Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept covering national security and foreign policy.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Murtaza Hussain discuss why most Americans, whether they know it or not, are philosophical liberals; why the political cleavages that exist among white Americans are likely to replicate themselves among the country’s immigrant and minority communities; and why, counter to their long tradition of irreverence, American liberals are no longer funny.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I follow your work and you do a lot of really great thinking and writing. And you don’t occupy an obvious ideological space: you write for The Intercept, which is a left-wing publication and very critical of American foreign policy. But you also, in some interesting ways, butt heads with much of the contemporary left in the United States.
If you’ll forgive the very basic question: who are you and what makes you tick?
Murtaza Hussain: I originally gravitated towards the left because I came of age during the Iraq War and I was very interested in US foreign policy towards the Middle East, and at that time the people who were critical (and turned out to be right) were people on the left and the very libertarian right. They had a non-mainstream critique which turned out to be the most cogent one for a long time. So I kind of got into left wing politics that way. And I still do identify with more economically redistributive politics, maybe less than I did 15 years ago, but very strongly today I believe that the US has an overly libertarian economic system which is a bit cruel, and could do with a greater safety net, which I don’t think is an extremely left-wing position outside the US.
And as you pointed out, I have politics which are a little bit different from others at The Intercept. But, to their credit, they encouraged me. They basically said, “It's fine. You can write about it and we'll edit it and put it up there.” And they haven't really been forcing any particular ideological line—in my experience, at least. That said, I'm a little skeptical of a lot of some of the contemporary trends and some aspects of progressive politics and culture in the sense that I come from an immigrant background. I grew up with a lot of immigrants, and I know that one of the ways that the left identifies is as the party of and for immigrants and minorities, and, if I’m being honest, I have to say that a lot of the policies and the attitudes that they have have never been popular with the people that they're ostensibly claiming to speak for.
The left is very secular in the United States, but I grew up with a lot of Jamaican people and still live around a lot of people from the Caribbean and South Asia and so forth. They're very religious. Church is a very big part of their lives. The traditional family is a very, very important part of the bedrock of their identity and their life, and to then denigrate that or to treat it as unimportant, even—I think you're gonna miss out on where people are coming from. The reason immigrants come to the United States is because they like the United States. They’re kind of happy to be here. And they are patriotic. I used to work in this call center a long time ago. I was living in Toronto at the time. And I used to sit next to this guy who was a Bangladeshi immigrant and he would sing the national anthem to himself. He's humming to himself every morning, so happy to be in Canada. I've never seen a Canadian coworker hum the national anthem, not least a non-immigrant American. So, they’re very different people.
You see some of the Democratic Party’s trends. They’re on the cusp of losing the support of immigrants, many of them, and minorities to some degree, because they're not in touch with them, really. And if I could go a little bit further, I'd say it's because in the institutions, elite colleges and universities, there's a certain class of people there who, regardless of their race, all share the same transnational culture, predilections and attitudes by virtue of being there. It's a very rigorous psychological environment. They’re in their own class and they have different values.
Mounk: You're beginning to hint at something that I know we're both interested in, which is the deep assumption that a lot of Democrats had for a few decades, that as America becomes more demographically diverse, and as a share of the white population declines, this is naturally going to give a political advantage to Democrats. Now, for the last few years, that has started to really come into doubt, especially among Hispanics and, now, there seem to be first indications that the same trend may be happening with Asian-Americans. How should we think about this?
Hussain: Well, the Republicans are known as the party of law and order—that's kind of the brand that they've developed over time. And the Democrats have been seen as more indulgent of social issues and as having a softer touch. That's not always been the case in either party, and a lot of politics in the US is kind of encoded, it was coded before as something like a white-versus-black, racial politics dog whistle. But for immigrants, if you're coming here fresh and you don't have that context, you don't feel that way. If you’re coming from countries that don't have law and order and you're fleeing turmoil and chaos, the party which says there must be law and order is very attractive. America, for such a well-off, stable country, is very violent, particularly in poor areas where immigrants are more likely to settle. A party promising law and order and branding themselves that way will be very popular. In New York City, we're right on the heels of very, very big anti-police protests in 2020. The next mayoral candidate who was elected to office was a former police officer, Eric Adams, and his voters were overwhelmingly from ethnic minority, black and immigrant areas of Brooklyn. They voted for him, and the people who voted against him, and for the more progressive challengers, were from small pockets in the city which are known to be wealthier and more ethnically white.
Obviously, one of Donald Trump’s famous policies was the Muslim ban. You might think, “Well, Muslim Americans are never going to vote for Republicans, again, and certainly are never going to vote for Trump”—even though, pre-9/11, I think 70% of Muslims voted GOP. But it will be 0% in the future, right? And yet, in the 2020 election he got a third of their vote. And, in the last primary, a lot of Muslims in Arab-majority and Muslim-majority areas are campaigning for the Republicans because they don't like the social issues that Democrats are perceived to be endorsing today. They have very conservative views on sexuality and the family, for instance. They will prioritize that over any other perceived allegations about Republicans or past behavior of Republicans. I kind of try to tell people, “You better go easy on this issue with these people, because that's not what their values are like.”
I think very progressive people have a very, very strong faith in their assimilative powers. And there is a very strong assimilative power in this country, but changes take time. They need to really slow down, see if anyone's actually on the same page, and be open to criticism.
Mounk: The way that Trump talked about Muslims was so broad—a Latino American might be able to say, “Well, he thinks I'm the right kind of Latino. He's not talking about me.” But it's sort of hard to see how a Muslim American can say the same thing, given some of his very broad language around the Muslim ban. If you pushed somebody on this who's Muslim and who voted for Trump, how do you think they would respond?
Hussain: Trump did start off from speaking in the broadest possible terms, which was quite galling. I think he later started to dial down it a little bit and say some somewhat more conciliatory things. What I observed is that, in the US, obviously, people tend to interact with local political officials, and a lot of local Republican officials didn't have the same attitudes or didn't like the policy. They have to kind of defend it a little bit, but they’ll say, “You know how Trump is. He says some really crazy things. That's not what he meant. We like you.” So they could still make the same compartmentalization. I'm familiar with their voting patterns, having reported on issues related to their communities post-9/11, but I find, more broadly, that it's very similar in other groups, too. I live in a very Asian and Jamaican neighborhood and I don’t think people like Trump, but they do gravitate to his kind of attitude, in a way. He's like a macho guy, and they like a macho leader. And this is something which I think is one of the understated values of politics around the world: they want a leader who expresses a certain energy and machismo.
And you could say it's not very rational. That's true. But people tend to vote in many ways on cultural issues. And I think that there was a perception that the Democratic Party is a little limp or something. Joe Biden is a kind of a great Thermidorian candidate, the old type of Democrat which sort of seems to be dying out a little bit. But they're attracted to Trump’s machismo. If you look at a lot of African, Muslim, Latino Americans and Americans of other backgrounds—I wouldn’t say that they want a Caesar, but they do want a tough-seeming president who embodies the values that they themselves would like to embody in their own lives and in their homes.
Mounk: I'm still struck by your observation that people are genuinely shocked and offended when you call into doubt this way of thinking about things. I've experienced that as well. And I think there's sort of two things that are coming together here, right, like one is the sort of hope of inevitable progress: we have the right values, and the country is becoming more diverse, and people who are members of these demographic groups share those values. And so, therefore, we're going to win and we’re on the right side of history. There’s something about that overall vision, and perhaps in a sort of slightly patronizing way, that can also be an imputation of political virtue and wisdom.
But there is something else which helps us sustain this that goes back again to the separation of the American elite. Nowadays, if you're part of the American elite and you went to Harvard, Amherst, or Berkeley any time in the last 20 years, you're going to know a lot of nonwhite, non-Christian people, probably within your friend group. Of course, it's not necessarily going to be socioeconomically diverse, and it certainly is not going to be very ideologically diverse. But I think there's this sort of weird mental shortcut where one of the reasons why people are offended by anything that flies in the face of empirical evidence they have is because the empirical evidence they have is seemingly very reliable, which is, “I'm good friends with people who are from those groups, and they all believe ‘X.’”
Hussain: It reminds me a little bit of these Ba’athist countries at the peak of their power, when they would select a Christian, an Alawite, a Sunni, a Shia, and they would all come together and they make up the ruling party, all on the same page and all affirming socialism and the Leader, etc. But most people were selected because they were groomed to be a specific way and to have a certain ideological outlook, which it turns out was not really reflected very much in the broader communities they were set to represent. They were sort of very unique by virtue of being placed in certain political circumstances, and the constituency was never broad. I think the US is not that stark, but there’s a little bit of that. The elite is so different, and it sits on top of the rest of society. And it's good that they have diversity, because it's important that we try to represent everyone in society, and it's a good thing. But, I think that it requires being humble, at least, and I'm not even saying progressive values are bad or will always be rejected by ‘XYZ’ persons, but I think you do need to look at it with a sense of humility. The reason I've pointed it out is because I don't want people to be surprised if, in ten years, 40, 60, or 80% of Latinos or Asians are moving to the Republicans, and suddenly, all the plans that liberals have laid for the future of the country come to naught because they're built on a faulty premise.
I think I'm able to say whatever I want, and even in a very left-wing environment, because I think that if you’re going to criticize someone's deepest beliefs, you should do it very politely. Very politely preface ‘XYZ,’ and now here is my critique or suggestion for you and so forth. And then they’re more amenable to it. I think that because America is so secular, a lot of metaphysical weight gets put into politics by people, and particularly people on the left, because they are more secular. So when you're criticizing their political view, it's not just a set of policies—you’re criticizing something deep in their identity and their self-identification. So if you're going to do that, it's very emotional, and you better unpack it in a way that takes that into account. They actually tend to be more open to hearing it than you might expect.
Mounk: Let's double click for a moment about this interesting class divide that you've sort of hinted at. There seems to be a suggestion in some of the recent articles and research on the rightward drift of Asian Americans, who still vote, in the majority, for the Democratic Party, but much less so recently. One of the interesting things is that when you look at Asian Americans on the Upper West Side or on the Upper East Side, people who have higher socioeconomic standing, by and large, who probably have advanced degrees, would have gone to college, still tend to vote for Democrats in much larger numbers. But that's less likely to be the case in Sunset Park, for example, or in other more working class neighborhoods.
How do you see this divide playing out in the sort of immigrant communities that you know best?
Hussain: Americans don't tend to think in terms of class, but I think what we're going to see is a breakdown on class lines. And the way the white working class often votes for the Republicans—not always, but a significant chunk—I think you can see the immigrant or minority working classes of various groups voting for Republicans because they feel their values are more represented by Republicans. They feel a sense of class resentment towards the highly educated liberal party. That chip on the shoulder aspect of it, which I think people understand quite well in the case of white, economic and social stratification, is equally the case in nonwhite people's economic and social stratification.
Will future generations go and vote for Democrats? If you work in a convenience store, and then your kid does really well and goes to Harvard or Stanford, they're going to take on a different set of social norms, most likely, and a lot of those social norms are going to incline them towards being more liberal, because these are very liberal institutions. And then they will absorb the attitudes of that world. But the people who don't go into that world, who don't rise economically in the same way, a lot of them are going to vote Republican for the same reason that white voters vote Republican. I think that’s kind of great, in a way. I don’t think we should have politics stratify along race, because then it's like a race war, which I don't prefer—I don't prefer class war either. But I prefer that people don't find their politics preemptively by race. So I think, actually, it's a positive trend. And I do expect it's going to happen.
Mounk: You were saying you're on the left, but you're also a liberal. And we've been using “liberal” a lot in this conversation as a way of saying “left wing” or “favorable to the Democratic Party.” But I want to go to the capital-L Liberal idea for a moment. There is a big debate on the American left about what to think about philosophical liberalism, and you've challenged people a few times by saying, “You claim not to be a liberal, but then what are you?” So it sounds like you do think of yourself as a liberal, at least in certain respects. Talk me through how you think about this question.
Hussain: I actually think that most people in America are probably capital-L Liberals, across both parties—the broad majority of people. There's a sense of commitment to personal liberties, civil liberties, and so forth. That aspect of it is more pronounced than a current suite of policies or approaches which may or may be branded “liberalism” but may or may not comport with that. Some things are coded as right wing for some reason, like freedom of speech, which people who consider themselves liberals should embrace. It entails a degree of economic liberty, as well—free property and enterprise. These are all very important, because most people come from places where those things are really taken for granted—private property that can’t be confiscated, being able to say what you want, religious liberty, giving broad scope to people's ability to express themselves and to associate with each other. That's a philosophical basis of politics which I identify with. And there are some aspects of liberalism which I think are open to critique, which need reform or guidance. The economic outcomes, often, when left to their own devices, are not favorable, or don’t produce the goods we'd like to see. But yeah, you can say that that makes me conservative, actually—a conservative liberal. I'm a very cautious liberal. And I think that the goods of liberalism should not be quickly discarded. We should be careful.
Liberalism is actually so deeply embedded in American culture and attitudes that when someone says “I'm a communist” or something like that, I don't think they actually believe it most of the time. In America, branding, advertising, and marketing are so deeply embedded in the culture. You have to brand your political opinions in the most attention-getting way as well, and maybe you mean something totally different in the end. Take the Scandinavian welfare state; people will say they're against capitalism and that's what they want, but it’s very compatible with capitalism.
Mounk: Sweden I believe has a higher number of billionaires per capita than the United States does.
Hussain: Yeah. I could be wrong, and subject to indoctrination in a camp ten years from now, but I think the majority of people actually are deeply committed to liberalism. But, often, ideological movements are not really driven by the majority’s opinion but by a vanguard of people who set the tone and then kind of jujitsu the people into a certain position later on, which happens very often in revolutions and so forth. I'm not really sure. But also I would say that whatever this new trend in progressivism is—I would just call it “radical liberalism,” perhaps “radicalized liberalism”—it's very unstructured because of its nature and it kind of drifts into these purity spirals. There are no agreed upon tenets, even though there are some broad principles, so I don't know how durable it is. It could flame out or transform into something totally different. Communism required a structure for ideological coherence in the long term to keep it going and to build something. But this seems very diffuse by comparison. It doesn't really have a structure. Maybe that's why it's kind of hard to define.
Coming from watching other societies and reporting on them and so forth, I’ve realized that whatever you do, you don't want to have—I think this makes people uncomfortable on all sides—an ideology or teach kids things which increase racial polarization or increase polarization generally. You don't want to teach people that they’re part of a moral hierarchy, and “you fit here and you fit there.” Because now that there’s people at the top of the hierarchy and at the bottom of the hierarchy—you’re teaching them very, very bad things, and Americans, there's very a charming thing about them: they always view developments in their country as completely unique in a way, like they're avant garde cultural entrepreneurs. I think it's not really the case. You can replicate things happening in far less developed societies in a very developed society like the United States if you inculcate attitudes which are polarizing.
Mounk: There’s very strong social science around how corrosive that is. And I agree with you about this strange sort of provincialism in American society, which is sometimes most striking in these milieus who think of themselves as being very global and very enlightened and very knowledgeable about different parts of the world but don't consider America in the context of these other societies.
Let me put something else to you that’s sort of just floating around in my mind. I went to see The Book of Mormon a while ago and that came out a few years [after] Obama was elected president. And you know, when I rewatched some episodes of 30 Rock, South Park, and even Family Guy—all of these shows that were really big in the mid-2000s. And what struck me about them is that they were very irreverent—today, many would say, “offensive”—forms of entertainment that also were actually very liberal and progressive in their way, reflecting the values of the creators who were overwhelmingly to the left. They were quite critical, often hostile, towards more conservative institutions, and yet they were so irreverent and self-lampooning that they didn't come across as haughty. And I just wonder whether that is the cultural background music, along with the failures of the Bush administration, and the longing for change that the country genuinely felt at the time, that allowed someone like Barack Obama to win a big victory. And I wonder whether those cultural preconditions have ceased to be the case; that as the reigning culture of the American elite has become so much more serious and earnest and so on, it is just off-putting to people in a way where, in an ironic way, something like Obama’s election wouldn't be possible.
Hussain: Liberals have become very pious. They have become the most pious Christians in the world. They've become so pious, and it's because the piety of those beliefs is so deeply embedded, that it's become—I won’t say it’s become a religion, but it has become something metaphysical and serious and the same energy has been devoted to that. Can I name a single left-wing person who I think is funny today? I struggle to do that. And they used to be the funniest ones. And Trump was like a blasphemer. He was like if the Vatican elected a blasphemous Pope. That was basically how people interpreted Trump being in the White House. He was blaspheming the tenets of liberal piety every single day. Does that make someone a good president if they do that? I would say no, but I see why people liked it, because they feel suffocated by these pious attitudes.
The great strength of liberalism and liberals in the United States was that they were very, very funny for a long time, very irreverent. They were chiding others’ pieties very effectively. And now their own pieties are being chided and they look a little stiff and rigid. I think that Trump's election intensified the piety, in fact—we need to be even more pious in response to him. And I think that's kind of sad, because they've kind of lost something that made them very powerful. And if you're going to criticize yourself, you're going to have to be irreverent towards your own beliefs. You have to have a sense of distance. It's really unfortunate. There’s been a cultural shift. There used to be a punchline that there were no funny right wingers or conservatives—it's not possible. Now, it's the reverse. I can't think of a funny leftist at the moment. If someone can disprove me, I would love to see it. But the ones who are funny are the ones who are actually so “problematic” that you can’t even acknowledge them because they're saying things which could be seen as very impious, over the line, and so forth. Those people aren’t welcome in broader liberal culture.
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