This episode features host Sean Speer in conversation with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on his powerful book, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, as well as other topics including overcoming societal decadence, the future of conservative populism, and writing for the New York Times. The episode originally aired on Sept. 4, 2022.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by New York Times opinion columnist, Ross Douthat, who’s a leading thinker and writer on politics, culture, and religion. He’s also the author of the powerful book, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discover, which tells the story of his personal experience navigating the worlds of traditional and non-traditional medicine to deal with a chronic case of Lyme disease. I’m grateful to speak with Ross about the book and its key insights as well as some other topics, including overcoming societal decadence, writing for the New York Times, and the future of conservative populism.
Ross, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book which marks its one-year publication date later next month.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Thanks so much, Sean. It’s really a pleasure to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.
SEAN SPEER: You’ve said at various times that your first dream was to be a novelist. This book, which is a personal memoir of sorts, reads much more as a story or a narrative than your previous ones. What was the writing process like and how did it differ from your past books?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that’s a fair description. This is a book about the personal experience of having a chronic illness. It covers about five or six years of my life starting in 2015 when my wife and I were moving from Washington, DC up to the lovely countryside of Connecticut in New England and where I ended up getting terribly sick and our beautiful countryside experience turned into something a little bit more like a Stephen King novel. It does both deliberately and inevitably have a little bit of a horror novel vibe. I aimed for that in the writing process, because that was what the experience of the illness was like.
In terms of the writing process, the one interesting thing about this of course is that I write full-time for a living, I write two newspaper columns a week, I tweet, I write longer essays, I write other books— but I spent a long period of being really, really quite sick, deeply debilitated by this illness and not writing about it at all, in part because at first I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Then I think because I didn’t feel like it made any sense to write about something like this while you were in the midst of the worst of it. I felt like I needed to get at least somewhat better in order to have any of the distance on the experience that you would need to write about. Also Lyme disease itself is an incredibly controversial illness. There’s a long-running debate about whether the chronic form of the disease actually even exists or whether it’s somehow all in people’s head, or somewhere in between the two.
Just for the purposes of entering into that debate, I wanted to be able to say not only that I was sick, but that I had figured out enough about the disease in order to actually get somewhat better. It took about five or six years for me to reach a point where I could clear those bars and do the writing. Then the writing itself, I think precisely because I hadn’t touched it for so long in my professional career, was pretty, I don’t want to say it was easy, but at the very least it was cathartic. There was a rush. I wrote this book much more quickly than I’ve written my other books. I wrote the outline for the book in about three days, produced 20,000 words in three days, so there was a sense of having this story that I had been, as a professional writer, keeping inside that I was finally allowing to spill out.
SEAN SPEER: Let me pick up a point you raised about the controversy surrounding Lyme disease. Assuming most listeners don’t know a lot about the disease, help us understand, why did mainstream medicine deny your existence and even accuse you of being crazy?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Lyme disease is an illness carried by ticks, and there is a normal progression for the disease where you get bit by the tick, and then if you are infected, within a couple of weeks you get a bulls-eye rash around the tick bite, and then you usually get a fever, and that’s the point where ideally you get diagnosed. If you get diagnosed, you take four weeks of antibiotics, and then ideally you feel better and go on with your life. That normal pattern of the disease describes some substantial percentage of cases, somewhere between 65 and 85 percent of cases, let’s say. I’m estimating. Then there’s a range of people who for various reasons they don’t get the bulls-eye rash. Ticks, as you may have heard, are extremely tiny. It’s very easy to get bitten by a tick without realizing it.
There are a lot of people who don’t get diagnosed for a very long time, and then the blood tests for Lyme disease are not perfectly accurate, to put it mildly. They miss some range of 25 to 40 percent of cases. Then Lyme disease is just, like a lot of chronic illnesses, a really weird disease. I think in the age of COVID and long-COVID and the weird aftermaths that people have had from coronavirus infections there’s more understanding of this. That you can get a disease that infects you initially, and then has just really strange systemic consequences lasting for months or years beyond that. Lyme is like that. You can get symptoms in any part of your body. You can get symptoms that resemble other diseases.
In my case I had chest pain that would be diagnosed as phantom heart attacks, I had digestive problems, I had musculoskeletal pain. So it imitates a lot of different diseases and you can shuttle as I did for a little while from one specialist to another, getting an endoscopy, a look at your stomach one day, a heart test the next day, something in your groin the day after that. It really takes someone who has a certain experience with the weirdness of the disease, sometimes, to put a lot of these signs together and actually give you a diagnosis. Then if you’re in one of these long-term cases, as I ended up being, there’s just no certain treatment protocol. Some people get better by just taking antibiotics for an extra month. Some people take antibiotics for years and years. Some people try obviously much stranger things than that in order to get better.
I did those things. I took antibiotics for many years—multiple antibiotics over a long period of time, and I also did a lot of experiments on the fringes of medicine. When you add all of that up, the weirdness of the disease, the difficulty of diagnosis, and the fact that lots of people get better with this very basic treatment, I think it’s at least understandable why a lot of doctors look askance at patients who claim to have chronic Lyme and say, well, this is probably psychosomatic or it’s probably some other illness. That’s my attempt to be understanding.
The part of me that actually went through this [chuckles] has this incredible fury about medical indifference to a disease that really is life-destroying for a lot of people. Again, that’s one of the reasons to write after you’ve come up from it a bit, is to try and figure out and understand why the medical system would fail patients as, frankly, it failed me for a certain period of time.
SEAN SPEER: As you say, Ross, as your symptoms persisted, the book outlines the various steps that you took to put your medical well wellbeing in your own hands. This included a number of conventional and unconventional medical treatments, perhaps most notably a sound machine that at a particular frequency is supposed to target a virus similar to an opera singer breaking glass.
You observe in the book that your family’s unique religious journey as a child opened you up to the possibility of the weird or the unconventional. Help me and our listeners understand this point. What’s the connection here?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, I grew up in what was in certain ways a very normal-seeming liberal, upper-middle class family. My parents went to Ivy League schools. My father was a lawyer. At a certain point in my childhood, we—well, one, my mother had some of her own chronic health problems that opened us up to, let’s say, organic and Whole Foods-type foods and things like that long before any of that was a mass market industry. I had some experience on those kinds of fringes back as a kid. Then we also fell into the world of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity for a certain period of time when I was a kid.
I always had this double existence where during the week I went to a normal, liberal, secular private school, and then on the weekend sometimes I would watch my parents speak in tongues. That has in certain ways always made me a fairly open-minded person, or open-minded about a range of things that might exist in the world without being immediately accessible to establishment opinion.
I should say that I also prided myself on the health front before this happened to me on not being weird. For the first 35 years of my life I happily left tofu and brown rice behind. Once I left those kinds of fringes at home I ate a completely normal diet. I gave my kids all their vaccinations. I never went to any weird holistic practitioners or anything like that. In that sense, this was a shock to my own carefully constructed identity as a normal person.
SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue, Ross, to my next question. One of the more interesting insights from the book is your self-analysis of your own faith. While you’ve been critical of the well-being movement and the prosperity gospel, including in a 2012 book, you discovered that at some level you subscribed to some of these underlying ideas in your own life. Can you just talk a bit about that and how this experience caused you to confront some of your assumptions about religion and faith?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Sure. Formally, I’m a Roman Catholic. I try to be a reasonably orthodox Roman Catholic. At an abstract theoretical level, as you said, I’ve written very critically about a feel-good spirituality that pervades I think especially a lot of American religion, these strong ideas both in Christian and in the landscape of Oprah Winfrey-type spirituality that God wants good things to happen to you and you just have to pray right or have your mind in the right place or visualize the things that you need and good things will happen.
Yes, at an intellectual level, I’m against those ideas and in favour of a religious perspective that takes the reality of suffering more seriously, the inevitability of suffering more seriously, and that assumes that there is wisdom and transcendence to be found in something other than just living out the American dream. Before I got sick—you know my parents are divorced and there have been various challenges in my life, but I didn’t have any direct, profound, intense experience certainly of physical suffering in the course of my life.
I had had a really good run personally and professionally where the plans that I had drawn up for myself of what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to marry, whether we were going to have kids, and then finally, where we were going to live. We had this idea of getting out and living this idyllic life out in the country. All of that had seemed to work out. At an intuitive level, whatever my intellectual commitments, I really did believe that this was how life worked; that if you had some combination of good old-fashioned American work ethic and keeping your life reasonably synchronized with God’s intentions, then you could just go from the right college to the right job to professional success to marital happiness to your dream house in the country and things would just keep working out.
It was like a Joel Osteen book come to life. All of that intuition that I carried with me, it came to grief pretty quickly. It took the actual experience of suffering to do away with that intuition. I don’t want to say that it’s gone entirely. As you get better, you inevitably fall back into the sense that, “Okay. If I make the right choices good things will happen.” That perspective never completely goes away. At least now I have some firsthand experience of its profound limitations.
SEAN SPEER: The book makes some comparisons between Lyme disease and COVID-19, but one idea, Ross, that stuck with me is your observation that in these two cases the establishment and the cranks are on opposite sides of the debate. What do you mean? How have these two cases played out both similarly and differently?
ROSS DOUTHAT: There’s a basic similarity where I think people get accustomed to the idea that we have this core understanding of disease and we have certain and established ways of treating disease. That diseases shouldn’t be political, they shouldn’t be publicly contested. For different reason, both Lyme as a difficult-to-understand condition that crept up on people, and COVID as a completely novel pathogen that bursts on the world, are inevitably zones of contestation, debate, uncertainty, authoritative pronouncements that then have to be walked back, conspiracy theories about laboratory origins that might actually be true—there’s a whole range of ways in which both of them are just examples of how it takes a long time to get to certain scientific knowledge about anything.
There is no final state of science in which all questions are answered. You should expect controversy and uncertainty. You should expect, in situations where people don’t know what they’re doing, a lot of experimentation, a lot of blind alleys, and false starts, and a lot of paranoia about establishments that are often doing their best but are going to take a long time to really get a handle on the disease.
Those are the clear overlaps. The flip side, or the way in which they flip their narratives you could say, is that in the case of COVID you have the establishment, after some initial doubts, coming around to the position that this is a disease that you need to take very, very seriously and take maximal precautions against.
The critics and outsiders and sometimes the cranks would be the ones who were more likely to say, “No, the establishment is wrong, this is all overblown. They’re overestimating the disease severity, overestimating how many people are dying of it, all of that kind of thing.” With Lyme, it’s somewhat reversed and the establishment is saying “Chronic Lyme isn’t a real thing. Maybe it’s not a real thing. You shouldn’t have to worry about it.” The outsiders and the cranks are saying, “But wait, look at all these horribly sick people. How do you explain them?”
There is a difference and divergence, but some of it is contingent. For a month or so at the outset of COVID, the people taking it seriously were the cranks reading reports from Wuhan on message boards on the internet. It was the establishment saying, “Oh, this will probably resolve itself. You shouldn’t freak out.” One of the lessons of all these debates is there’s no inevitable establishment versus outsider dynamic. With different diseases, those dynamics can take different forms.
SEAN SPEER: It leads to a question about trust in our lead institutions. You wrote in a recent column that inconsistent instruction from public health voices over the past few years, driven at least in part by ideological preferences, are undermining trust, including your own. You conclude the column by saying: “I can never trust anything these people say again.”
Ross, as someone in an elite institution with progressive predispositions, what’s the incentive structure that’s causing these organizations to prefer ideological affirmation over protecting their own credibility and trust? Are they misreading their self-interest or are they actually reading it correctly? If so, what does that say?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, I think there are two things going on, right? One is that there is a strong desire in institutions to effectively shore up and defend their own credibility against the fragmentating—if that’s a phrase—influence of the internet, right? The internet and everything associated with it has clearly changed the dynamics of public debate. In the Western world you have more voices, more fringe voices that attract larger and larger audiences, and institutions that depend on, or imagine themselves depending on, a certain authority for their influence, therefore become invested in the idea that you need to defend that authority at all costs, even to the point of embracing potentially censorship on the internet.
This is where you get into the endless debates that we’ve had about what should Twitter and Facebook do about misinformation? What should they do about anti-vaccine arguments? What should they do about the people debating the lab-leak hypothesis? I think there’s a fear of the power of the fringe, the power of conspiracy theories, the power of bad actors, that’s leading well-meaning institutions that see themselves as defending scientific consensus and established wisdom to essentially double down on their own authority.
I think you see this with the persona of Anthony Fauci. The temptation to say, “If you criticize me, you’re criticizing science.” The desire to say that comes out of the sense that science has become more embattled and needs a more vigorous and authoritative defence. So that’s one thing that’s going on.
At the same time within many of these knowledge-producing and disseminating institutions—universities, media, institutions, and so on—there has been clearly a certain partial or complete ideological transformation over the last 10 or 15 years, certainly accelerated by the Trump era with new ideological norms. No one can agree on what to call these norms.
People use terms like woke-ness, social justice, and so on down the list, but everybody knows that these new norms exist and they’re norms that push these institutions away from neutrality and towards moral engagement, and towards a sense that when you intervene in public, if you’re a public health professional, you have to think not just about the science-qua-science but also the political implications of your scientific statements. And whether by saying something, even if you think it’s true, you happen to be marginalizing a disadvantaged group or contributing to racist structures or anything like that, you need to be aware of it and it should colour how you engage with the world, right?
These are two very different tendencies. A desire for the elite to be morally engaged political actors, and a desire for elite institutions to be neutral defenders of authoritative knowledge against partisan and politicized actors. But where they converge, you get a dynamic of, let’s say, public health authorities dressing in the language of science political arguments. When the George Floyd protest broke out and there was tremendous pressure for public health authorities who had just been telling people not to go to church, not to hold funerals, not to do all of these normal human actions, the pressure on them was to come up with a scientific explanation for why these protests were okay.
They defaulted to this implausible language of, well, racism is a public health challenge like COVID itself, and therefore they’re actually defending public health by protesting and so on. They couldn’t just say, “I think this cause is more important than the risk of the disease.” They had to dress that political argument in scientific language.
To go back to where your question started. I think that convergence, for anyone who doesn’t share the ideological prepositions, it just hollows out scientific authority in ways that I think have only worsened over the course of the pandemic. The example I cited in the column was how public health authorities have talked about Monkey Pox out of their desire not to marginalize or in some way mistreat the gay community. They’ve ended up evading and avoiding frank talk about how the disease is actually transmitted and dressed it all up in highly ideological language. It damages and ultimately destroys their credibility as a spokesman for neutral medical knowledge, I think.
SEAN SPEER: In your previous book, The Decadent Society—which I strongly recommend to listeners—you make the case in a way for greater change in progress in our economy, culture, and even politics. Yet as a political and theological conservative, you subscribe to a set of commitments that, broadly speaking, stand athwart progress. How, Ross, do you reconcile these two ideas? Is progress ultimately a crucial precondition for the durability of traditional ideas and institutions? And as a conservative, how do you distinguish between good or harmful progress?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that over the course of my professional career I have become more persuaded that the Western world, the developed world, suffers from stagnation and a lack of dynamism and that there’s more danger in that than there is in the moral risks associated with social change or technological progress. I think both carry risks, right? If you’re living in a time of rapid technological and social change, the whole point of a conservative predisposition is to look at those rapid changes and try and judge them against unchanging moral standards. To say to people, “Well, you can’t just invoke the inevitability of progress in order to justify doing something that is ultimately going be destructive and wicked.”
I think that’s a tremendously important purpose that any kind of conservatism serves in a changing world and a changing society. But in a society that is, as ours is, I think, aging, stagnant, stuck in repetitive loops of argument, the same culture or argument circling back on each other, the same religious argument, circling back on each other as growth slows down and fewer people have children and society, gets drearier and more decadent, to use the title of my book—I think that the conservative who’s interested in preserving ancient and traditional human goods forms of human flourishing has to be invested in some dynamism, some openness to risk and novelty and change.
I think if you look at the history of the Western world, any kind of conservatism has succeeded in preserving goods by being not just change resistant but also change adaptive. The conservatism of the 20th century looks different from the conservatism of the 19th century. This is particularly true, I think, for religion. If you look at periods of religious revival, Christian revival, in the Western world, they often coincide with periods of significant technological or socioeconomic change. The Victorian era in Great Britain, 1940s and 1950s America, the last high tide of the Christian churches: these were not stagnant eras by any stretch of the imagination. They were dynamic and future-oriented and dominated by substantial technological change, and traditional religion thrived in those eras by, on the one hand, offering something that was maybe more necessary to people in a time of change than it had been before, but also in adapting itself successfully to those changes, merging the traditional and the modern.
There’s a reason that we use a term like renaissance to describe some new era of cultural creativity. But renaissance means rebirth. It means that every renaissance reaches back into the past to claim something that is useful for the future. I think that’s the place that a lot of cultural conservatives and traditionalists should be in today. They should see themselves not as change resistant, but as working towards cultural changes that reach into the past to bring greater life and greater dynamism to the future.
SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer, Ross. It’s a tension that I grapple with personally. It’s great to get your insights. I just have a few more questions for you. I’m grateful for the generosity of your time.
Let me turn to another of your books. You and our mutual friend, Reihan Salam, wrote a prescient book in 2008 which observed changes in the Republican party’s voting coalition and argued for a more working-class policy agenda to better reflect its interests and needs. Your calls went unheeded, and the short story is that the party eventually got Donald Trump. What did you see that others didn’t? And why were Republican politicians so resistant to a different policy orthodoxy?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, so the argument in the book was basically that the American Republican party—and this extends, I think, to Right and centre parties all over the developed world—was drawing increasing support from lower-middle class and working-class voters for reasons connected to cultural issues. Also connected generally to this class-based transformation in the West towards a society dominated by a meritocratic-based class structure where the new elite of Western societies were plucked off and forged into a class unto themselves. A class that at the time—this has changed somewhat arguably—but at the time were big beneficiaries of globalization and changes associated with a globalized economy and were well-suited, at least to some extent, for cultural liberalism as the presiding spirit of their social order.
Then that this new dynamic was not working out as well for a lot of more working-class voters who were not doing as well economically, were not reaping the same benefits, and who were suffering socially from the effects of what I saw then—and now, frankly—as the cultural effects of social liberalization, the decline of religion, the decline of marriage, the decline of a lot of institutions, social and familial, in the Western world.
The argument in the book was basically that these voters were moving rightward, but that the traditional conservative parties didn’t have a real economic agenda that was well suited to their interests and needs and that was capable of building a sturdier foundation beneath middle and working class populations so that social structures, family structures, religious structures could be built on top of that economic foundation. We were calling for in effect, more working-class friendly conservative economic policies of the kind that since then, subsequently, lots and lots of conservative politicians in Europe and America have claimed to favour. Donald Trump being only the most prominent example.
The challenge is that there isn’t a clear organized base within the conservative coalition to push for those policies. There are a lot of voters who vote for conservative parties, who are, let’s say, open to economic policies that go beyond just tax cuts and deregulation, which had been the default right-of-centre political prescription. There aren’t really strong interest groups that push for them.
Unions were the traditional interest group that made that push. Unions, especially in the United States have been in steady decline and have never found a comfortable home in the right-of-centre. Churches and religious organizations conceivably could make that kind of push, but they have been weakened substantially and are internally divided. You have a situation on the political Right where you have mass support for a mix of economic distribution, reduced immigration, tariffs and protectionism to protect industries and jobs.
There’s that inchoate political force that figures like Donald Trump can tap into, but it doesn’t take a really strong organized form or produce a lot of conservative elites who are intensely interested in its ideas. You’ll get these surges where Boris Johnson will take power in the U.K. and say, “All right, I’m going to have a plan to revitalize the north of England,” or something, but who’s actually pushing for that plan?
Plenty of voters might support it notionally, but in practice, the people making policy for the Tories, like the people making policies for Republicans in the United States, are mostly responsive to their donor base. Their donor base is still disproportionately wealthy, and so economic policy is still made more for the donors than for the voters. I think that’s at least one story of why this populist conservatism, working-class conservatism, keeps almost taking shape but then not actually translating into policy.
With the other realities being, one, that libertarianism is just a really powerful force in American right-wing politics. Always has been, always will be. And it places some limits on any economic populism. Also, it’s just really hard to get populist economics right. You can say, “Okay, there’s this or that failure of the neoliberal world order.” To link back to the prior question you asked me, you can’t just have a politics of redistribution to rebuild the working class because you actually need growth and dynamism as well.
If there was a simple solution that delivered economic dynamism and a robust economically prosperous working class, someone would have found it. You don’t see it across the Western world, because it’s actually hard to figure out what that synthesis should be.
SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses, Ross, one of the things that the pandemic has caused for me, as well with regards to this question is, the need to confront basic questions about state capacity. Even if one is inclined to a more conservative, populist economic agenda, there are outstanding questions about the government’s ability to deliver on, say, industrial policy.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Right. There are lots of ways in which the standard libertarian critique of government action still obtains and has power, even if you think we need the government to do more things. Even if you look at the hollowing out of industrial capacity in North America and outsourcing to China and so on, and you say, “Okay, this ended up being a bad thing, or it ended up having greater costs than we expected and we need to reverse it.”
There are still big questions about whether you can actually successfully reverse it or whether you just end up building up some Potemkin industries and wasting a lot of money and not actually doing the thing you set out to do.
SEAN SPEER: On the issue of class, you’ve written powerfully about the divergent experiences, particularly during the pandemic, between what you’ve termed the “laptop class” and the working class. We’re now seeing this manifest over the former’s resistance to returning to the office and the rise of so-called “quiet quitting.” Maybe I’ll just ask a general question and let you take it where you want: how should we think about this growing divide, and what do you think are its political economy consequences?
ROSS DOUTHAT: In part, we see the post-pandemic era through a glass darkly. It’s really hard to get a full handle even on exactly what’s happening and how temporary versus permanent some changes are. A couple of things seem to be happening at once. If you look around American cities right now, you can see some transition to part-time remote work as a key feature of upper-class meritocratic lives right now. Is that enduring, does that last another five years? Do you have a situation where companies look at what’s happening in two years and say, “Okay, the pandemic really is over now and for reasons of productivity and collegiality, we need to get everyone back in the office”? I’m just not sure.
I think if you were to bet, you would say that COVID accelerated a trend towards remote work that was happening very, very slowly and that we’re going to be at a new equilibrium where more people expect to be able to work from home twice a week, but I don’t think you can know for sure. Clearly, that has a bunch of potential consequences. It has consequences for hollowing out urban downtowns because fewer people are going to work in them. It has some positive consequences maybe for revitalizing communities outside these core metropolises because more people can spend more time at home and live further out.
Maybe it has positive consequences for the birth rate because those people are more likely to have kids because they aren’t commuting into work or crammed into small apartments, but there are a lot of stories you can spin out and we don’t know exactly how far that trend is going to go. Then similarly at the other end of the economic spectrum, I would say we don’t know for sure why, for instance, when I go to Maine in the summer right now you see lots and lots of restaurants that are only open three days a week because they can’t get people to work there anymore. Even at higher wages. Wages have gone up and yet lots and lots of service industries are still struggling to find work.
Now is that a consequence of reduced immigration? You talk to people running restaurants in Maine who say, “Yes, I used to get some Russian exchange students to work for me, and right now we’re not getting them anymore.” That’s an effect of the pandemic, but also changing geopolitics. Is it that more people, even though they’re not getting unemployment or COVID-era money anymore just being permanently disconnected from the workforce and not even imagining themselves getting back in, men in particular? Is there something to connect to the conversation about chronic illness?
COVID has clearly created more cases of chronic illness. Does that have some effect on employment? Are there more people not working because they’re persistently sick? Anyway, I’m rambling here but hopefully in the ramble, you can see this basic uncertainty of this post-pandemic, but not-fully-post-pandemic, landscape where we just don’t know how long COVID-created trends are going to go on.
SEAN SPEER: I just have one final question for you, Ross. It’s something I’ve wanted to put to you for some time.
As a conservative columnist at the New York Times, you’re writing for a large audience composed of those who mostly disagree with you. That presumably comes with some trade-offs, including the form of argumentation that you may adopt, for instance.
Now I should say I tremendously respect your approach, but I wonder if you ever think about if the trade-offs are worth it. I know, for instance, in a podcast with Ezra Klein that you’ve observed that the past few years have affected your own politics but there are limits to talking about how your perspective has changed. How do you and your unique role assess the compromises that come with trying to persuade a mostly critical audience? Are they worth it, and is it something you think about often?
ROSS DOUTHAT: The question is when I think about every time I sit down to write a column. [laughs] I think it’s fair to say I think about it often.
I think that the trade-offs are absolutely worth it in the sense that as a writer engaged in politics, you’re trying to—the opportunity to write for people who disagree with you is the opportunity that one should want. I don’t deceive myself that I’m radically changing anybody’s mind, but the chance to even change someone’s mind a little, I think is a really valuable opportunity and not that many writers have it and I’m lucky to have it. That’s what I tell myself most of the time.
I suppose one caveat obviously is that we’re living through an era where American conservatism is a total mess and my position as a conservative writer who writes for the Times means that I’m not really even trying to have that much influence over actual existing American conservatism.
I obviously would like to have some influence. I do write columns with conservative audiences in mind. But the trade-off you’re describing does mean that I’m trading potential influence with right-wing and Republican readers in order to write for the audience that I have. You could say you can tell a story where there’s a different career that I have where I’m more influential as a conservative writing for conservatives and this has some healthy effect on a conservatism that desperately needs to be restored to health.
I think one of the big lessons of the whole Donald Trump phenomenon is that no conservative writer had the influence over American conservatism and Republican voters that a lot of people imagined that they had. Conservative writers, they didn’t all oppose Trump, but whether it was National Review or George Will, or any subset of conservative writers you wanted to pick, most people opposed Trump and most Republican and conservative voters ignored them.
I think the lesson there is that you just shouldn’t overstate the influence of writers. And that provides some comfort for me that if I imagine that alternative world where I was writing more for conservatives, I should assume as a default that I wouldn’t have had that much influence anyway.
SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer and this has been a great conversation. The book is The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery. Ross Douthat, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.