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The Socialists Who Love Talking to Conservatives

Last year, former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus was doing research for his forthcoming biography of William F. Buckley Jr. when he came across an unusual resource: an episode of Know Your Enemy, a socialist podcast about the conservative movement. He was working on a section of his book about Buckley’s relationship with the conservative intellectual Allan Bloom, and Know Your Enemy’s hosts, left-wing journalists Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell, had by coincidence recently dropped an episode about Bloom and his friendship with the famed novelist Saul Bellow.

“[I’m thinking], ‘OK, I’ll get sort of the latest take on Allan Bloom,’” said Tanenhaus, whose 1998 biography of Whittaker Chambers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “But it’s not the latest take on Allan Bloom — it’s like a seminar on Bloom … I thought, ‘I think I’m going to check in on this thing just to be up to date.’ Instead, I’m taking notes.”

Tanenhaus, who joined the hosts in August for a discussion of Buckley’s unsuccessful 1965 campaign for mayor of New York, is not the only nonsocialist to be pleasantly surprised by Know Your Enemy’s intellectual heft. Since its launch in 2019, Know Your Enemy, which bills itself as “a leftist’s guide to the conservative movement,” has become the go-to resource for political junkies and history buffs trying to get a grasp on the protean history of the American right. Despite the openly socialistic sympathies of its hosts, the podcast has found an audience with listeners of all ideological stripes — including dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and Republican shakers-and-movers alongside lefty journalists and liberal academics.

That makes it a unique artifact of the ideologically scrambled post-Trump era: A podcast designed to give committed leftists a critical take on the American right that became a trusted source for old-fashioned rightists and many others in between. Along the way, it has exposed a growing appetite on both the left and the right for a new style of political discourse that avoids predictable Trump-bashing and takes seriously the ideas behind the conservative movement.

“They’ve read more conservative political theory than most conservatives — I mean, they’ve read more political theory than most political theorists, probably,” said Nate Hochman, a fellow at National Review and at the conservative non-profit Fund for American Studies.

“… [Among] D.C conservative intellectual circles or Hill staffers and people that work in magazines and think tanks and stuff like that, almost everyone who’s engaged in [conservative] debates knows about them.”

Know Your Enemy’s bipartisan popularity is hard to square with its avowedly partisan premises — until you get a glimpse of the richness of its intellectual universe. Each episode of the podcast, which runs about an hour and a half in length, features a deep dive into a discrete — and often obscure — element of the conservative movement, with a heavy emphasis on the ideas and personalities of the mid-century intellectuals who gathered around conservative publications such as National Review. A recent episode featured Sitman and Adler-Bell doing a close reading of the work of the National Review editor Frank Meyer, an ex-communist whose concept of “fusionism” provided the intellectual foundation for the political alliance between social conservatives and free-market libertarians. In November, the hosts offered a comprehensive breakdown of the second National Conservatism Conference, an annual meeting of right-wing intellectuals and elected officials that has gained a reputation as the intellectual breeding ground of the Trumpist right.

On four separate occasions, Sitman and Adler-Bell have brought real-life ideological foes onto the show to serve as their guide to the right-wing landscape: The New York Times’ conservative columnist Ross Douthat, the conservative academic Samuel Goldman, The Washington Free Beacon’s Aaron Sibarium, and most recently Hochman himself, who was also featured in a much-discussed piece that Adler-Bell wrote for The New Republic about young, up-and-coming intellectuals on the right. As is true of many Know Your Enemy episodes, the duo’s conversations with their conservative guests resemble graduate-level political theory seminars much more than they do cable news debates.

“There is not an ounce of bad faith in what they’re doing,” Hochman said. “They genuinely just really, really love … debating [and] discussing the kind of wonky debates that are happening and always have been happening within conservatism.”

The purpose of the podcast is not, however, purely academic. As leftists, Sitman and Adler-Bell are skeptical of the notion, cherished by centrist liberals and moderate conservatives alike, that the point of promoting engagement between political opponents is to foster more bipartisan cooperation. If the divisions in American political life are the result of real material conflicts between classes with diametrically opposed interests, and not just the product of mutual misunderstanding between political opponents, then why should bipartisan dialogue focus on moderation rather than a frank and open understanding of unbridgeable differences?

“Our premise is not some, like, liberal fantasy of bipartisanship, but I do think that just rejecting the conflation of a deep understanding with cooperation as the goal is a feature of the podcast,” Adler-Bell said. “Once you give up on the idea that taking your political opponents seriously means that you sympathize with what they want to do, it opens up your intellectual horizons quite a lot.”

For Sitman and Adler-Bell, letting go of this fantasy of recovering some bygone bipartisan consensus means rejecting the expectation that greater understanding between left and right will inevitably lead to a more cooperative style of politics. But at the same time, it underscores the fact that the contemporary left has a lot to learn from the history of the conservative movement.

“The conservative movement, among other things, was a fairly radical set of ideas that ended up being implemented politically in the United States. How did it happen? How did it go from the pages of National Review, a relatively small band of intellectuals to, you know, Ronald Reagan winning 49 states in 1984?” Sitman said. “That story is one the left can learn something from.”

The first episode of Know Your Enemy  appeared in May of 2019, at a moment when the contours of American conservatism had been blurred beyond recognition. Donald Trump, of course, was in large part responsible for this blurring, but Sitman and Adler-Bell didn’t want to make a podcast that would become just another addition to the burgeoning field of Trumpology. In fact, when Trump is mentioned on the podcast at all, it is more often as a supporting character in the story of the American right rather than as its leading man.

“One of the things that was notable about Trump was that by scandalizing the mainstream conservative consensus and breaking it up and showing it to be kind of empty, he ended up attracting a lot of the misfit toys of the conservative movement to his cause, and then reviving the kind of excised and repressed elements in conservatism like the Paleo-cons and the more hardcore racists,” Adler-Bell said. Taking this break-up as its starting point, the duo began the podcast as an exercise in political psychoanalysis — an effort to make sense of the specters of conservatism’s past that have come back to haunt its present.

The origins of the podcast were personal as well as political. Sitman, now an associate editor at the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, calls himself an “ex-conservative,” having grown up in a conservative religious home in central Pennsylvania before graduating from the Christian liberal arts school Grove City College. Sitman eventually moved leftward in his twenties while pursuing a doctorate in political theory at Georgetown University, but his roots in the right make him a fitting counterpart to Adler-Bell, a life-long leftist who writes for publications such as Dissent, which sponsors the podcast, and The New Republic. Sitman and Adler-Bell, who now live in Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, met in 2017 at a happy hour for left-wing writerly types in New York’s East Village.

In the same way that “Matt is very familiar with insane pathologies of the right, I feel very steeped in those of the left,” Adler-Bell said. “I’ve been on the left my whole life, and there are things about the left … which sometimes I think [are] wrong.”

Among those pathologies is a persistent refusal to become too familiar with conservative ideas, for fear either of inadvertently legitimizing those ideas or else of becoming politically contaminated by them. But in Sitman and Adler-Bell’s view, the left’s unwillingness to engage with the history of the conservative movement is a tactical mistake as well as an intellectual one.

“Throughout the course of [the] conservative history of uncertain elections in the past few decades, there were arguments like, should the people at National Review back Richard Nixon? Was he conservative or not? Should you vote? Or should you support a more protest candidate that is more [ideologically] pure?” Sitman said. “Those were live questions, and they’re the questions that people on the left argue about today.”

In its not-totally-disinterested focus on the ways that the conservative movement has managed to translate political theory into real political power, Know Your Enemy is as much a product of the left’s sometimes marginalized position within the Democratic Party as it is as a response to the reemergence of the ultra-conservative right. Sitman and Adler-Bell are not reluctant to admit this fact — or to express their admiration for the intellectual sophistication and tactical smarts, if not the political substance, of their conservative enemies.

“I think there probably is some attraction to thinking about the project of conservatism as pervaded by quite radical ideas. That’s compelling to people on the left outside of the mainstream Democratic Party. We look at the party, which supposedly represents our political goals, and sees it as just devoid of ideas,” Adler-Bell said. “Not devoid of moral relative moral righteousness, but pretty much devoid of ideas.”

In this respect, Know Your Enemy shares a loose sensibility with a handful of other cerebral leftist podcasts, including 5-4, a podcast about how conservative justices came to dominate the Supreme Court, and You’re Wrong About, which reexamines historical events and individuals that have been distorted by popular — and oftentimes reactionary — media narratives. The overlap between these three podcasts is not based purely on vibes: The hosts of both 5-4 and You’re Wrong About have all appeared as guests on episodes of Know Your Enemy, and Sitman and Adler-Bell made a guest appearance on 5-4 in December of 2020.

Seen in one light, the emergence of this cohort of slightly nerdy left-wing podcasters might signal a broader political retreat on the part of the millennial left, an indication that young-ish socialists, still reeling from Bernie Sanders’ defeat in 2020, are seeking refuge in bookish quietism. Sitman and Adler-Bell will be the first to admit that there’s a kernel of truth to this criticism.

“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.”

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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