Rachel Maddow: 'I Don't Want People to Think It's a Conspiracy'

By Conor Friedersdorf

Even though she's an ideological broadcaster, Maddow doesn't resort to demonization and hyperbole. It makes her case much stronger.

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On Thursday, Hugh Hewitt graciously invited me onto his radio show to discuss my review of Mark Levin's Ameritopia. I enjoyed the interview, but the broadcast medium is a bit frustrating for many writers, insofar as we're much better able to articulate ideas on the page. One point I wasn't able to raise in the several segments afforded me concerns the conspiratorial strain in ideological books on the left and right. For Ann Coulter, liberals are demonic. For Mark Levin, they're tyrants or closeted utopians who hide their true philosophy because it's unpalatable to the public. For Keith Olbermann, all of "the worst people in the world" just happen to be ideological antagonists. As I see it, it's dubious at best to build a book on the premise that the side of the ideological spectrum opposite yours is made up of duplicitous people with malign intent. A passing familiarity with the people "on the other side" is enough to destroy that illusion. 

Truth aside, there is also the question of utility. Among the segment of the audience that isn't already sympathetic to your position, what is more likely to be persuasive, a realistic description of what motivates those "on the other side," or the assertion that "the other side" is secretly malign?

Enter Rachel Maddow. Let's use her as a test case. The photograph above is taken from her appearance this week on The Daily Show. She was discussing her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Here is a transcript of the portion that so impressed me:

RACHEL MADDOW: We didn't feel like we went to war as a country. We felt like we're a country that sent the military to war. The military fought the wars and we weren't invested in them. We didn't sacrifice for it and we didn't feel it. And we still feel that way, we ought to feel that way, and it ought to make us change the way we are as a country, and I don't think that it would be impossible to do.

JON STEWART: Don't you think that is a purposeful creation by the government to isolate the military from the general populace? Because then you're able to do things with the military that -- if the sacrifice is spread out through everybody, via draft or that sort of thing, the pushback is much more enormous from the population for how you use the wars. Is that -- do you think that's something they design purposefully?

RACHEL MADDOW: I think that's incrementally what we achieved. But I don't -- it's called Drift in part because I don't want people to think that it was a conspiracy. That people set out to change the country this way --

JON STEWART: You really don't know how to sell books, do you? You're supposed to have a whole conspiracy thing here.

RACHEL MADDOW: I know. Conspiracy is easier to understand than complexity, right? But there are all of these really reasonable decisions made by politics who have understandable frustrations. They see a national security need that they think needs to be addressed, but the Congress doesn't want them to. So they figure out how to do it around the Congress. They see a national security need that they want to address but they don't really want to explain it to the public. So they do it in secret. They figure out a way to do it but it looks like it's going t be too expensive? Tell people it's free. We make all these little incremental changes to make it just less hassle. To get around the things that we need to get around to do what we know is right.
Understand that Rachel Maddow thinks these shortcuts, secrets, and lies are ruinous to America. She has taken the time to write a whole book arguing as much -- and has published it when the political party to which she belongs is running the branch she criticizes. Her book grants that the people responsible for damaging America often act with the very best of intentions. Doing so doesn't make the consequences less dire. The banality of the bad acts they perpetrate doesn't make change less urgent. Failing to demonize them doesn't weaken Maddow's case.

Her calm treatment does help her better capture what it is that motivates the behavior that she wants to change. Doing so with precision is vital if the ultimate object is to push successful reform. As Jon Stewart points out, an alternative aim -- selling lots of books -- is more easily accomplished when you do invoke dark conspiracy theories about how "the other side" is secretly malign.

It's to Maddow's credit that she chose the nobler purpose.

Near the end of my conversation with Hewitt, he asked me, "Do you have any other book to hold up as a comparison that you'd say, 'Now here is a book that really has impacted politics, and did it the right way, and stands in distinction to Ameritopia?'" I said that if I could commend a book from the political genre to all Americans it would be The Constitution of Liberty by Friedrich Hayek or, as a second choice, Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman. Both are great books.

Here's what Hewitt said:

But Conor, that won't help them. I mean, right now, people have to decide whether or not to vote for Obama or Romney. Now part of that is journalism's function. But if you want to make an informed choice about the worldviews they represent, you can't read Milton Friedman. He had no idea where we would be at this point. No one could have imagined this.  
As I said on the show, those books are in fact relevant today. Agree or disagree with them, any reader can see that their arguments about planned versus spontaneous orders and their arguments in favor of liberty apply as much today as in their respective times. And although fewer people are reading those books today than are reading Mark Levin bestsellers, they still matter more. The earnest, charitable spirit with which they evaluate those who disagree with them permits their doing so with far more accuracy and precision than most political books offer.

It's no accident that their insights remain powerful.

Said Hewitt, on the same subject, "Those books will not be read in great numbers now because of the nature of the bookselling world." True enough. That's why part of what I am up to is exposing the strengths and flaws of books as merit dictates, rather than lavishing inflated praise on the right's bestsellers simply because that happens to be what more people are reading now.

Aren't book reviews meant to guide people toward better selections?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/rachel-maddow-i-dont-want-people-to-think-its-a-conspiracy/255259/