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How Leftists Should Debate in Mainstream Spaces

Krystal Ball’s recent appearance on Bill Maher’s show provides a case study in how leftists can effectively argue in potentially ideologically hostile territory.

I don’t make a habit of telling anyone to watch Real Time with Bill Maher. But it’s worth making an exception for the June 17 episode with Krystal Ball. It featured an exchange on the 2020 stock market crash that went viral because of the way it showcased the contrast between Krystal’s simple and compelling point about economic inequality and Bill’s trademark combination of smugness and ignorance.

During the rest of the episode, Krystal pushes back against Bill’s attempts to divert the discussion into partisan talking points and culture war nonsense. She insists that “Bernie Sanders leftists” like her are the only faction of American politics offering solutions to the crises facing the country that won’t further immiserate the working class.  Like Bernie’s town hall on FOX News in 2019 or Chris Smalls’s appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight a few months ago, Krystal’s performance was a masterclass on how to put forward a robustly left-wing perspective  in ideologically unfriendly territory.

Real Talk About Real Time

I’ll admit to having been a Real Time fan when I was in my twenties. I enjoyed Bill’s mockery of George W. Bush and, as hard as this can be to remember, there was a time when the show felt unique and fun.

Sometime during the Obama years, I realized I only watched Real Time out of habit. The appeal had worn off for reasons that were as much aesthetic as political. Bill’s comic delivery in the opening monologue was always clumsy and somewhere down the line he developed the truly cringeworthy habit of chiding his audience for being too sensitive whenever one of his jokes failed to land.

Bill had his moments of moral and political lucidity over the years. The comment that got his old ABC show canceled was one of those. He responded to Bush’s labeling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as “cowardly” by saying that while the hijackings were certainly evil, they definitely weren’t cowardly—unlike the U.S. military “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” He had another good moment in 2016 when he briefly threw his support behind Bernie Sanders in the race against Hillary Clinton.

But those moments were the exceptions, not the rule. Maher has always been an Islamophobic warmonger on foreign policy and, while “maybe we could be more like the European countries” is a consideration that’s sometimes driven him in social democratic directions on domestic policy, he’s never been particularly interested in empowering the men and women at the bottom of our economic hierarchy. The main thrust of his commentary on American politics has always been mocking what he sees as the deep stupidity of ordinary people. Bill usually puts his faith in the wisdom of liberal technocrats—although he’s been known to make some truly baffling exceptions, most notably on vaccines. He’ll mock the Dems for not being more aggressive in negotiations with Republicans, but he rarely entertains the thought that they might just be wrong. Or that this persistent lack of aggression might have something to do with the influence of corporate interests and dark money on Democratic politics. And whatever criticisms he has of mainstream Democrats, he’s long relished any opportunity to punch left.

More recently, some commentators have thought Bill was drifting into the “Intellectual Dark Web.” I can understand why. His critiques of “wokeness” often seem to go beyond a reasonable critique of the excesses of campus activists and drift into truly reactionary territory. He’s taken to sitting down for chummy conversations with figures like Ben Shapiro. And the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a harsh light on his long-standing skepticism about vaccines in particular and “western medicine” in general.

Maher claims that he hasn’t changed—that the world has changed and he’s just reacting to it. Of course, that’s what people in his position always say, but as I argued in a recent piece in The Daily Beast, there’s some truth to it in his case. Bill has always been this bad.

Orange Man Bad, Ron DeSantis not so Bad?

Just how bad was thrown into vivid relief by the first topic Bill throws to Krystal and her fellow panelist James Kirchick—the January 6 hearings. As the discussion starts, Bill is fixated on whether the hearings could or should lead to the prosecution of Donald Trump. Krystal says she has “no issue with Trump being prosecuted” and “a lot of issue with elites not being held accountable for the crimes they commit” but argues that even in the unlikely event that Trump does end up facing such consequences, this would treat a symptom and leave the underlying disease untouched. The larger question is how we got to the point as a society where enough people were willing to listen to the deranged lies of an obvious conman like Trump such that January 6 happened in the first place. Even if Trump goes down, what about the next Trump and the Trump after that?

The Democrats, Krystal points out, have been playing with fire by promoting the most unhinged candidates in Republican primaries on the basis of the extremely dubious calculation that such candidates won’t be electable. That’s the “pied piper” strategy that gave us the Trump Presidency in the first place, and the fact that they’re still trying it in 2022—even as gas prices climb and Biden’s approval ratings plummet—shows how unserious they are about the dangers posed by Trumpism as opposed to Trump as an individual. Does Bill really think, Krystal asks, that a President Ron DeSantis would be “way better” than a second round of President Trump?

Maher’s jaw-dropping response is yes. Talking over Kirchick—an unremarkable neoconservative talking head—as Kirchick tries to say the same thing, Maher says, “I’d like to answer that. Yes, I do.” Finally getting a word in edgewise, Kirchick claims DeSantis hasn’t shown “contempt for democratic processes.” Maher adds that DeSantis won’t be “poop tweeting every day” and getting into feuds with Bette Midler. That last part may be true but it’s beyond me why Bill thinks it makes DeSantis less worrying or less of a threat to democracy.

Reality check: Ron DeSantis backed up Trump’s lies about voter fraud in the 2020 election. He’s been busy since then pushing through new initiatives in Florida to make it harder to vote. If he lost a future election and he thought he had a shot at getting conservative judges to overturn the will of the voters (as Trump ineptly tried to do in 2020 and George W. Bush successfully did in 2000), he would do it in a heartbeat. Of course he would.

But the really absurd Bill Maher moment comes a couple of minutes later. When Krystal says that prosecuting Trump wouldn’t do anything about the societal rot that generated Trumpism, Bill asks whether she would say the same thing about “criminal justice in general”—that locking up ordinary criminals doesn’t solve the underlying social problems that lead to crime. When Krystal says “of course,” he’s incredulous. Kirchick interjects with “she should run for DA in San Francisco” and Bill literally rocks back and forth with laughter.

This is who Bill Maher is—a rich, out-of-touch liberal who finds hilarious the mere suggestion that the causes of street crime should be addressed not with harsh carceral solutions but by addressing economic inequality and building supportive institutions to meet peoples’ needs. And even with someone like that in the host’s chair, Krystal manages to dominate the rest of the conversation with a perspective the Real Time audience would otherwise never hear.

How To Do It

Bill moves to two recent free speech cases in professional sports. Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator for the NFL team now called the Washington Commanders, was fined $100,000 for referring to January 6 as a “dust-up.” In another case, five players for the Tampa Bay Rays refused for religious reasons to wear a rainbow patch on their uniforms for Pride Month. (In that second case, to be clear, the team allowed them to opt out.)

It would be easy to imagine a left-wing guest getting into an argument about one or both of these stories that followed standard culture-war scripts—and that being all anyone remembered from the episode. Instead, Krystal does three things at once. First, she agrees with Bill that Del Rio and the five Rays who objected to the patches have a right to have “shitty takes.” Free speech is a core left-wing value, and Krystal has always taken principled positions on those issues. Second, she makes clear that she does in fact find the takes shitty. Third and most crucially, instead of just agreeing with Bill on the free speech issues, she ties these incidents into larger and more important points about the operations of power in a capitalist society.

Del Rio’s fine, she argues, was virtue signaling to appease liberals because of sexual harassment scandals within the Washington Commanders organization that have implicated team owner Dan Snyder. And the Rays’ pride patches are one small example of corporate America’s absurd play acting on social justice. “There’s been a whole corporate co-optation of social justice language,” Krystal says, “to cover for some of their broader sins.” Pivoting away from the sports team story, she brings up Amazon being “happy to put the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag up on their screen” even as they’re “abusing black and brown workers in their warehouses every single day” and “busting their unions.” Somehow she’s managed to seamlessly change the subject from exactly the kind of “liberals going too far” story that seems to be Bill’s bread-and-butter these days to a discussion of union-busting—and she’s brought Bill and the audience with her.

Bill awkwardly pivots to a preplanned comic interlude on the supposedly sentient Google AI. He delivers his jokes, Krystal gamely laughs, and Bill moves on to the real meat of the discussion—the record of the Biden administration and the likely electoral slaughter the Democrats are facing this fall. This is where things get interesting.

Bill frames the discussion by asking whether Biden has “pandered” too much to the “far Left.” Krystal points out that Biden’s approval numbers were highest at the beginning of his term when (in however inadequate and incremental a way) he was actually doing some of the things that leftists like her wanted him to do. Since Bill can only think in terms of culture war scripts and he doesn’t think of Krystal as particularly “woke,” he tries to put some distance between her and the “far Left,” saying, “You’re not always on the Left.” She cuts that off at the pass—“I’m a Bernie Sanders leftist.” Whatever critiques she might have of some parts of the left for being nonstrategic or unappealing, she has bigger fish to fry in this discussion.

When Kirchick tries to insist that she’s at least different from “the woke left,” she raises her hand to cut him off, dismissively saying “OK” and moving on to her argument that when Biden was delivering even frustratingly modest economic assistance to ordinary people and proposing things like Medicare expansion and Universal Pre-K, he was far more popular. His poll numbers have “fallen off a cliff” because parts of that agenda were stalled, other parts were abandoned, gas and food prices have gone up, and Biden has done little to nothing about any of this. Ball said: “It [Biden’s approval ratings] has nothing to do with the Left. I wish the Left had more power. In fact, I think the Left is the only part of the political spectrum that has offered anything to deal with inflation, gas prices and the current economic situation that doesn’t just involve, ‘Hey, let’s trigger a recession and kill people’s wages.’”

Kirchick steps in to make a hacky conservative argument. “Part of the problem with inflation” is that there’s been “way too much government spending.” It’s “just basic economics.” Krystal will have none of that, reminding Kirchick and Maher of the pandemic, the supply chain crisis, and the war in Ukraine. Putting the blame on people getting “a little bit of money in their bank account” for the stimulus is upper-class propaganda, not “basic economics,” she asserts.

Bill gets snippy about that “little bit of money” formulation. It was so much money! More than the U.S. spent in World War II! (Ironically, since this is a discussion about inflation, I’m pretty sure Bill isn’t adjusting for the difference between 1945 and 2022 prices.) There’s another opportunity here to let the discussion drift into familiar culture-war scripts, such as when Bill criticizes government spending during COVID and refers to the virus as “the forever flu.” Krystal doesn’t take the bait. Instead, she reminds him of the double standard—why are the actually quite modest stimulus checks treated as Exhibit A for Government Spending Fueling Inflation when the Federal Reserve shot trillions of dollars at Wall Street when the stock market crashed at the beginning of the pandemic?

Astonishingly, Bill has no idea what she’s talking about. He seems to think she imagined the crash and even mocks her a little bit for saying it happened. This is the viral moment everyone will remember later. Krystal is just unambiguously correct. No one is laughing at him in the studio, but many many people will laugh about it when they see it on YouTube in the days and weeks to come. To be fair to Bill, the fact that he has no idea the market collapsed in March 2020 is understandable. In a way, it even makes Krystal’s point for her. At a time when working-class people were undergoing real pain, they (eventually) got a measly $1400 and a (temporary) child tax credit and even these crumbs involved big messy political fights. Long after that faucet was turned off, the Right—and allegedly straight-talking centrist types like Bill Maher—continue to bring it up as the height of fiscal irresponsibility. When rich people were in trouble, the Fed didn’t wait a millisecond before it parachuted in with generous help. It was a non-issue. Because that’s how our society works.

Throughout the entire panel discussion, Krystal does three interrelated things that any leftist who wants to go into hostile spaces can learn from:

  1. She lays down a single clear narrative and adds to it throughout the discussion.
  2. She’s friendly and appealing, but she doesn’t give an inch on her core points.
  3. She picks her battles.

Let’s go through each in detail.

Establishing and Maintaining a Clear Narrative

The late Christopher Hitchens said something interesting in the last interview he gave before he died in 2011. He was reflecting on his debate about religion with former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Hitchens, who was probably the most rhetorically talented debater we’ve had in the era when debates have been captured on YouTube, said that in a debate you can only have one goal.

That might be an overstatement. It’s probably fine to have as many as two or three goals. But there’s a lot of truth to Hitchens’s point, and it applies even in contexts like Krystal Ball’s conversation with Bill Maher that aren’t quite debates (but also aren’t quite not debates). You should know in advance what you hope to accomplish and stick to it. And too many goals will probably get in each other’s way.

Every time Krystal opened her mouth in the panel discussion, it was to reinforce the idea that the United States is a savagely unequal society where wealthy elites get to call the shots—writing and rewriting the rules to benefit themselves—and working-class people get the short end of the stick when they get anything at all. That was her core point about the perils of hyper-focusing on Trump as an individual instead of understanding Trumpism as a symptom of social rot. That was where she took the discussion about sports and free speech. It’s what she was insisting on when Bill wanted to use Biden’s flailing approval rating as the basis for a potshot against “the far left.” And it was her point during the final minutes of the panel discussion, when Jamie Kirchick tried to blame gas prices on the Biden administration waging a “war” against fossil fuel.

Bullshit, she essentially said. There’s plenty of supply. The issue is monopolistic price-gouging. When Kitchick tried a different tack, blaming Biden for alienating the Saudis, she brought up a glaring double-standard. Neocons like Jamie Kirchick are all in favor of sanctioning Russian oil, allegedly out of concern about human rights, but Saudi oil is A-OK? Whether the issue is foreign or domestic policy, the point is the same. Our plutocrats have a good relationship with the Saudi plutocrats who preside over a regime that beheads gay people and accused “wizards.” Rich people get to make the rules, and “human rights” concerns don’t apply to their medieval allies abroad.

Stay Friendly, but Don’t Give an Inch

This one might sound a little odd and hypocritical coming from me, since the last debate I did was with James O’Keefe, Tim Pool, and Tulsi Gabbard and at one point during that debate I referred to O’Keefe and his Project Veritas as “gutter-level snitches.” All I can say is that there’s a time and a place for that. But as a general rule, being obnoxious in a debate—or a semi-debate conducted in ideologically hostile terrain like Krystal’s appearance on Real Time—is a bad strategy. More precisely, it’s a good strategy for making people who are already on your side mutter “hell yeah” under their breath as they watch and a very bad strategy for winning over persuadable viewers who aren’t yet on your side.

Every audience has layers ranging from hardcore fans of the host to people who are sympathetic and curious about what the host has to say to onlookers who are basically just curious. Granted, there’s a further layer of hate-watchers who will like it if you come in with every possible gun blazing, flinging insults in every direction, but they’re not the people you’re trying to win over.

It’s hard to know with any confidence how big the persuadable layers are, but they definitely exist. Anyone who does this stuff regularly will have gotten feedback from people who started to see things differently when they saw you as a guest on some show, or when they saw you in a debate.1 In some cases, they might even be people who used to be hardcore fans of your interlocutor but who happen to be tuning in at just the right point in the arc of their political evolution to be open to a different perspective. In other cases, they might have only just been starting to dip a toe in that interlocutor’s worldview. Either way, it’s unlikely that a viewer would be tuning in to watch or listen to  a person they didn’t already basically like. But as Krystal effectively demonstrated on Real Time, you can be aggressive toward someone’s ideas without coming off as personally hostile to them—and that’s usually the right call. Laugh when they say something funny. Agree with them when you get to a real area of agreement. But keep pressing your main argument.

Pick Your Battles

There were a dozen points when the conversation could have veered off into different directions. Krystal could have picked a fight about calling COVID “the forever flu.” She could have taken the implied invitation when Bill and James tried to differentiate her from “the far Left” or “the woke Left” to get into her actual objections to the excesses of performative wokeness. She could have objected to Bill obsessing about free speech cases involving conservatives when social media platforms censor left-wing content creators all the time and dozens of Starbucks workers around the country have been fired for expressing their support for unionization efforts since Starbucks Workers United started their campaign last year. But she didn’t do any of that, because she was on a mission and taking any of those conversational off-ramps would have detracted from that mission.

Watching it, I thought of the iconic picture from last year of Bernie Sanders sitting in a booth with Maureen Dowd. Bernie wrote out a list of the topics he was willing to discuss and every time Dowd tried to change the subject to some media-friendly distraction (like “free Britney” or “if he thinks AOC could be President someday”), he waved around the list.

Of course, most leftists who are lucky enough to get a chance to spread our message on big non-Left platforms are neither (a) approximately 200 years old, (b) so lovably grumpy everyone allows for it as part of their persona, nor (c) one of the most popular politicians in the United States (who will hence be invited on no matter how he acts), so a little more finesse is usually called for than Bernie displayed with Maureen Dowd. But the core of his instinct is exactly right and absolutely replicable by the rest of us. Keep the channel where we want it to be—on the core issues that conservatives and centrists like to avoid because they lay bare the tension between opposing a Left agenda and making any credible claim to giving a shit about ordinary people. Keep the topic there, keep your message focused, and stick to the intuitive core of your point.

That’s how Chris Smalls outwitted Tucker Carlson. It’s how Dr. Adam Gaffney of the Physicians for a National Health Program fought off multiple talking heads on multiple screens in his epic Fox Business appearance promoting Medicare for All. And it’s how Krystal crushed it in her appearance on Bill Maher’s very silly TV show.

It works because what the Left is saying makes sense—at least if you care about the interests of the majority of the population. Too many leftists worry about getting right-wing cooties from going on the wrong platform and miss the very simple point that these are winnable battles. But we can’t win if we don’t engage.

  1. I once had someone come up to me after a debate to say that they were a libertarian when they started hate-reading my column at Jacobin. By the time of our conversation, they were Vice Chair of their DSA chapter. That’s an extreme example, but the general phenomenon isn’t as unusual as you might imagine. And I particularly love reminders that the audience for any given article or show isn’t always who you expect it to be. One of the elderly women my mom goes birding with now calls herself a socialist and credits my appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. I haven’t, like, interrogated her on what the s-word means to her or anything, but I’ll take it! 

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