The Radicalization of Ross Douthat
An interesting podcast conversation.
Yesterday’s edition of the Ezra Klein Show, “Ross Douthat Has Been ‘Radicalized a Little Bit, Too,’” is well worth a listen (or you can simply read the transcript). It’s the type of conversation that has become all too rare in American politics. Two people who disagree vehemently on many issues but like and respect one another enough to acknowledge when the other makes a good point, thus advancing the debate.
The main conversation revolves around this:
So if you’ve been listening to the show, you know I’m a little worried about the Republican Party’s turn against democracy. But look, maybe I’m being alarmist. There’s a case for that. If you dig into the research, whatever you think of voter ID laws morally, they don’t seem to have a huge effect on outcomes.
These various laws Republicans are passing to politicize the election administration, they don’t really need new laws to do that. They have all kinds of powers that could be used or misused now. So maybe it’s all just for show. Donald Trump, he’s a waning force. The guy doesn’t even have a Twitter account anymore. And so maybe the unique dangers he posed have passed.
This isn’t my take exactly, but it’s close to my colleague Ross Douthat’s take. He’s had a series of columns arguing that people need to chill a little bit on the alarmism around elections and democracy. And I’ve known Ross a long time. We were bloggers way back when. And I respect him tremendously. So I wanted to have him on the show to hash it out. Am I being alarmist, or is he being too chill?
I started and remain a bit closer to Klein’s position on this than Douthat’s. But the latter makes several good points. But the most interesting thing about the debate is how readily they concede the validity of the other’s concerns.
I want to start by saying that I, too, am alarmed by the prospect of having Donald Trump as the Republican nominee in 2024, which seems to me quite likely and deeply undesirable. And I think that I can see scenarios not completely different from the scenarios feared by liberals, where that, in a worst case scenario, leads to some kind of crisis in the House of Representatives and the Senate wrangling over electoral votes, right?
I’m not here to offer you a case for total blithe relaxation, Trump is in the rearview mirror, everything’s normal again. I don’t believe that. But I don’t think hardly any of the bills that have been passed or seriously considered in statehouses by Republican majorities are all that relevant to what would actually be the potential crisis or potential challenge in 2024.
[I]f you look at a number of the Republican laws that have been up for debate in the states, in many cases, they’re basically taking things like early balloting back to pre-pandemic rules, or they’re finding sort of a place in between the pre-pandemic and the pandemic rules. And you can argue about whether maybe the pandemic rules were the optimal rules, but if your worry is that the rules create a situation where an extra thousand votes swings here and there, that’s been true of every shift in election rules that you’ve had for many years.
And it’s not clear to me that saying, all right, we’re going to strike a balance between our emergency provisions for early voting and our pre-emergency provisions for early voting is sort of a particularly gross injustice or unreasonable. All early voting date numbers are arbitrary. And I mean, I think even the most aggressive pro early voting people don’t think you should have early voting starting the moment the prior election ends, right?
The rest of that particular debate is interesting but perhaps the most interesting exchange is this one:
ROSS DOUTHAT: Because the Democratic Party actually controls the government of the United States at the moment, right? It controls the presidency, it controls the House, and it controls the Senate. Now you can say that in a perfectly just world, it would have 10 more seats in the House and an extra senator or two. And Joe Biden wouldn’t have had to sweat Pennsylvania, right? That’s fine.
But in fact, the Democratic Party controls all of government. And the real pattern of the last 14 to 16 years in electoral outcomes is not this sort of countermajoritarian consolidation by the Republicans. It’s constant swings. The House of Representatives, the most representative body you could say, swung in 2010 and again in 2018. The Senate has swung repeatedly. The presidency has swung repeatedly.
So the reason that the Democrats have not been able to sort of consolidate their, let’s say, 51 to 48.5 majority into something that can win more consistently is, in part, that they haven’t been able to win the landslides that used to be the way that America was governed.
And this is one of my hobby horses, but I’ll just ride it for a second, right? The American system, as it evolved basically across the 20th century, was set up — not that anyone per se designed it this way — but it was very responsive to presidents and political parties, maybe especially presidents, winning 55 percent, 54 percent victories, which then set you up to sort of govern at a 55- or 60-vote or more majorities for your agenda.
And part of what’s happened over the last 20 years is that no one is able to win those kind of majorities. And so you have repeatedly — President Obama came closest in 2008 and, in fact, did get the most done in certain ways, as a result. But you consistently have presidents winning narrow majorities, as Bush did in 2004, say, or Biden did in certain ways this time, and trying to govern like FDR and LBJ and Reagan. And that just doesn’t work.
And that may be a case for some of the constitutional reforms the Democrats want to see. But I think having that history in mind, there’s never been a moment in American history where parties have consistently won 50.5 percent of the national popular vote and then just sort of governed the way some liberals want to govern at the moment. It’s just not part of 20th century American politics, certainly.
EZRA KLEIN: And even more — I mean, I’ll just back this up a little bit more, which is to say that it has never been this competitive. There’s a great book by Frances Lee, the political scientist, called “Insecure Majorities.” And she makes a real argument that a lot of the polarization, a lot of the super intense campaign strategies, and a lot of the inability to cooperate in Congress comes from the fact that we do not have a consistently dominant party, which has been the norm through most stages of American politics.
When you have a dominant party, the minority party has an incentive to learn how to work with them. But when don’t, when everybody is always on the knife’s edge of taking back the House, taking back the Senate, taking back the presidency, then it’s much more all out legislative war because you’re trying to make them fail because then you’re going to get into power next time. I talk a lot about this in my book, “Why We’re Polarized.” [emphases mine-jj]
This bit from Douthat, though, confused me a bit. It comes after a discussion of J.D. Vance’s seeming shift from a reasonable conservative into a Trumper (and gives the episode its title):
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, the Democratic Party moved substantially to the left. A lot of crazy things happened. Again, we had massive street protests of pandemic turmoil and all kinds of institutions. A lot of stuff went on in the last four or five years. The Kavanaugh hearing was an inflection point for some conservatives. And there’s been a general and I think sincere radicalization of a lot of people who fall or fell into an Ezra Klein’s thoughtful conservatives camp in 2015. And obviously, this hasn’t happened to me because my livelihood depends on being a thoughtful conservative who writes for a liberal readership. And so because of that, I’m sort of constrained and talked to my conservative friends —
EZRA KLEIN: Do you think it would have otherwise?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, I mean, I think maybe I’ve been radicalized a little bit, too, but I’m not going to tell you all of my most radical thoughts. Some of it is a little more mysterious to me, right? I looked at the Kavanaugh hearings and saw it as the case where I felt like I could see where both sides were coming from. And the fact that he ended up actually being put on the court, that was not a radicalization moment for me.
I think some of the shifts in sort of internal left wing discourse and politics over the last year or two, maybe some events cost people their jobs in certain liberal institutions … I won’t go into any great detail here, but some of that has had some kind of inevitable effect on me, yeah, absolutely. I guess I’m just saying when there is both a performative element to Republican Trump imitations and also a sincere shift in how some conservatives think about the left and what it wants for America, both of those things are in play in general.
So, I agree that the Democratic Party has moved substantially to the left over the last five years or so. Joe Biden, who was much more moderate than Barack Obama in 2008, is now governing much more progressively than the man he served. Indeed, I’ve argued that Biden did something unprecedented this cycle: running as a relative moderate in the Democratic primary to defeat the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and then tacking left, taking pages from their policy playbooks, afterward.
But the Kavanagh hearings strike me as an odd thing to get “radicalized” over. He was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite credible accusations of sexual assault and an absolute meltdown in his appearance before the Senate.
Now, I presume the “maybe some events cost people their jobs in certain liberal institutions” bit is a reference to the so-called Cancel Culture and the atmosphere at the New York Times (which employs both Klein and Douthat) that led to the firing of editorial page editor James Bennet and health reporter Don McNeil and the resignation of Bari Weiss. It’s not clear, though, if Douthat has actually been “radicalized” or feels more constrained to tow a party line.
I would say that it helps explain why I find Douthat better on podcasts (he used to co-host “The Argument” until the baton was passed to Jane Coasten; I have no idea what drove that) than in columns but I’ve found his columns odd for a long time.
There’s quite a bit more to the conversation, including a bit that I’ll spin off into a separate post, but it’s worth a read/listen.