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The Griffin Editorial 4/12: Talking to Jason Riley

Earlier this week, the Young Americans for Freedom club hosted Jason Riley as a speaker on campus. Riley, who is an opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal, spoke for over an hour, giving a talk titled “The Problem With Social Justice,” then answering audience questions. Before his talk, Riley conducted a phone interview with The Griffin, the transcript of which will be printed here. The conversation focused on how to navigate political discussions during polarizing times such as these. The transcript has been edited both for length and clarity.

The Griffin: When you write, who is your target audience?

Riley: Well I'm writing for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. So the Journal has upper income, fairly educated readers. And so that's who I imagine is reading what I write. That's sort of who I have in mind. And they're smart people. So it sort of keeps me on my toes… So I do my research, I do my homework and then I sit down to write my column and normally I ask myself two questions. The first one is: Do I have something unique to say about what everyone is already talking about? That's the first question I ask myself. Or: Am I gonna write about something that I don't think enough people are writing about? And so those are the sorts of questions I asked myself, when I sit down to write the column.

The Griffin: The Wall Street Journal is an influential paper, and many powerful people read it. When you write, do you seek to influence opinion or policy?

Riley: I think both. I do think that a lot of movers and shakers read the Wall Street Journal, and when they're thinking about how to put news events in perspective, I think they turn to us. They tend to be a little older readership, and more thoughtful, I think. So, when you write, you don't have to write down to your readers you have to. I consider that something of a privilege actually, that I can make those assumptions. About what my readers bring to the table.

The Griffin: You write down your opinion for living. With that in mind, how do you consume your news?

Riley: Well, I'm writing from the perspective of a free-market conservative. And so that is sort of my worldview, through which I filter news events. And the readers typically know that up front.  I try and read things that I agree with, as well as things I don't agree with. My wife and I get three newspapers delivered to our house every day. We listen to NPR. We read The New York Times. We watch CNN and MSNBC, along with Fox News. I want to know where the other side is coming from. If I'm going to be responding to arguments made by people I tend to disagree with politically, I want to hear the best arguments they have to make.

The Griffin: When you write, is your goal to simply articulate your views, or to persuade others?

Riley: No, I mean, there's some overlap there. But I am trying to persuade people that are open minded about something or not sure what to think about something or how to approach a topic. I am attempting to to be to be persuasive. That's what I think opinion journalism is at its best, and I think the best way to persuade is to make sure your opinions are informed. And so that's why I think it's important to do my homework, do my research. And you'll often see quotation marks in my columns, because I do a fair amount of reporting.

The Griffin: Being an opinion writer, you obviously have a lot of experience with political conversations. With political discussions being as if not more visceral today than they ever have been, do you think that the issues which we are talking about today are different from the ones in the past and are leading to more bitterness, or not?

Riley: Yeah, definitely. We are living in deeply, deeply polarizing times. We're at a point now where people look at their political opponents as not simply wrong, but evil. And it's a bad place to be. I think a large part is being driven by social media. When I was growing up, most Americans got their television news from three guys: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. And then, after you watched one of those guys, you'd go off and maybe argue with your buddies about politics. But you all had the same frame of reference. If I spend all day watching MSNBC and you spend all day with FOX, we were just talking past one another. I have no idea what you're even saying. You might as well be living on different planets. And so that's the cable news phenomenon that we have here. I'm not suggesting we should go back to three guys giving America all its news. I'm just saying it takes more effort to understand where other people are coming from, because there are so many news outlets out there. And I think social media just to bring it back to that has really exacerbated that trend.

The Griffin: Many of the arguments today are framed as a good versus evil type of thing. If people genuinely see their opponents as evil, could you necessarily blame them for arguing so viscerally?

Riley: I mean, there are evil people, so you can’t automatically dismiss the notion that the other person might be evil. But I think you do yourself a favor when you assume that other people are operating above the board, assuming that they don’t have ulterior motives, because otherwise you’re getting into psychological games, and trying to psychoanalyze people and read their mind and their heart or whatever, and take what they say at face value and respond to that. It’s not so much an evil versus virtuous dynamic, it’s sort of, some people are open to reason and some people are not. And, if someone doesn't care about facts, and evidence and logic, you know, that's your you're never going to persuade them using those things. And so you just have to understand that. I just assume that people are acting in good faith and leave it at that and don't try to read their minds about these things.

The Griffin: A lot of people don’t argue in good faith. Is there a way to overcome this? Or is it a situation where you have to simply cut your losses?

Riley: It's hard to paint that broadly. I think that would be more of an issue by issue situation. For instance, if you're arguing with someone who is a Republican, and they're going to defend their side issue, you have to keep in mind, the top of mind for them is that they're a Republican. And at the end of the day, they think the worst Republican is worth defending over  a Democrat. And maybe that's the worldview they're operating through. And when you go down the issues, it's not really an argument about the issues to them. You're talking to a hardcore partisan and so that's how they're filtering policy conversation. So I think you have to keep certain things in mind that way or if you're talking. Some people are single issue voters, for example, they call them these wedge issues, like abortion or guns. You know, some people say: “Tell me if the person is pro life or pro choice and that's all I need to know about them before deciding my vote.” Or: “Tell me what they think about gun rights, that's all I need to know about them before deciding.” There are people like that, that's what they prioritize… It doesn't necessarily make them unreasonable per se. But it's about understanding where they're coming from, what they're bringing to the table, and what their priorities are, and their other priorities may be much different than yours.

The Griffin: How much of the heated conversations that we have do you think are driven by political leaders, like a Donald Trump?

Riley: I think our politicians are telling people what they think people want to hear, to win their vote. The politicians’ goal is to win re-election, by telling people what they want to hear. And if they think that a sort of angry populism, you mentioned Donald Trump, and that's kind of what you get out of him. And now you see other other Republican candidates for office adopting that same persona, because it worked for Trump. So that's the new model for getting elected as you know, on the other side, you've seen very, very progressive postures coming out of the Democratic Party. Obama was quite to the left but now you have people like AOC out there. You have people you know, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ran for president last time, they didn't win. But they had quite a bit of support. And arguably, they're running the show in Washington right now, even though Joe Biden is that this progressive left has been ascendant. So I think politicians are reactionary, I mean, I guess we call them leaders, but they're trying to respond to what they think people want to hear. And I think that's, that's, that's what's going on there.

The Griffin: Is there a way to avoid that?

Riley: I guess that every so often, you get a sort of transformational leader who can rise above it all, and triangulate and bring people together. I think Bill Clinton could do it. He was quite popular. I think Ronald Reagan was able to do it. But I don't see people like that on the horizon right now, unfortunately. Right now it seems like the angry populists are in control. And they're not done yet, I don't think they're willing to cede any ground right now. So we'll see, but I think between now and November, it's going to be pretty ugly.

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