Great Antidote Extras: Robert Tracinski on Left and Right Illiberalism

domestic politics anti-liberalism political polarization

Kevin Lavery for AdamSmithWorks

Lavery has some praise, some questions, and some disagreements with a recent Great Antidote guest. What do you think? 
We’ve all seen headlines akin to, ‘Americans are more divided than ever.’ But two factions which seem to agree more and more are the far left and the far right. For example, in March 2022 prominent members of the far right such as Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA) and progressive representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voted against a portion of the $1.5 trillion Omnibus Bill providing “$13.6 billion in defense and other aid to counter Russian aggression” through military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and other Eastern European nations. Another area the far left and far right share significant common ground with is their collective hatred for liberalism.

What are the greatest threats to a future liberal society? Are the far right and far left really that different? Robert Tracinski and host Juliette Sellgren discuss the future of liberalism, the link between freedom and democracy, and the value of YIMBYism (Yes, In My BackYard) on this episode of the Great Antidote podcast. Tracinski is the editor of Symposium, a substack and podcast about liberalism, a columnist at Discourse magazine, and is the author of many books, two being, What Went Right: An Objectivist Theory of History, and So Who is John Galt Anyway? A Reader’s Guide to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Sellgren opens the podcast with her trademark question, “What is the most important thing that people my age or generation need to know that we don’t?” Tracinski answers with a phenomenon we can all see in today’s youth, “tremendous pessimism” regarding climate change, seemingly endless student loan debt, and the difficulty of life today compared to that of the previous generations.

Tracinski states that pessimism has created, 
a great diversion into politics of people’s efforts, energy, and concerns. More people are obsessed with politics and people have observed that politics has taken the place of religion as a source of meaning and a source of identity…and it’s taken up so much bandwidth that ought to go into art and innovation…instead we’re focused on improving the world through politics and it’s actually one of the least effective ways to improve the world…living your life to the fullest is the best and most effective thing you can do to make the world better. 
Tracinski adds this pessimism has caught people from both the far left and right, seen in the endless battle of the “culture war.”

Sellgren next asks Tracinski what his definition of liberalism is. He goes on to state that liberalism is the pursuit of “freedom as a central value of an ideal society”. Tracinski adds the point that this definition has changed since the 70’s and 80’s to focus more and more on controlling the individual.
“When I was a kid, a liberal was George Carlin; Pro pro-welfare state, wanted a large government role in regulating industry, but was very pro free speech, very pro individual liberty…but that doesn’t describe today’s left. It certainly doesn’t describe the woke left.
One of the most intriguing sections of the podcast is what Tracinski concludes from this point. He discusses how liberalism has been caught in the “fake divisions of the left-right divide.” Tracinski explains his confusion that there are people who are liberal on both the left and right, and people who are very illiberal on the left and right, which blurs the lines between authoritarianism and liberalism.

At around the seventeen minute mark Sellgren asks Tracinski a key question, “what is the biggest threat to liberal society today?” She provides the example of speech codes and self-censorship on college campuses, which Tracinski agrees with, but puts it further down the list of threats. His choice is a little outside the box.
The biggest threat to liberalism is people accepting this left-right dichotomy…in Florida there have been a series of laws passed at the state level controlling the books and curriculum at schools…going into universities and saying, “we’re gonna get rid of critical race theory”, there’s been this conservative cancel culture.
To continue this point Tracinski concludes with his wish that liberals not view themselves as the center, but instead as the top of the political spectrum, “up in freedom”.

Sellgren subsequently asks a fantastic question, “what are the differences between the two types of illiberalism?” To which Tracinski responds with a slightly tongue-in-cheek remark, 
“I ask my kids, what is the difference between communism and fascism? It’s the shape of the mustache of the guy who kills you…but there are stylistic differences…they both believe the individual has to be subordinated to society…that’s their common premise.”
About half an hour in, the topic of the culture war is introduced. Tracinski believes many of the issues which people seem so emphatic about nowadays are meaningless, and, “just a way to get people to line up and show their tribal identity”. His examples are the infamous debate over the safety of gas stoves and the discourse around social distancing and wearing COVID masks. Tracinski’s point is that since politics has taken the place of religion, political theater has become rampant, hence diluting the presence of meaningful issues in political discussions today, such as with one side attacking something seemingly benign like gas stoves, and the other side rushing to emphatically defend it. However, Tracinski believes there are exceptions to this. Namely, the YIMBY movement embodies a “crusade against excessive regulation” to help reduce zoning and environmental restrictions preventing new housing being built.

From this Tracinski leads into the link between democracy and freedom. Tracinski admits that democracy can be used for mob rule to limit the rights of the minority, but also acknowledges the history of democracy protecting the rights of the less powerful minority from a tyrannical majority.
Inherent in representative government is the idea that everyone has equal rights, there’s no one born with superior rights, with superior ability to tell us how we ought to live…which ends up giving a tremendous protection for freedom against any small group or faction that wants to take away the ability of the individual to do something.
Towards the end of the podcast Tracinski states his optimism that Americans will soon shift away from anti-intellectualism and western populism, and “get back to discussing big ideas…focus on them…and become universal and global.”

Lastly, what has Robert Tracinski changed his mind about? Democracy. Tracinski used to reject the term democracy, as he believed it conflicted with individualism. He now appreciates the importance of voting and a peaceful transfer of power, especially after the January 6th riot at the capitol presenting a threat to the institution of democracy.

Here are a few questions I had while listening to the podcast. Feel free to share your thoughts as well.

1. How does Tracinski’s concept of pessimism feed into the agendas of both the far left and the far right? And how will a continuation or escalation of pessimistic attitudes shift the United States economically and politically?

2. Furthermore, if Tracinski is advocating for a free society, what’s the problem with people willfully choosing to divert their energy into politics instead of something like religion in order to “live their life to the fullest”? If people are not heavily involved in politics, how can individual freedoms be protected? Does this view contradict the emphasis Tracinski places on voting?

3. With his use of the phrase “conservative cancel culture”, Tracinski compares the fairly meaningless effect of online cancel culture with mass book bans primarily targeting LGBTQ people. Does Tracinski’s use of this phrase to describe book bans and other forms of republican speech control downplay the danger of far right speech restriction, or is Tracinski merely pointing out conservative hypocrisy regarding speech and exchange?

4. Tracinski says the arguments against liberal society can be better characterized as coming from, “down” on the freedom scale as opposed to coming from the left and right. If this is true, why do authoritarians on the left and right use drastically different arguments to attack liberalism?

5. Since most of the examples of a “threat to liberalism” highlighted in the podcast are coming from the far right (Trump wishing to rewrite libel laws, book bans), does this show how the far-right form of illiberalism has become much more of a significant danger to a liberal society than the left?

6. How will the political theater all too common in the “culture war” impact American democracy in the upcoming 2024 election?

However, I also had a few disagreements with Tracinski throughout the episode

1. Tracinski’s classification of “liberal vs illiberal” as the more meaningful political compass is somewhat flawed to me. Does Tracinski not see the glaring differences in ideology between socialism and fascism such as the rejection of hierarchy on the far left and the enforcement of hierarchy on the far right? For example, socialists and fascists agree on some semblance of central planning, but what are the reasons behind this and how do their separate rejections of capitalism manifest? Socialists want central planning to abolish private ownership of the means of production and private property to benefit the worker whereas fascists favor a mixed economy of crony capitalism and kickbacks to benefit the powerful owners of companies aligned with the state. Furthermore, socialists want mandated worker co-ops while fascists support bans on strikes and collective bargaining. If we imagine a fascistic utopia and a communist utopia, would the only difference in these worlds really be “the shape of the mustache” of the dictator leading it? I don’t think so, hence why Tracinski’s new dichotomy is flawed. Yes, both sides of extremists favor authoritarianism and their worldviews lead to brutal human rights violations, but this does not mean they are aligned in their goals or assumptions.

2. Tracinski’s observation of politics taking the place of religion, art, and innovation is not uncommon by any means, but is it correct? I don’t believe so. Foremost, religion, art, and innovation have always been heavily intertwined with politics so to force a dichotomy is strange. Tracinski is implying that those who are religious, artists, and innovators are less politically involved than those who are not, which is simply not true, especially with artists and conservative christians. Artists have been using their art to make political statements for centuries, such as Banksy and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Even Dante’s Inferno has several political references within its pages. Regarding religion, conservative christians have been consistent in their political activity throughout American history, whether the issue be slavery, same-sex marriage, school prayer, evolution, vaccines, or abortion, hence the combination of the words conservative and christian into a single label.

3. Tracinski states that the energy going into politics is inherently taking away from the energy going into art and innovation, which presupposes a zero-sum game between political involvement and artistic and innovative creativity. This misses the point that art and innovation are often inspired through politics and have become more intertwined. For some examples, Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’ and the film American Psycho are two works of art heavily inspired through politics. Furthermore, innovation and development in green energy is partly due to the concern around climate change and consequent search for renewable sources of energy.

If you enjoyed the podcast and/or the extra, here are some similar episodes and works from the Liberty Fund network:
Thomas Leonard on Race, Eugenics, and Illiberal Reformers, an EconTalk podcast episode
Alan Wolfe on Liberalism, an EconTalk podcast episode
Alberto Mingardi on Klein's battle for "liberalism", Econlib
Arnold Kling on Does Liberalism Destroy Liberty? a review of Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, Econlib
Bryan Caplan on Liberal Conflation, Econlib
Bill Glod, When Liberals Behave Illiberally, The Online Library of Liberty
Robert York on Adam Smith and the Tyranny of the Self, Adam Smith Works