Conservative blogger Reihan Salam talks identity, ideology

By Jonathan McJunkin

Last Thursday night, Reihan Salam, a domestic policy analyst for conservative political publication “The National Review,” spoke at Kagin Commons to a crowd of about 150 students seated at round tables. The event, titled “Liberals, Conservatives, and Everything in Between,” was heavily advertised and a result of the combined efforts of the Mac GOP, the Mac Dems, and Build a Better Mac.In President Brian Rosenberg’s introduction, he stated that though the event was part of an effort to promote diversity in political views, “there’s a lot more diversity of viewpoints on campus than there appear to be.”

Rosenberg placed a great deal of emphasis on Macalester’s ability to sustain civil discourse, asking the audience “If not at a place like this, then where?”

Salam took the podium and began his talk about the nature of political difference. He spoke quickly, almost breathlessly, mixing references to political debates with personal experience and witty asides, many of which got laughs for their take on the difference between the parties and deadpan self-deprecation.

In addition to writing the policy blog “The Agenda” for The National Review online, Salam is also the co-author of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

“Thank you for your incredible display of patience with me,” he said to the diminished crowd at the end of the more than two-hour event, which included a discussion section and many questions from the audience.

Salam started with his childhood of coming up with stories for his stuffed animals and “eating chips of lead paint,” explaining the roots of his realization of the importance of narrative in people’s lives.

His fascination with storytelling soon extended to his diverse Brooklyn neighborhood:

“The more I thought about the people I live around the more I would make up stories for them.”Salam then moved into a more specific discussion about the role of narrative in developing political views, starting close to home with his Bangladeshi immigrant parents. According to Salam, their view of the Soviet Union as a needed check on American foreign power was in part a result of their life experience.

“Because they were from the third world, they often saw themselves as being on the business end of American power,” he said.

He also considered the role of his own background in his political views, particularly meeting some influential conservative peers when he was in high school, having previously considered himself more liberal.

The idea that the facts of people’s lives in some way determine ideology was a central point of Salam’s talk. He was adamant on the point that most people’s views are part of their self-concept, and carefully considered.

“I can’t dismiss them just because I’m 20-something years old and really super smart,” he said, referring to himself as a college student.

Salam also asserted self-interest and material realities in political views. He used the example of two families, one in New Jersey and one in Houston, with roughly the same income. Even with this demographic similarity, Salam said, they could have major differences in self-interest and available spending money.

Such differences “makes a huge difference in how you see the world, and that’s something we have to think about when we think about class in America,” said Salam.

This combination of self-interest and self-concept leads to a lot of the discord over politics, said Salam. “Of course there’s going to be conflict-people are fighting for their lives.”

He applied this perspective to the current political climate. On the Tea Party, which he said he supports, Salam said, “When you start to think of it as a movement of human beings, it starts to make a lot more sense.”

His speech was followed by questions from the audience and a half-hour political discussion at the tables. The questions focused as much on current political issues as the night’s theme of the nature of political difference.

A common line of questioning related to the current protests in Wisconsin, a topic he has written about extensively on his blog. In his response, Salam said he understood the perspective of the protestors, as the new budget would take away a great deal of wages and bargaining power from public workers.

At the same time, he was supportive of Governor Scott Walker’s policy, and made a point of saying that the recent prank call with a supposed wealthy anti-union donor was, unfortunately, politics as usual-citing President Obama’s recent dinner with a developer of green technology as a counter-example.

Salam’s response to one of the final questions of the night seemed to summarize his view of politics in general. When asked about the possibility of civility in Washington politics, Salam was cynical, saying that two-party politics necessitates fierce argument.

“You can put a political gloss on it but the differences are often granular,” Salam said of the differences in Washington, referring to the many material interests and constituencies that make up party politics. Salam said that the primary difference between the parties is not their fluid ideologies, but the groups they represent.