The Rise of Nationalism at Home and Abroad

Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

President, Herzl Institute; Author, The Virtue of Nationalism

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat; @Farah_Pandith

Executive Washington Editor and Chief Commentator, Wall Street Journal; Author, We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to TrumpA Front-Row Seat to A Political Revolution; CFR Member


Columnist, Foreign Policy 

Panelists discuss the causes of the rise of nationalism both around the world and in the United States and whether this swell of nationalism is an aberration or the standard moving forward.

LABOTT: Hi, everybody. I’m Elise Labott. And thank you so much for joining us. This is—God, we could spend two hours on this conversation, not only because we’ve seen, you know, a rise in nationalist movements across the world, really, but here in the United States, certainly, we’ve been feeling the effects of this, particularly since the attack on the Capitol on January 6th.

So we have a great panel to talk about this today. Joining me are Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute and author of The Virtue of Nationalism; Farah Pandith of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Gerald Seib, executive Washington editor and chief communicator at the Wall Street Journal and author of We Should Have Seen It Coming, which is really apt for this conversation.

Yoram, let’s start with you. We’ve seen a lot of national movements, not just here in the United States, which was particularly evident during the Trump presidency, but throughout Europe and the world, really, and I think what everyone’s wondering is, is this just a phase that we’re going through or are these type of movements here to stay?

HAZONY: I’m pretty sure they’re here to stay. If you think back over the last ten years, the main drivers for, you know, for nationalist movements in America, across Europe and into Asia, they were pretty much focused on immigration issues, people being upset about open borders, and trade issues, the kind of offshoring of jobs that has a certain kind of purchase in the working class. In the last year I think we’ve seen the addition of two spectacularly big drivers for nationalism that are being discussed intensely in nationalist and national conservative circles; one of them is, of course, the sudden paradigm shift that we felt with regard to China. People used to talk about China as though it was, you know, kind of a nation state. Now people look at China much more as an imperialist force; people are worried about China in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang with the Uighurs, in Pakistan, and other parts of—you know, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean. That’s one major thing that nationalists are worried about. You see the effect, for example, in the U.K. where China has suddenly gone from being a trading partner to being a possible security threat.

The second driver is the increasing influence of the “woke” movement. You know, some of our listeners may not think that’s a really serious threat, but if you look at what the nationalists are saying in America, U.K., in France, and across Europe, you’ll see that this is a very big deal. People don’t think that the left is the old liberal left; they think that it’s something much scarier. And I think that that’s going to have a big effect on fanning the reactions that cause nationalist movements to rise.

LABOTT: There’s so much to unpack there, but I want to just pick up on your last point about the woke movement.

And we were talking about this yesterday, Jerry. Like, I’ve kind of been grappling with this, you know, woke mentality because I do appreciate the cultural sensitivities and I think a lot of people do, but I also think that, you know, while there is this need to attack systemic racism, sexism, what have you, I feel that sometimes it gets so militant that, you know, it’s fueling even more nationalism and more tendencies to fight against that type of militant activity.

SEIB: Well, yeah, there’s definitely an action/reaction cycle underway in the U.S., and I think you’ve got to go back to—it’s useful to start with the Trump phenomenon, but—and there was this tendency to think that Donald Trump arrived as a bolt out of the blue, came from nowhere, who could have seen it coming—hence, the title of my book. (Laughs.) We should have seen it coming because this was—there was a buildup toward the Trump nationalist movement over a long period of time, and it was kind of natural in some ways. You had a period of economic inequality that people attributed to globalist—the global economy and, to some extent, maybe immigrant labor, two endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unhappiness about immigration, and so you had a Trump nationalist movement that was, in a way, a reaction to that. And I think, to some extent, the woke movement is a reaction to that and so you do have a kind of a cycle underway here.

It’s also important to remember that there’s a bipartisanship to this movement in the U.S. This national impulse in the U.S. is not just a Trump phenomenon. You know, the Biden administration has arrived and it’s going to unwind some of that, but not all of it. I mean, Joe Biden is just as eager as Donald Trump was to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He hasn’t jumped into new free trade negotiations because I think he senses that there’s a desire to change the groundwork for free trade negotiations, and there is a kind of a recognition of some of the sentiments.

I think one of the questions that the woke movement has really brought to the surface is, what are the darker sides of nationalism? Does it have to be xenophobic? Does it have to be racist? Does it have to be protectionist? You know, Yoram in his book makes a very elegant case for the virtues of nationalism, and I think that’s the conversation that is really underway and the woke movement is kind of a—one indication that that’s the conversation.

LABOTT: Yeah, I mean, Farah, Jerry takes an interesting point; you know, now there are some, you know, certainly candidates, you know, on the Republican side, but lawmakers, others that are calling themselves White nationalists now. So, you know, originally, you know, you had people that were against Islam, against immigration, but now it’s interracial marriage; it’s any type of diversity. And so when did—or has this always been this way, or when did nationalism become so tied to ethnicity and racism?

PANDITH: Both Yoram and Jerry raised some really interesting points. And I want to go back to what Jerry was saying about sort of what could you predict, what could you know, how can you forecast, and I look back, Elise, back to—around twenty years ago, 9/11, when there was a couple things that were happening at the same time: obviously the attacks on 9/11. You began to see the movement of the technology revolution that was changing the way people connected to each other, thought about themselves, got information. You saw a dynamic around the differences in generation, so what was happening with older Americans—or just let’s keep it within the United States for a moment—what was happening with older generations of Americans who were unpacking who they were and their loyalty to America and how they saw the world, compared to millennials and now Gen Z, how they think about themselves. So the issue of, like, fear, identity, purity, and understanding have all come together, in my view, so that it should not be surprising that we are seeing what we are seeing.

I think Jerry’s right when he says if you—well, he didn’t say it this way, but let me say it this way: If you were watching and looking at the culture indicators, you would begin to see that change happening. And so for me, you’re right, Elise; I mean, it isn’t just about being White, whatever that might mean to the person who’s defining themselves as that, but it is the purity of what America is supposed to be and not allowing anything else to come in to confront their historical understanding or, importantly, their emotional understanding of what it means. And so there’s a whole set of issues around what’s happening on the inside of people that is very hard to unpack and I think it’s—you can see it in some of the political rhetoric and in some of the conversations, but there are deeper things that are happening within countries as people are unpacking who they are and how they see themselves.

LABOTT: You know—

SEIB: Elise, just one footnote in there—

LABOTT: Yeah, go ahead, Jerry.

SEIB: —just quickly because what Farah said kind of reminded me of the way I’ve tried to think about this, to some extent, in the United States, which is if you think about people who loved Barack Obama, I think they tended to see themselves as citizens of the world, and people who love Donald Trump tended more to see themselves as citizens of the United States of America. And there is a bit of a dividing line there. Part of it’s generational; part of it’s attitudinal.

LABOTT: Yeah, you do talk about this kind of schizophrenia; the foreign policy part is filled with internationalists but then there are some, you know, even with the Biden administration, some kind of populist-nationalist tendencies.

You know, it’s really interesting: I kind of had this—you know, when we were planning the questioning, I kind of had this little flow of, you know, building to some of these really, you know, heavy issues—(laughs)—and we just kind of dove in.

Yoram, there’s this coalition of Evangelical Christian leaders that’s condemning this role of what they call radicalized Christian nationalism that’s feeding the political extremism, you know, that led to the violent insurrection on the Capitol by Trump supporters, and they’re worried about this kind of growing radicalization that they see among White Evangelicals and they call it heresy because it’s like we’re taking America back for God, that America has to be a Christian nation. And there’s this intersection between politics, race, religious, and ethnic line that is really kind of making this kind of, you know, potent cocktail of nationalism.

HAZONY: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think that the cocktail can be potent, but I think we ought to distinguish between a truly racial or White nationalist kind of politics, which is based on race. That kind of politics does exist in the United States, but it’s almost always anti-Christian and anti-Jewish and, at this point, still a very small portion of the nationalist spectrum. So I think that probably most of the Evangelicals that you’re talking about, they are themselves nationalists of one kind or another. They’re a more inclusive nationalist; they don’t want to see racism as part of American nationalism. And you have to be a little bit careful with the way you use the term Christian nationalist also, because, you know, let’s not forget that not—you know, a few decades ago somebody like FDR or Eisenhower, they considered America to be a Christian people and they considered nationalism to be something normal, if it wasn’t taken to extremes. So there’s a whole spectrum of Christian nationalism in America and some of it is very inclusive and very welcoming and some of it is absolutely racist and reminds us of terrible things from the 1930s. And all of us are going to have to be careful in trying to sort out which is which and what is what because they’re very different things.

LABOTT: Yeah, Farah, but that takes us to the question of what’s the difference between nationalism and patriotism—right?—because, you know, there’s a difference between a kind of nationalist ideology and this kind of superiority that we’re the best country or we’re the best state or we’re the best basketball team. (Laughs.) I mean, there is a difference here—right?—between being patriotic and loving your country and being more of a nationalist or a populist.

PANDITH: I think it’s a very important question, Elise, but it’s also very clouded and confused, because the people sitting on this call and those of us who are all day, every day dissecting elements of this can speak to the differences but for the mainstream, you know, American or around the world, they’re not going deep on the differences here. I mean, they aren’t. You can be a patriot, somebody who is loyal to your country, believes in what the country is, stands up, and be a Republican or a Democrat. I mean, it’s not around political ideology; it’s love of country.

And on the nationalism side—and I am not the expert here. There are people—I’m staring at my screen—thank you, Yoram and Jerry—who can speak far more eloquently to the issue of, you know, how nationalism came to bear 150 years after the term patriotism was ever used. There’s a whole history here. But in the common lexicon, which is what I’m trying to get at here, we’ve been a bit sloppy about how we’ve used these terms, and so we don’t unpack them, Elise, in any kind of rigorous way. We aren’t sticking to silos to define things so that we can be careful, as Yoram said, careful about what we’re talking about and who we’re talking about. And I think it’s important—I mean, if we’ve learned nothing in the last twenty years since 9/11 about broad strokes, about people and religion and ideology, shame on us if we’re not being more careful today about what it is that we exactly need.

LABOTT: So, Jerry, we talked a little bit about—you know, we’d be remiss if we didn’t examine how these movements came to be, and you’re not addressing the root causes of these tendencies, then you’re destined to repeat themselves. But this is what, you know, kind of leaders are doing to deflect from these movements. Right? Like, they appeal to the legitimate anxieties that all of us have, but they reject any systemic responses to economic advantage or environmental degradation. Instead, they’re appealing to this nostalgia of these idealistic feelings about, you know, a country or a movement.

SEIB: Right, and I think it’s important to distinguish those two things. There are legitimate reasons for the rise of some of this sentiment. I mean, income inequality is a real thing; it did start to grow in the 1980s and continues to today. There is genuine anxiety over the global economy and those who are advancing in it and those who are left behind in it. There is genuine concern that the free trade movement that began in the 1990s, really with NAFTA, hasn’t worked out so well for some people.

And I point in the book in particular to immigration. I think at every turn immigration pops up as a giant accelerant of this trend toward nationalism. You know, there really was a huge explosion in undocumented workers in the ’90s and the early 2000s and, you know, a whole succession of Republican leaders tried to deal with that problem with immigration reform and they all failed—George W. Bush, John McCain, Marco Rubio; everyone one of them ran up against growing anti-immigrant sentiment in their own party, if not across the country.

At the same time, I think you have to recognize that some of those sentiments kind of are excuses or the—they kind of suggest false solutions to some of these problems. I mean, a lot of the people who lost their jobs because of the global economy didn’t lose them because immigrant labor moved in and took over their jobs; they lost them because technology had moved into the workplace and made their jobs irrelevant, or because global trade cost them, while benefiting the broader economy. So I think you have to distinguish between the legitimate causes of nationalist sentiments and some of the less legitimate solutions that people have latched onto as a result of that.

LABOTT: So, Yoram, how do you deal with these kind of new, multilateral, multinational challenges like pandemics or cultural change in a nationalist world? Like, particularly during COVID, we’ve seen this manifested with vaccine nationalism, for instance.

HAZONY: Well, it’s a really good question. It’s a little bit hard to answer because the two sides, the nationalists and the anti-nationalist sides of these arguments—we could say nationalist and globalist or nationalists and liberal internationalists—they come to these questions with kind of opposite premises, so lots of people figure, you know, reasonably, that if you have something like COVID, well, you should want everybody to be working together because it is a global problem and, you know, obviously affects everybody in the world. But from a nationalist perspective, the nationalists have picked up on the way in which the Chinese government, so they say, manipulated the WHO, the World Health Organization, and they say, well, look, if these global organizations are basically—they’re not actually and necessarily a zone for collaborative work; what they really are is another zone for economically strong countries to dominate weaker countries and for dictatorships to gang up on democracies. And if that’s the case, then we’d be better off without internationalist organizations at the forefront, and why can’t we do this bilaterally and multilaterally? It will start with the democracies and we’ll negotiate separate deals and then try to bring in whoever we can.

So I think that that’s really the big divide is do we need authoritative world bodies to be representing the nations of the world, or is it possible for us to use regular diplomatic channels, which I think most of the nationalists would say let’s try to use national—nation-to-nation diplomatic channels in order to try to deal with these problems.

LABOTT: Let me follow up with you on that. I mean, to—what do you see in terms of kind of similarities on how these nationalist movements find their expression here and around the world? Like, you know, last night when we were talking we used the virus analogy. Are there commonalities and remnants or, you know, virtual strains? Because, you know, you mentioned how British nationalism, for instance, takes its root from liberalism while Trumpism is a totally kind of different thing that’s more, you know, populist and—

HAZONY: Well, there are lots of different kinds of nationalism, and I mean, what unites them is a reaction—I mean, the current wave of nationalisms that we’re talking about, what unites them is a reaction against globalism, which is to say, post-Cold War the Soviet Union is gone and all of a sudden there was a tremendous consensus, you know, of Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Conservatives, and across the spectrum almost in Europe that the thing to do would be to bring down borders: free trade across borders and the handing off of responsibilities for all sorts of things that sovereign governments used to do to international bodies. So this—the idea was transnational governance, which, at the beginning, just about everybody was in favor of. And the commonality in all of the nationalist movements, from the ones that are really quite liberal to the ones that, you know, that are more conservative to the ones that are more authoritarian—what they all have in common is a sense that a lot of basic things, like who’s in charge of your borders, who decides who’s going to come in, who is responsible for your laws, who legislates your laws, do we have courts that are international courts which have the right to overturn national laws and to tell nations what to do? Those kinds of questions, they are—they hold all the different nationalist movements together and in common and into a kind of loose alliance.

SEIB: Elise—


SEIB: If I could add here, I think it’s important to recognize what a giant change in thinking this represents, particularly on the conservative side of the equation and particularly in the U.S. Twenty years ago, Bob Bartley, who was editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, my publication, and a genuine intellectual leader of conservative thought throughout the Reagan period, wrote a piece for the Journal that essentially said we should have a North American accord in which we eliminate the borders between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada for not just trade but people as well. Let’s have a North American compact in which there’s free movement of trade and goods all across the North American continent. The idea that somebody on the conservative side of the equation could make such a suggestion today is almost unthinkable. But that’s how much things have moved.

And you mentioned the world populism as well as nationalism, and I do think those two things go together because part of the nationalist sentiment that’s grown up in this country, at least, is tied to a mistrust of authority figures, and Yoram just mentioned this. Part of this is, well, I don’t trust my own leaders in my own political system, I’m certainly not going to trust the leaders of a political system in Brussels or New York at the U.N. So those—the populist and nationalist movements, in that sense, have grown up together over the last twenty years.

LABOTT: So, Farah, let’s talk about how disinformation campaigns can affect this nationalist tendency. You know, the Wall Street Journal had an editorial that China’s linked to some of this woke ideology. There was also a report—I can’t remember where—but it was interesting that Chinese were—that the Saudis were pushing a more populist Trump ideology. So, you know, talk to us about how an external source or an adversary could move these populations in a direction that does something to change.

PANDITH: Well, I want to pick up—Jerry used the word distrust. I was going to raise the word trust—same difference here. But there are three words that are combined in this as we think about disinformation. One is this issue of who do you trust and what is real? That is really important. The second is what I raised earlier in the conversation around identity, how you think of yourself and what you believe yourself to be. And then the third, importantly, is what’s happening within your peer group. Right? So you go into these social media platforms and you are migrating towards places that you trust, people, influencers that you trust, images that you think you trust—I mean, all of these things that we all know have been happening for years. But it has mainstreamed, so the crazies have become mainstream. The things that you believe to be true are not; they’re fake; they’re AI; they’re things that have been made up because the algorithms know what you are and what you do. And bad actors are preying upon that. Those bad actors could be nation states or non-state actors, but they can play with us. And they have. And why wouldn’t they? If you are a vulnerable platform and there’s an adversary who’s trying to get a population to go in a particular direction, wouldn’t you be in this space of disinformation? Wouldn’t you be trying to move people a particular way?

And what I want to draw out, Elise, is that it is in their best interests for us to be wringing our hands, asking ourselves questions around how this could have happened and can’t people see what needs to be done, or what are the rules we should put into place with the social media companies? All the while, they are building their momentum and doing what they’re doing.

So in the wok that I’ve done around the rise of hate and extremism over the last twenty years, whether it’s coming from, you know, al-Qaida or ISIS, or it’s coming from QAnon or, you know, a White supremacist movement of whatever kind, the tactics are the same in the online platform. There’s no need to tell the truth. There’s no need to build a meme that can solve for everything. You are curating your messages to a very particular demographic so that you are swaying the movement in a particular way. And I think the future is very scary around these, because you talked about China and Saudi taking advantage of this; I think you’re going to see more of that and you’re going to see more wringing of hands within our country because nobody wants to have the deep and difficult conversations about the navigation of freedom of speech and what’s happening emotionally to Americans.

LABOTT: OK, I want to—we’re going to open it up for questions in a minute, but I want to ask one last question and then kind of get everyone’s answer here.

So, you know, Yoram makes the case in his book that nationalism is not going away, so how do we kind of attack the violent part of nationalism, extreme part of nationalism without going to war with ourselves? And how do we acknowledge the values or the virtues, as Yoram writes, of nationalism and limit the vices?

Yoram, why don’t you kick us off?

HAZONY: Great question.

I think that the central issue to be looking at is the way that a democratic nation in order to stay a democracy has to be able to maintain mutual legitimacy between at least two big political parties. Right? In order to have smooth and continuous transitions of government from one election to the next, there has to be one party—let’s call it a liberal party—and another party that’s, let’s say, a conservative party, and each one has to promise and to believe that when the other wins the election, then they let them rule, and then four years after that, five years after that, then the other side may rule. And what we are seeing in the last few years in the United States and in Britain especially, but in other countries as well, is a mutual delegitimization where a lot of people who are in the Democratic Party think that the Republican presidential candidate is not legitimate and shouldn’t be allowed to be president and should be resisted, and same exact thing is happening the other direction, that Republicans think that the Democrat is not legitimate and that his government was—cheated to get in, or something like that. I can’t tell you how dangerous this is. In order to be able to maintain democracy, we have to be able to move back to a place where two major political parties each recognize the right of the other to win elections and to rule and to set mutually acceptable rules for how that game is going to be played. I think that’s the most important issue of our time.

LABOTT: Jerry.


Did we lose Jerry?

MODERATOR: We lost Jerry for just a second but we’re getting him back on shortly.

LABOTT: OK. OK. Farah, over to you.

PANDITH: I was simply going to say that I agree with what Yoram said about what we need to do around sort of a mutual respect and standards that we need to set into place, but I also will say that we know that this can’t come from the top down only; it must come from the bottom up. And we have got to do more work at the community level to be able to build those bridges. This stuff is soft power. It’s gushy. People don’t like talking about it because they’re not firm measurements, but it is the stuff that we’ve got to repair, and we’ve got to really be diligent about bringing in different actors into this.

LABOTT: OK. I’m going to open it up to questions. We’ll get Jerry’s answer on that after. I have a danger of going the way of Jerry because there seems to be something with my power cord, so I’m going to open it up to questions. But before the end of the first question, I will be back on my video, but bear with me. This is—these are the trials and tribulations of virtual, people.

But let’s open it up to questions now. This is really such a great discussion. We could go on and on, but I know there are going to be a lot of questions.

MODERATOR: Our first question will be from John Norton Moore. As a reminder, please state your affiliation.

Q: John Norton Moore, the University of Virginia School of Law, emeritus.

This has been a superb discussion. But I’d like to throw in a little more social media effect in here, if I might, because in some respects we’re talking about a growth of nationalism, but are we not also seeing through social media and perhaps other mechanisms as well a splintering of traditional respect for important national institutions, the rule of law, and perhaps, in its place, a variety of, you know, dozens, perhaps hundreds of smaller-issue or ideological kinds of allegiances as opposed to what, at least at some point in the past, through some definition, was perhaps a greater level of sort of everyone in the institution feeling that they belonged to that institution? And I suspect this is perhaps happening in other countries around the world as a result of social media, and it seems to me this is a critical set of issues we need to somehow get control of.

LABOTT: Yeah, Yoram, why don’t you take this one? Because I was reading about this; like, there’s a difference—you know, the whole concept of a nationalism versus, like, a nationalist-type movement; you know, this could—with social media, we could be going into a whole new game here.

HAZONY: OK. Look, it’s a complicated issue. Let me start with something I think is key for this, which is that, you know, there’s kind of a tendency to talk about nationalism in terms of—you know, as though nationalisms are always interested in purity, and there’s good reason for that, which is that during World War II, the most extreme nationalist movements that we’ve ever know really were interested in racial purity and that kind of thing. But in general, most nations are very diverse, I think a lot more diverse than we like to pretend, and when a country strives for national independence for its own—you know, for control of its own borders, its own traditions, making its laws and being sovereign, those nationalist movements are almost always extremely diverse. So I don’t think that there’s any inherent barrier to national or nationalist movements to embracing within them a great deal of diversity. I mean, nothing is more diverse than, let’s say, the nationalism of India where they have fifteen hundred languages being spoken and still have a cohesive nationalism, which is conservative and quite different from, you know, from Indian liberalism, and there’s lots of other examples.

When we think about these very good questions of social media, it’s definitely true that small splinter ideologies, including very crazy ones, have the ability on social media to find like-minded people and to feel themselves much stronger than they ever were before. I’m not yet sure, I’m not yet convinced that that translates into those extreme things that we see online turning into real movements on the political landscape. The mainstream nationalism that we’re seeing at the ballot box in country after country is not a fringe movement. I mean, maybe there are fringe people in it, but it’s a broad enough—all of these nationalisms are broad enough to be able to build very, very large coalitions.

And so I’m not sure that they are the expression of this very real social media phenomenon that we’re being asked about.

LABOTT: OK, next question.

MODERATOR: Our next question is from Islam Siddiqui.

LABOTT: Hello, go ahead.

MODERATOR: If you could please unmute your microphone.

He seems to be having technical difficulties. We will take our next question from John Sullivan.

LABOTT: Hi, John.

Q: Hello. How are you all? Thank you very much for a fascinating conversation. I’m sorry we lost Jerry because my question was sort of directed at him.

I am recently retired from the Center for International Private Enterprise, which is part of the U.S. Chamber—welcome back, Jerry—

SEIB: Thank you. Sorry about that.

Q: —and part of the National Endowment for Democracy.

I’m very intrigued with—several of you have mentioned the woke movement and I’ve been trying for some time to figure out, what is this? Is it a really coherent group or is it sort of a generalized slur that people use? And how does it relate to this other phenomena, which you haven’t mentioned, which seems to me to be terrifying, that has arisen in large part but not—all over but it really is affecting the university culture, and that’s the cancel culture. Are these things connected, and how do they relate to each other?

LABOTT: That’s a great question.

Jerry, why don’t you take this one, because I was—even as John was asking the question, I was thinking the woke movement, is it a movement or is it an ideology of just kind of canceling, you know, things that, you know, do not evoke this kind of idealist nation notion of who we should be. And then I want Farah to pick up on that.

SEIB: Sure. I don’t think there’s a neat answer to the question. I do think the woke movement and the cancel culture both are really that: movements. They’re not organized. I don’t think they’re necessarily coherent. And I think they’re a reaction. You know, I talked earlier about the cycle of action and reaction and I think they’re a reaction to some of what the Trump era brought to the surface, both in terms of racist behavior and racist rhetoric but also in terms of kind of let’s go back to the America that existed, you know, fifty years ago, which, to a lot of people, particularly younger Americans, implies a denial of certain realities that people have come to accept now that were pushed under the rug fifty years ago. So I don’t think it’s coherent, but I do think it is a movement and I do think the excesses of the movement are becoming clear, and that’s kind of what happens with movements. They maybe start off in a positive direction and then move to the land of excess, and I think that’s what you’re seeing in both the woke movement and cancel culture right now.

LABOTT: Farah, talk to this from a position of kind of identity. A lot of people—and then there—look, there are different kinds of people in this woke movement; there are people that are not—have never really faced this kind of systemic racism, sexism, discrimination that are just kind of joining the movement, but then there are people that, you know, are, as Jerry said, kind of fighting against the kind of oppression or discrimination that they’ve had. And is cancel culture part of creating kind of a new identity that is not the victim of those type of—

PANDITH: So I mentioned earlier emotional exhaustion and I want to bring that up again, because it is—in my mind, much of the conversation—Jerry talked about different generations just now and that, to me, is really, really important. You are hearing a different tone and a different expression and a different understanding of, quote, “awareness” by different generations and what that might mean, the good, bad, and the ugly of what we see and what we know and how we unpack history, how—you talked about systemic racism or gender bias or inequity or, you know, non-inclusion, and all of these things that are wrapped up into pain for a lot of—lots of different components of our societies. And I think what you’re seeing is a culmination of many, many different forces that are moving us in a direction of a movement, whatever that might mean.

And I agree with Jerry; there’s not—like, there’s no leader of the woke movement—(laughs)—or the cancel culture movement that’s out there telling people what to do. It is found in expression of what these digital natives, primarily, in my view, have come to understand that they can do with their own power. So you can cancel things out; you can speak out. You are taught—the younger generations, millennials, Gen Z, are taught how to express themselves in a way that older generations who might have been frustrated or have seen things and did not want to express just did not do it in the same ways. There are all these forces together, Elise; it’s not just one thing. Today we need to be really careful about understanding what’s happening because the majority of Americans are quite young and they’re growing up in this context. And so as I think about the sort of identity thing in America and who we want to be, it’s not so simple to say, this is the cancel culture or people are “woke” now and therefore we’re going down this other path. There are all of these other forces that are combining into what we’re seeing today, and it hasn’t settled yet.

SEIB: And I would just add that, you know, I wrote in the Journal today an attempt to explain why are people so angry; why is there so much outrage right now? It’s not because of a policy dispute, really; it’s because people fear their identity and their culture is being wiped out, and that’s a very emotional thing, and this goes to the broader topic of nationalism that we’re talking about today. It’s one thing to disagree with somebody because you have a policy dispute with them; it’s another thing to disagree with somebody because you think they want to wipe out what you view as your personal identity.

LABOTT: Yeah, I think—Jerry, I think you kind of nailed it, this dilemma that we’re at, which is both sides are trying to kind of—you use the word cancel or use the word—but there is a kind of dueling narrative in terms of who we’re supposed to be.

I want to dig down just a little deeper on this.

Yoram, talk to us from an international perspective, and I mean, where does something like this go? Because I feel like—and this is kind of similar not just on, you know, woke culture, you know, any movement that you want to talk about, but we see it with politicians, that it’s like a—the mob—and I—you know, I’m—don’t take this literally, but, like, a mob mentality that, like, people are just—Farah talks about exhaustion, but sometimes people just give in to this idea because of exhaustion: oh, my God, I’m tired of talking about this; just take the damn Dr. Seuss books off the table, whatever. But that, as Jerry has said, creates more animosity and further movements.

HAZONY: I think that I see—I think I see this issue as being a little bit more ideological than Farah and Jerry have said so far. I mean, I definitely agree with them that, you know, I don’t have any reason to think that, you know, that there’s some kind of centralized organizing or governing force or something like that, but at the same time, ideologies don’t necessarily have to be transmitted from, you know, from an authoritative political center. And to me, it’s pretty clear—if people are interested in reading more about this, I wrote a long essay in Quillette last summer called “The Challenge of Marxism.” And the argument that I was making is that—and I don’t think it’s original to me or anything—but that is that what we’re seeing is a movement in many formerly liberal institutions. I mean, if you think about the New York Times or Princeton University, these are institutions that have been, you know, at the very center of hegemonic liberal ideas since at least the 1960s. It’s been fifty or sixty years that liberalism has been really the main legitimate political ideology in—you know, throughout Western major institutions. And today there is a challenge by something that I think that, you know, not only conservatives but many of my liberal friends say is just not liberalism; it’s something else. And if you try to sketch out what is that something else, what is it trying to do, it’s interesting; the basic thing it’s trying to do is to say that liberal culture thinks that, you know, by using terms like equality and freedom that it creates a society that’s fair. But a lot of people don’t feel like that. They feel that actually, if you look at how far groups have advanced, you know, over the last fifty or sixty years, there’s an awful lot of people who feel hurt and oppressed and suppressed by this thing that is—that was the dominant liberal ideology. And so there’s a whole new lexicon of terms—I don’t mean to use woke as a slur or an insult—

LABOTT: It’s a shorthand. It’s a shorthand. (Laughs.)

HAZONY: No, I—you know, if I say the new Marxism, then people say, oh, that’s definitely a slur.

LABOTT: (Laughs.)

HAZONY: So I say woke because I think it upsets fewer people. But whatever you want—progressive—when I was in college a million years ago, the kids who talked like this called themselves progressives. So that’s fine with me too. But whatever it is, it’s not liberalism because it has a new and different vocabulary. Terms like privilege are used in order to analyze the power structure of liberal society, and when you use those terms to analyze the power structure, you start to see all sorts of things that are disturbing and upsetting to people. And then they start saying, well, liberalism doesn’t work; we need some other way to effect change and then they start talking about resistance and protest. And the cancel culture is in fact a use of new methods for trying to deploy power in order to change the way that these liberal institutions work. I think it’s fascinating and I think, exactly as Jerry said, if you’re one of the people who’s been—feel like you’re losing the institutions that you are identified with, you might feel like you’re losing your own identity and that you’re under severe attack.

LABOTT: Fascinating stuff.

OK, next question.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from S.K. Qureshi.

Q: I apologize for not having my name up there. It’s Sabs Qureshi, or Sabia Qureshi. Thank you, everyone.

My quick question actually has to do—I’m a senior public health adviser previously with the U.N., and I always think about the role of, I guess, mental health, as well as child education. And we’ve seen both of those areas be attacked—or not supported, accurately—in the last fifteen years, in government institutions such as the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind and then in terms of mental health. We live in a society that doesn’t necessarily support mental health. And I think these two issues actually play a role here because, when it comes to education, you have to have the ability to analyze what is in front of you, so if we have a public education system of a population that’s not really being supported in terms of emotional capacity of the critical thinking that’s necessary to dissect the information and media that is bombarding us every day, then what is the solution, really, in terms of enabling—not enabling but empowering populations and younger populations to have the skill sets, both in short term as well as long term, to tackle some of the challenges that we’re facing as a society?

LABOTT: All right, well, she teed it up for you, Farah. You and I were just talking about this the other day, so take it away.

PANDITH: Well, I appreciate you raising the question because it is front and center on everybody’s mind, especially in the context of the pandemic and trying to understand how you’re navigating through some of these very, very difficult—(laughs)—difficult pieces of growing up. And I’m now looking at sort of what we’re seeing with adolescents, in particular, and young adults who are uneasy with what they’re experiencing. Jerry was talking about this issue of, you know, sort of the emotions also that I want to sort of stress. There’s also just—not just anger, it’s rage, and it’s a lot of—it is a lot of complexity within communities where the community help—the funding sources have been cut off. I see this firsthand in the work that I do around people that are interested in extremist ideology, knowing very well that we should have many years ago deployed really excellent mental health support systems for young people who were trying to ask difficult questions around who they are, especially as bad actors were trying to lure them in.

I don’t think, even though there has been a change in the consciousness in America in terms of talking about mental health, we haven’t put our money where our mouth is in coming up with solution sets that are going to work at the community level. So I don’t have much more to say except to thank you for raising that.

LABOTT: Jerry, play devil’s advocate here. You know, the people that—the nationalists in this country would hear a conversation like this and they would be like, I just want to be an American; I just want to like live my life the way I always lived it, and enough with, like, you know, enough with all this stuff about, you know, rage and anger and identity, and let’s just get back to, you know, this, again, this 1950s kind of, you know, dinner—we all have dinner together and that makes us, like, a happy, healthy family.

SEIB: (Off mic)—between what is happening now and the summer of racial reckoning that happened in this country. I think the summer of racial reckoning kind of made people think more about what a lot of people of my generation thought was a solved problem. You know, we passed the civil rights laws, we elected a Black president—we’re there; we’re done; we’re in the post-racial period. And the summer of racial reckoning was a way of saying look, there’s still systemic problems there. And some people don’t want to think about those systemic problems, don’t think that they exist, and that’s the tension that I think you’re seeing right now.

I think what’s interesting about the moment we’re in right now is I think you’re seeing a Biden administration that’s trying to find a path down the middle between these two things, between woke culture on the one side and kind of Trump nationalism, populism and, to some extent, you know, sort of more racist tendencies on the other hand, and trying to find some place in the middle where Americans can be comfortable. I said at the outset, you know, there are—this is not a complete repudiation of Trump nationalist sentiments by the Biden administration but an attempt to kind of acknowledge some of the legitimate concerns while not buying into the entire package. And we’ll see if that succeeds. I think that’s a tough middle road to travel right now, in this country at least. Yoram may have thoughts about around the world, and maybe it’s different, but in this country—

LABOTT: Yeah, Yoram, pick up on that because, like, in this country, anyway, the real—the people that—there is a healthy kind of center where the people that Jerry are talking about are, you know, are, you know, somewhat reasonable. I think if the Biden administration or, you know, the economy were to improve and their lives were to improve that their feelings of this—you know, that their kind of animosity towards change or, you know, dealing with these problems that Jerry said they thought were solved, you know, could be swayed. But then there is this kind of, you know, unmovable, violent, you know, minority; it is a minority, but it is very violent, and these are the people—just like on the left there are, you know—I mean, some people would say that Antifa are more anarchists but I would say there is a small minority on the left that also feels that, you know, violence is probably the way to get their aims. And how do you kind of deal with the problem in the middle with people that are reasonable while kind of, you know, acknowledging that some of it is violent?

HAZONY: Well, I think part of the problem is that that middle is very broad and it includes lots of liberals and lots of conservatives.

LABOTT: And it’s very political. Right?

HAZONY: Right. No, it’s increasingly—I mean, with every passing year, it’s more dichotomized and the divide is larger and it’s more political. And again, I think that most conservatives—and you may be surprised to hear this but I’m including most conservatives who voted for Trump—don’t see themselves as racists. They may see themselves as Christians; they may see themselves as nationalists; they may see themselves as Libertarians. I mean, there are different kinds of people in there, but what unites most of them is that they feel—you know, whether they’re right or not—they feel that they aren’t racists; they feel like they bought into, you know, as Jerry said, having a Black president and having all sorts of steps taken in order to try to make sure that every part of America is integrated. And when people come and accuse them of being racists, they are shocked. They’re shocked. I mean, there isn’t a—there hasn’t been a way to bridge that reaction, that yes, America has an increasing number of genuine racists, people who are—don’t have any kind of problem talking about America as a White nation, America is a country for Whites, or we need to go to some kind of White solidarity with other countries that are—I mean, there’s plenty of real people like that, but the majority of conservatives feel hurt and outraged and insulted when they’re put in that category. And I imagine that there’s a mirror image kind of thing going on on the other side also, so I think the most important thing to try to do is to to see whether it’s not possible for mainstream conservative and mainstream liberal figures to have some kind of a meeting of minds on who and what is really a racist in America. This is explosive enough it really does have the potential to go to much worse violence than what we’ve seen so far.

PANDITH: Elise, can I just hop onto that for just a moment? I think that there is—this is not obviously just an American phenomenon of people who are sort of unpacking these things. But there has not been sort of a cultural listening exercise that’s happening within communities so that we are really hearing what different groups are saying. It happens once every little while when we have an election and there are polls and people go to places in America or other parts of the world and do a little poll; I tell people what they think that they want to hear. But if you are not listening consistently about the emotional, you know, capacity for people to understand the other, where the us versus them ideologies are coming, of course—I agree with Yoram; nobody wants to be called a racist. But it’s not a question of an intellectual exercise; it comes out in ways that people need to hear and need to see. And I will tell you; I mean, whether we’re talking about the United States or we’re talking about countries in other parts of the world—this sense of what is fair and just for a particular group is front and center to many of the conversations that are happening. And I don’t, frankly, think that policymakers are including that part of the equation as they think about—and I’m going full circle to where we began in terms of forecasting what’s happening at home and abroad with all these issues around identity. It is not just, in my view, about whether or not somebody is perceived to be a racist; it is about how they are living their life every day, the individual touch points that happen in a person’s daily experience that are changing societies as we speak.

LABOTT: We’re going to—we’re not going to have time for another question, but I just want to, like, push down on you one last time and then we’ll finish up. I think what we have here is the kind of push and pull between what you think I am and what I think I am, and whose truth—whose truth—(laughs)—you know, supersedes that. It can’t be you think I’m a—you know, and this is, I think, does get into these movements. You know, I don’t want to go too off-topic, but you—and we’ll use racism but it could be sexism or homophobic or Islamophobic or whatever—you think I’m a certain way because you have a view of how a non-racist, non-sexist, non-Islamophobic, non-homophobic person should be. I think I live my life in a pretty, you know, inclusive way and I say that that’s ridiculous. And I think the middle part is where—

PANDITH: But you’re making my point. You can’t get to that middle point unless you are listening, and we have not been having conversations at the level that we need to so that people can be empathetic and open up their perspective to what they’re seeing. One—for all of the groups, we have been very siloed in this conversation—not today; I mean, just in general.

LABOTT: (Laughs.) We certainly weren’t today!

PANDITH: No. (Laughs.)

SEIB: You know, well—

LABOTT: Go ahead, Jerry.

SEIB: And to un-silo it a little bit more, and this does bring us back a little bit full circle to where we started, but, you know, I think there was a misunderstanding. I at least had a misunderstanding of some of the forces that produced Trumpism, Trump nationalism, Trump populism and thought that they were largely economic, that they had to do with economic anxiety. I think increasingly we see that the forces were at least as much, if not more, cultural anxiety, identity, and we’re seeing that kind of brought to the surface ever more, almost every day now. So there are a lot of underpinnings to nationalist movements that are in fact economic, but a lot of them are cultural. And the cultural ones are harder to deal with, they’re more emotional, and there are no easy solutions to those.

LABOTT: Yeah. And then when you get a leader like Trump who’s kind of ready to exploit and exacerbate that, or any populist leader, that’s where I think some of the, you know, kind of violent movements might grow.

Well, I mean, this was—this conversation was pretty extraordinary. I really appreciate everybody for joining me, the panelists, Yoram Hazony, Farah Pandith, and Jerry Seib, and all of you for watching. Again, this was on the record. And thank you to the Council very much. And have a good day, everybody.


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