Episode Summary

Misinformation, incorrect beliefs about the world, and disinformation, deliberately constructed falsehoods, have always been a part of human history, but they are playing an increasingly important role in politics around the globe now, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research is showing that people on the political right and people who are inclined toward religious traditionalism are more likely to believe falsehoods about science and the world. What does that mean about the future?

Likely related to this is that the emergence of Donald Trump as a Republican political figure seems to have accelerated a pre-existing trend of more educated people turning toward Democrats and less-educated people toward Republicans. But what if this seeming educational divide is actually a second-order effect of a deeper division between people who think deductively and those who think inductively?

Joining us to discuss all of this today is Will Wilkinson, he’s the publisher of Model Citizen, it’s a newsletter about politics, economics, and philosophy. Will is also a former libertarian who once worked at the Cato Institute where he was the managing editor of the magazine Cato Unbound.

The video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Will.

WILL WILKINSON: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: Before we get into the larger topic, let’s give people who aren’t familiar with your work a little bit more of a background on yourself. So one thing that you and I have in common is that we both come out of the, we were both born into the Mormon movement. Although in your case, you were from one part of that and I was from another part.

Some people have heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but there is another tradition that is based in Missouri. And that’s the one that you were a part of for a while. What was the main dividing line there between them originally?

WILKINSON: I grew up in the, what was at the time called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They’ve they’ve changed the name to the Community of Christ some decades ago, I guess now, but they’re headquartered in Independence, Missouri, which is where I was born.

Independence is, according to Mormon tradition, the place where Christ is going to return, it’s near the Garden of Eden, what is that Adam-ondi-Ahman? Is that what that’s called?


WILKINSON: So there’s a lot of fun Mormon facts there. The church that I was raised in is much smaller than the Mormon church based in Utah that everyone knows and loves.

I was in college, a tour guide at the Joseph Smith historic center in Nauvoo, which was one of the first big Mormon settlements in the West. Nauvoo, Illinois, it’s right on the Mississippi River, on the Illinois side, Iowa is just on the other side. And the big split between those two denominations occurred after Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in a jail in Carthage. He was trying to escape. He’d been put in jail because he had instructed a kind of kangaroo court mob to smash the presses of an independent newspaper in Nauvoo called the Nauvoo Expositor.

And caused a big fu-furrah. They were basically reporting things that were true. This gets to the disinformation stuff, because Joseph Smith was an oddly Trumpian character. And he was very mad about the fact that they were saying true things about emerging doctrines about a multiplicity of deities.

SHEFFIELD: And polygamy.

WILKINSON: And yeah, plural marriage. So he had their presses smashed, but that got him in trouble with the state and he fled. And so it was a big mess. But the letter he wrote to the governor is a sight to behold. You’ll notice all of the grandiose victimization that we’ve all become familiar with after four years of the Donald Trump presidency.

But anyway, he got murdered and then, it’s a prophetic religion where there’s an ongoing process of revelation. And so God is speaking to us still today. But who takes up the mantle now as the conduit for messages from God. And so there was a kind of a split on that. And the big divide was between the kind of anti polygamist faction and the pro polygamist faction.

The anti polygamous faction was–

SHEFFIELD: Was the smaller one.

WILKINSON: Much smaller one. And also just in demographic terms is not going to grow as fast. But Emma Smith, who was Joseph Smith’s first wife, she and her children anchored the anti polygamist faction.

I guess it’s probably no mystery why Joseph Smith’s first wife would not be super cool into polygamy when that wasn’t the terms of their deal to start with. And so, Joseph Smith’s son Joseph Smith III, took over the mantle, after a little bit of time. And so the kind of Midwest Mormons who didn’t leave to go to Utah reorganized, and that’s where the name came from.

But it was always a much smaller denomination and developed in a different direction because it didn’t start with– polygamy was out from the beginning. It didn’t have the same set of some of the later, Joseph Smith’s later theological innovations about every male member of the Melchizedek Priesthood becoming the sort of God of their own universe. That got left out, a lot of the temple ceremonies got left out. There’s no tradition of having a temple that’s closed off where you do rituals. So it’s really, really developing in a quite different direction and developed in a very kind of liberal–

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think it’s also fair to say that it was– they were traditions that were much less anti-American than LDS Mormonism ended up being, especially in the very beginning. So like for instance, the LDS Mormon temple ceremony for a long time, they had members pray for the destruction of the United States, actually for a long time.

WILKINSON: Yeah. They were in fact persecuted by the state. First, before they went to Illinois, they were run out of Missouri. They first went to Jackson County, Missouri, which is where Independence is, where I was born. Enough of them had moved there to shift the political balance so that they had enough heft that they could elect their people to these mayoral roles or sheriff’s roles and things like that.

And that really threatened the kind of incumbent settlers who didn’t want to be governed by who they saw as just like whackadoodle cultists. And like a little civil war happened. There’s literally a shooting war with people in Missouri, and Mormons got routed and they ended up moving back east over the Mississippi River.

So they had this sense of very aggrieved combativeness that they were beset by all sides. When he was killed, Joseph Smith was running for president which is something not a lot of people appreciate and in a very kind of populist way. He’s, I think really an underappreciated character in American history, partly because his legacy is very tightly protected by the Mormon church.

I just think he’s a fascinating person and he’s just like a kind of a rollicking character and he’s just makes stuff up all the time and people believe it. And it’s amazing.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s to go to what you were saying. That’s one of the very Trumpian aspects of Joseph Smith.

WILKINSON: He’s got this amazing ability to just freelance, this kind of improvisational skill where you just drive yourself into a corner, and you’re never planning more than two steps ahead. But somehow, you always figure out a way to– what spin to give people so that they’re going to give you an exit. And sometimes you can even make a victory. It’s just, it really is an amazing set of skills. Like watching Trump. Four years, you’re just like, every time you’re like: ‘Oh boy, he’s in trouble now!’ And then he’s just: ‘Whoop, Nope.’ And people think that guy was dumb, which it just baffles me.

The guy’s clearly some kind of genius. He’s not going to be doing like high level math, but in terms of seeing the angles and the strategic situation and knowing how to get people on his side, knowing how to discredit and de-legitimize any source of information that is contrary. He’s so effective at those things. And you just can’t be, unless you have a certain kind of brilliance.

SHEFFIELD: A quick wit, yeah.

WILKINSON: And I feel like people still underestimate him. Which is why he’s so dangerous. He’s so underestimated. Despite the fact that the dude just lied his way into the presidency of the United States. And so anyway, but to Joseph Smith, once you have seen Trump and then you go back and read Joseph Smith’s stuff, the parallels are really, really interesting. It’s It’s a similar kind of charisma. Just imagine if Trump decided that having his own religion was the way to go.

SHEFFIELD: It’s tax-free!


SHEFFIELD: Beyond just the similarities between Joseph Smith as a person and Donald Trump as a person, there’s also the aspect of Mormon theology that is interesting to the current discussions about disinformation is that Mormon theology is built on, on the Book of Mormon and believing that Native Americans are actually the descendants of ancient Israelis.

That’s something that, of course, that there is no evidence that’s been proven of that at all. And when the scientists have sequenced the DNA of literally tens of thousands of people now, Native Americans, and needless to say, there are not any Jewish Indians out there.

WILKINSON: They came over the land bridge from Asia.

SHEFFIELD: That’s what people had theorized that this was a population that came over from Asia and then DNA basically confirmed that. But it’s interesting when you look at the way that the Community of Christ has dealt with the modern revelations, scientific revelations that is, and then you contrast that with the way that the LDS Mormons have looked at it. In many ways, this was a precursor to a lot of the debates over fake news as Trump calls it, and actual fake news. Do you think there’s any parallels there? Tell us about what the RLDS/Community of Christ evolution on Book of Mormon historicity was like, how did that come about?

WILKINSON: Basically a bunch of the higher up members of the priesthood in the Community of Christ ended up going to regular seminaries. And just got the kind of liberal take on the historicity of scripture.

There’s this idea in liberal theology, if you go to a divinity school at a mainstream university that isn’t some kind of fundamentalist Christian school. ‘Some of this happened, some of this didn’t happen. But the value in a religious tradition doesn’t come from the literalness of the scripture. It’s contains all of this direction for life. You can be rooted in this tradition.’ And it’s just– it detaches itself from claims of the facticity and just accuracy of revelation and scripture, because it’s really kind of crazy when you think about it.

And that’s the way that Reorganized Church, Community of Christ ended up going. It’s willing to acknowledge that the Book of Mormon isn’t the literal truth about peopling of the new world. But considers that sort of like a little bit beside the point that people can be inspired in a way that, that connects with something higher that we don’t have to take as literal transmission of the contents of God’s mind to you.

There’s this higher power and it can, we can connect to it and bring it forth and communicate something about it creatively by doing things like creating poetry or new scriptures, I guess. And so it’s kind of like a liberal Episcopalian version of Mormonism at this point where you don’t need to believe that the Book of Mormon is literally true to get value from it or to have faith in the lessons of your faith tradition or whatever you want to call it.

And there’s always been these divisions within that denomination, like any denomination, and it’s always playing itself out. There’s always a more conservative faction and a more liberal faction. The same is true in the LDS Church, there’s always liberal reformers and they’re always resisted by kind of conservatives who want to maintain the status quo. And it’s just in the case of the RLDS, that kind of liberal reformers kept winning the argument, the internal politics.

So for instance, like in the mid eighties, it was still the RLDS Church then, my mother was in the first cohort of women to be brought into the priesthood. And that’s something that hasn’t happened in the LDS Church, even though there’s a lot of women who’ve pushed for it. So they just developed in different directions, but like these disputes over– I think there’s a real direct connection between kind of revelatory traditions, and the kind of epistemology of disinformation. Because once you get into the business of faith, things just become about trust, right? There’s no one is out there saying: ‘Okay, if you just follow up on these three things, you’ll be able to confirm empirically the Book of Mormon is true. Or you’ll be able to confirm empirically that Adam and Eve were actually in this garden and there was actually a snake.’ Nobody’s really saying that there’s a way of confirming this through rational, empirical analysis.

It’s about faith and faith is in the end about trust in the people who conveyed–

SHEFFIELD: Who told you the story.

WILKINSON: Who told you the story in the first place. It’s that you’re trusting that they are telling you something true. And they got it from somebody who they’re trusting told them something true.

And so you’ve got kind of like a, it’s like an epistemological pyramid scheme, where there’s no foundation and nobody really claims that there’s a foundation. It’s just all held up by this, these networks of, kind of, mutual trust. And I think it piggybacks off of real dynamics in the world.

We create social facts all the time, just by agreeing to them. I’m married and being married is, this is not a physical fact. It’s not an empirical fact. It’s a social fact that’s codified into law, but it means something really real because other people recognize it, the law recognizes it, but it’s ontologically just based in convention and social agreement.

The value of a dollar or your money. Fiat currency is like a collective dream. Like we all agree that it’s going to be worth something and that’s what makes it worth something.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, even honestly, gold itself. The gold standard people like to say that, oh, this is a real thing. But the reality is that gold isn’t a very good metal. Like platinum is better as a metal, it’s rarer. And to say nothing of all the other much more rare rare earth minerals out there. So like the fact that gold is worth as much as it is, that is a convention also even.

WILKINSON: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s actually one of the genius things about human nature. We’re cultural beings. Like we inherit culture from each other. We are able to learn, which is something very few animals can do.

Like I know how to do algebra. And it’s because somebody else figured it out. And I was able to pick it up. And we can do that, over and over again, like I have a decent tennis backhand. And we are just this incredibly memetic, imitative beings that like are constantly downloading culture.

And that’s our best adaptation. It’s why we live in houses and have roads and cars and bridges and the internet and stuff like that. It’s because we can accumulate and transmit knowledge over generations. And it’s very powerful. But part of that is, just tied into that is, is the way we develop conventions and norms and pass them along to each other.

And some of the norms that we develop are– we grounded them in a set of conventional beliefs that it’s really indifferent ,and it’s really irrelevant if they’re true or not. What matters is that people treat them as true. And when they treat them as true, they become a real effective force in the way society gets structured, in the way that people live their lives.

And I think that human dynamic is easily exploited, because we have to have, we have to trust other people because our main adaptation as a species is just downloading facts and skills from our parents, our teachers. Like that’s all trust. I can tell you some facts about Saturn, but I’ve never seen Saturn, right?

Like I’m just trusting that the astronomers know what they’re doing, that the world really isn’t flat or whatever. Most of what I know is testimony, based on testimony. It’s nothing that I’ve ever independently validated. It’s just we have to be that way.

It’s a special set of skills that very few people have to figure out who to trust when there are disagreements. That if you’re going to get past just: ‘Okay, this is my team. This is what we say. That’s that team. That’s what they say.’ If you’re like: ‘You know what? My team might’ve been wrong.’ Like I remember growing up as a kid in the RLDS Church, which had a quarter of a million members in it. So it’s tiny even compared to the, the Utah Mormon church and just thinking: ‘Geez! How lucky am I that I just landed in like the one correct religion, but it’s tiny. What are the odds? They’re very low. Wow, dodged a bullet because I easily could have been like Hindu or something. But I lucked out and landed in the right set of beliefs.’

And you know, you get a little older and you realize, oh maybe the fact that it is incredibly improbable isn’t evidence of my good fortune, but evidence that maybe I should look into whether because everybody else thinks the same thing.

And so once you get past that kind of ‘I trust what the people who raised me say,’ then you’re in this huge quandary. How do I learn how to figure out who to trust? Because you don’t really have anything else to go on. You’re not going to, on your own steam, figure out the facts about global warming, right?

You’re just not. You’re not going to take the surface temperature of the ocean. Somebody else is going to do it. But you don’t know that they’re not lying to you, or you don’t know that it’s like– Conservatives say that it’s a bunch of science that’s made up to support a policy position.

And if you trust the people that say that, it makes sense.

SHEFFIELD: That’s a good point. And this is a struggle that the American right basically has been in since its very beginning. Like you could argue that really the first sort of national proto-coalescing of conservative political identity began in opposition to the theory of evolution and Charles Darwin.

And it was a struggle that played out in Protestant seminaries first as a political struggle where basically they were angry that a number of historically Protestant universities like Harvard or Princeton, Yale began accepting that evolution was something that happened and also at the same time had been accepting a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and they saw these two things as being linked.

And so there began to be this big fundamentalist organizing in seminaries, and they succeeded in some of them. But they didn’t succeed ultimately in the larger scale of things at pushing forward a literalist biblical interpretation of science, of biology, and geology. And it was something that kind of ate at a lot of fundamentalist Christian Americans for a long time. And then you had the emergence of the New Deal, which came shortly after the Soviet revolution in Russia.

And so a lot of people, they saw, in their mind, this atheist revolution sweeping governance, sweeping religions just everything coming out there. And that, that’s sort of the context that American conservatism began in as a protest movement against all these things that they saw.

And they saw them as, depending on who you were talking to, some of them literally saw this as Satan’s work. Satan was doing this and making all of these people work together. And that’s something that you don’t really hear a lot about in the history of the early conservative Republican world.

WILKINSON: That’s fascinating. Like we, so where, when, where do you locate the beginning of conservatism in the sense that there’s a line from the conservative movement today, the Republican Party, its origin goes back to like where do you see the critical point?

Because the politics of the 1880s or something, there’s always like a more liberal and a more conservative faction, but it doesn’t seem to be, like politics didn’t seem to be organized around the same set of terms. I’m myself vague on this. I have some vague idea about politics taking the shape and the basic alignment that it has today. Like the industrial revolution is a super important thing. You start to get like a certain kind of capital-labor dynamics that you didn’t have before, and that leads to the socialist revolutions of the teens.

And at that point, I feel like the advent of organized communism, the Russian Revolution, this kind of materialist atheistic doctrine that is a real thing in the world. And the way that then that gets reacted to in places that don’t want to go down that path by softening the socialist doctrine, doing things like the New Deal and things like that, where, and happens in a lot of Western European countries where they’re like: ‘We’re going to have a revolution unless we start to redistribute some money and make sure that everybody gets a fair deal.’

SHEFFIELD: Well and that’s what the original conservatives, that’s how they saw what they were doing was conservative to construct a welfare state.


SHEFFIELD: To ward off revolution. Yeah.

WILKINSON: Yeah. I mean, tankies these days, will still see the German welfare state, which is one of the first big ones, as fundamentally conservative, because it’s there to make enough concessions that workers don’t revolt and that kind of tamps down revolutionary energies and keeps the exploitative of structure capitalism in place.

Obviously today’s conservatives, don’t see the Western and Northern European welfare states as fundamentally conservative projects. They see those as soft versions of socialism, which in some sense they are. And they can be both, right? They can be conservative in the sense that they’re trying to hold onto an overall capitalist structure without going all the way down the sort of communist road, they’re conservative in that sense.

And they’re soft socialist in the sense they are adopting enough of the socialist program to do that work of maintaining the overall status quo without the kind of revolutionary change. And so like for me, that’s where I, that’s where I start to see what I recognize as the politics of the 20th and 21st century is the reaction against the rise of communism and the rise of big redistributive welfare states.

But I think you’re right to point something out about the, the reaction to, more generally to the the naturalizing worldview that starts to enter with Darwin, which is a real threat to religion.

SHEFFIELD: It’s also important to note that in the 1920s, 19 teens, you had, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, one of the best-selling books of that time period in the United States was this novel called Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, who was a Christian socialist.

And it was this huge sensation in the United States. But once the idea of evolution became known in the popular religious mind, that tradition of Christian socialism basically got canceled, got extirpated from America’s churches and seminaries to a very large degree, by the more economically conservative Christianity, which basically said: ‘You are enabling atheist Darwinism. Karl Marx was an atheist. He hated God and communism is about destroying God.’

So basically once that idea emerged, it was something that took a little bit to coalesce, but that was basically the nucleus of American conservatism right there, which is the, not only do we oppose socialism for economic reasons because we have all the money, but also because that’s an ungodly system.

But in that mix, though, there also were these early libertarians who not just were opposed to a lot of the emerging consensus in economics of some of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and other people like him. But they didn’t have data to oppose it. And so they began to attack the idea of being able to understand things about the world. That you couldn’t do it through experimentation, you couldn’t even know it through data. Can you talk about that a little bit?

WILKINSON: Yeah. One of the big roots of the kind of American free market movement, the libertarian movement comes out of a reaction to socialist economics and to Keynesian views of macroeconomic management, both of which claim to be scientific in some way. So there’s this whole debate, the socialist calculation debate, is socialism even possible? Like what what communist want to do? Like how do you know how many shoes to produce in your five-year plan? Like how do you know how much apple production you need without a system of price signals, without this mechanism of discovery.

These are all very good points. Basically everybody agrees that the critics won that kind of debate, but some of the earliest clearest critic of ideas about socialist calculation, that you could centrally plan an economy from the top down was Ludwig Von Mises, an Austrian economist. He was born in, I guess what’s Ukraine now.

(He) developed a very kind of powerful theory about the logic of economic action that is more or less a priori, that doesn’t really require empirical facts. And he called this field praxeology. And he bases this view of the necessity of relatively unregulated capitalist systems from a set of premises that he claims are more or less self-evident, well, Mises’s term is apodictic.

And this view still persists a lot. Like the kind of Ron Paul kind of people are Miseans. They think that there’s an argument for why capitalism works that doesn’t depend on getting your hands dirty looking through empirical data. If you have all of these people who are rationally pursuing their individual ends, gathering the information that they need to satisfy their needs. And they’re in a system where they can freely exchange, where the prices of goods can reflect the supply and demand in the system.

Then it’s going to like necessarily turn out that supply and demand are going to match in the right sort of way. Everything that people need provided is going to get provided in the most efficient terms that are physically feasible. And a lot of subsequent economic thinking was about how that kind of thing breaks down in conditions of too much market concentration or asymmetric information, where some people know: ‘I can sell you something that’s busted, if you don’t know.’

You can get bubbles and economic systems can kind of collapse in on themselves. There’s a whole list of things that contemporary economics is built on. And the thing is like it’s built on the experience of these crises, right? A lot of modern economics is based on the experience of the Great Depression, what happened? How did everything just collapse? Why was certain kinds of stimulative economic policy– all this redistribution, all these public works programs all this kind of monetary and fiscal stimulus– why did that actually, kind of, seem to work to bail out the system? That’s what a lot of modern economics is about.

But that the kind of Misean/Austrian tradition is like ‘that stuff is all irrelevant.’ And they always lean on just really strong counterfactual reasoning. The world is complex. And so you can always say that if the state hadn’t done this, or intervened in this way, things would have worked out.

You can always say that, right? You can always say the system is, in principle, efficient, it’s just like the state interventions are preventing the market from equilibrating. It’s preventing people from spotting entrepreneurial opportunities. There’s a lot of reasons that you can cite for why the market seems like it didn’t work in the way that your ideology says that it works. And so in that sense, it’s unfalsifiable. It becomes this self insulating set of dogmas.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it’s very convenient. Because basically they never have to provide any evidence that their ideas work. It ended up as an economic version of anti-epistemology in the same way that the fundamentist Christians were saying: ‘Well, we can’t prove that the Bible isn’t literally true. We can’t prove that, but we know that it’s true.’

And then the question was always, ‘well, how do you know that?’

‘I feel that it is.’

And that’s basically, ultimately the same argument of Misean economics in a lot of ways. And just as it began eventually allying with, and coalescing with the supply side theory, it, it also actually began merging with the fundamentalist Christian theology and anti-epistemology.

So like you do have now a lot of the most prominent Mises exponents are also fundamentalist Christians. This guy named Gary North is very big in ultra libertarian circles. This guy’s a straight up Young Earth creationist. And he writes about both things all the time.

WILKINSON: One thing I want, I want to say, Ludwig Von Mises is a great, he is a great thinker and a great liberal thinker. He’s in a certain kind of a priori kind of Kantian, Germanic tradition, which is very rationalist. You can spin things out in your head, like Kant is spinning out in his head the preconditions for any experience at all. You’re just thinking it through rationally.

It’s not claiming to be based in faith at all. It’s claiming to be based in the power of the human rational faculty to be able to recognize and work through the logic of the empirical world. And the idea that you can figure it out a priori is based on these kinds of Kantian ideas that in fact, the empirical world is structured by our own sort of conceptual categories. That because the world is organized by the structure of human consciousness, then you can figure out the way the world is by working through that logic in your own mind.

And the problem there is that is the kind of Kantian assumptions about the structure of the world being a function of our categories of understanding, rather than something that’s completely independent of our consciousness. I think the project depends on a view of the efficacy of reason that is just not going to be right, because the structure of the world isn’t determined by reason. It’s just this brute thing that’s outside of us that is puzzling. And we have some faculties that we can use to try to figure it out. But they’re all fallible.

And the only thing that’s math is math. And so you can’t treat anything that’s has to do with the way things actually work in the empirical world like you treat math because it’s weirder than math. Math can help you understand it, but you’re not going to be able to understand human exchange and the emergence of giant economies by thinking it through from first principles in the way that you do a logical proof, it’s just not going to work.

And so like in that sense, it’s really a rationalist tradition that’s super different from that kind of fundamentally religious epistemology. But I think you’re right that they end up intersecting because it’s two different reasons for minimizing the importance of empirical–

SHEFFIELD: Observation, yeah.

WILKINSON: If you’re already committed to that because you’re a devout faithful religious believer who thinks that evolution can’t possibly be true, because the Bible said that we were created in six days or whatever.

SHEFFIELD: The Tower of Babel story was real.

WILKINSON: Yeah. Yeah. So if you’re already committed to the idea that the results of empirical scientific inquiry have to be wrong because they conflict with the thing you already believe on faith, then you’re going to find some other system that says that empirical inquiry is irrelevant attractive. And you might even like the idea that it seems super rational, because that can make you feel like ‘These science-y people are always claiming that I’m not rational because I just believe this stuff on faith, but no, I’m super rational, because I love working things out from first principles in a deductively valid way. That’s what rationality is.’

They kind of can be mutually supporting, even though at a philosophical level, they’re in tension.

It’s just funny, just as an empirical observation, how few people arrive at a religious conviction through independent intellectual inquiry. If you’re religious, the odds are overwhelming that your religion is something that you inherited from your parents, or it’s something that you came to believe because you became embedded in social networks with other people who believe that.

And that’s the main reason people convert it’s just: You’re not Mormon. You’re isolated and lonely and some Mormon missionaries come to your house, and they convince you to come to the come to the ward for a service. And you have all these welcoming people. And you’re like, oh, there’s this community that’s ready-made here for me. They actually want to help me get a job.

SHEFFIELD: They like me.

WILKINSON: Yeah, they like me, they’re so nice. And you start coming and these people become your friends. And then you’re like, I think there’s a lot to what everybody here thinks. And that’s why people convert. They just get drawn into a new social network.

And so either it’s just like something you got from your parents or you became embedded in a new social network. And you don’t see it, you don’t see it. Somebody just: ‘I want to have the correct religion. And so I’m going to do this exhaustive survey of the religions of the world and see which seems most credible, according to independent intellectual standards.’ I’m sure there are a handful of people who think that they’ve gone through that process.

But even people who kind of act like they’re going through that process, they don’t end up with something that’s just puts them at complete odds with the communities in which they’re embedded.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Now in your own case though, another thing you and I have in common is that we both started off in various versions of Mormonism and also on the political right. And we both eventually moved away from that for various reasons. Talk about your own process and how did that happen for you?

WILKINSON: The quick answer is: I was a tour guide at the Joseph Smith historic center, giving tours of Joseph Smith’s house in Nauvoo, and I was told in advance that I was going to have to just sit in this visitor center along time, waiting for people to come for tours. And it was mostly Mormons from the West coming to these little pilgrimages to see Nauvoo. And so I just brought the biggest book that I had in my house, which was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. And I sat there in the visitor center and read Atlas shrugged. And by the end of it, I was like: ‘I don’t believe in God.’

So it was ironic that I got to my atheism because I had to read during the day during my religious job. But that’s also what got me involved in kind of libertarian politics. In some sense, I was already on the right in the sense that my parents were vaguely conservative, not like super active.

But yeah, my dad was the police chief of my hometown, kind of conservative-ish job. He was of like an older generation where you fastidiously don’t talk about politics if you are in a public position of trust because you want everybody to see you as working for them. And so you don’t want to politicize it.

He wouldn’t even talk about politics, the kitchen table. It was a real principle stand about this is like not something I’m involved in. I think he’s had conservative instincts and then my mom was more political and she used to get Phyllis Schlafly’s newsletter and he would be involved in Republican politics around the edges, but it wasn’t a big thing in our lives.

And then I had my best friend in junior high and high school was evangelical and his stepdad was running the local campaign for Pat Robertson in 1988. And I canvassed for Pat Robertson. And this was before I was reading Atlas Shrugged. So like in some sense I was on the right.

I always thought Pat Robinson was nutty. Even when I was like 15 or whenever it was. My instincts at the time were like Jack Kemp conservative. So I liked markets, so whatever the proto version of compassionate conservatism.

I became a hardcore libertarian idealogue after reading Ayn Rand and getting super into it. And it relates to what we’re talking about. So Ayn Rand is a lot like Ludwig Von Mises. He’s a big influence on her. And she has a kind of a priori theory of morality, the defense of capitalism.

But it’s not just a practical theory like Von Mises’s, where he’s ‘here’s why this is all going to work.’ It’s like a moral theory of why capitalism is the best. But it’s spun out of first principles in a similar way. But it’s even less plausible when you start to get into moral questions. But I, I experienced myself as really adopting that. I accepted the rhetoric of rationality that was being offered as part of the evidence for the moral righteousness of free markets and unregulated capitalism.

I accepted the idea that I had come upon this purely rationally, rather than just identifying with the ethos of it, and getting myself embedded in a community.

Like I wouldn’t have become like a Randian or an Objectivist, if it weren’t for the internet, right? Like the early days, when I was an undergrad, and I got involved in internet discussion groups on Usenet. And I don’t think people even know what that is anymore. And these kinds of email lists.

So I was on a email list about objectivism that was moderated by Jimmy Wales, the guy who started Wikipedia. Which is, weirdly, I wrote up a couple of the first articles on Wikipedia because I was involved with the Objectivist who started it.

It was that community that I became involved in, in college that kind of really brought me into the, to the ideology. Because then I, otherwise I would have just kept reading other stuff and would’ve just drifted around with whatever I happened to be reading. But I made these friends on these discussion lists. I wanted to meet them. So I went to some meetings like the summer seminars. And then some of these people became really good friends and it kind of locks you in. ‘These are my people, this is my tribe. And this is what we think.’

And it’s fascinating. Some of my best friends are still people I met at Objectivist conferences in the mid 1990s. They’ve moved on as well, but like, we were all coming from a similar place. We all had a kind of a similar sensibility. I’ve got a good friend here in LA, who is an actor who I met at Objectivist camp and I’ve got a good friend who’s, several good friends, who are philosophy professors who I’ve met at an Objectivist camp. And I love them to this day and they’re great people.

SHEFFIELD: Are they still into it? (Laughs)

WILKINSON: No, I like really, like they are, they’re all, some of them are more libertarian than others. Like one of the guys I met at one of those camps is Matt Zelinski, who’s a professor at the University of San Diego and he and I went through a very similar trajectory. He started this blog that was really influential for a few years, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

And he started out a hardcore objectivist, then just transitioned to the more general libertarian community. Especially this is something that happens if you go to grad school in philosophy, like he did and I did, that you start getting good arguments against what you’ve been believing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. When you start learning that what you had been told was objective, really isn’t.

WILKINSON: Yeah. You start to see other people who are as smart as you and as good at thinking, giving you really compelling objections. So you’re spinning your wheels, trying to figure out how to defend your beliefs, how to debunk the claims that they’re making.

And usually the only way you can do it, the only way you can manage it is by conceding something, so that you can put yourself in a stronger position. So you can save most of your position by giving up this little thing. But then it’s an iterative process, and you do it over and over again. And after a while, you’ve given up actually quite a lot of territory to save your view.

And then your view is like, actually, something that’s different than what it is you started from. I think Matt and I went through the same process. We ended up kind of liberaltarian, you have libertarian instincts about the virtues of markets, the virtues of free exchange price systems in like the way that they drive innovation and discovery, committed as I still am today about why economic growth is such a huge humanitarian good. How it leaves people a lot better off.

But okay. So everything I used to think about redistribution is a little dicey. And so Matt is like one of the best academic exponents of a universal, basic income which he argues for on (Friedrich) Hayekian grounds. So he still has these libertarian influences, but they’re being deployed to make a different argument. And that effectively shifts you out of the organized political and social movement, because you become a certain kind of heretic and it’s like, you can keep a foot in depending on how much you’re willing to just– and people do partly because it’s your community, it’s your people.

And moving out of these communities is never easy. It’s isolating and alienating and a lot of times, you feel really wary of, even if your mind has changed about what you think. I think a lot of times we carry with us, some vestigial– I don’t know if animosity is the right word, but some sense of dislike for the groups of people who were —

SHEFFIELD: That’s tribalism, basically.

WILKINSON: Yeah. Yeah. You don’t get rid of the tribalism. So you can convince yourself: ‘Okay, my views about redistribution are wrong, but you spent so many years ragging on liberal Democrats or something like that, you kind of feel awkward and hypocritical, just deciding to be hanging out with a bunch of liberal– like these are my people now.

A lot of the things that you thought about them, weren’t totally wrong either. So you feel like you’re selling out. If you suppressed the critical things you think about that group of people that you still think are true, you feel like you’re going to have to put that behind you to really fit in and you still want to feel like you’ve got some integrity and that you’re not going to just sell out your beliefs just to fit in with another group of people.

And so I think like that kind of process can leave you stranded in a kind of like social limbo where you’ve thought your way out of one community, but you haven’t reconciled yourself with the implications of that enough to feel comfortable joining a community that you’d previously seen as a bad influence on the world.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Now what about in regards to besides, let’s say incorrect understanding of facts, there’s also in libertarianism and far right conservatism, this sort of anti-democratic viewpoint that’s pretty heavily embedded, especially at the higher echelons. That was something that you came into contact yourself when you were the editor of Cato Unbound.

So Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire, he published an essay and you were the editor of it when, which one of the things he said was that ‘I am afraid of the future of the free market because women have the right to vote, that was a bad thing from the market standpoint.’ And then also: ‘I’m worried that long-term, democracy and the free market can’t coexist. Is that a fair summary of his statement, would you say?

WILKINSON: Yeah, totally. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: What did you think when he, when you saw that originally? I’m sure you think differently now, but like what–

WILKINSON: Yeah. When I commissioned this from him and I edited it, this was like in 2009, he was much less famous then because he was less rich. Yeah, when I got this essay and it had the thing about like how women’s suffrage was was like a big mistake, I disagreed with that strongly at the time, but my reaction was like, oh, this is going to get clicks. And it did.

I was right about that, but mostly I was excited about the fact that it was– Cato Unbound is a debate forum. And so when you’re running a debate forum, when somebody says something that other people are going to jump on, it’s just good news. So that’s how I felt about that. But it’s interesting. It’s followed him around. It gets brought up. And for good reason, but that is like a really– for me, that’s, I think, one of the things, biggest things that I was wrong about.

But it’s completely common, it’s common view in libertarian circles. It’s a common view in conservative circles more broadly for similar reasons, but like often reasons that are more enflected with race and gender hierarchy and stuff like that. But the libertarian version of it is just the democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. They say that all the time. They love to say that.

And the idea is that if you just, if the way you run a society is just everybody gets to vote on what happens. Then you’re going to have majorities who are just going to vote themselves goodies out of the pockets of the productive, innovative, Promethian creators.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it’s not a Trumpian perspective at all. I think some progressives who came into politics recently have all these ideas that Donald Trump personally corrupted a lot of people on the right. But these are views that have been out there for a long time. I mean, Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Paul Ryan was out there regularly talking about makers versus takers–

WILKINSON: Paul Ryan was a–

SHEFFIELD: A hardcore Ayn Rand fan, yeah.


He got it from Ayn Rand. Mitt Romney, certainly didn’t, but that’s just part of the kind of chamber of commerce, we don’t want majorities feeling like they can just vote away our profits, our business models.

Yeah, so that that’s been persistent and if you’ve got those two strands, like you’ve got the kind of libertarian strand on the right, the business strand, just rich people who don’t want to be taxed. They like this argument for restraining majoritarian institutions, because they think it, it endangers their wealth.

And then you get this other strand out of the reorganization of party lines after the Civil Rights Act, right? Like the Southern white conservatives were always anti-democratic in the sense that they certainly didn’t want there to be equal voting rights for all of the residents of their states. Because they were defending a system of white supremacy. And very vigorously trying to keep it in place. And so majoritarian democracy is just completely, it was always completely anathema.

SHEFFIELD: And then they are also against it from a religious standpoint as well, because if everybody has the same religious liberty, then that means that people who are Jewish have a right to have a menorah in a public square just as Christians can put a Christmas tree there, or it means that Hindus can have a thing there or atheist. And we can’t have that. These people, non-Christians, deserve fewer rights. This is actually something they will even say explicitly sometimes. They can’t say that in public so much anymore with race, but they do say that with respect to–

WILKINSON: We are a Christian nation.


WILKINSON: And it’s our right to defend–

SHEFFIELD: Christian supremacy.

WILKINSON: Yeah. Yeah. And yeah. And so in a lot of ways, the anti-democracy on the right is over determined. There’s all these different reasons. And my antipathy to democracy, or at least just coolness toward it, was in that kind of two wolfs and a sheep voting for what to have for dinner.

And it’s just like a fundamentally mistaken view empirically. It’s not even just morally misguided, it’s that– like you can talk about people have rights, libertarians are big on people having rights, but systems don’t just recognize your rights.

They don’t just automatically see everybody as being an equal participant in the political system. And the way people get their rights recognized and protected historically has been through the expansion of democratic participation. And so just the story of freedom is largely a story of the next group that’s been marginalized campaigning and making enough trouble that, sooner or later, they’re brought into the political system so that they stop making so much noise and creating so many problems.

And once they’re brought into the system, they use the system to get their rights recognized and protected, and that happens in waves and waves. And it happens, especially when you’re in a system where markets are effective and you’re getting a high level of economic growth. Because you might have an elite that dominates, but if the economy is productive, you’re getting a lot of growth, some of it trickles down, in fact. And then the next group down, that’s not adequately represented, once they have more resources, that gives them more heft in the system, they deploy it and basically say: ‘Nice system you have here, feudal lords, would be terrible if something happened to it.’

And then the feudal Lords were like: ‘Okay, you can be in parliament or whatever.’ And then that’s actually good for the system because protecting those people’s rights and acknowledging them and protecting them releases a lot of their productive and innovative energies. That makes the system grow more. The next group down in the hierarchy gets a little more power and heft, and they ask for the same thing, and you get this kind of cascading effect of democratization through growth. And so it’s just it’s backwards, to actually think that democracy is a threat to this stuff because growth kind of creates, historically has helped create democratization and democratization protects those growth by releasing all these productive energies.

And that’s where I am now. Like I think it’s just like absolutely egregious that people are still trying to stop people from fully participating in the system, because I really think that they’re just shooting themselves in the foot. Republicans have gone through all of these measures in all these Republican majority states to make it harder for Democrats, especially in states where there’s a high African-American population, to keep them from fully participating. But that’s where most of our unreleased potential is.

I don’t know if this is a tangent, I just watched that movie King Richard about Richard Williams, Venus and Serena Williams’s dad who coached them to be tennis pros, from when they were little girls. And that movie was just making me think, here’s this one kind of insane person who was maniacally driven to juice every bit of potential out of his daughters and like succeeded.

And their level of success, like they’re the best tennis players who’ve ever lived. But they’re from Compton. You’re just like how much other incredible potential is there that’s just been completely stifled by the fact that the schools are shitty. And they can’t vote themselves better funding for the schools, because the Republicans in their state of just keeping them from getting representation in the state house. And so, you have this process where the side that’s actually, is stifling innovation and growth is the side that’s trying to prevent people from participating fully. Because if they could participate fully, they would use the system to make sure that they had adequate opportunity. And that would be good for everybody.

SHEFFIELD: I think that’s true. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that you and I have known each other for what, I guess, probably about 20 years roughly on and off, right?


SHEFFIELD: A lot of people that we both worked with or knew socially in DC right-wing circles have left that world. And it’s something that you know, I’ll probably have to write something about it, but there’s just this real massive brain drain among conservatives. And it was taking place before Trump. But definitely got accelerated after him. Would you agree with that?

WILKINSON: Yeah, for sure. You’ve written a lot about the kind of Republican Party, the conservative movement has really been more and more taken over by this kind of Christian nationalist faction. Crazy, but they’re dogmatic and they don’t care about the facts. They’re actively hostile to anything that just doesn’t align with their dogma. And so people with just a– you might have a conservative sensibility, but if you have even a mildly responsible set of epistemic practices, if you’re like: ‘I should really weigh the evidence, look at both sides.’ You’re not going to last.

Because these days, it’s not about having a considered position. It’s about posturing.

SHEFFIELD: And identity.

WILKINSON: Yeah. And just signaling your affiliation with this tribe. And the crazy thing about conservatism these days is that what it means to signal solidarity with your group is constantly changing and constantly getting crazier. And so if it’s like crazy QAnon stuff about child sex trafficking or adrenochrome, or like Hillary Clinton eating babies, that’s what you got to say. And maybe next week you don’t have to say that anymore. And it’s a new thing about how critical race theory is a new form of communism stalking the land. And it’s all just nuts, but that doesn’t matter. And then it gets to the epistemology of the right. There is no there’s no, it’s not a set of beliefs that’s based in anything now other than–

SHEFFIELD: And they’re not even based on policies either. For the longest time, you’re supposed to be anti-tarriff, you were supposed to be pro-immigration. You were supposed to believe in creative destruction economically and tell people to just move away if they had it if their neighborhood was bad, they should just leave.

And these things have all– be a big China booster, manufacturing and outsourcing. These were all things that you were supposed to believe as a loyal Republican or libertarian. And those things just went out the window and it’s every couple of months something that they had considered a core principle just gets thrown out.

So I see that and a lot of people that, that we both know have moved away from that, but at the same time, there do seem to be people out there like Chris Christie or Mike Pence, or some of these other people, who are basically trying to say: ‘I think that this thing can be saved. I’m not anti-Trump I just don’t like some of the things he does sometimes.’

But there’s no audience for that. I don’t think they realized that.

WILKINSON: No. I mean like that’s the problem. And this gets to the relationship between epistemic nihilism and authoritarianism. What we believe is already mostly based on trust– as we were talking about talking about earlier– and this is part of the reason why we’re getting these increasing division on education. But it’s not all on trust, right? Like part of the system of education that we have is teaching people how to think critically, like what the scientific method is like how you actually can successfully establish facts about the world, or at least figure out what the most probable state of the world is.

You don’t have to be certain about things, but what’s probably true, right? And so we learn some sciences, we learn statistics, we learn probability theory. We learn how to detect, how to recognize when somebody’s doing it right. And so that you can see that the kind of person that you should trust because they’re using the methods that you would use, if you were sincerely trying to get at the truth about reality.

And that’s what you learn when you go to college. People learn it better or worse, but part of going to college, is also a part of just becoming inculturated to an ethos that respects this kind of set of practices around figuring out what to believe.

SHEFFIELD: That believes that knowledge is possible, basically.

WILKINSON: Yeah. And the, and that there’s a way to, there’s a way to get it. Especially if you go to grad school in anything, a lot of it is about the method that you’re going to use. And so you learn respect for methods. And so over time, the more the right has just drifted off into a kind of nihilistic dogmatism, people with any college education have just been fleeing like crazy, because it’s so contrary to the ethos that their social class and peer group have been inculturated to through higher education. The people who haven’t gone to college are the most prone to authoritarian rhetoric. Because when you don’t have a way of: ‘Okay, there’s a dispute, I have to figure out I’m not going to really get to the bottom of it. Because I don’t know enough.’

But I have to figure out who to trust in the dispute. So I’m going to look at people on one side and people on the other side, and how do I know what to trust, who to trust? And it’s easy for me as like an overeducated person with more than one graduate degree to have a sense of what kind of people are just freelancing and bullshitting and what kind of people who are actually– like if it’s COVID stuff, I know what it looks like when somebody does good empirical statistical analysis of the success of a vaccine or something like that. I can’t do the math myself, but I know what it looks like. And I know–

SHEFFIELD: You know what knowledge looks like. That’s really what it is.

WILKINSON: Yeah. And so if I see, so if I see, I just saw in the morning, the dean of the Brown school of public health, Ashish Jha, who I worked with on some COVID policy stuff when I was at Niskanen.

I know that that guy knows what he’s talking about. I trust that the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health knows how to think about public health and epidemiology in the right kind of way. But it’s because I was trained in the institutions that he’s a part of. People who don’t, as far as they’re concerned, what he’s saying, it might as well be just an argument from authority, right? Like they don’t have any way of recognizing that his method of investigation or discourse is any more valid than anybody else’s. So if you have somebody else on the other side, just claiming authority and possessing a kind of assured charisma that projects confidence and authority. They’re able to use that charismatic authority to undermine the legitimacy of the people who are doing it right. ‘Fake news, whatever.’

Then you can just get people to believe you, whatever you say. Because once you’ve got them in, once you’ve roped them into your net, and they trust you enough to acknowledge and basically cede certain, if they cede epistemic authority to you at all, then you can use that as a wedge to cut them off from people who ought to have epistemic authority.

And that’s what’s happened. So Trump is so good at the charismatic authority game, and he’s brought so many people in. And then he’s used their deference to his judgment to cut them off from all the mainstream media sources, to cut them off from any scientific inquiry that isn’t convenient for him politically or personally, from any legal inquiry that’s inconvenient for him.

And so he’s effectively built a bubble that he’s trapped almost half the population in. And then once you’re in that bubble, and I’ve seen this in these accounts of: ‘My sister got into QAnon, and won’t talk to me anymore, because I vote for Joe Biden, who she thinks is a child rapist. And and how do I get her out of there?’

You just can’t, in an easy way, because what can you say? If she’s decided that you’re on the side of the child rapists, that anything that you can show her from the newspaper is fake. That anything that science says is fake, right? The only people she’s going to believe are people on her QAnon message board and Donald Trump then, like, there’s no way in.

And then I think part of the problem that like Chris Christies are running into, is that, is that because now all that whole group of people, their set of beliefs is fixed by nothing but charismatic authority, that either you are aligned with that authority or you’re not.

And that’s the only question. And that’s, I think, one of the main reasons why a lot of people were hoping that Republicans after losing their Senate majority and losing the White House, that they would start coming to their senses. But so many people are so trapped like that. That people are in a position where they don’t know how to operate unless it’s inside the scope of what Trump agrees with or doesn’t agree with. Because they have no way to navigate the world outside of the judgments of that authority that they’ve ceded their belief formation to.

SHEFFIELD: But how many people do you think though in the Democratic elites or their big donors, progressive media personalities, I don’t think that they understand that this is a epistemic problem here. They seem to think of it mostly as just a partisan thing.

In other words, I don’t see a lot of concern about, basically effectively, our society has allowed the construction of a parallel anti-epistemology. And the people who have been so busy building the ivory tower, if you will, they had no idea. They weren’t paying attention to what was happening outside their activities.

And then now that they’re vaguely aware of it because they tried to overthrow democracy on January 6th. They still don’t understand why they did it. And how to try to get people interested and move them away from this nihilism. I don’t think they get it. Do you?

WILKINSON: I think it’s, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think a lot of them get it, but–

SHEFFIELD: And that it’s not about Trump.

WILKINSON: There’s a lot of political consultants, I think, who are stuck in what is effectively an outdated model of how to think about public opinion. Because they just think that you’re going to be able to pretty easily bring enough people in the middle toward your side by making the right kind of concession, or reframing an issue, or talking about it a little bit differently.

But if the issue is just sort of are you with us or against us? Are you one of the liars or one of the truth tellers, right? You can’t be a liar who’s suddenly more attractive. And the, and there’s there’s this assumption that it’s just going to work as it normally works. And I just don’t think that’s true.

I think so I think there are a lot of Democrat elites who do get that, that it is this kind of epistemological problem, that you have this very large set of people who have, between Trump himself and all the auxiliary institutions like Fox news, and OAN, and Newsmax, and the Federalist and whatever, who are feeding this– who are consolidating this kind of fever dream, right-wing dogma. I think people see that it’s kind of hard to penetrate that.

But I think people are just kind of puzzled like I am. Like I’m just kind of baffled what do you do about it? It’s because it is just so hard to get a wedge in. Like I think it’s easy to, to oversell how many people on the right are deep into any of this, because most people don’t pay that much attention to politics. And so there are a lot of people on the right who are not so informed, are kind of in the middle. They are persuadable. And I do think there’s a fair number of people who are just dispositionally conservative. They worry about critical race theory in the schools or whatever, like it’s become an issue. ‘It must be valid because it’s come up.’

But if you could actually get through to them to tell, to communicate clearly what’s going on, they’d be like: ‘Oh, I don’t want anything to do with that.’

But part of the problem is it’s still just hard to communicate to those people. But I do think, I do think there’s a fair number of people that are reachable. Which is how Democrats won the last time around. But it’s just a really hard, it’s a really hard problem. Like you need this kind of deprogramming.

And like, I actually kind of think that the problem isn’t really going to get solved until Trump goes away. And that, that leads to just the fragmentation of authority. It’s like when Joseph Smith gets murdered, when you have, when your whole belief system is based in charismatic authority, and that guy goes away, a bunch of people are going to try to claim it. And it’s not going to– it’s unlikely that somebody can succeed in consolidating the same allegiance that Trump had.

If Trump ends up in prison or ends up having a coronary and dropping off the face of the earth, I think things could improve pretty rapidly. But as long as he’s in there, trying to maintain his grip, I think it’s going to– he’s succeeding. He’s not on Twitter, he’s not on Facebook. He’s kind of in the background. But you’re still fucked if you’re not on his side in a Republican primary.

SHEFFIELD: So we have seen also that, besides the fact that a bunch of people who were on the political right have migrated away from it, there have been a smaller number of people who were, at least let’s say identified on the left. The YouTuber Dave Rubin, or I don’t know, like that Tim Poole guy. They basically have started trying to cultivate a right-wing audience and in some cases were saying that they’re conservative themselves. Is it fair to say though that these people, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re not very smart?

WILKINSON: I don’t know.

SHEFFIELD: Or is that my own bias talking? What do you think?

WILKINSON: It’s like, you know what I was saying that Trump is a certain kind of genius. It depends on what sends a smart you mean. Like clearly, if you’re trying to cultivate an audience, it’s smart. Because it’s easy. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, or whatever, it’s easy to get people to click.

What I think they have in common is sympathy for inegalitarian views about race and gender. That whole group of people seems to think it’s just exhausting and annoying that people won’t stop talking about police killing black people, identity politics, right? So sympathy with the idea that there’s nothing really valid in claims that nonwhite people and women haven’t achieved full equality in our society. And some of those people, there are people way on the left, who they think that the key to politics is making the working class coalesce.

And they just see identity politics as a huge political problem because a lot of the white working class people are racist. And if you keep telling them they’re racist, they’re not going to get together with the black working class, and you need the black working class and the white working class to congeal for workers and working class to have power. And so the left needs to shut up about the woke stuff. Because the woke stuff is just a way of dividing the working class.

And there’s something to that. And I think some of the people in the kind of vaguely like Glenn Greenwald’s kind of area can start with that kind of view and then end up getting pulled into the community and way more sympathetic with the nutty stuff than they otherwise would have been.

SHEFFIELD: Ultimately, American right-wing politics is entirely based on identity. Like everything about it is white Christian identity. That’s what it is. It’s just like this really interesting, fascinating kind of jujitsu act there, to take something, their own thing that they built, and then project that to other people. It’s just amazing.

WILKINSON: The form that Christian identity politics takes is just total umbrage at the idea that they’re involved in any sort of identity politics. Identity politics is bad, and that’s what everybody but us is doing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s essentially how it is. Yeah. And that’s been persuasive to a small number of white people basically. I don’t see a lot of women going that route, so it’s seems to be mostly men, there aren’t a lot of libertarian women out there either.

WILKINSON: No and here’s an identity politics observation, people just give more credence that if a certain view is almost wholly occupied by people of a certain identity, then that position is about that identity. You might not see it, you might be oblivious to it, but if it’s something that only white guys of a certain social class think, then that politics is about that identity. If you’ve got a politics that’s genuinely multicultural and multi-class, and all this stuff like that. It’s not about all those identities. Because they’re all coming together to do something together.

SHEFFIELD: That they agree on, yeah.

WILKINSON: But yeah, if you’ve got a movement that’s dominated by white Christians, then it’s about white Christian identity. There’s just not a way around it, but that’s exactly what all the bitching and screaming is about, is about not allowing– trying to make it so that it’s not a valid opinion to voice in public. I think that fundamentally anti-identity politics, anti-wokeness politics is a defensive measure to prevent clarity of thought about the monomaniacal focus of the right on its own identity politics.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. That’s a great point.

All right. Well, this has been a great discussion, and I hope everybody’s enjoyed it. So I’ve been talking with Will Wilkinson, he’s the publisher of Model Citizen. Model Citizen is a Substack newsletter. So be sure to subscribe to that. And then he is @WillWilkinson on Twitter. Thanks for being here today.

WILKINSON: Thanks so much, Matt. It was a pleasure as always.