Like many people, I watch a lot of YouTube clips. I find it a convenient way to familiarize myself with a variety of different perspectives. Unlike many people, I make it a point to watch clips that reflect points of view that I emphatically do not share. I am a moderate by both conviction and temperament, but I end up viewing a lot of clips that represent extremist viewpoints.
Two of the more extreme sources whose clips I view regularly are The Young Turks (TYT) and Ben Shapiro. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with them, TYT is an on-line network that unapologetically defines itself as progressive, aggressively representing the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Shapiro, who does a daily podcast and is also an author and lecturer, is an ardent libertarian conservative.
I sometimes joke that the best way to determine the correct position on any issue is to add Shapiro and TYT together and divide by two. Obviously, I don’t mean this literally; I judge each issue on its own merits, and I share some views of each. I share with Shapiro a religious outlook and commitment as a halakhically observant Jew. TYT’s prominent figures are not only atheists but frequently mock religious people. On foreign policy — and especially when it comes to the well-being of Israel — my views are also closer to (though not identical with) Shapiro’s. TYT, though it pretends otherwise, has a decided isolationist tilt and is emphatically anti-Israel. When it comes to domestic policy issues — especially when it comes to economic policy — however, I am far closer to TYT. I find nothing appealing about Shapiro’s libertarianism, which I regard as institutionalized selfishness.
Though they occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Shapiro and TYT are actually more alike than either would care to admit. Listening to a clip from either of them is the surest way to get me to agree with the perspective of the other. Viewing these clips, I’m often tempted to yell at the computer screen — which, in a sense, is what I’m doing through this blogpost.
The similarities between TYT and Shapiro are striking. Both are perpetually angry, and both regard ideological adversaries as enemies. Neither makes any attempt to understand the perspective of anyone who disagrees with them, and both display contempt for members of their own party whom they judge to be insufficiently pure ideologically. Moreover, they share a deep contempt for the mainstream media, whom both regard as hopelessly biased against them. (It seems to me that the fact that both Shapiro and TYT regard the mainstream media as biased suggests that they are actually fairly evenhanded.)
Both TYT and Shapiro, moreover, overestimate the importance of policy issues to voters. Both profess incomprehension as to why many voters take personality into account in their voting decisions. Both allow partisanship to blind them to other perspectives, but there is a critical difference between them. Shapiro, though he occasionally displays streaks of independence, is loyal to the Republican party, even in the Trump era, but TYT’s loyalty is not to the Democratic Party (whose leadership it dismisses as “corporatist Democrats”) but solely to the party’s progressive wing. Even during the recent general election, TYT, though it unquestionably favored Biden over Trump, could not resist taking potshots at Biden and other mainstream Democratic leaders. It constantly reminded listeners that it would oppose Biden’s agenda once Trump was defeated. Shapiro, by contrast, though he acknowledged that some of Trump’s tweets were untrue, and though he differed from Trump on a few issues, he remained loyal to Trump without regard to Trump’s rampant corruption, and even his anti-democratic attempt to overturn the election after the fact.
TYT’s podcasts subsequent to the election illustrate their perspective, as Shapiro’s illustrate his. TYT was relieved at Biden’s victory (as was I) and virtually hysterical about Trump’s challenges to the result, which it persisted in calling a coup. Even when it became obvious that Trump would not succeed, it persisted in characterizing his actions as an existential threat to our democracy.
Shapiro, on the other hand, echoed the Republican party line that Trump was within his rights to mount legal challenges. He mocked those media outlets that were concerned about Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, not bothering to mention the numerous court actions that Trump kept losing or his outreach to State legislators to persuade them to ignore the will of the voters and appoint pro-Trump electors.
Both TYT and Shapiro have been unhappy with Biden’s cabinet picks so far. Both make essentially the same complaint — that the people selected by Biden are typical Washington establishment types, chosen for their competence rather than their ideology. Of course , they would disagree profoundly on whom they would like Biden to pick instead, but they both seem to agree that their differences in ideology are more important than qualifications and experience.
Neither one has a kind word to say about Biden’s emphasis on uniting Americans, which they regard as impossible — and even undesirable — given the real differences that have polarized the country. Neither has any interest in compromise. TYT considers Trump voters presumptively racist, while Shapiro parrots right-wing talking points, characterizing all Democrats as hard-core leftists.
They may be right that the ideological chasm between left and right is at this point too great to bridge, but neither TYT nor Shapiro acknowledge their own responsibility, and that of their ideological compatriots, for this state of affairs. I don’t mean their individual responsibility, for both are relatively minor players in the context of American politics as a whole. I am focusing on them as exemplars of the cadres that are activists for their respective ideologies. What neither seems to realize is that each brings out the most extreme views of the other and, by focusing on satisfying their “base”, alienate moderate voters. When TYT mocks religion or calls Pentagon leaders war criminals or warmongers, or claims that all Republicans are racists, they often drive even moderates to the other side of the spectrum. When Shapiro advocates the dismantling of the welfare state (including Social Security and Medicare) or defends police actions in the high-profile shootings of unarmed civilians, or condemns government measures to combat Covid-19, he only aids the progressive cause.
As a moderate, I applaud Biden’s call for unity, though I realize that in the current polarized state of our nation, it will be difficult to achieve. I recognize that the civic glue that holds this country together has been dangerously weakened over these last years. Although I believe that President Trump has greatly aggravated this divisiveness, he did not create it ex nihilo; he was to some extent a product of it.
As a Jew, I view this situation with a combination of gratitude and fear. I am grateful to this country, which welcomed my grandparents and millions of other Jews as immigrants, and gave them and their descendants opportunities unparalleled in the history of our exile. I am fearful lest the ideological extremism exemplified by TYT and Shapiro creates a barrier among us that ultimately makes the peaceful resolution of our differences all but impossible. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting uncomfortably close.
Whether President-elect Biden can make progress in healing the divisions remains to be seen. But I think he is sincere in seeking unity, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to make the attempt. As he prepares to become our country’s forty-sixth President, we should all be rooting for him to succeed. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.