In an essay published on June 30, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Yascha Mounk laid out the principles that would define Persuasion, his new newsletter–think tank hybrid. Persuasion, he wrote, would “seek to build a free society in which all individuals get to pursue a meaningful life irrespective of who they are.” He and his all-star cast of center-right and center-left writers—a number of whom, like Mounk, are contributors to The Atlantic—would do so in a principled manner; no trolling! Here was a group of happy warriors, assembled “to defend free speech and free inquiry against all its enemies.”
Free society, free speech, free inquiry—not exactly the stuff of controversy. But that was precisely the point. In a follow-up post sent out five days later, Mounk made it clear that Persuasion was formed because this community of thinkers believed that the institutions formed to protect and spread those values had failed. The hallmarks of twentieth-century liberalism—in Mounk’s examples, the Brookings Institute and The New York Times—were either bogged down by decades of baggage or overrun by barbarians or both.
“Instead of lamenting our loss of control over the establishment, we should follow the lead of other movements that have successfully built their own counter-establishment institutions,” Mounk concluded. The only way to save the establishment was to embrace the tactics of the counter-establishment—except without all the coarse language and mockery.
For all the talk about free inquiry, Persuasion isn’t casting a wide net of ideas and topics just yet. Rather, based on his written work for Persuasion, interviews about the project, and tweets, Mounk wants a free-speech community focused on the topic of … free speech. Indeed, Persuasion is best seen as media criticism. In Mounk’s analysis, mainstream establishment institutions have failed to insulate respected voices from the mob, leading to firings and a widespread sense of anxiety. This suggests that Persuasion is less about defending free speech per se than about creating a bulwark against “cancel culture.”
In his second piece for Persuasion, Mounk trotted out a short history of the rapid change he believes mainstream institutions have gone through over the last few years.
I won’t bore you with a detailed recap of its most worrying manifestations, from the firing of James Bennet to the uncritical celebration of Robin DiAngelo. Nor do I want to suggest that these changes have completely delegitimized the mainstream: These institutions have not yet become wholly illiberal, and the advocates of a free society would be foolish to stop fighting for them. But the erosion of values like free speech and due process within mainstream institutions does put philosophical liberals at a unique disadvantage. It is difficult to convey just how many amazing writers, journalists, and think-tankers—some young and some old, some relatively obscure and others very famous—have privately told me that they can no longer write in their own voices; that they are counting the days until they get fired; and that they don’t know where to turn if they do. (Astonishingly, a number of them are far enough to the left to have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.)
Speaking to the anti-Trump website The Dispatch, Mounk riffed on this theme further. “Mainstream institutions are now only questionably liberal,” he said. Many employees “feel like they always have to argue with people who disagree with them” or are “edited [in a hostile manner] by 24-year-olds … who completely disagree with their worldview.” Persuasion, he said, was for people who were “horrified by Donald Trump” and his enablers but were also “horrified by a lot of the op-eds that now dominate The New York Times.”
It’s a telling and shameless collapse. On the one hand, a two-bit authoritarian who is the most powerful person on the planet; on the other, an editorial page that employs Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and other centrists and conservatives. The whole reason Bennet was forced to step down as the Times editorial page editor was that he introduced a Trump-style toxicity to respectable discourse, publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton to “send in the troops” to quell violence that had accompanied Black Lives Matter protests.
“Due process” is a concept that comes up a lot in Mounk’s writing. Regarding Bennet’s ouster, the implication is that it was mob justice, that he was removed simply because people on Twitter were offended. Mounk believes that offensive statues should be brought down legally, also via “due process.” This is because if we tear down statues of bigots now, others may tear down statues of civil rights icons later. In both cases, Mounk argues, there is a right way to go about things: You have a debate and convince people of your point of view.
But that’s exactly what happened in Bennet’s case. The outcry at the Times was an example of vigorous free speech. Employees believed that the publication of Cotton’s op-ed put black co-workers at risk, and said so. This was done, yes, on Twitter, but it was also an organized internal effort that exposed serious flaws in the editorial process under Bennet’s leadership.
As for the statues, there have been legal challenges to take down Confederate statues for years, to little avail. The recent surge in statue removals came as part of the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder and the larger reckoning over racial justice. Mounk’s fear is that this will be a slippery slope, leading to all manner of statue obliteration. He has cited the destruction of a Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester as proof that this was happening, but efforts to remove even slave-owning Founding Fathers remain unpopular and rare.
Talking about due process for James Bennet and statues is in colossally poor taste in this context. The lack of actual, legal due process for the victims of police violence is the root of the protests that have swept the country over the past six weeks. (Due process also didn’t help the many women who came forward with claims of abuse in the pre-Weinstein years—it was the “mob” that came to their aid.) The killers of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman who was shot multiple times in Louisville, Kentucky, have still not been arrested.
In their obsession with the left and cancel culture, Mounk and his fellow travelers are dangerously close to suggesting that the free society we enjoy is as much under attack from the left as from the right. An open letter published in Harper’s this week raised a number of the same concerns that animate Persuasion. (Mounk, and a number of Persuasion contributors, are signatories of this letter, naturally.) They warned, “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”
In his first manifesto for Persuasion, Mounk made a similar point using the same vague examples: “At the very moment when it would be most important for those who oppose an emboldened far-right to speak with confidence and conviction, these same values are losing their luster among significant parts of the left. Companies and cultural institutions fire innocent people for imaginary offenses; prominent voices alternate between defending cancel culture and denying its existence; and an astonishing number of academics and journalists proudly proclaim that it is time to abandon values like due process and free speech.” This section contains a single link to an Atlantic story Mounk wrote about three people who lost their jobs after being accused of offenses they did not commit.
These are, to be fair, concerning examples. But whether they rise to be so serious or widespread as to warrant the attention Mounk and the editors of Harper’s give them—as if they were a nationwide plague, slowly coming to infect us all—is not so clear. It is all the more problematic when you consider that an outspoken opponent of liberal values occupies the White House.
The problem with Persuasion is that it all comes back to cancel culture, not only elevating an issue that affects the elite more than everyone else but obscuring more serious assaults on liberalism and free speech. Mounk’s assertion that Persuasion is a place where no one will have to worry about being told their ideas are problematic by a woke 24-year-old editor suggests that this myopic fixation will continue. He may intend in good faith for Persuasion to exist as a space for real debate, but that is hard to accomplish if its writers and thinkers are flocking there for the express purpose of not being challenged. Is Persuasion a happy warrior for free expression? Or a vehicle for skeptics of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and other social justice movements? The same could be asked of Harper’s, which has made #MeToo skepticism something of a house brand.
The first essay published on Persuasion not written by Mounk is an argument by Zaid Jilani for the end of at-will employment. The establishment of “just cause” would, in his view, prevent employers from firing people who have been unjustly targeted by online mobs. It’s a clever solution—it’s a little of the left and of the right—flirting with the kind of heterodoxy that Mounk promised Persuasion would provide. But it is still fixated on cancel culture.
Persuasion has the feel of a club of no-longer-coddled elites, banded together in an attempt to maintain their status in a rapidly changing world. At this point, it doesn’t seem to be about changing minds. It may be dressed up as a new institution for promoting a free society, but so far its cause célèbre is the process by which op-eds are published. Liberalism deserves better.