On this episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman interviews Batya Ungar-Sargon, author of the new book Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. The Newsweek opinion editor outlines how journalism as a profession has transformed from the domain of the working-class hero to the credentialed bubble denizen.

Stepman and Ungar-Sargon discuss the possibility of a left-right alliance against a woke managerial elite, as well as the importance of working-class dignity and participation in democracy with regard to culture and economics.

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. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.


Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. I’m really excited to have Batya Ungar-Sargon. She will teach me how to pronounce her name properly! She is the deputy opinion editor over at Newsweek, and she’s the author of this new book, Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy. Which is just a breath of fresh air in what has become a stalemate between the populist left and the right over cultural issues. But, Batya, one, how do you pronounce your last name? It’s the first question.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

Honestly, I love hearing how people pronounce it. I’m not precious about it at all, it’s one of these very Jewish names anyway. And so we’re definitely not pronouncing it the way my ancestors did and so whatever comes out I’m happy to hear.

Inez Stepman:

Well, how do you say it?

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

I usually say Ungar-Sargon, but my grandfather, who was Ungar, didn’t pronounce Ungar like Ungar, he called it Ungar, and my grandmother, who’s from India, her side didn’t call it Sargon they were Sargon. This is the Americanization of it, but I usually say Ungar-Sargon.

Inez Stepman:

The Americanization of names is so funny. I know some people find it offensive, but I have the same kind of name where it’s gone through a lot of different iterations and I find them fascinating as well.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:


Inez Stepman:

A true triumph of American assimilation. I have a Spanish name even though I’m not Hispanic, but how many Mexicans in California pronounce it Inez? It’s a true triumph of assimilation, because you would never say that in Spanish, that’s a Spanish name. But I’m so excited to have you on because this book, as I said, is such a breath of fresh air and you’ve done such a great job defending it and your thesis across all these different platforms.

But I wanted to start out with the story that you tell about a particular profession here, because this is a book about journalism, even though so many of the themes apply outside of that context as well. But how has journalism changed over the last, let’s say, century and a half? And how does that play into some of the problems that we see in today’s media?

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

Over the course of the 20th century, journalism underwent a huge, huge shift. It used to actually be a working-class profession. You would have journalists living next door to cops and electricians and plumbers, and they just didn’t make that much more than their neighbors. It was considered really a blue-collar trade, one that you picked up on the job.

Most journalists didn’t have a college degree because you can’t really teach journalism. You can’t teach someone to be a good listener or to question their biases. They picked it up on the job, learning from other people who also didn’t have college degrees. Fast forward to today, and 92% of American journalists had a college degree as of 2015, but that is certainly higher now five or six years later.

And it’s not just that they have a college degree, it’s that it’s one of the most highly-educated industries in America. It’s that journalists, along with the other highly educated liberals of America over the last 20 years, underwent a real economic status revolution, to where the economy today is really working very well for people in the top 10%, which is where most journalists end up by the middle of their careers.

Just as it’s working really poorly for the working class. Those go together, because what I argue in the book — what I really show — is that the course of journalists’ status revolution is also the course of their abandonment of the working class, to which they once belonged. And what we’re seeing today, with this whole woke moral panic in the mainstream media that a lot of liberals like myself, lefties like myself have noticed as well, that to me is really just the last stage of the liberal media’s abandonment of the working class. It’s a highly specialized, academic discourse about something that America has made huge progress on of late. An obsession with a problem that is just not the main problem anymore in America.

It’s a way of distracting from the class divide that is the real problem of America — that does harm Black and Latino Americans more than it does anybody else — but is really a class-based problem. And it’s a problem that affluent liberals are benefiting from, which is why they’re talking about a different problem altogether. That’s, in a nutshell, the argument that I make.

Inez Stepman:

In particular, there was something that I learned that was totally new. I’m pretty into 19th-century history, but I didn’t realize that there were these two very different models of how to make money off of journalism, off of news. Maybe you could tell a little bit about that story, one that catered to a large circulation within the working class and talked about issues that the working class actually cared about. And a second that did cater to elite opinion or an elite crowd, because they had the money for ads and it might be a lot smaller.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

American journalism was really born as a populist revolution in the 19th century. A couple of working-class guys showed up in New York City and realized that all of the newspapers were catering to the elite. You had economic papers catering to the business elites, and then you had political papers that were catering to the political elites. And the papers were very expensive; they cost $10 for yearly subscription.

You couldn’t just buy one on the street. That was the model that was set up until 1833 when a very enterprising young man called Benjamin Day showed up in New York City, and he was poor and he lived among the poor. And what he realized was that there were a lot of poor people and they were very literate. America was the first country in the world where you could be reasonably sure that if you stopped a stranger in the street, they could read.

He was like, there are so many poor and working-class people, and they have nothing to read, but they can read, so maybe they would read a newspaper. He created the Penny Press. He charged one penny for it in the street. He became incredibly wealthy because of course they wanted to read about themselves. This was picked up by Joseph Pulitzer, one of the greatest American journalists in history, who started charging 2 pennies, and that was 40 years later, but he became one of the richest men in America.

His paper was the number-one-read newspaper in the entire world because it was catering to the masses, it was catering to the lower classes. And not in this condescending way; it was because they were his constituencies. The paper he wrote was for and about and by working-class Americans. Of course it took them up as a crusade on their behalf, but it was very much about their lived experiences and about their lives.

He gossiped about them. He made their news everybody’s news. He of course brought the news from the elites down to their level, so that they could understand what was going on and what was being said. He made the masses unignorable by writing about them with respect and with dignity. What happened was The New York Times actually was established as a counter-revolution to the Penny Press.

They realized that there was no way to compete with the numbers of the Penny Presses. They had a lock on the working class. But what they realized, especially the Ochs family that took over The New York Times, was that you don’t actually have to compete for numbers. What you can do is you can go to a high-end advertiser and tell him that your readership is elite and then you can charge more for an ad.

It works like that because think about it like this. Let’s say you have an ad for a watch that costs $10,000. And you put that ad in a newspaper where 90% of the readership is working class and 10% is upper class and in the market for a $10,000 watch. Whatever you’re paying for that ad, it’s only reaching 10% of that readership, only 10% of the readership are in the market for that ad.

It’s worth, let’s say a certain amount, but if you have a newspaper where 90% of the readership is in the market for a $10,000 ad, suddenly that ad is worth a lot more money because only the people that you are catering to are going to see it. You’re not wasting any ad dollars on eyeballs that could never even dream of buying a $10,000 watch. That’s the model that The New York Times embraced.

We can create an elite readership. We can convey to advertisers that only the elites are going to read this newspaper and then we can charge more for ads. And the way you do that is by creating expensive content, by showing to readers who this newspaper is for and who this newspaper’s not for. They were so bought into this model that, in 1931, when Joseph Pulitzer’s children tried to give The New York Times the circulation of The World, his newspaper that was for the working classes, they tried to give that circulation to The New York Times essentially for free. The New York Times turned it down because they realized that those million readers would devalue their paper. That’s how extreme of a commitment they had to this model. Now, over the course of the 20th century, what essentially ended up happening was, through a series of different media revolutions ending with the digital revolution, is that essentially everybody is now in The New York Times model.

All liberal mainstream media outlets are catering to the same 6 or 7 million highly educated, affluent White liberal readership. That’s why you used to have this plethora of different outlets. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The New Republic, CNN, and they were each catering to different audiences. Today all of those people are going for the same audience and because of the tricks and tools of digital media, they all can. That’s where you see this homogenization of the news, as well as this moral panic around race.

Inez Stepman:

One of the things that I really like about how you talk about this is that you separate income and status, that they’re connected, they’re correlated, but they’re not identical. You talk about how the status of journalism has changed alongside the fact that it’s become more credentialed. Maybe can you talk a little bit more about those two factors? How would you separate status versus pure income? And second, what is the role of credentialism of university degrees becoming necessary for not just journalism, but for many fields? What has the role of credentialism been in terms of shifting the composition and the status of journalism as a profession?

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

Essentially, and it’s like this in every profession, the point is to de-platform the working class. The point is to essentially say that whatever exists in the vast middle of America, whatever we used to think of as the backbone of the Democratic Party, the backbone of this country, people who don’t get that elite education, it’s to say “your views are no longer acceptable, are no longer valuable.” That’s essentially the effect that it’s had.

I’m sorry, it is a ridiculous thing to have. I have a PhD, so I can say this with a lot of confidence: you’re not learning anything of value at a liberal arts college. That degree is not actually making you better at being a journalist, it’s not making you better at questioning your biases, it’s not making you better at respecting people and representing their views. It’s just not.

But we have somehow elevated this to being the gatekeeping mechanism for who gets to tell the great American story. What’s essentially happened is, you’re right, not a one-to-one correlation. You can have a status revolution that doesn’t necessarily correlate into dollars and cents. And for a long time, that was true.

Up until 20 years ago, I would say 15 years ago, that was true for a lot of journalists. They had a high status in the culture as cultural arbiters, but they weren’t necessarily more affluent — but that’s changed. Today you look at the economy and it’s working really, really well for people in knowledge-industry jobs, and it is working really badly for the downwardly mobile in the middle class and in the working class.

And you can really see this in issues like how inflation is covered, for example. The journalists covering inflation, they do not notice the difference between the cost of milk before and after the costs at the gas pump. They’re not living lives, by and large — obviously there’s exceptions, there are for sure exceptions — but, by and large, American journalists, mid-career to late-career, they’re not going to know the difference if milk costs $3.65 or $7 for a gallon. And they don’t know anybody who will feel it.

The income inequality caught up to that status shift to where journalists now make, by and large, more than the average American. They’re in the top 10%. Now it’s true that entry-level jobs pay very poorly. An entry-level job for journalism is $35,000 a year and you have to live in New York City essentially. 75% of journalism jobs are on the coasts in the most expensive American cities.

You have to be able to live in a very expensive city on a very, very terrible starting salary. That’s not egalitarianism, that’s a sign of exclusion. Who can afford to live in New York City on $35,000 a year? Only the children of the rich. And I’m not just saying this impressionistically, the data totally backs this up. The New York Times will only take interns from the top 1% of universities at this point, same with The Washington Post, same with NPR.

Even their diversification efforts that are very important because newsrooms are very White, their diversification efforts are always to the top tier of people from different backgrounds. It’s not real diversity, it’s definitely not intellectual diversity or ideological diversity; everybody’s liberal, everybody’s far left.

I think you’re absolutely right that it started as a status revolution, but I think at this point, financially, it’s caught up. And you see this in the issues that they pick up, that they take up. Issues like immigration, for example, are a really good example of this.

Immigration, mass immigration has been a net benefit for the GDP of America, but it is very, very concentrated in who gets the benefits of that, and it’s liberal elites. It’s people who need domestic labor in their homes. It’s people who want to buy a $15 bottle of wine and they want it to be a really good bottle of wine. It’s people who want to go out to eat in a restaurant and not pay $500.

These are the people who are benefiting overall from mass immigration, and who’s paying the price? Very literally Black Americans. We’ve seen a decrease in Black wages between 30 and 40 percent over the last 30 years. That’s directly correlated with immigration.

It’s the status, the hyper-localization, the far-leftness, the elite education from the same top-tier universities that are all conveying the same ideology, it results a monoculture in the news that only lets through certain stories and only lets them through in a certain way and has totally abandoned the working class, who now have to go to conservative media, which of course is not populist, of course doesn’t care about their economic agenda. But what I always say is at least Fox News is not insulting their values while abandoning them economically in the name of representing them, which is what you have on the left which is why it’s so upsetting.

Inez Stepman:

I really want to pull out one of the things you said. It’s not just that journalism and media have become both high-status and high-income, at least in the mid-to-late career profession, it’s that they don’t know anyone else who is not part of that stratosphere. The New York Times, and I was shocked that they published this, but about a week ago, they published a video about, essentially, blue cities, and how what is happening in blue cities is completely the opposite of the Democratic Party platform.

One of the places they call out is where I grew up, in Palo Alto, California, where they zone for single-family homes, even though there is an enormous affordability crisis. What’s happening in the Bay Area and in many other places in California is that people who are not even the working class, but even people who are middle class, have to move further and further out.

You’re talking about, in some cases, two or three hours away in order to come into places like Palo Alto to do all those things that you just said, to staff the restaurants, to run the shops and the stores. You’re really seeing this extreme polarization in where people live. And I guess that was what I wanted to ask you. It seems to me that one of the most important and under-covered aspects of how we are polarized today, and how we’re pulled apart from each other, is the fact that neighborhoods are no longer at all diverse in income.

Whereas if you go back to the 1950s or even before to the 40s and 30s, obviously things were segregated by race — by law in a lot of places. Leaving aside that very large issue within neighborhoods, you actually did have somebody who was making a lot of money living next to somebody who was not making nearly as much money. You had that interaction and that personal interaction that forces a certain level of respect and integration and compromise between different interests.

How do you think the fact that we literally physically don’t interact with each other? That maps onto a political divide too. So many of us live in bubbles where we can go the proverbial 20, 40 years without interacting with anybody who’s of a substantially different class than us, or substantially different political opinion.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

I totally agree with you. I think that a lot of this is about income and about culture and about the way that those things intersect with each other, and that’s the great American sorting where liberals go to big cities where they find other liberals, and live in cities with other rich liberals, and leave everybody else behind. It’s had a disastrous effect, absolutely.

Definitely, there’s this correlation between income and class and values. Working-class Americans, irrespective of who they vote for, are much more conservative than the liberal elites who purport to speak on their behalf. You take an example like the Black community. The Black community is deeply conservative. 70% of Black Americans say that they are either moderate or conservative in their views.

Another 5% are undecided, and less than 30% call themselves liberal. Only 6% call themselves progressive. The Black community is the most likely to vote for Democrats and the least likely to call themselves progressive from the Democratic Coalition. But who do you hear representing this coalition? Who do you hear speaking for this side? It’s progressives who then are the most White and the most highly educated, which will later in their lives correlate with the most affluent.

I totally agree with you, this great sorting has allowed people to get drunk on their own values and virtues, while penalizing the people who have less than them, while smearing the people that have less than them, by sneering at them and their values all in the name of social justice. The reason that they’re able to do this is because they no longer go to shul or go to church with people who make less than them, which might induce some humility, but have maybe conservative values on certain issues.

Or people who are in the same income bracket, but who they’re friendly with and who they might go and share a hobby with, but who vote for the other party. We’ve become very, very sorted, but the effects of it are sordid.

Inez Stepman:

There has been this tendency on a certain type of the left, and not even necessarily the woke left that you’re talking about, but even some of the people who object to that. And then also correspondingly on the new right, I think to look at the culture war issues as somehow a distraction or unimportant. The quintessential thesis that I think of in this regard is “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

The thesis is basically, why are these lower/middle class or working-class voters voting, quote unquote, against their economic interests? It’s because they’re a bunch of dumb rubes who are afraid of people who are ethnically different from them, or they’re afraid of the sexual revolution or whatever it is.

I think there’s a tendency to downplay those issues as somehow illegitimate. But the sorting that we were just talking about and I think agree is really pernicious force, that started with a cultural issue in my opinion. It started with crime. When it became dangerous to live in mixed poor-rich neighborhoods, that’s when you start to see people picking up and leaving, because people are not going to tolerate it.

If you can afford not to tolerate being threatened on the street or not being able to send your kids outside, people will pick up and leave. Again, I think people overestimate. It’s not that race has nothing to do with this, but I think they overestimate how much of it is race and how much of it is class, this escape from the city.

I see that as fundamentally a cultural issue that came out of the sexual revolution and drugs and a bunch of other developments, cultural developments in the late 1960s and 70s that skyrocketed crime. But there you have an example of a cultural issue that was more immediate in a certain sense that then created down the line a massive economic inequality consequence, that then had cascading consequences.

One of the things that I found so refreshing about the way that you talk about these issues, is that you don’t automatically downplay some of the cultural concerns of people who might think that it is more important, for example, in Virginia to vote for Republicans, because they’re standing up against some of the extreme radicalism in public schools.

That might be a more pressing concern to a family in a very real way than even something that is substantial, like the pressure of healthcare cost and inflation of healthcare costs. If you’re looking at these two things as a family, there seems to be, even among people on the left that I find insightful on these questions, there seems to be this reluctance to take that cultural concern seriously, or treat it with any kind of dignity, which you really do in this book.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

Thank you so much. That means a lot to me. When I was writing the book, when I was pitching it to publishers, I was calling it “What’s the Matter with Liberals,” because I really do see it as a response to Thomas Frank’s work. To his credit, he wrote a second book called Listen Liberal, where he was like, actually, the liberals are giving them nothing anyway.

I think he felt bad about the success of the first book because, like you said, it’s so insulting and it’s so ridiculous. And you saw that exact reprisal in the coverage of Glenn Youngkin’s win. They would say, “Critical race theory, which is not even real, has just flipped the suburbs 15 points.” That was the new “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” That was the new, “why is the White working class voting against its economic interests?”

I want to make two points. I completely agree with you that so much of it is about class. Christopher Lasch made the point that you’re making that liberals, sitting in their gated communities, were sitting there sneering at ethnic Whites who were poor, who were worried about the influx of crime into their neighborhoods, and called them racists, while not ever acknowledging that it’s a completely fair thing to want your child to be safe.

And that indeed was why a lot of Black people wanted to move into those neighborhoods: because they too have the very real desire for their children to be safe. And I think you see a lot of this with the critical race theory in schools as well. That is a class issue because liberals can afford to put their kids into private school where they can teach them whatever critical race crap they want.

But people who are lower-income, they’re stuck with the public schools. They’re the ones who are stuck sending their kids to a place where somebody else, the state, is going to decide what they’re taught. Again, it’s a completely class issue mixed in with this cultural issue. The idea that it is pro-people of color, that it is anti-racist to separate children into affinity groups as they’re doing and put White kids in one group and children of color in another and teach the children of color that they’re oppressed, the idea that that is an anti-racist thing to do is completely ridiculous and totally rejected by public polling in the Black community as well. It’s again, one of these things that flatters the egos of affluent White liberals, while being burden on the working class. I’ll just make one more point about this.

I think the real problem with “What’s the Matter with Kansas” was not just that it was insulting. Instead of recognizing that it was the Democrats that had shipped millions of working-class jobs overseas to China, enriching their middle class and abandoning our working class, instead of acknowledging that — that was Bill Clinton who did that. And saying, we abandoned the working class, and that’s why they abandoned us.

He argued no, they were hypnotized by conservative media that created this quote unquote “backlash culture,” and that these rubes, exactly like you said, these rubes were taken in by this crap. The truth is, I think, that what he’s missing there and what a lot of the left is missing, is the fact that — and I’m actually really interested to know what you think about this, because I know we’re coming at the economic questions from a different point of view.

But to me, it seems we have a fiction of a debate about economics that’s not really a debate about economics. You have the right pushing this trickle-down economic stuff, where “let’s cater to the rich and it will benefit everybody.” I think that’s been pretty much disproven, I think that’s really bad. That leads to basically what you see now, which is the working class being downwardly mobile. Their productivity is being reflected only in the billions of dollars that their bosses and their CEOs are making, and not in their own wages, et cetera.

But then what passes for the liberal point of view, the lefty point of view is an expanded welfare state. We’ll pay you off for the fact that you don’t have a good job. Let’s do universal basic income for example. We’re going to give you $2,000 a month because you’re not going to have a job because of automation and globalization, and we want cheap wine and we want cheap iPhones from China.

We don’t want you to have that job, but we’ll pay you off. Right, like in expanded welfare, let’s make sure that everybody can have as much unemployment as they need. The thing is, that too is fundamentally hostile to a working-class agenda. The working class does not want to be living at the beneficence of generous liberals. The reason that appeals so much to people in Silicon Valley, for example, is because they’re so rich that they really are happy to pay a much higher tax bracket.

You could make them pay the same tax bracket that they pay in Denmark or in Sweden, and working-class people will still never be able to afford to live in their neighborhoods, just like you said. There’s no threat to them to pay a higher income bracket. They’re happy to do it because they have so much money. The thing they don’t want is an empowered working class that is upwardly mobile, that has the right to their vote and a lot of political power to say, actually, we don’t like this thing, we want this thing.

It seems to me that what we have is this fiction of a debate about economic policy, that’s like the top 10% of liberals fighting with the top 1% of conservatives. And everyone has abandoned the working class because the welfare state is fundamentally at odds with what working-class Americans want. They don’t want welfare, they want good jobs that will give them dignity, that will give them a sense of being an active participant in building up this nation.

And it seems to me that both sides have taken that away from them, so when he’s saying “they’re voting against their economic interests,” they actually weren’t. They were voting against an expanded welfare state, that for people in the Rust Belt, that is not what they want. They want good jobs with dignity. They want to be able to support a family with one person working and one person taking care of the family. That used to be a liberal point of view, that is no longer a liberal point of view. That is on nobody’s agenda.

Inez Stepman:

I think the core — even though we do disagree, I’m sure, on some economic policies — I think actually the core of what you’re saying, I agree with wholeheartedly. The important word there is dignity. I agree specifically on UBI, it is really popular in Silicon Valley, it is really popular and I actually liked some of what Andrew Yang says.

But on this, I find him to be really tone-deaf or not really interacting with the problem because you’re right, we can structure the economy to only have any real dignity and opportunity for a certain percentage of people and the rest of you will get paid off. That’s not a way to actually structure, for example, a republic. It is an oligarchy in many ways.

Writing a check every month — the most out-of-touch, ridiculous thing that I’ve heard about UBI, I think it was Nancy Pelosi who was saying it, was that if we give people UBI — she was building on what Andrew Yang said. If we give people UBI, then people will be able to write poetry and they’ll be able to pursue their passions. The reality is more what’s happening in the Rust Belt now, which is deaths of despair when people don’t have purpose and dignity through work. They’re not writing postmodern poetry, they’re taking OxyContin.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

I think it gets back to culture because they don’t want to write poems, they want to go to church. They want to be able to come home with enough money so that their wife can be a stay-at-home mom if she wants and that they have dignity in their community. A lot of this is very conservative, and that’s the thing I feel a lot of lefty populists — I’m a left-wing populist, I’m supposed to be agreeing with them — but there’s no sense of, “we need to listen to the working class where they’re at. “

The reason it’s bad that they’ve been disempowered and disenfranchised and silenced and de-platformed is not because they share our values, or because people we agree with or we like or who we feel sorry for are not getting their say, it’s because they don’t share our values. They’re not feminists. But they are a huge part of America. And instead, we’re in an oligarchy just like you say, and an oligarchy is anti-democratic.

It is a threat to my security that 80% of Americans have no say, have no politicians who are catering to them except crazy Donald Trump. That’s a threat to the stability of this nation that a huge majority of Americans are so alienated by the fact that everything is just catered to the elites. There’s no countervailing force to the power of the elites today, and that is so dangerous.

Inez Stepman:

I want to touch on something I think maybe we disagree on a little bit, but maybe not and we’ll find out. Because it seems to me there are two problems here with the hardening of elite lines in America and class lines in America. One being that, just as you say, the elite have too many seats at the table and there’s no countervailing “small d” democratic force.

And to me, that seems very much a product of a second piece of this, which is a managerial revolution. We do most policy in this country through bureaucracies and the courts, which are both captured by credentialism and elitism. There’s a huge problem with, I would say, “small d” democracy. And I’m not always a “small d” Democrat in the sense that I take seriously a lot of the concerns of the founders about unchecked mobs and mob democracy.

But I think in our particular moment, what we have is too little democracy and not too much democracy. I’m not worried about too much democracy at this point in our development as a country. But I think maybe where we disagree is, I’ve heard you mention a couple of times about meritocracy, and how you think that, actually, the meritocracy has to a certain extent created this insular elite.

But it seems to me that the second problem we have, aside from the elites having too many seats at the table with no democratic check, is also the composition of that elite. And the fact that we aren’t truly meritocratic, that there isn’t a great pathway for a bright young kid from Appalachia who is equally, quote, “meritorious” to the folks in Palo Alto. There’s no real meritocracy for that kid that allows him a seat at the table as an elite.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

That’s such a great point. I want to say one thing about the courts. For example, Roe v. Wade is way to the left of where the vast majority of Americans are on abortion. Liberals are like, “it should be even further to the left because that’s what we think.” And conservatives are like “no, it should be even further to the right, because that’s what we think.”

But the truth is, just like you said, that so much of our legislation is being done at a level that is very separated from where Americans are at. I’m not saying I’m against Roe, I think it’s probably, by and large, a good thing. But to even point that out is considered such heresy, to even look at the polling on where the vast majority of Americans are on where the line should be between legal and illegal abortion, which is a question of democracy. Do the laws reflect where the people are at? And they really don’t actually.

There’s a lot of things in the other direction as well. On our criminal justice system or healthcare, for example, there is huge consensus between 78%, 80% of Americans about the need for some public, guaranteed healthcare, be it a public option or just universal healthcare. It’s just impossible to imagine our politicians ever getting us there.

I think that those are things that are really related to the credentialism, to the bottleneck at the top that gets you into these positions of power. Now to your second point, I want the meritocracy to be working — to actually be working. I want every Black and Appalachian Einstein to be able to get to Harvard, that’s extremely important. Our elites are extremely White, they’re extremely upper-class, they’re extremely self-perpetuating. That’s disgusting and that should happen.

However, my caveat to that is, what happens to everybody else? The problem with the meritocracy is that it is built on the idea that we should be rewarded for our intelligence and our talents. And the things that make intelligence and talent worth rewarding are their rarity, are the fact that not everybody is brilliant. Not everybody belongs in college. Not that many more Americans want to go to college than are in college.

36% of Americans get a college degree. There’s probably another 10%, 15%, 20% let’s say who don’t get a college degree who are brilliant and should get a college degree and should be on their way up that ladder, and should become millionaires and billionaires. That’s really important. But what happens to everybody else?

I feel there is almost this agreement between liberals today and conservatives, that if only the meritocracy would be working perfectly and we would get all of those Einsteins out of those poor neighborhoods and up onto the Supreme Court, we’d be succeeding. But how does everybody else get dignity in a world that only values brilliance and talent?

The Democrats used to be the side that valued, that respected the kind of work that is replaceable by definition. That you can only get power through unions. You can only get power through numbers. That’s what the word solidarity used to mean. That’s why I think it’s so funny when journalists unionize. I probably should admit this, but I’m just like that’s not the point of a union.

The point of a union is to build strength in numbers for people whose work is not valued for its individuality, whose work accrues value through experience that they learn on the job from each other, but is essentially created by numbers. That used to be the Democrats’ position. And the wholesale shift into a meritocratic system suggests to me a shift away from valuing the dignity of labor, to only valuing the things that come out of smart people’s brains and I find that very gross.

It’s not just anti-democratic, but there’s something about it that offends me both as a religious person on a spiritual level, but also my sense of justice. Yes, right now the free market is rewarding that behavior more than other behavior. It seems to me that we should be combating that from a spiritual point of view and from a patriotic point of view and from a democratic point of view and from the desire to live in a better America, a more equal America.

You’ll never get to an equal America that confers dignity and equality before the law on everybody and equal political power to everybody, if we’re only valuing things that by definition, get their value by being unique. What do you think?

Inez Stepman:

That’s a really good point. And it’s something I would have to think about longer, honestly, because the immediate counterpoint that comes up to me is simply that dignity comes out of having a shot at it, and that there is something quintessentially American about taking that shot. There’s plenty to merit that isn’t just raw IQ. Hard work is also part of merit.

And part of a functioning meritocracy, as you say, there are lots of jobs that don’t require the top 1% brilliant most high IQ individuals to do, but that there’s dignity in hard work. And that’s also part of the meritocracy. But I guess what we might agree on with regard to the meritocracy, we can talk about what a functioning meritocracy would look like and I think that’s a fascinating conversation.

I have to think more on what you’ve said, because I think it’s such a good point and it’s worth kicking around for longer than a minute on a podcast to make a response. But I think what we can probably agree on is that we are not really in a meritocracy anymore. And you said something a little earlier about how they’re self-perpetuating. Our leaders are perpetuating their status through their children. Because we’re not just talking about high IQ tech startup bros.

I think that’s definitely a high-performing sector of the economy that is to some degree meritocratic. I grew up in Silicon Valley, and these people who are doing startups and stuff, they’re brilliant and they are working 16,18 hours a day. But it seems to me that there’s an entire apparatus of high-status, high-pay, highly-paid elite jobs that are not based on that meritocratic brilliance or hard work; that, in fact, wokeness, to bring it back to the subject of your book, within journalism — but I think it’s so applicable outside of journalism — that wokeness is itself becoming a way for the elite to perpetuate their place in what has not become meritocracy. But it’s a way of bringing along, to be a little bit crude about it, but it’s a way of bringing along their fail-sons. You have kids who may not be as brilliant as their parents, for example, or as naturally meritocratically elite as their parents, but they can shape that resume for universities by doing woke projects every summer.

When I was in Palo Alto as a kid, I used to call it “combing llamas in Peru,” because, starting in eighth grade or whatever, all these parents, elite parents, send their kids out on these projects to collect social justice points. And it’s so condescending. And in Palo Alto, we did a lot in EPA, where EPA, when I was growing up, was no longer a murder capital of California. It was a functioning middle class community in many ways.

And so you have these rich kids from Palo Alto going over to do their service projects, which is so condescending, but they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, they’re doing it to build a resume for college.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

It’s even worse than that because it takes even the creative children, but they know that they’re just doing it for the test. There was this amazing article in Tablet about this who guy teaches at the University of Chicago where I actually went, where we were very much encouraged to be whatever, think whatever we wanted at the time. He said that he has never had a student who has read a book for pleasure. He’s never had a student form an opinion outside of the context of what they think the professor wants to hear.

On the one hand, it’s so gross that parents are doing this, but on the other hand, they’re actually right. There is no guarantee that if their child goes to a state school, that they will still have an upper/middle class life, because the meritocratic squeeze has gotten so, so tight.

Inez Stepman:

I think that there’s a certain inevitability, people always want the best for their children. But what is not forgivable to me is the fact that we’ve built a system that recognizes that kind of credentialism as opposed to any kind of real meritocracy. These folks, they don’t do the startup thing in Silicon Valley, what they do is they work in an HR department for a Fortune 500 company. They work in federal agencies for ever-larger bureaucratic compliance, and that bureaucratic compliance and managerial state is also now becoming an ideological compliance machine.

And you can now make money. What really worries me — because I think conservatives used to say, “don’t worry about the gender studies programs or whatever, they’re going to graduate and they’re going to be baristas”  —  increasingly, that’s not even true. You graduate from a gender studies degree and that wokeism, that jargon, that is the equivalent of a U.K. accent from some, I don’t even know where the places are in the U.K. that are fancy, but having the exact right accent that says that you went to the exact right schools. Increasingly, having the right woke language and the right woke opinions is itself a class indicator that gets you a job making six figures, making very good money in some of these compliance industries.

And that’s not merit. I think maybe that’s where we can agree. I don’t think that’s a functioning meritocracy, that’s a credentialed elite perpetuating itself. And while I understand the personal impulse to want to make sure that your kids do well, I don’t think that we should be defending that system. We should be critiquing that system and trying to make it genuinely more fair.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

I totally agree. I totally agree. Can I ask you something?

Inez Stepman:


Batya Ungar-Sargon:

It’s off-topic though.

Inez Stepman:

That’s fine. I have an off-topic last question anyways.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

Awesome. I wanted to ask you something about feminism. I actually agree with a lot of your critiques of the way in which girl-boss feminism, actually from a class point of view, erases the common-sensical in a way, which is very much associated with lower-classness, with not going to some elite school and coming up with some elite view about these things.

But what I wanted to ask you was on a material level; yes, we’ve made women unhappy, but domestic violence is much lower in America than it is in other countries where gender roles are still much more enforced culturally, socially, if not even in some political way. We’re critiquing the meritocratic rise of these elites, but they’re not poor.

Women do have opportunities to out of poverty in this system that, yes, is worthy of criticism, but has also given them a level of independence and ability to represent themselves that you wouldn’t find in cultures that are still more divided by gender.

I feel, on the one hand, I agree with so much of your criticism of what feminism has become. And on the other hand, I’m so curious: am I just wrong about this, that there is a correlation between being unhappy at where we’ve ended up, but also things being materially much better?

Inez Stepman:

I think it’s related to the larger phenomenon of atomization and you’ve mentioned community and religion. I think one of the problems with prosperity, and I think it’s related within the gender context, and I don’t want to go backwards in terms of the prosperity that capitalism has brought us. I certainly don’t want to go back to people starting in the street, the majority of people being insecure about when they’re going to get their next meal.

Prosperity has been an enormous blessing, but it’s also come with a tenant problems which has been the atomization. When you can financially leave, because the reality is, even laying aside something like domestic violence and really bad situations of abuse and psychological abuse or whatever, it’s not always pleasant to be part of the community, to be part of a family.

It means conflict, it means giving up a lot of your individual desires; it is exercise humility and sublimating your own needs to the needs of others, and that’s not always pleasant. I feel like just as we’ve seen the collapse of the family and the atomization of individuals, that ultimately doesn’t make us happy. I can see what you’re saying: that if we return to a more traditional sexual polarity, that might provide cover for certain men to take advantage of that position that they have, because women would be more dependent by definition on men financially.

But I think that we now have the corresponding problem, which is that we have made ourselves all so independent and not just women with regard to men, but just generally in society, we’ve made ourselves so independent that we are lonely and miserable and atomized, and we can’t relate to each other. Just like I think democracy is not always the answer, perhaps my ideas would not always be the answer.

Maybe there are situations or societies in which that balance is out of whack in the opposite direction, but I look around me and I don’t see a problem of not enough men being sent to jail for being abusers. But that on the opposite side, it’s so pervasive how lonely a lot of us are and how we have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, and especially with the opposite sex and how little we understand each other and value what’s different about men and women.

I see more of that problem and so I’m advancing instead of ideas as a solution to the problems that I see as most pressing, but that doesn’t mean that every society or at all times has had the problems we do, if that makes sense. I think there might be a need for a different advancement of different ideas and policy.

But this is actually related to what I wanted to ask you last, which is I think very much connected to this feminization question of our politics and of there not just being a lot more women in power, but a culture that is, in many ways, turns a lot of men away, especially working-class men from a lot of these institutions; and they’re therapeutic and even the language around them is about trauma and talking about your feelings.

A lot of men find that really alienating and don’t want to participate in institutions that require it. Even in your job now, most people who work in corporate America, it’s a family. We talk about it with all this therapeutic language and I think that’s annoying to a lot of men. But one of the ways I think that it crosses from annoying into truly pernicious where you start to have it covering up real power dynamics that are much more important than they’re getting credit for, is this victimhood posture of a lot of people who are truly in power.

It’s something that comes through that wokeism stuff about if you happen to be Black or Hispanic, but you are a Senator or you are a billionaire, you still get to pose as a victim in this particular context, but the poster child for this is AOC. What do you think about how she presents her political points of view? And I’m not about her policies at this particular, I’m saying those videos that she does where she’s crying or she is talking about her trauma, her personal trauma. And then she’s using it to make a political point.

I feel there’s something so perverse about that and maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you can explain to me why this is actually very genuine, but to me, it comes off as very perverse and really deeply wrong in a way for somebody who has … she’s a Congresswoman. She’s literally engaged in making the highest law at the federal level. And she is primarily presenting herself as a powerless victim and there’s something about that, that bothers me.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

It’s such a great question. I’m going to make three quick points. The first is someone like Senator Tim Scott is very interesting in this context because he’s very much not a victim. He’s very patriotic, he’s Republican, the only Black Republican senator, but he was pulled over 17 times the year he got a new car in the capital. A senator. To me, it’s like that’s a moral emergency, the fact that that still happens and the fact that a Republican, obviously, he has no incentive to be exaggerating that.

I think there are some areas where it is justified specifically policing in Black men, where you can become a billionaire and you’ll still get pulled over all of these times. I don’t think he’s a billionaire, but you can ascend to the highest rank in America and still be mistreated by a police officer. That seems to me really, really bad and just like an important thing to point out.

Although overall, I totally agree with you it’s completely out of bounds and it’s used in the weirdest ways. I remember when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted something antisemitic and I criticized her for it. And they were like you have all the power — at the time, I was the opinion editor of a really small Jewish newspaper — you are the powerful one and she is the powerless one and how dare you sick these hounds on her?

She had this whole crew of people defending her. And I was like she’s one of 430 people who decides if the U.S. goes to war. In what universe does she have less power than some nobody opinion editor of tiny Jewish publication? It made no sense. And of course the rationale was race, it was because of her race and that identification of race with power is the moral panic of the moment.

And I find it to be really pernicious, it’s dehumanizing, it’s ugly, it’s gross and it’s wrong like you say. I think for women especially it’s so funny so to me, I think before the #MeToo movement, I still felt you went into work and basically every man got to decide how much they flirt with you; that was just the culture, even in white-collar jobs.

After the #MeToo movement, that is just patently false. Right now, men very much in white-collar jobs and upper-class jobs are very afraid of being #MeToo, they’re very afraid of being accused of misconduct. And now really that power specifically around how they interact with women has very much moved to women. That’s been my experience it’s been the experience of most women I know, just in this elite.

To act like that hasn’t happened that huge shift that happened over the last six years didn’t happen, seems to me it’s very dishonest. But you clearly get power from acting like you don’t have it. If you can be the victim of that scenario, that is a very powerful position because people feel really sorry for victims, and it’s a way of really sidestepping other forms of getting respect by demanding it on the grounds of having been deprived at something like this.

I agree with you, AOC is definitely the poster child of this, but with her, I just feel the reason I find her so depressing is because she obviously is genuine, she obviously truly believes it, she truly feels it, she truly physically embodies all this. The idea that she is powerless and a woman of color and working class and all this stuff that she is deserving of your constant pity, as opposed to commanding your respect through actions.

I feel that to me she’s proof that at some level a meritocracy works, if you are really beautiful and really brilliant which she is, this country will reward you very greatly. That’s the AOC story. She’s a Republican American dream story. And to act like that she is somehow still in this embattled position, even given all the outsized criticism she gets, whether she deserves it or not. I agree with you there’s something about it that it’s hard to know what exactly to do with that.

One doesn’t want to add to the outsized detention and obsession and the need to destroy AOC, or criticize her no matter what she’s doing, but at the same time, it seems to me there were two options to go in terms of how we told young women to deal with the fact that men sometimes want to do things to you that you don’t want.

One option was to be as soon as that starts happening, you have to just pick up your cell phone and whack them across the head. You can do this because you have all the physical strength you need. That could have been the message. And, instead, somehow we gave them the message that if you don’t actually even voice the fact that you don’t want to be doing something, then it’s rape.

We went in the opposite direction. Instead of saying you have all the power you need to nine times out of 10 on a college campus to stop something from happening, we redefined what assault meant to where even if you don’t express that you don’t want to be doing something, it’s an assault. And so, in a way, the messaging was disempowering rather than empowering. Does that make sense?

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. I think that the same thing is true broadly with this victimhood coinage of the realm. And what does bother me in the AOC context is when exactly the kind … and I didn’t know about your Twitter beef with Ilhan Omar, but exactly that kind of dynamic. It is using the language of trauma and victimhood to prevent holding people accountable who actually have power.

If you are not allowed to hold your elected officials accountable in a democracy, because they are performing as powerless victims, and therefore asking their constituents to essentially defend them rather than the other way around, I think that there’s something very wrong with that dynamic and it can’t really be good for a democracy to have this idea that we can’t hold people who genuinely have power. Literally, we elect them to make decisions.

And the entire point of democracy is supposed to be holding the people who make those decisions accountable to the broader population. If they just get a card a get-out-of-accountability-card when they say okay, but I’m a victim and you can’t criticize me, I just think that there’s something fundamentally anti-democratic about that.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

It’s bad on every level. I totally agree with you.

Inez Stepman:

I wish we could keep doing this forever, but I know you’re a busy woman and everybody should go out and really buy and read this book. It is probably one of the most refreshing books that I’ve read for such a long time, because of the things you’ve said today, Batya, because there are parts of this that make me reconsider some position that I have held and I learned so much about the history of journalism in this country.

And I think it’s just really important because the story of journalism and the dynamics that you identify within it are so applicable elsewhere and in other parts of our society. The book is Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy. Thank you so much, Batya, for coming on High Noon.

Batya Ungar-Sargon:

Thank you so much for having me. What a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you.

Inez Stepman:

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.