It can be difficult to find common ground in America today. Bitter partisanship feels like the new normal, as liberals and conservatives struggle to find a single topic they agree on.
Josh Hammer, opinion editor for Newsweek and host of a new podcast called “The Debate,” decided to do something about it.
“Newsweek’s idea here is that we are going to be the home for [tough] discussions, and we’re not going to shy away from the dicey issues,” Hammer says. “We’re going to talk about reparations for slavery, critical race theory, qualified immunity, to defund the police, whatever. We will not avoid the hard-charging stuff here.”
Hammer joins this bonus episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how Americans can find middle ground in an increasingly divided society.
This bonus episode was recorded at Turning Point USA’s seventh annual Student Action Summit in Tampa, Florida, so please excuse the background noise.
Listen to the bonus episode or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Douglas Blair: We are joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Josh Hammer. He is the opinion editor and host of “The Debate” podcast for Newsweek and a research fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation, as well as counsel and policy adviser for the Internet Accountability Project. Josh, thanks so much for joining the show.
Josh Hammer: Happy to do it. Any time.
Blair: Excellent. So let’s start out with your work with Newsweek. You write on a wide variety of conservative topics, strongly conservative in your perspective when you write. But you also co-host a podcast called “The Debate” where you host debates between politically disparate people, and you attempt to find a middle ground where people start to finally agree. Where did the idea for this podcast first come from? And what is … How do you navigate these discussions in a politically divided landscape?
Hammer: So it’s tough. I took over the Newsweek opinion editor job a little over a year ago, May 1, 2020, I guess kind of during COVID lockdowns and all that. But when I first interviewed for the position a few months prior to that, they actually told me about this debate idea. At that point, it was purely just an idea. It literally… They had something like a bare-bones skeleton of the website. There was certainly no podcast yet.
The idea here is that no one in the mainstream media–Newsweek is nothing if not a mainstream brand–it’s that no one is actually hosting civil discussions. Literally no one is doing that. I mean, in the mainstream media, there’s no one, obviously outside the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal to begin with, who will even consider publishing someone right of center or conservative for the most part these days. And everyone else is monolithically, singularly liberal.
So Newsweek’s idea here is that we are going to be the home for those discussions, and we’re not going to shy away from the dicey issues. We’re going to talk about reparations for slavery, critical race theory, qualified immunity, to defund the police, whatever. We will not avoid the hard-charging stuff here. So the podcast itself launched in April. I am a conservative. My podcast co-host, Batya Ungar-Sargon, she is obviously liberal. She’s an anti-woke liberal. She says she’s a little bit more of a classical liberal. She hates the new woke stuff.
But the idea here is that we don’t do a whole lot of opining on that podcast itself. We do moderate the discussion. We take it in the direction we want to take it. I’m obviously the right-of-center host. She’s the left-of-center host. But we really want this to be about the guests. And we encourage them to have a civil, robust exchange of ideas. And now this podcast has been out for three months. We’re getting a lot downloads. So we think, at Newsweek, that we’ve tapped into something. And we’ll see where it goes. We’re happy with it.
Blair: I think it’s phenomenal to really have a forum where people can come to the center and discuss these topics that are very important. Because as a country, you can’t really survive if only one side gets to talk, and the other side gets sort of pushed down. So I think it’s wonderful that people get to talk.
I was reading a piece that you wrote for Newsweek titled “The Toxicity of Permanent Outrage Mentality.” And something that really struck me in that piece was this phrase that you wrote: “The unfortunate reality is that in our modern political and media ecosystem, permanently aggrieved, outraged, victimized mentality pays well.” So specifically looking at the media, what do you view as their role in fostering the divided society that we’re kind of in now? And where do we go from here? What do we do about it?
Hammer: Stoking outrage has literally become a business model. It’s funny. We see this most acutely, actually, in social media. And in the Big Tech platforms, there’s been a lot of investigative work that has actually shown that Facebook in particular, other of the Big Tech giants as well, but Facebook in particular, they will literally manipulate their algorithm to kind of put content in your feed that is designed to kind of rile you up.
The point of this, obviously, is that riling up is not healthy for blood pressure or anything like that. But it does keep people engaged because anger, frustration, these are strong, visceral human emotions. And social media, when we’re tweeting out, I mean, it is very easy to just react to something. And then just get angry and immediately say that some anodyne, not-particularly-troublesome incident that happened halfway across the country is the latest instance of racism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, whatever.
It’s very easy to extrapolate these one-off incidents and make it fit into a broader paradigm. And because [as] humans, we always want to feel like we’re fighting the next big cause. I read some of this earlier tonight, there was an Atlantic essay. The Atlantic in 2014, 2015, right around the time this brief for gay marriage and Trump was being litigated. And it [was] some essay where someone was comparing the gay marriage fight to the Selma, Alabama march, which is somewhere between abhorrant to just patently ridiculous. But the point here is that every person feels the need to strive for what they perceive to be justice.
And when someone is saying that this fits into a broader worldview of injustice, we naturally gravitate toward that without necessarily thinking clearly here. So it gets rewarded with retweets, with likes, because people like to fit these idiosyncratic, one-off things into a broader worldview, even if it’s not a very good match. But look, when I’m editing a piece in Newsweek, I am trying to intentionally use strong arguments, both in my own writing and my editing. But I like to avoid hyperbolic language that’s designed simply for shock value because that’s not necessarily going to accomplish anything good, I think.
Blair: I think that that’s important too … What is the end goal here? What are we trying to actually do? Are we trying to make people upset, or are we trying to actually inform them about the news?
Blair: So I wanted to move on from your Newsweek stuff to, actually, your panel here at Turning Point USA. One of the things that you talked about was the different conceptions of the term freedom, right? So there’s the more libertarian view of freedom, which is “I can do whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody,” versus a more traditional kind of Founders’ vision of conservatism with restraints, and you live a life of virtue. I was wondering if you could expand on that idea for our listeners and come down on which you believe is the best way for conservatism to go.
Hammer: So it’s funny. My basic thesis here is that what we now call conservatism or what we have called conservatism for a while now, is very, very libertarian in nature. And there are parts of it that are kind of inherently conservative. Those are kind of the more nationalist strands, the more kind of immigration restrictionist strand. I think that there is some real conservative content there.
But this notion that freedom is just the ability to kind of let every individual maximize their full potential … In the infamous “mystery” passage from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 Supreme Court case where [Justice] Anthony Kennedy, in the abortion case, is basically saying that the definition of freedom is to kind of define your own existence about the mystery of human life. … It’s a certain strand of enlightened liberalism taken to its real extreme, logical conclusion here.
But there is a differing view as to what freedom and liberty actually is here. The Founders themselves disagreed about this. I mean, there were some more Enlightenment-centric fingers among the Founders’ generation–people like Thomas Jefferson could probably be attributed to that. He was a real Enlightenment guy for sure. But there’s a totally different line of thought here. George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton [are] much more traditionalist in how they view kind of the relationship between human liberty and the powers of the state.
In George Washington’s first inaugural address, it’s a beautiful, beautiful speech. He tightly speaks quite eloquently about the imperative [that] if you actually want to make good in your community and your nation, it starts in the home. It starts at building a family. It starts at private morality.
The preamble of the Constitution itself, something I very frequently cite, it lists seven enumerated ends of governance for this American experiment that we also love. They are all kind of oriented toward justice, the common good, the blessings of liberty. By the way, that’s how liberty has an end unto itself. It’s the blessings of liberty that we’re actually trying to pursue here. So the more traditional conception of freedom is basically that we will never actually be truly free unless you’re living in constraints inherently oriented toward the common good. And then ultimately, what our various religious traditions teach is the highest good, which is God.
Blair: It’s definitely fascinating to look at the two conceptions of liberty and freedom that we have, obviously in a post-traditional-conservative, post-Trump world as well. So one of the things that actually brings to mind is you did a really fascinating virtual event with the Notre Dame Young Republicans where you talk about the origins of conservatism from sort of a post-World War II, [William F.] Buckley, traditional school of conservatism to the post-Trump period of new fusionism. What do you think that new fusionism and post-Trump conservatism looks like?
Hammer: So the fusionist consensus: When it kind of arose with William F. Buckley in the ’50s, ’60s, we have to remember it was kind of a time and a place, right? It was in reaction, of course, to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was … Throughout, we were trying to find a way to unite moral traditionalists, free marketeers, and national security hawks under one kind of partisan umbrella. Ronald Reagan ultimately kind of was the culmination of that.
In the year 2021, we’re facing some of the same problems, but [we have] a lot of different problems here. And my fellow conservatives, some of whom will just kind of thump their chest and say, “If it wasn’t this way in the Reagan-Bush 1984 platform, I will never consider it.” I’m straw-manning a little bit, but there are some people who more or less say that. That just can’t be the way that we approach conservatives in the year 2021. We face totally different challenges.
The rise of China, obviously, is the issue of all issues. It affects literally everything: immigration, national security, our political economy, [the] opioid epidemic in Ohio. It affects every issue, immigration, identity politics. Obviously, this collusion between the government and Big Tech. We’re just facing a different set of issues than the Soviet Union and domestic inflation crises that Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush faced. So no one’s really defined what a quote, unquote new fusionism necessarily is. And in a different column, I referred to it as kind of the coalition of the unwoke. I view the woke theology, this intersectionality, identity politics, they’re kind of all synonymous to one another. It’s multiculturalism.
I use these terms kind of interchangeably. This is effectively the new Marxism. In fact, my Edmund Burke Foundation colleague, Yoram Hazony, who’s the president of the Edmund Burke Foundation, wrote a fabulous essay at Colette magazine last August, right around a year ago, called “The Challenge of Marxism,” where he basically looked at the intellectual history and I thought quite definitively showed that this woke ideology, this authoritarian, substantively horrific woke ideology, is basically just Marxism without the economic element. It’s the exact same thing. So some of the same paradigms are still there, but we’re facing different issues. And we have to be willing to adapt to them.
Blair: On that note, and I do think that that’s an interesting point to make, is that there is a new threat. There is a new set of issues that conservatives have to face now. Back in the past, it would be the Soviets or the USSR. Now, I’m actually curious: In your opinion, what is the biggest threat facing conservatism, and what is the solution?
Hammer: Well, the biggest threat facing United States of America is the rise of Communist China. I mean, that’s the geopolitical issue of the century, as far as I’m concerned. It literally stretches across everything we possibly do, right? I mean, corporate America obviously is in the tank for this. We obviously have all seen what LeBron James and the NBA and those guys are doing. But obviously, Nike, Disney, their involvement in Xinjiang is just horrific.
But look, Donald Trump, to his great credit, was the first president since Richard Nixon—who went to visit Mao Zedong in 1972—to actually challenge this bipartisan, neoliberal consensus as applied to China. The thought process was that if we open up China to the world, if we economically liberalize, we will politically liberalize. And the jury is in, and that failed. It just totally failed. The Chinese Communist Party today—we’re still not sure, obviously, how COVID started.
And it looks to me like it started in the lab. Whether they intentionally bioengineered it is a different story. I’m not necessarily going to say that they did, but they might have. But this is a truly horrific authoritarian regime. And we need to realize our trade policy, our national security policy, our political economy … I mean, I agree with a lot that’s new intellectual thought into the more industrial policy measures. Let’s make ourselves more self-sufficient as far as critical supply chains are concerned. Let’s get some semiconductors here, so we’re not reliant on the Asia-Pacific region for sending conductors.
These are just some commonsense things that we should be thinking about. But a lot of it really is kind of downstream of China. On a domestic frontier, look, I personally view the rise of Big Tech as very similar to the rise of the late 19th-century robber barons. [Sen.] Josh Hawley in his new book [“The Tyranny of Big Tech”] writes about this quite prolifically and at great length. But if you look at the New York Stock Exchange, the five largest market-cap companies … Let me see if I can do this. It’s literally … Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. Not necessarily in that order. Those are literally the five. Those are the five largest. That’s crazy.
And these companies, they control the current public square. For better or for worse, they literally do. And if they are especially acting as kind of the ruling classes, what I refer to as the ruling class, private-sector enforcement arm, increasingly, as it appears with Biden, they’re acting as, a lot of people say, de facto government adjunct of the actual state itself.
We need to do something about that. That is not OK. And I think the time for people on the right to just take a very hands-off approach to that, I think that ship has sailed. We’ve got to be willing to get in there and take action on that front as well.
Blair: So unfortunately, we are running a little low on time, but I would like to give the last word to you. The way I try to end these interviews generally is to give the interviewee the last word. And what if somebody was to take only one thing from this interview, if they were to take the kernel of truth from this interview, what would it be? And then a little more specifically, if a young conservative was listening to this, what should they keep in mind as they are going through their political journey?
Hammer: Yeah, I love that. So on the first part of your question, I guess my parting message would be, from my perspective, there’s been a big conflation on the American right in a lot of circles over the past two, three, four, whatever decades where we conflate enduring principles with idiosyncratic ad hoc policy. We have principles. I would recommend to listeners of this podcast, I mentioned him earlier, but my colleague, Yoram Hazony, wrote a fabulous essay in 2017 for the American Affairs Journal, “What Is Conservatism?” And it really traces the intellectual history of conservatism. And I would highly encourage that to listeners.
But the point here is that conservatism is a term that goes back to English common law, goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, Edinburgh, obviously. William Blackstone made the Great Commonwealth. We have an idea what conservatism is, and it is, a longer, more enduring, more intellectually robust tradition than necessarily being synonymous with whatever the Reagan-Bush 1984 platform was.
And so my parting message would be to continually think about what conservatism is and get comfortable with the fact that there are enduring truths. There are enduring principles that our politic necessarily has to be oriented to pursuing. But because, like I often say, we are [saying,] “I got no time for this.” I mean, the left is crazy. The left is unhinged like we’ve never seen them before. We are over a hundred years into this Woodrow Wilson, progressive, crazy experiment, basically distorting everything.
If we want to save the republic here, we’ve got to be very competent in our convictions and our principles, but maybe a little more planned or flexible in the means. I would encourage that all the young listeners at college choose to just keep on thinking about that, think about what we want to pursue. And then be a little more prudential, a little more pragmatic, about the means to get there.
Blair: That’s fantastic advice. That was Josh Hammer. Josh is the opinion editor and host of “The Debate” podcast for Newsweek, a research fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation, as well as counsel and policy adviser for the Internet Accountability Project. Josh, thank you so much.
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