Back before starting Current Affairs, when I was a freelancer, I once pitched an editor on a long review of the works of conservative economist Thomas Sowell. The editor said he liked my writing, but didn’t understand my choice of subject. “Sowell? Who pays attention to him?” The editor thought Thomas Sowell was simply not worth paying attention to.
I thought then, and I think now, that this attitude was crazy. Millions of people watch videos of Thomas Sowell on YouTube. He has written nearly 50 books, many of which have thousands of glowing reviews on Amazon. His bestselling Basic Economics has gone through five editions and been published in half a dozen languages. To his fans, he is one of “the most luminous minds this country has produced.” Milton Friedman said he was as close to a genius as a human could be. Steven Pinker has called Sowell “among the most brilliant thinkers in the world today—deep, original, creative, fearless, intimidatingly erudite.” Amy Chua of Yale Law school calls Sowell “one of the most important thinkers of our time.” The Wall Street Journal has called him an “American sage.”
So how could anyone, I wondered, think Sowell was not worth paying attention to?
But the editor’s response to me expressed a sentiment I found in plenty of others who shared my political views. The right, they thought, was so self-evidently wrong, so transparently propagandistic, that it was a waste of time to engage closely with any of their arguments. In fact, to do so risked legitimizing them. There was even, among some on the left, a reluctance to engage in any kind of public debate with conservatives, on the theory that agreeing to debate someone viewed as a bigot was akin to agreeing to debate the reality of the Holocaust with a Nazi sympathizer. Best to simply ignore them and get on with your own work.
I never agreed with that, and one reason I never agreed with it was that I have a certain amount of respect for the craft of right-wing propaganda. Not the substance—I think they’re bringing us toward a hideous authoritarian dystopia, if not something even worse. But I see why right-wing talking points about Big Government and Our Lost American Greatness sway people. Thomas Sowell’s books on economics, for instance, mount a superficially persuasive explanation of why free markets are wonderful and vastly superior to economies that involve Government Intervention. I actually cite some of Sowell’s pieces when I teach writing classes, because he is a clear writer who doesn’t use jargon and who makes arguments that are intelligible to ordinary people. He’s also entirely wrong, but I don’t think it’s enough to just assert that. You have to prove it.
I think the right succeeds politically in part because they take seriously the task of packaging their views in accessible and easily-digestible talking points. Look at PragerU’s 5-minute videos. They are masterfully done, even though they are evil. Within a very short space of time, they give people all the rhetorical ammunition they need to argue with leftists in their lives (sprinkled with phony statistics). It’s true that one reason the right succeeds is that they have huge amounts of money behind them that left-wing media can’t really hope to compete with. (Donate now to change that!) But they also put out skilfully-written books purporting to show that the climate crisis isn’t real, critical race theory is destroying the country, and immigration is destroying the country.
I have always believed that if we’re going to fight the right’s ideas, we need to show clearly why they’re wrong. We can’t just say they’re wrong. Ben Shapiro gets a lot of mileage out of clips of him supposedly “destroying” left-wing arguments. Well, we need to be the ones doing the destroying.
When we don’t do this, we make it easier for the right to pull one of its favorite tricks: Saying that the left isn’t responding because it can’t respond, because we’re afraid of debate, and because they have uncovered the secret knowledge that we have to pretend doesn’t exist. Jason Riley’s hagiography of Thomas Sowell, Maverick, makes the case that Sowell is ignored because he has successfully exposed the illogical beliefs of leftist intellectuals and they cannot deal with the power of his criticism. Charles Murray suggests that the reason people reacted badly to the Bell Curve was that it challenged Politically Correct Shibboleths they didn’t like, when in fact its racist arguments were utterly incorrect.
So, over the course of Current Affairs’ six years of existence, I have made it part of my mission to publish clear and persuasive refutations of bad right-wing arguments. Some people think I’m “shooting fish in a barrel” or wasting my time. But I know that I’m not, because I have gotten plenty of letters from people who were once fans of Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro, but who came to see through reading Current Affairs that much of what these men believe is not well-grounded in facts or logic, even though they present themselves as factually and logically rigorous. I know there are plenty of people for whom the irrationality of these men is not news. But there are literally millions of others who don’t yet see through the tricks of these charlatans, and I believe I can peel some of those believers away by showing that when these men are confronted with strong counter-arguments, they have nothing to say. (Both Shapiro and Peterson have ducked attempts by others to set up one-on-one debates with me.)
I know for a fact that when you write an exhaustive critique of a person’s positions that doesn’t “straw man” them, you can unsettle even that person’s fans. See, for example, this discussion in the Sam Harris fan reddit forum about an article I co-wrote debunking many of Harris’ claims. Nobody could understand why Sam Harris had not given a rebuttal:
I honestly don’t understand why Sam never responded to this well researched, ad-hominem free critique…[Nathan] clearly worked very hard to not lazily accuse (or imply) that Sam is a racist or a right-winger. He intentionally steelmanned all of Sam’s positions before giving his counter-arguments. This is the kind of article I think Sam would be appreciative of and think merits further discussion. Robinson would make a great guest imo. … I think Sam is doing himself a disservice by not addressing Nathan’s article. By not doing so, I feel like he is lumping all good and bad-faith critiques of him into the same pile.
Indeed, this helps show that despite Harris’ public presentation of himself as a man who values reason and dialogue, he is in fact close-minded and unwilling to revise his positions when they are shown to be indefensible.
Over the last six years, I’ve written or co-written long assessments of the arguments of Peterson, Shapiro, Murray, Tucker Carlson, David Frum, Dinesh D’Souza, Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, Jonah Goldberg, Donald Trump Jr., Steven Pinker, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Sullivan, Joe Rogan, David Brooks, Matt Walsh, Piers Morgan, Heather Mac Donald, Alan Dershowitz, Ted Cruz, Mike Cernovich, Bari Weiss, PragerU, QAnon people, Ayn Rand, Alex Jones, and the entire staff of the National Review. Seldom have any of the figures I have written about offered any kind of rebuttal. (In Limbaugh’s defense, he was dead at the time.) I have hope that some percentage of the public will see, as did the Sam Harris reddit community, that the radio silence tells us all we need to know about the actual intellectual seriousness of these people and their true level of interest in Debate.
But now I’ve gone further. In a new book, Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments, I show the common structure of conservative arguments, why they persuade people, and how we can respond to them effectively. To avoid accusations of strawmanning, I use long direct quotes from the people I criticize. I show how the history of conservative rhetoric is the history of using baseless scare stories in which weak groups are a Threat To Civilization and mild social reforms will Destroy Society. My hope is that once anyone has learned to spot the common tropes of right-wing arguments (“X reform will hurt the people it’s trying to help,” “X group is undoing the civilized order”), it will be easier to help others see through propaganda.
In fact, as I wrote the book, I wanted to make it as definitive and powerful as possible. I wanted to drive an intellectual bulldozer through an ideology I think threatens the future of life on Earth. I wanted to expose once and for all the tactics that are used to manipulate people into hating their neighbors and opposing socially progressive policies. Using hundreds of sources, I have tried to construct a case that is tight and devastating, so that no reasonable and open-minded person could come away with any respect for right-wing political beliefs. I wanted to make it so that once this book was in people’s hands, conservatives were faced with a choice between conceding that they have been exposed as intellectually bankrupt or continuing to pretend the refutations of their positions do not exist. (I suspect Shapiro and Peterson, for instance, will continue their years-long streak of acting as if I haven’t repeatedly shown them to be ignorant and deceitful.)
Part I of Responding to the Right looks at what is common across right-wing arguments, from scare stories (“if we raise the minimum wage, you’ll lose your job!”) to casting powerless people as a civilizational threat (“drag queens are going to corrupt your children by reading to them!”) On nearly all issues, conservatives pull the same kind of bullshit, and if you study it you can help train people to spot it so that they won’t fall for it.
Part II goes through 25 specific common right-wing arguments and refutes them.
- Government Is the Problem, Not the Solution
- Minimum Wages and Rent Control Are Economically Disastrous
- Taxation Is Theft and/or Slavery
- Capitalism Rewards Innovation and Gives People What They Deserve
- The United States Is a Force for Good in the World
- There’s No Such Thing as White Privilege
- The Left Are Woke Totalitarians Trying to Destroy Free Speech in the Name of “Social Justice”
- Socialized Medicine Will Kill Your Grandma
- Scandinavian Social Democracy Won’t Work in the United States
- The Welfare State Will Lead Us Down the “Road to Serfdom”
- The Nazis Were Socialists
- Feminism Hurts Both Men and Women
- Price Gouging, Child Labor, and Sweatshops Are Good
- We Don’t Need a Green New Deal
- Academia Is a Radical Indoctrination Factory
- There Is a War on Cops When We Need to Be Tougher on Crime
- Labor Unions Hurt Workers
- Transgender People Are Delusional and a Threat
- Abortion Is Murder
- There Is a War on Christianity
- We Must Respect the Constitution and the Founding Fathers
- People Should “Pull Themselves Up by Their Bootstraps” and Not Need “Handouts”
- Immigration Is Harmful
- Inequality Is Fine
- Democracy Is Overrated
I didn’t hit every one of the right’s talking points (I didn’t include guns, for instance, though I’ve written about the issue before). But much of the garbage that people will hear on Fox News is here, and my hope is that the responses I have given are clear, compelling, well-sourced, and very difficult to come up with a persuasive rebuttal to.
On the right, there exist something like (I’m not a liberal) equivalents of my book (Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies, 48 Liberal Lies About American History, etc.) But I couldn’t find a handbook that would explain clearly the basic reason why people on the left reject the above set of beliefs. My hope is that such a book can be useful for those who want to see these pernicious talking points vanish from our discourse, and prevent the hideous dystopia that the right wants to build from coming into existence. I hope you will give copies to everyone who needs help destroying the right in arguments, and to every reactionary you dislike and want to upset. Let us hope it drives them nuts. (Better yet, that it unsettles their convictions and causes them to pick up my previous book Why You Should Be a Socialist, now available in paperback.)
This book has been a long slog, because I wanted to make it comprehensive and strong, and that meant reading dozens upon dozens of awful conservative books and citing hundreds of sources in my responses. I am proud of the end result (as well as the audiobook version, which I recorded myself!), and I hope you will find the book valuable. As always, I’ve tried to make the writing a bit fun so that reading about politics doesn’t feel like being made to eat your vegetables.
My book is an attack on right-wing political positions, but I do have a critique of the left: I do not think we can ignore beliefs just because we find them toxic and irrational. I don’t think it’s fair to write people off as incorrigible and assume that you don’t have an obligation to try to reason with them. I respond to the right in part because I actually respect their basic humanity and intelligence, and believe that they deserve intellectually serious explanations of why they are wrong, rather than just contemptuous scoffs. That said, I do not pull punches in this book. I find conservative ideology toxic and want to see it vanish from society. I do not want to get rid of the people who hold that ideology, but I do want them to seriously examine their own convictions, listen to the counterarguments, and come to see what a terrible error they have made. Will this happen? I can’t say. I do know that it has happened to at least a few people who have become readers of this magazine. All I can hope is that we reach a few more, and then a few more, and build a consensus around the principles of democratic socialism. I invite all of my right-wing readers to notice a devastating counterargument when they see one, shed their convictions (which as I say, I do not blame them for holding, given the immense persuasive power of conservative talking points), and come and join us on the left. We are more fun, and we also have better arguments.