Episode 170: The Shallow, Audience-Flattering Appeal of the ‘Neither Right, Nor Left’ Guy
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Clinton Says He’s Not Leaning Left but Taking a New ‘Third Way,’” reported The New York Times back in 1992. “It’s not left. It’s not right. It’s forward!” proclaimed former presidential candidate Andrew Yang during a 2019 Democratic debate. “Neither left nor right,” reads the slogan of far-right French political party Front National.
Adam: Every few years, or perhaps even more than that, we hear about a new, trailblazing political vision that transcends traditional party binaries, leaning not to the right or the left, but straight ahead. No longer, we’re told, must we conform to antiquated political notions of “liberal” or “conservative,” nor must we continue to tolerate the corrupt duopoly. Instead, we can embrace a forward-thinking alternative; a third way; a pragmatic, modern, new, radical, inclusive political paradigm.
Nima: But for all the enthusiasm and talk of moving “beyond left and right,” there sure is a lot of right-wing sentiment there. Rhetoric like this almost exclusively comes from neo-fascists, libertarians, and centrists — Glenn Beck, Bill Clinton, Andrew Yang, and the like — and virtually never from figures on the left. So why is that? What political purpose does the false notion of transcending right and left actually serve? And why does this hackneyed concept continue to surface, resonate and get plenty of air time?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the vacuous nature of claiming to reject political categories of “right” and “left.” We’ll analyze how this rhetoric disguises garden-variety right-wing austerity politics as a novel, barrier-breaking political vision, as well as how it taps into real frustrations with a political system, but obscures and absolves the causes of these frustrations through sleazy, sales-pitch style tactics.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republic and a columnist at The Guardian. You can also find his work at The New Yorker, Slate, Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book on American democracy called The Right of the People.
Osita Nwanevu: I definitely don’t think we should give short shrift to the fact that two party systems suck and that our two parties do genuinely suck. They are really terrible, and if you ask the American people, we’ve seen this in survey after survey over years now, American people very clearly do want more options in our politics, you get high support in these surveys for the notion of a third party. Gets very vague and kind of cloudy when it comes to what kinds of choices that third party would actually represent as a matter of policy, but I do think that the basic intuition that American people should have more choices when they go to the polls, more viable choices that is, because there are other parties, is basically correct.
Adam: Yeah. So I’m excited to get into this. I want to be clear, this is not really, the pitch is neither Republican nor Democrat, although I think there’s a lot of crossover but it’s not about liberal/conservative, right? It sort of sounds so profound. It’s not about liberal and conservative, it’s about X, it’s about the country, it’s about going forward, it’s about the people. It’s not about right and left. It’s about those with power and those without it, which we’ll get into later, that’s become popular with some certain YouTube celebrities, and so we want to be clear here, we are not saying that everything must fall within a specific left/right binary. Obviously, people’s politics are oftentimes a hodgepodge or they’re confused or they’re sort of grab bag. The average voter has sometimes contradictory, ideologically inconsistent opinions, that is quite normal, that is quite true. That is obviously a true statement —
Nima: Which is why these appeals are so attractive.
Adam: Why I think we need to sort of look at who’s actually saying them because it isn’t just one particular ideology. It’s corporate centrist, it’s neo-fascist, it’s libertarians, as we talked about. So we’re going to get into the weeds of why this appeal of not being right or left is so attractive to people and why it keeps resurfacing and who it really serves and what it obscures.
Nima: While it’s taken various forms over the last century or more, the rhetoric of “neither right nor left” is largely rooted in opposition to socialist and communist currents, or at least right-wing conceptions of them.
According to scholar James Petras, initial stirrings of this perspective can be traced to reformist, anti-revolutionary sentiment in late 19th-century Germany. In his 1899 book Evolutionary Socialism, German theorist Eduard Bernstein argued for a middle ground — a third way, if you will — between capitalism and revolutionary socialism.
Bernstein would be joined by other reformist writers throughout Europe who championed a gradual approach to social change — hence “evolutionary” descriptor rather than “revolutionary” socialism — in which they advocated for electoralism, and to some extent, the preservation of liberal capitalist institutions.
As James Petras wrote, quote:
“The reform socialists argued that capitalist growth and social reforms were producing a growing middle class which, properly understood, would become a major ally of the socialist reformers in extending social ownership and greater equality. This perspective was contrasted with the revolutionary analysis, which argued that the process of capitalist concentration was undermining the middle class and proletarianizing the workforce, polarizing society between capital and labor.”
Adam: An early example from 1935 appears in the News Journal referencing Franklin Roosevelt, the article says, quote:
“For the present, the Democratic leadership contends he will adhere to his announced policy of going neither right nor left but ‘straight ahead,’ and keep ‘hands off’ Congress as concerns details of legislation.”
The type of rhetoric would resurface in Europe after WWII. To quote James Petras again, quote:
“Led by the mass German and Swedish Social Democratic parties, the new Third Way paradigm accepted capitalist property relations and opposed communism in exchange for increased social expenditures, progressive taxation, and the extension of public services in health, education, and recreation.”
And so what we see now is the idea that the third way is basically saying, similar to a kind of, what we’d like to see in the non aligned movement is not pro-rah rah capitalist, but it’s also not Communist, and so it sort of a compromise, to avoid a communist revolution, but also isn’t going to go full blown capitalist because nobody really wants that anyway. And in the U.S., around the 1960s, the way you sort of showed you were above the political fray and broadcast that you were not a Communist or a radical, you would claim you are for this kind of third way, and those who claim to kind of transcend political labels.
For example, just a few years later, a column in the York Dispatch of York, Pennsylvania would uncritically explain this rhetorical tendency among US figures. This by John Chamberlain, the article is called ,”These Days,” written in August 1964, quote:
“The word ‘liberal at the Democratic convention suddenly has no friends. Hubert Humphrey tried to dodge it the other day when they sought to pin it on him; he said something about meeting issues as they come up, in the context of changing times and without regard to labels.
“Eric Goldman, the Princeton history professor and TV interrogator who is in charge of channeling new ideas and introducing new personalities into the White House, talks very much the same way. A pleasant, undogmatic, unassuming man who does not fit anyone’s stereotype of the academic, Dr. Goldman expatiates on the need to forget the ideological confrontations of the Nineteen Thirties.
“The idea is that we are beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’; we have reached what has been called ‘the end of ideology.’ The operative idea is to use brains to the end of solving particular problems, not impose any particular philosophy on the community.”
So this is an idea that we’ll touch on more in a second, that third way, Wall Street-backed groups like Third Way which emerged in the late 2000s, and now Andrew Yang’s iteration, which pretty much has many of the same kind of funders and rhetoric, is the idea that it’s not about right and left it’s about doing what’s evidence based.
Nima: Yeah, ‘we are beyond ideology. We’re going to use our brains, we’re going to use data, we’re going to use common sense, right? We’re going to use proven solutions.’
Adam: ‘We’re going to be empirically-driven, science-driven,’ and this is extremely attractive, especially to upwardly mobile professional types who comprise a lot of media and punditry. It says, ‘Oh, well, yeah, left and right are so lame and just want to follow the data,’ right? It has a very attractive appeal, because that way, you don’t have to make any kind of messy argumentation or philosophical points or there’s no real sort of objective you’re fighting for, there’s no real end game, there’s no vision. It’s just as the data comes in we’re going to tweak here and there around the margins.
Nima: To really kind of hammer this point home, and going back to Dr. Eric Goldman, who was referenced in that 1964 article, Goldman is perhaps best known for his 1952 book entitled Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform. Recounting the main thrust of the book, author Priscilla Roberts wrote about 40 years later that Goldman, quote:
“…argued that the fundamental liberal tradition of the United States was moderate, centrist, and incrementalist, and decidedly non-socialist and non-totalitarian. While broadly sympathetic to the cause of American reform, Goldman was far from uncritical toward his subjects, faulting progressives of World War I for their lukewarm reception of the League of Nations, American reformers of the 1920s for their emphasis on freedom of lifestyles rather than economic reform, and those of the 1930s for overly tolerant attitude toward Soviet Russia.”
Now, this phenomenon was certainly not limited to the U.S., it’s not a purely American notion to claim that you want to be neither right nor left. So in the late ’70s, neo-fascist political factions in Italy known as “Spontaneista groups,” according to scholar Giacomo Loperfido, often referred to themselves as, quote, “neither left nor right,” taking cues from fascist European groups from the 1920s and 1940s that fashioned themselves as neither socialists nor capitalists.
Similarly, a neo-fascist organization called Third Way arose in 1980s France, adopting the slogan, “Neither trusts, nor Soviets” — again, an ostensible condemnation of both capitalism as well as a rejection of communism.
Adam: So here in the US and the UK, in the 1990s, we saw emerge a more centrist current that used similar rhetoric, but towards totally different means, this idea that there was a Third Way, which post-Cold War was not really or I guess the tail end of the Cold War and post-Cold War, we reached the end of history now there was no real needs for isms.
Nima: End of ideology, end of history, facts only now.
Adam: And this would embrace capitalism and neoliberal ideology, but neoliberalism and capitalist ideology, once you had won the Cold War, or you were perceived to as about to win the Cold War, were no longer ideologies. They were like gravity or climate change. They were sort of just accepted science.
In 1985, as a reaction to the electoral victories of Ronald Reagan, centrist Democrats led by political quote-unquote “strategist” Al From formed the Democratic Leadership Council, or the DLC, which they described as a, quote, “reform movement that is reshaping American politics by moving it beyond the old left-right debate.” What this really meant, of course, was that the Democrats would become more right-wing in an attempt to court Reagan voters, and more importantly, Reagan donors. Among the DLC’s signature causes were, quote, “spurring private sector economic growth, fiscal discipline and community policing,” unquote, as well as, quote, “work-based welfare reform, expanded international trade, and national service.”
So they were going to win elections by basically co opting Republican ideas and having two Republican parties, one that was a little more socially liberal and a little more fiscally liberal, as it were, and that way, those are basically your only two options. Ostensibly, this was done for pragmatic reasons, but of course, it was also done for ideological reasons. The DLC’s most prominent members included Al Gore, Joe Biden, and of course, Bill Clinton.
Nima: Now, the DLC’s prescriptions were made most visible during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and subsequent election. Here is an article from the New York Times from September 26, 1992, from a section in the paper dedicated to the presidential campaign, and the subsection about the Democrats was this headline, quote, “Clinton Says He’s Not Leaning Left but Taking a New ‘Third Way.’” The article covers Clinton’s response to attacks from his Republican opponent, then incumbent, George H.W. Bush, who characterized Bill Clinton as a tax-hiking liberal. Rather than counter with any sort of robust progressive policy proposals, of course, Clinton’s strategy was to position himself as a “third way” Democrat Adam, neither left or right. The very same month that this New York Times article was published, again, September 1992, Clinton had already begun to brand himself as a quote-unquote “new Democrat” who would lead the country into an era of change.
Now, spoiler alert, for those who were maybe not around then or just don’t remember, but Bill Clinton was, indeed, not leaning left, but he was definitely, actively leaning right. There was no “Third Way.” This was merely a sneaky euphemism for having a Democrat kind of lean right and offer right-wing policies such as gutting government spending on social programs. After all, post election, what were some of Clinton’s most famous legislative victories? The 1994 crime bill of course and “welfare reform” bill two years later in 1996, to name just a couple, both of which expanded the carceral state while further impoverishing the poor.
Adam: What was the most visible gesture that Clinton did to show that he was quote, “a new Democrat?”
Nima: He ensured that someone would get the Death Penalty.
Adam: Yeah, he very very conspicuously flew down to Arkansas from the campaign trail in New Hampshire in January of 1992 to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who at that point was severely mentally intellectually disabled, and made a huge show of it that he was a new Democrat, that unlike Dukakis, he was going to be tough on crime — wink wink wink — and do welfare reform — wink wink wink wink wink.
Nima: Right, because Michael Dukakis four years earlier had lost the election to George H.W. Bush, I’m not going to say solely because of, but he was famously, and then perhaps infamously, anti-death penalty.
Adam: Yeah. But that’s always kind of been an excuse for why Clinton had to go right, right? I mean, that’s kind of bullshit. I don’t think that’s why Clinton went to go oversee someone getting executed. I think that was partly it, and I also think he’s long he had long, long before that supported capital punishment.
Nima: He had been that, he had been that guy, sure.
Adam: Right, which is why he was handpicked. And this influenced politics in Britain as well. Tony Blair attempted to do virtually a carbon copy of the Clinton campaign and he would take cues from him. In 1997, just before becoming Prime Minister, Blair delivered a speech pledging to maintain the policy of selling off state-owned enterprises and properties. Blair couched the announcement in language about so-called quote-unquote “public-private partnerships” as a third way rejection of both “state control” of industry and laissez-faire governance of industry. So let’s listen to that clip right now.
Tony Blair: We believe in our relationship with business and industry, there is a third way, a new way between some command economy, state control of industry, and the politics of laissez-faire. This third way seeks a partnership between government and business but this time limited to certain key specific objectives, whose aim is not to undermine the market, but to enhance the dynamism of the market.
Nima: Now, of course, Tony Blair was simply announcing the continuation of already existent right-wing policies of privatization in the UK. Never mind that the effect of this “public-private” partnership is invariably to further privatize public goods, not often the other way around, offering massive giveaways to corporations at the expense of the public. But these points are obviously and conveniently omitted.
Now, Clinton and Blair both sought to broaden the Third Way ideology, meeting together in 1998 in order to, to quote a contemporaneous Washington Post article, quote:
“give formal direction to the general trend in which liberal, labor and socialist parties are abandoning government ownership of major industries and tax and spending programs that aggressively seek to redistribute income.”
Now, 1998 was also the year that London School of Economics director Anthony Giddens published his own book entitled — what else Adam? — The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, which, according to Foreign Affairs magazine, made the following illuminating arguments: that unemployment benefits increase joblessness and that rights, quote, “come hand in hand with responsibilities,” end quote. Giddens would provide a blueprint for Tony Blair’s subsequent policymaking.
Adam: The momentum generated by Clinton and Blair, and other neoliberals — because they are, of course, neoliberals — resulted in the codification of Third Way politics. In 2005, a think tank based on these politics — or what we call on the show sometimes anti-politics — was founded, aptly named Third Way. Since its founding, Third Way has been on a crusade to move the Democratic Party further to the right, namely through gutting social spending and broadening corporate power. Over the years, Third Way executives have published op-eds in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post denouncing policies like universal pre-K, Medicare, Social Security, and other forms of what they call quote-unquote “liberal populism.”
Nima: Ah, yes.
Adam: It may come as no surprise, then, that the majority of Third Way’s funding comes from wealthy corporations. The think tank’s board of trustees roster includes real-estate developers, venture capitalists, billionaire hoteliers, investment bankers, and so on. In 2013, according to The Nation, Third Way senior Vice President Matt Bennett conceded that, quote, “the majority” of Third Way’s donor support came from the group’s board of trustees, most of whom were from the finance sector. Bennett declined to specify further.
Nima: Throughout the 2010s, we’d see other right-wingers parroting much of the same rhetoric. Rand Paul, for instance, released a book in 2015 entitled Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America, in which he claimed to go, quote, “beyond the left-right paradigm kind of thing,” end quote. In a 2016 book, Fox News’ Glenn Beck stated that fear mongering quote-unquote “progressives” were, quote, “on the right and the left,” end quote. In an interview, Beck added, quote, “I believe we’re in America 2.0,” end quote.
We’ve seen this with French politicians in recent years as well. Marine Le Pen’s hard-right Front National party slogan is “Ni droite, ni gauche, Francais,” which means “Neither Right, Nor Left, [but] French.” Meanwhile, during his presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron ran with a similar slogan, quote, “neither left, nor right,” end quote. Yet Macron’s governance has been overwhelmingly right-wing, including appointing center-right politicians to his cabinet, considerably reducing taxes paid by the wealthy, making it harder for immigrants to acquire asylum in France, and seeking to dismantle worker protections.
This is a popular trope among conservative hucksters of course. Writing in his book The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly does much of the same thing. Here is an excerpt from his audiobook.
Bill O’Reilly: If you haven’t seen The O’Reilly Factor, you might be wondering whether I’m conservative, liberal, Libertarian, or exactly what. I hope you’re still wondering after you’ve listened to this program. See, I don’t want to fit any of those labels, because I believe the truth doesn’t have labels. When I see corruption, I try to expose it. When I see exploitation, I try to fight it. That’s my political position.
O’Reilly would later tell NPR’s Terry Gross the following year:
Bill O’Reilly: I’m not a political guy in the sense that I embrace an ideology. I mean, to this day, I’m an independent thinker, I’m an independent voter, I’m a registered Independent. I basically look at the world from the point of view of let’s solve the problem, right? Whatever the problem is, let’s find the best solution to it. And if the solution is on the left, I grab it. If it’s on the right, I grab it.
Adam: And fellow Fox News huckster, Glenn Beck, would often employ this, ‘I’m not about right and left,’ he always says, ‘I don’t just support Republicans or Democrats, I’m all about the truth.’ He would traffic and similar superficial rhetoric. Here’s a typical rant from 2009 when he was promoting the 9–12 Project, which was about America unifying, just like they did on 9/12, which as we know worked out great for a lot of parts of the world. So let’s listen to that now. It’s really exquisite, audience flattering hucksterism.
Glenn Beck: Hello, America. They’re waiting. I’m backstage right now at Fox, I’m getting ready to show you that you are not alone. This is your country, you’re still in control, but it seems today, like nobody gets it. You know, you’ve lived your whole life in a responsible way. You didn’t take out a loan that didn’t require any kind of proof of income. Yet, now you’re being forced to bail those people out. You’ve been concerned about this country through the last administration, in this administration. If you’re like most people, both administrations, it’s not about politics, you actually believe in something, and you thought for a while there, your politicians did as well, and now you kind of realize, well, maybe, maybe they don’t.
Adam: I love this so much. Because it’s like you criticize both administrations. Like, no you didn’t. Not really. No, 90 percent of your criticisms are aimed at Democrats, because you’re at a partisan network.
Nima: Yeah. And then you’re doing a conspiracy theory, chalkboard weirdness with Obama’s name, but like, no, you, you just want to have the facts guide you, you just want to, you just want to know how to kick your feet up after a hard day of work, you just want facts to guide you. You’re not about ideology.
Adam: Yeah, and it’s so good because Glenn Beck, like a lot of these people, understands that the American brain doesn’t like to feel like they’re being labeled or they’re predictable, that everyone grows up watching John Wayne and Jack Bauer and all these badass independent rogue people and they think, ‘I’m that fucking guy.’ ‘I can’t be boxed in.’ ‘I don’t play by any ism.’ And it’s like, so exquisitely modeled towards that person. At the end of the day though, what he’s selling you is just pat Republican, conservative, corporate ideology, right? But you don’t want to say that because especially after the economic crash, and the Wall Street bailouts and the shit fire that was the last three or four years of the Bush administration, you know, lowest approval ratings ever, that needed to be rebranded, and so, again, this not right and left not, you know, you hate both administration’s rhetoric is so timeless, because you can pretty much jam whatever you want into it. Barack Obama has done a sort of version of this prior with his 2004, you know, it’s not about blue states and red states, it’s purple this or whatever —
Nima: That was like political rhetoric, just slightly. Yeah.
Adam: But it wasn’t really his primary schtick. Bernie Sanders can sometimes traffic in this language, but he does it more like people are frustrated with both parties, which is slightly different, right, because it is true that both parties do suck. But I don’t think he sort of shies away from the fact that he’s on the left, right? He sort of embraces that.
Marianne Williamson went on Jesse Watters on Fox News, Jesse Watters is the most vile person on Fox News, which is saying a lot. He rose up the ranks of Bill O’Reilly by basically harassing homeless people in Penn Station, and doing these gotcha interviews with homeless people and harassing them. He incited violence against the abortion doctor George Taylor, who was later assassinated, just the biggest scumbag in the world, of course, now he has pretty much his own afternoon show on Fox News. And she went on there last year and said, quote:
“The real political divide in this country is not between Left and Right; that’s an almost cartoonish version of our political reality. The real political divide is between the powerful and the powerless.”
This rhetoric just makes me want to fucking pull my hair out. So I responded to that tweet that she tweeted out saying that, and she posted with a video clip of her and Jesse Watters, who, again, I know if you’re a politician, you have to, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with going on Fox News, I don’t believe in staining people because if you’re getting your message out, that’s fine. But if you do go on Fox News, and you parrot this crypto right-wing bullshit to flatter because, you know, Jesse Watters is nodding the whole time, yes, because basically what he’s saying is it’s about the right. I do think that’s pretty shitty, and to her credit, she actually did respond and say, ‘Oh, I actually meant this and sort of wanted to clarify,’ because I was like, if you say it’s not about the left and right it’s about the power and powerless, then it’s about the left and the right, because the right typically is the system of power and the left is trying to change that power. It’s not always that simple but it’s broadly true, and that broadly true political, the right/left dichotomy broadly does explain the world, that the typical centers of power that she’s referencing corporations, the military, industrial complex, wealthy interests influencing politics, environmental destruction, oil companies, these are on the right. What I think she means to say is it’s not about Democrat and Republican, which is slightly more true, but also equally pretty fatuous if you don’t really explain what precisely you mean by that, and whether or not you think the problem with Democrats is that they’re too right or too left. And again, I know that the average person cannot necessarily fit into these gradients of right and left but I do think broadly speaking politicians do and should, because that’s the way in which politics articulate themselves, and this is a similar framing that is popular with Andrew Yang.
Nima: Yeah, I think one of the best recent examples, and in part, the impetus for this entire episode is the rhetoric of Andrew Yang and his so-called “Forward Party.” Now, Yang famously trial-ballooned his above-the-fray kind of message during his techno-libertarian campaign for the 2020 presidency. Here is Andrew Yang speaking at the second 2020 Democratic debate.
Andrew Yang: I have done the math. It’s not left. It’s not right. It’s forward and that is how we’re going to beat Donald Trump in 2020.
Nima: So, Yang has continued this ever since. Of course, his putative third party, Forward, was officially formed in October 2021 as a political action committee, a PAC. In July 2022, the already dubious Forward Party merged with the equally dubious Serve America Movement, as well as the Renew America Movement, both of them helmed by current and/or former Republican political officials. Now, Yang quickly got to work as Forward’s hype man, co-authoring an announcement of the party’s formation with the other parties’ top brass, which the Washington Post ran on July 27, 2022. Here’s an excerpt outlining the party’s centrist bona fides, complete with cartoon-villain depictions of — what else? — not the right, but the quote-unquote “far left.”
Nima: Here is from the party platform, quote:
“On guns, for instance, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to confiscate all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, but they’re also rightfully worried by the far right’s insistence on eliminating gun laws. On climate change, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to completely upend our economy and way of life, but they also reject the far right’s denial that there is even a problem. On abortion, most Americans don’t agree with the far left’s extreme views on late-term abortions, but they also are alarmed by the far right’s quest to make a woman’s choice a criminal offense.”
Adam: Here’s these two positions that I’ve kind of straw manned and and we’re right in the middle, and the middle, the golden mean fallacy on steroids here.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: And so he posted a pic, he posted this picture on Twitter. It is just two panels, one of which says “Partisans” and the other one says “Forwardists,” we’ll put it in the show notes.
Nima: It’s a square divided into two rectangles side by side. Right.
Adam: Side by side “Forwardists” is a triangle with three different sub triangles. Anyway, it’s obviously bullshit. It was pretty skewed media. We’re not saying anything new. This was from August of 2022.
Nima: So, Andrew Yang tweets these two images out, “Partisans” versus “Forwardists,” right, with this message, quote, “If we stay falsely divided by the media into two camps we clash and clash and nothing gets done. But if a new dynamic emerges real change is possible.”
Adam: What does that mean? I don’t know what that means.
Nima: Means he’s moving forward Adam.
Adam: So as others have noticed, and I wrote on my Substack, I wrote an article called “Andrew Yang and the Superficial Appeal of the ‘I’m Not Left or Right’ Guy.” The Forward Party is bankrolled and merged with the Renew America and Serve America PACs, whose funders are not transparent. However, you can infer some of their funders, they’re similar to other third way initiatives, where they’re funded by wealthy backers. This project is backed by Silicon Valley, hedge fund, and Wall Street money. As Rafael Shimunov has noted, Serve America Movement’s co-founder Eric Grossman led Morgan Stanley’s legal department, while Christine Todd Whitman, co-founder of the Renew America Movement and former governor of New Jersey, is a banking heir and a big fan of stop-and-frisk. Additionally, Serve America is majority funded by former vice chairman of Philip Morris, Charles W. Wall, of the getting kids to smoke cigarettes fame. And so when he first announced it last year, everyone’s like, ‘Okay, this looks stupid,’ but seemed harmless enough, but then he re re launched it this August, and it was clear that he was merging with Republican-backed, corporate funded-backed organizations. So we’re just rehashing third way? Well, a lot of people are fooled by this shit. I mean, Andrew Yang does have followers. But we want to be very clear here before we move on to our guest, there are legitimate frustrations with our two party system.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a reason why this is so appealing, right? And it’s kind of what makes a lot of this third way, neither right nor left messaging so kind of sneaky and insidious, because yeah, in large part, it tries to address or it kind of pretends that it’s going to address a very real public frustration with American institutions, with American media, with American political mechanisms. It’s a lot of what we actually talk about on this show. It’s just that it’s not done genuinely.
Adam: Well, it’s not channeled to actually good things.
Nima: But this is a widespread feeling, right? This frustration with a political party binary, where, you know, neither party can be trusted. In a January 2022 NBC News poll, 44 percent of participants said they viewed the Republican Party negatively, while 48 percent said they viewed the Democratic Party negatively.
Confidence in American political institutions is also incredibly low. Earlier this year, Gallup found that only 23 percent of poll respondents had a, quote, “great deal/quite a lot” of trust in the US presidency. For Congress, that number, as always, bottom of the barrel, this year it was 7 percent approval. Also according to Gallup, as of July 2022, just 16 percent of American adults said they had, quote, “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. For TV news, it was 11 percent. Now, both readings were down five percentage points since the previous year’s poll. Gallup reported these numbers as record lows.
Adam: So, there’s obviously widespread frustration with this idea that both parties are working for the same people, again, this gets muddied and all kinds of bumper sticker politics about how they’re all the same, it’s everyone just looking out for number one kind of, you know, sort of faux populist rhetoric, and there’s a real place for those who are trying to advance some more left-wing economic populist agenda, whether it be candidate or particular proposal, there’s a real opportunity to take that vague kind of generic frustration that a lot of Americans have, and channel it into things that are good, and there’s a real opportunity for people on the left or people who are trying to create a working class movement, of working class policies to speak to that frustration, but there’s so much money and so much incentive and so much media attention paid for those on the right or on the corporate center, which is really the right, another version of the right, or the fascist right, to take those frustrations and channel them into what is either just churning out Republican votes or pushing the Democratic Party further to the right, and we think that that’s dangerous and that the frustrations are real and the vague feeling of sort of getting at something but it’s being misdirected by hucksters and demagogues.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republic and a columnist at The Guardian. You can also find his writing at The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Magazine. Osita will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Osita Nwanevu. Osita, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, glad to be back. Thanks.
Adam: So, the not left or right guise, a spiritual successor to our episode on polarization, which you helped us out with some many, many, many months ago, because we think it sort of appeals to a similar current of narcissism and is equally kind of superficially attractive, it falls into the distinct category we can anti-politics, which is to say looking like you’re saying something profound, but most of the time, you’re really not. This third way gambit that we’ve discussed at the top of the show, it’s been around for a while, and takes on various iterations throughout the years, but the most recent and most popular version is this Forward Party fronted by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Silicon Valley guy, sort of vaguely, which is really kind of a rebranding of two different third way Republican groups, the Renew America movement and the Serve America movement.
Nima: They’re doing things to America, and now we’re moving forward.
Adam: Yeah, they merged back in August. So, to sort of start off with, I guess, I want to ask you why you think we keep rebooting and rebranding the same kind of vaguely post partisan, third parties. Obviously, third parties are nothing new, but there’s a specific kind of slick, GOP connected and conservative Democrat, frankly, connected, third way rebranding every five minutes. What is the sort of big picture here at play for the donors from your perspective, and why do you think it gets the same kind of credulous media coverage every five minutes?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, so first, is that I do think that, although that we’ve seen various iterations of this kind of third party movement before, this does seem to me, you know, not being a rich donor, but sort of like projecting and trying to imagine what it’s like to be rich donor for a second, it does seem to me that this is a little bit of a different political moment than what we’ve experienced when we’ve seen these kinds of third party efforts before. I think that for a lot of centrist donors, right now, they look to the Democratic Party, and they see still mostly in their nightmares more than in reality, but you sort of see social democratic energy that they’re kind of worried and anxious about. They sort of were spooked by the Bernie Sanders movement and are wondering about the extent to which Democratic Party can retain a more centrist character, and I think that they look at the right right now in the Republican Party, and they see a party that while it hasn’t actually substantively broken from corporate America in any real way, it’s a party where you’re hearing more and more people talk about woke capital, talking about how mad conservative voters are about corporate diversity and climate investment, and so you know, again, while there hasn’t been a kind of substantive break we see in policy, it does feel very uncomfortable right now on the right in certain ways, and in ways I think are new to a lot of centrists. The other thing too I think they’re worried about is that if the Republican Party keeps going off the wall with cultural politics, I think there is an anxiety that that will lead to the Democratic Party, and it’s this kind of social democratic ferment that’s happening on our side of things, that we hope is happening, they see the cultural politics of the right as a point of vulnerability that might allow for more progressive politics to succeed. So I think that that is an impetus or set of motivating factors that are driving a kind of third way reinvigoration of interest in this kind of movement, again. But whenever these movements come up, I think it’s primarily a matter of trying to discipline the two parties and trying to push a particular set of narratives within the media. I don’t think anybody gives to Andrew Yang, with the expectation that the Forward Party is actually going to replace the Democratic Party or Republican Party, that it’s going to become a genuinely major party that’s going to contest elections in a real way. But I do think that centrist donors see it as a way that they can keep putting out a certain set of messages into the media. Entrepreneurs are good, low taxes are good, get out of the way of business, and work with them to achieve the social, and economic goals we all want. They want a kind of reliability, instead of institutions, putting those messages out there all the time, and I think they look at the Democratic Party and Republican Party right now, and they’re wondering whether or not those institutions are going to get the job done in the same way that they have in the past.
Adam: Yeah, it seems very much a sort of, kind of disciplining mechanism of the Democratic Party specifically.
Nima: The party to restore sanity.
Adam: Yeah, which is to say, you know, the only time you really see third way in the media anymore, and they’ve kind of morphed into a weird, initially they were supposedly, they put this pretend Thomas Friedman talking about, ‘I run for office,’ that, of course, never happened. But a lot of these groups and similar groups like Serve America Movement, Renew American Movement, the only time you really see them is really when they’re providing a foil in some left punching story in The New York Times about how progressives have gone too far, you’ll see like, third way says we need to not defund the police or third way is worried about immigration rhetoric that seems too inclusive. They sort of just show up, they constantly play the role of capital “V,” capital “C,” capital “V,” Very Concerned Voter, and they’re presented as this sort of, where the kind of gravity of the moderate center, the moderate center is implicitly viewed as being good and moral and democratic, that is sort of representative of this sort of normal center.
Nima: Non extreme.
Adam: Non extreme. And then otherwise, it’s not really clear what they do. I think they do some research here and there, and again, this is kind of the ghost of the previous iteration of third way, they’ve kind of morphed into another organization, as we discussed at the top of the show, but they mostly sort of exist to pop their heads in and talk about how far left the Democrats have gone, that seems to be their primary function, and it seems like they wanted to kind of reboot that by picking off this energy, this Yang kind of quasi subversive, even vaguely Bernie adjacent, just people who are just vaguely mad, and it seems like Yang was the kind of the face of that because his candidacy didn’t have, you know, some organic buy in to it. Yeah, I think it seems like it’s mostly just a disciplining apparatus. It’s a thing that shows up and then slaps the squad back into line every five minutes.
Nima: But that said, you know, I’m going to play the role, uncharacteristically maybe, of genuinely concerned voter here, right? And kind of throw out the idea here Osita that this isn’t just always the third way ploy. This isn’t always just a vanity thing, sparked only by donors. But there is maybe some kind of popular-ish appeal here, right? Genuine, widespread frustration in American voters that the two party system is broken or never has worked, it stifles people’s voices, stifles this idea of true democracy. Clearly, both parties are captured by wealthy elites that largely agree on many issues. Certainly foreign policy is one of them. Probably anti unionism is another one. Polls show Americans are increasingly cynical about this quote-unquote “system” we have. Media is no good. Institutions are no good. Post office is no good. Congress is the worst, can’t trust anyone. And so this skepticism about elites, and our political system is very real. So, where do you think this kind of Yang, third way, neither left nor right guy schtick kind of lands in that? Where do you think there is kind of genuine support there, and how does that square with the fact that the donors are just the same donors for the rest of our political system, so therefore, maybe there isn’t really a difference there?
Osita Nwanevu: You know, I definitely don’t think we should give short shrift to the fact that two party systems suck, and that our two parties do genuinely suck. They are really terrible, and if you ask the American people, we’ve seen this in survey after survey over years now, American people very clearly do want more options in our politics, you get high support in these surveys for the notion of a third party. Get very vague and kind of cloudy when it comes to what kind of choices that third party would actually represent as a matter of policy, but I do think that the basic intuition that American people should have more choices when they go to the polls, more viable choices that is, because they are other parties, is basically correct. The issue with Yang’s effort, is that it tries to position itself outside of politics and outside of ideology in a way that doesn’t satisfy I think that yearning, and that genuine, legitimate desire. So if somebody came along and said, ‘Look we need a left-wing party that is going to stand firmly for socialism is going to be a workers party or, you know, for social democratic values, we need some kind of distinctly progressive political party that will stand apart and aside from Democratic Party,’ that would make some sense. Frankly, I wouldn’t like it as much, but if Andrew Yang came out and said, ‘Look, I’m going to join up with Liz Cheney, and we’re going to do a conservative party that is self consciously and proudly conservative, but it’s for laissez faire economics and we’re going to get rid of all the culture war stuff, and we’re just going to do rapacious, clear cut capital,’ that would make the kind of ideological sense, right?
Nima: There would be something genuine in that, yeah.
Osita Nwanevu: Right.
Adam: Yeah, that’s actually how they marketed the original tea party, right? And then they ended up just banning abortion. But they were like, ‘Oh, we’re not about cultural issues. We’re just about economics.’ And I was like, ah, then they got in power and were like, ‘Oh, by the way, let’s chain the women to the radiator.’
Osita Nwanevu: Right. But so what Yang is doing is neither of those things. He’s saying that we’re going to create a party that is distinct for being not ideological, we’re not conservative, we’re not liberal, we can draw people in from either side that what we’re going to do is try to get the good ideas, the best ideas from where we find them, and just sort of cobble them together, and it’s going to be post ideological, and it’d be a way of bringing people together, and that’s the kind of pitch you get for a lot of these efforts, no labels is the one I think about a lot. But in practice, what you end up getting, if you actually look at the content of their platforms, most of the time is a kind of center, right, pro business, anti regulation, but you know, not quite as nakedly evil, as you know, dyed in the wool Republicans, that ends up being what you get in substance. The thing I think is interesting about Yang’s effort, though, and maybe a little bit distinct, and that speaks to the nature of this particular political moment and what’s novel about it, is that he seems to be front ending democracy. So if you go to the platform page, the first things you’ll see, I think, maybe the only things you’ll see, I tried clicking around, I didn’t really find anything else on there, but you have a set of democratic reforms. They talk about redistricting reform, they talk about protecting the votes and all things that I think most people, at least on the left side of things, would think that, you know, that’s good. People should be allowed to vote and not have their ballots thrown away and we shouldn’t have elections being overturned. That’s great. Why is that a distinct set of goals now or why should we understand that is something we have to detach from things like the For the People Act and rent electoral reforms, the Democratic Party has been pushing. I think the goal there is to say that look, you can have the pro democracy stuff as its own thing without attaching yourself to the rest of the Democratic policy agenda in terms of economics and all these other things Democrats want to run for it, there should be a way of talking about democracy and talking about only those narrow reforms that are inoffensive, and that aren’t attached to sort of expanding the actual power of ordinary people in this country. Separate that out, get people to think that this is democracy, and leave the other stuff aside, right?
Osita Nwanevu: And again, the point of this, I don’t think is to replace either party or to genuinely put Andrew Yang up there as the guy who’s going to be president or whoever they run as candidates, but I do think it is a means of saying in the media and to put out, you know, in newspaper columns, and in interviews and whatever else, the idea that we should be able to talk about democracy in a way that is non ideological, and that doesn’t lead to the empowering of the Democratic Party and it’s sort of political coalition. I think that’s the distinct goal.
Nima: That’s the secret sauce there.
Adam: Yeah, 90 percent of their platform is process. I mean, that’s what’s so fascinating, like we were talking about at the top of the show, but it’s like, no labels did a ton of stuff around oh, we’re going to fight for election reform and rank choice voting.
Nima: Just like vaguely pro democracy stuff.
Adam: These things that sort of sound good and they poll very well, polls love the stuff.
Nima: But the thing is that, fundamentally they exist, because they’re not, you can say you’re for that stuff, right? ‘We stand for common sense and good ideas.’
Nima: Because everything that they refuse to do, it’s kind of embedded exactly in what you said, Osita, which is they refuse to examine why there are those problems, they’re anti the problems, right? ‘We are anti-voter suppression, we think everyone’s voices should be heard,’ but then they’re not going to say why there’s voter suppression or who is suppressing votes, for what purpose, it’s just like problems exist from nowhere, and so you need good ideas, and market solutions, and then that’s their entire non platform.
Adam: Yeah, because one of the things I do want to talk about something that is distinct about the Yang iteration of this schtick, which is that he focuses a lot on quote-unquote “cancel culture.” In 2019 when he ran, I sort of was trying to figure out what his schtick was or what his appeal was, because he did have some small, quite a few small donors — he also had a lot of very large donors, Silicon Valley where he’s from — and I remember thinking, oh, this is the candidate for people who either have been canceled or are worried about being canceled, and he talked in his kind of very quiet, very reassuring, almost like a therapist, or like a hostage negotiator, kind of tone about how he was going to be more inclusive, and he wasn’t going to judge you, and we can’t judge people, there’s this sort of defensiveness, where he leads everything with, if you feel like you’re being pushed out of both parties, or you’re being canceled by the left, and you’re being, you know, you’re not a radical right-winger you can kind of come to us, and there is a sort of, kind of vague inclusive theme there, right? It sort of seems forgiving, like you’re going to be forgiven. I want you to comment on this concept, because basically, I think part of his appeal was that there exists in the center or center left in this country a contingency who thinks that the sort of woke police, as it were, have gone too far, and that we need someone to kind of come in, you see this a lot in center left media, the sort of the Atlantic, the you know, John Chait’s of the world. Do you think that that has any sort of meaningful appeal? Why is that now the thing a bunch of Republican donors are pumping money into? Do you think that has maybe some legs in terms of a political coalition or is that just like Atlantic writership?
Osita Nwanevu: I think it’s just about Atlantic writership. It’s not to say that there aren’t voters who are hopping mad about canceled culture who think that it is a deeply important issue, and they’re worried about online censorship and the fact that you can’t say the n-word and that there’s a constituency of voters like that, and they’re called Republicans. There’s enough people who are up for grabs in politics. As a wider issue, there have been several polls about this over the last couple of years. You ask the general American public, you know, are you sort of anxious about the extent to which people can’t say things or express themselves anymore in certain ways? And yeah, you know, you get a proportion, Americans who are thinking that way, and who have those anxieties. Is the live voting issue that’s driving the electorate? No, not in any way. I think Data for Progress did a poll actually earlier this year where they found, you know, north of 70 percent of people say that they don’t personally know anybody who’s been canceled. You know, it’s ridiculous to even have to ask these questions. But like, if you ask the American people what is actually going to sway their vote in November, what actually is at the front of their minds, it’s inflation, it’s abortion, it’s immigration, it’s crime, it’s jobs. It’s the central state of issues that determines every election, and you get the most talk about cancel culture and most sort of active, the most angst about it amongst people who are already conservatives and biting a lot of conservative media who are never going to change their vote anyway, and amongst political elites, and even frankly, even there, and I’ve been heartened to see that we’ve, I think we’ve had fewer and fewer of these, these columns now than we did maybe a year ago, two years ago, I think people are sort of tired out, it was always kind of a journalistic fat. That being said, I really do hope that when it comes time to vote in November, people are going to go around to the polls and meet up with people after they come out of the ballot box and genuinely ask them, you know, how much did Kanye West factor into the decision you just made in the voting booth? I really do hope we see that as a way of sort of putting this whole thing to bed.
Adam: Yeah, because I actually did a survey for an article I wrote for my column, where I looked at the Atlantic, New York Times and The Washington Post, and found they had read 28 different stories on canceled culture from May 1 to July 24 of this year — because I was comparing it to the how many stories they did on the overheating and prisons, and it was zero — and it definitely seems like, again, I’m not saying there are people who are concerned with cancel culture, but you’re right, they’re sort of mostly just Republicans or Republican voters, I should say, and this does seem, again, like third way or labels is kind of another avenue to sort of get more publicity. It’s a publicity machine in some sort of key ways, the goal is to kind of keep your face in front of the camera and keep your ink in the column space of the Atlantic or the Washington Post, and Yang has written several op-eds, sort of talking about the Forward Party, and there does seem like there’s an anxiety, you know, every time that Politico does these leaks about, you know, the Democratic consultants are worried about X, the sort of woke too far stuff. I mean, they do these all the time, and Washington Post just had one again, where they say they think the party is too much associated with being a bunch of —
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah.
Adam: Pro defund, scolds, and canceling this, and again, it’s a gradient, but the anxieties of the donor classes, which I think is the reason why Yang is attracted those same donors, does seem to focus on this idea, and I think the concern is bullshit, I think they’re ideologically more conservative, right? I think the concern is pretextual. It’s sort of, you can’t say, ‘I don’t like this thing, because I think men should be able to sexual harass, and we should drop the n-word.’ That sounds bad. You say, ‘Oh, voters are going to be concerned.’ Bill Maher does this all the time, you know, ‘I don’t care, but you know, Joe Sixpack in the swing state of Michigan cares.’ It does seem like there’s a focus on that as being part of the Democratic brand, which is ironic is Biden’s president. He’s like the least —
Osita Nwanevu: Well, this is kind of the point I’ve been making since the beginning of this presidency. I mean, if you wanted to have a battle within the Democratic Party about its overall direction, and you wanted to elevate a candidate who is going to stay to the middle of the country, and not try to push too many buttons, and Joe Biden was that person and he won the primary and he won the election, and to the extent that he is still facing political problems, he’s still underwater, you know, in terms of popularity, that should be an indication that all of that wasn’t enough, right? There’s something more that people expect from politics than somebody who’s going to flatter their sensibilities and seem like a stable, easygoing, kind of not PC guy. There’s more to it than that, right? We saw that with Obama. We’ve played this over and over again.
Nima: They’re both the third way guy.
Adam: That’s what’s so funny about this whole thing is that they won. Economically, again, maybe they’re more pro-union than they’d like, but like they’ve mostly won, and that’s what makes this so frustrating. Yang says, you know, we’re not left and we’re not right, and like, yeah, you’re fucking the Democratic Party.
Nima: That’s Joe Biden, who like, yeah, you want your guy to kind of not be that into cultural accountability for things and maybe pinches a waitress’ butt sometimes you’re like, ‘That’s my guy!’ ‘That’s my Yang!’ And they have that and yet, right, as you’re saying, clearly there is something more that’s expected. It’s not as pat as just ‘Oh, we want neither left nor right,’ because I guess maybe, do you think the idea that anyone is actually non ideological just falls flat on its face, like people maybe like to think they’re not, but actually know that they are.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, and we see that sort of empirically. So people who call themselves Independents, for instance, it’s this open secret, I guess, in political science, or people who actually look at these numbers, that most of the people are reliable partisans, they just call themselves independent, because they’ve been told by the press, and by culture, that being in the middle and not being attached to either party too much, is the way to be. That’s how you’re a good political citizen. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never voted for a Republican, it’s a matter of just sort of distancing yourself culturally and is a matter of your disposition. People have real, you know, they’re fuzzy, and they’re not always well defined, and they can contradict themselves in certain places. But people have real political and ethical intuitions that shape their politics and that’s fine. I mean, it’s how politics works. That’s how democracy should work. This idea that politics only works if you sort of abstract yourself into this entity with no commitments and you’re just sort of this thicket of ideas from nowhere, that you have to sort of combine in the right ways to solve problems. That’s not how society works. It’s not how people behave or function. And when we tell ourselves that I think that we do democracy a real disservice, and we make it work worse than it should.
Adam: So that’s a good segue to our next question, which is, I want to sort of do a little bit of pop psychology here, not to pathologize too much, but I do think there is something kind of uniquely American, again, it’s not unique to America, but I do think it’s more profound here, where there’s this idea that people don’t like to be labeled or boxed in. And you said, they’re kind of conditioned by media to think that as well, right? Bipartisanship is the holiest of holies but then when you get into the weeds of what people want, it sort of breaks down. Now, fundamentally, what kind of drove the impetus for this episode, and what made annoyed me more than sort of ideological beef with is that having grown up in an Evangelical Church and sort of seeing how you kind of work over an audience, the not right and left play was such an obvious smarm hucksterism, because it’s a vanity play, and Glenn Beck was so good at this. Glenn Beck was the master at this. ‘You’re not left, you’re not right. You just want politicians to work for you. You work hard all day, and you put your feet up afterward.’ It’s like there’s this appeal to narcissism. ‘You’re this Maverick, you’re above the fray, you’re not the left or the right, you’re not Democrat or Republican. You’re a free thinking fucking libertine.’ And there’s such working of the audience, there’s so much flattery of the audience that it just makes me want to fucking throw up because it’s like, you can just see this sort of smarm. It’s audience work.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah.
Adam: And Yang is very, very good at this audience work, and it’s sounds, again, because it superficially appeals to people’s narcissism. It’s like, yeah, totally man. I’m above it all.
Nima: But that’s why we’re told to love John McCain, because he’s the same kind of Maverick, even though he’s a Republican.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah.
Adam: So if you could indulge me for a second, could you kind of comment on that pathology? Again, maybe it’s not uniquely American, maybe it’s universal, but can you comment on that pathology a little bit, and maybe, if you will, as a sort of second part to that, talk about how that can maybe be directed into some policy that’s good. Because I actually think that Bernie Sanders did that, too. But I do think he actually had very high numbers with independents, and he did kind of appeal to this post-politics, but then I felt like, and not to be too much of a Stan here, but he would then kind of redirect you into something resembling a kind of social democracy. Can you both comment on the sort of huckster kind of con man play, and then say, well, maybe that con man play, how can you channel that into non evil shit?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, I mean, so I don’t know if that attitude or the desire to be seen as fully independent of external influences and attachments to ideology, I don’t know if that’s distinctly American, and might be, but one thing I do think is distinctly American — I’m going to sound like a broken record on this, for anybody who’s ever read me or heard me in these interviews — one thing that is distinctly American is the American Constitution, and I think it matters not just in the sense that it’s a bad political system that we’re working with, but it matters in the sense that it produces a particular kind of political culture. So every American goes through school, and comes away having been told we have the greatest rootin tootin democracy that anybody has ever created, we have this perfect document that was handed down to us from the clouds by these perfect men. It is this perfectly balanced system. All the pieces work really well, they were ingeniously designed, it’s great. And if you’re told this throughout your education, if the message is being reinforced by the media, if it’s actually being reinforced too but our political readers, at some point, you have to start asking yourself, well, if the system is so perfect, then why is it that we can’t get the things that we need to get done done? Why is it that workers don’t have enough power? Why is it that I can’t afford health insurance? Why is it that I can’t afford housing? Why do we still have these problems if the system itself is so great? I think that the answer that a lot of Americans turn to is, well it must be the temperament and the attitudes of the people who are occupying the system. If only these damn politicians in Washington, these clowns in Congress could get their act together and use this perfect system we’ve been handed down and the right way, then all these problems would be solved. It becomes a matter of figuring out the right political personality, and that can mean two different things. That can mean, what we’ve been talking about this episode, this kind of the sense that the right way to be as political actors is to detach yourself from ideology, become this kind of automaton that sort of rationally, independently sort of comes up with political solutions that are just kind of correct in this kind of abstract, nonpartisan way. That’s one way to do it. But the other version of that is actually Trump, right? The other version of that is saying, ‘Look, these guys can’t get their act together, we need somebody who’s a strong personality, who knows how to get things done from the business world, who can’t be bought because he’s a billionaire, that’s the kind of guy we need to put into our politics, and that’s going to make all the gears start turning the way that they’re supposed to,’ right? These are two sides of the same coin, the coin of understanding our political problems, as problems of personality and temperament manifested within political leadership when the problems we actually face are structural. Structural in terms of the design of our political institutions, and as far as the structure of the economy is concerned, but the American people aren’t told that. We don’t have a language really for discussing that in our politics still in the way that we ought to and so we keep coming back to these solutions that are about civility and comedy and compromising and all this kind of stuff, or conversely: fascism. Where we are going to now on the right. So that’s a long winded answer but I do think that that is, if there is a distinctly American political personality that is operative here, and that is fueling these kinds of third way movements, or these kinds of movements from political outsiders, it stems, I think, from the particular defects of the American system, and the fact that we aren’t encouraged to think critically about those defects, and I think this relates to the Bernie thing too, because, you know, as much as I really liked the Bernie Sanders platform, that was why I liked him as a candidate, for a lot of people it was about, you know, Bernie seems like a good guy, right? Bernie seems like a guy who was independent. I don’t know, you know, I haven’t read his website, I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about when he talks about labor rights, or this or that, but he seems like an earnest genuine person, he wears these like rumble clothes, and so he’s the kind of person who is not like those other politicians, he has the right kind of personality to go in there and change things. It helped Bernie Sanders, you know, as a political figure, but it still was not engagement with political institutions and economic structures in the way that I’m talking about. It’s still a kind of absence there that’s going to keep us going around and round in circles unless we’re willing to talk specifically and directly about power.
Adam: Yeah, because I think that people vaguely sense something’s wrong, and you’re right, because they don’t have the grammar to talk about the existential nature of these problems it really does become a, yeah, let’s sort of pick the guy with the right personality. I feel like we’d be remiss to not sort of acknowledge that that kind of genuineness is filtered through gender and racial lenses pretty profoundly.
Nima: But that’s what I think makes the whole Andrew Yang thing fascinating, because it’s not like there’s a personality to glom on to, it’s almost like, through all that, without investigating the systems, you rely, as you said Osita, on individuals, right? So, it’s the individuals who keep fucking this up, because we’re led to believe that the system is infallible, but people aren’t the problem. So who do we need? And then you’re like, okay, well, you can have what the media are telling us and what we can sometimes see as blowhard politicians on the left or the right, and what we want is someone who seems to care less, like why do people care so much in such loud ways? Why can’t we just have the quiet middle?
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah.
Nima: I think that’s this weird creation of this Forward Party nonsense that is almost like, yeah, yeah, you know, we know your concerns, but we’re not going to scream about it, and we’re not gonna go too far in either direction, we’re just kind of take these problems from nowhere, and bring them to the market, and that will be the solution. And people are like, yeah, alright. Except, again, who is actually supporting that? As you’ve been saying, is there an actual constituency there or is it really just donor forward, the forward in the Forward Party is actually donor forward?
Osita Nwanevu: I guess, in the same sense that I said that there was a constituency for the kind of raging anti cancel culture stuff and it’s on the right, I think that there is a constituency for the kind of mild mannered, ‘Oh, you know, let’s just sort of come together and figure out what works’ stuff. And it’s people who are already Democrats. I mean, those people exist. I don’t think that they’re a huge part of the electorate, but to the extent that they are a part of the electorate, I think you’ll find most of them comfortably ensconced within the Democratic Party, and I think those people to probably have a healthy distrust for people who, you know, like Yang are doing the same thing, but outside the bounds of the party. So yeah, I mean, I think that the only people who sort of not tethered down to a camp right now who are going to be receptive to Yang’s message are political donors who I think we know have real material interests in propping up these ventures over and over and over again. I don’t know that there’s any kind of mass support beyond that.
Adam: Andrew Yang shared a meme that one of his fans, who may or may not be organic, posted and it was like, ‘The corporations control both parties,’ and if you actually look at the corporations the one that’s under Democrat includes like five major unions, and I’m like, wait a second, those are corporations? You know, it was just such a fatuous vanity play that you sort of never have to make sense. It’s kind of just, you just have to sort of sound good to a certain group of, frankly, low information voter and maybe that’s sort of the point of this episode is I’m trying to reach maybe some of those people being like you’re being fucking scammed. By no means in a million years am I ever telling you you need to be a Democrat, because there are third parties, right? There are non parties, there are anarchists and communists and socialists and sort of all these sorts of various tendencies, there’s people who are syndicalists or whatever, union whatever. Go to do that. I don’t really care what your ism is, but don’t do whatever this fucking slick bullshit is.
Nima: So this has been great. But before we let you go Osita, we’d love to hear about the book you’re writing, you are what I can only imagine is mercifully offline right now, so congratulations for that. But it may be in service to the book that you are writing, which is called The Right of the People. Please tell us about it and let our listeners know when they can look out for it.
Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, so I’m extremely offline right now, and it is entirely in service to this book that I’ve been working on for the past year. It’s still a while out, I think it’s going to be 2024. But it is about basically what I was talking about in response to I guess a couple of questions ago. It is about American democracy from a kind of structural perspective. I think, as I’ve written before, people know this if they follow my writing, the American Constitution is just irreparably bad. We need to get to a point, not tomorrow, not in the next 25, 50 years, but a time where we do replace it with something else, and it needs to be part of an active conversation in politics, about how we get there, and the steps we can take to improve political democracy along the way. But I think another thing that I’m saying in this book, that I think is equally as important, is that democracy cannot function well and we can’t really say that we have achieved democracy as long as ordinary people are denied real agency and authority within the economy. Without that, political democracy doesn’t work very well and people are subjected within the economy to amounts of arbitrary authority that we would not accept from a state. You know, in the places where we spend most of our time, most of our lives, in places where we derive our livelihoods, we take it for granted that democratic principles don’t apply. Even though decisions are being made at the top of corporations often affect us much more directly, and much more immediately than decisions being made in Washington or in our state house or city hall. That’s not good. We can’t abide that if we really care about democracy. And so the conversation about bringing America closer to democracy for real, has to be not only improving our political institutions, but bringing democratic values to the economy, and I think that’s going to be kind of, that is, I think, novel grounds for the American progressive movement, you add a little bit of talk about ideas in this vein, of course the primary advanced by both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but I think that in the years ahead, we’re going to need to be talking a lot more about economic democracy and how we can bring it about.
Nima: Well, that sounds absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait to read that book, even if I have to wait until 2024. But we will leave it there. We have been speaking with Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republic and a columnist at The Guardian. You can also find his work at such publications as The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Magazine. And as just discussed, he is currently writing a book on American democracy called The Right of the People. So look out for that. Osita, thank you again, so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Osita Nwanevu: Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think what Osita said about it being a kind of brand of politics is true. It’s very much an aesthetic, that even if, you know, 95 percent of what Donald Trump promotes is boilerplate Republican policy, corporate tax cuts, bloating the military budget, you know, etcetera, but he has this aesthetic of being —
Nima: Yeah, it’s a vibe.
Adam: And I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with the vibe. Again, Bernie Sanders has that vibe, to some extent, it’s an aesthetic, but it’s channeled into something that we would argue is far more humane, valuable and genuinely populace than what Trump sells, and I think that people want someone who can speak to those frustrations, and, you know, all politicians do it. It’s, to some extent, everybody has some bullshit applause line about, you know what I mean? Biden, does it. Bush did it. I mean, everybody does it.
Nima: Well, because you don’t want to be like I am and idealogue, right? Because then that’s like the worst thing you could be in American politics.
Adam: Yeah. You want to be everything to everybody.
Nima: We’re all smart. We’re going to go forward together.
Nima: We’re going to be forwardists.
Adam: I do think it’s like 60 percent sort of what people are conditioned to think. I think it’s a top down thing, but a part of me thinks that is also just kind of like 70 percent a top down kind of propaganda thing that’s captured most people’s understanding of politics, and I do think it’s born from an organic frustration, but I think it’s like 30 percent really just a vanity thing. Not to psychoanalyze too much, but I really do think it’s like, everybody wants to be a Maverick, and that rhetoric appeals to that kind of narcissism which is why it’s so popular.
Nima: I’m not captured by any one way of thinking.
Adam: Yeah. Nobody wants to be in the box, man.
Nima: ‘I’m outside the box.’
Adam: I’m not a joiner. I’m not a lever puller. I ride a motorcycle and smoke cigarettes and ride off into the sunset. Yeah, you know, that’s what I always, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me when I see Andrew Yang, you know, it’s like, you know, you’re not about the right and left and Glenn Beck, you know, you criticize both parties. It’s like, shut up.
Nima: ‘I’m an independent. I’m non-partisan.’
Adam: It’s just so smarmy.
Nima: ‘I just also happen to believe in totally free trade and locking up all homeless people.’
Adam: Yeah. ‘I’m a rebel libertarian.’
Nima: ‘It’s incidental. I just follow the data.’
Adam: ‘My opinions are 87.6 percent what was Fox News.’ So pretty much they’ve done their job.
Nima: Right. Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 9, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.