OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts — edited for length and clarity — with notable figures in and around the tech industry.
Donald Trump is out of office, and now the U.S. political system is in for a reset. The Republican Party will decide whether it’s the party of those who objected to the election or those who did not. The Democratic Party, which controls the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, will have a chance to solidify its identity while grappling with its own divisions.
Marshall Kosloff and Saagar Enjeti, hosts of the podcast The Realignment, speak about the shifting state of U.S. politics on their hit show each week. And while they focus on political change, they spend a surprising amount of time focusing on technology, recognizing the industry’s power. The two joined this week’s Big Technology Podcast to discuss how they see the U.S. political system realigning after Trump and what that will mean for the tech industry.
Alex Kantrowitz: I love the name of your podcast, The Realignment. We’re certainly going through multiple realignments in tech, politics, and culture. What realignment are we going through in politics now?
Marshall Kosloff: The funny thing here is a lot of our listeners, especially when we started in July 2019, thought a realignment meant populism is rising. It means Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are going to duke it out for the future of American politics, and that big vision is going to determine everything, but we saw the literal exact opposite happen. You saw Joe Biden win in a very crowded field, you saw him really dominate in a way that people didn’t see, and you saw him then win the presidency. People look at that fact and think that it means the realignment thesis was incorrect, but the key to look at it — and Saagar will expand on this — is how did Joe Biden win? Joe Biden won by winning more and more suburban voters. Joe Biden won by education. Joe Biden won by the fact that if you have a graduate degree, you are more likely than ever to vote for the Democratic Party. That is a fundamentally different Democratic Party than the Democratic Party of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan actually won college-educated voters, something that no one could imagine today.
Saagar Enjeti: The really important thing to hear, to understand about The Realignment — also, I love the name of the show — is that it’s value-neutral. In the beginning, in 2019, maybe when we started the show, I think it was a reasonable supposition to say populism is rising on the left and right. Now that Joe Biden has won the presidency with 80 million, a record number of votes in U.S. history, it’s also reasonable to say there was a realignment. So what happened? Which is that the theory of the case that Biden and them put forward, the Democrats, was that we are going to win back white working-class voters into the fold. That’s why we’re going to nominate Joe Biden from Scranton. He’s going to win those guys back, and we’re going to take the presidency, and that’s just simply not what happened. What actually happened — well, it happened a bit on the margins, but it wasn’t the determinative factor.
The determinative factor was suburban, college-educated whites were largely the people who flee to the Republican Party and voted for Joe Biden at the top of the ticket. This is the most, I think, the most fascinating part of this dynamic is Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in the House lost every single toss-up race. She has one of the narrowest margins, I think, since the 1800s in terms of a House majority. And Republicans kept Maine; they kept North Carolina. They blew it out in places like South Carolina. I can’t even remember all the races which were supposed to flip and just which didn’t.
So you have this constituency, which was willing to vote for Joseph R. Biden, not willing to vote for Democrats down-ticket. The ultimate battle of American politics right now is what are those people going to do in a Biden era? Are they going to be satisfied by Joe Biden putting forward just a vaccine, coronavirus relief, that type of stuff? Are cultural issues going to maybe push them back into the fold of the Republican Party? That’s the real question, and it’s one that we’ve been talking a lot about on the show recently.
During the Biden inauguration, I was thinking of all those people that voted for Donald Trump. They voted to break the system, and Biden was the vice president. So they voted to break Joe Biden’s system. I wonder what happens to those folks. There hasn’t been much of a discussion about it because the riot in the Capitol seemed to have been a conversation ender for many, but the issue doesn’t go away. What happens there, and how do the parties now vie for these voters’ affinity?
Kosloff: You’re getting to a huge debate that Saagar and I actually have a lot on the show, which is what did 2016 mean? I’m not quite sure it’s true that there was this great majority of people who were voting to overthrow the neoliberal, post-Cold War order in 2016. Because if that were true, I don’t think you would see a resounding Joe Biden victory. I think you had a lot of people who did not like the political system. We’ve consistently seen since the 1980s, people switch from Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton back to George W. Bush then to Barack Obama. So there’s this percentage of the country that is dissatisfied with both ends of the political class, and they are always up for grabs.
So in 2016, it happened to be that the Democrats nominated someone who represented the exact set of the establishment that that group of people wouldn’t want to support, and Trump was the person to throw up there, but let’s not forget, he did not win by a crazy-high number of votes. That also justifies why in 2020, you saw many people in that swing either stay with Trump or go back to Joe Biden. So it’s a complicated picture.
Enjeti: If you’d asked me before the 2020 election, I would’ve said this was a lot more about trade and a lot more about immigration. It was a lot more about a policy case, and that’s just not true. I’m man enough to admit it. I was wrong. What it is, is it’s a cultural and affectional backlash against the “system.” It is largely grievance, which is directed not necessarily to any one thing but at, like, stature in life, at the sense that the country is changing, at the sense that they don’t recognize where people grew up, etc. That’s why I think that you had a situation where Trump could abandon basically all of the stuff that he ran for a policy consensus and still win 75 million votes — 10 million more votes than he won last time around and increased margins within minority communities despite a lot of the stuff that we heard in the media.
The problem, though, is that he in many ways poisoned the well of his own even “success,” despite the fact that he failed pretty miserably as president, in order to do much of what he wanted to do, which is that the Stop the Steal phenomenon and the QAnon and the empowering of that narrative within a decent segment of the Republican Party, about 68% as far as we know, right now has led to something which I believe is irreconcilable.
So, I believe that you have about 15–20% of the Republican Party, people like Liz Cheney and people like Mitt Romney and others who are just like, “No, we’re done with Trump. We want to impeach. We’re totally against this,” etc. But that’s not a sizeable portion. Let’s not kid ourselves. But that wing can no longer live with the QAnon, Stop the Steal wing. You see this now with primary challenges being lobbied against Liz Cheney. So I actually believe that Trump, in the way that he handles defeat, actually sewed the destruction of the modern Republican Party, and the only way that I could be wrong about this is if the Democrats or Biden in particular does something which can unite the entire right.
Because that’s the thing is that all parties are coalitions. In many ways, the left was united under the hatred of Trump, and it changed their coalition dramatically. The right was always reunited for the last 12 years. Let’s be honest; they hated Obama. That’s what the Tea Party and all of that was all about. Under Trump, it was loving Trump because he pissed off the people who loved Obama. Okay, but Biden is not Obama. He’s not the same culture warrior. He’s a much more, affectionally moderate guy. So the question is, with that gone, the boogeyman so to speak, what are they going to do? Look, don’t underestimate the ability of many Democrats to screw that up. It’s very possible. I just think it’s much less likely in the next couple of years.
That was my second thought about Biden when he was inaugurated. I wondered if he was potentially that moderate who could just go out and speak to economic issues, which to me, I think there’s room for a party to come in and talk to the people who care most about the economy and the money they make and providing for their family and potentially can solidify a pretty large coalition around a commonsense message about that that speaks to everyone. So do you think Biden has an opportunity to do that, or do you think that’s even possible in America today, or am I a little bit fanciful and thinking that’s a possibility?
Kosloff: I don’t think it’s crazy. Something Saagar and I have spoken a lot about is the focus that Joe Biden needs to bring to the presidency. So if his focus is vaccines, checks, a stimulus package, some form of competence, there is a majority in favor of that. Now that being said, it gets difficult to talk about common sense when it comes to the economy because as we get closer and closer into the nitty-gritty of the big issues, it becomes less true. So for example, if you were to talk a lot of people in our audience who are on the Democratic socialist left, they’d say what’s common sense is student loan forgiveness. Well, there’s a whole portion of the country who didn’t go to college or has already paid their debt already who doesn’t think that’s common sense.
So I think the closer and closer we look at the econ issues, the less we’re going to see that there’s any form of consensus, but on the big ones, aka, the desire to eventually reopen the economy safely, but that’s how you get the vaccine. The desire to actually have competence, which is something that everyone really underrated, an idea we’re really obsessed with is the idea of state capacity as mattering. People can see the fact that war on China is opening up again with the rave. I’m sure you saw that on Twitter. It was a really depressing thing to see, and they want that. … I don’t think there’s a broader opportunity there.
Enjeti: It breaks down whenever you look at some stuff, but on the top-line level, there are universal options which cut through. I believe that the way out of the cultural war, and I believe the culture war rules our politics today, is great policy, which is in the 75th or 80th percentile of support.
So, what’s something I mean by that? Put a vaccine in my parents’ arm. That’s something that happened in Texas before it happened in other places. Gov. Greg Abbott — I have a lot of disagreements with the guy. Honestly, I am going to be looking at him very differently for the rest of my life because of this one decision. Materially impacted me and my family. That’s how a lot of people think. A lot has been written about the Latino support for Trump in South Texas, my own home state, and look, go read the articles. They asked them; they said, “Why did you vote for Trump?” It’s not they were Hillary voters and then Trump voters. It’s that they were not voters and then they came out huge numbers for Trump relative to the previous election.
What happened? They were like, “Look, I got a check with the man’s name on it, and that meant a lot to me and my family.” That’s the type of thing which can cut through so much. It can cut through immigration. It can cut through abortion. It can cut through guns. Nothing really in America cuts through that stuff except for when you’re down and out, like right now, what helps you? Money in your bank, a vaccine in your arm. This is why I think Biden has the opportunity to be the most popular president of my lifetime, excepting George W. Bush post-9/11.
As in like not in a rally-around-the-flag moment. He inherited this divisive crisis. If he can actually do 100 million vaccines in 100 days and pass $2,000 checks, which you get with Biden’s name on it, I think he will be dramatically popular, and I think if I was him, that’s what I would be doing all day long is focusing on that goal.
Saagar, you also mentioned that you think the Republican Party is going to break. I think we should focus on that for a minute, and this all matters in terms of the direction that the technology industry is going. We are called the Big Technology Podcast, but right now, technology and politics are pretty interlinked, and we’ll get to that soon, but I’m curious what you think is going to happen if the party breaks? And just kind of a follow-up, do you think Trumpism is diminished in any way? Now that it’s sort of ended with the riot at the Capitol, which some people must’ve supported, but I’d imagine a large number didn’t.
The storm never came for QAnon, and he talked about for months how the election was rigged and stolen, and it was proven not to be the case, and he had to walk out of the White House. So I just want to toss that all over to you, and then Marshall, you can refund it afterwards, but I’m curious what you think there.
Enjeti: It’s a great question, Alex, and yes, I do think the party is — I’m not saying that it’s immediately going to go the way of the Whigs, but I’m saying that directionally and functionally, that’s essentially what matters, and the reason — okay let’s talk about tech — which is the reason why it matters for tech, which is that we had a guest on our podcast recently named Michael Lind, and he made a very profound point, which I think all conservatives need to reckon with, which is that the only debate in America which matters today is the debate between the center left and the progressive left, aka, like what the intro Democratic coalition says.
This is obvious for a variety of examples. Marshall has a great point about pouring up, which I’ll let him expand on, which really does make the point. Before we get to that, the reason why I think that it “all matters” is because if you’re trying to understand where political pressure and elsewhere is going to come to bear, the right is not fundamentally serious about governing.
They might win elections in the future. It’s very possible. Look, some culture war issue is going to come up and the Fox effect, and all that is going to ramp up, and they might win control of the Senate. They might win control of the House, and they might even win the presidency again. It’s very possible with the current coalition, but under that circumstance, there is no animating policy force behind it.
You saw this in a tech perspective throughout the entirety of Trump’s presidency, which was, oh, we’re off that Gateway Pundit got banned from Twitter. So let’s go after Section 230, and you’re like, “You don’t want to go after Section 230. You just want to punish your enemies.” This has nothing to do actually with the policy or with anything, and at the end of the day, what happened?
They were like, “Oh, well, China’s infiltrating our markets and TikTok and all that.” All true. 100%. I was for the TikTok ban, but guess what? On the day that Joe Biden was inaugurated president, TikTok’s still available on the Apple iPhone because the Trump administration is incompetent. I think that that is just a feature, not a book, of Trump the presidency. I think it is a feature of the entire Republican Party, which is unserious about governance.
So what happens to the Republican Party then?
Enjeti: What happens to the Republican Party? Look, they will find a way in order to remain coalesced. Right now everybody’s coalesced around Biden’s illegal immigration orders that just came forward in terms of the legislation that he’s passing. They’ll say it’s like, he campaigned on unity and this is something he’s passing. So like I said, they will still win some elections, but I think that if Biden governs the way that I think he’s going to win, they will become rulers of an increasingly small kingdom. I went on Megyn Kelly’s podcast recently. She was like, “Is Trump going to be the kingmaker?” I’m like, “Yeah, he’s going to be the kingmaker of a tiny kingdom,” which is that he’ll have about 39% of the American population.
In deep red, Georgia and primary system, which is low-turnout and which is base-driven anyway, you’re going to have the incentive in order to go along with Trump and Stop the Steal. I believe that Stop the Steal is now the litmus test for the modern Republican candidate, but the problem, as you find out in Georgia, is you can do that. You can get the Trump people behind you, but you’re not going to win a statewide election. So I think that that is the modern trajectory of the party, an increasingly shrinking minority party oriented around grievance, but don’t underestimate the power of grievance. It can actually be very powerful in the future.
Some of the former centrists and Republicans then go over to the Democrats.
Enjeti: Yes. Which is already basically what happened.
Kosloff: And that’s the realignment. That’s the point. The realignment is former country club Republicans no longer vote because it’s not the party of George H.W. Bush anymore. They vote along with their other college- and graduate-school-educated peers for the Democratic Party, which is a huge problem if you are on the Bernie left because your whole underlying theory no longer makes any sense. But I want to pick up first with the “what happens with the Republican Party” point, which is the Republican Party is going to continue to win elections.
Trump won more votes than he won last time. Trump himself is not repudiated in the party. What is done, however, is the Republican Party, largely as a governing force, is capable of implementing its vision for the world. So let’s take Section 230, something Saagar talked about. The Democratic Party is capable of passing legislation — having a comprehensive approach to Section 230 but one all of the different wings of the party will largely legally agree with.
Sen. Ron Wyden from my home state of Oregon and Bernie centers will probably fundamentally agree on Section 230 reform, which places more impetus on tech companies to moderate their platforms more severely. At the same time though, when Republicans were in power, it is just not true that there ever was a comprehensive conception of what moderation of Section 230 or anything of the like would actually look like. There was just a lot of misinformation about platforms and publishers and a lot of fake Kabuki theater hearings that were more about getting points for the base back home than actually implementing change.
That’s the culture war dynamic. On a broader level, I want to bring up the Pornhub example that for years, you’ve seen socially conservative politicians, socially conservative organizations, etc., bemoan Pornhub and its various and in many ways really terrible behaviors around minors on the platform, safety, etc. There were activists on the left and on the right who worked on this issue. However, all of that activism and talk by conservative organizations and by conservative politicians led to nothing.
It’s not the threat of hearings that causes change. It’s not the threat of picketing that causes change. What it actually is though, is Nick Kristof writing in the New York Times, “Wait, Pornhub is really bad.” It gets MasterCard, Visa, etc., to kick it off the actual payment platform within five days. So that is the dynamic that the right is fundamentally going to struggle with, and frankly, it’s why if I were at a tech company, I would not fear conservative tech backlash in any way whatsoever because, frankly, the conservative movement right now doesn’t have any ability to wield the actual societal influence required to actually affect change and those functions.
It used to be, at the start of the Trump presidency, that tech companies were concerned about the hearings. They were concerned about Trump’s tweets. What cruelly emerged is that they discovered that if they ticked off Trump, yes, there’d be a White House social media summit, but a bunch of right-wing grifters who no one cares about would show up and then nothing would actually happen. So that’s the underlying dynamic here.
You guys tend to have more conservative beliefs. So how do you feel about what’s happening to conservative politics now?
Enjeti: You have to be honest about your ability to influence discussion about how much power you actually have in your society, about where it lies, and if you want to effectuate change, work with the people who have the power to effectuate that change. This is something that I pointed out, and people were very angry with me. There’s a lot of social conservatives who make a lot of money conning their supporters in their email lists and others being like, “We’re sticking it to porn.”
I was like, “No, you’re not.” That’s the truth. Nick Kristof is the one who stuck it to Pornhub. All he did really was aggregate the work that they’ve been pointing out for 10 years, but the point is you don’t matter. So you should ask that question. “Why don’t I matter? Should I keep giving money to the same organizations which tell me that they’re making a difference when they’re not?” So the way I look at it is yes, I can believe whatever I want, but what I actually care about is getting something done. And that’s just not something that the right is interested in right now.
Kosloff: And you’re getting to my desire just to reject the label of conservative because in many ways, it’s something that you’ll — look, half of what I say on the podcast, and I was pretty consistently pro Joe Biden because guess what? Joe Biden is doing the things that I really support. So, for example, the last act of Secretary [Mike] Pompeo, who we’ve had on the podcast, was saying that what’s happening in Western China is genocide, and guess what? Tony Blinken, the secretary of state designate said, “I support that too.” So great. Joe Biden did that. That’s really great.
The thing that’s most boring about media, and we’ve talked about this when you came on our podcast before about the dynamics around newsletters and podcasts, is you’re incentivized to promote these fake narratives because your niche audience is interested in it, and look, the real talk thing is that guess what?
On a lot of the issues that I care about, Joe Biden is doing a pretty good job, and guess what if he does a bad job, if he — no offense to Bob Iger — nominates Bob Iger to be ambassador to China, I’ll call him out for it. I mean, not that that would change his mind, but I’ll call him out. But if he doesn’t do that, and Tony Blinken actually makes a decision that puts Disney in a difficult position, especially considering where Mulan was filmed, I would say, “Good job, Joe Biden.”
If you’re actually going to do what the three of us are trying to do, which is provide analysis, we basically have to drop the idea that our fundamental job is to be conservative or be progressive or be liberal in this media environment. Our job is to tell people what the truth is. Our job, because Saagar has a lot of credibility with Rising, is to actually have a conservative audience and tell them the truth. If they get ticked off about that, they get ticked off.
Enjeti: Let me give you an example, which is the child tax credit. That’s a policy that I deeply support. A lot of people who are on the right, conservative kind of reformers have been pushing that for over a decade. Well, guess who just proposed the biggest child tax credit expansion in our history? Joe Biden, as part of his Covid relief plan. It would be foolish for me to be like, “Oh, this is terrible because Biden is doing it.”
No, that’s insane. This is a policy that I support, and I’m glad to see him do it, and if he didn’t do it, then I’d be upset about it for it. So this is, again, to the point of realignments, which is that an easy way for politicians and for political coalitions and others to move is to adopt and change their policy. I’m not going to say that it’s going to win over everybody, but it can change on the margins, and the margins are what won Joe Biden the presidency, and they’re also what lost Donald Trump the presidency.
The margins are what lost Kelly Loeffler and David Purdue their Senate seats. We’re talking about a few 10,000 votes here. That’s when it starts to matter, and that’s why I urge — when I say my biggest critique of the right has always been they don’t actually care about policy, it’s mostly about cultural grievance.
I think almost everyone in Silicon Valley would probably understand what I’m talking about there because at what point has anyone ever proposed a comprehensive moderation standard? It’s all just like, “My friend got banned from Twitter,” and if that’s as close as you’re going to get, then you suck. You fail, and they should laugh at you. They should not care what you think because you’re not going to do anything. If I’m Mark Zuckerberg and them, I’m scared of Amy Klobuchar and of these other people who are running the government. They actually will come after you. I understand why they’re doing many of the things that they do, but on the right, that’s just not a serious thing that’s going to happen, and we just have four years of evidence to show you that that’s not true.
What I like about you guys is that you actually attack stuff from a reality-based position. Why do you think there’s so little of that now? Do we blame social media? What’s going on in our politics where these types of discussions are so rare?
Kosloff: Two things are to blame here. Number one would just be polarization as a whole, as a phenomenon. The more and more every political question comes down to “Do you have a college degree or do you not?” you as a politician are more incentivized to deliver to your audience that exists on either end of that spectrum. So that’s the number one issue. So at the same time, social media is under that in the sense that social media makes it easier and easier and easier for you to identify and target the audience that you have, but at the same time, I really object to, look, we’ve dunked on the right a bit. I’m going to dunk on the left a bit.
I am not happy when people on the left act as if social media just creates things as a whole. Oh, if it wasn’t for the Twitter social algorithm or it wasn’t for Facebook, we would be kumbaya, and it’s all on Mark Zuckerberg.
No, the reality is that the Twitter algorithm amplifies dynamics that already exist in our country. The reality around college education, the idea that our country is polarizing more around class and education instead of race, that actually means something. It’s not Facebook’s fault that in a state like California, where you’re living right now, the state actually did not pass an affirmative action bill despite a strongly blue state. That’s the underlying dynamic there, but here’s what I do think is to blame for the lack of truth-telling in media right now, which is the internet.
So that’s a little different from critiquing social media because the internet and the models of what we’re doing, like, think of your substack. Like, you’re not monetizing it now with a subscription, but the easiest way for you to monetize with a subscription would be to say, “Look, I’ve got, let’s say, my 10,000 readers. I need 1,000 of them to pay me $10 a month.” What you would obviously do is deliver niche-specific content to that audience that would make it so that you do not have to speak to an actual middle.
It would be very hard for Saagar and I to monetize or build the podcast by doing the balls-and-strike position. So it requires a bit of strength on our part not to do that, and it’s very distressing to see people both on the left and the right give very poor analysis. It’s basically structured on this short-term “we just want to look really great.” But you know what I would say at the same time, though, is that’s also where there’s a lot of opportunity and why I think I’m excited for all three of us to build our platforms because it’s a short-term, value-destroying decision to just serve everyone their clicks.
It is a bad decision for you to be one of these people who is a “former leftist,” who goes on social media, becomes very pro-Trump, and then all of a sudden starts supporting Stop the Steal. Guess what you’ve done to your audience in three years? They’re going to wake up and realize you’re a liar. The same way that the people — I’m sure you all have seen that QAnon forum on Reddit where it’s all the people who are hyperventilating over discovering that QAnon is fake and the people who lied to them. I’m sure they got a huge, huge boost and got all this grifting money in 2019, but now they’re totally done, and that’s the dynamic.
Enjeti: I believe in karma whenever it comes to these things. It would be easy in the short term to lie to people and say, look, it’s the easiest thing in the world in order to make money on the right and be like, “The left sucks. Look at the left, blah, blah, blah.” It’s so boring.
Marshall and I could make oceans of money — or could have two years ago — being like, “He’s black and I’m Indian, and here’s why we support Trump.” Literally, we’re looking at a Patreon in the high six figures with a bunch of boomers in the Midwest who are like, “By donating $10 to this, I feel like I’m not racist.” Look, that is all very easy to do, but, look, we’re on a tech podcast. You want to build a podcast or a show or media which can survive as a business throughout the ages.
That’s not something that you can do. Look at actually successful media companies which have survived turmoil within business and payments because I think we all know — I’m not going to say subscription fatigue is a thing. I don’t necessarily think that that is true, but at some point, something’s going to get figured out here. The second thing is that look at like the New York Times, Fox, MSNBC, and others. Easy to dunk on all four and CNN. It’s easy to dunk on all four. They’re also tremendously successful today.
Even with the ratings going lower, they’re actually making more money than ever on cable. So they figured out a way in order to keep their medium survivable throughout this. And every single time when it comes down to it — I really believe this in terms of niche audiences — is when you lie, you will pay a price.
Look at Fox right now. They’re number three in the ratings because they indulged Stop the Steal, but then they weren’t willing to go all-in, and now they’re screwed. They literally have no idea what to do. They’re like firing half of their staff. MSNBC had the same problem. Rachel Maddow lost 500,000 viewers in a single night after the Mueller report came out because people were all like, “Oh wait, she’s just been feeding us complete lies about Russiagate.” This always happens. I think the same thing is going to happen for a lot of — let’s just say it — I think a lot of these former leftists on YouTube, I hope the traffic was good, and I hope you’re saving because I’m from Texas. We’re very familiar with the oil workers. In the boom times, they save a lot of money because sometimes in Midland, you ain’t working for two or three years until the price comes back, and that’s exactly what I think this is happening.
It’s like a boom-bust cycle of grifting. So I think that if you want to build a steady environment, yes, will we lose some people on the margins? 100% guarantee you it’s already happened. People get mad at me all the time, but this is one of the things I love about my other show, Rising, which is that, when you’re truly right and left, and I mean that in terms of the makeup of the audience, you can piss off half every day. One half, they’re pissed. It’s okay. The other half is cool with it. You piss off the other half that this one’s cool with it, and by and large, there will be a core group of people who say, “You know what? I like that they call it. Sometimes I don’t agree, but I’m going to keep watching.”
I think that that is the core value proposition basically of our show whenever it comes to bigger analysis that we do and the work that we do over there. I think success on both platforms probably bears that out in terms of a business decision to keep going.
We started this discussion talking about how populism didn’t take off as expected. What happened?
Kosloff: This really comes back to where we started the conversation, which is what did Donald Trump’s election mean in 2016? The thing I think of when I saw Donald Trump’s election was, wow, Donald Trump — this seems so silly to say, but racism aside — had some very interesting things to say when it came to the primary campaign.
He campaigned against the Iraq War, exposed the fact that a huge portion of the Republican Party’s base now that they were out of the post-9/11 era had no interest in the neoconservative democracy, promoting the vision of the Bush years. Two, he campaigned on not cutting social security, which was another huge thing that was very important during the Bush years. During his looser moments, he said things like, “Yeah, I’m actually totally fine raising taxes on the rich. They don’t vote for Republicans anyways.” That’s an underlying dynamic too.
So you look at that, and you think about it purely intellectually, and you’re thinking, holy crap, he could actually affect a complete realignment of American politics because that version of good Trump who said things like, “Let’s just do popular things. Not the war in Iraq, not cutting entitlement programs that pretty much everyone likes, expanding Medicaid in the States.” That’s a Republican Party that could actually win elections because the key thing about the pre-Trump party is Republicans lost the popular vote and, at that point, seven out of the last eight elections. So, you have a huge problem.
Now, I gave the positive vision, which I think entranced a lot of good-faith people. When it actually implemented though, you don’t actually have President Trump focused on increasing taxes or even keeping taxes stable. He does a tax cut. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’re not going to go after entitlement programs that people actually like,” the first thing he does is try to cut Obamacare instead of saying, “Hey, let’s pass an infrastructure package.”
To this day, I do not know why President Trump didn’t show up in a city like Baltimore or Detroit with a majority African American population and just say in his Trumpy way, “I know you didn’t vote for me, but we’re going to make America great again for everyone.” The conservative boomers would have loved it; no one would have known what to say. It would have been a real unifying moment for him, whether or not it actually happened, but he didn’t do it because then you had the travel ban. You had Charlottesville, and it just brings to question is there a good faith version of populism which doesn’t descend into honestly like white identity politics grievance and those cultural war issues?
Enjeti: Why didn’t Trump go to Detroit and declare an infrastructure package? Because it’s easier to sit at the Oval Office and tweet about Joe Scarborough’s missing or dead intern or to solve the case of Mika [Brzezinski]’s facelift or to call Stormy Daniels “horse face.” I can go on, and I was a White House correspondent, so I had to suffer through all this.
There is a long list of insults.
Enjeti: There’s a long list. It’s just pointless, but see the key there is insult. Insulting the opposition in favor of a positive program, I’m actually cool with that, as long as you’re actually trying to do something. But that’s not what any of this was about. It was literally outside the political realm for no other reason than except to protect his ego. I think it’s pretty perfect that Trump’s very last act as president was pardoning Judge Jeanine’s ex-husband for tax fraud and his previous act of that was rescinding the executive order that he had signed in this first days of his administration banning lobbying of his aides for the previous five years.
So what did it devolve to? Into grifting of an unserious person. Trump was a grifter, no question. Almost 99% of the people around him were also grifters, but you cannot take away the reasons why 75 million voted for this person and the structural problems in our society, culture, what the left represents, and more that led to that.
I’m not saying that a more competent Trump or whatever is coming. I have no idea whether any of that is true, but I know that that manifests itself in some form in our politics, and that’s up to Joe Biden. That’s up to whoever’s going to be the leader of the Republican Party in order to parse out, and it will lead to changes in our political life in America.
Kosloff: The problem is Trump did all of the grifting that we just talked about and he won more votes. So that’s why I’m on the negative side of “Can populism turn into a good thing right now?” He didn’t give the speech in Detroit. He did tweet “horse face.” He did do all the things we didn’t like anyone more votes. So I am just skeptical that politicians will choose the good version of populism when it turns out, but not only will the bad version win you reelection, but also, frankly, it’s great for selling podcast tickets, and it’s great for driving subscriptions and Newsmax viewership.
Enjeti: No, I actually think you’re right. I’m deeply cynical. I’m saying if there was any positive version of this, it might manifest itself in that way. More likely, it doesn’t.
It’s a shame. We see it in the tech world too, that the people who are the most vociferously negative or positive on one or another side of an issue are the ones whose voices tend to rise to the top and define the debate. This show is supposed to be a bit of an antidote to that. We’re supposed to have nuanced conversations here, and I do feel a kinship with you guys because it seems like that’s something that you guys are trying to do as well.
You guys focus a lot on tech, a surprising amount, given your interest in politics. What realignment do you see happening in the technology world? Why are you so interested?
Kosloff: I’m so glad you a) invited us on the podcast but b) pointed out the amount of tech we focused on because it was something that people pushed back on very early. I remember back in November of 2019, this is one of the first times someone tweeted about the podcast, and said, “Hey, I like The Realignment, but they keep talking about tech so much, and I don’t get it because they’re in D.C., and they should be talking more about politics.”
This is, once again, our whole idea of we need to focus on long-term value and not short-term clicks. Well, we talked about tech because all tech is politics and all politics is tech right now. If we look at everything from the U.S.-China cold war, guess what? Tech and TikTok, you look at debates about free speech, moderation, and censorship. Tech: Does Trump stay on Twitter? Tech: Is there a divide between people who are receiving the fruits of globalization and those who aren’t? Tech: Who gets to work in our white-collar, excellent Zoom-fueled Covid situation? That once again is tech, so it affects everything. But in terms of the actual realignment, here is what it’s actually meant. What it means is that no — and let me take a quick step back. The biggest impact that Trump made on the way Republicans talk about political issues is it revealed at the base of the Republican Party, separate from the culture war issues, doesn’t really have that much interest in the rhetoric of tax cuts, the free market.
So I always remember, you see a lot of Republican politicians saying things like, the GOP, this is for example, Rep. Dan Crenshaw from Texas who’s a young millennial politician. He says things like, “The GOP is the party of Uber, unlike the Democrats with their taxi unions. We love innovation and the free market,” and I don’t think any of that’s true at the actual base level. So what that’s meant is as you’ve removed the articulation that that thing is true, you’ve seen something else substitute, which is tech is now the equivalent of Hollywood within the Republican Party.
In the sense that for decades, Republicans and social conservatives, for a variety of good reasons and bad reasons have said, “Hey, Hollywood, doesn’t reflect our values. We don’t agree with it. We don’t like the people who work in the industry, and we think they are opposed to what we believe in. They also donate to the politicians and the causes we oppose.” But at the same time, no one actually does anything because there’s nothing that could be done because the issue with Hollywood is people who live in L.A. and work at Netflix are not social conservatives.
So obviously there’s going to be a disagreement and there’s no law you can — Conservatives are not going to support the affirmative action bill, forcing Netflix to hire 50/50 left/right. Well, tech is now the same thing. So because you no longer have the adoration of the market and the adoration of innovation, all you have is the true fact that despite all the debate about politics and antitrust and Section 230, everything on the right comes down to the fact that even if you broke up Amazon, for example, let’s say you hate what Amazon, with AWS did to Parler. If you broke up Amazon into six different companies, AT&T stock from the 1980s, all six of those companies would also not serve Parler. A startup created out of YC out of Stanford would also not host Parler. So the objection people on the right actually have isn’t even policy. It’s not the decisions executives are making. It’s just the fact that a certain part of the country that is realigning away from their political beliefs has control over these institutions.
Enjeti: On a more philosophical level, why do we care about tech? Because Marshall and I realized very early on, if you care about politics, what you actually care about is the study of power — and this is something that I think has actually been lost in a lot of political journalism — but if you care about power and power distribution in America, and if you especially care about democracy, then democracy is about litigating who in America gets to have power over what.
How much of tech is our GDP? How much of tech controls the way that we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis? How much of it controls the very basics of commerce? Commerce, despite how a lot of libertarians would like to talk, is not separate from politics. How we conduct business is the very definition of how we conceive of ourselves as a society. That’s why they have literal rules in the Koran about doing business with each other in certain ways is because this is a reflection of your values. So we cared about tech from very early on because I think we saw how it was colliding increasingly with Washington, but not just Washington, with the very basics questions of power themselves around political movements. All political organizing today is done on social media. All political donations, the vast majority of them that are taking place here, are taking place on the internet facilitated again by online drives and more.
So understanding where that was coming in was very important, and I think we saw a lot of this from the beginning. It’s interesting; way before the pandemic and the before times, Marshall and I, we had dinner with a couple of big people in Silicon Valley and paper billionaires, which is probably normal for you, Alex, but I was like, “Oh shit, this guy’s worth like 1.2 whatever.” So we’re talking to him, and one of the most insightful things that was said there was that before 2017, you could form a unicorn company, and you would not have to think about the government, and that’s just not the case anymore.
I just don’t believe that that’s the case. So that means that you have to care about politics and that politics has to care about you. I think that, again, increasingly, especially in terms of the amount of wealth that’s being generated, in terms of the power that’s being exerted over our society, this is value-neutral. I’m not judging them and saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s empirically just the way it is. Then you add onto this geopolitics and the interaction of now our most important economic sector and its interaction with our geopolitical enemy rival, I’ll choose enemy. Others would probably choose rival, which is China, and you add on once again, something which is all reminiscent of the debates that we had in this country 100 years ago about financial capital when finance became truly international.
London was the center of the universe, and the interactions of the U.K. and the British empire and the American capital’s financial system and its own control over our politics and more, this is not new; it’s just different. So once again, in order to bring it back to one of my favorite quotes is from Mark Twain. He said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” We could see that tech was rhyming with key parts of our political economy in the debates around that from pretty — I wouldn’t say like we were the first to discover it, but in Washington, we were definitely looked at as weirdos. They were like, “Why do you guys care so much?” But now, it’s like, we’re sitting pretty.
Donald Trump got banned from Facebook and Twitter. We basically haven’t heard from him since. These companies, in some ways, are more powerful than the state. What happens when you have a dynamic like that, and what does the state end up doing?
Kosloff: I strongly disagree with this rhetoric about tech companies having more power than the state. Look, Donald Trump was kicked off of two social media platforms. When he actually had the presidency of the United States, he could air as many pressers as he wants. As Donald Trump proved, the press will cover him no matter what he does. So I just don’t think it’s philosophically true that tech companies have more power than the state. The state, if it wanted to, it could be capricious in incredibly different ways that would actually overwhelm it. So I just don’t think that that premise has been proven, but that being said, there is a difficulty in the current situation, and this is where I do not believe tech companies are equipped to handle.
So for me, it’s not that tech companies have more power than the state. It’s just that they’ve gained more control and power in areas the state has traditionally not been concerned with. So traditionally, aside from concerns about racial discrimination, the state has not been concerned with the way that you run your private company or your private club. So let’s say we have a country club and separate from racial discrimination, we just say, “You know what? I just don’t like Alex or I just don’t like Saagar because every other week, Saagar gets too drunk at dinner and embarrassed as me at the club, and I just don’t want them there. He brings a bad vibe.” That’s not a question the state has any concern over because it doesn’t have anything to do with racial discrimination.
Well, that’s basically what happened with Twitter. Trump was intolerable on Twitter. Trump behaved to a point where he repeatedly violated all the rules. I think Twitter was correct to basically keep him on the platform until he had been democratically repudiated. I know Mark and Jack are getting a lot of crap for this, but no, I think it would have been a terrible decision to take him off the platform before he lost reelection. That would have not been a good thing for American society. With that being said, he broke the rules. So once again, that’s not that they have more power than the state. It’s just a question the state has not concerned itself with, which is moderation, who gets to be a part of what has now taken on greater importance and the bigger concern I have, and I know Saagar could follow up on this is, I feel as if a huge issue driving this problem is that Twitter and Facebook have the exact wrong enemies to produce the optimal outcome.
When what you’re doing is banning QAnon folks and Alex Jones and Donald Trump as he’s literally instigating violence, no one’s going to actually question you. Every single critic of Facebook was like, “Oh yeah, you know what? That was the right decision. Good job. Good job, Mark. You finally got it right for once.” I would much rather we had a situation where, frankly, I want to see someone on the center left who matters — and I don’t want to sound callous when I say this — I want a situation where a Black Lives Matter activist who has a lot of sympathy in the institutions in our society maybe gets deplatformed and there’s actual backlash that matters for Twitter.
I want Twitter to actually have to sit down and say, “Wow, this backlash on this decision because we made it on the fly, because we didn’t think beforehand was so bad that we have to make sure this never happens again.” When Twitter banned the New York Post story over Hunter Biden, everyone largely agreed that was a huge mistake. You go to The Atlantic, you go to the New York Times, and you’ll find a critical consensus that was the wrong decision, but they didn’t actually suffer for it because, once again, the victim was a right-wing newspaper that frankly doesn’t really matter that much in the corridors of power. If that had been the New York Times, the situation would have been completely different. So that’s the problem we’re trying to shift through.
Enjeti: It goes back to what we said earlier, which is that the only debates in America which matter are debates between the center left and the progressive left, which is that intro left debates are largely ones that rule power. Even look at tech companies — that’s basically what we’re talking about — where we have like the free-speech wing of the free-speech party. That’s left libertarianism. It’s not libertarianism which is aligned with the Republican Party versus some Twitter employees.
Same thing with Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg is like a pretty typical neo-liberal. That’s fine. Whatever. But it’s like a generic commitment to liberal values and all of that versus an increasingly vocal element of his own employees. That’s the only debate, I think, which actually matters in America, and it’s your right, which is that — and look, let’s not mistake this — the state is obviously more powerful.
They could shut Twitter down tomorrow if they wanted to. They don’t necessarily have the political will in order to do so, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that Twitter does have power over realms of our society which we are not previously capable of understanding as needed of government intervention or even of government thought. So that again, though, I think this is a good thing. This is politics, which is that the reason the democratic process and system exists is specifically for us to litigate new challenges to our discourse, to our society and more, and say, “Okay, how the hell do we handle this?”
I actually am increasingly, if I was like hard right or something, I would be pretty depressed because it’s like Marshall said: You can break AWS off of Amazon, and AWS will still be a phenomenally profitable company. They’re still going to make these axing decisions. So what we’re really talking about here is of ideological capture, and when we’re talking about ideological capture of a specific sect of our entire economy and then that part of our economy is more dominant, knows how to scale itself to billions and trillions of dollars, then what you’re really saying, the only alternative — viable alternative — you actually have is nationalizing it.
This is the U.S. It’s not going to happen. So what are you going to do? I increasingly tell people on the right who are like, “I want to do something about this. We need to see Twitter change.” I’m like, “Okay, you should start getting to know people like Alex Kantrowitz or talking to the New York Times because what they write is the only thing that matters.” I’m like, “What you think literally doesn’t matter. You could go and get a Republican senator to say it, and if it’s the right Republican senator, Facebook would actually be better off in the eyes of the people who matter ignoring that senator than actually indulging them.”
This again is a power dynamic, which nobody really wants to admit because there’s an entire grifting ecosystem of political dollars raised upon grievance but which, if you’re actually interested in effectuating change within the industry, this is where it would come from.
So where does this go? Because eventually, the government will want to strike back?
Kosloff: I’m more and more with Antonio Garcia Martinez and Jeff Jarvis’ invocation of the Gutenberg era and the Thirty Years’ War as being the framer to understand our moment. So the printing press happens in the 1400s. You get the printing press, you get the Bible distributed more, literacy goes up. That literacy leads to debate and contestation with the Catholic Church, you then see horrific warfare that leads to millions and millions of deaths, huge percentages of the population in countries such as Germany dying away, the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, all this terrible stuff. It eventually culminates in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, which is a new consensus around the nature of the nation state and the limiting of the power of the Catholic Church. I think we are in this Thirty Years’ War moment when it comes to social media. Social media is the equivalent of the printing press.
The thing is with that point, and this is as libertarian as I would get on this question is, there is no putting social media way. There is no “We’re going to pass this bill that reforms Section 230 to the point which Facebook goes away or Twitter goes away.” We are stuck with it. There’s no putting the toothpaste back in the container. The horse is out of the barn. That’s the dynamic. Now, the good news is that it’s not as if we’re actually — all of the warfare has become purely social, mostly. So obviously there’s a death at the antifa protests in Portland in July. There are five deaths at the Capitol, and that’s tragic and that’s terrible, but it’s never going to look at that Thirty Years’ War scale.
The whole point of the metaphor and why it’s the right construct is we’re just going to have to get through this current struggle, especially in the 2020s to the point where we eventually have to have a new consensus be formed. Now, the problem and where I’m least optimistic is that right now, we don’t actually have a political class which is actually trained to create consensus. So we don’t have Democratic politicians who could say, “Hey, look, we’re on the left. We don’t like the right for various reasons, but it is definitely true that Jack Dorsey and Twitter do not have any form of fair adjudication of claims by people on the right. We all know that’s true. It doesn’t exist. That’s not a partisan point. We should pressure Jack Dorsey to actually do something about that even if those people are not our voters.”
At the same time, you have Republican politicians who are incentivized to basically lie to their voters by saying things like, “If you elect me, I’ll finally spank Jack Dorsey enough to leave.” So what we need is a development of a new political class that reconceives of what its role in society is, which is rather than fighting for our little tribal militia, we need to govern for the whole country.
Enjeti: In the near term, here’s what I think is going to happen. The Democrats and Biden and others are wholly convinced that Zuckerberg and Twitter did not do enough in order to combat Trump and that with a unified Democratic government, something will happen. I think that that something will actually be very bad for people who are, I wouldn’t say dissidents, but people who are outside the mainstream on Facebook and Twitter.
As you’ve discussed on your own podcast, Alex, the removal of Section 230 would actually — actually, it was so fascinating. One of your most recent guests, I forget who it was, was like, “Oh yeah, if I was Nancy Pelosi, I’d be like, yeah AOC, I’m going to use their anti-monopoly rhetoric in order to crush AOC’s ability in order to fundraise on Facebook,” which is genius, actually, if you’re Nancy Pelosi and if you’re a mainstream Democratic politician. Totally true. Which is that, here’s the truth: Censorship and particularly empowering Facebook and Twitter in order to take objectionable content off of its platform would be devastating to the right, and it would also be particularly devastating to the progressive left.
So whenever we think about that, what we’re going to see is a series of yo-yo-like decisions just like we saw with the printing press in the early days of the internet, whenever people would, like, ban YouTube. Remember when Turkey banned YouTube because of that one video that was mean to Atatürk?
I was there. I was in Turkey when YouTube was banned. I spent a semester there. We used workarounds to watch YouTube.
Enjeti: And that’s my point, which is that you’re going to see a series of decisions in American politics over the next 30 years which are just going to create more backlash. So I think the left, the mainstream left, right now they hold real power in America. They’re going to do what they think needs to be done because they’re like, “Oh, we need to punish Mark Zuckerberg by censoring him even more.” So they’re going to do that.
Then that’s going to create a right-wing backlash, and maybe we’ll see — the Signal Foundation is actually, I think, a preview of something in my eye and the future, for my opinion, which is a nonprofit based entity, which is basically inured from market backlashes and market boycotts, which will become the home of dissidents. Then eventually those dissidents will once again gain power because at least we do live in a democracy, and some of that will get rolled back. So, if you’re in tech, buckle up — it’s going to be fun. I really think it is going to be a wild ride in terms of public policy over the next 20 years.