6 episodes

Reactionary Minds is a show about why some people reject liberalism and what the rest of us can do about it.

Produced by The UnPopulist.

theunpopulist.substack.com

Reactionary Minds with Aaron Ross Powell The UnPopulist

    • Society & Culture
    • 5.0 • 4 Ratings

Reactionary Minds is a show about why some people reject liberalism and what the rest of us can do about it.

Produced by The UnPopulist.

theunpopulist.substack.com

    How the American Right Gave Us Both Reagan and Trump—and What Comes Next: An Interview With Matthew Continetti

    How the American Right Gave Us Both Reagan and Trump—and What Comes Next: An Interview With Matthew Continetti

    While both sides today have rather less respect for genuine political liberalism than they ought to, the ascension of far-right populism to the presidency, its near-total takeover of one of the two major parties, and its continuing efforts to establish control of our institutions and culture make the American right the most severe and immediate threat to our republic and our freedoms.
    However, just what the right is and what it means to be a conservative, if those are even the same thing, can be a bit slippery. The history of the American right and American conservatism is quite a bit more complicated politically and ideologically than many are aware. To help me tease out just what it means to be of the right, as well as the evolution of conservatism and conservative ideas, I'm joined by Matthew Continetti.
    He's a resident fellow in social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the new and genuinely excellent book The Right: The Hundred-Year War For American Conservatism.
    Reactionary Minds is a project of The UnPopulist. Hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Produced by Landry Ayres.


    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit theunpopulist.substack.com

    • 53 min
    Can Liberalism Make Peace Between the Future and Its Enemies?: An Interview With Virginia Postrel

    Can Liberalism Make Peace Between the Future and Its Enemies?: An Interview With Virginia Postrel

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    Reactionary Minds is a project of The UnPopulist. Hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Produced by Landry Ayres.

    The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Virginia Postrel, author of many books, including The Future and Its Enemies. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.

    Aaron Ross Powell: I’m Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist.

    We’re used to thinking about politics as a battle between left and right, progressive and conservative. But those sides can be somewhat protean, with their positions, preferences and policies shifting in ways that make it difficult to analyze the political landscape clearly.

    My guest today has a different way of framing politics—one she first set out 24 years ago, and one which looks more and more prescient with every passing day. Virginia Postrel is the author of many books, including The Future and Its Enemies. Her latest is the Fabric of Civilization. The core of Postrel’s framework for understanding politics isn’t left versus right, but dynamism versus stasis.

    Aaron Ross Powell: What does it mean to be a “stasist,” to use your term?

    Virginia Postrel: What I say in The Future and Its Enemies when I’m just laying out the basic distinctions is that dynamists, which is people like me, have a central value of learning. We can talk about that later, but the contrast is important, and stasists come in a couple of varieties, but their central value is stability or control.

    Then I divide them into what I call reactionaries, which are the people who are more into keeping things literally the same, not necessarily the status quo. It could be going back to some imagined past or creating some utopia, but the idea of a stable society. Then technocrats, who are much more common in liberal democratic societies, who say, well, we want progress—we want things to change—but it’s got to look exactly like this. Very much an early 20th-century idea of control and planning the future, so that progress becomes something not that evolves, but that is dictated.

    Aaron: When you say early 20th century and the rise of the technocratic position, is that because something new happened in the 20th century, or is it because prior to the 20th century, stasis won out because we weren’t moving very quickly anyway?

    Virginia: That’s a very good question—not one that I really thought about when I was writing this book many years ago. But I think what happened was the rise of large business enterprises, railroads and huge manufacturing corporations, vertically integrated enterprises where you had to have a range of control to operate the business. That all happened really beginning of the 19th century, where you had these much larger organizations than had existed before.

    They were very successful, and people developed new and genuinely innovative and efficient ways of doing things. And that led to an idea that if you can do this at U.S. Steel or General Motors, you should be able to do it for the whole society— that, in fact, because they were run by the profit motive, these enterprises maybe were a little inefficient and wasteful and duplicative (competition was seen as wasteful and duplicative). And so that you could do something about that [inefficiency] if you could plan the society in general. There are many forms of this in the early 20th century.

    Obviously, you have the full-blown state socialism, state ownership of the means of production, with extreme versions in places like the Soviet Union. But there were also much more democracy-friendly versions associated with Thorstein Veblen, who’s famous for The Theory of the Leisure Class, but who also wrote a book whose title escapes me at the moment where he contrasted the good engineers with the bad financiers. The idea was that if you could just set engineering princip

    • 57 min
    Why Donald Trump Poses a Unique Threat to America

    Why Donald Trump Poses a Unique Threat to America

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    Reactionary Minds is a project of The UnPopulist. Hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Produced by Landry Ayres.

    The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with writer Damon Linker, founder of Eyes on the Right, a Substack newsletter. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.

    Aaron Ross Powell: I'm Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. The mainstream of the American right, as well as the Republican Party, looks quite a bit different today than it did 10 years ago. Trumpism's rise and its near-total take over the GOP has fundamentally changed our political landscape.

    To talk through what's going on and to explore the best ways to approach understanding the evolution of the liberal right, I'm joined today by Damon Linker, author of the Substack Eyes on the Right. He's also a senior fellow with the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center and a weekly participant on the Beg to Differ podcast at The Bulwark. 

    Both of our projects, Eyes on the Right, and then this podcast Reactionary Minds, are about understanding the forces of illiberalism that appear to be more threatening today than they seem to have been in the recent past. What's your approach to getting at that deeper understanding?

    Damon Linker: First of all, thanks for having me on the podcast. I value quite a lot what you're trying to do and do think it's a shared project that we have here, and the more the merrier, the more the better for our politics. I guess what I try to bring to the discussion and analysis, it was something I talk about in my inaugural post for Eyes on the Right, which is a kind of empathy for what is driving people to embrace the populist right.

    Now, by that, I do not mean making the case for them. What I mean is trying to think our way into the minds of people who will find these messages appealing. What is it about the liberal order that has them feeling discontented? What has them receptive to these severe critiques of the liberal order? The method behind the madness, the goal of this approach is to construct a more effective response, to actually try to meet the populist right where it is and speak on the basis of its premises, rather than always begin from liberal premises where what you end up with is just talking past each other and rejecting each other's starting points without ever actually engaging with them directly.

    I guess the rationale would be, you have to move the two parties a little bit closer together before they can really duke it out over what's really at stake. That's, in abstract terms at least, what I'm trying to accomplish.

    Aaron: In that opening essay for Eyes on the Right, I had underlined that part about empathy because it sometimes feels hard for—I have a lot of friends who are deeply involved in gay rights and trans rights, for example, and to say to them, you should approach with empathy, understanding of people who are labeling you groomers and saying you can't have pictures of your same-sex spouse on your desk if you're a school teacher, or people who want to institute a Catholic theocracy over the country, these are really threatening things and really immediately dangerous things; Proud Boys showing up at pride events. It can be hard to say, if you're in that situation, just to think I should be trying to understand at an empathetic level, the people who are calling me groomers.

    Why Empathize With Extremists?

    Damon: Yes, I totally understand that, and it's a natural human response. In that respect, what I'm advocating is difficult. It's a challenge, and it works against the instincts that are provoked by our politics where both sides—I am guilty of often using the formulation "both sides", but I don't usually mean a kind of moral equivalency. It's a formal mirroring that tends to happen in partisan politics. What I mean is that both sides

    • 56 min
    Why Did Staunchly Democratic Counties Go for Trump?

    Why Did Staunchly Democratic Counties Go for Trump?

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    The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields, authors of the book Trump’s Democrats. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

    Aaron Ross Powell: I’m Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. A good way to understand the appeal of Donald Trump is to talk to the people who voted for him. One of the most interesting ways to approach that is to talk to voters and counties that flipped, long voting for Democratic Party candidates until suddenly in 2016, they didn’t. That’s the background for Trump's Democrats, a book that looks at three communities that turned to Trumpism after having been solidly blue basically forever.

    I’m joined today by its authors, Professors Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields of Claremont McKenna College. Their fascinating book explores why Trump clicked with these voters and why many of the very things that turned so many of us off about him were the very things they found so appealing. We’ll discuss machine politics, political bosses, honor cultures, localism and what it means to identify strongly with a narrowly circumscribed place. The story that emerges is a good deal more complex and nuanced than the easy tales we sometimes tell ourselves about us and them.

    Stephanie, Jon, your book is part of a genre we have seen come out of the Trump years, with academics and journalists going to small towns that voted for Trump, sitting in diners and asking Trump voters why they believe what they believe. I think your book is the best example of that I have come across, the one that I certainly have learned the most from and the one that puts the most work into really getting at the ideas motivating Trump supporters. Can you tell us a bit about what prompted this and how you approached this project?

    Jon A. Shields: Yes. Thanks, Aaron, for having us, and thanks for the compliment. This is a book that really started on election night in 2016. Like lots of Americans, and, I’m sure, like yourself, we were up late that night watching the returns come in. It was really the most astonishing and surprising election in our lifetime, in our living memory. Immediately, we were eager to get outside of our little academic town and get a feel for what happened.

    In the weeks that followed, our sense of surprise really deepened. First, we discovered that there were all these Obama-Trump counties. There were all these places that had voted for Obama on two occasions—in fact, there were over 200-some counties that did this—and then flipped for Trump. That itself is very surprising and unusual, especially in this age of polarization, where partisan IDs and loyalties are especially sticky.

    But then, quickly, we not only discovered that there were all these Obama places that flipped for Trump; we also discovered that a lot of these places had voted Democratic for a very long time. Many of these places had a pretty unbroken record of voting for Democratic presidents, some stretching back to Reagan, some to Nixon, some much further back. In fact, one of the counties we ended up studying was a place that had never voted for a Republican president in its history. This is a county formed in the 19th century and—it’s really astonishing—had never voted for a Republican. In the Western world, that’s probably the longest streak of any polity voting for just one party.

    That was interesting. Of course, we’re accustomed to thinking and talking about the Nixon Democrats in ’72 or the Reagan Democrats in ’84. In some ways—in lots of ways, actually—the Trump Democrats were much more interesting. Nixon won in a huge landslide in ’72, as did Reagan in ’84, so it’s not so surprising that in those years, you get lots of Democratic places that flip. That’s not weird. In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote, and yet he mana

    • 1 hr 2 min
    The Past, Present and Future of Populist Politics in America

    The Past, Present and Future of Populist Politics in America

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    Welcome to the inaugural episode of Reactionary Minds, a podcast from The UnPopulist that I’ll be hosting every month. This is a show about why some people reject liberalism and what the rest of us can do about it.

    This first episode is all about introducing the problem Reactionary Minds exists to address. In it, Shikha Dalmia, the editor of The UnPopulist and fellow at the Mercatus Center's Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange, discusses the biggest challenge of our times: The resurgent threat of populist authoritarianism here and abroad. Every regime has its pathologies and populist demagoguery is the pathology of democracies. The “liberal” in liberal democracies is supposed to keep this genie in the bottle, but now that it is out, can we put it back in?

    This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

    Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to the show.

    Shikha Dalmia: Thanks for having me, Aaron.

    Aaron: What is populism?

    Shikha: It's a good question, and as you've noticed, the name of my newsletter is The UnPopulist, and its addressed at the authoritarian currents we are seeing around the world. Then the question arises why am I calling it The UnPopulist and not the anti-authoritarian or something like that? Partly, because it's cuter, but the more serious reason is that the kind of illiberalism and the kind of authoritarianism we are seeing around the world has what is essentially a populist element.

    Now there's a lot of confusion around the word populism, and there is actually a great deal of effort on the left to try and take back this word which it thinks has been unfairly characterized in the last six years with the rise of the Trump era and the MAGA era. I, in some ways, feel for some of the left-wing writers, like Thomas Frank who's a public intellectual and an author and something of a Bernie Sanders progressive. He wrote a book not too long ago defending the term populism because he sees populism as essentially a movement of the people. Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, similarly wrote in 2018, shortly after Trump, where he also was lamenting the fact that the term populism has acquired this negative connotation.

    Now, I actually feel for some of these liberals because, as you and I know, we are still grieving the loss of the term liberal. However, I think they fundamentally misunderstand what populism really means and why it has a bad connotation.

    To some extent, it's a semantic issue, you can give any phenomenon any name, but populism, for the longest time has had a bad odor. They [Frank et al] see populism as essentially a popular movement that is supposed to do the most good for the most people, and those most people are not the rich people. They are generally lower or middle-income people who are the vast majority of the population.

    But that's not what populism really is. It's not a popular movement. A populist movement, if you read the literature on it, which admittedly is murky, it's about pitting the “real” people against some other entity, and that entity is the elites. The elites are considered to be these corrupt oligarchs, and the people are supposed to be something pure, representing something good.

    There is instantly this division between the elite, which controls “the establishment,” and the pure people whose interests are being avoided. Now, even that exactly doesn't capture the problem with the term populism. The term populism gets its bad odor from the fact that it's not just that the real people are trying to get their way and have their preferred policies enacted, it is more that they want to flatten certain elements of liberalism, the deliberative process, the representative process, because they believe it's been captured by some bad people, by The Establishment which is not representing them.

    It's an effort to flatten certain institutions of liberalism, not improve them, not reform them, but

    • 44 min
    Trailer - Reactionary Minds Podcast

    Trailer - Reactionary Minds Podcast

    I am very excited to announce that on May 6, Friday, The UnPopulist will roll out a new feature, a monthly podcast hosted by Aaron Ross Powell called Reactionary Minds.

    The series will open with a wide-ranging conversation between Aaron and yours truly that takes stock of the world as it is right now — and how this podcast will advance the mission of The UnPopulist, defending liberal principles — pluralism, toleration, freedom — from the resurgent threat of populist authoritarianism here and abroad. Neutralizing this threat requires the readiness to call out its protagonists whether Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India or Donald Trump in the United States. But it also requires understanding the allure of their illiberal ideologies on their own terms. Why are people so ready to throw in their lot with them despite the extraordinary success of liberal and open polities to deliver peace and prosperity? That is the task Reactionary Minds will take on.

    There is no better person for the job than Aaron Ross Powell. A classical liberal and a veteran podcaster, he is the founder of Libertarianism.org. He also hosts his own podcast (Re)Imagining Liberty. He will conduct in-depth conversations with psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists and more who’ve been studying the rise of the illiberal ideologies and ideologues. In the spirit of open debate and discussion, he might occasionally invite the ideologues themselves.

    Stay tuned but sign up today for this exciting new podcast.

    Shikha Dalmia

    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit theunpopulist.substack.com

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