or in policy? This hit a lot of people, 2016 hit a lot of people like a train wreck. They didn’t understand where it came from. How were you able in that early point to actually see that this train was coming off the tracks?
Well, I apologize by the way. One of the consequences of those two runs of hosting that you’re talking about is that my throat is not the best. Couple of things. First off, I have no idea who that child is who weighs 20 pounds less than I do now, and has a higher voice than I do now, from 2016. But what I will say is that it seemed to me that for many years, there was a relative ignorance of, or lack of awareness on the part of the leadership class in America in a bipartisan way of how their failures were being interpreted on a ground level by American voters. That if you were someone who engaged in politics primarily through major events, that you could see repeated instances in which government of both parties had failed you.
I mean, you can start with the security failure of 9/11. You can continue with the logistical failure of handling Katrina. You can look at the failure of numerous aspects of the Obama administration, but I think Obamacare is one of them. Just the idea that you have a government that can’t really manage to launch a website, it’s not something that’s going to give you a lot of confidence. And I think that unfortunately, this was one of those things where the leadership class of the country was really blind to this. They made excuses for themselves. They defended themselves in the media. And they thought that those defenses were justified and would stand.
Unfortunately, I think that the reality was their arguments were not something that any of the people really believed. And so you had both conservatives and people on the left who doubted what was going on. And I think particularly in reaction to the financial crisis and everything coming out of it. I mean, the Tea Party phenomenon, it’s worth going back and reaching then and reading that Zephyr Teachout article from around that time, when she was sort of making the case that the Tea Party ought to become something that the left could braced. And to understand that that was something that really could have happened was, I think, a lot more real than maybe people recognize.
Because of the various cultural distances and fights that happened that would be unrelated to the financial crisis, that’s not something that ended up happening. But at the same time, there is kind of an alternate narrative where the Tea Party ends up being a Bernie Sanders phenomenon. People end up basically going into a left-of-center criticism of Wall Street, and banks, and bailouts, and the like. Instead, what we ended up with was this weird amalgamation of what the center wanted to achieve. And I think that that’s something that really has a lot of weakness to it when you dig into it.
So the answer to your question I would just say is that for me, I’ve always tried to pay attention to the priorities and the opinions of people in my life who are not directly engaged in politics in their daily work life. They engage in it instead through the major stories that they see in the news. And I think that the lesson that I took away from talking to a lot of those people, over 2016 and the previous years, was a real decay of trust in American institutions, and also an animosity toward both parties in terms of wanting some kind of outsider who would come in and try to fix the problems.
Well certainly that institutional trust has not been bolstered by the last year and a half, the pandemic, the response to it. And then before that, the reactions to Donald Trump from the press, from unfortunately his own agencies, people working within the government. This hasn’t done anything, I think we can agree, to bolster the American people’s faith in their institutions. But what does the future then look like? If this was five years ago and you were predicting these forces that have, I think, obviously come into full flourishing in our politics in the last five years, what are the forces that you see in the next five years?
Where do you see that energy, that anti-establishment energy? You mentioned it could go left, it could go right. And I think that’s definitely true. I think one of the things that is totally perplexing to a lot of people, as you say, in the beltway, is the fact that there are a not small number of voters out there who voted for Donald Trump who would consider voting for Bernie Sanders and the Democratic party, but then wouldn’t vote for a Jeb Bush, a Hillary Clinton, a Marco Rubio, in the middle. Where do you see those forces coalescing, both on the left and the right?
Well … Excuse me. First off, I would just say there’s a cascade of generational change that we’re about to experience when it comes to our politics. You have in our current leadership, in the Democratic party an the overwhelmingly octogenarian left, and in the Republican party, you have someone like Mitch McConnell, who clearly probably ran for his last Senate election the last time around. And you are going to go through a major shift in terms of the leadership classes of both parties where Baby Boomers and Silent Generation folks are swept aside in favor of younger people.
That itself is going to have a major change, because they will be applying the lessons that they’ve learned from a very different experience. In terms of the demographics and the sweeping elements of social and political movement that you’re talking about, I’m very curious to see what comes next because I’m not entirely sure that this midterm, for instance, this 2022, is not going to end up repeating the mistakes of 2010. In 2010, you had a massive sweep in of new Republican candidates. They changed the makeup of the Senate. They changed the makeup of the House. And they brought in a set of different priorities, backed by Tea Party voters.
The problem is that much of that ran onto the rocks, and you ended up having a nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney, who really didn’t represent, in any real respect, the motives and the priorities of the Tea Party. And that was something that I think created a dichotomy that made it very difficult for Republicans to succeed. This time around, it’ll be interesting to see if those priorities change, and in terms of the nomination process, their attitude changes, because that’s going to be something that has an enormous impact on 2024 and beyond because … Excuse me. Because it will represent the party actually embracing the populist elements of their coalition as opposed to rejecting it.
One of the things that we really saw in the post-2010 atmosphere was the party establishment and donor class rejecting what the populists within their coalition really wanted to achieve. This time around, if they make that same mistake, they could end up with a Kamala Harris presidency after 2024, or something along those lines. In terms of the differences that we see in the right that really matter, I think one of the things that has been highlighted in recent years is the need for, the demand for people to stand up and fight back very stridently and without any kind of holding back, or resistance to engaging on these culture war issues that are at the center of so many different conversations that people are having.
That’s a shift from where things where a little over a decade ago in terms of the priorities of the party having more to do with fiscal issues, and the level of debt we saw, the level of bailouts that we saw, the taxation that we saw. And that’s something that I think going to be very interesting going forward because it speaks to a different coalition in many ways than the one that was being spoken to at the time by fiscal conservatives like Paul Ryan and the like, who were making an argument that was mostly based off of kind of the through lines of debt and GDP that had traditionally spoken to a lot of fiscal conservatives.
There’s very little constituency for that now. It’s much more about the culture war issues. And so that, to me, makes for a very different priority list, but also a very different coalition, potentially, going forward, in terms of the people who they represent. One of the biggest mistakes the left made in the last election was embracing the Defund the Police rhetoric and so much radical BLM rhetoric that turned off a lot of Hispanic voters, and a lot of people who otherwise might have crossed over and voted for Joe Biden. Instead, those people showed a willingness to vote for Republicans and vote for Donald Trump. That, I think, has a lot of Republican consultants champing at the bit. The thing that I hear the most is, “We wish we could have the election tomorrow.” And that, I think, is something that’s an indication of where they see those trends going.
Yeah, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Paul Ryan was actually the … Supposed to be the sort of the compromise extended to the Tea Party base. You have Mitt Romney. You’re stuck with Mitt Romney. But we are going to nominate Paul Ryan as the VP. And to me, that always, as somebody who did attend a lot of Tea Parties, and helped them organize, and not in a professional, whatsoever, capacity, just in my capacity as a citizen. This was a movement that I really became a part of. And I’ve always felt that that was the wrong way to think about the Tea Party, as purely an issue about dollars and cents.
Yes, the debt was an important issue, but there was something cultural there. I like to describe it as the gentleman’s revolt. This was the revolt of the small business owners, the people who had generally done better in life. They had gone to college more often than the average American, but they saw a lot of the cultural trajectory, as well as the fiscal trajectory, and they were worried about it. I think 2016 was much more of the un-gentlemanly revolt, where you had a very different group of people expressing a more, I think, disillusioned critique about where we are as Americans.
But to get back to Paul Ryan for a moment, you recently criticized him, right? Because he basically said the exact opposite as you recently. He said we need to basically forget about this culture war stuff. There’s some important issues maybe hidden in the waffle, but too much of it is just red meat thrown to distract the base. There’s also a rising critique, even on the new right, or what might be called independent media, that I’ve been hearing, that is all of these things really remind me of What’s The Matter With Kansas critique, which is the people really don’t know, the working class doesn’t know what issues to prioritize. They are easily distracted by these cultural issues back in the Bush era and the What’s The Matter With Kansas era.
It was abortion and gay marriage, and now it’s Critical Race Theory in schools and other hot-button cultural issues like putting men on women’s track teams. They don’t really know that these issues are just distractions. The quote/unquote real issues are always economic. And I’ve heard that not just from Paul Ryan, but interestingly from some of the more, what I would find interesting, left commentators, the alternative left commentators who are, as you say, frustrated with their own establishment within their party. Is it still the economy, stupid? Or is it the culture, stupid? And I guess to put an even finer point on it, are the people stupid to care about the culture wars, even over issues like healthcare and the minimum wage?
No, I don’t think they’re stupid at all. And I think that … So, Inez, as you know, when I criticize a politician these days, that means that I get emails in response, either from them, or from their team, or people along those lines. And the message that I sent back to the people who were pushing back against my critique of Paul Ryan’s Reagan Library speech was along the lines of, “Okay, so you say that culture matters, but there are a lot of issues that are being ginned up by outrage peddlers and the like.”
Okay, be specific. Which of these is the issue that you think is unimportant and is being ginned up by outrage peddlers? Is it the insistence on Critical Race Theory being a part of every curriculum in America? Is it the incidents of the 1619 Project being part of their curriculum? Is it the fact that they believe, the left believes, that men ought to be able to run against girls? Is it the elimination of not just Dr. Seuss, but Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mark Twain from the various student experiences of children?
You can talk about this as just all being a debate about whether a Potato Head gets to be Mr. Potato Head, but that’s not actually a reflection of what the culture war is. In reality, the culture war is in every community, and there are people who are standing up across America, including many people who are not naturally within the Republican coalition, who are fighting back against it because they believe in the country and they do not accept this leftist clap trap about our history when it relates to race, and when it relates to the way that we ought to think of ourselves currently.
And unfortunately, we have a Republican base that is far more comfortable talking about the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce, or lowering capital gains rates, or making sure that you have small business regulations behave in a certain way. And they are not comfortable with engaging on these issues that are a lot more hot-button, and are definitely the thing that people are talking about when it comes to their kitchen table. And that, to me, has always been a major problem within America, within the coalition of the right, that you have a leadership class that has essentially become part of the American elite.
And what does that mean? Does that mean that they share their values and priorities when it comes to all of these different things? No. It just means that they’re less comfortable critiquing those issues, or representing their citizens when it comes to those issues. And they would much rather talk about things that have to do with dollars and cents, as opposed to things that have to do with the things that are actually a bigger priority for most of the people who actually support and vote for them.
So here’s something I’ve been puzzling over recently, and that’s the role of the liberal left in all of this. Some of the people who have been speaking out most bravely against some of the excess of what we might call woke-ism are kind of centrist. They are on the liberal left, folks that, for example, I’ve had on this podcast, like John McWhorter, or Dr. Debra Soh, they definitely still identify themselves, I think, McWhorter said he identifies himself as a cranky liberal. But other folks like Bill Maher, I think liberal left is probably a fair way of describing them. They’ve been very energetic, especially as a conservative I see it as sort of late in the game, but especially late in the game in terms of pushing back when these forces, for example, essentially took over the newsroom of the New York Times.
And you had Bari Weiss leave, and other folks at the Times leave. They have been some of the strongest and bravest champions. And in some way, they’ve taken more of the flack, because we’re already pre-canceled. The right has our own networks, our own media sources, and all of that. They, both socially and professionally, it in some ways takes more courage for them to stand up because they share a lot of the same networks and they know the backlash is coming for them. But where do they fit in this realignment of American politics?
Because if we see a lot of the same critiques of the various establishments, whether that’s a government establishment or a party establishment, or whether it’s just the ruling class or a managerial elite, from the board rooms, corporate board rooms, to Hollywood and the like. I mean, where do they fit in this critique? Are they just dinosaurs? Because they seem to be really [inaudible 00:21:51] people in terms of representing past order.
They are overrepresented within the media landscape. And I share your interest in them, but the truth is they are a dying breed. I mean, that is not something that … I mean, one of the big problems that you run into occasionally in politics is that you wish you had a different support coalition than the one that you actually have. This is repeatedly a problem for both right and left. They would like to have a coalition that doesn’t necessarily look like the one that they do.
But you go to war with the coalition that you have, as Rumsfeld would say. And so in this case, I think unfortunately for a lot of these left-of-center, let’s call them the ACLU liberals from 1995. Basically people who have been unchanged. They’ve had that same perspective, which includes, I would say, Maher. It includes a lot of the other people that you mention. They do not have a constituency on the left anymore for their ideas, or if they do, it’s very small. The woke priorities of this entire group have driven out the values that they have when it comes to free speech, free thought, et cetera.
And I think that that’s something that was not inevitable, could have happened differently, but was a very disturbing thing to witness during particularly 2015, when I think that there was just a cascade of different stories that were a part of this phenomenon. You ended up in a situation where it seemed like only the right was willing to defend unpopular ideas, or to defend your ability to take on various institutions in critical ways. Instead, you ended up with all of these liberal voices within higher education, within media, and the like, who were standing up against a screaming mob of people who were either literally or figuratively were yelling at them for making their area unsafe, or dealing with unsafe ideas.
The contrast with an ACLU that would defend the KKK’s right to march is incredible. And so you end up with a situation where you have all these major voices in media, I would include Andrew Sullivan in the list, by the way, of those you mentioned.
Who are contrarian, are at odds with this modern, woke, left, who have a perspective on history that is a lot deeper and runs longer than the people who are opponents of them. And yet, they get depicted as very different. To cite Andrew Sullivan, he used to be this … He has this line that he used, that he’s used a couple of times about how he used to be this edgy figure. He was a gay, Tory-ish, sort of Catholic, who had all these different interesting perspectives. And now, he’s just a cis, white man. And that, to me, is very illuminating in terms of the level to which identity politics took over the left.
And the right became the one area where it was like, “Actually, we’re okay with you having opinions that offend us, or that offend our sensibilities because we understand that we also have opinions that offend your sensibilities.” And that’s something that historically has not been the case. And the left was always about, “Oh, we’re about free thought and the like.” And unfortunately, I think we are now at a point where defense of that freedom of thought, defense of that freedom of speech is increasingly becoming mono-partisan element of our politics, which is dangerous.
Because whenever anything becomes mono-partisan, it also becomes something that is just part of a set of priorities that can be replaced or pushed against based on who wins elections every year. And that’s something that’s very scary, because if you put free speech in the same category as say gun rights or the like, then that’s a problem. The same way that I think people are increasingly concerned that the priorities related to the nation of Israel and our alliance with them are becoming mono-partisan. That’s not a good thing. You want to be able advocate for those as being bipartisan, American values, as opposed to being something that is identified with one party or the other, and where things could change dramatically based on who’s in power.
What about the right and how they’re responding to this moment? Or perhaps the professionalized right? I think it’s very true what you said, that we always want to imagine the army behind us reflecting our own sensibilities. I definitely recognize that in myself in 2016. I said I was a huge Tea Party person, and 2016 was when I realized, “Oh, a lot of the energy that fed the Tea Party movement, not perhaps the people who are actually going to a lot of these rallies, but who fed the Tea Party movement, they were primarily anti-establishment, and not necessarily in agreement with the goals, for example, about limited government.”
They didn’t like, as you say, they saw failure in their elites. They saw a movement that was challenging the elites. And they beta tested us. Do we run the same risk? Because some of the response, for example, to what is increasingly recognized as a political realignment, has been new think tanks, new types of thinking. Senator Josh Hawley comes to mind. That trying to create a Trump-ism without Trump, that really doubled down on moving economically center or center-left, and then wielding government power in the culture wars and seeing those as primary. What do you see is the future of that movement? Are we making the same mistake again? Are we sort of making too concrete what is a more generalized understanding of failure at the top? Are the American people going to beta test Sanders-ism? Are they going to beta test Josh Hawley and kind of figure out who can deliver them results? Or is there a real ideological Trump-ism forming post Trump?
That’s a big question. I would basically say that one of the repeated problems in American politics is that you have people trying to fight the last war, that people who would have been a great candidate the previous time around running four years after they should have run, that kind of thing. So someone who comes to mind in that regard is say Chris Christie, who probably could have won in 2012, but instead ran in 2016 and was completely out of sorts in terms of what he was trying to do.
So one thing that I think we should consider within this context is what are the elements of Trump-ism? And to me, I think they’re actually simpler than people think. They try and make these convoluted or complex arguments. What I actually think is key about understanding him was that he was willing to engage on a number of issues that Republicans have been loathe to lean into the left on, both in terms of their critiques of media, and in terms of how far out they’re willing to get on a host of issues that they’re uncomfortable talking about.
It is bizarre to me that this limousine liberal from New York City, in terms of his entire past career, would also be the same presidential candidate that would go into a debate and give the strongest argument on abortion that I think we’ve ever seen on the presidential debate stage. And that, to me, I think, was an indication that so many Republicans had been willing to rest on the laurels of what they’d done in their careers, feel like they didn’t need to make those kind of arguments, wanted to stick to their, quote/unquote, solutions-based campaign, which amounts to binders full of bullet points to solve problems for people, and were less willing to weigh in on a lot of controversial issues where they felt like things might go bad for them.
Instead, I think what Trump really proved was that doing that is better than leaving the field to the left, and that that’s something that has been a repeated problem, I think, for candidates at every level. The other aspect of this that I think is going to be interesting is looking ahead, you have a lot of different figures who are going to try to resemble aspects of what Trump did in order to win his voters over, but also want to try to retain or build on some of the other Republican voters who either split ticket, or had left the party over the course of the last couple of years.
To me, the most critical question is who can break up the idea that Hispanic voters are going to go naturally into the Democratic coalition? Because what we see when it comes to the numbers from them on so many different issues, traditional values, on tech, on cancel culture, on schools, on teachers’ unions, on the way that they view their local community leadership, all of them look like Republican voters. They look like they naturally belong in that coalition. And winning them over, I think, will require candidates who can go into those communities and actually have an impact.
And it’s not going to be the people who are fed lines by consultants that they need to truck in amnesty, and in goodies for illegal immigrants, or be opposed to voter ID, or be supportive of welfare for people who are here illegally. All those different things, those turn out not to be popular among Hispanic voters. And that’s something that I think Republicans really are paying attention to. But they haven’t necessarily found out the ways to connect to those voters, on a meaningful level, that will bring them into their coalition.
And that, to me, is the big question of this midterm cycle, and then of the next presidential cycle, because if you have candidates who are able to do that, that is potentially a dramatic and nation-changing development in terms of a break from what had been described as demographic destiny so recently.
I think one of the other messages that Trump really hammered home, that worked not just with Hispanic voters, but generally spoke to, I think, a broad swath of the American public, and he never really got too much credit for the broadness of this message. And even from somebody who was, again, part of the Tea Party, it was sort of too broad to be consequential to me, but I had to change my mind over the course of his presidency about that. I mean, Trump really spoke to this kind of Boomer-y sense of Americana, of an American confidence, certain American heroes.
I mean, I’m thinking here of his State of the Union speeches, which were often chalk-full of references to the moon landings, to Buzz Aldrin, to going back in time to American heroes from the Civil War, and of course he was famously against tearing down the statues and was more pressing on that question than the people who sneered at him when he asked whether the people who were starting off with Jefferson Davis would quickly more to Thomas Jefferson. Of course we saw that that was true in terms of tearing down that American past, American history.
How important is this aesthetic of Americana to all of this? Is there something deeper to it? Is it something that, as you say, we’re moving generationally from … Hopefully we won’t have yet another Boomer president. We’re moving generationally towards Gen-X if you guys decide to step up, or God help us, my generation. What is the role of Americana and, I don’t know if the right word for it is pop culture in the way that you typically say it, but this kind of common body of cultural knowledge that may not have all that much historical depth, or certainly not what you would read in one of the many leather-bound books that my husband has behind here, but nevertheless, seems to me to be a key part of Trump’s appeal that will have to be replicated by the GOP going forward?
Well, I think it’s of the utmost importance. And one of the reasons I think that it is, is because Americana and our history have an enormous place in the hearts of many Americans that is out-sized and that they’re proud of. And the left has now pushed itself into a position of effectively being anti-American in so many different respects, of judging our history mostly as a series of wrongs, and sharing, frankly, that view with the Chinese Communist Party, as we saw in Alaska recently.
And then you end up with a situation where one side is effectively saying, “No, America, for all its faults, is actually a great nation, the greatest nation, has achieved amazing things.” That its sins should not outweigh its virtues. And that I think that politically has an enormous potential to be a much more compelling message than the one that is essentially everything that we’ve ever done is wrong, is compromised, is an aspect of sin or failure. We’re going to judge everyone who lived before us based on the things that they did as recently as 30 seconds ago, and judge that as being out of touch, wrong, or much worse.
I think that unfortunately, for the left, the rejection of American faith and American history is something that is being pushed by the loudest components within their coalition, is not accepted by the majority of their voters. It’s not something necessarily that is part of their coalition in a majority way. But it is something that is definitely there, and definitely loud, and definitely redirecting their priorities.
And look, when you look at the 1619 Project, when you look at Critical Race Theory, when you look at what Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo say about this nation, it is irredeemable. I mean, one of the things that is a frequent aspect of the conversation about racial reparations, for instance, including from Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that even if we were to do that in this country, it would not actually make up for the sins of the nation. And I think that for most Americans who look at something like that, they say, “Look, if you’re going to essentially pay a ransom to make an aspect of America finally give up about their grievances in this area, it ought to actually pay for something.”
Instead, I think what they’re being told is, “Even if you do this, even after all that you’ve poured into welfare, and into support for various communities, even after all you’ve attempted to do, it will still not make this conversation something that can end.” Instead, America is forever irredeemable, a racist nation that has done terrible things, committed genocide against indigenous peoples, furthered the cause of slavery, and participated in all aspects of terribleness that we want to view as being essential to an inherently corrupt narrative about the nature of America.
That’s, of course, completely at odds with the historical perspective that understands that flawed people who participate in flawed, of their time, programs, including slavery, can also have virtues when it comes to their ability to determine the course of the nation, and also that, frankly, we were a nation that fought an entire war over this subject and came out on the other end on the correct side. When you look back at someone like Andrew Jackson, who was essentially canceled for being a racist slave owner, he’s also someone who is essential to the American project. And without him, you may not have the kind of America that you have today.
And so denying his relevance, saying that his flaws and his sins mean that he cannot be considered part of America’s past is actually absurd. The history of humanity and the world is one of dominance and slavery, of war and of theft, of terrible behavior that lasts centuries and centuries. And we have the great benefit of living in a nation that is free, that is built on the values of both the pilgrims, the puritans, and the Enlightenment, and that comes out of that with a much more virtuous experience, and frankly, the best time to be alive if you are a minority.
I love Louis C.K.’s joke about how as a white person, he feels like he can take a time machine back and go to any time and be totally fine. But he definitely can’t go in the future. But he says, “I can go backwards and be totally fine.” And the thing that I think about that is we now are incredibly fortunate to live at a time when, as John McWhorter would argue, as many other thinkers have argued, things are better for a wider and more diverse group of people than ever. And yet, we have also all this poll data that indicates that racial animosity, racial strife is viewed as something of increasing threat to our existence, and to our ability to connect with other American citizens.
That’s a very dangerous thing. And I’ll tell you, I don’t think that old Joe Biden is going to lead us out of that. I think unfortunately, that’s going to rely on Americans working in their communities across the bonds of friendship and neighborhood in order to push back against that. And it’s also going to, I think, require a sea change when it comes to media and the way that they depict these various stories designed to foment racial anguish around things that have a lot more to do with local law enforcement, policing, and the way that people approach these various issues that lead to incidents like we’ve seen in the past.
We’ve talked a lot about how these institutions, like media you just mentioned, are corrupt, have failed us, and deserve, in many ways, their fate. But of course, with the perspective you just mentioned about not just American history, but world history, we can’t be too cavalier about what happens. Anyone who has studied any amount of history can’t be too cavalier about what happens after institutional collapse. So what is going to happen? It seems like we’re on a pretty unstoppable trajectory in terms of Americans completely distrusting their institutions, looking for alternatives. Sometimes, those alternatives range into the conspiratorial. Sometimes, they take the form of just total disengagement.
In a time where people are so disillusioned, how can we rebuild something? As conservatives, at least, I don’t know if you still identify yourself as a Libertarian or not, which is an interesting question in itself. But as a conservative, on the one hand, half of me wants to cheer the collapse and the exposure of a lot of these people who have held themselves out as experts, and as a ruling class, for so long, without the merit to back it up. And on the other hand, I’m terrified of what comes next. Are we rebuilding, or are we just going to wreck everything and sit in the smoldering ruins?
So first off, I don’t think that being a philosophical Libertarian makes you an anarchist. I don’t think that that’s the same thing. But I will say that it’s not the worst thing in the world for people to distrust institutions if that distrust is earned. And I think that what we’ve seen is that many of our institutions, including the most important bureaucratic institutions, including within the size of the pandemic, public health institutions, teachers’ unions as institutions, public schools, and many of our most important administrators, the distrust that we have in them now is absolutely earned, and was proven over the course of this pandemic.
So what do you do? Well, what I would suggest is, it is worse to try to make these institutions that have failed us patch together with duct tape and twine, rather than burn down and starting anew. And I think that you have to actually take that approach. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a political appetite for that. I think you have to be practical, and I think that it’s not like you’re going to get rid of these grand programs and the like that have existed for so long, and that apparently fueled so much of what we’re seeing when it comes to the way that this pandemic played out.
But I do think that you can have some transparency, and with that transparency, have more control. Now, so many institutions of American life have descended into various aspects of failure in recent years. You can’t even count them. I mean it’s everything from governmental institutions and the like, as I mentioned, but also to sports, to the church, to community organizations and others that have been corrupted, or proven to be hypocritical in different ways. There’s been an enormous decay.
So what happens? I think you have to start over. I think that you have to start with a new foundation. And what does that look like? It looks like people coming together to build those different institutions that are going to take the place of the experts who proved themselves so wrong. Now, is that difficult? Absolutely. Will it take time? Of course. But it’s also essential in order to move forward.
I think particularly of the failures of America’s intelligence and security arm, which … Excuse me. Is proven time and again to exaggerate their authority, or their confidence in various storylines, to the great detriment of our policy conversation, and being, frankly, people who either manipulate the media, or are manipulated by it. I have no problems and no qualms with saying that we need to drill down this type of entity, and basically start from scratch and say, “We are in a different context today than we were when these institutions were stood up in the first place.”
We have to essentially change them holistically. And one of the things that I would just point out historically that has happened is that parties as institutions have changed dramatically. Regardless of the fact that we have Democrat and Republican parties today, that extend back obviously to Lincoln and to Jefferson, you also have a situation where these parties and their coalitions have changed dramatically over the years. Essentially, they’re unrecognizable compared to the way that they started.
And that, to me, is something that we need to consider as being an element of this. These institutions have to change. And in many cases, they need to be either destroyed or replaced, or they need to be fundamentally altered in ways that change their fundamental character. I mean, I think of the Ivy League and the highest elements of higher ed are a part of this category of things that just require that level of dramatic change. Otherwise, they will not serve the interests of the American community. And I’m just waiting. I mean, it’s just a tick-tock until John McWhorter gets canceled from Columbia. And when that happens, it will be an indication that an institution like Columbia needs to either change or die because of the effect that they’re going to have on philosophical thought in America going forward.
Well, as you know, I certainly agree with the raze the academy perspective.
R-A-Z-E, not R-A-I-S-E.
Right. Right. Yes. But will this cleansing fire be allowed?
That’s a great question.
It’s where I waffle between optimism and pessimism because it seems to me that you are very optimistic about where the American people are, and how they are finally starting to see the failures of these elites over decades, and to really try out different solutions. Perhaps some of those solutions, the cure will be worse than the disease, but perhaps not. It seems to me that we have a smaller and smaller sphere for small D democracy these days, between the enormous power … Sorry, there’s a storm here. Hopefully the listeners can’t hear that. But it seems to me that we have the rise of unelected bureaucrats, as you pointed out about Dr. Fauci on Fox News Primetime. You called him, I believe, a banal bureaucrat, among other friendly names.
But importantly pointed out that he is of a type. That he’s not special, it’s not that he’s especially evil. It’s essentially the rise of these types of experts who are untethered from political accountability in any way, whether that’s the president or being directly accountable to the American people. And then on the flip side, of course we have so many issues that are now decided by the courts in a way that the founders certainly did not imagine. So many issues taken out of the body politic, for example, abortion placed into the courts. In a way, the courts are rightly insulated from sort of the whims of public opinion, but the increasing number of political topics that find themselves in that spot of course is not in line with our history. I mean, will we be allowed to small D, democratically change out the elite? Or will the elite fight back?
Of course the elite will fight back, and they will do so in many aggressive ways. I mean, I think you saw that under President Trump. I mean, the way that the national security elite, the folks in the intel community and the like fought back against him. It was very aggressive and very obvious. One thing that I think that we ought to keep in mind though is that from my perspective, these unelected bureaucrats are really the greatest threat to what we are experiencing today in America in so many different respects because they do not have … They are insulated from the consequences of their decisions in ways that they ought not to be.
You see something like the Gavin Newsom recall. You can’t recall the various people who are making the decisions at the agency level. And so I think part of the effort that needs to happen is a major change when it comes to the ability of people to change their government and have the ability to put new people in charge of various projects as they see fit. Unfortunately, this is not going to be something that is an easy project. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a reevaluation of the courts, as you mentioned, but also the administrative state. And that’s something that I think largely requires new thinking about a lot of these different elements. Setting terms for various people in terms of how long they can be within a certain function, or sun-setting various regulations and laws that enable them to do various things.
Imagine if, just to hypothesize about this, imagine if you had had a situation where something like the Obamacare project existed, but was truly possible to be sun-setted in terms of if this doesn’t work, well, let’s reassess it in a couple of years. That would have been a much more responsible approach to governance than the way that this thing actually played out. Unfortunately, we have instead a politically biased situation where thanks to both the priorities of the parties, and the way that they view policy, so many of these things, if they are sun-setted at all, are actually meant to continue. And that’s something that they just put in there for purposes of managing budgets and timelines and the like.
Unfortunately, that’s going to be something that’s going to take a lot of time. And I think it will really, as we circle back to kind of your first question, it will take a new generation of people standing up and coming into Washington and being willing to change it. You have a situation right now where the Democratic party has such an aging leadership in terms of the chairman of various committees and the like because they never put term limits on your ability to be a chairman, unlike Republicans. Instead, I think you’re going to have a situation where we are about to go through a period of dramatic generational change in the leadership class of America.
And that’s an opportunity for people who believe in restrained government. I don’t hold out any hopes for small government anymore, but let’s say restrained government that exercises less power over your daily life, to make their argument in very key ways, and to point to this pandemic as an example when the people who acted in a more restrained way, who allow their people more freedom, allowed businesses the flexibility to stay open, trusted the people more, were vindicated time and again, and proved that they have the ability to place their faith in the people and to come out with good outcomes.
Well, Ben Domenech, defender of Generation X, and exiler of the Boomer class. Thank you so much for coming on High Noon, Ben. And you can find more of Ben’s work at The Federalist, of course, and also at Fox News Audio, where he has his podcast, and then frequently on Fox News as a guest and as a host. And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or IWF.org. Be brave and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.