Dennis Prager, the conservative radio host and namesake of a fake university, said recently that while he “aches” to debate leftists, they will not agree to debate him even when offered tens of thousands of dollars to do so. In response, a number of popular leftist commentators offered to debate Prager. Prager recently ended up appearing on progressive YouTube show The Young Turks, where co-host Ana Kasparian confronted him about his erroneous assertion that leftists won’t debate him:
[I disagree] with the notion that the left is afraid to have these kinds of discussions or debates. In fact, you had tweeted that video … and there were a lot of responses from prominent individuals on the left. … You don’t have to ache any more. There are lots of people on the left who want to debate you.”
Oh, I have no doubt that there are a lot of people on the left. The issue that I raised was people at the New York Times and people like you, for example, you pleasantly surprised me by doing this to be perfectly honest, and by the way I think proof of my theory is a piece that I read on some left-wing or progressive site just today about how angry many of your viewers are that you’re having me on. Whereas … I would get no such feedback from the right if I had a left-wing person on my show. They would be thrilled. So I still stand my belief that in general, the people certainly in the higher echelons of the left don’t want to debate.
Elsewhere in the program, Prager told the program hosts that the left doesn’t want to live in a free nation, citing the fact that “you suppress dissent.” The hosts immediately pointed out the absurdity of saying that they suppress dissent when he was literally appearing on their show that very moment. (Many conservatives insist they are being suppressed or silenced when speaking from well-funded and far-reaching platforms. Let us also once again note that historically, American socialists have been at the forefront of the fight for free speech, and the millennial left’s leading socialist magazine publishes staunchly civil libertarian opinions.)
The “leftists won’t debate us” posture is very common on the right. But it’s simply not true. Bernie Sanders, the leading leftist politician in the country, has had debates with Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham (and done very well both times). In Prager’s video, he specifically singles out Ta-Nehisi Coates as someone who “won’t debate,” and while I don’t know if Coates has specifically turned down an invitation from Prager, if you want to watch him engage directly with someone harshly critical of his ideas, see his conversation with Woke Racism author John McWhorter. Ana Kasparian, a skilled debater, has not only gone head-to-head with Prager but also Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, and Tomi Lahren. Krystal Ball has effectively defended left positions against Bill Maher, and Elizabeth Bruenig and Katie Halper have both gone on Fox to face hostile questioning. On YouTube, you can watch many debates between conservatives and leftist broadcasters like Sam Seder, Ben Burgis, Vaush, and the late Michael Brooks.
So let’s not say that leftists won’t engage in debate. Plenty are willing to do it. Prager might be right that none of the columnists at the New York Times are personally interested in debating him, but the only leftist columnist at the New York Times is Jamelle Bouie. The statement “Jamelle Bouie won’t debate me” has a quite different ring than the left won’t debate me. Yet when Kasparian presented Prager with clear evidence that he could in fact have discussions with leftists if he wanted to, he said he stood by his belief, citing as evidence the fact that certain members of the Young Turks audience grumbled about Prager being a guest on the show.
Now, there is a tendency among some progressives to argue that debate is worthless and you shouldn’t “platform” right-wingers. When Bernie Sanders went on Joe Rogan’s show, there was some controversy among progressives because Rogan has said a lot of ignorant and prejudiced things. But there is a wide range of opinions about this among progressives, and many of us are perfectly willing to defend our views against hostile opponents in public forums. It’s worth noting that one reason for the skepticism about debate is the recognition that public debates are actually pretty bad ways of sorting through ideas to get to the truth, because they put people like Ben Shapiro, who are capable of emitting enormous mountains of bullshit very very quickly, at an advantage. I think it’s reasonable for some people not to want to debate because debate is much more a contest of presentation than substance, and people who are thoughtful but not terribly charismatic might fare poorly despite being correct.
It’s also worth noting that plenty on the right appear averse to getting into situations where their ideas could be effectively challenged. For instance, when Ben Shapiro ran into some tough questioning by a (conservative!) BBC interviewer, he infamously said the host must be a biased leftist and stormed off. Conservative YouTube host Steven Crowder ducked out of a debate with Sam Seder, and Jordan Peterson refused to follow through on an offer to have a public conversation with me about our differences. (Instead he has just commented “Old Nathan, he’s quite the character.”)
I’m someone who believes strongly in defending leftist ideas directly from right-wing critiques. Count me among those who would be happy to debate Dennis Prager. (I’d suggest we debate the proposition “PragerU videos are filled with propaganda and lies.” I would be arguing in the affirmative.) I’m still hoping to get a chance to engage with Peterson or Shapiro about my critiques of their intellectual output. I’ve written a forthcoming book called Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments that quotes conservative works extensively and then explains carefully why they are mistaken.
Personally I don’t fear debate and argument because I know left ideas are defensible. I think Bernie’s debates with Cruz and Graham show that when you put both sets of positions on the table, whether it’s on healthcare, living wages, or climate, the leftist stance is persuasive and compelling. I think we should embrace chances to defend our ideas in public, because there is no reason we can’t win an argument. Plenty of prominent leftist commentators have shown already how wrong Prager is. But even if he himself won’t admit to making an error, hopefully reasonable people will stop giving credence to the silly talking point that leftists won’t engage in debate.