Hi, I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Hey, it’s Ezra. While I’m on paternity leave, we’ve got an all-star team of guest hosts. This week my Times Opinion colleague Ross Douthat takes the helm for shows exploring chronic illness and the divisions within conservatism. I’ve known and admired Ross since I began in journalism. So I’m really looking forward to these. Enjoy.
The last 15 years have been radicalizing for many American conservatives. The collapse of George W. Bush’s presidency undercut conservative faith in the wisdom and capabilities of the Republican Party and its leaders. The Great Recession and its long opioid-haunted aftermath sowed doubts about the direction of American society and American capitalism. The rise of a youthful and militant progressivism has created a sense that America’s cultural institutions, and maybe the entire American future, have been captured by the left.
My guest today is one of those on the right who has been radicalized in recent years. Just five years ago, Sohrab Ahmari was a self-described mainstream conservative working for The Wall Street Journal opinion page. But since then his views have changed dramatically. He’s become a fierce critic of the Republican Party as it existed prior to the rise of Donald Trump, a champion of right-wing populist leaders like Trump himself and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and one of the smartest minds trying to forge a coherent alternative to the late modern liberal order.
I have my points of disagreement with Ahmari. Like him, I’m a social and religious conservative. Like him, I think the pre-Trump Republican Party needed to be radically overhauled. But compared to him I’m much more skeptical of the political forms that populist conservatism has taken since.
But understanding his intellectual journey and his current worldview is deeply important for understanding what animates the modern right. It’s a fascinating and then at times contentious discussion. So my conversation with Sohrab after the break.
Sohrab, thank you so much for being with me today.
Thanks for having me, Ross.
Before we dive into the fate of the late modern West and the future of conservatism, I want to talk a little bit about your personal background and biography, which is, in fact, the subject of an earlier book that you wrote, a spiritual memoir called From Fire By Water. So could you talk a little bit about where you grew up?
Happily. So I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran six years to the day that the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his Parisian exile to herald the Islamic Republic and oust the Shah. I grew up in a very westernized and westernizing, almost bohemian milieu. My mother was an abstract expressionist painter. My father described himself as a postmodernist architect. They had supported the Iranian revolution more out of 1968 type energies than Ayatollah Khomeini type energies or inspirations, and almost instantly came to regret it.
So that was the kind of world that I grew up in a world in which at home I was — the regime as we called it — the regime was constantly denounced. And alcohol flowed freely. Usually kind of a horrendous moonshine that occasionally was made using isopropyl alcohol. But, nevertheless, fun was had. And a world outside in which was the Islamic Republic.
And so how long did you live in Iran?
I lived in Iran until I was about to turn 14. We knew that there was a green card on the way, because my uncle, who had settled in the United States right at the time of the revolution, like many students sent abroad did once they realized what was happening, they chose to stay where they were studying — he had applied for my mother and I to join him via the family preference visa program, a.k.a. chain migration, and came to Utah, of all places.
And so before you came to Utah, what did America mean to you? 8-year-old Sohrab or 12-year-old Sohrab.
You know, America meant individualism. I have this passage that I’m really fond of in my memoir where and I was into Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones as protagonist. And they are protagonists who are valued for their individuality. They’re valued as individuals. That’s a really profound cultural difference. And I bandied about these words that I didn’t understand like secularity or rationalism and logic. And those things were Western. Whereas my homeland was superstitious and backward, and backward because superstitious and religious.
You were happy to come to America.
Oh 100 percent. 100 percent. It was my promised land.
And so you came to America, and it was Utah. And what was that like?
First of all, physically, really beautiful. I mean, the natural landscape. But it was not secular. In fact, alcohol was capped at 3 percent under secular law, but it was enacted seemingly by Mormons, who dominated the state. It was communitarian in a way that I found saccharine and oppressive with like the Mormons home church. All this stuff. I mean, I found it repulsive.
And so you sort of had a double escape. You escaped from Shiite Iran and then you left Utah and basically entered the modern meritocracy and became a secular person.
That’s right. I became a college Trotskyist. Then undergrad ended. I didn’t have much to do. So I did Teach for America for a couple of years in South Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border. Then taught for two more years at this charter school in Massachusetts. Anyway, to speed things along, I went to law school. Never practiced. Was hired by The Wall Street Journal opinion page as a buy-then ex-leftist secular neo-con or secular mainstream conservative.
And you weren’t happy.
Personally, I mean, sure. I was happy. I mean, I was —
You were happy.
Career-wise I was going from strength to strength. Right? I mean I was like in my mid-20s and I’m an editor at The Wall Street Journal opinion pages then I’m shipped off to London to help run the European edition. So from the point of view of the boy who grew up in Iran — and initially when we first moved to the United States for a time we lived in a mobile home park because we had just arrived and currency exchange was brutal — to then you’re being flown around the world by the Journal is — you’re happy in that sense. But in a deeper, kind of spiritual sense, yes I was unhappy. There were questions that worldview didn’t answer. I mean, all along, I should say, I had begun to read certain books. I had peeked into the Bible.
The forbidden texts.
The forbidden texts! I sat down to seriously read by this point. I’d read the Torah in the beautiful translation by Robert Alter, Pope Benedict’s books. That’s the intellectual side of things. There’s also a dimension of this, which is harder to talk about in a secular podcast, if you will, which is the action of the mass moved me profoundly. The idea of divine condescension. The idea that God himself would become man and descend to man’s kind of lower depths and redeem him there, and to allow himself to be mocked, humiliated, whipped and then ultimately killed by his own creation. There was something so beautiful about that, just even aesthetically speaking. As C.S. Lewis says, if you set out to create a religion, it would not be Christianity. It is so odd in that sense — and so romantic, frankly. I mean, I’m OK using that word.
So I initially kind of flirted just very briefly with Anglicanism. Specifically evangelical Anglicanism. But then walked into a mass at the famous Brompton Oratory, which is a church that’s very famous for traditional liturgy. And this particular mass, it all clicked. Both the romance and beauty of what happens on the altar of the sacrifice, but also the tradition, the continuity, the authority of the Roman church. So that by the time that mass was over I almost ran to the oratory house, which is just where the priests live and knocked on the door and told the first priest that opened the door that I want to become a Catholic.
And so in just four years after sort of swimming the Tiber, as we Roman Catholics say, entering the Catholic Church, you find yourself writing a book to your very young son that is in effect a warning against the kind of life and world that you had embraced and succeeded in in the 10 years prior to your conversion to Catholicism.
Yes. Yes. That’s a good way to describe it.
The book starts with a very arresting vision, a fearful vision that you have for your son’s future as, like you, a member of the successful secular meritocracy. What haunts you about your son’s potential future as a success?
Yeah, so I should briefly say the impetus for the book was — the immediate impetus was — there was a OkCupid campaign in 2018. And like the more recent one that’s been the subject of some controversy on Twitter least, it was incredibly vulgar. It was, like, polyamory like openly advertised. And I’ve lived most of my life in big cities. I really don’t think I’m a prude. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but imagine my son asking, you know, what is some of this stuff? It’s kind of BDSM even. And I thought, why do I find myself in a civilization in which my child has to ask me what BDSM might be?
So that was kind of an initial anxiety that set me on the path to writing this book. The cheapening. The cheapening of this dimension of life that across most of human history, across most civilization, has been held as kind of sacred, somewhat hidden. And the sort of corporate vulgarization of it bothered me. Not even so much the vulgarity itself. And then I started to imagine my son growing up to be a global meritocrat, much like his parents, and I see him not necessarily — I mean God forbid I don’t think he’s going to succumb to an opioid addiction. Chances are, the way our economy works, he’ll probably inherit his parent’s upper middle class status. He’ll probably go to elite schools.
But my fear that I describe as a kind of nightmare is that he’ll come back and just sort of be a person of no moral purpose. He is hobnobbing with sons of senators, maybe. Or one of his friends has gotten a Davos type award for environmental engineering, but all they really care about is rising through the ranks obsessed with the idea of keeping their options open, which paradoxically means that they don’t really exercise their freedom, their true freedom, because they never irrevocably bind themselves to anything. So they sort of just float through life.
The book then that comes out of this experience, this fear, this anxiety, is not really a political book. It’s not a brief for a particular cultural program. It’s a series of, in effect, introductions to ancient and pre-modern ideas that offer alternative ways of thinking about your obligations as a human being, how to think about your relationship to your family, how to think about your potential relationship to God and so on. And I want to ask you to talk about a couple of those examples — one, an issue that’s somewhat remote from the current culture wars and the other an issue that’s close to the current culture wars but where you choose sort of a surprising figure as the embodiment of traditional wisdom.
So in the first case you have a chapter entitled, “Why Would God Want You To Take A Day Off?” And I should say that the book is structured around these questions. Each chapter offers a question that people might reasonably ask about in thinking their way towards a more traditional mind-set. So talk about that chapter, which is obviously about the Sabbath and the figure that you choose to sort of represent the idea of the Sabbath.
So I’m not a theologian. I’m not a philosopher. So the way I structured the book is through biography, through storytelling, through a kind of intellectual journalism, and, frankly, popularization. And the chapter of the Sabbath is reflecting on the fact that in the United States, until relatively recently, we had a tradition of what we’re called blue laws or Sabbatarian laws. The idea being that the law should enshrine one day as a day of rest, of contemplation, and it’s a very old tradition. Its loss is relatively recent, but it came so gradually that now it’s become imperceptible to us, or invisible.
And it comes against the backdrop of the fact that, as you know, the share of people who identify with no religion, the so-called nones is large and growing. And so in that context, what meaning does Sabbath hold for us? And of course, to answer those sets of questions, I turn to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, great Hasidic intellectual.
So he wrote a book called “The Sabbath,” which is just one of the most beautiful pieces of biblical commentary that I’ve ever come across. And it’s a case for the Sabbath. And the way he argues is by dividing human life into roughly two domains. One is the domain of space or the realm of space. And that’s what we do most days of the week. It’s about conquest. It’s about competition. It’s about economic inquisitiveness and rivalry. And that’s fine. I mean, it’s good to strive after those things.
But there is this other realm, Heschel says, that’s called the realm of time. And that’s really the realm of the divine. It’s the realm of contemplation. It points us to infinity and kind of reminds us that those things we do the other days of the week only can find meaning in relation to this other realm of time, and should be somehow limited by them. Otherwise life is kind out of balance.
Yeah, that’s more or less the Heschelian argument that I present. And then I apply it to our current conditions where the loss of the Sabbath has not meant an expansion of freedom for the ordinary worker or the ordinary family. It’s really been freedom for the likes of Jeff Bezos. Amazon uses what’s called algorithmic human resources scheduling. The goal is obviously be ultra efficient in the use of labor. And what that means is that a lot of his workers have no sense of regularity in their schedule. And that’s on the lower end of the economic ladder.
On the upper end, people like you and I are constantly by this kind of ghostly blue glow of the smartphone. The line between work and rest has been completely erased, and we’re just more harried. And so this is a type of argument that in almost every chapter of “The Unbroken Thread” gets recapitulated one way or another. And that’s that a lot of promises of liberal modernity are about freedom and about demolishing various barriers, either traditional barriers or natural ones that seem to hinder us. And it’s only with the loss of those barriers that we see that they were somehow guaranteeing our freedom. That a life without limits is actually paradoxically less free. The loss of limits leave us, in this case, kind of restless and harried. And it also perpetuates the exploitation of workers by large employers.
And so — we’ll pick up on the question of capitalism in a minute — but now to move to the second example from your book. By the standards of traditionalist books, this book pays relatively little attention to sex and sexuality. Not that those aren’t obviously big issues, and as you say it starts with the OkCupid ads. But you really zero in on sexual questions in a chapter whose title question is “Is Sex A Private Matter?” And the figure you use is who to illuminate this question?
The famous traditionalist Andrea Dworkin.
The noted reactionary traditionalist Andrea Dworkin. Yes. So for listeners who don’t know who Andrea Dworkin is, please explain the irony of that description.
Yeah, sure. So Andrea Dworkin was a radical feminist prominent beginning, really, in the 1970s and into the 80s. She died in the early 2000s, but by the late ‘90s or by the time she had died, she was kind of a forgotten figure, and a defeated figure because her brand of feminism was anti-porn, anti-prostitution, feminism. And out of the struggles within the feminist movement in which she was a notable combatant, it was the quote unquote “sex-positive” feminists who, in many ways, won out. And those sex-positive feminists defined themselves, again, in many ways over against Andrea Dworkin. I mean Dworkin was their antagonist.
So, yeah. I use her for the proposition that sex is inherently public. And Dworkin is a figure obviously also broadly associated with the radical left in this country. But if you read her work closely, I think you will find in it mostly a critique of the sexual revolution, of what the sexual revolution of the 1960s had wrought — that in practice meant empowering or freeing a lot of caddish men.
The Hugh Hefner, Roman Polanski era, shall we say, of male liberation.
Beautifully put. Yeah.
So dig a little deeper into that. What does it mean to say that sex is a public issue? A public matter? Beyond just the idea that men behave badly; Harvey Weinstein exists.
Yeah, I mean what Dworkin insisted on — and I somewhat provocatively argue that in so doing she’s an inheritor or maybe an unconscious heir to someone like Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine thought that what was wrong with Rome, with the Roman Empire, was that all of its lofty aspirations of spreading law and rationality in this kind of large imperium to the whole globe really rested on a base of domination, of lustful domination.
Fast forward to the late 20th century and Andrea Dworkin says much the same thing. That you cannot have a society that claims to, for example, value the equal dignity of men and women or put so much emphasis on equality as an ideal where at the same time 100 million men daily switched their browsers to incognito mode and look at exploitative imagery of women and young women being slapped and so forth. So that what happens in the realm of the private — whether that’s porn, pornography, but also I mean, for Andrea Dworkin even in just the sort of ordinary American bedroom — had public ramifications. Because it undermined a lot of our claims to being a just society.
But also there’s an argument here that’s sort of implied or explicit, that capitalism plays some role here. That one of the provocative ways of reading the history of the last 50 years is that what gets called neoliberalism, right, the sort of triumph of a certain vision of globalized capitalism in the late 20th century, has a financial and a sexual side. That financial deregulation and sexual deregulation are seen as — one is right wing and one is left wing. But in fact, in both cases, it’s sort of the transformation of either customary arrangements and traditions or customs of intimate life into this kind of free marketplace in which greater exploitation becomes kind of inevitable.
Unless — and here I’m recapitulating the neoliberal argument that — well, it’s all undergirded by consent. We have consent. The porn actress signed 15 different forms saying that what’s about to happen to her is OK. So there you go. So it’s very — just impoverishment of men and women’s moral capacities, whether you look at it from a traditional kind of Christian and Judeo-Christian point of view. Or whether you stand in that tradition of the left that saw that, for example, labor contracts that are exploitative are not made less so, or are not morally ratified just because the worker signed a piece of paper saying, yes, I contractually enter into this. Across both realms you see the sort of narrowing of a moral horizon of what you should expect of society.
But then in very contemporary feminism, right? Post #MeToo feminism there’s been at least some partial rediscovery of Dworkin. A certain amount of skepticism about what you described as sex-positive feminism. And there’s an attempt to sort of say essentially a version of what you’re saying. Which is that consent is not enough and you need a larger and more holistic picture. And on the feminist left right now that takes the form of analysis of power dynamics, a range of things beyond just the bare reality of consent. But that attempt to sort of not just be neoliberals, I guess you could say, does exist, I think, in #MeToo feminism right now.
Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah.
So as you can probably tell, I’m sort of setting up this question, which is, you, Sohrab Ahmari are, rather famously for anyone who follows your career, a man of the right. And not just the right, but what is considered — maybe especially by readers of The New York Times — to be the extreme right. But the analysis that you’re offering, it’s compatible in certain ways with a lot of left-wing arguments about our present discontents.
So why are you a man of the right and not a man of the left?
I don’t know if I’m properly called a conservative anymore. What I detest, and what I’ve kind of devoted my career to, is critiquing a certain conservatism — and, Ross, you’re familiar with it as well, and you’ve criticized it in various places — but a conservatism that says marriage rates are down so bad. People aren’t having kids, so sad. Oh, church attendance rates plummeting, terrible. But in the very same breath promotes economic arrangements that are bound to corrode things like family, things like community, things like family formation, because it makes it so much more difficult. People are — as we said about the Sabbath — but there’s so many other examples of this. People are harried. There’s a kind of precariousness baked into American life. We are told to be an entrepreneur of the self and be a gig worker, but also health insurance only follows you through regular employment. So what if you get sick? That kind of conservatism that pays lip service to the things that we care about but pays no attention to how to live that kind of virtuous life that conservatives celebrate. It has some material substrate. It’s not just about ideas. It’s not just about banging a drum and saying tradition is good. Get married, have kids.
But people need a kind of a substrate of material safety from which to launch these things. Like launch into a marriage or launch into having a larger family. So I’m very interested in taking down that aspect of the right. I may not be able to achieve much else, but if I can seriously critique and point out that the economic libertarian type of conservatism undermines the very goods it claims to cherish, like family and community and church and so forth. If I just show that, that suffices.
But, so, again for a liberal or left wing listener to this interview, I’ve asked you why you’re on the right. And you’ve told me everything that you think is wrong with the right. And I think their response might be, well, why are you interested in right-wing political alternatives — and we’ll talk a little bit about those specific alternatives in a minute — when Bernie Sanders is right here for you, Sohrab, with concrete and tangible proposals to, for instance, spend more money to help working class families, to sort of boost that material substrate, to regulate those Amazon warehouses or encourage unionization in them. So what prevents you, then, from being on the left?
Yeah, so I do think that there’s a big problem with the existing left, as well. I think a lot of its energies that appear revolutionary, if you scratch a little bit you’ll just find the neoliberalism there in a way that I think is not good for working-class people. And so I oppose that as well.
So I’ll give you an example. I think the idea of abolishing the police. I see that as just one more type of neoliberal privatization. The processes that began in the late 1960s and 70s and have continued to this day.
So where the end game of police abolition is rich people have private police and poor people don’t have protection. That’s what you mean, right?
Right. I mean, that’s just one example. But I could go down the list. You look at so much of the existing left and what you see is behind the seemingly very revolutionary rhetoric — and I know I’m not the first to point this out — you find policies that would make it easier, for example, for HR departments to fire workers for saying the slightly wrong thing. And so this kind of language policing of the left, I think is a gift to HR.
I have arguments with conservatives all the time where I say, please don’t say critical race theory is the new communism. Please don’t say this is Marxism under a new guise. If these kinds of ideologies presented any kind of serious threat to the material interests of the Nike corporation, of Apple, of lots and lots of elements of the American establishment, the trustees of Ivy League universities, and so on — if they represented a real threat they would snap it out like that. They would sort of suffocate it so quickly.
Elaborate a little bit on that idea of a progressive establishment. Because this is an idea that is just a commonplace for conservatives like you and I — that progressivism has this unprecedented dominance in American life through networks of elite institutions. And liberals tend to say this is not actual political power. Obviously political power has been in the hands of the Republican Party until recently. It may be soon again, and conservatives are just sort of paranoid in effect about the alleged power of Hollywood plus Harvard plus HR departments. Make the case that there is actually a progressive power structure in this country along the lines that you describe.
The case that I would make is it’s a very pinched and narrow account of power to think that power only resides in, let’s say, the Congress. That’s not where real policymaking happens in our society. Power is a lot more complicated than that, and it takes place in boardrooms where decisions get made about questions of labor arbitrage and how that affects — either through migration or through offshoring — how that affects people on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. Power takes place certainly in universities because they train and form the new generation of elites.
We have, for example, this enormous apparatus of unaccountable censorship taking place at big tech companies. The people who do that are engineers, in a broad sense. Not just tech engineers. But you know what they call kind of political or safety engineers at firms like Facebook and Twitter. These people wield power, and what I’m calling for is a recognition that they wield power.
So just to stay with this class of Google engineers, high-powered lawyers, the professional managerial class, right? I want to propose this to you as a reason why you are on the right rather than the left. I would say that from the perspective of the politics that you’re envisioning, this sort of more thoroughgoing critique of where liberal society has ended up, there is more resistance to social and moral conservatism among this class than there is resistance to some kind of economic populism among conservatives.
That seems to me to be sort of maybe an organizing theory of why you think it’s more important to oppose elite liberalism than actual existing conservatism in certain ways. Like in the case of your own book, I can imagine a sort of secular person who’s interested in religion and feels unhappy with certain aspects of our society agreeing with many things that you say in your book right up to the point when you say, and we shouldn’t just respect the Sabbath; we should have blue laws. We shouldn’t just think marriage is important; we should make it hard to get a divorce.
I feel like there is this just profound resistance among, in a way, our fellow elite meritocratic of anything that takes that kind of traditionalist critique and tries to turn it into policy. And I’m both curious if you think that is right, and also then if you think that there’s less resistance on the right to saying, the way Jeff Bezos runs his warehouses should summon up a political response.
So to answer the first half first, about the degree to which meritocratics and professional managerial classes resist, broadly speaking, cultural regulation, I mean, I think that’s absolutely true. And I would increasingly say that their resistance to cultural regulation is aligned with their class interests, as well. The people who push cultural deregulation for the most part are bourgeois elites. And it somehow works out well for them. It does not work out so well for working class people.
In other words, if you look at divorce rates between low income families and those in the upper stratosphere, there’s wide divergence on family structure and stability. So the elites push these kind of deregulatory measures, and it’s working class families and middle class families that are wracked by the consequences.
Or you can talk about drug deregulation. Now we have big weed almost as big as big tobacco. And, yes, there are upper class kids who dabble in drugs, but somehow for the most part they have these resources where if they mess up too bad, there is therapy, there is family support, and they kind of move on. But it’s not the case for much of the underclass where, depending on whether you’re talking about an urban or a regional area, you have opioid or other drugs wracking the community.
I’m not posing a conspiracy account. And I can’t easily reconcile why it is that elites push deregulation and they just so happen to not suffer the consequences nearly as much as people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
Yeah. I mean I once wrote a piece for The Times called social liberalism as class warfare that made an ineffective version of this argument. But the thing to recognize, right, is that there is no conscious sense that we are culturally deregulating and we will be the beneficiaries. Instead, the assumption of elite liberalism is that cultural regulation is inherently, I think, crueler than economic regulation and more liable to abuse. And so the costs of more stringent laws regulating divorce are too many people stuck in unhappy and abusive marriages. The costs of regulations on pornography are too many restrictions on artists and a sort of punitive and censorious state.
And I mean, to be frank, whether it’s the Handmaid’s Tale scenario or your own childhood experience, the automatic fear of elite liberalism is that there’s no stopping point between some kind of cultural regulation and a kind of theocratic police state.
Yeah. I mean, I think this is the liberal paradox that is sown through every chapter of “The Unbroken Thread,” to kind of use the book’s title as a secondary metaphor or whatever. That what is promised as liberation ends up working out as a kind of new and worse tyranny than the authoritative structures that it replaced. So it was possible to say maybe in the 1950s and ‘60s, that cultural deregulation would lead to a neutral society in which no cultural account of what it means to be human or sort of comprehensive account of the good is enshrined and occasionally coercively enforced against individuals.
I don’t think you can say that now, 50, 60, 70 years later, when you see how the project of liberation itself has come to become quite coercive and censorious. So there’s no escaping some account of the good being enshrined and forcibly enforced in society. You cannot say that after a kind of wave of university cancellations of the degree to which speech is regulated. Again, you have to agree with me that private regulation can be just this coercive as governmental authorities doing it. That the formal distinction between them is a tissue, and it’s not that thick of a tissue.
And if that’s the case, then this concern about regulation just becomes liberals saying, we want our norms to be coercively enforced, to which a more traditionalist person would say, yes, and yours are new and radical and you can see how they do harm, especially to the weak people in society. So, no, I disagree. And I will politically oppose that.
OK, so what is Ahmarism? You’re making a case, basically, that some vision of the good will dominate in a society. There will be some kind of coercion, be it private or public. There will be some form of cultural and economic regulation. You, tomorrow, are graced with the opportunity to write a party platform, or otherwise sort of make your ideas embodied in a political movement. What does that movement want? What is its 10 point plan for its first 10 years in power?
The platform that would emerge would be shockingly familiar to anyone familiar, for example, with the Christian Democratic tradition in Europe. And the goal would be, look, it should be possible for a family to live an ordinary life of virtue, for cultural normality to reign once again. And, by the way, a big component, a huge component of being able to live an ordinary life of virtue means that it should be enough and possible to raise a family on one income in this country. Health care should not be so freaking precarious, that there should be a basic right to health care, some sort of kind of minimal public care. And if it sounds radical, it’s only because neoliberalism has drifted so far from ordinary expectations of ordinary people.
Like, the watchwords are ordinariness, normality.
Fine. Good. So I think I can see the economic agenda that you’re imagining, and it is, let’s say, a slightly more socially conservative and bourgeois family-centric version of Bernie Sanders-ism. And I think the question of political resistance is about whether people are actually interested in paying the higher taxes and/or accepting the disruptions in their existing programs and services that this would require.
But, again, you’re on the right, not the left. So there’s a cultural component of this, right, whether it’s laws about pornography and divorce. You are pro-life, as I am, so presumably your Ahmari party would ban or significantly restrict abortion. What is the sort of social agenda?
The one we’ve discussed. I think it’s one around which you can build a pretty broad — even an elite consensus, possibly, is porn. First of all because to regulate obscenity is not at all an aberration in the American tradition. And you see it now with post sex-positive feminism or with your former colleague Nick Kristof’s work on Pornhub that you can build a consensus to say that, no, this is not speech. The idea of women and often children, we now know, and underage people being exploited by traffickers, and then having the videos shared by millions of people. That’s not a proper account of freedom. Left and right can come together on that. That’s a really important one.
I think on abortion, that’s the one where we will kind of radically disagree. I mean, that’s a profoundly, squarely political question. And it would be part of the agenda, but there I don’t expect to win over many liberals as I might on the porn question.
So, yeah, I mean it would be a socially conservative agenda. The economic component is the one where it would cause a lot of tears at the Heritage Foundation and the WSJ editorial board and so on.
But let me make the case that this is a fantasy. Because I think you’re absolutely right that progressivism in power now seeks to impose its own set of rules and regulations on speech, on sex, on what gets put up and shared on Facebook, all of these things. But in response, the right, in the age of Donald Trump, this is the first time I think I’ve mentioned him in this interview — we’re getting around to him at the end — in the age of Donald Trump the right is increasingly the party of, screw you I’ll say what I want. The party of free speech against the progressive censors.
Our mutual friend and fellow Catholic Matthew Walther wrote a great piece about bar stool conservatives basically defined as — it’s a reference to Barstool Sports and its sort of pugnacious founder David Portnoy. And basically it’s a conservatism of leave me alone. Let me be a guy hanging out with the guys and say what I want. And that, it seems to me, is where a lot of the energy on the right is right now. And I’m not denying that there is a lot of discomfort with pornography in our society. There is this sort of general feeling on left and right, alike, that maybe it would be nice to turn off your phones on Sunday. But the day that you as the embodiment of a political coalition say, we’re going to actually have laws that enforce this, to say nothing of questions about divorce or something like that, is the day that you reap an immense political backlash, I think, in politics as I see it in my limited pundit’s way right now.
Like Donald Trump did not run as the candidate of restricting pornography. I’m curious how you get over that hurdle in making this kind of socially conservative, economically populist fusion a reality. And if you can’t, then the second question would be, well why not just do the economic stuff? Why not just do the Sanders agenda and see if that stabilizes things, and wait for the religious revival to do social policy?
So for what it’s worth I’ve come to the conclusion that traditional kind of social conservatism as it’s been pursued since Roe v. Wade has failed. We got to face up to it. I think it’s failed in part as my friend Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School says because of a weak and ultimately incorrect judicial philosophy, but I don’t want to get into that kind of intricate legal debate. But the bottom line is that it’s failed.
And I think that serious social conservatives should attend to the material base of society. In other words, we should take seriously the Marxist insight that the cultural phenomena that we decry have an important material component to them — not to be vulgar Marxists and say that all culture is reducible to economics, but that there is an economic underlying component to culture, and to take that seriously. And so I would absolutely lead with the economic. So I’m granting your point.
OK. But I’m just going to push you on that without getting too deep into the weeds. Part of the argument from your friend Adrian Vermeule that you referenced is that on the cultural side conservative elites have more power to sort of direct and redirect culture than a lot of sort of free market libertarian Republicans assume. So the argument is that whether in the form of bureaucratic edicts or in the form of judicial rulings, a more conservative elite could, in effect, solve the problem I’m describing. The problem that most Americans don’t seem to want cultural regulation by effectively, not always dramatically, but sort of imposing that regulation from above.
There’s an expectation that you take over the government and you can use it as liberals have done with liberal policy to move the country to a place, whether it’s through a Supreme Court ruling — not just overturning Roe but saying that actually unborn human beings have a right to life under the Constitution — or whether it’s through administrative work that maybe brings back blue laws or something like that. Do you agree with that? Do you agree with that argument?
Absolutely Adrian is right about that. And all he’s drawing on, honestly, is as it just goes back to Aristotle. It goes back to the Cicero, to Saint Thomas, where they say that the law is a teacher. And you don’t inculcate virtue in a population as a statesman in the classical frame is called to do. You don’t do it merely by exhortations to virtue, you know, oh, please, behave better, so forth. You have to use the law because it has efficacious power to coerce and discipline. So he’s right about that.
I think to try to bridge the gap between the two what I will tell you is there was a point where you said, well you get to power. And what I would suggest is that the material economic program is in part to help ordinary people live easier lives, and that’s part of the program. But it’s also — first you get the power. Well that was part of your premise, one way to do that is to address the material inequalities, the overweening power of corporations in American life. And so that’s the part that I’m focusing on. And I don’t see that as intention with the idea that, yes, the law can change culture. I’ve seen that in the Islamic Republic of my youth, but also in the United States of my adulthood where a shift in law changes people’s perceptions, almost, in such a way that they don’t even remember that they formerly held the contrary position. Because the law is a teacher.
And so Adrian is absolutely right about that. The question is, how do you get to that point where you are in a position to do that? And I would suggest that the program of focusing on where material power lies and trying to have countervailing powers that can check, for example, the rights of employers through labor unions, whether that’s existing labor unions or new ones or what have you. That’s a material job. There’s no other way to do it.
All right. But so now let me give you what the sharpest liberal, but not only liberal, critique of this kind of populist politics, as it cashes out in the real world, which is that the desire to take and wield power is leading real world right wing politicians to become not post liberal in the sense that you’re describing of gentling capitalism and returning to tradition, but illiberal in the sense of violating democratic norms in order to hold on to power. And you have been a supporter of Donald Trump in American politics, and I think it’s fair to say that Donald Trump’s approach to his electoral defeat in 2020 was illiberal along some version of this line. And it was focused on arguments about voter fraud, but it ended up with him entertaining arguments that basically his own vice president could pull a neat political trick and keep him in power.
And then in a somewhat different way, you and many people who are interested in these post-liberal ideas have gravitated towards interest in the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary. And Orban is, I think, a much more skillful and successful politician in many ways than Donald Trump. But there are a lot of reasonable critiques of both sort of Orban-specific mechanisms for holding and retaining power in Hungary and also the Orban family’s self-enrichment and the extent to which Orban’s post-liberal politics ends up being a sort of corrupt, self-dealing substrate beneath this sort of lofty rhetoric about restoring the family and resisting the ravages of globalization. And I’m just curious how much danger you see in those tendencies, which are somewhat different but I think related in the sense that in both cases, you have a conservatism that feels itself besieged by liberalism and that is willing to sort of push Democratic norms to the breaking point in order to hold on to the kind of power that you want your Ahmarist party to be able to wield.
Yeah, I guess I just cannot take seriously claims about illiberalism after the experience that we at The New York Post, for example — and there are many others of the kind — went through in 2020. Where we have a legitimate story squarely in the public interest about the son of one of two major party candidates in a major U.S. presidential election, an important election. And the claim was that the son, the illustrious vice-presidential son, Hunter Biden, had arranged a meeting between his father, then the second most powerful man in the world — the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine — on the one hand, and executives from Burisma, a shady energy company from Ukraine that was paying Hunter to be a board member despite his total lack of expertise in Eastern European energy affairs.
And you had big tech companies — I still vividly remember the morning of Oct. 14 where the story appeared, but Facebook announced that it was reducing circulation on the story pending fact-checking even though the previous four years there had been a mountain of stories about Russian collusion that didn’t withstand factual scrutiny, and yet were not reduced in circulation by Facebook.
So, for example, Buzzfeed’s claim that the president had suborn perjury from Michael Cohen, which Robert Mueller shut down. Yet you can still find that story circulating. Or the McClatchy claim that Michael Cohen had been to Prague. None of that was censored. But Facebook took steps to censor this story just before a presidential election. And then Twitter banned it from its site. But not only did it ban it from being posted publicly, but it banned it from being shared privately.
And then they suspended The New York Post’s account. The New York Post being America’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton. And then you had 50 intelligence officials coming forward to say, although we don’t have any evidence that this is Russian disinformation, nevertheless it bears the indicia of Russian disinformation. And do you think the press questioned that?
Is the majority of the American press inclined to ask questions when intelligence officials who can drone people out of the sky say something? No. They all repeated it like stenographers. They wrote it down. And then they said U.S. intelligence officials called the Hunter Biden story an act of Russian disinformation.
So that all —
So I want to —
I want to —
That all having happened, I am not inclined to worry about conservative illiberalism. Because what you’re facing there is that almost a total regime. They had, obviously, the big tech. They had the media, which The New York Times, shamefully, even after a vast degree of substantiation had appeared, called our story unsubstantiated. And then they ninja edited that word out of the story after an outcry but never ran a correction. So why was it called unsubstantiated first? And then you have the intelligence apparatus.
All of them working in tandem to shut down a critical story about one of two candidates ahead of a presidential election. So when you have a situation like that, these types of claims about democratic norms being violated feel so tired and, frankly, feel so enraging. When you see how —
All right. All right. All right. Sorry. Sorry. So I want to —
Liberals spent five years after the Donald Trump election throwing everything they had to try to undo the Democratic outcome. Two impeachment hearings, claims by certain columnists that we should use the 25th Amendment against President Trump, you name it.
That was pretty bad, I agree.
So after all of that, we just have to be a little bit more realistic about what type of political opposition that we’re facing. Do I think 1/6, as it’s been called as though it’s been sort of synchronized into a new 9/11, is bad? It was bad.
OK. Some people acted like fools in the Capitol, and then they were cleared up, and that was it. Meanwhile, by the way, from the point of view of conservatives, you had months of rioting in Seattle that was winked at by blue politicians. Mayors, governors, members of Congress, and so on.
So, again, the signal was sent by elites that a certain degree of political hooliganry or thuggery is OK. But then the hammer came down extremely hard on one side of the political equation. So I’m just giving you what I think people in my camp hear when they hear about threats to Democratic norms.
You’re proposing this as a divide. And I think it’s true that probably most listeners hearing your account of whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests, or the way the New York Post was treated by Facebook and Twitter, and the New York Times’ own coverage last fall, will not agree with your interpretation. So I want to stipulate that, not in every case, but I broadly agree with your interpretation. I think that there is a threat to Democratic norms from the concentration of power embodied by big internet firms. I think there’s a threat from the sort of consolidation of progressive ideology as a dominant force in elite institutions. I think Facebook and Twitter behaved shamefully in the case of the New York Post story. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable for conservatives, and not only conservatives, to look at how liberals reacted to violence and rioting in the summer of 2020 and see that as a fundamental problem for liberalism. That it had this sort of tolerance for real destructive violence that had serious costs, especially to low income, working class Americans, that continue to ripple through society to this day in the form of higher murder rates in many American cities.
So I have just agreed with you, Sohrab. And now I want you to tell me, would it be a good thing if Mike Pence had essentially ruled out of order the popular outcomes in several states and used the US House of Representatives to make Donald Trump president for another four years? Would that have been good?
No. And he didn’t do that.
No. He didn’t do that. But the President of the United States, who is now the likely Republican nominee for president in 2024, believes that he should have done that. Right?
Again, it comes — all of this comes —
No. No. But is that — Sorry. I just want to — I just— that’s what Donald Trump believes. Right? That Mike Pence should have, in some way, and we can assume that Trump doesn’t sweat the details, in some way should have kept him in power?
Yeah. I mean, look. Trump is in many ways a ludicrous figure. I’m on the record saying I hope he goes away. I think we have many better candidates. And so I have no problem saying that. But I just think the, frankly, the hypocrisy. Right? Why would the Trumpians, let’s say, why would the Trumpians —
But you’re here with me.
Yeah. I get it.
I am not offering a defense of the aspects of the liberal establishment that you’re critiquing. And, indeed, I frustrate my readers weekly by arguing that there are dangers from left and right alike. But take the case of Hungary.
I think a lot of your friends — I think a lot of your friends would appreciate it if you meant, for example, would you ponder writing a 25th Amendment column about Biden? I mean, please let’s not call it a stutter anymore. He really struggles with —
Well, no. I don’t want —
I don’t want Kamala Harris to be president, whereas I did want Mike Pence to be president swore up. So you have to have to be tactical.
So then —
Tactical in your calls as well.
OK. All right. Well then. Yeah. But I’m just saying.
And but the —
You’re like, I’m on your side. I don’t think so. I think we’re slightly apart on these things more than you suggest.
I don’t think we’re on exactly the same side. I just want to press you on, or — to take the case of Hungary, right? In Hungary, a plausible scenario for a paper like The New York Post, which is, let’s say, critical of the regime broadly understood, is not that it would be censored by Twitter and Facebook and denounced by Viktor Orban’s intelligence officials. It’s that a member of Viktor Orban’s inner circle would buy the paper and change its editorial line and you would be fired. And there is some difference between being censored by Twitter and having your newspaper bought by someone associated with the regime. Right?
I mean, first of all, I would say that the notion that Orban doesn’t face a meaningful opposition and that his power lies in something other than really broad popularity in Hungarian society, which came out of the post-communist era ravaged by corrupt post-communist officials — often communists who had just rebranded themselves as now kind of Brussels-friendly liberals.
Having a situation in which you had mass youth unemployment, you, as a result of the immediate kind of post-communist era, you had several waves of brain drains. And then you have a government that comes and, through a combination of economic reforms, and, you know, pro-family policies, and being taking seriously the idea that Hungarians should have a say in who comes across their border, becomes very popular.
It’s silly to say the fact that his friends own some newspapers is why he’s popular. I think if you’re there on the ground you cannot say that, especially now. If he were as effective and autocrat as you think, he’s facing a serious opposition. And that serious opposition is an alliance of, on the one hand, liberals and various socialists, and on the other, Jobbik, literally anti-Semitic party in the Hungarian parliament. This is not the ruling party. This is not Orban’s party. This is the far right party that is now in alliance in coalition with the liberals. So this is the kind of coalition that he’s facing. I think it’s very important to note because you will not hear that because Orban is so framed in the liberal media as the enemy of all that is good, and just and the enemy of civilization, that people tend to downplay the fact that he’s now facing off — and, you know, this is his riskiest election, right? It’s considered his riskiest election because, thanks in part to that coalition but not entirely, but the fact that basically all the opposition forces banded together to say that we would have one anti-fetus candidate in every seat, you now have a serious opposition and we’ll see what happens. But the idea that if you go to Budapest and will not meet the opposition whisperers and people are afraid is simply not the case.
I mean, it’s worth going. And I know Hungarian liberals. They hate him. But the idea that you can’t find oppositional news in the media is folly. It’s not the case. So —
But again —
And it’s not an instance of tu quoque to say, but look at what liberals do when they feel threatened by a bumbling populist like Trump, how far they’re willing to go to break their own kind of liberal democratic norms. In Hungary that means allying with literal anti-Semitic, far-right Nazis. In the United States it means censoring a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton.
What I’m saying is a lot of this rhetoric about norms, TM trademark and illiberalism versus the forces of light has just been so revealed to be bankrupt and really a mask for pretty hard, pretty iron-fist, not even in a velvet glove, liberalism.
But I guess what I’m trying to say, Sohrab, is that it’s possible for liberalism to be bankrupt and also for conservatism to have rallied around someone who wants to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis for no reason. And in the same way, in Hungary it’s possible for the E.U. to be hypocritical and anti-democratic in its own way and also for Orban to be a corrupt guy who is combining the art of buying up newspapers with the art of enriching his family.
Right. You know, Nancy Pelosi’s family —
Do you agree that this is possible for the manifestation of the conservative alternative to the liberal elite to go bad?
In theory, is it possible? Sure. In practice, I see the balance of corruption, oligarchy and, really, as I said, hardfisted, illiberal tactics. I see it on the part of this establishment, which happens to enjoy, not just right now political power, but as we’ve talked through the podcast, it enjoys enormous amounts of private power that is nevertheless power.
So someone listening to the arc of this interview would say to you, Sohrab, you’re here arguing that the sins of the liberal order are sufficient. That we shouldn’t worry as much as most liberals do, and some conservatives as well, about the problems and perils of right-wing populism.
But we did start this conversation by talking about your own actual childhood in a country where a populist revolution swept to power in the year of my own birth, overthrew what everyone agreed was a rotten and corrupt regime, and set out to build a new system from the top-down using elite power, as you described, that would combine social solidarity and moral traditionalism.
And you experienced it as a tyranny.
Here’s what I would say. Insofar as you can draw parallels between the Iranian experience of the 20th century and the Western one, and there are so many reasons why you shouldn’t draw a parallel, from the fact that Iran had been this kind of decrepit once glorious Persian Empire that by the dawn of the 20th century was like malaria ridden and had its borders completely unstable and easily violated by Britain and Russia playing the great game in which Iran —
It sounds like a conservative description of America.
There you go. Yeah.
I don’t know.
So much different. And then you had an early constitutional revolution, which turned out disastrously for complicated reasons. Then you have the Shah, et cetera, et cetera. So all these reasons are reasons not to compare an underdeveloped had-been great empire to modern West.
In other words, to heed the warning that if, not everything, that some things are their own thing and not another thing and that these parallels and equivalencies are dangerous to draw. Nevertheless, insofar as the Iranian experience is a warning, it’s precisely a warning about the dangers of overweening liberalization.
This is not something you’ll hear from many because people think Iran, it went from an autocrat to a total kind of Islamic regime. But why did that happen is under-examined. And why did that happen was precisely because the Shah’s regime attempted to liberalize, by Iranian standards, liberalize things brutally and rapidly from the top, forgetting that there are a lot of people, rural people who had suddenly found themselves thanks to rapid industrialization cramped in cities, especially Tehran, in unfamiliar environments, with mores that shock them.
And amidst all of this, the Shah of Iran owned half the casinos in the country, ignoring the sentiments of this large chunk of the population that was more conservative and sought a degree of social stability amid rapid economic, cultural change. So insofar as there is a warning story in Iran there, it’s not oh, Sohrab Ahmari circled back to the Ayatollah was right.
But rather, how careful liberals should be with the kinds of politics that they’re pursuing now. How careful they should be with forgetting that there is this yearning for tradition, at least among some parts of the American populace, that they view toppling all their heroes and establishing new ones — that they view this sort of anti historical iconoclasm, they view it as an invasion and that the social instability caused by that is reason to maybe be willing — and I cannot imagine it anymore, Ross — but wouldn’t it be nice if there was someone on the mainstream left, not like Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi, but someone on the mainstream left to say, we’ve gone too far too, right? Let’s meet the populist ferment in this country halfway or something like that.
And not say they’re all sort of — I know there are individuals who say that. But as a force liberals aren’t doing that.
I agree with you for, the most part. I guess all I’m saying is that it’s possible to buy into that narrative and say, yes, there is a warning here and liberals should take populist discontent seriously. They should take religious belief seriously. They should not imagine themselves as running some kind of top-down revolution.
To say all of that and still worry a little bit about the form that the backlash can take.
That’s true. But there’s also the fact of being an American, which I am, who has certain commitments and sees them threatened by other forces. And, therefore, you have binary choices to make. And maybe I, and some listeners, will face that and we’ve made our binary choices. This is what I mean. We’re in a kind of binary choice scenario. And so, again, I agree with you. I agree with it. We should be concerned about that because I’m a Christian and there is certain limits to how you do politics as a Christian, which can never be violated, and I hold firmly to that.
But there are also binary choices. And as you stand back and judge these things is one thing but being a political actor with certain commitments that are threatened also forces a certain kind of realism on you. And so I’m just honest about that.
So let me — Yeah. Let me go from there to a tradition at the end of the show that we always ask our guests to recommend three books to broaden and deepen their knowledge or interests. So what recommendations do you have for us?
I did a kind of, because I’m in my 30s, I picked a book per rough decade of my life that means a lot to me. So for the first one, obviously, my childhood in Iran, Tintin was huge in my life. Really huge. And I really mean to write an essay about this, about how Tintin forms my politics and my ethics.
This is — sorry. Just for listeners who are not familiar, these are “The Adventures of Tintin,” the long-running, I guess would we call them graphic novels?
Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. By Hergé, the great Belgian cartoonist.
The second one would be Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. First of all, because it’s just compulsively funny, and it’s a portrait of this kind of minor Italian nobleman who is obviously from the old kind of Ancien Regime of Europe, right?
But he’s a kind of dimwitted admirer of Napoleon and the kind of French armies. And so he attempts to join them as a warrior in the Napoleonic wars for the emperor. It’s an interesting portrait, I think, of the transition between a still pre-modern world and the truly modern world. So you have this thing where he’s wanted in one principality, but if he just crosses to the other one, the chase stops, and the search loses its force.
So there’s something very funny about trying to imagine this older Europe that’s still not that long ago. It’s the early 19th century.
And then the last one is a book that I do rely upon in “The Unbroken Thread.” It’s just a beautiful work of scholarship. Hans Jonas’s “The Gnostic Religion.” Hans Jonas is one of the characters in “The Unbroken Thread.”
He was a German Jewish philosopher who accidentally became the interpreter of Gnosticism of these religions in late antiquity that sprung up in the aftermath of the Alexandrian conquest of the East. It’s also, in many ways, a critique of various modern philosophies, which he sees as recapitulating the Gnostic impulse, although calling it something else.
Anyway it’s just, as a work of scholarship, is astonishing in its sweep, in its prose, in the amount of insight packed into every page.
Sohrab Ahmari, thank you so much for being with us.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma, and Annie Galvin. It is fact checked by Michelle Harris and original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Jeff Geld.