Martin Gurri joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss how we can transcend the pettiness and corruption of our current political moment.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Martin Gurri. He’s been on the program before. He’s a writer, a former CIA analyst, a visiting research fellow at the Mercatus Center. He studies the relationship between politics and media. We’ve published a number of his pieces in City Journal. His work has also appeared in the New York Post, Free Press, and other publications. He posts regularly on his blog, The Fifth Wave, and he’s the author of, among other works, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Today, though, we’re going to discuss his recent essay for us, “Prologue to an Ideology of Freedom,” it appears in our winter issue, and presents Martin’s guide to transcending the current political moment, I guess is how we could describe it. So Martin Gurri, very, very happy to have you back on 10 Blocks.

Martin Gurri: Great to be here.

Brian Anderson: So in this essay you write that the world today presents a picture of chaos basically. The complexities of modern society require expert management, yet public trust in experts and elites is extremely low right now. Governments, legislatures, bureaucrats, regulators, they’ve turned to what you describe as an ideology of control to tame public opinion and impose conformity, and this isn’t going very well. So I wonder if you could expand on that particular theme and explain how you see this conflict, an open conflict now, between elite authority and democratic ideals.

Martin Gurri: Well, I wish it were quite that clean cut, but essentially what is happening with the elites is a reactionary move. Jonathan Haidt says our moment is a little bit like the Tower of Babel, there’s a lot of people screaming and they seem like they’re speaking mutually unintelligible languages. The effect has been to erode authority at every level, and the people who are the authorities are groping for a way to somehow re-legitimize themselves. They have lost every taste for debate, discussion, the old Democratic back-and-forth. They just love mandates. Mandates are the thing. And they have seized on a couple of political pseudo ideologies to be able to do that. Of course, the identity and ecology play into that. It all began with the pandemic, it began with health. The game gets played in a very simple way, you declare a crisis, pandemic, white supremacy, climate, and then there’s no time for debate. You have to basically impose all these mandates or you are some kind of moral abomination.

Now that has not been very popular, and it’s mostly represented the elites, their home and bastion is the Democratic Party politically. So it’s been represented by the Biden administration and by blue state governors. Now, there’s been a big pushback on that and the pushback, it tends to be called populists, that’s a word I don’t particularly like, but you have to use it, I guess, who are representing or trying to represent the public in its opposition to this ideology of control. The problem with the populists is that they’re ideologically empty. You look at Trump, you look at people like DeSantis, and they’re very, very clear who they’re against. They’re against woke, they’re against a swamp, they don’t like Washington DC, they don’t like regulations. But what are you for? And then you get a blank stare.

And so this piece was an effort to fill in. I’m not in the same intellectual universe with somebody like Thomas Jefferson, so I’m not going to pretend that I have answers or a fully blown ideology, but these were elements of a liberated ideology that broke away from the ideology of control that felt like you couldn’t beat an ideology of control without an ideology of freedom.

Brian Anderson: So this ideology of freedom, as you describe it, it certainly runs counter to the ideology of control’s emphasis on group identity. In your view, why is it so imperative that we reassert the claims of the individual over those of the group and the state?

Martin Gurri: If you look at history, basically you were destined from birth by the group you were born into. All the way going back to the first law code by the Babylonian king, Hammurabi, all the way to the law codes in the Jim Crow South, where if you had a drop of black blood, that’s who you were. You were a member of that group, you were not an individual. And, of course, once you were put in that position, all your civil rights were stripped out, all kinds of penalties landed on you. So liberal democracy, the United States of America was actually erected in opposition to this principle. How we have allowed it to be snuck back into a form of government operating principle of government is amazing to me, but if you look at the Biden administration, again, and many, many blue state governments, they operate in like an inverse version of the Nuremberg laws that the Nazis had, in almost the same category, the same kinds of people, racial and sexual minorities, except of course they’re supposed to be protected.

But the problem is, of course, that this can’t be done except on there is a class of individuals who decide what the pertinent groups are and who belongs in them. So you’re essentially granting an enormous amount of arbitrary power to the elites just by ceding liberal democracy to group status, individual rights to group status. I think we began with the Declaration of Independence as a country, and it says these rights are self-evident, and they’re not evident in a lot of our government today.

Brian Anderson: One of the things you set out to do in this essay is to provide a kind of argument for the contemporary world of the founding generation ideal of individual rights. Now, as you note, not everybody would look to divine origin for individual rights in a more secular society today, but you say, “We can reconceive these rights for a more secular world as well, basing them on time and memory,” as you put it. I wonder if you could elaborate on that point a little bit, because it was quite interesting.

Martin Gurri: Ask yourself, where do individual rights come from? Our founding fathers, even the ones that were skeptics, like Thomas Jefferson, would’ve said, “Well, they come from God, and particularly the God refracted through the Enlightenment. It was the benevolent creator that you read in the Declaration of Independence who basically embedded justice and equality into natural law.” Well, we can’t appeal to that anymore. That would be politically impossible. So we have for quite some time, this is not a new condition, floated with these detached rights that we take for granted that seem to have no metaphysical foundation whatsoever. Where do these rights begin? And my contention is, well, it’s like memory, you go back as an individual and you don’t try to create some principle that gives you the memories that you have and made you the person that you are. That is the way we are.

We have been organized a certain way because certain people did certain things, and it worked out very well for us. So individual rights, the fact that Thomas Jefferson put those words in the Declaration of Independence, that we have a bill of rights that were put into the Constitution, all those things are very important, not because they descend from God, you can believe that or not if you want to, but because they are our memory. The reason we are not Russian is because they have different memories than we have. Same with China. So I feel like your identity is your memory, so you have to go back and teach history. And, yes, there is some shame in our history. Show me an individual who can’t look back in his own past and start blushing with shame because they have done something that they shouldn’t have.

But there’s a lot of greatness in there. And the basic outlook of America, in my opinion, and I come to it being an immigrant, is that it’s open, the future is open. I think the dark part of group status is that it’s a closed world. You can’t escape. It’s destined. And the American way of life has been, no, no, no, it’s an open frontier, you can make yourself what you want to. And that’s right there in our history and in our memory. And I feel like we can and should teach both the shameful bits, but also the great bits, the amazing bits. Why have so many millions come to this country, my family, for example, as a safe harbor? I think the memory is what does it.

Brian Anderson: This essay intersects with a lot of your other work for us and elsewhere, Martin, in that you say that the ideology of freedom has to extend in the 21st century to digital space if it’s going to have relevance. Now, the elites, as you’ve again written about for us, they fear the openness of the internet, they’ve tried to suppress it as we’ve seen now through mandates, regulations, and indeed hidden censorship. But to sustain our freedoms, we need to remake the digital landscape, you argue, so that the ideals of democracy still apply there. You sketch out three key aims in doing that. And I wonder if you could just briefly walk through those three.

Martin Gurri: I have to say, that is probably the greatest failing of our elite class is that they see the internet. And I have been to so many conferences in so many countries, and the first thing they go is, “Can we kill the internet?” Well, the internet is here to stay. You have to use it. So I had three proposals, there are more you can think probably with it trying very hard. One is the reconfiguration of government. You have to make government flatter. You have to make it more like Amazon and less like the great pyramid of Egypt. And there is absolutely no reason why that can’t be done. And, of course, the more proximate the governing class is to the public, the less distrustful the public is going to be. The second proposal is I guess I would call it a devolution of ownership of the data in the web to the public.

In other words, it doesn’t belong to the great big social media companies, they have no right to mandate what we’re allowed to see or not, or what’s a harm, for example, is the word that gets tossed around the lot. Same with the government, we should be allowed to see any data about us, for example. I should be able to see anything that the police or the IRS have about me just by requesting it. There should be total freedom of information. The Estonians do this, and it can work. So I think just by terrifying the bureaucracy into knowing that everything they do might become public, that whole weight of secrecy, which I, of course, having worked with CIA felt was just overdone. Once you build that wall, you feel comfy inside. If they think there is no wall, this is going to be going public, you will behave differently.

I think it’s a fact that people are more moral when they’re being watched than what they are on their own. And lastly, and I think much more difficult, is what you would call civilizing or humanizing the digital self. There’s been a couple of studies of the digital self that I find fascinating. It’s not you. It’s the thing about the digital self. It’s not you. It’s this flat shadow of an entity that has to scream just to be recognized as anything. And we tend to treat that as a structural destiny. And there is some pressure in an overcrowded space to shout to be heard, but it isn’t a destiny. There is no reason why we can’t behave online and create spaces online where decency and civility and all the norms that liberal democracy demands thrive.

And I will give Substack as one example today. And I think you have to build out from these little spots into larger areas. I’m not an idealist. It’s always going to be pornography, there’s always going to be people who shout threats, there’s always going to be more noise than a signal, but you need to change the modality of it, you need to change the vibes of it. And I think there can be enough people who are civil and who humanize, become online what they are in the flesh to do that.

Brian Anderson: And this would be the morality of restraint that you refer to, correct? Dealing more fairly with people online, engaging with critics in respectful ways, this has always been seen, or at least until recently, as the core of a kind of restraint, a willingness to take critics seriously. Democracy can’t really function if you’re solely seeking to annihilate your political opponent.

Martin Gurri: Yeah, I think it goes further and deeper than that even. I think you cannot stop an ideology of control unless you impose self-control. In other words, you can’t live an unbuttoned life and not expect that external controls are not going to be imposed upon you. And I think our entire history as a nation has been one of we understood the importance of morality, not because we’re prudes, or because we were Victorians, but because we realized that we needed to control our basic urges because other people had the same. And so far as each of us is an individual with rights, there are others who have equal rights, and we need to deal with each other in a way that is congruent with that. And by the way, our founding fathers were absolutely clear about that. They were deep into history, they knew their classics, and they knew that you cannot have a republic, forget about a democracy, you cannot have a republic unless there’s virtue in the people.

It’s almost a cliche that every last one of those founding fathers said it over and over again. We have to understand what that means for us. And I think part of it is what you said, I think part of it is dealing with our opponents in a way that is civil and takes their point of view as something that you are considering seriously. But, honestly, I feel even more than that, it means not trying to pretend that the illusion that the internet provides, that we’re talking to presidents, that we’re part of these gigantic movements to save the earth or whatever, not falling for that. I think it means behaving in our actual circle of life.

Famous British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who figured out that each of us can have more or less 150 personal relationships, the Dunbar number is where morality resides. It’s your family, it’s your workplace, it’s your church, it’s your community. And you can be out saving the earth, but if you’re a bad person to your children, then what good is that? And I think we need to start with that. I think the political morality is important and political self-restraint is important, but I think it’s part of a whole part, it’s part of understanding that you live with other people and you need to treat them with kindness and decency. And you cannot have, I don’t believe, in the long term, a liberal democracy without morality.

Brian Anderson: Well, it’s a good way to end this conversation, Martin. Let’s hope the ideology of freedom can gain some adherence in this election year, when things are going to be pretty heated. Thanks as usual for coming on. It’s a really terrific essay. Very, very provocative. It’s in the winter issue, it’s called “Prologue to an Ideology of Freedom.” Don’t forget to check out Martin Gurri’s work on the City Journal website. That’s at We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can find this terrific essay there, “Prologue to an Ideology of Freedom.” And we’ll link to his author page, as I noted. And you can find Martin on X, he’s @mgurri. You can also find City Journal on X, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. As usual, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Martin Gurri, very nice to talk with you as always.

Martin Gurri: Hey, Brian, take care.

Photo: AlxeyPnferov/iStock

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