From neoliberalism to evangelicalism, a look at history, power, myth, and paranoia in our current politics, and an alternative vision of liberal democracy.
Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast is Jared Yates Sexton, host of The Muckrake Podcast and author of The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis.
Sexton sees a world that is increasingly volatile and unpredictable, one where the current order, he says, is fraying, while authoritarianism is on the rise and trust in our institutions is waning.
He offers a sobering yet ultimately hopeful examination of global history, tracing the ways in which political power, religious indoctrination, and economic dominance have been used to oppress and exploit.
Sexton unpacks these stories, dissecting the myths about “Western civilization” that reactionaries cling to and showing how these stories have been used to justify some current political cruelty. Turning to the present, he takes a hard look at the forces that shape our lives, from neoliberalism to evangelical fearmongering.
Sexton argues against what he sees as a false dichotomy between free markets and authoritarianism, offering instead a vision of a robust liberal democracy.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. It’s normal to think that our present political and cultural moment is unique. That the political era we live in started with Trump or Gingrich or Clinton. That the blame lies entirely with Talk Radio or Fox. That the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or the financial crisis of 2007 changed everything. But the truth is that we have been here before. Long before any of these things happened. That the things that we are needing and feeling today have been the clay that authoritarians have used to mold and harden their rule in the past.
That religion and culture and ignorance have been used throughout history. That, in fact, it goes so far back that according to my guest, Jared Yates Sexton, there is a straight line between QAnon and the Book of Revelations. Jared Yates Sexton is the author of numerous books. His political writing has appeared in publications, including the New York Times, The New Republic, Politico, and so on. He is also the host of the Muckrake podcast and the author of three collections of fiction. It is my pleasure to welcome Jared Yates Sexton back to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about his latest work, The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis. Jared, thanks so much for joining us.
Jared Yates Sexton: Hey, thank you for having me. My pleasure.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. There is something both troubling and reassuring, I think, in this notion that everything old is new again. That so many of the problems that we face today, so many of the issues and divisions today are things that have been with us for so long, and yet they’re still with us. Talk a little bit about that first.
Jared: One of the things about writing this book, and I just want to be upfront about it, this is some heavy stuff. And I think that we’re in a really dangerous time, but I’m incredibly optimistic. And the reason is because, actually, writing this book, The Midnight Kingdom, I was able to go through history and I saw these cycles. And I saw these conspiracy theories and these stories in the same clashes. And it really put things into perspective, which is, humanity has been in some really ugly places.
There have been moments of incredible oppression and violence and just some awful circumstances, but we’re a really extraordinary creature. We crave democracy. We crave better futures. We crave better lives. And we have gotten ourselves out of situations as bad as the one that we’re in now. And by understanding how we’ve arrived here and by understanding those cycles of history, I think that’s what’s going to get us out of this situation is to actually start wrapping our heads around what history, not only how it unfolded, but what it can show us.
Jeff: Of course, the other thing that it shows us is that even after we get out of this or if we get out of this particular crisis, that somewhere down the road, there’s another one.
Jared: Yes. And part of the issue with all of this is that I don’t know how else to say this, but our understanding of history in America is really poor. The conventional stories of history that we get are basically whitewashed. They’ve been sanded down into some weaponized propaganda. And as a result, we keep making the same mistakes. What we’re dealing with right now looks a lot like what was happening at the turn of the 20th century, which led to the stock market crash and the rise of Nazism and fascism, and these are things that didn’t happen that long ago.
There are still people alive who witnessed that, who dealt with that problem, and yet, somehow or another, these stories get twisted up, and then we repeat them. But the good news is if we can actually start having a dialogue about this and if we can start actually recognizing these patterns, we can get out of this rut that we’re in, and maybe we’ll go out and we’ll find some new problems that we have to deal with.
Jeff: And I guess, the fundamental question comes back to why it is that we repeat them. What is it in the notion of self-governance that is so difficult that we constantly hit these kinds of walls?
Jared: Well, to take a very, very recent issue, that seems ridiculous on space but it’s very instructive. As of recently, we’ve had this new issue about whether or not gas stoves should be banned, right? Whether or not the fact that they cause childhood asthma. Should we move towards electric stoves? That’s an actual issue. We could have a political discussion about how we move forward because that’s what politics is supposed to be. But instead, what we’re doing is we’re having an argument about, you can’t take my gas stove from me. The government can’t come into my house with their jackbooted thugs and harm my family and take the gas stove.
Well, honestly, the reason why that’s happening is because the energy industry, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want to lose gas stoves. So, as a result, we’re having an argument that isn’t even about the issue, and that’s what’s actually happened with our politics. It’s been hijacked by these narratives that the wealthy and the powerful have crafted to keep us from having actual conversations and making actual headway. And so, as a result, the experience that we have politically, but also now socially and economically, is not real. It’s fabricated. And so we’re chasing illusions as opposed to having informed discussions.
Jeff: But at the core of the inability to have that discussion is the sense that we have lost faith in all of our institutions. We’ve lost faith in experts, in science, in institutions themselves, which we used to rely on to tell us if something was dangerous or not.
Jared: Yes. And unfortunately, that is intentional. As I talked about in the book, this modern era has largely been framed by a document called the Powell Memo. And if any of your listeners haven’t seen this before, I highly recommend going to look at this. After the 1960s, the 1970s, you have the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the feminist movement.
As all of these things are happening, the wealthy and the powerful basically come together and decide that they’re going to spend their money, their millions upon billions of dollars, to undermine experts, to go after education, to basically create an alternate reality that was based a lot on how tobacco companies went after experts when it came out that it caused cancer. And by the way, when energy companies, going back into the 1950s, understood that they were causing climate change.
So that has created this situation that we see now with the pandemic in which experts and scientists have been undermined, and in which we have this world of so-called Alternate Facts. This is a weapon. A really, really powerful weapon, and we see that throughout history that these things are incredibly effective.
Jeff: And yet, in a poll that I think Axios published yesterday, that in terms of faith in institutions, that business comes out number one. That 62% of the public has faith and trust in institutions of business versus a much smaller percentage, less than 50% in government.
Jared: Yes. And that’s also intentional as well. So, right now, we’re living in what experts have come to call the neoliberal consensus. Going back into the 1980s, people might remember Ronald Reagan coming out and saying that the government isn’t the answer. It’s the problem. And so what we’ve been fed for the past few decades is the idea that government should just actually not do anything. It shouldn’t regulate business. It shouldn’t invest in projects.
And meanwhile, the free market will settle everything. Now, this isn’t just a Reagan thing. It’s not just a republican party thing. We’ve seen elements of it within the Democratic Party as well. And so this has undermined any idea that we can come together and solve problems using the government, which has created a federal government that has largely been depowered, and as a result, has been overshadowed at this point by corporations, which have become the de facto representative body that we have.
Jeff: Talk about the historical antecedents for all of this because one of the things you do in the book, in The Midnight Kingdom, is go back even further to really the core of Western civilization and the ideas that grew out of that and how they have grown up on the one hand and been perverted in many respects by modern political leaders.
Jared: Yes. I needed to relearn the history of the modern world, and in doing so, what I discovered was, ideas like QAnon or the big lie, all these conspiracy theories, they’re supposedly unprecedented. I traced them all the way back to Ancient Rome. These have been in circulation over and over and over again, and they’ve been used by the powerful in order to protect themselves and to expand their power.
A real quick anecdote on what we’re discussing here, since the corporation was a thing, the original corporations were created in order to colonize other empires and to engage in the enslavement of humans, one cycle has replayed over and over again in which these groups go out and then they gain so much wealth that then they come back and overtake the government that birthed them in the first place.
We’re in another cycle like that. We have historic inequality. We have power, which is in the hands of individuals like Elon Musk, who has his own personal space program. Meanwhile, we have senior citizens who are having to cut their medicine in half. We have families that are doing without. We have absolutely terrible situations in place, in the most historically wealthy and powerful country in the history of the world.
These stories protect that. These conspiracy theories keep that going and keep us from understanding what has happened, but more importantly, what should happen. And these cycles, again, they are completely understandable and our situation is completely predictable. It’s our lack of information that keeps us from recognizing those things.
Jeff: And yet, part of that coda of Western civilization are some of the fundamental notions that have grown into these ideas of individualism, ideas of how capitalism works, ideas of rationalism and science. Talk a little bit about that.
Jared: Yes, so the entire idea, and whenever we say Western civilization, we need to put some quotes around that. Western civilization is, itself, its own mythology. And basically, it says, “Here’s the border between civilization and barbarism.” If you are within civilization, you deserve protection. The law is on your side. You deserve to have a good life. If you’re a barbarian on the outside of that, you deserve whatever comes your way.
And what happens is that that idea between civilization and barbarism, that line moves constantly. Sometimes, it’s saying, “These people deserve protection.” In the United States of America, we’re creating this new multi-tiered system. Of course, women now have had their reproductive rights trampled upon. We’re starting to get rid of a lot of the civil rights progress of the 20th century.
And what we’re watching in all of this is that line between so-called civilization and barbarism is constantly being moved and manipulated, which allows people to hurt other people, but with impunity. It allows them to persecute without feeling like they’re doing something wrong because what they’re doing is they’re protecting Western civilization, which is why we’re seeing neo-Nazis, why we’re seeing far-right extremists, white supremacists, why they’re coming out of the woodwork now. Whether it’s protecting statues in Charlottesville or saying that we need the government to basically clamp down on women’s rights, it is always done in the name of protecting civilization.
Jeff: And in many respects, that’s why you hear the argument often made, that for a lot of these people, the cruelty is the point.
Jared: Yes, that’s exactly right. And one of the things that I’ve seen, I come from a very, very small rural Indiana town, and I was surrounded constantly with evangelical fearmongering. We were basically told that our government, our neighbors, all these people were engaged in satanic conspiracies. And if we didn’t engage with them in warfare, if we didn’t lock them up, if we didn’t go after them, if we didn’t oppress them, they were going to destroy us, they were going to kill us. And as a result, what happens is you create these movements, which go to the capitol and try and overtake the government. They’re willing to go out into the streets and spill blood.
And when this happens, there becomes a movement that bases itself on opposition to something else. And that cruelty that you’re talking about, it becomes not something to feel bad about, it becomes something to rally to. And we’re currently in a moment where all of these energies are coming into place, and we’ve seen what happens. This is how governments get overthrown. This is how authoritarian regimes are formed. It’s when that cruelty becomes one of the things that lashes a movement together.
Jeff: It’s also part of, and you touched on this a moment ago, the mythology. Whether it is the mythology we tell ourselves with respect to part of the evolution of Western civilization, or the founding mythology of this country, or the mythology of businesses that start up, that those stories, those myths that are part of creation become inculcated in the culture of institutions, countries, and businesses, and it’s very hard to separate at a certain point.
Jared: It absolutely is. And I want to point out that what we’re actually talking about here is the difference between why things happen and the stories that we tell ourselves about why those things happen. I look around in my community and I see a lot of people who are– they buy the same trucks. Meanwhile, they’re constantly buying semi-automatic weapons. They have all kinds of stickers on everything that talk about, “Come and take my guns,” or whatever.
There’s this identity that has grown up in America that it’s like this revolutionary persona, a strong man who’s going to stand against tyranny. And meanwhile, what are we actually talking about here? We’re talking about purchases. We’re talking about why you buy trucks. We’re talking about why you vote for certain individuals. And what lashes all that together are these stories, because humanity needs stories to understand why we do the things we do. It’s why we have a religion. It’s why we have history. It’s why we try and make sense out of all of these things.
The problem though, is that those stories are infinitely manipulatable and weaponizable. And what we’ve seen now is that the stories that are being told are radicalizing people, and they’re also destroying the institutions that bind us together. And so what we need to do to defeat this, overall, is to tell ourselves a new story, to get to a new point where we start to disabuse ourselves of a lot of these mythologies and stories that have simply kept us oppressed.
Jeff: Arguably though, those stories represent a strain that is really, in this country, at least, in the DNA of the country. People have talked about changing the culture of businesses, for example. And I think it was Peter Drucker who said that culture eats strategy for lunch. These are changes that are very, very difficult, if not impossible, to make without real generational change, in some cases.
Jared: Yes. And I think that’s one of the things that’s happening right now. You were talking about businesses and these cultural stories. A real quick example, you take a look at somebody like Colin Kaepernick, of course, who was protesting racial inequality and police violence. Eventually, Colin Kaepernick signs a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike, a shoe manufacturer. Nike, of course, has exploited people around the world, operated sweatshops, exploited populations and their resources.
In a way, then, all of a sudden you’re starting to buy Nikes because you’re making a political point. And that’s opposed to actually going out and trying to change the world. Instead, you’re using your dollars and your purchases, which are about you, to go ahead and feel like you are changing the world. But one thing that’s happening is that this next generation, we’re becoming more and more critical and more and more nuanced about these things. We recognize when these stories are being used against us. We’re starting to push back against these ideas.
And so, a lot of what we’re dealing with right now, this lack of faith in institutions, this lack of faith in culture, this lack of faith in representatives, to be honest, that lack of faith is well earned. There does need to be reform. There does need to be progress. And I think this cultural literacy that is starting to gain steam in this moment– and by the way, thank you Donald Trump for making that obvious to a lot of people, I think that that forward movement is what’s going to make the difference in the long run, as we become more critical and as we expect more.
Jeff: But only if there are competing narratives. Only if there are different stories.
Jared: Yes, that’s exactly right. And one of the problems that we have right now is that we do understand that something is wrong, we do understand that our institutions are failing. It is deeply ingrained in our bones right now that something is wrong in America and that America is experiencing what could be argued to be a decline. Meanwhile, we have a lot of people who are institutionalists who are saying, “Everything is going to be fine. You don’t have to worry about this, and Donald Trump got defeated in 2020. Everything is going to be just totally, totally fine.”
Meanwhile, people understand it, at a molecular level, that things are not fine and that things need to change. The question now is how do things change? And the authoritarian right wing is offering change. They are offering an authoritarian movement that takes over where liberal democracy has failed. There needs to be an alternative.
And what we need to do is we need to reform. We need to go in and take care of this historic inequality that is currently straining our system. So we have to offer that alternative. You’re exactly right. We cannot continue down this path because the only means of doing that is to allow worsening oppression and worsening exploitation.
Jeff: And I guess the question is, it goes back to something Bill Clinton once said about affirmative action when he talked about “mending it, not ending it”. We have to look at the current state of neoliberal politics that you referred to before, and those that argued that things are fine. You talked about this in response to a recent David Brooks column in The Atlantic, and whether or not that has to become the jumping-off place for progress as opposed to completely reinventing a new alternative narrative, which somehow seems undoable.
Jared: Yes. And I want to go ahead, and something you had said earlier about what we feel or the idea that government can’t do anything or the business is the only means of getting things done. That was a new narrative that got brought to the forefront in the 1970s on the 1980s. Before that, we had the New Deal consensus. And you look back now at someone like Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon would not fit into the modern Republican Party.
Jeff: Not at all.
Jared: Richard Nixon was technically a liberal who believed that the government should invest in things and make people’s lives better. You can have political differences with him all day long. The New Deal consensus was based on that idea that the government should regulate business and that they should invest in programs that help people. I don’t think that you need to overthrow everything.
I think we need to go back to that New Deal consensus when the government was allowed to invest in social programs and work programs. Plus, also, disabuse ourselves of this notion the free market is the only way to get anything done has been a mythology all along. And I agree, we don’t need to completely overturn everything. We just need to move back into the past before that neoliberal consensus came into being.
Jeff: What’s different today though, in all of this is really communication, information, and the speed at which it travels. We have never dealt with this level of problems before, and certainly, there’s historical precedent for all the problems as you point out, but the speed with which information and knowledge and disinformation moves today changes the playing field, some would argue.
Jared: Yes, it absolutely does. And historically, the thing that I would point to was the emergence of the printing press, which eventually led– most people don’t understand this, but that’s what led to the reformation and Martin Luther influencing the schism between the Catholic church and this new reformation movement that would eventually lead to incredible amounts of bloodshed and revolution and just millions of people dying and suffering.
Each time that we see these technologies erupt, whether or not it’s the printing press, the radio, television, the mass communication that we have now, there are always these moments of tumultuous change. But it always ends up being who figures out that that change is possible and what it should be. Those are the people who write history. Those are the ones who change how the world works, whether it’s for the positive or for the negative. And we’re at another one of those moments.
The internet, social media, these means of communication. You’re exactly right, they are quickening, and we have already seen what the consequences are of not dealing with those changes, and it’s going get a whole lot worse before it gets better, unless we realize that this change is not only possible but inevitable.
Jeff: And that the change will keep happening. That the degree to which we act on it is certainly something that we can determine in what we’re talking about. But one way or another, the change is going to keep happening.
Jared: Exactly right. And one of the things that we have to absolutely get rid of is this idea that we are powerless or that we are alone. This is a lie that we’ve been told, and it’s one of the reasons why people are so frustrated now. They feel like government is beyond their control, that it doesn’t matter who they vote for, what happens.
We have to reinvigorate the democratic spirit with a small D and start working within our communities and with other people and reinvigorating a trust in one another and the idea that we can have power and that we can change the world because, right now, the wealthy and the powerful are working behind the scenes. They’re spending incredible amounts of time, money, and energy to convince us that we can’t do anything about this. But we can, and we have to.
Jeff: But in many ways, the reverse is happening if you look at local politics around the country. And part of the reason has to do with the state of news and media and local communities, et cetera. There’s a lot of reasons for it, but much of the national debate, the polarization, all the bad stuff we’ve been talking about is little by little filtering down into local communities and into the politics of those communities.
Jared: Yes. And that’s not by accident at all. Really quickly, to go ahead and use an example, the CRT debate or the groomer debate. These things are not grassroots revolts among these school boards and communities. These are being funded by wealthy donors like the DeVos”s, the Bradleys, the Coles, and they’re basically being used by their constellations of institutes and think tanks and foundations to basically go ahead and go into public schools and then privatize them.
They’re taking over school boards, they’re taking over local politics. And that is on the record. That isn’t a conspiracy theory. It is entirely their strategy. So we have to realize that these conversations, or rather these arguments we’re having are artificial. These are weapons to go ahead and privatize and destroy local politics as well as regional and national politics.
Jeff: Schools are an interesting example because it’s a case where one side is giving the other side the weapon. Part of the reason that these campaigns are so effective by these well-heeled interests that you’re talking about is because the situation in a lot of those schools is so poor to start with.
Jared: Exactly. And going back to the New Deal consensus, we have started not funding these things. Austerity is a part of the neoliberal regime. And so what you do is you go in, you tighten budgets, and things get worse over and over and over again. It’s not unimportant also to point out that these are the same people. The DeVos’s, the Bradleys, the Coles, all of these people funding it, they stand to make trillions with a T on privatizing public education. This is an incredible opportunity to go ahead and crater public education and then privatize it. And as a result, they’re trying to accelerate the decline.
Jeff: And those that want to prevent that have to realize that the system that they’ve been engaged in for all these years needs some change as well.
Jared: That’s exactly right.
Jeff: It’s just money that there really is fundamental change that has to happen.
Jared: Exactly. And one of the problems is that we tend to believe that nothing is going to change forever. The way that things were a couple of years ago are going to be the way that they are for the rest of our lives. We have to change. We have to recognize the change is happening, and we have to be proactive because there are plenty of people and plenty of groups out there, such as the people we’re talking about, who are actively trying to make that change.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about whether or not you have any hope that we’re going to see any kind of political change from all of this in the next 4 to 12 years.
Jared: I actually am very hopeful. One of the things that I gain a lot of hope from are conversations like these. People are starting to pay more and more attention to politics. For the longest time, we were told, Don’t worry about politics. The experts have it under control.” Meanwhile, you’re seeing young people who don’t even have training to do so. They’re winning labor fights against the largest corporations in the history of the world, including Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, you name it. I actually am very hopeful, and I think moving forward, we’re going to figure this stuff out and we are going to chart a new course, but it isn’t going to be easy.
Jeff: Jared Yates Sexton. His new book is The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis. Jared, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Jared: Thank you. It was my pleasure again.
Jeff: Thank you and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.