I recently did an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. It was exhausting but fun—hundreds of queries poured in, and I did my best to try to answer them all. If you missed it, some highlights of the most interesting and important questions are below. My answers are often much briefer than the questions call for, because I was trying to answer as many as I could in a limited span of time. There was very much a “Whack-a-Mole” feel to it. I was typing nonstop for nearly six hours, but every time I finished an answer six more questions had come in. Still, a lot of people seemed satisfied with the session and the number of people who made fun of my clothes and accent was limited!
Bernie Sanders lost Midwestern states like Michigan and Illinois by a bigger margin against Biden than against Clinton. What made Biden stronger? Conversely, what made Sanders weaker?
It’s all very complicated. The simplistic explanation has been “Bernie 2016 success was really just disliking Clinton personally,” but I don’t think that one statistic proves that conclusion. Bernie also beat Biden by large margins in the early states of Iowa and Nevada, and I think if Michigan had voted a few days after Nevada that result would have been very different. I also think the vote in subsequent states would have been different if Bernie had won Iowa decisively rather than by so little that it was easy to fudge the result. I think people’s minds are made up quite quickly and that small events can have big cascading effects. If Elizabeth Warren had not run, or had dropped out before voting began and it was clear she wouldn’t catch Bernie, Bernie would have crushed it in Iowa and NH. That would have given a huge boost in momentum. He would have won Super Tuesday states like MA and TX. Then by the time Michigan and Illinois voted Biden would not have been able to make the kind of forceful “electability” case for himself that he ended up being able to make, because he would have been losing everywhere except southern red states. So I think a few small changes could have made the primary go very differently, which is depressing, but also means that it’s not obvious that this proves Bernie just did well in 2016 because of Clinton.
Out of all the people you’ve written critical articles of which would you like to have a public conversation with?
Someone was trying to arrange a debate with me and Charles Murray, but then he said he wouldn’t debate anyone who called him a racist, which I fully intended to do. I still want to talk to Ben Shapiro. Dinesh D’Souza and I were supposed to do a public debate and then the crisis happened. We probably still will. I think it will be illuminating. To be clear though I wouldn’t actually “like” to have a conversation with any of these people. But I feel doing so would be clarifying and useful. [Addition: I would also definitely like to sit down and grill Pete Buttigieg for a few hours.]
I wanted to know why you swear off Marx and the Marxist intellectual tradition. There are certainly aspects of Marxist thought that are authoritarian, as you have suggested in the past, but the different parts of Marxism are so variegated as to make an all-out repudiation appear confusing. For instance, Althusser’s work (such as in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” or his non-essentialist overdetermination) seems extremely relevant to you in its consideration that class struggle occurs not merely on the material “economic” level, but rather takes place at every level and in every part of society. To not engage with the tradition in general seems like rejecting the entirety of phenomenology because Heidegger was a Nazi. But perhaps I’m missing something... Thanks, and keep up the great work with Current Affairs!
I don’t swear off Marx, though. I say in Why You Should Be A Socialist that he had “a better understanding than almost anyone else of the way that economics determines the fabric of the social world,” and praise texts of his as “brilliant” and “profound,” full of “great insight.” I am not sure how that can be squared with thinking I have scant regard for him. Thank you for your kind words about Current Affairs. [NOTE: Will have more to say about Marx in a forthcoming essay called “Wrestling Marx’s Ghost.”]
Nathan, how hot and gross is it wearing suits in Louisiana all the time?
Very hot and very gross, but the good thing is that in Louisiana everyone is hot and gross so nobody notices or cares.
Bernie Sanders did worse this election than he did in 2016. Why have you guys had so much trouble expanding your support, especially among the working class? Do you think there are elements of your platform or approach that are just off-putting to most of the electorate?
I think the premise of the question is wrong. In both 2016 and 2020, we saw millions of people support an elderly democratic socialist with almost no endorsements or support from powerful Democratic figures, and active opposition from top Democrats like Barack Obama (who made phone calls to try to get candidates to drop out so that Sanders could be stopped) and Hillary Clinton. When has this ever happened before? Socialists control NOTHING in this country. Bernie got no major newspapers endorsing him. No TV channels. Hardly any unions. And yet, despite having to compete with Warren for progressive votes and money, he raised the most money and was a strong second place contender who beat dozens of other democrats.
To me it is very strange to ask “Why didn’t Bernie win?” when the real question, looking over a century-long history of socialists being completely marginal, is “How on earth did Bernie do so well?”
Now that Sanders is out of the running and we find ourselves (once again) forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, how do we stay engaged in politics when it feels like any influence average Americans have is just an illusion? I need motivation to continue because I’m worn out with it all and ready to throw in the towel.
Well, it’s not an illusion, though it’s very limited. To give just one example of why we shouldn’t give up: The number of states with $15 minimum wages is going up all the time. The House passed a $15 minimum wage bill, though obviously it won’t be law for the foreseeable future. But there are plenty of cities where an (almost) living wage is now a reality. Why? Because people engaged themselves in politics and demanded the seemingly impossible.
The idea that we can accomplish nothing is a lie. It is what our opponents want us to believe. They are framing Bernie Sanders’ defeat as somehow being proof his movement failed, when actually the fact that a democratic socialist has now twice nearly won a major party presidential nomination is unprecedented in American history and a testament to our power.
Read Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht’s inspiring new book Bigger Than Bernie for tons of examples of how engaged ordinary people have gotten real gains for working people over the last few years. There is more reason to be engaged now than ever because new opportunities are opening that never previously existed.
What do you think is the strongest argument against socialism (or at least your particular brand of it) and what is your counter-argument to it?
I am kept awake thinking about the argument that the things socialists advocate are simply not possible, that people are too X, Y, or Z for us ever to reach a state I would consider justice. But it’s not really an argument, it’s more like a prophecy, because there’s simply no way to know the limits of what different kinds of human social organization that can be, even though many conservatives believe they know and that the 20th century has offered some kind of natural experiment. I have not found arguments I thought were persuasive, or I would have changed my beliefs, but I have certainly encountered some that give me fear and self-doubt. The “libertarian” review here is an articulation of the little voice in my head that says “you’re wrong and crazy” sometimes.
In Why You Should Be A Socialist, I go through seven or eight of the main anti-socialist arguments and give some responses so you should check that out for more.
Hi, Nathan. Any productivity tips for writing/researching? You seem like you get a lot done. Also been reading WYSBAS and enjoying it, so thanks!
Oh thank you! My productivity tip is care about nothing but writing. Leave personal hygiene, romantic relations, making tasty food, “hobbies” and other unnecessary indulgences aside and just type type type. Oh and tell yourself that if you don’t keep writing constantly you will die.
CAUTION: Following advice may have adverse consequences
Hi Nathan, Thanks for taking the time to do this. How do you remain positive while covering news/working in media? What made you want to go to law school in the first place? What are some of your happiest career choices thus far? Biggest regrets? Thanks again for all of your hard work with Current Affairs.
- I have a WONDERFUL team of people at Current Affairs who are very mutually supportive and funny. It makes a huge difference to have good people.
- I wanted to be a public defender, a desire I abandoned once I actually spent a summer working in the New Orleans public defender’s office.
- Happiest choice was taking the chance on Current Affairs. I was in grad school and knew it would hurt my schoolwork, but I had a hunch it could work and just decided to try it. It was a crazy scheme that really paid off.
- I don’t have any regrets career wise. Objectively speaking my law degree was probably a waste of money but I can’t imagine not having gone and I met one of my best friends in the world there, so who could regret that?
What does left activism and left media look like under a Biden presidency versus another term of a Trump presidency? Where do you see your role in that?
I would much rather be a left activist in a Biden presidency than a Trump one. It consists of trying to build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and extract concessions, and plan to throw out the centrists in 2024. Under a second Trump term, it consists in part of trying desperately to preserve the country from lapsing into complete authoritarian rule. [NOTE: I realize I didn’t answer the second part of the question. My role is to build critical left media that can expose the crimes of the powerful, persuade people to join the left, and offer aid and comfort to people who are on the left already.]
You do a lot of doomsaying, such as claiming that if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, we’re getting more Trump. First question is, don’t you think Current Affairs has some really depressing articles when all the news in all the world is really depressing? Have you thought of trying to write some more optimistic articles (while still being honest of course)? I’ve got to say, some of your reports make me want to just sit back and quit because they make progress seem near-impossible. Second, I have some questions about your honest predictions for America and the world. Not a “how can we achieve/not achieve these,” but “what do you, Nathan Robinson, think will occur?” The answers can be short: Will Trump get a second term now that Biden is the inevitable nominee? Will humanity actually manage to slow or stop climate change or is it hopeless? What is the future of America’s rapidly polarizing politics (go full left and the right dies out, country literally splits in half, the right wins and the left keeps trundling along, etc.)? Is this right-wing surge around the world going to keep holding on, or is it the last gasp against progress and will fade?
I actually think we’re rather more positive than many other places! I write a lot about the importance of avoiding hopelessness and resignation. Perhaps I haven’t done enough of it recently. But I am an upbeat person. Actually, our print edition is much more cheerful than our online edition and includes many messages of encouragement. (Subscribe!) Also the end of Why You Should Be A Socialist is hopeful. I don’t want to make anybody feel more depressed because that helps no one.
We’ve published articles before that have had a very negative outlook on Biden’s prospects. I think he is a very weak candidate. But also: Coronavirus changes things. If the economy hasn’t recovered and Donald Trump is presiding over a depression in which many people are continuing to lose loved ones to a horrendous disease that he is blamed for failing to mitigate, voters might be willing to vote for a potted plant over Donald Trump. Biden is as close to a potted plant as a living human can be, so he could conceivably win. If not for the virus, though, if Trump had still been presiding over a strong economy, I think Biden would have been doomed. Now everything is chaos and I’m going to try not to predict the future.
What are your top 5 fiction and top 5 non-fiction books?
Nonfiction probably Chomsky’s Understanding Power, Orwell Homage to Catalonia, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, Peter Kropotkin’s memoirs, and #5 probably rotates from moment to moment. Fiction I read a lot of PG Wodehouse and I love old utopias like News From Nowhere. Currently trying to read Tolstoy in isolation but keep getting distracted by internet. I am not a big fiction reader generally because the world gets in the way. It is one reason I want all political problems to be solved soon, so I never have to read nonfiction again and can dive into fantasy. [NOTE: Noticed in retrospect that all of these are books by white men. Yeesh. Really need to diversify the reading tastes! Also, I always appreciate book recommendations. Oh, and I once wrote an article about books I like that was turned by a kind fan into a Goodreads list.]
Hey Nathan! One thing this election, I believe, has laid bare is the level of a hurdle the mainstream media is for a leftist candidate reaching the nomination of a major party. What strategies do you see leftists needing to take to overcome this hurdle (and in the larger context, not just with regard to electoral/presidential politics)? How can leftists create a media apparatus that rivals the broad neoliberal capitalist consensus and cable news media giants like CNN and MSNBC, especially when we begin from such a disadvantage and aren’t as profitable because we inherently refuse to exploit the workers of our organizations like they do? Will we ever see a presidential debate on a leftist media network? How does leftist media grow?
I can’t really offer you a good answer, because my life’s mission is kind of to find out the answer to this. Leftist media has grown a lot already, which is what has allowed our magazine to thrive. But you’re right, we’re still nowhere near corporate media’s level of influence. Can we get there? My hope is that we can. How? Well, first by using the limited resources we have to make things that are as good and informative as possible, and making them accessible so that they reach as many people as possible. We have some advantage in that corporate media is terrible. Left media is very vibrant right now, but I think we can and will do much more in the coming years. We’ll see where it ends up. People should def support independent media projects though, they’re SO critical.
I am also called Nathan J. Robinson and I was planning on doing my own IAMA next week. When I read the first sentence of your post, I honestly thought I had jumped one week into the future… Time-travel aside, I did want to ask you about how you think the coronavirus crisis will effect wealth inequality worldwide?
Oh no. Oh no. I was hoping I would never meet you. I did… a very bad thing once that involved you.
The Bad Thing was that I once printed an interview in our magazine in which I pretended to be the Nathan J. Robinson who had found that squid even though you were the one who found the squid.
Haha. This is incredible! Although now I guess I need to do an interview where I also pretend to the author of Trump: Anatomy of a Monster. At least you didn’t pretend to be this Nathan Robinson.
Oh, I know! The Nathan Robinson who chopped up his dad and then kept him in tupperware containers he used as a TV stand is really disgracing our brand. Being a Nathan Robinson is supposed to be about cephalopods and leftism, not doing grisly murders!
Sorry I didn’t answer your very serious question about coronavirus.
Hey, Nathan! What advice or tips do you have for a young adult (in undergrad) that’s aspiring to write for the left-wing cause?
- Write for the person who disagrees with you the most. If you can persuade that person, you can persuade anyone.
- Try not to be boring. You are trying to get people to read about stuff they want to turn away from. A lot of it involves human and animal suffering. So you can’t just offer them a parade of miseries. You have to guide them gently, with wit and kindness.
- Figure out what makes the writing you love good, and then do what they do. I developed my political writing in 2015-16 by reading everything I could find by Freddie deBoer, Amber Frost, the Bruenigs, and Noam Chomsky. I had always written, but it became much better when I found writing I loved and tried to figure out what made it good.
- Good writers are doing a ton of work behind the scenes you will never see. They are going through 20 revisions. They are spending days researching a question. They are swapping out 10 variations of a word to find the one that works just right.
- But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get stuff out the door. It will never be fully satisfying. Don’t let a project eat you forever. Get it to the point where it’s FINE and then move on.
Not necessarily a political question but I do have to ask; the fashion sense, where did it come from?
I don’t actually know. My motivations are a mystery even to myself.