Oct 21, 2022 • 1HR 19M

Christopher Caldwell On Europe's Turmoil

The center-right thinker just got back from the Continent. And we catch up.

Open in playerListen on);
Unafraid conversations about anything

Chris — an old friend and, in my view, one of the sharpest right-of-center writers in journalism — returns to the Dishcast. A senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books, his latest book, The Age of Entitlement, is a constitutional narrative of the last half-century that is indispensable — especially for liberals — in understanding the roots of our polarization. We discussed the book here. This time on the pod, Chris has just returned from Europe and discusses the rapidly shifting politics there.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on how one-child families could be the downfall of Putin’s war, and how Biden is co-opting Trump on border policy and China — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Meloni and the US media meltdown, Truss, Remainers vs. Leavers, Boris, the energy crisis, possible off-ramps for the war, Russian dissenters, and the waning of American exceptionalism when it comes to religion. Good times.

We also just transcribed our very popular episode with Matthew Rose on right-wing intellectuals — read it here. Last week’s episode with national conservative leader Yoram Hazony got of a lot of listener emails as well. The first:

I immensely enjoyed your interview with Hazony. It offered a deep dive into the roots of Anglo-American political “philosophy.” I wish, however, that the dialogue on Trump had come earlier in the interview and been more extended.

As a conservative (moderate really), I have long despised Trump for all the reasons you do, and I hope he has no personal future in our politics. But despicable as he may be as a person, and demagogic and unnecessarily damaging as he may be as a political figure, I believe you have to come to grips with the scabs he rightly opened in our politics. Trump pressed the importance of orderly borders. So do you. He pressed to diminish over-regulation. So do you. He emphasized the damage the worship of globalization has done to the middle-class heart of our country. So do you. 

I could go on. Let’s give some of the issues Trump raised some credence beyond the fact that it was him who raised them.

I was also impressed with your discussion with Dexter Filkins, who informed me that my Florida governor is a very bright and well-informed guy. Sure, DeSantis is ambitious and saying some things that are unappetizing given today’s polarized political environment, but so is his mirror opposite in California. Which one of them would you prefer? 

It would be hard for to me imagine a politician I despise more than Gavin Newsom. Another listener was “appalled by your conversation with Yoram Hazony”:

On the positive side, he made a number of points I found interesting and provocative, especially his micro-summary of the difference between liberalism and conservatism. On the negative side, his take on Mr. Trump (and apparently also on Mr. Orban) was at best depressing. (Just before the 2020 election I heard a conservative American Catholic priest defending Trump in terms similar to Hazony’s.)

Your reply condemning Trump seemed a bit weak. (Perhaps you were gobsmacked by Hazony’s defense?) What I find most concerning is not Trump’s coarse venality, his dishonesty, his psychological abnormalities, nor his cruelty. It is instead his efforts to dismantle the institutions of American government, culminating in his decision to discredit the election and the electoral process. The core issue for me is not the hypocrisy demonstrated by many American conservatives, but their evident disregard and disrespect for liberal democracy.

I think my reader knows where I stand on this. The New Right’s assault on our electoral institutions terrifies me as a conservative. This next listener gets into the religious aspects of the episode:

The Hazony interview was very interesting, and I’m glad you gave him a hard time, politely. I have been very interested in reading what those who are opposed to the religion of the woke left are saying. I subscribe to a number of such writers on Substack. I’ve been trying to find a persuasive, coherent ideology whose mass adoption could conceivably repair many of our obvious social ills, but do so by embracing certain aspects of traditional culture without embracing a national religion.

Are the secular traditions of liberalism — with its strict separation of church and state — vital enough to stand the tests of time, and also the toxic irrationalities of totalitarian Wokism AND authoritarian populism? Or is secular liberalism just a relatively short-lived sociopolitical experiment that will inevitably fail?

How can you have Tradition without God? How can one restore a version of the nuclear family that doesn’t demonize sexual minorities? How does one embrace religion when the actual TEXT of religious scripture is explicitly homophobic? It’s all well and good that highly educated religious liberals like yourself overlook and/or rationalize scripture, treat it as “literature,” but the less educated (but literate) mass of people read scripture as Holy Truth.

People like Hazony and Patrick Deneen are the civilized face of right-wing “national conservatism.” Given history, do I trust figures like them to restrain the more strident voices of the right? Um, no. 

I don’t view Scripture as mere literature. But I don’t think it’s possible, given what we know about how it came to be, to read it as the inerrant voice of God. This next listener is also wary of too much religion in politics:

Listening to the Dishcast with Hazony I am struck, again, by the apparent disconnect between the intellectualized version of Christian Nationalism and that of the average Trump rally-goer. I have difficulty imagining those attendees — both the ones I know personally and those I’ve heard interviewed — yearning for a more religious society. Can a WWE-like Nationalism be Christian?

Also, when Hazony spoke of the need to be pragmatic, I thought of how the pragmatism of the Christian Coalition devolved over my lifetime to deliver us Trump, and that the most openly devout president of that same time period was Democrat Jimmy Carter.

While we can’t know what is in someone’s heart, Senator Warnock exhibits a more humble Christianity then Hershel Walker — but the authenticity of Warnock’s faith is openly questioned by Walker and the Republican Party. Similarly, the right wants to diminish Joe Biden’s Catholicism as inauthentic, as if there aren’t millions of other US Catholics who don’t follow the church’s stance on abortion.

I’m rooting for modernity and liberalism, and I’m am hopeful that Christian Nationalists can’t succeed with a coalition of pagans that questions the Christianity of Democrats while turning other faiths into second-class status. It’s just not workable. They are vague on policy for a reason; once they move from keeping woke ideology out of kindergarten to bringing Christian prayer back in, they will lose the liberals.

I don’t disagree. Another listener, though, is miffed by the rhetoric over wokeness — or what Hazony calls “woke neo-Marxism”:

I am a long-time reader and subscriber, since the Google Reader days. I am fairly liberal by bent but I have been enjoying the spectrum of folks on the podcast, to hear a wider set of views than I typically encounter. And I’m glad your voice is back!

I was really struck during your conversation with Hazony that the National Conservative movement seems bereft of tangible policy ideas for fixing or improving anything. Your gentle questions about what specific policies or laws ought to change elicited nothing more than the vaguest of handwaving. My takeaway was the only concrete goal was to win elections and hold power so others could not, and to have a truculent, culture war-heavy public posture.

But one thing really got my goat during that pod: the repeated invocation of the supreme enemy of “Woke Neo-Marxism.” It is a grating and inflammatory phrasing that obscures considerably more than it clarifies, and it makes you sound like a crank instead of a reasonable interlocutor. What on earth is that even supposed to mean? I am legitimately at a loss. Even if you think that term has merit, I implore you to find a better phrasing. You have these other terms, like Wesley Yang’s Successor Ideology, that seem vastly preferable even if no one self-identifies that way, because people who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid at least know what you mean. 

I take my reader’s point on rhetoric. But the ideas now changing American life are indeed neo-Marxist. That’s the explicit root of critical race theory and critical gender theory. They don’t deny it. And the word “woke” evokes the born-again religious energy of the new left — the way their ideology infuses every moment of our public and private lives — and the term was theirs’ originally. I know it pisses people off. But that’s the only reason not to use it.

Another listener compares the post-liberalism of Yoram Hazony (from the religious right) with the post-liberalism of Louise Perry (from the feminist left) :

These two podcasts landed for me in a similar way. Perry’s view of the impact of the new gender theology (including the omnipresence of porn) makes a lot of sense. As does Hazony’s view that conservative values are being pushed aside by woke neo-Marxism to the great detriment of society.

The uncomfortable part of the message from both of them is the underlying sense that both sympathize with a somewhat prescriptive approach to proselytizing their views. There is, for example, a huge difference between Perry forbidding her husband to watch porn (I think I may have heard that part on her podcast with Bari Weiss) and her husband deciding not to watch. Similarly, reintroducing religion into schools is probably not a recipe for shifting the momentum on a broader slice of society coalescing around the kind of healthy conservative values that both liberals and conservatives might be able to agree on.

The debate over the reactionary right continues with our episode with Matthew Rose:

Your conversation gave me pause, because like you, I have been struggling with why I have an emotional connection with some of the right’s ideas. I am number seven of ten in an Irish Catholic family. I love my faith. When I heard you articulate your emotional connection to some of the themes of the right, I felt great relief.  Someone else knows my angst. I simply cannot grasp why biological sex is now a debate. Like you, it is foundational to my understanding of who I am. When did “made in the image and likeness of God” become “hate speech”?

So thank you — keep doing what you do. It makes me think about bigger ideas than the cesspool of social media.  

It’s also a relief to hear from you. I too love my faith and the wisdom of tradition. That doesn’t mean I haven’t questioned, wrestled with, and been frustrated by the Catholic Church. But I am rooted in my mind and soul to the idea of an objective reality, and nature is central to that. Not quite the old natural law — which was debunked by Darwin. But not Nietzsche’s overcoming of nature altogether either.

Here’s a snippet of the Rose convo:

Another listener also enjoyed “the marvelous hour of gander” with Rose:

Here’s what I feel is the cause of our troubles: we have to rethink the mission of Western Capitalism away from obese profit and the major gain for the few and toward a greater good ideal, so that fairness prevails and the Social Contract remains in tact. To me, the frantic pursuit of the dollar without thought for anyone else beyond the boardroom is the key cause of the radical right and its support from the non-college-educated, non-coastal working class. 

Profit is a good thing. Nothing wrong with that. But when higher and higher profits become the sole goal of American companies, without concern for the effect, the Social Contracts fails. When not all ships rise with the GDP tide (as was perceived in the ‘80s and ‘90s), people get spooked, feel cheated, feel left behind, struggle, and look for scapegoats and radical change.

Immigration is the second cause of the radical right’s rise. And what is immigration really about? Primarily about filling work roles — for industry, for farmlands, for kitchens, for gardens — all things American citizens don’t want to do anymore, because the “market” has forced those wages down.

I run a qualitative research company that helps big corporations. We do ethnographic research (spending hours with people in their homes and lives) and focus groups, so we are caught between the two. We hear about fairness all the time. People just want things to be fair. If they are not, they get agitated, and if their costs grow faster than their income, they panic … and you know what happens next: a need for simple solutions to complex issues.

That’s why the situation in Europe is graver than many seem to think. Another clip of Rose:

Another listener is more critical of the right-reactionaries:

You often speak of liberal democracy, and the latter half of that phrase has been conspicuously absent from some of the recent podcast conversations you and others have had on the far right. Liberalism is their target, blamed for hastening the erosion of necessary traditional institutions like family, religion, et cetera. But I wonder if more attention shouldn’t be paid to the mechanisms of our democracy rather than to the underlying principle of free and open society.

Many of the complaints voiced by the thinkers to whom Matthew Rose directs his attention (or by Ahmari or Bari Weiss’ recent guest, Patrick Deneen) don’t strike me as incompatible with liberalism. Rather, they are problems many of us, even on the left, recognize and would be happy to see debated and solved in the public square.

You rightly observe in the Rose discussion that going backward would be difficult, and the tendency of the far right is to look to the past — pushing a narrative of former glory, better institutions, all that’s been lost. But there’s no reason we can’t accomplish old institutions’ ends through new institutions — innovative approaches to old problems.

Concerned about the erosion of family life or a decline in child rearing? Let’s debate Romney’s child tax credit, family leave laws, parenting programs through non-profits and churches, sex education, making marriage and work life an easier mix, and on and on.

Dismayed at a lack of national pride? Let’s debate national service programs in school — military, foreign, community — and try to restrain our elected officials from constantly politicizing education, including our history, among plenty of other considerations.

Worried about social norms and moral values? Fund more after-school programs and offer elective courses that don’t offend the left but give working parents a chance to bring other mentors into their children’s lives. Bring the social media proposals Jonathan Haidt discussed with you to the national public square.

These issues may be talked about in op-eds, but they’re never given honest play in government.

America’s center — the three-quarters of us who roughly agree on abortion, on basic gun control, on simple environmental measures, on the insufferableness of the Yankees — would, I suspect, be eager to see our government actually take these things up. And our Founding Fathers ensured that we have the tools to build, rebuild, or replace the institutions we need. But those tools have been dulled, chipped, and rusted.

Not that I have any romantic illusions about its past, but government today is wildly self-serving and opaque. There are the usual complaints about dark money, a bad primary system, rules that stifle the rise of alternate parties, legislative pork, congresspeople spending too much time on fundraising, and so on. That’s all bad enough. But what I think Trump voters would call the Deep State — what I might just call the government bureaucracy — is becoming crippled under its own weight.

Elliott Ackerman pointed out in a recent Liberties article a shocking 75-fold increase in political spending over 40 years — a massive industry that is arguably built on power for power’s sake. September 11 provided an occasion to remind us of the more than doubling of the defense budget in 20 years. Taibbi profiled a book chronicling the unelected people and opaque processes at the Fed. A while back, Justin Amash nicely summarized the secretive, executive-like role the Speaker now plays in policy among other rules that have arguably spoiled the legislature.

I’d ask these reactionaries if liberalism is really the problem they make it out to be — or is it a self-interested bureaucracy that does not adequately respond to its free people’s needs? I think many Americans would want some of the outcomes they want — stronger families, good community life, reasonable social norms — but want it in ways in which they have some say, which has not historically been a consideration of the far right.

That was quite a manifesto. I’d definitely vote for it.

A guest recommendation for the pod:

I don’t know if he does interviews, but if you take seriously the suggestion of the reader who wanted to hear a real modern Christian, Stephen Barr might be your man. He’s a serious Catholic, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware, and the author of the apologetic Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

Some recommended reading:

Your latest reader responses mentioned a topic you wish to write about — a reimagining of Christianity based on “what we know to be true” about nature and the universe. The intersection of Christianity and science is a topic of great interest to me, and also the way in which modern science has been co-opted by the unspoken religious beliefs of many of its practitioners.

Here is a website with a few short essays on how religion affects our conclusions about origins science. And here is a short debunking of the idea that the presence of natural selection has to support belief in Darwinian evolution. Just as Solomon reminded us that “there is nothing new under the sun,” I think if you do a deep-dive on this topic of religion and the origins science you will find that the data don’t demand that we reimagine Christianity at all. We can take God at His word and conclude that history really has transpired as He has said in the Scriptures.

I’ve read Teilhard de Chardin a bit but I’m grateful for these suggestions. I need to focus on the book more — but this whole Substack thing is rather time-consuming!

The reader debate over affirmative action continues:

I am no legal scholar or ethicist, but it seems to me that the laudable position of helping those who have been done down by history comes at a cost. That cost is borne by the able applicants who are denied a position that is, instead, given to someone less able for social engineering reasons. Why is it right to place that cost on their shoulders? We may assume they are innocent of any racism and may even be accepting of the doctrine that says they must give up anything asked or else they are insufficiently anti-racist. Even so, they must find it unfair that they work hard and give up childish and youthful pleasures for the sake of that work, only to be pipped at the post through no fault of their own.

The second issue with AA springs from that wastage of some of our most meritorious minds. Good brains are not just an individual blessing (or otherwise); they are a societal good, a resource as rare as a precious metal, and society has an interest in exploiting them fully. We want their inventions, their insights and ideas, their novels, compositions and poetry. I don’t hold the human race as being so dreadfully clever that it can afford to fail to extract every last bit of goodness from our clever young minds.

Another reader sees the value of AA but believes the costs are much higher:

Ultimately, I’m persuaded that diversity is a strength. It reduces blindspots and increases robustness. I think it’s a tangible benefit for universities, employers, and especially any representative body to not be made up on any one class.

But it’s not everything. The thing is, I don’t think it’s worth the weight it’s being given in the current setup. If you see how much effect it has on college admissions, it’s completely out of proportion with its added value and more in proportion with trying to generate politically defensible quotas — exactly what the Bakke framework said you shouldn’t do. 

I was “cancelled” 20 years ago for saying some of this stuff in my law school’s newspaper. I said that the disparities in outcomes are due to racial differences in pre-schooling, nutrition, and quality of primary schools, and whether you go to Michigan or Michigan State for law school is not a life-changing difference. I still believe that.

Another reader takes the Kahlenberg approach:

Personally, I’m not in principle against affirmative action, although I do think it should be class-based, rather than race-based. I think there’s more than enough advantages conferred to our wealthy elites and that this should be redressed via some form of affirmative action for students from poorer backgrounds. I suspect we would capture many of the same groups that affirmative action was designed to help, although one would probably remove some of the toxicity associated with the program if it was done on the basis of class, rather than race. 

Here’s a dissenter on test scores:

I agree with you, basically, about the problems of affirmative action. One issue I have with the analysis, however, is that it demonstrates unfair practices by looking at test scores and showing how some groups with high scores are disadvantaged. The problem with this analysis is that assumes test scores are the only/best way to judge applicants. By doing this, schools select for applicants who are wholly test oriented. It’s not easy to balance test scores with more holistic measures of a person’s suitability for a school, but it should be considered.

Judging admission fairness only on the basis of test scores prioritizes the one-sided “meritocratic” approach. If certain minorities do poorly on standardized tests, I don’t think it means that those tests are racist. But if other groups do particularly well on such tests, it might mean they are less likely to be well-rounded individuals.

Another reader wants to “add one point to reinforce your argument”:

The fact that recent black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are as successful as any other immigrant group reinforces the fact that, increasingly, the real focus of the problem of disproportionate black outcomes is less about black pigmentation and more about the 25% of African Americans who are still trapped in generations of poverty. They stand in contrast to the others who are educated and moving up the ladder, abetted much more in metropolitan areas by formal or implied affirmative action efforts probably much more than hindered by unconscious biases, let alone racism.

Amen. Lastly, a dissenter sees a false equivalence:

Sorry, but you’re “not going to disagree” with your reader that Kamala Harris is “every bit as vacuous as Herschel Walker”? Can you be serious?

I have not been impressed by Harris’s performance as a candidate or as VP — a role in which it is hard to perform impressively. But even a cursory review of her career in California and the Senate reveals that she is hardly “vacuous.” She wasn’t my preferred choice for VP, but she’s certainly no less suited for the presidency than many of her predecessors should Biden fail to complete his term.

There’s much to dislike about the current direction of at least some elements of the Democratic Party, but the GOP has sunk to a whole ‘nother level, exemplified most recently in Walker’s candidacy, as you eloquently demonstrated in your piece. No doubt, the role of VP is more consequential than that of a single senator, but character and experience matter in both cases.

The unfortunate Walker is clearly lacking. As you put it, “[h]e’s clearly incapable of understanding even a scintilla of what his job would entail and manifestly incapable of doing it” and is “a serial liar.” But to argue that the support of Walker’s candidacy by the GOP establishment is equivalent to the nomination of Harris for VP just doesn’t make sense — unless the suggestion is that they are both cynically selected racial tokens, which doesn’t seem to have been behind your reader’s comment.

Grateful for your dissents as always: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Browse the Dishcast archive here.