America’s culture war only seems to keep getting more ferocious. And while the battle lines were once clearly demarcated between liberals and conservatives, they are now more complicated. Over the past days alone, there have been fierce controversies over whether a white high school student was wrong to wear a Chinese dress to prom, whether Michelle Wolf was wrong to comment on Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ makeup, and whether Joy Reid has adequately dealt with homophobic comments she made on her blog in the late 2000s.
In this conversation from The Good Fight Podcast, which has been edited for length and clarity, Anand Giridharadas and Yascha Mounk don’t focus on these controversies or stake out their respective positions in the nation’s multifront culture war. Instead, they try to stake out how the different sides might start to understand each other and work toward the terms of a peace deal.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to The Good Fight wherever you get your podcasts.
Yascha Mounk: You recently wrote a really interesting piece in which you argue that we thrive on outrage because we hate the people on the other end of the political divide. We thrive on outrage because it makes us feel good about ourselves, because it shows our commitment to the values that our side embraces. And you have some really interesting suggestions about how we might be able to be self-critical about that, to actually push ourselves to better understand the causes of the other side’s outrage.
Anand Giridharadas: Yeah, I tried to call for an outrage armistice. One set of causes of this age of anger that we’re living in is the condescension and neglect of rich people. But another very important, if not dominant, part of that story is the massive culture war that is coming with the transition of a county that’s essentially been run by white men for 400 years to a country that is seeing women empowered and becoming majority-minority.
So that’s something that I both see as a foreign correspondent returned to America and as someone born to Indian parents in Cleveland, Ohio, home of the Cleveland Indians.
Yeah. You’ve told me that your dad used to joke that your family were the original Cleveland Indians.
We were the original Cleveland Indians, yeah. “Dot not feather” was the joke at the time. It seems increasingly inappropriate, thankfully.
I think some old Robin Williams movie made that joke.
Yeah. All things trace back to old Robin Williams movies. So this transition that we’re seeing in America that is giving people so much heartache—this transition to a country in which women and people of color are equal and have a voice—is actually part of this larger phenomenon of the decentering of white guys who owned the currency of history for the last 500 years. It’s connected to the ascendance of India and China, of innovative potential in Africa and Latin America. What I observe in the United States is an enormous amount of anxiety on the part of those who are experiencing those changes as a headwind.
Of course, I am part of the America that is experiencing those same changes, for the most part, as a tail wind. And one of the ways I think about the moment that we’re in is: It’s very easy to just get cozy on the sofa on your side under the blanket, like we’re all partisans of the new America that is coming. But sometimes you have to try to go a little deeper and think about the idea that as much as I want this new America to come, I do understand—and have to understand as an obligation of my citizenship—how hard it must be to lose the certainties of the era that is rightfully dying. I quote Toni Morrison in the piece you referenced, and she has one of her characters say: “What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”
So what I try to do in this piece is think about the two poles of America. Woke America, which wants this new America to come as fast as possible. And Great America, which thinks that our best days are behind us and wants to reclaim them through the nationalism of Donald Trump. What I tried to think about is: What could each do to understand what the other is telling it, beneath what it is simply saying?
Anybody who has ever had therapy, or gone to a couples counselor, understands that often the thing people are screaming at you is not the entirety of what you need to understand. So what happens if we actually treat each other like a committed couple? If we say: “We’re going to get through this”? And by the way, while couples have the option of divorce, we really have to get through this as a country.
So walk me through the couples counseling version of each side of the debate. If you were the therapist, and you were looking at people who are on the side of Great America, what is it that they should hear instead of rolling their eyes? Instead of just calling members of what you call Woke America “snowflakes” or “SJWs,” or whatever?
So if I was doing that in this room right now, and let’s say I heard from each of these, I think I would look at the partisan of Great America and say: You don’t like the fact that the person from Woke America is talking about white privilege and male privilege, you find this very off-putting. You think they’re obsessed with race and gender. You don’t like what a big deal they make about transgender bathrooms. It’s so few transgender people—why make such a big deal about these bathrooms? You don’t like the fact that they don’t seem committed to free speech because they’re kicking these professors off campus, and it seems totally illiberal and out of step with American values. OK. Let’s go deeper. What are they telling you beneath that?
What I think they are telling you is that the free country that you think you live in—the country of the American dream that you think you live in and are defending—has actually never been for them what it has been for you. Their experience of the world is often that the world is unwelcoming, that the rooms they walk into would rather not have them there. That the tables they’re at would rather ignore them, that every room they enter feels like a fortress they have to penetrate. So what I would say to the person from Great America is: The people complaining about the lecture, or the transgender bathroom, or white privilege, are giving you an opportunity. They’re actually pointing out ways in which your vision of America can become even truer.
So if that’s what they’re trying to express, there are actually two reasons why people who aren’t members of Woke America have trouble hearing that. One is that they don’t feel like there is that commitment to American values. A lot of Woke America, they’d say, is not clamoring for inclusion under equal terms, under principles like freedom of speech, but actually rejecting freedom of speech.
And the other thing is something that, to be totally frank, I sometimes feel: Every time I go on Facebook or Twitter now, there is a sneering reference to middle-aged white men. I just turned 35, so I suppose officially I’m now middle-aged …
It’s really the middle-aged part that’s bothering you …
Yeah, it’s the middle-aged part that really hurts! But it’s also that there is an amount of ad hominem attack that can feel a little needless. And I can take it because you know what? My life’s going pretty well right now. But if I was frustrated, if I felt like the world isn’t seeing my talents, I don’t get to do what I want to do, my wife just left me, I have a shitty job, and I hate my boss, and then I go and see something like that? I think I’d be pretty mad. So what do you think Woke America should change in order …
Let’s turn around the couples counseling. I think you’re absolutely right that it goes both ways. By the way, this does me no favors in my circles. My circles are Woke America circles. And frankly, people are often uncomfortable with any kind of criticism being directed at Woke America. There is this sense that this is the inevitable future and people need to get with the program. And I actually don’t think that’s right.
If I were now speaking in our podcast couples counseling to someone from Woke America, I would say: When people on the right are saying things that are offensive or ignorant, that are angry, that frankly diminish your humanity and question the right of people like you to exist, to be in the country, to do what you do, there’s no need to excuse any of that. I condemn all of that. But if that’s the end of your analysis, you’re not doing your full job as a citizen—simply because letting that be is not a great strategy for the kind of country that’s going to be habitable for you.
What I would urge those in Woke America to hear is the fear and pain behind some of those kinds of thoughts. “Understand the fear behind something” is often taken to mean to excuse or forgive it. But I’m not saying that. From time to time I’m told, “Go back to your country!” or “Where are you from?” And I fight it with every ounce of ferocity to which I’m entitled. But understand where it’s coming from. Understand that there are people who were born into a country in which their social world was 96 percent white and men ran everything. Frankly, they never got the memo about a new world that was coming. They feel lost. Bereft. And the condition of having that kind of fear and pain is often being unable to say that you have fear and pain.
There’s sometimes a political fatalism in Woke America about those in Great America that I think is deeply self-defeating. Resistance is one kind of safety, and I think right now, given what we’re under, it’s a very important, immediate kind of safety. But the more durable piece that people in Woke America will feel is electoral. Let’s be real for a second: If you can just get 5 percent of the people who voted for Donald Trump to somehow, for some reason, feel like it was a bad decision and that we’re betraying our humanity when we make people feel degraded, the guy is done.
This, by the way, is something that I haven’t quite wrapped my head around. There are certain people in what I suppose you’d call Woke America who say: It’s just about racism. It’s just about the fears that what you call Great America has of cultural change and the rise of minorities, and so on. And therefore, what we need to do is to really emphasize identity issues all the way down because that’s what it’s really about.
Normatively, I get that. It’s a logical train of thought. But when you think about creating the country that you want to live in, then that seems sort of weird. If you thought that the causes of populism are a bit more complicated and that you can also appeal to people’s economic interests—or, yes, that there are certain cultural fears, but that they can be addressed by entering into conversation with them—then you have a way forward. But if you think that the cause of the Trump phenomenon is that what you call Great America is racist, and it’s always been racist, and it’s always going to be racist? Well, then the very best-case scenario is that you somehow get a majority that’s just big enough to win every election with half of the country hating you, and one of the two big political parties in the country intent on destroying the system. And that’s still a terrible vision of where we’re going to get to as a country.
What implications do you think that has going back to the couples therapy mode for members of Woke America who actually want to create a society that you want to be a part of, that you want to live in?
To me, that’s an extremely ambitious, hopeful message for Woke America. If you think this was entirely racism, then your best shot, as you said very well, is to cobble together a coalition of the anti-racists. At this moment, this is going to be a nail-biter every time. I think that’s selling Woke America short. Woke America at its best believes in dignity and decency for all human beings.
If it was willing to think about a movement centered on persuasion—as the abolitionist movement in the 19th century was—I think it would understand that you have to fight racism and also try to poach a certain fraction of people who may have some racist feelings or tendencies but are also discombobulated by an economy that sucks jobs to China and outsources their credit card telemarketer to India and has crappy schools for their children. And you may be able to get 5 percent or 10 percent of them to defect every cycle and come to you because you take on an issue like this.
Do you want to find an issue that unites everyone everywhere that no one talks about in politics? People’s hours. Every worker is irritated by how few hours they get, by how unpredictable their hours are, how they never know how much their paycheck is going to be. I’m just giving you an example of an issue that, if you got out there, and said: “I’m the hours candidate. I’m going to abolish this practice. You can’t hire people 28 hours so they don’t get health care”—a lot of people who kind of don’t like black people too much and wish there weren’t that many immigrants would go: “Yeah, but I really want my hours fixed. OK, I’m in.”
I think there’s a tendency in Woke America to think about what I’m talking about as selling out or not fighting hard enough to defend and resist. I just want to be clear: I am the first person on every social media platform to be told to go back to my country and receive threats of all kinds. I am pretty anti-racist because I’m the object of a lot of racism. But I do not think swatting it back is a total strategy. I think trying to persuade some of the people who may still be persuadable—and there’s actually a lot of them—gives me a better shot at living in the country I want to live in.
One of the ways in which critics of Woke America can go really wrong, I think, is not to start by saying: Obviously there are real attacks going on against all types of minority groups at the moment, and there’s no footnote and there’s no limitation to the ways in which we need to defend those groups. That has to come first, and that always has to be emphasized, precisely to make members of Woke America feel safer.
But the next thing then is to say: “Let’s have a conversation about what this society would actually look like. Let’s have a conversation together about how we create this society.” And you know what? We might have differences about that. I think freedom of speech needs to continue to be the basis of how we accomplish that society. Let’s have a conversation about how to make you feel safe within that.
There are two things actually that I think you’re right on. The two things I would say as reassurance to Woke America, to my fellow residents of Brooklyn, New York, is: No. 1, protect yourself and defend yourself at all costs. Resist that which despises your right to exist in dignity. And No. 2, absent force majeure, your vision is going to win. It’s inevitable.
One of the weird things about this dynamic is: The future is not contested. We are going to become a country that is majority-minority. This is going to be a country no longer run by white men. In certain fields, you see that faster than in others, but the train is moving. So part of the difficult thing here is to ask those in Woke America who are still on the wrong end of many power equations right now, but who are moving into a country that is more favorable to them, to start preparing for how they’re going to act as victors.
It’s a tough thing to ask people to be gracious and magnanimous in victory before they have won. The process of their victory, which is going to take place over decades in millions of little moments—in workplaces and at water fountains, in schools and on streets—is going to provoke so much fear and anxiety and racism and chauvinism and sexism that if the partisans of the new America are not magnanimous in victory, the victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one. And it’s important to make sure we don’t lose the country right at the moment that it’s passing into new hands.
I was once at a Muslim wedding in a Christian church on Staten Island in New York, and everybody was dancing to salsa music. Muslim wedding, Christian church.
That’s the America I love. You’ve just summarized the America I love.
Me too. And I was standing there thinking: This is an unbelievable country. And it’s easy to be down on it, but this moment here actually is not possible in many places that may have more generous safety nets than us, and may be more alive to issues of human dignity in other ways, and may have constitutions that put dignity very prominently. … That Muslim wedding in a Christian church on Staten Island, where everybody was dancing to salsa, was just a reminder to me. And the reason I bring that up is I think what the partisans of the new America need to do a better job of is convincing everybody that we throw a better party.
That’s right. And not to be addicted to the injustice. Which is to say that one objection to your image of that wedding is that for a lot of minorities in this country, life doesn’t look like that wedding. And that’s true. We’ve got to acknowledge that injustice, and we’ve got to fight against it, and we’ve got to overcome it. But we’ve also got to say what lies at the end of that struggle. And what lies at the end of that struggle is, for me, summarized by the wedding you described.
I want to make sure that we complete our project of couples therapy because we’ve done one half of it. We’ve talked about how members of Woke America are trying to say something that’s not always audible to members on the other side, and how they might change what they say. Now let’s talk about the other person, which to say the member of Great America. What do members of Woke America need to hear in what members of Great America are actually trying to say? And how can members of Great America change how they talk about that in a way that makes it easier for people in Woke America to hear them?
There’s such a bundle of things going on in the anger of Great America. Things like: “I don’t want there to be dark people here” don’t need to be said better or more empathetically. You’re never going to succeed with that. But in that stew there are also other things that do have the potential to be bridges if they are said differently.
Take Arizona, the state in which the gap between how white the people who are dying and how white the people who are being born is at its most gaping. And lo and behold, Arizona has some of the angriest racial politics in the country. So I think it would help if people in Great America could actually try to understand themselves more deeply. If they could say: “You know? I feel rattled by this changing reality.” Saying that you don’t want there to be more brown people in your state is not an acceptable, useful, constructive thing—and that may be how you feel. But it’s OK to say that a shift in your state, which is as precipitous as what has happened in Arizona—one that changes what it means to be in your community, that perhaps makes your church feel like less of a refuge than it felt before, that perhaps puts you in situations at a restaurant or at your office where you don’t feel at the center anymore—that that bothers you.
You may not be entitled to remedies for that feeling. But I think we actually do need to create a space for people to talk about being rattled by the new world. And I think people in Great America need to do a better job of being able to separate the legitimate feelings of change being hard from their desire to stop it. They need to tell us what’s going on with them. They need to tell us about the fear behind their anger, and we need to listen for it. They can also talk about the very real ways in which cultures that are more homogeneous have certain advantages. I’m not a particular fan of them, but there’s a lot of social science that shows that there are dividends—like trust between strangers and things like that—that do flourish more when people live in monocultures.
There’s a way of framing that as: “Oh, you think that white culture is better and there’s a terrible loss happening because white culture is being diluted.” But there’s another way of framing it as a form of nostalgia for how you grew up and what you had and what you were used to.
Yes. And part of what I’m trying to think about here is: If people were able to say, “Look, I understand this country is changing, but I just don’t feel the sense of comfort that I used to feel in my town,” then maybe people on the other side could say, “Yeah, I get that. Your town is going to change, but maybe if you actually understood some of these people coming from Mexico to live in your town, maybe you would understand that compared to some of the native-born people in your town, they have in practice some of the values around church and family that you’re nostalgic for. And maybe if you deepen your analysis and join this club or participate in that, you might actually understand their arrival to be a doubling down on the values you claim to believe in.”
How can somebody who does acutely feel the loss of the homogeneous culture they grew up in but who also recognizes the value of some of this change be understood by their neighbors? What would you say to them about how they can express themselves?
In true couples therapy form, I think they need to dig a little bit deeper. I think you could get people to say: “When I go to the Walgreens in my town, and all the cashiers are from another country, and I struggle to understand them, I feel like I don’t recognize my surroundings anymore.”
Again, I’m not ready to change our immigration policy to accommodate the feeling that they just described. I think that’s reality. But did I benefit from hearing it that way? Yeah. And are there some things we might be able to do to deal with what they just said? Could we think about social isolation in their town? Could we think about education? Could we think about using cultural programs, the opera, classical music, free movies on the lawn in the summer, to maybe have people meet, introduce themselves, maybe have some Mexican movies and some old 1950s movies? There’s so much you can do. But when people are just saying, “Get out of my country!” or “All you people are racists!” It’s hard to think about how you socially engineer a soft landing for people who are coming down from unearned privilege.
One of the hardest questions that I think about all the time, and you would be very alive to as a political philosopher, is this question of: What do you do with the loss of what is undeserved? Because I think the loss of what is undeserved is actually one of the toughest moral problems for a society.
I think about that a lot. In Europe, there used to be a very strongly monoethic and monocultural understanding of who belonged to the nation. It gave people material advantages and status advantages that were deeply undeserved. But I also get why it was important to people. If you’re not the smartest guy, if you’re not the richest guy, if you’re not the most successful guy and you don’t get a tremendous amount of love and respect in your society, there’s a real temptation to say: “At least I’m German,” or “At least I’m Italian.” Or, once more immigrants are in your country: “At least I’m a member of the majority group and we own this country and not that Turkish guest worker over there.”
I get the temptation. I get why something is taken away from you when society changes in this way. The thing that’s taken away from you, as you’re saying, is unjust, it’s unearned, and I’m not going to stop taking it away from you. But how do we manage that?
Precisely. If you’re listening to this as someone who studies these types of things, as a writer, as a journalist, I would say one of the problems I would like to deploy dozens and hundreds of people to think about, write about, research, figure out is what do we do about what’s going to be a decadeslong process of the loss of what is undeserved. And the reason it’s such a fascinating, vexing issue is that you can make both sides of the case very passionately and they both sound right. At one level, who cares about the loss of what is undeserved? If you didn’t deserve it, give it back! Who cares? If you steal my car, am I anxious about the fact that it’s difficult for you not to have a car anymore once the police find you and take it away? No.
On the other hand, we all know from the research of Daniel Kahneman and others that losing something is hard. It’s just hard. Whether you earned it or whether it was a lottery, it’s always hard to lose things. So the left emphasizes the undeserved part of the story: “It was undeserved, therefore these people don’t deserve help, consideration, fussing over. They’ve been fussed over for the last 500 years!” And the right emphasizes the loss.
As I said in the piece on the armistice, contrary to appearances, I don’t have another country. This is it. We’ve got to make this work. And this question of figuring out what we do with tens of millions of people who—in these years gone by and in the years to come will have to lose what was undeserved—is crucial to that. They will need to be coached into a new day. They will need to be persuaded that kicking and screaming for 30 years on the way to that new America is not good for anybody. They will have to be convinced that the Muslim wedding in the Christian church where everybody is dancing to salsa is a better party, even if it’s one that at first makes them uncomfortable.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus