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Eyes to the Right

By Luke Jensen-Jones & Srutokirti Basak

Blue painting of a man in a shirt and tie

Art by Harry Alexander

Exploring Conservatism with Know Your Enemy.


'Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are’. The words of the infamous German jurist Carl Schmitt are perhaps nowhere more applicable than in describing the thousands of listeners and subscribers to Know Your Enemy (KYE). A podcast about American conservatism hosted by self-described socialists Matthew Sitman and Samuel Adler-Bell, KYE has covered topics including the rise of the anti-abortion movement and the emergence of the ‘illiberal right’.

As pointed out by Nate Hochman, an emerging conservative pundit and ‘frenemy’ of the podcast, Sitman and Adler-Bell have likely ‘read more conservative political theory than most conservatives’. Yet, the success of KYE arguably says as much about its listeners on the left, and their renewed interest in understanding conservative thought, as it does about the figures on the right so brilliantly dissected by Sitman and Adler Bell.

Embodying the most pluralistic of left-wing impulses, the podcast demonstrates a clear commitment to ‘love thy enemy’ by getting to know them. As Adler-Bell points out, ‘there’s an enormous amount of liberal media that is dismissive and spiteful of our enemies, so I think it’s okay to have one thing that is not like that’. Indeed, the success of the podcast is perhaps indicative of a renewal of the self- critical tradition within the American left. As Adler-Bell’s oft-cited Brechtian saying goes, ‘it takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak’.

But, more than this, KYE is a testament to a politics of friendship. As Sitman tells us, he and Adler-Bell spent a considerable amount of time debating whether to name the podcast ‘Friends and Enemies’. Michael Oakeshott, an English philosopher beloved by Sitman, understood friendship to be the great conservative relationship because it had no purpose beyond the enjoyment of another person.

For Adler-Bell, ‘if Matt is excited about what I’m saying and I’m excited about what Matt is saying, then we know that it’s working’. For them, always, ‘the point is to have a good conversation’. This approach to podcasting, prioritising the freedom to explore interesting ideas over the need to win an argument, is encapsulated by Sitman’s explanation that, ultimately, ‘I just love to talk to Sam’.

KYE began as a response to the zeitgeist. With the emergence of Donald Trump as a major political figure in American politics, there arose a general interest in the history of American conservatism. Describing the podcast’s beginnings in 2019, Adler-Bell tells us ‘we were riding a wave of greater interest in conservatism’. For leftists in particular, it was a matter of urgency to understand how and why Trump found popularity amongst the American public. And, as the Republican Party began to fracture along pro and anti-Trump lines, an appreciation of the historic antecedents of modern conservative thought acquired direct political relevance.

According to Adler-Bell, ‘as a left-winger, you often encounter the stupidest versions of conservatism – conservatism as its most unsophisticated, unliterary’. This is where Sitman’s experience as an ex-conservative becomes crucial. Having grown up in a central Pennsylvania railroad town decimated by deindustrialisation, Sitman espoused what Patrick Buchanan termed, speaking at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a ‘conservatism of the heart’.

Later, in graduate school at Georgetown under the tutelage of scholars such as George W. Carey and Patrick Deneen, Sitman found his political foothold within the ‘academically oriented, self- consciously intellectual part of the movement’. In fact, what became difficult, especially in the Trump years, was reckoning with the reality that people he had once known and respected ‘degraded themselves, acted without integrity, and said things they know must simply be lies’. This notion of reckoning, of coming to terms with disagreement while committing to charitability towards political opponents, underpins much of the podcast.

Importantly, this charitable impulse is not derived from a ‘liberal fantasy of bipartisanship,’ but rather is informed by the podcast’s account of human nature. Sitman relates to us what he once told his students: ‘after a war, you bury the dead, but after an election, you have to live with your neighbours’. The aim is to sit with the existence of political disagreement within our societies, and work to clarify points of conflict, rather than seek to enforce political consensus.

Adler-Bell has a theory that ‘Matt’s Catholic theology is helpful in precisely the same way that my Freudian theology is’ in furthering such a project. Sitman clarifies, ‘there is a strange way they complement or resonate with each other,’ whether it be through the shared belief in human depths (the soul, for Catholics; the psyche, for Freudians), being subject to forces beyond the control of our wills, fundamental human inter-

dependencies, or even the intertwining of love and death in both modes of thought.

Thus, as ‘psychoanalysis is the rational science of the irrational’ for Adler-Bell, ‘religion is the irrational explanation of the rational’ for Sitman. These perspectives allow KYE to view the human condition as one of being ‘neither beasts, nor angels, but strangely mixed creatures’, with the intention of understanding ‘who we are as human beings and how we can live together’.

The podcast embarks upon this project to humanise their political opponents in full knowledge that conservatives do not exactly reciprocate the sentiment. According to Adler-Bell, ‘on the left, we have a vestigial commitment to pluralism because, even in our utopic dreams, we understand that these people are going to be around. Whereas for people on the right, they hope that their opponents will not be around – the sentiment is something like “I don’t want to understand these people. I kind of wish they were dead”’.

This utter disinterest and cynicism towards intellectualism manifests in ‘charlatans’ posing as right-wing intellectuals ‘who make up maps charting Cultural Marxism to show how it is connected by the writings of Martin Heidegger and Judith Butler’. The inability of conservatives to evaluate alternative modes of thought on their own merit, without the suspicion of catastrophes-in-waiting, explains why an equivalent KYE focused on the left from the perspective of the right is unlikely.

The right perceive any movement towards democracy, whether liberal or social, as an inevitable first step to Stalinism. On the other hand, the right perpetually fails to ask itself, to borrow the title of Dorothy Thompson's 1941 essay, ‘who goes Nazi?’ While Adler-Bell sees in the left ‘a great tradition of self-criticism’, he points out that as far as the right is concerned, ‘the mistake they fear making is to be too accommodating of their enemies’.

This unwillingness to accommodate competing systems of belief can hardly be said to have held conservatives back. Indeed, a core theme running through many of KYE’s episodes is the success of the movement in building and maintaining political, cultural, and intellectual institutions that run parallel to their traditional liberal counterparts. While the innately pluralistic left continues to aspire to a détente of

sorts with the liberal consensus, hoping to one day fill the ranks of elite institutions as university professors or New York Times journalists, the right are content to envisage themselves as what Adler-Bell terms an ‘insurgent rear-guard.’

Sitman goes further, characterising the right as being ‘good at building institutions in the same way that the United States is good at building bombs,’ capable of construction but only for what are ultimately destructive ends. Suspecting the right will be flattered by the comparison, Adler-Bell points out that conservatives ‘often talk about how the liberals went on a march through these institutions, and how they need to go on their own march through them’. ‘When I imagine that’, he continues, ‘I picture a cartoon of them marching through and blowing them up'. Indeed, much of the right’s current approach to policy can be traced to this impulse, to what Sitman describes as the urge to ‘go after the institutions they think are arrayed against them’.

Part of the justification for such an approach, says Adler-Bell, is that it’s simply an ‘effective strategy for movement building’. For young people growing up in the increasingly atomised digital age, ‘it feels good to be part of something,’ and if the choice is between being ‘one of 5000 other liberal historians at this university’ or ‘one of the 10 “dangerous thinkers” who are going to remake America, for a certain cast of mind, that’s just very appealing’. Read this way, the conservative understanding of power, in which ‘they are weak but they are strong, they’re on the outside but they are the elite’ no longer appears contradictory. ‘It’s exactly what allows them to cohere their ideology’.

Indeed, in an ironic twist for a movement which has failed to win a majority of voters under 30 in recent electoral history, Adler-Bell identifies a ‘cult of youth’ on the right. Conservatives, he says, are ‘very conscious of the necessity of youthful energy, optimism, and will, for their project. They are aware of the contradiction that they are trying to refound a world that only the old can remember, but the young must provide the verve and energy to build’. It is for this reason, Sitman and Adler-Bell say, that the right are so good at providing a pathway for young members to go from the activist fringe to the heart of the movement.

Sitman is equally keen, though, to point to theimportance of ‘vulgar Marxism’ – ‘it has to help that there's so much money floating around’. He goes on to explain that ‘the right is good at having connectors where people can make matches between ideas people, institutions, and money people...there’s no need to resort to conspiratorial thinking, it’s just people who have ideas and people who have money becoming connected and making people feel part of the movement, both historically and now’.

The question of where this leaves those on the left who might hope to replicate the right’s success at building such an ecosystem remains unanswered, unless – as Sitman joked – ‘either of you happen to know a lot of rich people?’ But while the riches of the right remain inaccessible, the conservative movement’s openness towards its young believers – to provide them with what Sitman terms a platform for ‘identity formation’ – is certainly a lesson that the left can adopt.

For Adler-Bell, the ability of the right to take what are often ‘inchoate, instinctive attachments and build an intellectual apparatus around them’ is a great strength of the movement. Indeed, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Democratic Party, having ‘somehow managed to strengthen their identity during the Trump years’, becoming ‘the party of responsibility’ in opposition to Trumpism, have fared better than their European counterparts, all of whom are experiencing ‘a real existential crisis and a seemingly permanent condition of declension’.

But beyond this, encouraging a leftism akin to the model set forth by KYE, one based in intellectual curiosity, pluralism and the joy of conversation, would simply be good for the soul. Returning to Oakeshott, Sitman explains the ultimate purpose of the podcast is in ‘the joy of the moment, the second, that you discover something or your friend makes that point that just opens up a new vista for you to understand something’. He leaves us with a line from Oakeshott’s essay The Voice of Poetry and the Conversation of Mankind: ‘Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat’.

LUKE JENSEN-JONES reads History at Merton. He is enthusiastic about his degree, but altogether less enthusiastic about the prospect of securing gainful employment afterwards.

SRUTOKIRTI BASAK reads for an MSt in Global and Imperial History. She has no desire for financial solvency given her ambition to become an academic.


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