Two decades into the 21st Century, the U.S. is less united than at any time in our history since the Civil War. We are more diverse in our beliefs and culture than ever before. But red and blue states, secular and religious groups, liberal and conservative idealists, and Republican and Democratic representatives all have one thing in common: each believes their distinct cultures and liberties are being threatened by an escalating violent opposition.
How has polarization changed in the last decade? What role does status play in society today?
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:11 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is David French, attorney and author and currently Senior Editor at The Dispatch. His new book is Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. Welcome to Free Thoughts, David.
00:22 David French: Thanks so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
00:25 Trevor Burrus: Now, given the timeline of writing and publishing a book, I assume you started writing this before our ongoing national nightmare that is 2020, which makes it somewhat prescient to some extent, but what initially made you want to write the book and has 2020 ramped up the timeline?
00:41 David French: Well, it was kind of a slow… It was a slow build. So I served in Iraq in ’07-’08, and I came back to the US at the end of ’08. And right when this most recent era of polarization started to… For those who could lift themselves out of the news cycle and see some of the larger trends emerging in American life, you really began to see that, wait a minute, it feels like there’s something about this round of polarization that feels pretty profound. And so I started to keep an eye on it all the way back in like ’09, 2010 and 2011, 2012. Which is not that… When you say all the way back, it sounds like all the way back in 1940. No, about a decade or so ago.
01:31 David French: And I really started to see this coming, and a lot of other people started to see this coming as well. And what I began to realize is that there are certain trends in place that are kind of locking us into increasing polarization, and not just political, religious, cultural, even geographic, of course, even athletic, our likes and dislikes in sports, and so by about 2016, 2017, 2018, it was such a… It really became part of my writing on a regular basis, and then last year when I wrote the book, when I started writing the book and I finished it this year, everything just seemed to start to accelerate.
02:17 Aaron Powell: Is it the same polarization that we’re seeing, because 2009, thereabouts, was the Tea Party. And now we have the polarization of Trump and nationalist populism versus everyone else, but those feel at least rhetorically different. So is it the same, like the same trend line of polarization in the same sides or are these new sides, like a shift in sides?
02:47 David French: Well, I think what it is, is you realize what we saw between the transition from Tea Party, small government, constitutional conservative to nationalist populist, who cares about deficits, use the power of the state for the common good. What the through line there that what you really realize and this is very, very important from a polarization standpoint, what you realize was the real motivator is not the ideology of, say, the Tea Party or the ideology of national populism, it’s the negative partisanship of opposing Democrats. And whatever works most effectively to oppose Democrats is then therefore what you band wagon on to.
03:36 David French: And so when Obama was spending a ton of money on a stimulus bill, well, we say a ton of money, now it seems quaint, a quaint amount of money compared to like Coronavirus relief, for example. But when Obama was spending a ton of money on stimulus and he was expanding government control of healthcare, the way negative partisanship worked was, hey, smaller government, less intrusion. And that way and so was it really… I think there are a lot of people for whom smaller government and less intrusion was a principled through line and remained so to this day, or was it this is how we oppose Obama.
04:18 David French: And I feel like one of the central realities of negative partisanship is that we end up over‐estimating the ideology of either party and underestimating the animosity of either party towards the other. And that’s the real through line is the animosity, the ideology is sort of the instrument that gets you into power, the instrument that sort of motivates and it’s the instrument at the moment, but the true through line, the true powerful force that we’re seeing is that negative partisanship. That I’m a Republican, not so much ’cause I love Republican ideas, which are malleable and variable, but because I dislike Democrats and vice versa.
05:00 Trevor Burrus: One of the interesting parts of the introduction for your book is, I wouldn’t call it mea culpa exactly, but a kind of personal history where you discuss how you were more part of this than you became now, especially today, but that includes encountering some of the more extremist elements of the Republican party, such as Birthers. Did that kind of growth of those extremist elements sneak up on you to some extent?
05:28 David French: Yeah, they did sneak up on me, and this is where some of the listeners might say, well, how’d they sneak up on you, how blind were you? But yeah, they did sneak up on me. You know what, I think the thing that took me by surprise, and ’cause it’s interesting that you all mentioned the Tea Party earlier, because I was a lawyer for dozens of Tea Party groups back in the day of the Obama targeting scandal. I was part of the legal team that represented dozens of these groups. And so I was in meeting after meeting after meeting behind closed doors with Tea Party leaders, grassroots tea party folks, and you would have thought, man, that movement was all about Hayek.
06:11 David French: That movement was all about rediscovering the Founders, that movement was all about the Constitution. And a lot of other people sort of outside the Tea Party, were saying no, there are some darker elements here to this, there’s… And I’m saying no, there’s no… No, no, no, no, no, you don’t know. You don’t know like I know, I know the leadership, I know the people who are really driving this. And this is, in some ways, you always… Every movement has sort of its share of edge figures, but this was a movement motivated by… And if you’d put me under a lie detector test in 2013, 2014, 2012, this is a movement motivated by a genuine desire to return to constitutional governments, governance and… The Tea Party wasn’t libertarian strictly, but heavily libertarian influenced in many ways.
07:02 David French: And then all of a sudden, it just kind of goes away and what stays, though, ’cause there was always this element of anger in the Tea Party, there was always… There was the joy of any emerging movement but there was also this element of anger. And what kind of went away, and what you began to see was this element of anger and this anger that was deeply animating an awful lot of people, and where Trump could then be an instrument of that anger and a vehicle for that anger. He got a lot of… He got a lot of support, even from Tea Party affiliated people, and then that anger began to turn… Began to just spiral in many ways, I think out of control.
07:54 Trevor Burrus: But it’s important that this book is not a book about blame, or at least maybe it blames the hyper‐partisans on both sides, which is a relatively… But it’s not about blaming one side or the other, which I think people might say, oh, David French, committed conservative, he’s gonna write a book that says, let me explain to you why the left is tearing America apart. Basically the Norm Ornstein or something where you just flip it around. But no, the point you’re making is a little bit different and bipartisan in some sense.
08:24 David French: Yeah, this is not the own the libs book of the month, and it’s not the… It’s not the resistance book of the month going against the Trump administration. It’s saying that there are huge trends that are driving us apart, huge trends, and they’re not related to the last new cycle, although each new cycle exacerbates those trends. And the trends are so big that what’s ending up happening is we’re walling off from each other geographically, we are walling off from each other religiously, we’re walling off from each other politically, we’re walling off from each other in our pop culture, in our sports, and so that what ends up happening is you have sort of a red narrative about American life, and you have a blue narrative about American life, and that red narrative and that blue narrative, both of them are rooted in a lot of grievance.
09:13 David French: And the thing is, a lot of those grievances are real, they’re relating to real things that happened. And one thing I say in my book is it reminds me a lot of the Sunni‐Shia divide in Iraq, thankfully not in intensity, because that was violently, violently, viciously, murderously intense on a day‐to‐day basis, but in the nature of it. And one of the things that I found so profoundly disturbing and difficult about dealing with the Sunni‐Shia divide in the area where my unit worked and operated and fought in Iraq was the extent to which it was not based on hey, if Sunni and Shia can agree on a division of power in the parliament and division of oil revenues, or if they can agree on tax rates or religious autonomy for their various institutions then we can settle all this.
10:08 David French: No, it was so far beyond that. It was your cousin killed my nephew, or your uncle killed my brother, and it was related in grievance, and you see a lot of that now in our politics. So for example, someone will say, I will never even… The Democrats have to never get into office, did you see what they did to Kavanagh, or did you see what they did to Covington Catholic, or do you see how their hate spawned that attack on a baseball field. And those Republican congressmen and Democrats flip it around and they say, this movement, look at all the hate it’s inspiring from the Santa Fe shooting, to the Poway synagogue to Tree of Life to…
10:49 David French: And then each side has this record of grievances, of efforts at political destruction and personal destruction, and it creates this fury and this anger, that isn’t… It’s often unrelated to underlying policy disputes.
11:04 Aaron Powell: Is there an origin story, or I suppose an origin point for this partisanship? Because it didn’t start with the Tea Party and then get worse from there, we saw it and we saw the growing cultural divide before that as well.
11:21 David French: Yeah, and no, I think some of this was just gonna be flat out inevitable. And the reason I say that is that after… The United States of America has always sort of gone through cycles of division and unity, we’ve had many… We’ve had many moments of national strain beyond just 1861 to 1865. So we deal relatively frequently from a historical standpoint of strains to the system. And I think there’s sort of a macro reality that we are gonna have to struggle to deal with, and that is once the massive centralization of the federal government came about as a result of three consecutive, if not existential, almost existential perceived threats.
12:12 David French: So you had the Great Depression, which just was a crushing economic blow, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. And the answer that was sort of generated to each one of those three things in turn was, we need big united centralized governmental responses to deal with these things. And so we sort of got into the habit of this big centralized government. Then the Cold War ends, and we don’t have… We’re the hyper power. We’re not just a super power, we’re a hyper power. But at the same time that existential threat goes away, that’s kind of this unifying force, we also are just getting increasingly different. We are growing more diverse, we’re growing more diverse on cultural grounds, religious grounds, racial grounds, we’re just getting more diverse at the same time, we’re super centralized.
13:08 David French: And all of these things, even if we were sort of like had a healthy body politic, all of these things would be disruptive, and all of these things would be… You would have this clustering into like‐minded enclaves and that clustering of like‐minded enclaves would result in a little bit more extremism and it would just be challenging to deep centralization. And so this is a point that I make in the book, is that increasing diversity of views, of race, of religion isn’t compatible with increasing centralization of government, and that creates… It raises the stakes of elections unacceptably. And then when you lay on top of those sort of natural inevitable problems you have in a continent‐sized multi‐ethnic, multi‐faith democracy with a big, big central government, you lay on top of it some of the low and tawdry way in which politicians have tried to govern this place. And in some of the failures and deficiencies in the political and cultural class and it just cascades.
14:15 Trevor Burrus: It seems to me that we have, especially the Boomer generation, which I’m not as much, Aaron is much more Boomers are the fault of all bad things on the planet, but the Boomer generation, there was a time when… So we had a Cold War that had at least created some national unity in terms of a goal that the whole country has, and then we also had a very, very… First we had the emergence of mainstream media, but there were only three channels and four, if you count PBS, I guess. And there was mainstream radio and they were mainstream movies, so there were a ton of unifying factors that actually were aberrant in the scope of American history.
14:53 Trevor Burrus: And so now it’s like we have to re‐learn how to be as diverse as we maybe were in 1880 or 1830, and we have a bunch of Boomers who have no concept of this. We see many times, they’re the ones who go down the weird rabbit holes on social media, share BS memes and things like this. So we’re trying to re‐learn how to be diverse in the way that we’ve always been, but with a bigger, more centralized government.
15:19 David French: Yeah, you raise a really good point. We did have this moment, this really kind of artificial moment where you thought of, there is a mainstream media and it is the umpire, and Walter Cronkite is the umpire, the three big network anchors are the umpire. These… If whatever community you lived in, you had a flagship paper, and it was like the umpire. So you were gonna have a mainstream media that was supposed to be reliable and unbiased and with high ethics. At the same time, you only have a few channels, so I’m older Gen X, so I’m old enough to remember the whole concept of water cooler television. I’m old enough to remember when ABC did the movie The Day After, which was this, if you watch it now, its cheesy special… You can’t get past the cheesy special effects of nuclear war, but when you watched it at the time, it was like the most terrifying thing.
16:21 David French: And I remember going to school and every single person at school is talking about The Day After, so you have this shared cultural experience, you have this shared journalistic experience, we’re all working from the same documents, we’re all working from the same news anchors, and we don’t realize how aberrational that was. One of the fundamental realities of American media for a long time has been the partisan press. And if you go back to the Civil War, the partisan press played a big role in stoking up the fear and the anger and the resentment that touched off violently at Fort Sumter.
17:05 David French: And it seems like we’re returning to an era of partisan press, but doing it sort of kicking and screaming and not really realizing what we’re doing. And so that results in a lot of confusion about who the media is supposed to be, what the media is supposed to do. A real sense, as you were saying in, say, the baby boomer generation of an un‐mooring, that this is not the way things are supposed to be. And it’s confusing to a lot of people, it’s enraging to a lot of people, and it’s contributing to our division.
17:45 Aaron Powell: What role does status play in all of this? Because one of the things that we’ve seen happen since, say, the 1950s or ‘60s to today is a relative increase in the status of, the social status of younger people, of immigrants, of sexual minorities, of different racial groups, of the left versus a decline in the status of, I guess, being a white male working class person doesn’t really bring you a level of default status in the way that it used to. And it does feel like a lot of what we’re seeing right now is status anxiety turned into anger and hate for people of rising status.
18:36 David French: Well, yeah, and there’s also changing in what you might call acceptable prejudices. So for a long time in American history, and if you’re looking at the 1950s and the 1960s and sort of like the heyday of the white working class union worker who was going to have a well‐paying job at the steel mill or at the car plant and his sons could have that job as well, that was also an era of time that was laden with acceptable prejudice and bigotries. Just ask the marginalized American communities like African‐Americans, like immigrant workers.
19:19 David French: This was at a point in time when the law was sort of absolute and uniform and LGBT communities were almost entirely closeted, so this was an era in which there were a lot of what you’d call acceptable prejudices, that it became unacceptable, thankfully, but to some extent, there was a rise of a different kind of acceptable prejudice, and that was sort of an acceptable prejudice that was sort of seen against maybe the white working class rural guy, where there wasn’t just a sense of loss of loss of primacy, but combined with a loss, even of the default sense that we’re respected. If that makes sense.
20:06 David French: And so I think a lot of people who say, well, white working class voters couldn’t handle the loss of primacy, but I think in some ways, the ways acceptable prejudices worked, work in American culture and society is it went beyond just a loss of primacy even into sort of being victims of one of the few acceptable prejudices left, which compounds… I mean, loss of primacy is a jolting experience for any population, even if it is just, even if it’s just that this sub‐group of Americans should not be in a position of primacy, that when you combine that jolt with a real perception of injustice, that is now we are the victims of acceptable bigotry, and you combine that and overlay it with a religious element as well, that is it now acceptable to be bigoted against Christianity, you really ramp up, I think, the intensity.
21:10 Trevor Burrus: Okay. Story time. So I like your book a lot and we’re very much on the same page, especially this year, me and friends have been talking about imagine American succession, and there’s a famous… Well, he pointed me to it, an essay by a Soviet dissident who died in a car accident, whose name escapes me right now, but he wrote an essay in the ‘70s about imagining the Soviet Union falling, which seemed unimaginable then. He said the way you do it is you go to the end point and then take a step back that’s like reasonable due to that end point, and take a step back and then take a step back and each one seems more likely. So that’s what you did in this book with an essentially a speculative fiction middle section, where you imagine how different types of succession could happen. So without going into as much detail as you do in the book, but the Calexit is the first one you talk about. How could that feasibly happen in our polarized world?
22:08 David French: Well, to back up a minute, the thing that really started to get me alarmed about the possibility of our nation splitting wasn’t the level of political violence, it wasn’t the level of… It wasn’t even the level of sort of fringe secessionary movements. It was looking at a core reality that existed in 1776 and existed in 1860, 1861, that is beginning to exist in 2020, which is geographically contiguous, significant groups of Americans who believe that their core culture and civil liberties are under attack. And if you look at the red and blue map, yes, we have swing states, and sometimes those swing states change sort of on the borders and margins, but you still are left with these huge swaths of American life or American geography that are thoroughly red and thoroughly blue and have increasingly distinct political and religious and social cultures.
23:12 David French: And so starting from that and an increasing inability to… And increasing amounts of extreme views within those big geographic clusters, so basically what I did is I just pushed the gas a little bit on these trends, say, 5 or 10 years out, and my thesis, if you go back to the 1861 and 1776, is where things really touched off, is when this geographically contiguous group of people who had the distinct culture began to feel not only was the culture under political threat, but the culture was under violent threat, and the quartering of British troops, the raids on surrounding countrysides in Massachusetts.
24:05 David French: So for good, in 1776, the colonists said no more. For evil in 1861, the confederates said, no more, but the commonality was, are there violent threats in addition to cultural and political threats to our way of life. And what I did in both my Texit and my Calexit scenarios was say, what happens if you ratchet up. Just a little bit, that sense of violent threat and you overlay it with a political class that’s not up to the moment? And what are some of the logical ways that that can spiral out of control that are easily foreseeable? Ad that was the whole heart of it, ’cause I have talked about polarization for a while, and people always ask me how could it happen?
24:54 David French: So the middle chapters of the book are my answer to how could it happen. And really, all it takes is some ratcheting up of this sense of danger, combined with foolish blundering and opportunism. And one of the folks who read the Calexit scenario, and I don’t want to give away too much, ’cause those are really, in my view, kind of the make or break chapters of the book, you either find it chilling or far‐fetched. And one of the things that I think was central to the Calexit scenario was this idea, if you had an opportunistic right wing leadership in Washington that says, “Wait a minute, if we let those guys just leave us on the West Coast, we’ll run things like forever. This is our country, then. This is our country, and we don’t like those people anyway.”
25:48 David French: And so sort of this opportunistic look that combines this sort of threat of violence, combines sort of social and political hysteria amplified by social media combined with blundering and opportunism, and if you think that’s combining a lot of negative trends at once, welcome to world history.
26:08 Aaron Powell: I’m curious about the role of geography in this, because there’s pretty robust evidence that the red versus blue split, like whether a given area of votes Republican or Democrat, maps almost perfectly to population density, that when population density gets above a certain level, it flips to blue even in the reddest of red states. And so that would seem that it’s not… We don’t have red states that would secede, we just have rural states versus urban states, but the country is becoming… And this is a long‐term trend line, the country is becoming more urban, and even the red states are becoming more urban as the cities in them grow. And so would that counter this trend, I suppose, that eventually the country becomes almost all urban and so everywhere ends up looking like those blue states with just a rural minority that doesn’t have enough population in a given state to do much of anything?
27:04 David French: But that would assume that… So let’s look at 1861, for example. That thesis, which I think is a very sound thesis, was exactly the thesis in mind of a lot of the Confederates before they seceded, because once the election of 1860 happened, they realized they had tipped over into inexorable… That the fading of slave power in a United States of America, was inexorable. There was nothing, and I think that was sort of like the 18, the election of 1860 said, “Oh, wait a minute, if we spin this out, we’re the losers. We’re the losers now and forever, so we can’t have that. Bye.”
27:47 David French: And so I think that one of the threats… I did a podcast with Ezra Klein and I said, “If I had to lay out the main concerns of our competing sides, on the left, their big concern is minoritarian rule.” There’s only been one Republican to win a majority of the popular vote since 1988 and that was Bush in ’04 with a super, super close popular vote and Electoral College victory. The best chance that Trump has to win in 2020 will be another multi‐million vote loss in the popular vote, which would then be three of the last four GOP elections. The increasing way in which the urban‐rural divide is happening, the way in which the urban‐rural divide is happening means that we’ll soon reach a point where about 70% of the Senate is selected by about 30% of the population, and so the left really fears, I think, minoritarian governance.
28:50 David French: Well, the right really fears majoritarian tyranny, and my concern is if the stakes rise sufficiently, people will not want to live… There will be a 1861‐style I don’t think the democratic process is going to protect us anymore, we have to consider extreme measures. But yeah, that what you’re outlining as I think is a demographic reality, all other things being equal is one of the right’s central challenges between… For now and the next 30, 40 years, but my supposition is that when you still have conservative super majority states, and you do have a number… I live in one of them. I mean, this is… Tennessee is a… We have three big cities, big being relative, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, an honorable shout out mention to Chattanooga, but we’re super majority red, absolutely, and we’re going to be super majority red for the foreseeable future.
29:49 David French: And what happens when the collection of super majority red states says this sort of inexorable force is going to threaten our way of life and what do we do about it? Do we just accept it? Or do we do something about it? And so, yeah, I totally see what you’re saying, but that was in fact one of the precipitating problems in 1860–1861, is you had these Confederates who said, “Uh‐oh, handwriting’s on the wall.”
30:18 Trevor Burrus: As a libertarian constitutional scholar, it’s sort of requisite on me to have some appreciation for the anti‐federalists, and I do, I sometimes go back and forth on whether or not I would have actually signed the Constitution at the time, but many of the critiques that came from the anti‐federalists about the Constitution was that it was centralizing, and specifically that it was centralizing over a huge and diverse country that would one day be, you know, even bigger and more diverse with too much power over these people’s lives in a central government.
30:53 Trevor Burrus: Now, a lot of that came from kind of the Montesquieu, small republic thing, but you read some of that stuff now and it seems quite prescient. If America did split up into, say, five different regional countries, and then after… There would be a lot of stress, some violence and some difficulties, but after that kind of settled down and we decided to basically sign a new Articles of Confederation, uniting these countries into the common defense and our common background as Americans, which wouldn’t totally go away, but not dealing in the internal governance of these other nations, so you weren’t meddling, would that be the worst thing if that happened?
31:37 David French: It would be a bad thing. I don’t know that it would be the worst thing. And I think what you’re saying is sort of something along the lines of an EU‐style arrangement, it sounds a lot like sort of an EU style.
31:50 Trevor Burrus: EU with actual representation, not a fake government, but, yeah, something like that.
31:54 David French: Right. Yeah, something that, echoes of that. Here’s why I think that would be bad. If you look at what is the fundamental core American social compact, I think of it as the aspirational words of the Declaration of Independence operationalized through the Bill of Rights, the Civil War amendments, and the US… The US Constitution more broadly, but the Bill of Rights and the Civil War amendments more specifically, which say that there should be a society that exists that is dedicated to the preservation of liberty and specifically, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
32:32 David French: How do you do that? That’s a grand, sweeping aspiration. You do that in actuality, through this Bill of Rights, through the Civil War amendments, and as far as formulations of government for human flourishing, in my mind, that’s the most superior formulation, it is the superior formulation for human flourishing that the very flawed mind of man has been able to craft, and that a loss of a country dedicated to those principles, quite specifically dedicated to those principles, would be an immense loss to the people of that country, as well as a loss of the world.
33:14 David French: And so I think that… And that one of the reasons why in the solution sections of the book is I call us to rediscover the Bill of Rights, is I feel like that’s also rediscovering the best of the essence of the American political experiment. And it’s hard for me to see a fracture and especially under the terms of the fracture, a lot of it would be over disagreement about fundamental human liberties, and it’s very easy to imagine that amongst, say, the four to five or three or whatever different kind of republics you can find, you would find much less… Their political variation would be quite, I think would be quite significant, and enhanced by the fact that as the results of a big wrenching change would be a lot of mass migration, of people moving towards more hospitable territory.
34:07 David French: Which would mean like a retrenching and an increased extremism in these new republics. So I think would, that loss of a united American republic dedicated to these sort of fundamental human values would be an immense loss, and not just… Over and above the chaos of it, the potential violence of it, and then… I know a lot of folks don’t really like to think outside of our borders, but I think the global reverberations would be extraordinary and in many ways just extraordinarily bad. And so I think that both from a principled standpoint about what this country is supposed to be and a pragmatic standpoint about the benefit to human flourishing, peace and prosperity of our continued unity, it’s a bad, bad idea.
35:01 Aaron Powell: We’re recording this just over a month from a presidential election that is, no matter the result, likely to tear the country apart even more. And so much of the problem that you’ve articulated is cultural, but there’s also structural, institutional, which means that it’s hard to get a handle on how to avoid this scenario that you’ve just described to us and said is one that we ought to try to avoid. So how do we in the near term, over the next four to eight years, say, begin to move things back in a better direction? Is there a way to do it that doesn’t involve, say, unrealistic expectations of institutional reform or everybody deciding to be nice to each other on Twitter all of a sudden.
35:52 David French: You mean the Kumbaya plan is not gonna be the…
35:56 Aaron Powell: Yes. Yeah.
35:58 David French: No. I think at first, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think we’re gonna face greater misery before we as a culture wake up to the need for real change, and my hope is that, and I pray that greater misery does not result in catastrophic, in catastrophic changes before we sort of wake up to the reality of the problem or a catastrophic crisis, but you’re right, we’re walking into 2020, and I feel like, depending on how close this election is and all of the uncertainties with mail‐in ballots, it almost feels like you’re on the deck of the Titanic and it’s broad daylight, and you see the iceberg, and you’re like. “Move, change course, change course, change course,” but we keep on steaming right on.
36:45 David French: So here’s what I think. I think that there is a necessity to formulate an alternative idea that an immiserated American people can latch on to as an alternative to the present ever escalating political combat. And so right now, both parties are bought into escalation, I would say the GOP more so than the Democrats at the moment. The Democrats sort of quite self‐consciously chose to nominate arguably the most moderate of all of their leading contenders to sail into the election. Whereas President Trump isn’t… Won’t even alienate… He won’t even really distance himself much from Q.
37:32 David French: So the parties are not walking into the election with an equivalent commitment to extremism at the moment, but as of right now, what we’re facing is an increasing commitment on particular on the part of the bases of the parties to escalation, and that commitment to escalation is carrying with it real costs in the rest of the body politic, and the more in common folks, I cite some of their research in the book, have a formulation for those people who are not on the bases of the parties, and they call them the exhausted majority.
38:10 David French: And the interesting thing about the exhausted majority is it’s not a big moderate political coalition. Ideologically, we are dividing a great deal, but they’re exhausted with everything, with the process, with the nature of politics, they’re just worn out by it, and the problem you have right now in this country is that the operative word and the phrase exhausted majority is exhausted and not majority, and I think that there is a latent power there of this exhausted majority, if it tries to wake up, and that’s where I think formulating a classical liberal pluralistic vision for a unified America that de‐escalates national politics and escalates commitment to the Bill of Rights and self‐governance is a path forward.
39:02 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting. A few times in the book, you refer to, as you pointed out, in many ways, the GOP has moved, has pushed against that classical liberal model, or parts of the GOP and different thinkers, and the domination narrative has been preferred to the pluralism narrative, which came out in your famous altercation with Sohrab Ahmari in the Against David French‐ism essay. But the way you characterize it, I thought was interesting, near the end of the book where what that entire debate was was “A New York‐based right‐wing writer was so infuriated by the thought of a drag queen story hour taking place in a library on the opposite side of the continent in Sacramento, California, that he used that fact of the scheduled story hour to declare that my commitment to pluralism was inadequate to meet the challenge of the times.”
39:50 Trevor Burrus: Which is this debate now in the right wing. Did that surprise you that just… Maybe it wasn’t a sudden if you were paying attention, but the quick intellectualizing of essentially this domination conservative, national conservatism thing, and a complete jettisoning of any alternative. I guess that’s just maybe… If you’re playing some sort of mutually assured destruction, I guess that’s one piece you might play, but you kind of hope for more out of conservatives perhaps and didn’t get it, or maybe we never should have hoped for much out of some conservatives at all…
40:23 David French: Well, I think the only thing that was surprising about that was that somehow I became the face of the problem, of the alleged problematic commitment to classical liberalism. That was surprising to be so directly put in the middle of those cross‐hairs. But the fact that classical liberalism was in the cross‐hairs was not surprising at all, because Steve Bannon was really quite explicitly aiming more towards a right‐wing or a European model of the right, big government, generous welfare state, wrapping yourself in nationalistic and religious themes. Which bore not much resemblance at all to the Reagan vision of the GOP that had dominated for so many years, and then the outright just absolute scorn for this fusionism concept, and then the increasing derision towards what people kept calling economic libertarianism, but almost every libertarian I know would say, I didn’t…
41:28 Trevor Burrus: We won, apparently, yeah. I didn’t know I won, we won until we were told, yes.
41:34 David French: No libertarian vision of victory that I’m aware of includes a code of federal regulations quite so large.
41:40 Trevor Burrus: Yes, I agree with that.
41:41 David French: And what they were calling economic libertarianism wasn’t in reality economic libertarianism, it was a GOP economic philosophy to the extent that it was putting its thumb gently on maybe a fewer regulations or maybe slowing the growth of the regulatory state. That’s not economic libertarianism. But anyway, I began to see this sort of derisive approach to economic libertarianism, embrace of central planning, increased… An actual shaky commitment to free speech, more shaky than I’d ever seen before, although they would never admit it, but sort of beginning to emerge, the same cancel culture on the right that I’ve seen on the left. So it wasn’t surprising that this argument happened, the only thing that was surprising is that it really got touched off by a drag queen story hour and that I would somehow responsible for that. [chuckle]
42:42 Trevor Burrus: Why do you want California to pass a single‐payer healthcare system?
42:46 David French: Yeah, that’s a great question. So one of the reasons why I wrote that chapter, and the original title of it before it got kind of moderated was single‐payer healthcare in California could save America, which is a pretty bold, maybe hyperbolic statement, but one of the problems with federalism is that it is usually a principle, it is usually a tactic and not a principle. So in other words, the dominant political party sees no virtue in federalism; the party out of power often suddenly rediscovers love for federalism. But as a matter of political philosophy, the progressive movement has been the most side‐eyed about progressivism, ’cause they want the big sweeping national political change for the sake of social justice or equality, etcetera.
43:40 David French: And so what I was trying to do was to show that if federalism is applied logically and applied consistently and applied according to a better, healthier version of it, that progressives could perhaps gain some very meaningful governmental… They could have some very meaningful advances that they would maybe never ever get absent a commitment to federalism. If your view is sort of like our national health plan or nothing, then the answer is mostly gonna be nothing, because we’re closely enough divided to where one side or the other can block these truly sweeping reforms.
44:18 David French: But the interesting thing is if California enacted single‐payer healthcare, not only would a very, very large, very wealthy, progressive state be able to fashion the sort of political community that they want to have according to their values, which is an important principle of self‐governance, that the very act of having that healthcare system would require Congress to grant them waivers from major federal programs that by implication would allow for other states to engage in their own experimentation according to their own political communities’ values along some of these really… In some of the most meaningful areas of American governance, including health and welfare, etcetera.
45:02 David French: And so my view was that if California enacted something that was sweeping according to its values, that required congressional consent, that not only would you advance the fundamental goal of self‐governance in that state, you would also facilitate self‐governance in the 49 other states, and it would break that federalist log jam, ’cause one of the core realities of federalism in the US right now is that the financial power rests with the federal government, and so long as that financial power, there’s such a hammerlock on these trillions of dollars, then federalism will be nibbling at the edges, but that California approach would break some of that hammerlock, return some of those funds to the state, and at that point, then we’d be cooking with gas and we could start to see some real self‐governance in this country.
46:01 Aaron Powell: But would that end up with dramatically different decisions in different states? Because just a moment ago, we were talking about how the American right has largely abandoned the free market and open market principles of, say, Reagan conservatism in favor of economic populism, which is awfully similar to economic progressivism, and so it used to be that there was… The left and the right were different on social issues and different on economic issues, and now it increasingly looks like the left and the right are basically different on social issues. They have largely the same economic policies, just one wants to put immigrants in cages and the other doesn’t. And so in that case, I can imagine if California passes single‐payer, we’re just gonna get, say, single‐payer in all of the red states too, because they’re totally on board with big government as well.
46:55 David French: Well, I see it, and I would dispute that, because I think the national GOP and the state GOPs are different. And in fact, state level GOPs are in many ways much healthier, much more intellectually vibrant and not nearly as excited by this nationalist populism, which it’s going to be very interesting to me all if Trump loses, a clear loss in 2020, because one of the interesting things, and my colleague Jonah Goldberg has written about this, is that this nationalist wave is really mainly a bunch of people who meet in moderate‐sized hotel conference rooms in DC, and the true populism is centered around the person of Donald Trump, not around a big re‐think of our economic policies.
47:58 David French: What’s happening is you have a small group of right‐wing intellectuals who are trying to put an intellectual, an enduring intellectual frame around Trump. That is something fundamentally different, but I guarantee you, outside of those people who watch Tucker every night or who follow some of these conservative intellectual wars, the rank‐and‐file conservative in this country, their primary motivation may be anti‐left, but their secondary motivation still looks a lot more like the conservatism that I grew up with in this sort of European right vision. And so if Trump is defeated, then I think at that point, all bets are off on what the GOP looks like intellectually and ideologically after Trump.
48:44 David French: If it’s a super narrow defeat, then the populace would just claim like that like the never‐Trumpers stabbed us in the back and try to run it back again. But I think there’s a lot more uncertainty about the GOP than a lot of people realize and that the national… And also because of nationalist populace tend to punch above their weight on Twitter, there’s, I think, a lot of false assumptions about their underlying strength.
49:13 Trevor Burrus: So as you’ve pointed out, you’re not terribly optimistic in the near run, which I would share that view and that we kinda would need to get to a point where there’s a detente, where it’s just like, we can’t fight each other anymore, and we do something like a California single‐payer or something, and you endorse the federalism as a principle. But also your book is a big call for just being better people. And there’s one quote I want to read in the conclusion, “It is increasingly clear now that there are two culture wars in American life, yes, there is the right‐left culture war that we’re long familiar with, but there’s now an even deeper struggle between decency and indecency.” I thought that was a great point, but if you want to maybe expound a little bit.
50:00 David French: Yeah, so at the risk of over‐simplifying it, what we essentially have is we have an old… The old culture war, which would be, we’re fighting over very important issues within a classical liberal framework. In other words, we’ve agreed upon the rules of the game, so to speak, we may disagree on exactly how big the First Amendment should be, how widely or broadly it should be interpreted, but we broadly agree on free speech, or we may disagree on all the full elements of due process, but we broadly agree on due process.
50:30 David French: So we’re all fighting for certain policy issues within a game where the rules are agreed upon. And including rules about to greater lesser degree about how you treat other human beings, if you have a political opponent and you disagree with them, should you… Should you treat them with a modicum of dignity and respect, or should you try to destroy them as human beings and ruin their public reputation and drive them out of their careers? And what we’re beginning to see is a disagreement on the classical liberal structure itself, that in other words, if I don’t win under the current structure, that means the structure is illegitimate, that might cause a so just, that it is imperative that I win, and what is optional is the governmental structure through which I win.
51:18 David French: And that is a deep threat, I think, to the American constitutional structure itself. And then along with that is a corresponding belief that my political opponents not only are wrong, but there’s something fundamentally morally defective about them, such that their presence working beside me in my company is intolerable, their presence to have schools in my community is intolerable, their presence in my social media feed is intolerable, and so therefore, there is a push towards not even really a defeat of person and political in fair political combat, but a destruction of a person, to remove them from the polity. And those, that greater level of commitment to destruction, combined with a lack of commitment to classical liberalism, means that we’re really scrambling a lot of our lines right now.
52:21 David French: So for example, I feel far more connected to somebody who’s a left liberal than I do to a right authoritarian, because while I might agree with somebody on the right on, say, abortion, which is vitally, a hugely important issue, I’m not going to destroy the constitutional structure of the United States of America, or try to destroy human beings on the other side, either by wrecking their ability to earn a living, wrecking their ability to make an argument in the public square. And so therefore, what we have here is a cultural conflict where it’s in classical liberalism versus authoritarianism, and decency versus indecency, and that is overlaying the whole thing.
53:27 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.