An Interview with Richard Hanania

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An abandoned building in Kabol, Afghanistan crumbles. Richard Hanania is a political scientist that started writing about Afghanistan and the weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy and is currently the president of the Center for Study of Partisanship and Ideology. Photo by Suliman Sallehi from Pexels

Richard Hanania is a political scientist with interesting ideas. He started writing about Afghanistan and the weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in 2012, and his ideas, regardless of whether they are right, have never seemed more relevant than they are today. Hanania is president of the Center for Study of Partisanship and Ideology and has blogged about subjects ranging from the last minutes of a basketball game, to the “awokening” of society. My interview with him touches on a lot of his work. My questions are edited slightly for clarity. 

What do you find important or rewarding about your work? 

Things that I think are important or things that can influence the public discussion. It’s rewarding to see people who are important engage [with] and compliment the stuff I write, [and] it’s nice to have the freedom to write about what you’re interested in. Even in academia, people build their own research agenda, but have to fit it to scholarship or literature. I don’t have to do that. I write some op-eds and newspapers and stuff. There’s a freedom there.  

What specific topic do you like that you’ve covered most? 

American foreign policy — I’ve contributed a lot to it. I wrote about the war in Afghanistan. [President Joe] Biden ended the war in Afghanistan. I’ve had a lot of op-eds and a lot of appearances. The entire war was bad, and it could have been a lot worse. There’s been more and more skepticism about American foreign policy. I’ve been a part of it.  

In some ways, I’ve helped to mainstream the idea that every institution is liberal. I’ve got it into public discourse that the reason liberals dominate everything is because they care more about politics. Unlike elections that are close to 50-50, when it comes to who cares more, who captures institutions, the left has a real advantage in this country. Civil rights law is the ultimate source of wokeness. It’s an overlooked point that I wanted to develop further. There are policy solutions to this issue. It’s a cultural thing, not just a legal thing now. It was a path from legal developments to the culture and undoing the legal aspects may change culture again. 

You’ve argued that Trump does better by not apologizing. Is that strategy broadly able to work, or is it a fluke? What should politicians learn from this? Can, or should, media try to hold people accountable?  

Many people think the way it works is that you say something and there’s outrage. Apologizing is admitting something is wrong. This thing being said is not really that bad. Most things people are canceled for shouldn’t be seen as that bad. The issue is that being unapologetic meshes with Trump’s entire persona. You can’t take the non-apologizing thing about the persona. Trump wants to bang the table and signal that you’re with one tribe and not the other. The left demands an apology, yet solidifying the base won the election for him. People don’t care about norms and being unoffensive as much as the media and other elites do. 

Let me explain further. People are unsure of what to be outraged about. Most people don’t have a list of things they should or shouldn’t be offended by. Take dating or friendships, there are often double standards people apply because these things are instinctual. When you apologize you send a signal that you are a compassionate person. However, it can also come from a place of weakness. 

The media has a lot of problems. It’s clearly biased, it has a general affiliation with the left. Things they want to hold people accountable for are often very stupid. Things that people consider racist and sexist are very broad. In general, you want the media to tell us when people are lying. The media does a good job holding the left accountable for outrageous stuff. But most stuff they let slide. Right-wing media doesn’t work either. Republicans don’t hold themselves accountable either. 

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex to promote his “Build Back Better” agenda, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Kearny, N.J. Political Scientist Richard Hanania has contributed to the discussion about the Afghanistan war and how, according to Hanania, Joe Biden ended the war in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

You argue that “All institutions are liberal,” and that the reason is because progressives tend to be more active in politics than conservatives. Does this hold universally? You also talk about the feminization of society. I’ve noticed that a few other conservatives like Tyler Cowen have argued something akin to this. Tell me more about what this means. 

These things are linked. There’s a gender divide between men and women. There’s a lot of overlap, but men tend to be more conservative and vote more Republican than women. If you look at Whites and Hispanics, and male versus female, the 20-point voter gap is huge. 

A result of this feminization is we have less of an inclination to do a cost-benefit analysis. There’s more of an emphasis of being safe at any cost. Where men are more likely to think like an economist, and to consider the entire picture as opposed to minimizing one variable.  

There are other positive aspects to this as well, such as the decline of violence, war, torture and cruel treatment of prisoners.  

Why a 20-point gap? 

There’s more sorting [with the] identity politics on the left. Women tend to be more likely to be friendly to identity politics. Since the left is more friendly to identity politics such as the regionalization of politics. You’ve heard the phrase “as a woman” or “as a person of color.” Women are more likely to engage in terms of these identity-based politics.  

Another note on institutions: Women in academia are less likely to be married or have children, and in some ways that represents women, but not other ways. 

So, you think conservatives have no way of really getting an effective compromise? Is this because liberals win because they care about politics more? Can you explain your cardinal preference theory? You reference learned helplessness among conservatives. Tell me more about the causes and effects. 

Conservatives are more indifferent at the national level. They don’t want to compromise. They want to be seen as fighting the Democrats to the greatest extent possible. One side just takes politics more seriously. Ordinal versus cardinal theories is an interesting way of explaining preferences. 

Ordinal looks just at numbers, [and it] is close to 50-50. Pretty even, and it’s always pretty close. Cardinal preferences are how bad you want something to happen, [and] that’s what matters for capturing institutions. To pressure a corporation or the government, actions like writing a letter, protesting, etc. tend to be effective. 

On those measures, liberals are more caring about politics. More likely to cut people off, more likely to go into realms that are influential, like academia or journalism. More likely to donate money, protest, sign petitions. All these things measure cardinal preferences. Liberals just care more, even though [political] parties are pretty evenly matched.  

What about non-presidential years? 

That’s not universally true. It wasn’t true of Trump’s first term, not true in 2018. During the Obama administration, [the] party out of power does better in off-year elections. Voting is not something that takes that much effort. There are still hundreds of millions of people going to vote in the midterm elections. Voting isn’t that huge a matter of election preferences, not something that involves dedicating life to it. Even if it’s true, Republicans do better in an election. Parties’ composition has changed. More educated people vote in midterm elections. Republicans used to do better among white, college-educated [voters]. More have moved towards the Democratic camp. Midterms are probably, to a lesser extent, going to turn out in favor of the Republicans. 

Former President Donald Trump speaks at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. Richard Hanania, a political scientist, argues that Trump does better by not apologizing and says that apologizing is admitting that something is wrong. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

If that’s the case, wouldn’t making it harder to vote help Democrats? 

This is where it seems to get complicated. Democrats are bimodal, split into the most dedicated and least dedicated about politics. Republicans are more in-between. This is consistent with the idea that liberals care more. The people that really matter are activists and journalists, because not many people dedicate themselves to politics, or provide much support.  

Freedom House: You argue that a bunch of NGOs are run by American officials and the U.S. government. What’s the alternative? Why isn’t there more scrutiny about Sweden, Norway, etc.? Does this create fake legitimacy for the government? Tell me how alternative institutions may be built. 

What’s the need for an alternative? We can read the newspaper and learn about the systems. To give everyone a point and have 32s or a 17s or a 46s … There’s not really a good reason to do that. It’s just a justification for American foreign policy. I don’t think what Freedom House is doing is good. There can be groups that focus on human rights, but, going around the world and ranking people is a waste of time. 

Neocons [neoconservatives] are pretty liberal on these things. They can get perfect scores, but Nordic countries are most democratic because liberals like them the most. Meanwhile, the U.S. and disinformation on the Internet makes it not a real democracy. No matter how you slice the data, it is going to be biased. 

People are skeptical when they want to be skeptical. Then they say there’s a new threat over China, and people buy it. The military establishment still has a lot of credibility but has lost much of it over time. People don’t take the generals as seriously, but they still have some [credibility] left. 

If you don’t like current institutions like [the] media or academia, there are policy suggestions that can push the needle in a better direction. For instance, anti-discrimination laws go over the top, and infringe on what can be said and association. School choice, if you can transfer money away from education system into parents’ hands, that would be a great thing. Legislators do this at the state level, but a lot more can be done here. 

I think there’s room for some better media sources, things that are not necessarily partisan. Krystal [and] Saagar’s Breaking Point is a good example. There is space for that. People need to be entrepreneurial. In my short career as a public intellectual, I try to give people something different. I’m not pandering to an ideology; a lot of people want smart ideological people to agree with them. My niche is to think more about possibilities. 

You argue that wokeness is government policy. Can you explain more? Why is harassment law, and other court doctrine misguided? How much of a threat is government action to free expression?  

The Civil Rights Act says don’t discriminate on race and sex. It doesn’t explain what it means. Through the courts and the bureaucracy, the definitions become expanded. Not discriminating now requires affirmative action and discriminating against [White people] and men on behalf of women and minorities. Now, it emphasizes disparate impact, usually referring to [Black people] or some other race, or women.  

Since people can be sued for having a disparate impact, it has created a chilling effect. Human resources is an industry that arose after the Civil Rights Act from the innovations in civil rights law. This changed the culture. Wokeness is the implications of government policies. 

Another example is the banning of tests that may have disparate impact. Governments explicitly ask that you have an affirmative action program, and it does not take into account data that could be racially biased. This has led to a lack of diversity in institutions. 

Government has been there for 55 years putting their thumb on a scale. I think it’s mostly through civil rights law, which is indirect. 

Cases in Internet censorship are more direct. Democratic politicians go to Big Tech [and] ask to kick right-wingers off. There are some anti-BDS laws in certain states.  

I don’t think direct government action is the main threat to speech in the U.S. Much of the pressure is indirectly from the government because of the education system. Government funds universities and puts thumb on scale through civil rights law.  

A Health Department worker fills a syringe with Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before administering it at the Chester County Government Services Center in West Chester, Pa. Richard Hanania argues that “COVID is the new TSA,” saying that COVID is making life unpleasant with not that many “terrorists” out there. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

You’ve recently written in detail about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Can you tell me what you would want a lay person to know?  

Know that we failed in the most miserable way a country can fail. We spent 20 years there and trillions of dollars. We couldn’t build an army that could last through the time we were withdrawing. The government was fake and didn’t control anything. People’s lives didn’t get better. [There were] tons of human rights violations, drone strikes and bombings. Nobody really understood the mission, and it drifted forever. Generals and some think-tankers and some establishment said to stay in there or lose our gains. Defenses of war became incoherent. American foreign policy is like this, we don’t know what they were doing. 

Following up on that, you recently wrote an article for the New York Times where you argued that we rely on “experts” far too much. What can be done about it? Are future markets really able to solve the problem? 

Future markets are better than the alternative. When there’s an incentive to get things right, people are more likely to get things right. The alternative is no incentives at all. People don’t remember a month later if it happened or not. Expertise based on referencing itself, the idea that expertise is based on a community of fellow experts. This is circular. When you’re in, you’re taken seriously. We need something better in the hard sciences. Better metrics. Did you make a profit, did you invent something, can you really do something? Reading some random pundit on Twitter has no accountability mechanism to find some way to fix that. Why would we expect things to get better otherwise? 

Would these future markets fall to the same fate as the one-handed economists? 

If people try to rig them. If you added mechanisms to keep track, or to keep transparent who gets right and wrong. There will be corrections like in a normal economic market. Punditry can do this too. Prediction markets overestimate the extreme circumstances. Extreme things don’t happen more often than not. I think that this is a problem with everything, but prediction markets are better than anything else.  

Tell me about your opinion on COVID. Explain what you mean by, “COVID is the new TSA.” 

You have this vaccine. The vaccine solves the problem. The odds of death or hospitalization are basically zero. You have to move on with your life at some point. People should get vaccinated and move on with their lives. The TSA basically makes you take off your shoes. They don’t work, and people are able to get stuff past them. There are not many terrorists out there. As a result, the TSA is just making air travel unpleasant and take forever. Similarly, if this is like COVID, we may need to wear masks for the rest of our lives. It’s a tragedy that we don’t let people move on. Anything beyond that is hysteria.  

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