An Interview with Bill Kristol: Academics, Politics, and Engaging Discussion

Dr. Bill Kristol speaking with Davidsonian staff. Photo courtesy of Davidson College Twitter

Dr. William Kristol will join Davidson in fall 2019 as the college’s inaugural Vann Professor of Ethics and Society. On January 30th, he visited campus and spoke in a panel about Ethics and Public Service alongside Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard (Sociology), Dr. Daniel Layman (Philosophy), and President Carol Quillen (video here). Kristol individually addressed personal, institutional, and social ethics, and the panel answered student questions about a range of topics within ethics, including civility in times of hyperpolarization, the real impact versus the intended impact of policy, and civil disobedience.

 

The following is a Davidsonian-exclusive interview between News Co-editor Hope Anderson ‘22 and Kristol. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What brought you to Davidson?

 

I’ve admired Davidson a long time. The daughter of a good friend of ours went to Davidson, and many other people I know as well, and she then came to work at The Weekly Standard, the magazine I edited, right after Davidson. This must have been 11 or 10 years ago. She was an excellent employee and a very nice person, spoke very highly of Davidson. I’ve always been struck by the sense of community here, just looking at it from afar, and the sort of seriousness with which people took both liberal education — which I’m very much a fan of — and also she had talked a little about the Honor Code, which is so unusual. I’ve just been struck having been here a day, it seems like that’s an important part of the sort of ethos of Davidson.

 

I know you haven’t been here too long, but has anything surprised you, or has it been what you thought it’d be so far?

 

It’s a very good liberal arts college. I’ve obviously been at, and spoken at, and visited a bunch of others. Students aren’t that different. [Davidson] is a national school, people from all over. A lot of colleges have terrific kids doing a million things, especially if it’s maybe in a city; they’re kind of doing things all over the place, and they leave campus a lot. Here, it seems like there’s a little more of a college community, people seem focused on the college. There’s a real sense of mission about the college, I think. I think also the interest in public service and politics overall in the broader community: it seems like that’s strong here. A lot of places have very smart kids, and they’re going to go to medical school, law school, or whatever, and college is an important place to go through, but they don’t really have a sense of the centrality of the college, really, as much as maybe here at Davidson.

 

What kinds of things do you think are most important to discuss now in terms of ethics and journalism, both for professional journalists but also for student journalists?

 

It’s an interesting time, just because we have an unusual president. And that presents its own challenges. But also the new media, social media — obviously people have written a lot about this — has changed things a lot. I think it’s changed things for the better in many ways: opened up opportunities [and] made information available in a way that one almost couldn’t dream of in the old days. Also has made disinformation available and distortion easier. It used to be fairly straightforward; you went to work for the college paper, college paper showed up on people’s doorsteps, people might fact check something — go to the library and look stuff up and say ‘oh, that’s not right,’— but the current 24/7 news cycle, the ability for both distortion and correction, instantaneously almost: it just is a bigger challenge to journalists I think, to think about what their role is, what their responsibilities are, what value they’re adding, if you want to use a more business type term. People can read about things without journalists often, right?

 

Having access to the raw information and not needing someone to compile it.

 

People can go online, they can see an event live or they can see clips from it. Having to explain context, I think that’s maybe for me the biggest challenge. People can be good reporters, obviously it’s a skill you pick up and at the end of the day it’s doable, but providing intelligent context so people don’t just see some statistic pulled out of the air that looks big or small or scary or not scary. You don’t know unless you understand the whole history, what happened before, what the implications are, what the context is, comparisons. I think that’s really much more important that what it used to be. Just looking at Trump’s tweets on immigration or something. Who knows if these numbers may be right. But even if they were right, is that a big number? Is it a small number? Should we be alarmed? Should we be reassured? It’s a huge country, you can find cases of everything of course. So, I think putting things in context and perspective is more important than it ever has been.

 

In a world where people have access to more of the raw information, the role of a journalist almost increases in compiling that information.

 

Right.

 

And obviously we’ve seen you can compile different sets of information and spin them different ways.

 

And that’s the challenge, and it has to be done hopefully with credibility and good face so people don’t just say ‘oh, well that’s your spin.’

 

How do you draw the line between ‘ok, I’m spinning this information in a way that represents my perspective but it’s still factually accurate,’ versus ‘you’re misrepresenting what’s actually happening here’?

 

I think sometimes that’s a little fuzzy but it can can be drawn a lot. I edited for 20 years a magazine, they call themselves a journal of news and opinion or news and analysis, and we published plenty of pieces that have a point of view in this foreign policy debate or this domestic policy issue or on this candidate or whatever. We always fact checked our pieces and we were very careful about that. Fact checking goes beyond just ‘did this happen at 3:30 pm on Thursday, January whatever.’ It also is ‘what’s the context?’ Are you accurately capturing what happened, in a broader sense? Fact checking is a little broader than the very detailed ‘is the date right?’ and so forth. I think it’s fine to have opinion journalism. I think you should say it’s opinion. At The Weekly Standard we never said it was Time Magazine or The Associated Press. There were pieces we did that were straight reporting pieces, but a lot of our stuff was analysis and informed by a certain point of view, a certain historical perspective. I think that’s important. There’s always going to be an opinion section of a newspaper, there’s always going to be opinion journalism. And that’s fine. It’s foolish I think to say ‘oh, everything should just be without opinion.’

 

And I think it’s almost impossible to remove all bias, because you’re always going to be choosing what information you include and what information you leave out.

 

Which is why I always encourage consumers of news, if you want to use that term, to read more than one source.

 

And maybe the closest we can get to unbiased is to represent different perspectives. Going off of that, in your role as a professor and a member of the Davidson community, how do you plan to engage students in these questions of ethics and journalism?

 

I look forward to teaching the seminar, most importantly, which will be focused on dilemmas of ethics and public service, but including media and journalism. I will be here at least a day or two a week. Apart from the two and a half hours, three hours in class, I look forward to engaging with different groups of students, whether they’re political, or in journalism, or student leaders, or just interested in informal discussions. I’ve done that a lot in the first day and a half I’ve been here, and it’s been really interesting. You’re in Washington, you’re doing whatever you do in Washington, and one thing you don’t do is actually talk to a lot of students who are open-minded, and trying to get an education, and have interesting questions and interesting perspectives. I’ve actually been asking questions as much as answering them, I think. That part of it I really look forward to as well, the informal get-togethers.

 

How does it feel to be a more conservative voice on a more liberal college campus? Do you appreciate the discussions that have been facilitated and how do you plan to continue facilitating those discussions?

 

I went to Harvard 45 years ago as a sort of conservative, or at least not on the left. I’m used to being a minority, and used to the general drift of opinion on college campuses. I’m happy to provide some diversity of viewpoint, but I don’t regard myself mostly as doing that. I think I’ll say what I believe and people can decide if they agree or not. But I’m a big believer that colleges should try pretty hard to have diverse points of view on the campus, both on the faculty and in terms of guest faculty and lecturers and speakers and stuff. It’s not doing students a service not to give them access to different, respectable points of view. Maybe a few not so respectable ones. I think the same is true of reading lists and so forth. In so far as a little too much of a tilt towards one directions or towards uniformity, if there is I can’t judge that, really. I’m happy to lean against that a little bit.

 

Do you see that as important not just at Davidson but for the college community or even the world as a whole, to engage with more diverse opinions, especially now that politics are becoming more polarized?

 

Yeah, totally. I think it would be healthy in Washington, and healthy elsewhere, and healthy in various parts of the business world. College especially, though, should have that, since obviously college is about learning. It’s always been said but it remains true: you can’t be prepared to learn if you get just one point of view. Maybe you can learn science; there’s chemistry and we know certain things are true and you don’t really need different points of view on chemical equations. Obviously when it gets to politics, society, ethics, those kinds of issues, you do need to have a sense of ‘it’s an argument,’ ‘it’s a debate,’ it’s not a set of maxims that you memorize.

 

Where can we draw the line between allowing diverse opinions and allowing opinions that are too extreme, not based in facts to even be considered, but that some people might protect under ‘we’re allowing this person to speak their opinion’?

 

That’s a tough call. Obviously Davidson’s a private college; it doesn’t have to have people [speak]. In terms of letting people express opinions, including unpleasant ones and ones that aren’t fact based, I’m pretty libertarian. I think it’s not really our business to let people- people have a right to do it, unless they go over certain lines where they slander, libel, really incite violence. I’m pretty liberal on that. I don’t like the idea of censoring people. Inviting people to speak on a campus is different from censor. Even there, I would err on the side of being liberal. I don’t think Davidson is putting its stamp of approval on someone who is invited by a college to give a talk. I’m not one of those who thinks ‘oh, it’s terrible to give a platform to this person or that person’. Are there cases where I would say that if it’s so extreme that it’s really repugnant? Yes. But I think on the whole, at a close call I would err on the side of tolerance. I would encourage students who don’t like this message not to go, or to protest peacefully, or to leaflet, or to sign petitions and so forth, saying ‘this doesn’t speak for Davidson,’ but I get nervous- I think it’s a slippery slope when you start saying ‘well, this person’s, you know…’. I mean of course there are some people who are really beyond the pail. But you can usually tell that. I say I would err on the side of being liberal, in the old-fashioned sense of liberal.

 

I think sometimes we get into discussions of free speech, and there’s a difference between not being imprisoned for something you say versus ‘I’m entitled to a platform.’

 

And I think generally if students want to hear from someone, it could be a tiny, fringe group of students, maybe they shouldn’t be entitled to use a college facility, but I would generally encourage more debate nonetheless.

 

I think that goes into what you were talking about. Either we learn from diverse perspectives, or when we hear opposing perspectives we learn how to engage with or even debate with those perspectives better, as opposed to being surrounded by uniformity.

 

Right. Or worst case, you just ignore it if it’s not something you’re interested in or you think it’s just ridiculous. But of course, what benefits one student isn’t always what benefits another. That’s another point I’d make. People tend to assume ‘well I myself don’t want to hear this, and I myself wouldn’t learn anything from it, and in fact I’d be somewhat offended by it, so no one else could learn anything.’ Well, a lot of people don’t know, and maybe they need to be offended themselves; they’d learn a lot from being offended, if you want to put it that way. Again, I’d be pretty liberal along those terms.

 

How exactly would you describe your political views, and relating to that, how much would you associate yourself with the Republican Party in its current state?

 

Not so much in its current state, if its current state means Trump. I’m against Trump. I think the Republican Party- or I hope the Republican Party can be saved from Trump and Trumpism. I think there’s a pretty good tradition there.

 

What does saved mean to you?

 

Defeating him in a primary in 2020.

 

So mostly just expelling Trump?

 

Discrediting and expelling, or defeating really. It’s not really anyone’s place to expel. Just defeating him for renomination. I mean he’s the president. You can’t really- he makes it really hard. He’s the leading Republican of the country, that’s just a fact. Now, I can say ‘well there’s opposition.’ A quarter of Republicans don’t like him- a third. We need to really make an effort, I think, to separate the Republican party and Conservatism from Trump and Trumpism. Even if you’re not a Conservative or a Republican, I think you would have an interest in having a healthy Republican Party that’s part of a civil debate on a bunch of issue and that isn’t tending, at least, in an authoritarian or nativist, xenophobic direction. Obviously lots of people support Trump who aren’t like Trump, exactly. They don’t like certain things about him, but even so, I think when you have a party that’s being led by someone in a certain direction people get- it’s bad if it’s a bad direction. And even if you’re a Democrat, you at least would like to have two healthy parties. Not one that’s a European style Conservative party that’s not really in accord with the basic principles of liberal democracy here, or at least doesn’t appreciate them, let’s put it that way. I think it’s an important fight, an important fight for liberals too, in terms of the future of the Republican party. Obviously, on the left they have their own issues. 2020 will be an interesting election.

 

I have to ask; do you have any hopefuls?

 

I’m hopeful that some serious Republican will stand up and challenge Trump.

 

Any names?

Governor Hogan of Maryland, I would say. [He] seems like the one who is most thinking about it, and I think he’d be strong. And I think people right now- you look at the numbers, 80%, 70%, of Republicans approve of Trump. But that’s different from saying you want to keep going. That’s sort of a ‘I liked him better than Hillary, we got some good judges, tax cuts were okay.’ It’s sort of a retrospective judgement. A backwards looking justification, in a way, for voting for Trump. That’s different from saying ‘four more years of this are going to be great.’ Or ‘he’s leading the Party in a good direction that’s going to attract a lot of young voters.’ I mean that’s obviously not true. I think you could get some voters who voted for Trump to say ‘maybe for years is enough’ and ‘maybe it’s time for a change.’ I think people like me who’ve always been against Trump, we’re not the majority of the party. We have to get people over who haven’t always totally been against Trump. And that would be the trick of whether someone like Hogan- or the task for someone like Hogan to pull off. I wouldn’t say the odds are great, but I’m less pessimistic than some people that that could happen. And it’s a very fluid situation. Who knows what the country or the world will look like six or eight months from now, and how strong or weak Trump will be. We’ve seen in the last two months how much he’s been weakened, I would say, since the November elections, and Mattis resigning, and markets looking a bit shakier, and the shutdown hurting him. His administration’s not getting better, I’ll tell you. It’d be one thing if he had a lot of good people around him, and you could say ‘well, he’s not really great but at least the people around him are keeping things in line.’ I think people did say that a little in the first six months, but it’s getting harder and harder to say that.

 

And one final question: even if you don’t necessarily describe yourself as a moderate, as the right is getting more right and as the left is getting more left, a lot of people talk about “the loss of the moderate Republican.” Do you think that were Trump to leave the Party and things to become a little more the way they used to be, do you think there’s a place for a moderate Republican again or do you think that those days are behind us and we’re going to keep getting more extreme?

 

No, these things can’t go on forever, and we’re probably hitting the limits of polarization, one would hope. And there’s a reaction to Trump, and I think that might help. On the Republican side, and on the Democratic side there’s a little bit of a sense too, that ‘gee, a lot of us have more in common than we thought.’ That whether or not you like Obamacare is not ultimately as important an issue of whether you’re committed to the basic Constitutional forms, and Democratic norms, and so forth. Whether you think a particular foreign policy decision is wise or unwise is a little different from the bigger question of ‘what do you think of the whole liberal international order?’ I think part of the reaction to Trump has been a reminder to people that there are a lot of important things people agree on and a lot of people agree on those. It’s a little hard to manifest that in our current party politics, and that’s the challenge or the question. Do we go with some third party [indistinguishable], do you have a resurgence of moderates within the parties? Obviously Howard Schultz is this big debate right now on the left. I think the turmoil could end up being helpful. It’s a tricky situation to be in the middle of, but instead of just drifting to forever further polarization, people are now forced to come to grips with it a little bit and do something about it. And there are some things you can do, it’s not like we’re helpless here. You can change party election nominating rules. You can change the way Congress works. People can run for office. There’s lots more to be done than people sometimes think.

 

One more final thing. If Trump were to make it through the primaries again, would you rather see another four years of a Trump presidency, or you rather vote for a Democrat?

 

I wouldn’t vote for Trump. I wouldn’t vote for Trump. I’d certainly vote for a reasonable Democrat. But I’d prefer to have a reasonable Republican.

What do you think about Republicans who are against Trump, but then wouldn’t vote for a Democrat out of moral righteousness? Because if you’re not going to vote for a Democrat, you’re not actually doing anything to keep him out of office.

 

I think that’s a fair question to pose to them. On the one hand if you really care a lot about certain issues and the Democrats have views against you on those issues, I can see having a very tough time crossing that bridge. So I think that’s a tough decision for- people have to make their own decisions.

 

Even if you don’t vote, someone’s going to get elected. Whether or not you like it.

 

I think that’s right. I think some people didn’t vote in 2016 because they really thought Hillary was going to win. You didn’t feel like you had to vote, honestly. I think it’s very different now.

 

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