The Socialists Who Love Talking to Conservatives

“We’re never going to storm the barricades,” Adler-Bell admitted.

But if you’re willing to temporarily overlook their politics, this small cadre of leftist podcasters doesn’t look totally unlike the band of dissident right-wing intellectuals that gathered around National Review in the middle of the 20th century. Their focus might not be on electoral strategy per se, but it would be a mistake to write their project off as completely detached from the messy business of politics. Instead, it’s possible to see it as a half strategic, half therapeutic effort to put the left’s intellectual house in order before it ventures back into the political thicket.

Know Your Enemy is a product of its times, but it is also self-consciously removed from them. On the rare occasion Sitman and Adler-Bell take their subject from the current affairs, they invariably wander far afield of the day’s headlines.

“They ascend to higher ground,” Tanenhaus said. “And when you’re on higher ground, you see farther.”

From this higher ground, Sitman and Adler-Bell pay particular attention to junctures where the history of the conservative movement diverges from the self-satisfied narrative the right tells about itself — in other words, to versions of conservative mythology. One version of the conservative myth — and a version that Sitman says he heard frequently in right-wing circles — goes something like this: In the mid-1950s, Buckley and his intrepid band of intellectuals at National Review bucked the New Deal consensus, giving rise to the first authentically American version of conservatism. This movement found its first and premature political instantiation in Barry Goldwater, whose defeat in 1964 gave the movement time to mature until, a decade and a half later, it came to fruition with Ronald Reagan’s victory. The enduring power of this myth, Sitman points out, is clear in the fact that the ongoing schism within the Republican Party between Trump’s supporters and his opponents boils down to whether you view Trump as a departure from this conservative lineage or as its ultimate culmination.

Despite their panoramic approach to conservative history, Sitman and Adler-Bell continue to struggle to find precedent for one recent development on the right: The Republican Party’s widespread embrace of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Although Sitman and Adler-Bell can cite plenty of instances of boldfaced mendacity on both the left and right, they are hard-pressed to find another instance where such a large segment of the right embraced such an obvious and well-established falsehood with such unwavering conviction.

“I think the precedent would be the 2000 election,” Sitman said. “I think over time I’ve become more and more convinced that that was a hinge point.”

“But he [Bush] didn’t have to convince that many people,” Adler-Bell interjected.

The same epistemic dynamic that has allowed Trump’s Big Lie to take hold on the right also helps explain why there is no prominent right-wing equivalent to Know Your Enemy — for instance, a podcast where a pair of conservative reporters unpack the ideas of the Frankfurt School or the political philosophy of John Rawls.

“It just seems like the currency of the right now — and they tell us this — is to distort ideas, like critical race theory,” Sitman said. “I just don’t know how you can have serious, sustained, intellectually honest engagement with opponents when that’s your M.O.”

‘Young, Radical, and on the Right’

Yet Know Your Enemy’s growing popularity among conservatives seems to undermine Sitman’s suggestion that the entirety of the right has been poisoned by anti-intellectualism. But what it does suggest is that the real energy for cross-ideological understanding is coming from sectors of the left and the right that have rejected political cooperation as their ultimate goal. In this respect, the left is learning a lesson that conservatives internalized a long time ago: Borrow the successful parts of your opponent’s playbook and leave the rest behind.

“It’s not incidental that a lot of [the right’s] leading intellectuals and political operators were ex-communists,” Adler-Bell said.

In the spirit of Know Your Enemy, it’s important not to read too much into this interchange. Especially during their conversations with conservatives, Sitman and Adler-Bell are quick to push back against the so-called horseshoe theory of partisanship, which argues that the extremes of the ideological spectrum ultimately converge with one another, by pointing out instances where superficial similarities between the style and tenor of left and right discourse belie deeper disagreements over substantive political goals. During their interview with Hochman, for instance, Sitman and Adler-Bell cheekily pointed out that while the socialist left and the populist right both oppose “woke capitalism,” the right objects primarily to the “woke” part, while the socialist left takes issue with the “capitalism” part.

At least at the level of discourse, though, these superficial similarities indicate that rightists are slightly more willing to entertain criticisms of their political program when they originate from sectors of the left that share its conviction that the political status quo is ultimately untenable

“The socialist left, … like, to a certain extent, factions of the right, [is] on the outside [of the mainstream], and by being on the outside, they have a much more coherent, cohesive, and sort of widely understood sense of collective identity, whereas if you’re a mainstream sort of neoliberal, left-liberal, progressive type, … it’s [just] the water you swim in,” Hochman said. “[And] I think that the critiques that come from being on the outside are … much more interesting to hear [than] the sort of enforcers of the status quo ante, who basically think everything’s OK as long as they continue to be in power.”

This fact only underscores what may be Know Your Enemy’s most valuable contribution to the ongoing meta-discourse about American politics: that in a country that’s divided not only on straightforward matters of policy but also on fundamental questions of political ontology, the search for consensus actually impedes rather than facilitates authentic understanding between political opponents.

“We know we disagree,” Sitman said. “[So] let’s just hash [it] out and try to figure out if we can clarify those disagreements [in] the best way we can.”


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