The DeSantis Question

Plus: Silicon Valley woo

Ron DeSantis
Scott McIntyre / NYT / Redux

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Do you want Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida to win or lose his Republican primary race against Donald Trump? Why? How does he compare, in your estimation, to Joe Biden?

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Conversations of Note

Back in 2021, I argued that backing Ron DeSantis early was the best bet for Never Trumpers who wanted to deny Donald Trump another GOP nomination. I still think so. And this week, DeSantis launched his campaign, though as my colleague David Graham notes in an article that is bearish on DeSantis’s chances at victory, Trump’s strong numbers in the polls are undeniable.

Still, Rich Lowry, the editor in chief of National Review, argues in The New York Times that it is far too early to count DeSantis out:

He’ll be lavishly funded, his favorable ratings remain quite high among Republicans, he can draw a crowd, he’ll finally actually be in the race, and perhaps most important, it seems he has the correct theory of how to try to topple Mr. Trump …

Mr. DeSantis won’t and can’t make the totalist case against Mr. Trump as unfit to serve that Never Trump Republicans and the press might like to hear. But so it is. Much of his anti-Trump case will be based on electability. There’s no doubt that Mr. Trump blew a winnable race in 2020—Mr. DeSantis will need to say he really did lose—and had a large hand in the Republican Party’s disappointing midterms last year. In all likelihood, Mr. DeSantis would have a much easier time beating President Biden than Mr. Trump would, based on the generational contrast alone. But there are limits to this argument.

Mr. Trump is competitive with Mr. Biden in polling, and an electability message doesn’t usually move the type of self-identified very conservative primary voters Mr. DeSantis needs to pry from Mr. Trump. The risk to Mr. DeSantis is that his candidacy takes on the feel of an establishment front-runner—lots of donor enthusiasm, an electability message—when he’s running from behind against an insurgent populist who happens to have once been president of the United States. To counter that, Mr. DeSantis is obviously going to have to retain his hard edge on cultural issues.

I’ll share my own thoughts about how DeSantis might run against Trump soon.

A Gen Z Teen’s Diagnosis of His Generation

Zach Gottlieb grew up with a therapist mom (Lori Gottlieb, who also happens to write our Dear Therapist column) who taught him that discomfort is part of life, but that the world keeps turning even when you’re sad, a message that helps him to stay resilient.

In the Los Angeles Times, he argues that parents who take the opposite approach are creating depressed kids:

Parents and educators have been trying to figure out how to help teens in my generation who are struggling amid rising rates of depression and anxiety. That’s an understandable goal. What worries me, though, is the possibility that many in my generation are confusing mental health issues with normal discomfort, to the point that the term “mental health” is becoming so diluted that it’s starting to lose meaning.

Social media play a large role in this, promoting pseudo-technical and pathologizing language—often leading to cancellation—as the antidote to emotional discomfort.

Someone disagrees with you? They’re “gaslighting” you! Someone has the “wrong” point of view or perspective? They’re “toxic”! Someone declines to do what you ask? They have “no boundaries”! Instead of talking through these situations or trying to understand another perspective better, we run away to the supposed comfort of not having to deal with them. Click—they’re blocked.

Colleges have disinvited speakers who might be triggering to some students or created “safe spaces” where students can go instead; students in high schools and middle schools can choose not to attend assemblies that might be triggering; TV shows and podcasts tell us in advance that we might be triggered by a certain topic discussed, so we should skip that episode in case it makes us uncomfortable. We strive to make everyone comfortable, all the time and in every way—an impossible goal.

All of the warnings are well-intentioned and supposedly in service of our mental health. And of course, many people my age face mental health stressors that go far beyond the disappointments and conflicts of daily life. Anxiety and depression are serious concerns that need to be addressed, and treatment should be encouraged and accessible.

But I wonder if, more broadly, we’re normalizing an almost hyper-vigilant avoidance of anything uncomfortable. By insisting that the mere mention of something difficult is bad for our mental health, are we protecting ourselves from emotional damage—or damaging ourselves emotionally?

Silicon Valley Woo

The writer Tara Isabella Burton argues in The New Atlantis that the zeitgeist has shifted in the following way:

You might call it the postrationalist turn: a cultural shift in both relatively “normie” and hyper-weird online spaces. Whether you call it spiritual hunger, reactionary atavism, or postliberal epistemology, more and more young, intellectually inclined, and politically heterodox thinkers (and would-be thinkers) are showing disillusionment with the contemporary faith in technocracy and personal autonomy. They see this combination as having contributed to the fundamentally alienating character of modern Western life. The chipper, distinctly liberal optimism of rationalist culture that defines so much of Silicon Valley ideology—that intelligent people, using the right epistemic tools, can think better, and save the world by doing so—is giving way, not to pessimism, exactly, but to a kind of techno-apocalypticism. We’ve run up against the limits—political, cultural, and social alike—of our civilizational progression; and something newer, weirder, maybe even a little more exciting, has to take its place. Some of what we’ve lost—a sense of wonder, say, or the transcendent—must be restored.

What could go wrong?

The Tax Code and Swedish Feminism

In a fascinating essay on Sweden’s approach to the state and individualism, the Swedish history professor Lars Trägårdh spends a few paragraphs on the country’s unique tax code and the effect it has had on women:

In 1971, joint taxation was eliminated in favour of strict individual taxation. The idea was that at a time when women began to flock to the labour market, joint taxation presented an obstacle in the form of a negative incentive. If a woman began to earn money, her income would be added to that of the husband, and in an era of progressive taxation that meant the woman’s income effectively would be subject to a higher tax. Add to this that before the 1970s there was no universal, tax-financed childcare yet in Sweden, meaning that such care—without which it would be impossible for both husband and wife to work—had to be paid for privately, a costly proposition.

The introduction of strict individual taxation—there was no option to select joint taxation—and, over time, universal daycare, created the conditions for women to enter the workforce en masse. This in turn gave them the economic independence without which talk of gender equality would only amount to rhetoric. These reforms, to which can be added the world’s first law criminalising the spanking of children, even at home, and the legalising of gender-neutral marriage, meant that the family became more and more of a voluntary society, rather than the old-fashioned traditional family characterised by patriarchal power relations. To be sure, these reforms, which one perceptive writer has referred to as a ‘bloodless revolution’, created opposition. One group called the Family Campaign collected some 60,000 signatures from irate housewives and religious conservatives to protest the new tax law. But, generally, support far exceeded opposition and the days of the Swedish housewife were indeed numbered.

A Defense of Battle Rap

If you’re horrified by the genre––or a bit unsure of what exactly it is––Jay Caspian Kang’s interesting essay in The New Yorker may provoke more complicated thoughts about its value.

He writes:

​​Battle rap offers a kind of representation politics for the unwoke, a space where there’s some separation between the craft and the respect that the combatants have for one another. In this way, it is both a reflection of a certain reality and, for its fans, a fantasy for how we wish we could talk about identity. There’s something compelling, and even democratic, about battle rap’s premise that identity can always be at the forefront, but will never determine who actually wins.

Conversations of Note

Marking the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s death, Richard V. Reeves, who wrote a 2007 book about the great liberal philosopher, revisits his arguments for a culture of free speech:

Mill believed that the pursuit of truth required the collation and combination of ideas and propositions, even those that seem to be in opposition to each other. He urged us to allow others to speak—and then to listen to them—for three main reasons, most crisply articulated in Chapter 2 of On Liberty.

First, the other person’s idea, however controversial it seems today, might turn out to be right. (“The opinion … may possibly be true.”) Second, even if our opinion is largely correct, we hold it more rationally and securely as a result of being challenged. (“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”) Third, and in Mill’s view most likely, opposing views may each contain a portion of the truth, which need to be combined. (“Conflicting doctrines … share the truth between them.”)

For Mill, as for us, this is not primarily a legal issue. His main concern was not government censorship. It was the stultifying consequences of social conformity, of a culture where deviation from a prescribed set of opinions is punished through peer pressure and the fear of ostracism. “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough,” he wrote. “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.”

Mill never pretended that this would be easy, either at a personal or political level. The humility and openness that is required is hard-won. Our identity as a person must be kept separable from the ideas we happen to endorse at a given time. Otherwise, when those ideas are criticized, we are likely to experience the criticism as an attack upon our self, rather than as an opportunity to think about something more deeply and to grow intellectually. That’s why education is so important. Liberals are not born; we have to be made.  

The article goes on to defend Mill from his detractors on the post-liberal right.

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