The Purpose of Persuasion
To defend the values of a free society with courage and conviction, we need to build institutions of our own.
I'm floored by the response of the past three days.
Once I hit send, this article will land in the inboxes of over 15,000 people. When we launched, my main fear was that the world would not be interested in a community that pledges to defend the values of a free society; now, my main fear is that we won't be able to live up to the hype.
So, here's my promise: We will do our very best to earn your trust. Some great articles will be coming your way soon. We are getting ready to announce more events and high-level members of the community. I hope you will join us for our inaugural townhall, which will take place next Sunday, July 12th, at 4pm EST. (Watch this space for the invite.) I'm very, very excited about what lies ahead. But I also know that it is hard to build this kind of community from the ground up, and that we will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way. Please bear with us when we do.
In the meanwhile, I want to take you a little deeper into the thinking that went into creating Persuasion. Why this project? Why now? And how can just a bunch of us—even if we are a much larger bunch than I could possibly have dreamed a few days ago—really make a difference to the future of free societies in the United States and around the world? The key to an answer lies in a short (and necessarily schematic) history of American intellectual life over the past half century.
Fifty years ago, the most important American institutions enjoyed a degree of legitimacy that is now hard to fathom. Nearly every American watched the news on one of the three network television stations. Nearly every American had a positive opinion of Princeton and Stanford. Nearly every Member of Congress believed that the advice of the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations was to be taken seriously.
These institutions had much to recommend them: They gave the public a shared set of facts and assumptions, which could form the basis of political debate. And, though they never thought of their primary goal as fighting for the ideals of a free society, their operating system was philosophically liberal: From CBS to Harvard to Brookings, senior decision makers instinctively believed in values like free speech and due process.
However, these institutions also suffered from two important shortcomings. First, the people they admitted into their gilded halls only represented a small slice of America's population: sexism, racism and homophobia were far more prevalent in these institutions than they are today. The views they considered serious sometimes included the morally abhorrent.
Second, the realm of the “reasonable" was rather narrow. And, though this narrowness of debate constituted the lesser injustice, it was—at least in the short term—the cause of greater instability: Having come to believe that they could never quite speak in their own voices in the halls of the Brookings Institution or the column inches of the New York Times, a few assorted bands of malcontents started to cast around for an alternative.
Of these, the group that had the biggest impact on public life in America was a band of devoted conservatives, determined to create an ideological counter-establishment that could rival the mainstream. What started with National Review, an ideological fighting magazine, quickly grew into a sprawling and immensely powerful network of conservative institutions. The Heritage Foundation was set up to rival the influence of Brookings. The Federalist Society sought to change the ideological composition of America's judiciary. Fox News did its dismal best to spread the ideas of the conservative movement beyond the Beltway. A whole network of activist groups provided conservatives with an ideological foundation, a group of friends, and a professional home. Measured by its own ambitions, the movement was a staggering success.
Other minoritarian ideological movements took a page out of the same playbook. In 1960, a libertarian was a person with idiosyncratic views and no obvious political home. Then, the Institute for Humane Studies started to advocate libertarian ideas on college campuses, Reason took up their public defense, and a reinvigorated American Enterprise Institute set out to influence legislators on Capitol Hill. By 1980, the influence and intellectual self-confidence of libertarians had increased enormously.
The further left has always had its share of counter-establishment institutions. The Nation, after all, is one of the oldest magazines in the country, and some academic disciplines have long been at the forefront of leftist thought. But the left, too, has of late succeeded in building a more cohesive network of fighting institutions, as universities have become much more progressive, movements like the Democratic Socialists of America have awakened from decades of peaceful slumber, and publications like Jacobin have infused the movement with fresh intellectual energy.
Five or ten years ago, our potted history might have concluded here. Ideological movements from conservative to libertarian to leftist had fighting institutions of their own. Though philosophical liberals did not have a comparable home, they could confidently express their views within mainstream institutions.
But then those institutions started to change.
The story of that change has attracted an immense amount of attention over the past months. I won't bore you with a detailed recap of its most worrying manifestations, from the firing of James Bennet to the uncritical celebration of Robin DiAngelo. Nor do I want to suggest that these changes have completely delegitimized the mainstream: These institutions have not yet become wholly illiberal, and the advocates of a free society would be foolish to stop fighting for them.
But the erosion of values like free speech and due process within mainstream institutions does put philosophical liberals at a unique disadvantage. It is difficult to convey just how many amazing writers, journalists, and think-tankers—some young and some old, some relatively obscure and others very famous—have privately told me that they can no longer write in their own voices; that they are counting the days until they get fired; and that they don't know where to turn if they do. (Astonishingly, a number of them are far enough to the left to have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.)
This, to me, is a huge part of the reason why the defenders of the free society have seemed to lack conviction in recent months and years. Feeling, at best, begrudgingly tolerated by the institutions that employ them, they are always on the back foot: writing and speaking with one eye on Twitter, one eye on a hostile editor, and one eye on the attacks being shared on their own company’s Slack channel. (As you may have noticed, that requires too many eyes.)
But, if this situation helps to explain the collective lack of confidence among the advocates of a free society, it also points the way to an obvious solution. Instead of lamenting our loss of control over the establishment, we should follow the lead of other movements that have successfully built their own counter-establishment institutions.
That is the goal I had in mind in starting Persuasion.
One core element of this project is a publishing platform explicitly devoted to debating, articulating, and defending the values of a free society. Emulating what Reason, Jacobin, and the National Review have accomplished within their own ideological traditions, I hope to create a space in which philosophical liberals can ask hard questions and come up with compelling answers. This requires both a commitment to a set of shared aspirations and enough diversity of opinion to force us to think very hard about how we can make the world a better place. This is a space for people who are open to changing their minds, but not their fundamental values.
But creating a modern reinvention of a fighting magazine, devoted to defending the ideals of a free society, is not my only ambition. If places like the National Review had a tremendous influence on our society, it is also because they became the nucleus of a cohesive community, which seeded a much wider archipelago of allied institutions. This is why I take the community element of Persuasion—all the live events, book clubs and social gatherings we'll experiment with over the coming months—so seriously. And it is also why I hope that this particular venture will spawn many formally independent organizations that share our founding values.
Before I close, let me say two quick words about some of the establishment institutions whose recent fate I have been lamenting. The first is that we must do what we can to preserve those universities, publications, and think tanks that still operate with fundamentally (small l) liberal assumptions. For example, I deeply love The Atlantic, and will continue to write for it. A small fighting institution that primarily addresses a devoted crowd of philosophical liberals neither is nor should be in competition with a large general interest magazine whose readership will always span a much broader ideological range. Part of the reason why we should articulate these values as clearly, forcefully, and persuasively as possible within these pages is to maximize the likelihood that they will continue to form the implicit operating system of vitally important publications like The Atlantic.
The second thing is that our ambition needs to extend beyond nostalgia. There is much to lament about the changes that have taken place in some of the country's most important institutions over the past years. But there is also much to criticize in what these institutions looked like at their supposed best. Our goal is not to return to a golden age that has, sadly, never existed; it is to build societies that live up to the noble and ambitious values of freedom and justice better than any society of the past.
The examples I have used here are very American. But the issues at stake go well beyond these shores, and the basic lay of the land is remarkably similar in many other countries. Across much of the democratic world, philosophical liberals lack both the ideological self-confidence and the institutional base to stand up for their convictions. This is an existential crisis for the values of a free society. For only if philosophical liberalism can prove that it embodies a truly universal set of principles—one that can win adherents from Hyderabad to Hamburg, from Nairobi to New York—can it hope to retain and expand its influence in the 21st century.
When I conceived of this project, I was betting on the idea that a lot of people were (to use an expression I have, as a non-native speaker, always found to be rather puzzling) champing at the bit to defend the values of a free society. The past days have proven this to be true. Now, it’s up to all of us to do the hard work to which we are called at this moment in history.
I can’t wait to start. And I couldn’t be more excited that you have decided to join in this endeavor.
Perhaps it is worth recognizing the work done by writers at places like Quillette that have been sounding alarm and taking up this fight for several years now. It is good and laudable that cultural figures with significant institutional backing are now taking this situation seriously enough to organize against it but some gratitude to those who sounded the alarm on this (often thanklessly and from positions of far greater vulnerability) would be appreciated.
First, bravo! I’m very excited for what you’ve started Yascha. And in the spirit of picking up your call for a space for discussion and community, I’ll offer one reaction to your first post.
In your short history of the traditional liberal institutions, which I recognize for purposes of this intro was necessarily abbreviated, I think you leave out a rather large third shortcoming: that these institutions promoted “meritocracy” on a basis that was often misleading and at times corrupt. This is basically the thesis of Chris Hayes’ excellent Twilight of the Elites, a book I think any analysis of why these “gatekeeper” institutions have been/are being torn down has to reckon with.
And indeed I think the conundrum of the gatekeeper function is one this community also needs to wrestle with, if not solve for. On the one hand, as Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote in How Democracies Die, the role of gatekeeper institutions has been important in preserving democratic stability. And indeed the dismantling of American Party machines as gatekeepers gave us Trump. And on the other hand, these gatekeeper institutions are almost always mechanisms by which one order is preserved, and alternative orders oppressed. They have been used as tools of the powerful for self protection, as you note often along race, gender and other discriminatory lines, including especially along financial lines.
A core question to me, and you allude to this in your intro here, is how do we revive the beneficial elements of gatekeeper institutions in the intellectual space (i.e., I think we largely would agree we want a media with journalistic standards around facts and truth, an academia that promotes racial equity and rejects things like eugenics) without the harmful elements. Indeed, we need a solution that may go further and help undo the harms of the past. That seems to me a primary challenge for this sort of liberal endeavor.