Batya Ungar-Sargon: How Woke Media Abandoned the Working Class and Monetized Outrage
“The woke language, although it sounds like social justice, it’s essentially an abandonment of the most vulnerable people of color, the most vulnerable Americans, the downwardly mobile, in the name of a social justice war that literally puts money in the pockets of liberal elites.”
At the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, I sat down with Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, to discuss her new book “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy.”
“We don’t have to hate our fellow American so that some journalist or some media company can make money off of it.”
Jan Jekielek: Batya Ungar-Sargon, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Batya Ungar-Sargon: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real honor.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we’re going to have to title this interview “What the Hell Happened to Journalism?” Okay? I’m reading your book, which is fantastic. I want to just recommend it to everybody. It’s an amazing compendium and some kind of unintuitive necessary things about what has happened to journalism over the last—And you say it’s much longer than 5 years, 10 years and longer.
So let’s just start with that question, what happened to journalism? And then we’ll dig in after that.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: All right. So the question really is, how far back do you want me to go? Because as you noted, we had this great “awokening” that’s taken place over the last 10 years. But the pressures in journalism that allowed that to happen have been going on for much, much longer.
So if you think about where American journalism started, it really began as a populous revolution in the 19th century. So two heroes, Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer, were two journalists who showed up on the scene at a time when America was deeply, deeply divided along income lines.
It was the gilded age, America was about as unequal as it is today, if not a little bit more so. And these guys looked around them and saw two things, they saw that all the newspapers were for the elites. There were political newspapers for the political elites, and there were economic newspapers for the economic elites.
They also noticed something else, which was that the vast majority of working-class and poor Americans, of which there were many, were very, very literate. But they just did not have anything to read. And so they started the Penny Press. They started selling newspapers for one penny apiece. And they got rich off it because, of course, there are so many poor and working-class people and they were hungry for news about themselves. This was really the birth of American journalism.
It was a populous revolution for and on behalf of and by working-class Americans that took them up as a crusade. And what I like to say is that there’s not really a problem with partisan journalism as long as everybody’s represented, as long as there are people who are partisan who are creating news for everybody.
The problem with today’s media is that it is totally partisan on behalf of the elites. You have liberal media that’s completely partisan on behalf of liberal elites and conservative media that’s very partisan on behalf of conservative elites. How did that happen?
Well, it happened throughout the course of the 20th century as journalists underwent a status revolution, essentially. So in 1937, the vast majority of American journalists did not have a college degree. Journalism was considered a working-class trade. It was a blue collar job that you picked up as you did it. You picked it up on the job. In 1937, a survey found that the elites of journalism, the Washington elites, less than half of them had a college degree.
Fast forward to 2015 and 92 percent of American journalists now have a college degree. In fact, that number is almost certainly higher today than it was in 2015. Along with this status revolution from blue collar trade to highly, highly educated, essentially, caste, you saw journalists shift their idea of who journalism was for and what it should be about.
And the woke revolution that we’re seeing is essentially the last stage in this status revolution among journalists. Essentially, I argue that the adoption of woke language—obsessing over white privilege, white supremacy, slavery—issues that are really not pressing in America the way that other issues are, like income inequality.
That obsession masks the real class divide in America and the skyrocketing income inequality while allowing liberal and left-wing journalists to still feel like heroes even as they contribute to the class chasm in America. That’s kind of the long and the short of it.
Mr. Jekielek: This is so fascinating to me because, for starters, I think you just explained to me why The Epoch Times has been so successful lately.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Explain.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we’re kind of doing what these two illustrious penny-charging individuals did back in the day because our media is not for the elites although certainly there are some elites that follow it. When I came in here, the bartender looked at me and said, “American Thought Leaders. Thanks so much for what you do!”
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: That’s amazing.
Mr. Jekielek: I was touched and I was honored by that.-
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: That’s amazing. What an endorsement. Wow!
Mr. Jekielek: Bartenders, right?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Seriously.
Mr. Jekielek: And frankly that happens a lot, and I feel very honored that that’s the case. But I never thought about it the way you just described until reading your book.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Tell me more about how you do that, what steps you take to ensure that your audience includes working-class Americans. That’s what I want to hear about, that’s what nobody else is doing.
Mr. Jekielek: The weird thing, I feel a little bit odd about The Epoch Times’ recent success because I feel like we’re just doing what I understand journalism is supposed to do, which is reporting. I think in one of the endorsements, Greg Lukianoff mentions this. He says something like, journalism has become a field where people are kind of shaping reality for others or something to this tune. Your book kind of explains that a little bit, whereas we don’t do that. Our opinion is our opinion, journalism is journalism. But so few people are doing that, right? And that’s what I see, since you’re interviewing me now for a moment.
So I feel like there’s this huge—let’s call it a market that’s open for anybody who wants to do actual journalism. We welcome that. Competition is healthy, right? But part of our success is simply because there’s been an abdication of that role by the most illustrious media of our day, apparently.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: To me, what’s really interesting is seeing that very often it’s the conservative press that has the working-class audience these days, that’s catering to a viewer or a listener or a reader who they are imagining doesn’t have a college degree. Whereas the vast majority of liberal media that’s being produced is being produced for an ever smaller elite, ever more highly educated elite, and I think that that reflects political trends more widely.
Where, if the democrats used to be the party of the welders and the lineman and the factory worker, today they’re the party asking those people to pay off the student loans of dentists and accountants to the tune of 50,000 dollars, right?
That’s what the progressives are pushing—50,000 dollars in student loans, right? Who has 50,000 dollars in student loans? It’s not the lineman, right? Or they’re pushing banning fracking, one of the few jobs left that creates upward mobility for working-class Americans in the name of this sort of climate agenda. Or they’re pushing defunding the police. Who needs the police? It’s the working-class people, people of color, the victims of crime, the victims of skyrocketing murder.
So I argue that the woke language, although it sounds like social justice, it’s essentially an abandonment of the most vulnerable people of color, the most vulnerable Americans, the downwardly mobile, in the name of a social justice war that literally puts money in the pockets of liberal elites.
And I’m saying this from the left. I’m a left-wing populist, and I feel so disgusted with this, with the magic trick that so many liberal journalists have been able to play on themselves where they can literally stand there and ask working-class people to pay off the student loans of the elites, right? Where they can, with a straight face, say, we’re going to defund the police on behalf of people of color, the victims of the vast majority of homicides in America. So that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely fascinating. And I think that your book isn’t just about the failure of journalism, which is what it’s speaking to or the wokening of journalism, but also about exactly the kinds of realities that you’re talking about here. There are so many of these pieces that are interconnected here.
So how exactly did this journalistic profession take on the woke agenda, for lack of a better term? Because it’s not something that was obvious, at least to me, until maybe five years ago, I think is the time when I really noticed it.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: It’s a great question. I want to just start by defining a little better what I mean by the woke agenda because it is an agenda. But to me, police reform is not woke.
Mr. Jekielek: One would hope, right?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Exactly, exactly.
Mr. Jekielek: But there is a woke variant of it.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Exactly. I think that’s really important to point out because conservatives know this, okay? Conservatives know that conservatives want police reform, right? Conservatives know that conservatives are worried about homelessness, right? Conservatives know that conservatives are worried about black school children in Baltimore, in failing schools who have a GPA of 1.0, right? Conservatives know that they care about that. Liberals don’t know that.
So I have to be very clear when I say what is wokeness to me. Wokeness is the rebranding of racism away from actually caring about people of color, actually paying attention to the population we have most abandoned in this nation, the descendants of slaves. It’s rebranding caring about those people to a symbolic fight over whether America is a white supremacy [nation], which does nothing to help people of color, right?
Endless conversations about critical race theory; endless conversations about if you’re not anti-racist, you are racist; creating a binary where if you’re not talking about race in every conversation, you are contributing to the problem, you are a racist. That’s wokeness when it comes away from the populations that we have actually abandoned and becomes a contributor to an elite agenda that actually obfuscates the solutions to the real problems.
So how did the media get woke? Like many things, it was gradual and then all at once, right? So the status revolution among journalists took about a hundred years to complete itself till 2015. At the same time, the media had taken on a more interpretive feel to it with the advent of television.
So in 1964, that was the first year most Americans were getting their news from TV, and what that meant was that print journalists, had to add something to have a value-add, right? They couldn’t just tell you what had happened because people could turn on the TV and get that in a more immediate sense.
And so the news took on a more interpretive caste to it. There was still about 20, 30 years in the post-war era where a lot of the news was bipartisan, straight down the middle of the road. But I think that was more for class reasons than political reasons. It was because there was less that divided us by class.
The working-class was very, very highly mobile, so there was not that much that distinguished them from the middle class. You didn’t have CEOs of corporations making 30 times what they paid their workers. You had a more equitable, a more just society from an economic point of view.
We were still struggling with Jim Crow and the after effects of it, a struggle that does still continue today. But from an economic point of view, we were less divided by class. And I believe that’s why Americans from both sides of the aisle could tune in to Walter Cronkite, right? It was less about political polarization.
What’s happened is we have now a deep class chasm in America. And especially over the last 20 years, the economy has started to reward those who work in knowledge industries much, much, much, much more than it once did. And its started to really be punitive towards the working class and people without a college degree.
So even 20 or 30 years ago, a journalist or a college professor would live in a neighborhood where they would live next door to an electrician and they wouldn’t make that much more than the electrician.
Today, they live in Park Slope, and they make a little bit less than their neighbor, the corporate lawyer, right? There’s been this class shift and the upward mobility of the meritocratic, liberal, highly educated elite has been very, very, very extreme to where the American intelligentsia today is very affluent compared to those without a college degree.
And so their agenda increasingly focuses on what those people want. Now, what we can see, and we can really track this, is how digital media took a journalistic industry that was increasingly focused on a highly educated, liberal elite, and really turned that focus into a moral panic around race.
This started to happen a lot earlier than most people think. It started around 2011, 2012. We know when it started because we don’t have to rely on our own impressions, sociologists have gone to The New Times and The Washington Post and NPR and even The Wall Street Journal, and they’ve trawled the archives.
So they know when the words white supremacy, slavery, anti-racism, Islamophobia, [and] homophobia, started to skyrocket in these publications. And I mean skyrocket. You can look at the graphs they created and I have these graphs in my book, and it just looks like this. So The New York Times and Washington Post increased their use of the words “white supremacy” by 1,200 percent over the last 10 years. So why did that happen and why did it start in 2012? A lot of people think it was about Trump; Trump certainly exacerbated a lot of this. It wasn’t about Trump; it started way before Trump. In fact, arguably, this led to Trump, this contributed to Trump.
What happened around 2011/2012 was that news rooms became increasingly populated with highly educated, younger journalists who, because the industry was constricting, because the local news industry had essentially collapsed, people hiring journalists could afford to hire only the most highly educated, only the most elite journalists.
The New York Times now takes its interns only from the top one percent of universities. And essentially, what happened was a generational shift, in which a younger generation of highly woke individuals, who had been educated at all of the same universities, started working at an industry that was reshaping itself to fit the digital era. What I mean by that is [that at] one time, we measured success in journalism based on how many people read our articles, how many people were influenced by them, [and] maybe how many people across the political spectrum read our articles and respected our reporting.
In digital media, the way you measure success is by engagement, meaning how many people engaged online with your article. In digital media, we know everything about our readers; we know where they live; we know how much money they make; we know what ads they’re clicking on; we know how long they stay on the article; we know what words make them click and what words make them go away.
And so what you saw was a feedback loop between an increasingly affluent, highly educated readership and the business pressures of digital journalism to cater to an online audience. And of course, we know that the most extreme voices are always the most engaged.
So the digital media model, and this is on both sides, is geared towards satisfying and not upsetting the most extreme readers and viewers as opposed to trying to get that big center. And that’s really, I think, where we’re seeing this sort of great awokening come from. It’s a combination of the class of journalists, their ideology, and the business pressures in digital journalism.
Mr. Jekielek: As you were talking about, I guess, the information class, the knowledge class that are ascending disproportionately, I kept thinking about Learn To Code. Do you remember Learn To Code?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: That was one of the first things that struck me as really bizarre. Like, Really? …the answer to the working class continuing to work is learn to code? That sounds very dismissive and bizarre. I didn’t think much of it. This was under the Obama administration? I can’t remember exactly where that came out. But seeing a bit of the sort of the tail of what you’re describing here is fascinating.
How is it that today there is such a homogeneity amidst not even just, I guess, the way of thinking about content but the content itself? This is something that comes out as you read your book. How does that actually manifest? I’ll tell you why I’m asking, okay? This is around Trump becoming a viable candidate in the election 2015. I’m looking at a lot of media.
I’ve been watching China for years. I’ve been watching Chinese media for years. And suddenly American media, some of the highest profound media, to me, started looking like they’re all working in sync around the same stories, the same words even. Very similar to what I’ve been seeing in Chinese communist party media.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Oh wow.
Mr. Jekielek: How is that possible, right?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Oh wow.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean, this was my road of awakening. I was thinking to myself, what conspiracy is here? I mean, because I don’t believe there was someone like the Xinhua so called “news agency” telling everybody what the line was. I didn’t expect that was happening. But somehow it was all so similar. How did that happen?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Right. It’s very interesting, sometimes you don’t need state power to create a monoculture. To create a monolithic culture… you convince people that they’re on the wrong side of history if they don’t support a certain point of view. Although, again, to me this is a lot more about—if you look at how digital media works— if you’re an editor in a newsroom and you see a video on Twitter of a police shooting, once upon a time, that would have been a local story. That would have been a story that was covered in the local news of, let’s say, Minneapolis. And that would be it.
What happens now is you see it trending on twitter. And you know if you get a story about that shooting and the video on your website, you’re going to get 100,000 page views in two hours, right? So who’s going to give that up? The problem is, it’s so easy to see where the traffic is coming from and so easy to replicate that.
I’m very glad that the footage of George Floyd’s murder emerged and was widely publicized. I’m very glad that his murderer is in prison. There is a positive side to a lot of this, especially when it comes to issues of racial justice. But at the same time, George Floyd’s murder was very much an aberration. The data does not show that the police murder unarmed black men more than unarmed white men.
It does show that police insult black people more, put hands on them more, put them in handcuffs more, push them up against cars more. I mean, there is a moral emergency when it comes to the police and black Americans, it’s not police shootings though. And if you look at where the media went with it, all the coverage was about police shootings, about there being a “genocide” against black Americans.
Things that are not true make it impossible to discuss the things that are true. I mean, where’s the article saying, actually they don’t shoot black men more, but they do insult them more. A black American who needs help from the police knows that if they reach out to them, they’re very likely to be insulted. That’s an immoral emergency.
That’s something we should all be talking about. That fact that Senator Tim Scott tried to address [this issue] with his police reform bill, but the liberals … the democrats then blocked with the filibuster that they then called a relic of white supremacy three months later. The irony is thick around this issue.
So I think that the monoculture is created by a combination of things. It used to be to become a journalist you would get a job in local news media somewhere in the middle of the country, your boss wouldn’t have gone to college, your boss’s boss would be the head of a corporation and would probably be republican. But you’re a liberal because most journalists have always been more liberal.
And so you’re sort of pulling in the direction of having more liberalism and your bosses are pulling in the other direction of being a little more conservative. You end up down the middle of the road. Today, everyone is pulling in the same direction to one of the extremes. The corporations are pulling there because that’s where the traffic is and that’s where the money is and the journalists are pulling there because they’re all from the same place now.
They’re all from highly elite universities because the industry is so hard to break into that that’s where the people who are doing the hiring are increasingly calling from. And that’s also a moral emergency, there are no working class, young journalists emerging. I mean, maybe one or two but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.
To become a journalist in America today, you essentially have to come from money. You have to be able to live in New York City on the starting wage of 35,000 dollars a year. That doesn’t mean that it’s an egalitarian industry. It means that it’s a very exclusive one. You have to be the scion of wealth. You have to have somebody who’s going to pay for you to do that. And the vast majority of American journalist jobs are in the most expensive cities in America.
So we’ve ended up in a place where all of the journalists are coming out of the same few schools with the same ideology, their elders are scared of them because they’re scared of being dog piled by their own colleagues on Twitter. And their bosses are supporting those sort of Twitter mobs to come after their own colleagues and siding with them. And so everything is sort of pulling in the same direction of a real monoculture that’s enforced through shaming campaigns.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, I definitely want to talk about the shaming. But one thing that you refer to, I think you actually have a whole chapter dedicated to this, is moral panic. What exactly is moral panic? It’s not necessarily obvious what that means. What is a moral panic, what is the moral panic that you feel that’s happening right now?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: A moral panic is like what happened in Salem. It’s like what happened with the kindergarten teachers and the satanic panic in the ’80s where suddenly American society writ large became convinced that there were teenagers playing Dungeons and Dragons and also doing pedophilia and having satanic cult rituals in their basement.
Or American writ large became convinced that a group of kindergarten teachers were molesting the children. Of course none of this was happening. It was exactly like the Salem witch trials, these things weren’t happening but America became convinced that this was happening and it was across the political aisle.
When a society becomes convinced that there is a new evil hiding below the surface of what seems like an innocuous person, a single woman dealing with shrubs in her little cabin or a kindergarten teacher or some teenager who’s not popular, society becomes convinced that beneath the surface lies the biggest evil of the society, witchcraft, pedophilia, and we have to kill the witch or imprison the kindergarten teacher, that’s a moral panic.
You’re really seeing that around race today. Now, ironically for moral panic to succeed, there has to be consensus in the population, right? For the witches to be persecuted, there had to be a consensus that witchcraft is evil, right? For the kindergarten teachers to be arrested and prosecuted for pedophilia, there has to be a recognition among all good standing members of society that pedophilia is the biggest evil in our society. Why? Because if you don’t have that consensus, you just have a culture war, right?
So in America today, for example, some people think abortion is really evil. And some people think it is a civil right. That is a culture war, right? You can’t have a moral panic around abortion because half the population does not recognize it as an evil. In order to have a moral panic where everybody is pushing for the arrest or the drowning of the offender, you have to have some level of consensus.
So in our current moment, we’re in a moral panic around racism. What does that tell you? It tells you that for the first time in American society there is enormous consensus that racism is the biggest evil in our society and must be eradicated.
What happens when you have a moral panic is people start hunting for malefactors, they start hunting for [the] offender who they can punish or they can imprison, and that’s really what you’re seeing in the media today. You’re seeing the hunt for people who are racist, who are insufficiently anti-racist, perhaps, in order to string them up and punish them and run them out of polite society and run them out of their jobs.
I don’t know that I want racists working with me, right? But at the same time, first of all, having a bad opinion—that’s pretty much a civil right. Everyone’s entitled to their bad opinions. But at the same time, even worse than that, is you could say, well I don’t think somebody who’s racist should be allowed to be in the media. And probably, I would agree with that. We shouldn’t have people influencing the public who have racist opinions.
The problem is that every single day they change what counts as racism, there’s been a huge mission creep about what that phrase entails. And it’s come to reference more and more things. For example, today it references anyone who voted for Trump. The man who won [the vote of] 67 percent of people without a college degree. Okay? So you see how tightly connected to class it is.
Today it’s racist to think that we should have a national border that we enforce. Again, who’s paying for that? Who pays for open borders? It’s the working class, right? It’s people whose jobs would be most threatened by an incoming wave of people willing to work for less than minimum wage. That’s the working-class, that’s black Americans and black Americans know that. Black Americans do not support open borders.
So you see how these issues that are totally not related to race at all have now come under the classification of racist. Which essentially is a way that the Left has used to silent dissent on things that are even things we should be discussing. We should be debating these things.
A healthy society, a healthy democracy must be able to sustain people who are pro life and people who are pro choice. But increasingly we’re seeing a moral panic around race and a moral panic around gender being used in order to silence the people that we disagree with and to totally deplatform the working-class, totally silence the working-class who tend to be more conservative whether they vote for republicans or democrats, by the way. Working-class Americans are much more conservative and it’s their views that have become essentially taboo and illegal.
Mr. Jekielek: A couple of things, okay? I can’t help thinking, well first of all, the panic around racism. As always, I feel I have to caveat. Clearly there’s some racism in society, clearly it needs to be dealt with and clearly we should be reporting on it. But, as many people I’ve had on the show much smarter than I on the topic, like my friend Bob Woodson, for example, will say that it’s by focusing on these ever changing definitions of racism, we’re not actually dealing with the real issue, right?
It’s almost like a kind of a centrifuge. Now it’s my words, right? I’m trying to wrap my head around that. Is there some kind of attempt to just swap the issue out for something else? Is that what we’re seeing?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: I think it’s really important to keep in mind that the people who are the biggest malefactors in my book, the people who I criticize the most harshly, honestly believe that they are doing the right thing. They honestly believe that they are kind of torquing the moral arc of history towards justice. They really believe that and it’s really important to me to keep that in mind.
Someone once asked me, what’s the hardest part of writing your book? It was keeping that in mind, people who I think are harming black Americans, who I think are harming working-class Americans, remembering that they actually think that they are helping them, they actually think that they are doing the right thing.
I think that it’s very hard for people to stand up and say your language of anti-racism is perpetuating inequality and perpetuating racism, because they sort of have the market share or whatever it is. They have branded themselves as the spokespeople for that community.
But in essence, if you go into the black community, if you go into the Latino community, if you go talk to working-class Americans, they don’t believe in defunding the police. A lot of them want charter schools, they want school choice.
Actually one of my gripes with conservatives is that they just don’t take the time to go into the black community and sell their wares because there is a hunger for a lot of what they’re talking about.
I think immigration, for example, has been a big problem for the black community. It’s resulted in a lot of jobs that would have gone to black Americans going to immigrants. I’m talking about illegal immigration, of course. Some studies have shown more incarceration of black Americans. We ask the people who need us the most to speak on their behalf, to bear the burden of our vanity projects.
That’s the thing that bothers me about it. And I totally agree with your friend and American hero, because I think that it’s so true, that essentially they are using the language of anti-racism to perpetuate inequality. But by moving the goalpost to a place where, not only is it never going to happen, but it actually makes impossible real change that would actually impact these communities for the better.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean, this is, I guess, the question of our time, right? It’s not just journalism. You focus on journalism. But this philosophy or some people call it a pseudo religion or even a religion which is why the belief is so strong in some cases—how is it that we can actually get to dealing with all of these—
For example, so many institutions have so many people that genuinely believe, perhaps hubristically, believe that they’re helping. And really kind of doing the opposite.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: I’m religious so I hate when people say wokeness is a religion because religion is the opposite. It’s all about grace and forgiveness and holding yourself to a higher standard than you hold others. Which, there’s not a lot of that on the left these days. But also as a religious person, I think that the media is not going to fix itself because it’s making money off of this.
The New York Times made a lot of money off of the Trump era and the way it treated Trump and the woke moral panic is actually very financially successful and so I don’t imagine that the media is going to change very much. But we can change and what I think we should do is remember things like when you’re reading something online and you start feeling enraged, you start feeling like—you know that feeling of like, I can’t stand that somebody thinks this on the internet.
Someone is making a million dollars every time you feel that way. And we do not have to let them do that. We don’t have to sacrifice our hearts to their profit motive. We don’t have to hate our fellow American so that some journalist or some media company can make money off it.
We have to be the ones who stand up and say no to that. We have to use those moments of rage to remember what it feels like to respect somebody who disagrees with us because we’re totally sunk, if we can’t do that. We have to resist that on a day to day level. We have to find and protect spaces in our lives where we are no longer allowing politics to invade and we’re remembering what it means to be an American.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re reminding me of Matt Taibbi’s excellent book “Hate Inc.” right?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Absolutely.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a whole business and manufacturing outrage, I guess, right?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Absolutely.
Mr. Jekielek: As you’re describing. And I think it does a fantastic job of cataloging that. I’m really glad you talked about how you view religion. I share that view with you. There’s a whole kind of argument to be made that when religion and tradition—there’s this beautiful post that I saw from the guy, I forget, that runs the Disinfectant Podcast.
Where he’s talking about this, that when tradition and religion are leaving society as a whole, something else comes in to fill the vacuum. So it’s these pseudo religions, perhaps … [that are] susceptible to creating moral panics. The thing that really shocked me over the last five years is the realization of how—I don’t know, maybe suggestible is the right word—so many people in our society are when there appears to be a consensus on an issue. And through mass media, it’s possible to create the appearance of consensus, right?
I know people who I trust who are very intelligent, high degrees. They’re ready to change their mind 180 degrees on a topic because there appears to be a consensus on that change. I find that shocking. And amazing. And it makes me wonder how to deal with that, frankly. I don’t know if you agree but that’s my observation.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: So I didn’t agree but I agree now. And I didn’t agree before, in the anti-woke liberal side, a lot of people think that the people who are in the woke camp are basically—that they don’t really buy it— that they’re just scared to voice their dissent.
So this is a line that, Barry Weiss for example, takes. She’s written about the specter of cancellation, for example, is very good at silencing people like we were saying before. You don’t need the Chinese state party to silence people if you have this sort of internal mechanism silencing people because they’re afraid of being canceled. So there’s very much that view which means like a lot of people, they’re not on the agenda, they don’t buy it, but they’re scared to voice their dissent.
I actually, did not quite agree with that, I think, because if you look at, for example, COVID, you could see that these people are real believers. They do really buy it. There is no distance between the sort of total lockdown, give people the vaccine or kill them, like complete sort of— I’m caricaturing the liberal side.
But there’s no distance between that point of view and the people who hold it, if you try to say them, well, what about antibody testing. These people put their lives on the line for us all through the pandemic while we sat at home in our pajamas clacking away on our keyboards. Why don’t we ask them if they want to do antibody testing? Let’s do that. They don’t want the vaccine.
If you say that then they go crazy. No, they’re going to kill more grandmothers. Even one person will get COVID from it, it’s too many. And the rage at anyone who suggests otherwise—is like it’s hard to see that as a posture and I don’t see a lot of daylight between the woke consensus and this sort of COVID point of view.
So I agree with you, I think there is a kind of suggestibility. Look, it’s not Trump’s fault. He was very much a byproduct of this but he did like to brawl. I mean, he did like to sort of take on different communities who a lot of us feel either part of or responsible for or care a lot about. And he did have a way of sort of speaking in a very undignified way about minority communities.
I mean, he did do that. While I’m sort of one of the few on the left who really respected his economic agenda, for example, and a lot of his policies. To say nothing of the Abraham Accord [which] is like a sheer miracle that only Trump could have pulled off, I do think that he very much contributed to liberals feeling under siege by somebody who could so casually disregard the status of minorities in this country, for example. So I think that that added to the feeling of being under siege and when you feel under siege you’re more willing to identify with the avatars of your side.
But I think, one of the things that really, really bothers me is how on the left and on the right you see people who are either in the media or politicians who expect us to be defending them. They expect us to be their line of defense. They’re supposed to be defending us. They’re supposed to be representing us.
But instead, they are out there, demanding that we represent them. And I think a lot of people have fallen for that. They’ll pick an avatar like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar or like they’ll pick somebody and be like, this is the person I must defend.
That’s one of the 432 people who decides if America goes to war. They don’t need you to defend them but it’s like, “No.” And same thing with Trump, you’ll see his supporters, who often have nothing out there, like putting life and limb on the line for his honor. This person who sometimes cared about them, sometimes really didn’t. And who definitely does not need them, right? He’s a billionaire.
So I think that that is something that bothers me a lot. Seeing the people who need defending, who need representation, being asked to be the foot soldiers for elites, essentially, that bothers me a lot.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re making me think about a sort of foundational question that I keep thinking about which is in a scenario where—and this is, for lack of a better term—woke approach, to having a discussion. Either you agree with me 100 percent on what I believe today or you’re Hitler. It’s not that far from the real way it seems to work, right?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: And how do you deal with that? I don’t know, right? I’m, by nature, someone that seeks coalition building, uniting. So how do you deal with a situation where—and how does anybody deal with a situation where—if you don’t agree with me wholly, if you don’t accept my agenda, if you don’t bow before my approach, you’re Hitler, right?
And I say that speaking with someone that has a Star of David pendant on, right? That is a very, very difficult reality to face. I don’t know the answer because the moment that you say, Well, actually, no I’m not.Now you’re playing divisive somehow, right? But even if—
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: You’re conceding the premise. Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: —Even if you’re the kindest, most thoughtful person who seeks no discord, you’re still placed in that position, right? I can imagine what the situation might be with every institution, if you’re trying to be a president, trying to do something good for the country and being faced with that minute by minute, day by day forever. I don’t think I could deal with it. I guess that’s what I’m saying.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: So I want to say two things about that. The first is, my bartender, my very good friend Jim Coughlan, I remember he said to me one day very sagely, a leader rises above, that’s what makes you a leader, and I really took that to heart. The other thing I will say is I spent a lot of time in the south during the Trump era interviewing Trump voters and Trump supporters and people who really, really, really felt that he was representing them which I really respected him for doing.
Not one of them ever didn’t say to me, I wish he would stop with the tweeting. I wish he were more dignified. One person ever, who I met, who told me, No, I love that. And he was black. But the vast majority of them said, I just wish he would stop with the undignified tweeting. I wish he was more dignified.
And that’s why I think, actually today, it seems to me, like the right has really learned the wrong lesson from the Trump administration and the Trump era. And I’m really curious what you think about this. To me, it seems like the lesson of Trump is that there is a hunger for economic populism among conservative working-class Americans.
And that is a place where conservatives and liberals who are working-class or who care about the working-class should be finding unity, should be coming together because Trump’s economic agenda was very protectionist and very Bernie Sanders circa 2015.
It was stuff I really admired and I think the real lesson was there is a hunger for economic populism among people on the right, especially working-class conservatives. And instead of taking that lesson, it seems to me that a lot of the sort of Trump republicans or Trump aligned republicans, seem to think that the lesson of the Trump era is, we should be owning the libs. And that’s the most important thing you can do as a politician and that’s why you go to Washington.
And I feel so distraught by that because I think that the lesson of the Trump era was really important. It really changed my life to see conservatives responding to populism on the economic front because lord knows we need more of that. Anyway, what do you think about that? I’m really curious.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a funny discussion because this is what I’m thinking as you’re saying this, I think the Trump administration had a whole suite of very interesting, and in some cases, very successful policies. Economic front would be one whole realm of that that you would never know about. You just wouldn’t even have the discussion. You can’t even debate the topic. Maybe it’s not the best thing but we don’t even know it exists. All we know is…
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Because the left couldn’t talk about it because it was lefty stuff but they can only say mean things about him. And the right couldn’t talk about it because they love this free market… right? But they can’t say anything bad about him. So there was a taboo in the media about talking about his economic agenda. It was ridiculous.
Mr. Jekielek: These are the discussions we need to have in my opinion.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Absolutely.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s what I think. Well, Batya, I’m having so much fun with this conversation. I think we’re going to have to take it up again in a few weeks or a few months. It’s funny [the book is] called “Bad News”—the bad news about good news, the good news about bad news [so to speak]. In a nutshell, what can people get out of the book that you think is kind of new and novel and valuable to them? I think we’ll finish up with that.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Wow, what a great question! Thank you so much for having me and for this question. I would say they can learn a lot about how we got here. If you’re a lefty like me or a liberal or a centrist or a conservative and you want to understand why the media is so terrible or if you’re somebody who has noticed the skyrocketing inequality in our nation and wondering why nobody is talking about it, if you’ve noticed a class divide and you want to know why Americans are increasingly looking at each other like enemies when actually the polling shows that much less divides us than ever before in our history, my book is for you. I really delve into that and it ends with a plea that we, each of us, become a soldier in the war against dehumanization of our brothers and sisters. Please join me and please read my book if it’s of interest.
Mr. Jekielek: I love that message. Batya Ungar-Sargon, such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Thank you so much. It was an honor and a real pleasure.
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