“Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist, not liberal…”
PRO: Steve Bannon CON: David Frum
The left gains from listening, not silencing
Steve Bannon, if you are not familiar with the name, is many things — none of which I would take much pride in being called. He is a media executive, investment banker, and a former executive of Breitbart News. Most importantly, however, he is an alt-right politician who was the White House’s Chief Strategist during the first seven months of the Trump presidency, until his high-profile departure.
Bannon’s views are clear and controversial: under him, Breitbart was immersed in scandals regarding, but not limited to, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and white supremacism. During the disastrous 2016 United States presidential elections, when it was announced Bannon would take up an influential post in the White House, there was an incredulous outpouring of public outrage.
Most recently, following widespread criticism of its selection, The New Yorker dropped Bannon from its upcoming festival in October. Similarly, there are calls to disinvite Bannon from speaking at the Autumn Munk Debate in Toronto against David Frum, where Bannon will support the proposition, “the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.”
Many are worried about allowing Bannon to spread his alt-right, populist views. However, Bannon’s disinvitation due to public outrage would be a very clear violation of free speech.
Bannon, irrespective of the repulsiveness of his views, should be allowed to share his perspective and ‘educate’ the audience. Particularly, the most important redeeming quality from his speech is that we can critically reflect on that with which we disagree, a practice that can help us cultivate stronger and more well-rounded arguments.
In the current political climate, an observation I have made is that those who are left-leaning, with which I identify myself, seem to be too impatient to listen to the opposition’s argument. We become so overcome with outrage that we quickly pick up on the disgraceful rhetoric expressed by the opposition, rather than think about the context in which that expression is made. However, this should not be confused with justification for any spiteful words articulated by the alt-right.
The left speaks up everywhere — on the streets, on social media, in public spaces, in government. This has unwittingly helped the opposition cultivate its argument. One of the major reasons the alt-right is so successful in the dissemination of its information is that it listens to everything we say, framing and responding to every one of our talking points before we even say them. Our views are so easily accessible and visible in society for the opposition to read, especially given our propensity to protest and march.
The power of free speech gives us the opportunity to not only express ourselves, but to enjoy the expressions of those with whom we disagree; by better knowing the opposition, we can improve the quality of our arguments and our capacity to challenge them. However, the left continues to squander this opportunity — rather than exercise reason and pay attention to the alt-right, we are bested by emotion and demand its silence.
It would be extremely beneficial for U of T students to attend the Autumn Munk Debate and listen to Bannon’s views on populism. As the Western world undergoes rapid change, typical understandings of the functions of a democratic society — trade, immigration, foreign policy — are being questioned. Populism has taken the front seat in this new era of politics.
The value of this Munk Debate is that it will expose the logic of an alternative political system and its approaches to governance. Although populism currently seems like a radical idea, there is no saying what the future holds — after all, liberal democracy was at one time viewed as revolutionary. Bannon, who is closely associated with the most powerful populist figure in the world — Donald Trump — may grant the audience exclusive insights into the concept.
Providing Steve Bannon with a platform does not put anyone at risk. Ironically, it provides the left with the opportunity to develop its understanding of the increasingly relevant concept and practice of populism, and potentially, to improve the way it can engage and argue against the opposition. The Toronto public, and especially our student body, must be equipped with all the tools needed to debate those who have different values and perspectives. To this end, the left, rather than seek the disinvitation of Bannon, should invite themselves to listen.
Varsha Pillai is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.
The absence of the left points to a questionable debate
It should first be noted that the proposition is reductive and vague. Most scholars associate the term ‘populism’ with politicians who emphasize their loyalty to the majority of the population and reject the ‘elites.’ Ultimately, populism is an approach to politics that depends on the ideology that brings it into force; this renders the discussion of a general concept of ‘populism’ a flawed debate topic.
Furthermore, the dichotomy presented between populism and liberalism is questionable, given the rise of seemingly-paradoxical ‘neoliberal populist’ movements, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement.
The choice of participants for the Autumn Munk Debate opens the door to an even more significant void in this debate: that of ideological representation. Putting aside the surprising absence of voices from Europe, which has been shaken by numerous populist movements, in a debate about Western politics, the larger issue remains that there is no representation for left-wing populism. The views on stage will range from centre-right to far-right.
To only invite a right-wing populist, Bannon, under the guise that he speaks for the entire pro-populist side, is both unfair to populism and inaccurate of its actual manifestations. These debates are responsible for providing the jumping-off points for people’s thoughts on these ideas — to fail to inform people that support for populism is not exclusive to the alt-right will only lead to ignorance.
Beyond ideology, Bannon himself is unrepresentative of the populist base that he claims to represent. Bannon, who is a privately-schooled, Harvard-educated former investment banker, is part of the elite he purports to criticize. Indeed, many recent right-wing populist movements have been no different: Trump is a Wharton graduate of immense inherited wealth; Brexit was led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, both Oxbridge graduates who employ ‘reject the experts’ rhetoric.
Of course, David Frum is hardly representative of the ‘liberal’ side either: he has been responsible for one of the most authoritarian speeches in recent American history, employing highly populist rhetoric to attack non-Western democracies.
The Munk Debates’ ignorance of leftist supporters on either side of this debate points to a troubling trend in Western politics, one that says that the people “have had enough of experts,” as Gove famously said on British television just before Brexit — a trend that places trust in loud polemicists, often perceived as ‘public intellectuals,’ instead.
Populism should not be seriously discussed without bringing in experts on the digital spread of information and misinformation, the increasing levels of support for referendum-driven democracy, and other phenomena which have allowed Western populism to flourish — and neither Bannon nor Frum cite these experts when making their cases. Populism deserves a more holistic, informed, and global analysis.
We then come to a final problem: that of Bannon’s actual attendance at the debate. Bannon’s ideas are one problem, but the platform that this debate could give him is a far more dangerous one. Bannon has a history of expressing sexist and racist views. He co-ran Trump’s 2016 election campaign, one which coincided with a hitherto-unforeseen spike in hate crimes reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bannon uses the affectation of reason to push hateful ideas. The Munk Debates are propagating the idea that Bannon and his ideas are reasonable by putting him up on stage.
This is not a free speech issue. The suppression of free speech entails censorship: denying someone any sort of platform, private or public. Bannon has many platforms and he has used them to repeat the same message. His ideas have been publicized throughout the last few years, by everyone from liberal-learning mass media to demagogues like Nigel Farage, Kellie Leitch, and Viktor Orbán. We must consider the fact that, even if we did want to hear the words of Bannon, he does not have anything important to say.
Bannon should be dropped from this debate because of the horrific ideals he openly espouses — ideals which he has been given chance after chance to spread. But even if the Munk Debates decide to tolerate the fact that Bannon is one of the worst people in modern Western media, he should be dropped simply because, as someone who is both unrepresentative of populism and ideologically worn out, he is irrelevant to the topic at hand.
Arjun Kaul is a fifth-year Neuroscience student at St. Michael’s College.
Editor’s Note (2018-10-01): The “Should Steve Bannon speak at the Munk Debate?” poll at the top of the article was replaced after 14 days of polling with the completed results.