Interview: Matt Yglesias, author and blogger
In which I interview one of the people who inspired me to blog
When I first decided to become a blogger, sitting in my apartment in Japan in 2006, there were two bloggers who inspired me: Brad DeLong (now my podcast co-host) and Matt Yglesias. I especially admired Matt’s writings on politics — something about the way he saw the political world just sort of clicked with me, and I liked that he sprinkled in some economics as well. Matt’s simple, plain-spoken style also obviously influenced my own writing style; I can write a flowery turn of phrase if I have to, but Matt showed me that conveying information in the simplest, most direct way possible is usually the way to reach the most people.
Recently, Matt has been a trailblazer once again. His excellent Substack, Slow Boring, is one of the best out there (well worth the price of a paid subscription), and has brought a mix of perspectives that I don’t really see many others bringing. This has not been without controversy, and we discuss that controversy in the interview below. Matt has also written a book, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, which is about how immigration combined with high-quality urbanism represents a route to national prosperity and power. Highly recommended.
In this interview, Matt and I talk about his approach to “wokeness” and other cultural issues, his policy priorities, the dangers of an anti-democratic GOP and an aggressive China, immigration, the state of the media, and about how Substack has changed his writing.
N.S.: I've now been following your writing across multiple platforms over the decades -- at TPM Cafe, at Slate, at Vox, and now at your Substack, Slow Boring. Each time, your writing style and topics changed a bit. How do you feel like moving to Substack has changed the way you write, the topics you write about? And why?
M.Y.: I'm probably the worst person to objectively evaluate how my writing has changed and why. But in terms of what I'm trying to do at least, my goal for the Substack is to be highly differentiated — I am asking people to pay me money, and I am acutely aware that even though I write a lot no Substack is a great value proposition in terms of dollars per units of content. So I want to provide something for people that is different than what you'd get elsewhere, leaning in to some of my more idiosyncratic interests and ideas. The other thing that's changed of course is the broader context — I think American politics has shifted a lot to the left from where it was fifteen or twenty years ago, so I'm now much more of a centrist figure. Back when I was blogging "we should expand the welfare state a lot" was a feisty progressive stance. But today I'm a total squish since I don't want to abolish billionaires or the police.
N.S.: I really do hope Substack figures out the bundling thing soon. Economies of scale!
Anyway, I also feel like I'm perceived as much more of a centrist than I used to be, especially on economic issues. Which is odd, because I feel like I've actually moved to the *left* on things over the years, just not as fast as my peer group of educated professionals has moved left. I guess that's fine. I'm just not used to being the one to say stuff like "OK guys, we can't actually ban cars", or "maybe there is some point where deficits do matter".
You've been taking on a bunch of cultural and social issues -- corporate diversity training, policing, the media reaction to the "lab leak" theory, and so on. Is that because you think those issues have become more important? Or did you just get fed up with the way "woke" attitudes on culture were heading in general? Or are these things you've been wanting to get off your chest for a while?
M.Y.: Yes to bundles!
Some of the change in emphasis of my writing is that I think economic policy has gotten to a much better place than it's been for most of my career. Biden has a really excellent team, congress is a lot less austerity-addled than the group Obama needed to deal with in 2009, and I think the conventional wisdom in Democratic Party circles on big economic issues is basically right. So you can find me doing some white knight stuff, or urging the extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit and I expect to keep on doing that but I don't actually see a huge controversy that I feel the need to wade into. Even Republicans have, I think, mostly gotten more reasonable on economics than they used to be even as they are much more maniacal on some other issues.
But I think the youngish, city-dwelling, college-educated professionals who dominate the media (this is me too, by the way) have gotten a bit off course on some cultural issues. In particular, I think we do need to see more boundary-policing of some of the more extreme ideas coming out of this set.
"Defund the police" in my view was a very irresponsible slogan that was always badly at odds with empirical social science on policing and crime. But the atmosphere last summer was such that people who knew the research — at times even people who had done the research — didn't want to speak up forcefully and try to channel the passion for a more just, more humane approach to criminal justice into something workable. I don't know as much about math education as you do, but I'm concerned that something similar is happening in that space where frustration with persistent gaps in different groups' math performance is leading to derogation of the idea of advanced math coursework as racist. And there's a trend toward doing lots anti-racism education and bias training that hasn't really been evaluated at all. To sort of tie this all together, I think economics has gotten more empirical in a way that I feel really good about but that a lot of progressive thinking on issues that touch questions of racial justice has gotten less empirical in ways that create big risks of error.
N.S.: If I recall correctly, you've declared yourself a "popularist" -- basically, the idea being that educated young liberal types are out of the mainstream on cultural issues, and so if they're too gung-ho about "defund the police" etc., they'll alienate voters, Democrats will lose, and that will be bad. That reminds me a bit of David Shor's outlook. But in addition to that, do you see intrinsic problems with the way liberals have started to approach issues around race, policing, education, and so on? As in, some sort of unified shortcomings to the collection of ideas and attitudes that often get called "wokeness"?
I've been writing a series of posts thinking out loud about this, and my general conclusion is that while wokeness was something that needed to happen in some way, shape, or form -- and also something that recurs throughout American history and is an intrinsic part of our deep culture -- it has also begun to get a bit over its skis. It has a quasi-religious zeal that makes it difficult to interface with as a social movement, and some of its expressions conflict with my own secular humanist values. E.g. telling people that hard work is intrinsically White just really strikes me as not just politically inadvisable, but morally wrong.
Do you feel that way too? And if so, is that one reason you've been critiquing wokeness more lately? And is there a moral framework that stands as a better alternative to what some of these more zealous folks are applying to these issues?
M.Y.: One thing I would say is that I somewhat reject the idea of drawing a sharp distinction between political considerations and substantive considerations in this regard. My blog takes its name from a Max Weber essay that deals, in part, with the need for political actors to adopt an ethic of responsibility that focuses on the likely outcome of their activities not just their righteousness.
So if you crusade against mandatory single-family zoning (which you absolutely should) and you do so with rhetoric that heavily emphasizes zoning's origins in the white supremacist politics of the early twentieth century and that *helps you win the argument and improving zoning* then that's great. But if it just prompts a backlash that alienates center-right free market allies and persuades white people that they need to fight to the death to preserve exclusionary zoning, then that's bad. The point of politics, including antiracist politics, is to help people which means you need strategies that are calibrated to success.
That being said, the recent surge in interest (mostly among white liberals) in anti-racist politics has accomplished a bunch of important things. I think it has been a spur to land use reform in blue states, which is very important. We are paying more attention to marginalized people's experiences with law enforcement, which is important. And we're making big strides in areas where questions of representation are very important — more respect and acclaim for Black cultural figures, more opportunities for Black writers and politicians, more recognition of the value of the unique perspective Black scholars can offer, and other things like that.
But I think there are two related substantive problems with the newer political style. One is a tendency toward the erasure of class. I live in DC where essentially all the white people are college-educated professionals who, even though we find ourselves on different points of the income scale, are basically all fairly privileged people. But right now, I'm in Hancock County, Maine which is only one percent Black. Nonetheless, two thirds of the people here don't have college degrees. There's an eleven percent poverty rate. Seventeen percent of households don't have broadband at home. There's a reason that Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, and Bayard Rustin converged on the Freedom Budget for All Americans, the Poor People's Campaign, and a politics of interracial class solidarity rather than demands for better corporate diversity trainings.
The other problem, as I think you were getting into, is that I'm wary of certain strands of anti-racist politics that seem to me to reify racial categories even while decrying them as social constructs. I don't want white people to spend more time reflecting on their whiteness. I also think aspects of this program are at odds with the lived experience of Americans with Latin American or Asian backgrounds, especially in light of high intermarriage rates. I'm not someone from the school of thought who thinks that if we just stopped talking about race it would go away. But a big current of American political history is of various big projects being undermined by the use of racism as a wedge to divide people and get a large segment of the white community to accept Du Bois' psychological wages of whiteness in lieu of real material gains. You want to defeat and disrupt that strategy, and convince people that we'll mostly all be better off with a more expansive national identity.
N.S.: So in terms of class and race, it sounds like you're thinking sort of along the same lines as Richard Rorty. Poor White people are people too! I feel like the "class, not race" people from the 2016 primary got a lot of things wrong and were kind of annoying, but there's some value in that perspective. Also, I think putting everything in terms of the Black-White binary overlooks working-class Hispanic people, who really have been making substantial economic and educational gains in recent decades and don't necessarily have a reason to throw out our whole system.
But OK, here's a concern. A lot of the criticism of wokeness, "critical race theory", and so on, comes either from people who are actually pushing a White supremacist agenda, or people who are essentially Republican political operatives creating new wedge issues. I don't have to name names here. So do you ever worry that by criticizing the excesses of the cultural left, you're playing into the hands of those bad actors? I feel like a lot of "anti-anti" discourse on Twitter is about this question, actually -- the notion of "Well, maybe you have a point, but it's not a high-priority issue, and look at the bad people who you're helping". Does this ever worry you?
Also, another thesis of mine is that despite poverty and inequality -- which I don't want to minimize -- America really is a very rich society overall, and most people are probably on to higher rungs of Maslow's Hierarchy. Even if you have a house and a car and a big-screen TV and all that stuff, it rankles if you don't really feel like your nation and your culture respect you. If there aren't people who look like you in the movies, if you walk into a store and people wonder if you're there to steal, if men treat you like a sex object at work even in subtle ways, etc. etc., then there's just something missing from life. So the first way I thought about wokeness was as a kind of leveling movement for social respect rather than for material security. Doesn't focusing purely on materialism kind of ignore humans' social needs?
M.Y.: First, yes: I remember sitting around in 2016 listening to Bernie Sanders talking about how everything that's bad in America goes back to billionaires and thinking that can't be right. Billionaires aren't the reason we can't fix our immigration system, they're not the reason we have so little accountability for police misconduct, they're not the reason we have a uniquely high level of mass shootings, and they're not really the reason we're doing too little to combat climate change. There's more to life than narrow economics, and demands for representation are meaningful.
Something like the move to make Juneteenth into a national holiday — to broaden and improve the official narrative of American life — matters.
At the same time, I'm struck every January on Martin Luther King Day that it's a nice long weekend primarily for America's disproportionately white professional class while the disproportionately non-white service workers of America staffing the stores and cooking the food in restaurants generally don't get the day off. For my family, the day off from school is nice — we can all take a trip together somewhere. But for other families, more working class families, I bet it's a big inconvenience — mom still has to go to work but someone has to take care of the kids. Adding Juneteenth to the national holidays list is a nice piece of symbolism but replicates the same dynamics. I don't think you can reduce everything to materialism. But even though America is a very rich society, it's also a very unequal society and you're fundamentally not going to be able to address demands for respect and recognition in isolation from material considerations.
To circle this back to "real economics" one very positive thing that the Great Awokening has done is induced people in power to rediscover old points that Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King used to make about the racial justice implications of full employment macroeconomic policy. In a practical sense, there's no bigger lever for fighting discrimination than a labor market that really punished discriminators and creates opportunities for people on the margins of society. So I don't argue for like a rigid Marxist framework in which everything is class conflict. But we do all inhabit a set of economic arrangements where the state of the labor market, the opportunities available to us, the generosity of the welfare state, etc. are profoundly shaping all of the other dynamics.
To your other question, at times in my life I have had a "no enemies on the left" view of things. But one of the oddities of our current political alignment, is that some ideas that are very marginal in electoral politics nonetheless have a lot of clout in the media and parts of the education system. And since I'm here in the media I think it's worth engaging with. At the same time, I'd hate for readers to think I'm some kind of culture war obsessive. There's folks like Wesley Yang out there who are just obsessed with the worst excesses of the identity politics left, but I'm out here doing a lot of stories about housing policy infrastructure projects and other things. The defund police movement was kind of white whale for me for a while, but I think those guys are on the run now.
N.S.: Fair enough! I've always been impressed, by the way, with your ability to not only see the way the political wins are blowing in America, but to perceive the points where you might be able to push in order to personally make a difference. I wrote about how the police abolition/defunding movement has been stymied (though we might get some good reforms out of the era); but I feel like you saw this well before I did, and had already moved on to more pressing matters. That's a skill I wish I had, but probably never will.
So as one of my favorite political analysts, tell me: What are the important points where the Democrats need to push right now? Biden has introduced a raft of important legislation; which bills are the greatest priority, not necessarily from a purely economic standpoint but in terms of racking up wins? What do Dems need to be doing more of, and what do they need to be doing less of?
M.Y.: Flattery! I am here for it.
If I ran the zoo, the top priorities right now would be statehood for DC with an option for binding statehood referenda in all American territories. Next would be tough anti-gerrymandering rules using a partisan fairness standard and allowing for the use of multi-member districts. In my view everything else pales in comparison to the importance of addressing the systemic imbalances in the political system. The stuff you hear more about in this space, around ballot access, is objectively less important. The difference is there's a lot of litigation around voting mechanics and a small industries of lawyers who do the cases, so they've built up a lot of narrative momentum.
Unfortunately, I don't think any of this is going to happen because that's just not what the thinking in the Senate Democratic caucus is and because there's no way you could do that stuff without changing the filibuster rule which a critical margin of senators doesn't want to do.
So right now Biden is trying to hold his bipartisan infrastructure deal together, which is smart. Critics on the left say it doesn't address climate change, but we're talking about a bill with money for electric vehicles, money for grid upgrades, and money for mass transit, freight rail, and intercity passenger rail. I don't think a "climate bill" is ever going to pass congress. But the deal has provisions that are important for climate. The Endless Frontier Act that passed the senate has provisions that are important for climate. The energy authorization bill that passed last December has provisions that are important for climate. Climate touches everything, so all kinds of legislation can address climate issues. You don't need a "climate bill."
Then next Democrats are going to try to do a budget reconciliation bill. Progressives have about $6 trillion worth of ideas they want to jam in there and there's no way moderates are going to go for that. So it's important for progressives to think about which of their ideas are the most important. I think the expanded Child Tax Credit is super-important and if anything goes in that reconciliation bill it should be that. There are also a bunch of ideas around renewable energy production tax credits that are important to, once again, show that we're whacking away at the climate issue. Beyond that, I dunno, you do whatever you can do. The one red flag I'd really raise is that progressives have this idea of trying to lower the eligibility age for Medicare and I think the political economy of that is bad. What we see with existing Medicare is that you give a benefit to the elderly and then unless Republicans explicitly threaten to take it away, old folks' instinct is to try to pull up the ladder behind them and get afraid that any other expansion of coverage will come at their expense. I'd much rather see universal health care for *kids* because when you create a benefit for the young you create a constituency to fight for its expansion so they don't lose it.
But really, I think every single Democratic member of congress likes being in the majority. And they should ask themselves "if I like being in the majority, why do I want to fight elections on turf that's biased 3 (in the House) or even 6 (in the Senate) against my party?" They shouldn't want that! That sucks. And the answer is statehood for DC and the option of statehood for Puerto Rico and the other territories. That's racial justice. That's material politics. That's political reform. That's self-interest. That's simple fairness. And it drives me crazy that we don't have consensus on that or even a strong push.
N.S.: Well, it doesn't seem as if Democrats are going to have the collective will to change the electoral system this cycle. And even if they did, it seems pretty likely that the GOP will win the 2022 midterms in Congress, just because the President's party almost always loses seats. Which means that no matter what happens, it seems like we could be staring at a crisis of democracy in the 2024 presidential election. Do you think there's any chance that GOP-controlled state legislatures will not try to install their own electors under vaporous accusations of "voter fraud"? It seems like we could easily end up with a scenario in which GOP-controlled state legislatures and a GOP-controlled Congress reinstates Donald Trump to the Presidency, after which the future of democracy is anyone's guess. How worried should we be about this scenario, and what should we do about it?
M.Y.: I think when I try to aggregate all the probabilities together — Republicans control congress after the midterms (90%), Trump runs again (80%), he wins the nomination again conditional on running (80%), Biden wins the popular vote (60%), but then Republicans make another even more determined effort to steal it (70%) it does start to look like it's actually pretty unlikely. I find that in punditry people often express the feeling "we should be very alarmed by X" by trying to say that "X is very likely" because the audience often takes "Y didn't actually happen" to be a decisive refutation to prior worries.
Rationally, though, the reason to worry a lot about an election theft plot is that such a theft would be very bad and even though it's fairly unlikely it doesn't depend on anything particularly crazy happening. We can clearly see the threat, the threat is fairly grave, and we ought to worry about it.
I also worry about the grounds on which respectable opinion has chosen to fight this battle.
It seems to me that the conventional thinking in the United States is that it's not factually true that Biden won the crucial states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia through fraud and therefore it would be wrong for GOP elected officials to use false allegations of fraud to refuse to seat his electors. And it's doubly bad for rioters to seek to use physical violence to coerce GOP elected officials into refusing to seat Biden's electors. The rioters are breaking the law, and the elected officials who want to overturn the election results are lying. That being said, if you look up the text of the constitution it's clear that GOP-held state legislatures don't need any pretext at all to simply assign their electoral votes to Trump. It's an entrenched American tradition that electoral votes should be allocated by the voters, but the power — legally speaking — is in the hands of the heavily gerrymandered state legislatures. So if those five states all change the rules after the midterms to just say "Trump gets the electoral votes" then what is the American establishment going to say about that?
Now I'd like to say that it's illegitimate to select a president that way. Not illegitimate within the text of the constitution, but illegitimate in the moral sense that it's not acceptable for state legislatures who've insulated themselves from public accountability via gerrymandering to select the next president. That it violates important norms of political equality. And that we need to be prepared to fight an illegitimate system of that sort outside the four walls of legalism, and in the streets with protests and mass demonstrations and the other extra-constitutional tactics that have long been the most effective tools available to a population oppressed by non-democratic governance.
But then again, I always felt that Donald Trump should have been fought with more of that spirit. His accession to power on the basis of 46 percent of the vote and the installation of a cabinet approved by the badly mal-apportioned US Senate were outrages against democracy from the get-go, and I was thrilled by the spirit of the Women's March protests that greeted his first month in office. Unfortunately, both around the Mueller Report and around Trump's first impeachment Democratic leaders and their allies in the progressive foundation world chose to retreat to a kind of narrow proceduralism. If you look at foreign heads of government who've fallen from power amidst corruption scandals over the past 15 years, there is always some legal/constitutional mechanism through which this happens but the motive force is crucially provided by mass mobilization. When Trump was inaugurated there were huge protests in every American city with major elected officials, social movement leaders, and celebrities speaking. When he was impeached there were a handful of desultory events. Long story short, I think progressives with money and organizational capacity need to start thinking about civil society and mass protests as part of their election security strategy not just legislation or litigation.
But as I was saying, this all goes back to a certain ambiguity as to what we mean by threats to "our democracy." Trump lost the popular vote by 4.4 percentage points. If he'd lost by 3.7 percentage points instead, he'd have carried the tipping point state and become president and the GOP would control the senate to boot. Is the fight for democracy the fight to preserve the principle that Democrats should get to narrowly wield power when they win landslides, or is the fight for democracy an actual fight for — well — for democracy?
N.S.: Hmm, I'm not so sanguine here. If I multiply all the probabilities you just gave, I get 24%. If you had a surgery with a 24% chance of dying, you might legitimately be freaked out!
Also, as regards the general un-democratic-ness of our system, I think we need to think on the margin -- more popular representation is better, less is worse, and having gerrymandered state legislatures install President Trump seems like it would be a lot less representative, even without considering the follow-on implications of how Trump would then change our system if he got back into the White House. I do, however, agree that the result of this sort of "soft coup" would be prolonged mass unrest, and I agree that it would be absolutely warranted and that progressives should plan for it.
Anyway, moving on, another thing I wanted to talk about is your book, One Billion Americans. I really liked this book, but perhaps this was inevitable, as we pretty much agree on immigration, urbanism, and the ideal of American greatness. But how was the reception more generally? Do you feel people were pretty receptive to the case you made? Do you feel the discussion has shifted on these issues?
M.Y.: Ah, the book. I got more praise from the right and more hostility from the left than I was expecting when I originally conceived of the project. I think that's because at the time it came out we were experience a kind of surge of anti-patriotic sentiment on the left which drove both some skepticism of the book but also some praise of it as a counterpoint to anti-patriotism.
In terms of the actual ideas in the book vis-a-vis the real world we're kind of all over the place. On urbanism we are making progress, albeit not as fast as I'd like. On family supports, the temporary Child Tax Credit program Democrats created in the American Rescue Plan is really good but it's still tbd as to whether that will be extended. On immigration, policy has gotten better since Biden replaced Trump but I'm also afraid that the surge in pro-immigrant sentiment we'd seen in recent years looks like it was a thermostatic reaction to Trump and opinion seems to be moving fast in a restrictionist direction. I think that's really unfortunate. Immigration restrictionism is, in my opinion, really one of the very worst ideas out there and it would have been nice if pro-immigration folks like me had been incredibly persuasive and shifted mass opinion but we haven't.
On the bigger picture, I do sort of wish the book could come out this summer rather than last fall because I now think there's a very wide sense of alarm about China as both a regional and a global actor but also a paucity of creative thinking as to what to do about it and I really do think the idea of population as one of the modalities of international cooperation is an important missing piece of that dialogue.
N.S.: Unfortunately I think you're probably right about opinion shifting back against immigration now that Trump is out. That's a terrible tragedy for our country. But I also think it may simply be the sad truth that even a usually very open and welcoming country like ours occasionally feels the need to take some time to "consolidate" its common identity and national story. Hopefully once this current spasm of unrest and struggle over national identity is over, we can regain the confidence required to throw the doors open again.
I do want to talk about China a bit. I've been kind of sounding the alarm, both about human rights and military aggression and geopolitical stuff, but also about the economic competition from China. Manufacturing activity wants to shift to Asia because there are just so many people there, and China is now in the process of consolidating the Asian economic supercluster around itself. We have to actively fight to stay relevant, here on the periphery. One billion Americans would even things out a bit, but East and South Asia together have four billion. Given that economic threat, have you reconsidered your traditional skepticism of industrial policy and a focus on manufacturing and tradables?
And while we're on the topic of China...I've taken some heat for my criticism of China, especially from leftists who think I'm trying to start Cold War 2 or that I'm abetting anti-Asian racism. What do you think about this? Should econ and politics pundits stay in our lane on this? Or is the issue so big that we just have to talk about it, and do the best we can?
M.Y.: I don’t want to be dismissive of the idea that irresponsible anti-PRC rhetoric can fan the flames of anti-Asian bias domestically. At the same time, analytically, the people in Taiwan are Asian. So are the people in Japan and South Korea. Standing up for democratic Asia is not anti-Asian. The biggest victims of the PRC are its own citizens — Asians. Besides Taiwan the country that seems most at threat of PRC territorial aggrandizement is Vietnam — full of Asians.
So while the concern is real, I think the answer is to have responsible rhetoric not to pretend there is no problem with China.
I also think the issue is too important to be left to the specialists. For one thing, to a lot of the natsec pros the answer to everything is always going to be "build more military hardware."
But I really think counting up the aircraft carriers or whatever is an extremely shallow way of looking at the situation.
My concern first and foremost is that the old 1990s idea that economic integration with China would spread US-style values over there has proven to be dead wrong. Instead we see that western companies' dependence on the China market leads to the export of PRC censorship norms to freer places. We need to recalibrate our trade and media ownership policies to try to prevent that. But we also just want to avoid a situation where a dictatorial PRC is the central hub of a Asian-based global trading system whose total weight leaves us in the dust. I don't want a future for the United States where we're a primary commodity exporter into a PRC-dominated global economy, where media outlets fear that if they run articles commemorating the crushing of Hong Kong democracy they'll lose all their advertisers.
It's fundamentally not a military issue. And this is where I see the anti-China strain of Trumpist politics running smack dab into the other tenets of right-wing nationalism. There were some problems with the specific objectives the USTR pursued in forming the Trans-Pacific Partnership but that kind of trade relationship is what we need. And the now-dead Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) was in some ways an even more valuable idea. Immigration to the United States is really good. And in a global context, bolstering pro-immigration sentiments in Europe and Canada and Australia and Japan is important to. Doses of industrial policy can make sense in this context.
Last I will admit that I don't know much about India and I know less about Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philipines. But these are really big countries, with democratic-ish political systems and forging strong diplomatic relationships with them and fostering their economic development is a big deal. America's big advantage vis-a-vis China is that the vast majority of people in the vast majority of countries prefer US to Chinese hegemony and they do so despite us coming off a stretch of not-exactly-flawless decision-making in Washington.
N.S.: I think on these issues we're thinking along the same lines.
Anyway, there's one more thing I wanted to talk about. In addition to politics, I've always been impressed by your ability to keep up with -- and not just keep up with, but to grok -- what's happening in the mainstream media. A great example is your criticism of how the media responded to the "lab leak" hypothesis. That's something I'm just not nearly as good at doing, because I have less of a holistic sense of what the media is saying.
So I wanted to ask: Do you think mainstream media is becoming a monoculture? Is groupthink setting in, are top publications like the New York Times out of touch, etc.? Is this related to the necessity of switching from an ad-supported model to a subscription model, or is it a result of revolts by lower-level staffers who act as activists within newsrooms? Those are two theses I hear thrown around a lot, but I don't know how to evaluate how true they are.
And what's the future for Substackers like us? Where do we fit into the future of the media ecosystem?
M.Y.: I do think too, but I do think it's dangerous to generalize about "the media." Fox is the biggest cable channel, Sinclair Broadcasting is the largest single force in local television news, and conservative talkers dominate AM radio. Publications like the Economist and the Wall Street Journal are quite influential as well, and it seems like smallish conservative websites like Daily Wire and Dan Bongino consistently do great numbers on Facebook. So there is tons and tons of conservative media out there. And then guys like Joe Rogan with vague politics also have huge influence.
But the default situation in text-on-the-internet media these days is that you're employing a bunch of young college graduates living in big cities and they default to left-wing politics, and probably create publications that conservatives wouldn't even want to work at anyway.
I think efforts to create grand causal narratives about this (it's clickbait! it's the woke junior staff!) are basically wrong and you're mostly looking at the consequences of big demographic trends. If you pay attention to the details of who is writing what (which I know normal people don't do) then I think you'll see that whether you're talking about Vox or the Washington Post or whatever else, the people whose job it is to explicitly cover politics are actually much less left-wing than the pop culture writers or the science writers. And the publications that are really just about politics like Politico and Axios are more moderate than the general interest ones. Which is to say I think content is getting dragged left because that's the labor market (and to an extent the audience) rather than as deliberate strategy.
And I actually think that's part of the problem. If you sat down and said "okay, we want to cover the news from an explicitly progressive perspective and that means X, Y, and Z" I actually think that would be healthy compared to kind of backing into it.
I would also slightly exempt the New York Times from some of this criticism. The Times sits at the pinnacle of American journalism and has Ross Douthat on the op-ed page or a guy like Jonathan Martin with a strong background on the right on the politics team. They have Michael Powell and Nellie Bowles on the national desk telling stories that mostly cut against progressive narratives. On the whole the paper is more left than right, but they tell the right's point of view better than any conservative publication.
Now what is true (and probably looms large for folks you know in the Bay Area) is that the Times has taken a pretty hard tilt against the tech industry over the past few years. But that's not really a left/right thing — tech is taking tons of heat from Republicans in congress all the time. I have sort of mixed feelings about this. Sometimes I feel like tech folks are being crybabies — being important means you take shit from people. But other times I get bad vibes from the media side of this dynamic, like some of the folks cover the technology industry are not actually taking much time to learn about business or the relevant economic issues. I'm not really a business reporter, but I always think it's really interesting to talk to business people (whether in tech or any other industry) about why they do what they do and try to genuinely understand how the world looks through that lens.
“But OK, here's a concern. A lot of the criticism of wokeness, ‘critical race theory’, and so on, comes either from people who are actually pushing a White supremacist agenda, or people who are essentially Republican political operatives creating new wedge issues. I don't have to name names here. So do you ever worry that by criticizing the excesses of the cultural left, you're playing into the hands of those bad actors?”
I’ll never understand this (despite its ubiquity these days on both sides). We’re going to outsource all criticism of our own side to the people least able to do it intelligently, and the least willing to do so constructively and empathetically? We shouldn’t suppress discussion of something that might be right just because a bad person said it first or most obnoxiously.
On CRT specifically (or it’s major popularized offshoots Okun/DiAngelo/Kendi) it is Important to understand that by mostly ignoring them from the left we are setting them up to be the public face of how we want to deal with racism—and they are pernicious enough that is going to cost lots of votes without much useful progress tied to it. They have set up a dangerous self reinforcing dynamic in progressive circles where calling out their BS is labeled ’racist’. That was probably fine to ignore when they were in academic circles and everyone could just roll their eyes. But now that they are selling their programs all over the country they are becoming a major point of interaction for non-academic types who aren’t used to being called racist and risk getting fired over clearly non-racist or trivial stuff. So they are definitely going to cause a reaction against them, and letting the right be the only ones who bother criticizing them is stupidly handing them a wedge issue. Further, doing so means that they are going to have action taken against them (sometimes successfully) from directions that aren’t helpful to actual anti-racist agendas.
I know that there is a myth that Republicans can make an issue out of anything, but the reality is they *try* to make an issue out of lots of things, but their successes often come from things with a kernel of truth. And letting Okun/DiAngelo/Kendi become the face for what progressives want out of racial justice hands them more than a kernel.