The Good Fight
Nellie Bowles on How the Revolution Went Mainstream

Nellie Bowles on How the Revolution Went Mainstream

Yascha Mounk and Nellie Bowles discuss her career at The New York Times and reporting on the ground from urban “autonomous zones” in 2020.

Nellie Bowles is a writer and reporter and the head of strategy at The Free Press, where she writes the TGIF column. Her book is Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Nellie Bowles discuss how she came to chafe against the institutional culture of The New York Times and why she left; how new power hierarchies arose within media and institutions where small groups came to wield outsized power; and how the transformative ideas about power and society that became dominant in 2020 continue to hold great influence.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Tell us a little bit about your personal political journey. You were a New York Times reporter who thought of herself as being by and large in tune with the political sensibilities of your social milieu and of your colleagues. How did you slowly come to chafe at the kind of consensus political view within the paper of record and within the broader kind of world that it represents?

Nellie Bowles: You summed it up perfectly. Politics didn’t really come up in my life a whole lot, to be honest. I was in San Francisco, I was a gay woman, I always voted for Democrats. I was never involved with tons of activism. And then I got my dream job as a reporter at The New York Times. I started in business features and then expanded to doing kind of broad-based features. And when 2020 came around, I started chafing at the limitations that were being put on what you could and couldn’t write about, the blinkers that were being enforced and the movement that said you can’t be curious about basically any of the most interesting stories that were all of a sudden unfolding in some of the most interesting years of all of our lives. And I found myself on the other side of the movement—a movement I hadn’t ever really seen as a movement, a revolution I hadn’t really seen as a revolution. 

Only when it started to sort of oust me did I realize the waters I was in. I was trying to report on really interesting features. At the time, some Antifa kids had taken over a gay neighborhood of Seattle, which I thought was hilarious and wild and crazy. And the news I was getting was either sort of right-wing videos (“liberal city destroyed!”) or left-wing media like NPR writing basically that it was the summer of love. And I was like there’s got to be something more complicated there, and in trying to go and write about that I found myself basically at odds with my cohort.

Mounk: As I understand it from your book, the mere fact that you wanted to go to report somehow seemed to indicate political wrongthink.

Bowles: Yes, a kind of dangerous curiosity. And this isn’t coming from the bosses. This is sort of a revolution from the ground up, enforcing a set of new norms that are basically: You’re not allowed to be curious about that, you’re not allowed to ask that question, you’re not allowed to go and see this thing because it might look bad for the movement—and, actually, the movement’s really important, and we’re going to start more openly talking about how we need to fight for X, Y, and Z political causes. And so I think any American news consumer can see with their eyes that the American press has kind of censored itself. We don’t need a government doing censorship. We censored ourselves. And for me it just became very dull, very boring and very frustrating to try to get stories through. But also just as a writer that’s a really dull way to live. And The Times was a funny scene in particular because the most talented reporters and the best writers there are not the people doing this enforcement. It was always these little Stasi who aren’t super ambitious, but they’re ambitious in a sort of small, internal way. And I think in a lot of great publications now, a few little Stasi have managed to cow a bunch of great writers.

Mounk: Take us inside that social dynamic, because it’s something that I think we have all noticed in various kinds of contexts, right? The ideas and ideologies that rule universities at the moment are different from the political preferences of the median student and they’re different from the political preferences of a median faculty member as well, and the people who are at the most radical end of this ideological makeover somehow enjoy this kind of outsized power. 

So from your experience at The New York Times, if we take it as a case study, why was that in that context, those people who weren’t necessarily in senior positions, who weren’t necessarily the rising stars, were able to exercise so much pressure?

Bowles: They rightly see it as a way to kind of rise up in a new internal power hierarchy. It’s the dumb social dynamics of just being a human. Why have these sort of small factions been so successful across all our media companies, all our universities? I think part of it is the tools have changed, and so Slack and the emergence of all community listservs really allow for a flattening. It allows for anyone to assert authority. The editors were at the time allowing anyone who wanted to post in an all-company Slack or all-editorial Slack, which have thousands of people. And so if you’re the editor-in-chief, you no longer have the kind of conversational authority at that moment because anyone’s posting and people can like it. And so you see a kind of collapse of rules and of hierarchy. The old gatekeeping fell apart. 

A small group can organize, and a small group can do a lot in terms of social shaming and stigma. And it doesn’t take a lot. A lot of leaders of these elite institutions that I believed in a lot, and still to some extent believe in, can kind of be pushed over with a feather. People are tweeting a random hashtag and they kind of collapse and fire James Bennet. From my perspective now, it’s so sad and so pathetic and so sort of childish. But I think for the leaders of these institutions, when they’re in one of these things, it feels very big. 

Mounk: Well, they’re worried for their own jobs, right? 

Bowles: Yeah. And they’re not used to being on the other side of something of a youth movement. They’re like, what? We’re the good guys. We can’t be on the other side of this. Progress only marches in one direction. They’re not used to pushing back on that. 

Mounk: It always struck me that in the student protests in the 1960s, the leaders of the institutions thought of themselves as leaders of institutions, whose duty it was to maintain the continuity and so on. And in some ways that made them overreact and made them not sufficiently understand the concerns of the students. On the other hand, I think it made for a helpful dialectic where you had students pushing for change and lambasting the traditions and somebody standing up for those traditions and, in the end, perhaps some of the good traditions survived and some of the bad traditions were thrown out of the window. But today, many institutional leaders just instinctively identify themselves with the leaders of the student protests. 

I never worked for The New York Times, but I did once do a very undistinguished internship with the International Herald Tribune in Paris, which was already owned by The New York Times at the time. And one day I came in unthinkingly with a T-shirt that some friend had bought me, this is between 2004 and 2008, with a picture of Edvard Munch’s scream and the words “Bush again?” And I was told to go home and change because the leader of the newsroom said we cannot have a partisan piece of apparel in the newsroom of the International Herald Tribune. He was nice about it. But he said, sorry, this is not okay. 

What’s changed in that world? And I think you’re right that part of what’s changed is that Slack and so on undermines the authority of that newsroom leader. But there’s a second element to it, right? Because that explains the flatness of a hierarchy, but it doesn’t explain which views win out, especially if they’re not the views of the majority. 

Bowles: The terminology being bandied around, the labels being thrown around very casually, are really scary. It’s a very big deal if you are branded as a racist. And suddenly, over the last few years, it became very easy within that political movement to be branded that way. The list is endless: If you wanted to be skeptical of abolishing the police, for a few years that was considered completely, completely an inappropriate opinion to have in a mainstream American liberal institution. It certainly follows you in a way now that I think is wild and different. And people can live in fear of that.

Mounk: And speaking of extreme political terminology, I think when you started dating Bari Weiss, to whom you’re now married, somebody said that you were dating a fascist.

Bowles: An editor in the newsroom. I mean, these years were when the masks came off about what the intention of people in mainstream media were there to do. I started reporting on some of the kinds of things that I shouldn’t have been reporting on, and by that I mean literally anything interesting that was happening in 2020, 2021. You have to remember, these were the years when talking about COVID origins was considered racism and white supremacy, which a New York Times reporter argued. Covering any of the BLM movement finances was considered racism. Covering any of the 2020 riots was considered racism. 

Like anything interesting was sort of becoming beyond the pale, And in among that, I also started dating a dissident liberal within the newspaper, which added to the chaos of it. So whatever, I’m not like playing a violin for myself. I wasn’t canceled, everything was fine. Our life is very good, but It does give a little window into what happened at a place. But yes, when I started dating Bari, obviously my colleagues went insane. And most of the leadership was good, but yeah, there were a lot of incidents of newsroom leaders being just jerks in ways that I think would have shocked me a few years earlier. They shocked me at the time. I couldn’t believe it. But yeah, one editor in front of a group of colleagues said, “Nellie, she’s a Nazi, she’s a fucking Nazi.” I tried to kind of laugh it off and move the conversation along and he kept hammering at it: “She’s a Nazi” and I mean it was such an insane comment. It was so deranged, and with my colleagues there, and the whole thing was so surreal. 

The book is basically me deciding to quit The Times and go report on the stories that I wish I could have reported for them and just keep doing the thing I do, which is traveling around, visiting places, talking to people, and writing about it. And so it’s a book of me sort of exploring and hopefully becoming less naive and childish in how I viewed the old institutions, and I was so upset that they were failing and so hurt that they would fail. I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t stand up for what was right, or just the basic things that I signed up for. I really used to believe all those slogans. And so yeah, it’s a little bit of a coming of age through reporting.

Mounk: The book is sort of peripherally about you and your life story and, in the main, really excellent reporting on what has actually been going on in the United States for the last few years. And there’s been this big debate over the course of the last months about whether or not some of this ideology is receding and backtracking or not. One of the versions of that is the debate about Antifa that you illustrate a little bit in the book, where there really did seem to be, on the one hand, certainly a demonization and an exaggeration of just the kind of role that Antifa played and just the kind of power it held in the United States (it certainly was always, you know, an extreme movement that didn’t have mainstream power in the country) but, on the other hand, this kind of just blithe acceptance that since the name of it invokes the fight against fascism, that must be all that there is to it—a complete lack of curiosity about how a movement that claims for itself the right to determine what is to be considered fascist and the obvious ways in which that kind of movement might go off the rails.

Bowles: How Antifa was dealt with in the mainstream press was basically two ways: Pretend it’s not real, which was sort of the main way it was handled (“it’s just a tiny movement, it doesn’t have any role”), or you pretend it’s just very good. You had mainstream reporters at the time saying the soldiers who fought in World War II were Antifa, that we are an Antifa kind of country, and this kind of attempt to make this group of activists into like American civic heroes. And the third thing that was always very important in the press was that, if Antifa was ever discussed, to say that it’s totally separate from BLM and that it’s a very different movement, and that to imply that they’re in any way entwined is like really, really crazy. And so I went to a couple cities where there were these protests going on, Antifa protests and also supposedly separate BLM protests. And the reality was, there was only one protest each night. It was a united group. It was one movement. It was completely entwined for a time. There’d be a supposed BLM protest one night and no one would be there. And all of those leaders were actually at the sort of autonomous action event that was more aggressive and more violent. And Antifa sees violence as a righteous part of the revolution they want. And so they’re openly pro-violence, pro-using guns, pro-using sort of physical intimidation, pro-lighting things on fire. So that was obviously why BLM wanted to distance themselves from it, but they were very useful because actually lighting the fires and using a little bit of a frisson of threat was very useful in escalating the intensity of the moment, the intensity of the revolution. And eventually what you saw, and what I write about in the book is Antifa kind of getting sidelined a little bit as more and more corporate money comes into BLM. But at the start, in that first hot year, it was an entwined movement. Now the memory-holing and the denial is fascinating because I think we’re going to see it on a ton of these things that we’ve just been talking about. I think we’re gonna definitely see it on pediatric gender medicine, which I write about in the book. But the people denying that they were ever for hormones for kids under 18 is going to be just like the norm. And the memory-holing, you’re already seeing it. 

Mounk: What you’re saying tracks with a difference I’ve seen in sort of the nature of the most progressive and activist students who, five or 10 years ago, really thought of themselves as being the leading edge of a revolution and had the same kind of character of a true believer as rank and file Marxists would have done 100 years ago. Now that has really changed a lot. I get many fewer students like that, a few here and there, but many, many fewer. Most students now simply have starting points that are more or less “woke” because that’s what we’ve always been taught, so they’re simply reflecting what their earlier teachers taught them. And as a result, some of them are quite open to having conversations and debates about it. So they’re in some ways much more pleasant to teach, in some ways much less ideological. But it also just shows the degree to which these ideas have penetrated the institutions because even very smart students, which most of mine are, even very thoughtful students, which some of them are, perhaps many of them are, just that is the starting point, because of the way in which education in particular has changed.

Bowles: Woke now is sort of corporate. Woke is like The Man. It’s penetrated, it has won so fully as an ideology. And I hate the term woke because it’s so slippery and it started as a good thing, and I hate using it now to describe whatever this is. But it’s won so fully in the institutions that, yeah, it’s the man now. And so if you’re a kind of rebellious Zoomer, you’re looking outside of it. And I think that people are inherently curious and inherently want freedom of thought and freedom to explore and freedom to see things with their own eyes. And I think it’s really hard to repress that for a long time. Obviously, societies very successfully do that very often. But I like to think that America has an immune system that will eventually say, no, enough. We want evidence and proof of these theories that you’re proposing. We want to debate them. Americans are people who like freedom and like conversation. 

And I want the old institutions to reform. I want The New York Times to be amazing. I want The Washington Post to be amazing. I want our universities to be amazing. And I am now trying to build even a small thing. You realize how hard it is to build something. And so, to build something great and huge, like those things I just named—I want them to reform and succeed and grow out of this moment, hopefully. I’m rooting for them to do that. And I think building new institutions that kind of push, and sort of show a better way, is a good way to reform the old world and is a good way to say you don’t have to be this way. You don’t have to be cowed by a few freaks on Twitter. These people are just assholes. They don’t need to run your whole company or run your university. It’s not necessary. You can actually survive and be fine.

Mounk: That’s one of the sort of basic things that I think is so interesting about this moment, which is that any social institution and any political principle or policy needs to be asshole-proof. I mean, I get the instinct behind the laws in California saying we don’t want to arrest people or put people in jail because it’s trying to steal a loaf of bread to feed their families—I mean, I get the instinct behind that. But if the rule says any theft below two hundred dollars is not going to be prosecuted, then you’re going to get a bunch of people with IKEA bags in CVS just putting the relevant number of stuff into the bag and walking out because the rule hasn’t guarded against a few people abusing the rule. 

So we started talking a little bit about Antifa. But you also did a lot of reporting on how those autonomous zones sort of ended up going wrong. Now, you can say something specific about their political ideals or demands or about other kinds of parts of that. But as I was reading, I just came back to that simple mechanism that there’s always gonna be bad people and bad people are always gonna exploit a place without rules. And in response to that, you’re gonna get a new set of rules and those new sets of rules are not necessarily going to be better. 

Tell us a little bit more about these autonomous zones and sort of what the aspiration, the spirit was (I’m sure that, at the best, it could have been fun and intriguing and so on), and how they went wrong.

Bowles: This movement that has so won the day has actually a very optimistic view of human nature. It really thinks people are fundamentally good. And we are only denatured by capitalism, by white supremacy, by hetero patriarchy. We are denatured by these forces. And if we could only release ourselves from these denaturing forces, our real human spirit of goodness and kindness and perfection would emerge. And that we don’t need police for that reason, that we don’t need to enforce rules for that reason. Because in this new world, people won’t do things to hurt each other. It sounds crazy but this was actually the rhetoric behind a lot of this. There’s a whole chapter about San Francisco. This rhetoric basically took over a city and beyond in 2020. But in these little autonomous zones where you really saw it in its most pure form: You had borders put up around the blocks, they would take over six square blocks or eight square blocks in this city. And they would put up borders. Seattle’s mayor helped reinforce the border. She brought in porta-potties. Like the city officials kind of went in on it and got excited. And so they put up these borders and they would say, police cannot enter here. Ambulances would not really enter there either. And so it created a power vacuum. And it turned out that even in the beautiful utopian world of this new city, people steal from each other. People hurt each other. People shoot each other. People kill each other. And so that started happening. And that started happening a bunch. Violence was the norm within these places. And the mayor, the city officials just intentionally ignored it because they wanted to believe in the vision and in the rhetoric. And the mainstream media intentionally ignored it because they too wanted to believe in the rhetoric. 

And so what you saw was basically the rise of what you see in a power vacuum. You would have the BLM security crew who would be walking around; often these were sort of the nice guys actually because they were often true believers in a new, better policing movement or what have you. Then there’d be these kind of Antifa soldiers who were these kind of rangy white guys and they always had a more squirrely air to them. They sort of made me nervous when I was around them in these different cities. But then of course there’s the pay-to-play guys who were a whole market of private security, guns under their coats, who said “I’m here signing up businesses, you pay me X thousand dollars a month and I’ll protect you at night and I got my crew here and they’ll set you up.” I mean, it was what happens in a lawless political vacuum, these competing security forces all wandering around. A lot of them are openly armed. And the energy was just pretty wild. But the thinking behind the movement still, even as these obviously police-like groups emerged, the thinking was always, this is better than the police, that the police are so beyond reform that completely getting rid of them is the only solution—so actually, this is sort of better.

With a lot of these zones, you would see a shooting happen, it would stay open. Nothing would change. You’d see more shootings. Nothing would change. The city would still be celebrating it. Like it was almost impervious to actual real violence. Obviously, people were shot and killed in these zones. I mean, there was a lawsuit for a father whose son was killed who says that his son was put on a folding table, and he just bled out and then eventually was thrown in a car and brought to a hospital, but obviously it was too late.

Mounk: In political science—there’s a kind of tradition, it’s a little bit joking, a little trollish, but serious in a way—of saying that the state started as a mafia organization, that the beginning of the state is a protection racket. It’s guys going around saying you better pay up because I’ll protect you; but also if you don’t pay up, then perhaps I'll be the one harming you. And so what you’re seeing in these autonomous zones where you’ve liberated a few square blocks of American cities from the state is the emergence of a proto-state. But a proto-state, of course, was in many ways worse than the current state because it was much more hierarchical. It didn’t have mechanisms of democratic accountability and co-determination and so on. And that, of course, is where you end up if you don’t allow the police and ambulances and so on access to those kinds of encampments.

Bowles: And in a small way, you saw that in every city around the country. After the protests and after the defund movement very successfully defunded a bunch of, or at least got politicians to announce a lot of defund programs, a lot of abolish programs or whatever, you saw that in cities across the country. The police—maybe they were in some ways protesting the protest movement, maybe it was that morale was collapsing, I know recruitment’s been horrible for police departments in a lot of cities now—but you saw the crime wave, and you saw the total disregard for the old rules of law and order, because they were seen as part of this. And the kind of embrace of anarchist beliefs. So this goes back to the BLM-Antifa connection, but I think in, let’s say, nice European, somewhat socialist cultures, you actually have a rule-following mentality, because everyone’s in it together, and everyone’s trying to benefit societies to some extent—if you were speaking in broad brushes. But what makes this American movement so American is that it was actually, and it still is, very much imbued with the anti-fascist, anarchist mentality, which is that the laws are for losers. The laws are stupid. The laws themselves are part of the capitalist monster machine. So paying to ride the subway is a monstrous law that shouldn’t be followed and we should celebrate breaking that law. We should celebrate sort of having no rules. And it’s very uniquely American in a sort of really fun way. I mean, it’s sort of the American spirit that a lot of me loves and that’s what you saw in San Francisco. And it was not just a kind of communist revolution or something, a leftist revolution, it was an anarchist revolution. And it’s what makes it so unique; the idea that we should let people do drugs and die on our city streets and that is their right and their freedom, and we should just respect them to choose to die on the sidewalk, and mind your own business. That idea is not a socialist idea. That is a radical anarchist one and it’s a wild one. But for the American West that has won the day.

Mounk: Another thing that you reported in a really nice way is the phenomena you class under the label of “atonement,” not the people who are at the cutting edge of a revolution (or the autonomous zone) but the people who are at the cutting edge of self-flagellation, of saying that “we are the problem.” And perhaps nobody is more representative of that than a woman called Tema Okun, who has a name that not coincidentally sounds as though she might not be white, and who authored perhaps the most ballyhooed document that was representative of this moment and continues to be quite influential, namely a list of the hallmarks of white supremacy that includes liking the written word or valuing punctuality. 

Tell us a little bit about Tema Okun and more broadly about the instinct towards self-flagellation that you observed.

Bowles: This list became one of the foundational documents of the modern anti-racist movement. And it said exactly what you said, Yascha. It said that objectivity is white supremacy. That worship of the written word is white supremacy. That timeliness is a white trait. That these are white traits and that to value them is part of white supremacy. And to emphasize them too much is asserting your whiteness in a situation. And if other cultures and other races adopt some of these traits, it’s them adopting parts of white supremacy. And so this became a very influential document. I mean, when you describe it, it sounds profoundly racist, right? Like when I think about this, even writing the chapter, I thought I can’t believe I’m writing these sentences. Like these are, it’s just shockingly racist to say this.

Mounk: The point I always make about this list, including in the classroom, is that the charge is not that this is not reverse-racism, it’s just racist, right? This is not, out of an abundance of political correctness, having too negative a view of white people. This is just redescribing negative views of non-white people under the aegis of wokeness: Black people just don’t value the written word, they’re not capable of being white—racist ideas that somehow have transmuted into being at the cutting edge of racial justice. But what they’re really just doing is laundering the most pernicious stereotypes against black and other non-white people.

Bowles: This list became so influential that the Smithsonian Museum made a sort of artistic, beautiful poster of the list. It became gospel in major institutions within America. Within mainstream media, something like this list was taken as pretty smart and interesting. And so I wanted to know more about it. In one chapter of the book, I explore Tema’s story. And she’s a really interesting woman. But the thing that I really took away from it was there was a shift in social justice activism or racial justice activism over the last 20 years or so where we went from activism that was really hard, that was difficult, that focused on changing laws and making tangible improvements for the lives of black Americans, towards a more therapeutic model. 

Instead of external changes that need to happen in the world, instead of external work you need to do, it’s actually internal: You need to change how you think and to become less of an internalized white supremacist. You need to be less of a perfectionist. You need to worry less about being on time. You need to worry less about objectivity. And, actually, in this movement’s telling, trying to work too much to change the world for other people, to sort of expand the boardroom table, is part of racism and white supremacy. And so you actually don’t want to do that anymore; that’s thinking that you know what improves someone else’s life, and you don’t. It became an internal therapeutic movement. And that’s what we’ve seen with a lot of the very trendy anti-racist thinking. You obviously saw the riots (or whatever you want to call them) in 2020, but I think a lot of what we also saw was the rise of therapy-speak anti-racism. And that really appealed to white women who, it turns out, love feeling bad about themselves and love self-flagellation (who could have guessed?). And so there was a whole world of these anti-racist workshops and classes and ways, a whole world of bestselling books about how to be less racist in your soul. Again, none of this was outwardly focused. None of this was about doing things in the world. It’s all about you.

And it was very appealing. Take a workshop, have a glass of wine. I get it, I took some of the workshops. And to be honest, I entered as a skeptic. I introduced myself as a writer who’s skeptical. I was very open. And by the end of it, I was pretty sold on these workshops. I’d be crying with everyone else. I’d be fully in it. And it was a very powerful model for anti-racism and it’s the model that’s won in a lot of ways. And so you see this play out politically in things like the abolition of the SAT or the abolition of any sort of method of testing. And what I mean by that is that if anti-racism is just internal psychological work that white people need to do, you don’t need to get involved with making a school for black kids better. That’s not the point. A school that serves poor kids who are majority-minority—you don’t need to impose your white values on it. So the solution is just to get rid of the test, to get rid of the measures that show it failing. And so the psychological move also kind of handicapped or undercut a lot of efforts that used to be very mainstream liberal efforts to improve things, to measure things so that they could be improved. But that all became part of white supremacy. So it’s kind of an anti-movement, in a way.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.