The progressive talk show host isn’t afraid of a fight. Sometimes literally.
Photos by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon.
The crowd inside the Pasadena Convention Center’s Civic Auditorium was growing restless. Attendees tossed around beach balls and broke into shouts of “USA! USA!” each time a security guard tried, and failed, to take one of the inflatable distractions away.
Organizers of this year’s Politicon had expected about 1,000 people to show up for a scheduled debate between progressive activist Cenk Uygur and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. Instead, more than 3,000 people had lined up in the 85-degree heat on a Sunday afternoon, forcing organizers to move the debate to a larger room at the last minute.
If you’ve ever engaged in a Thanksgiving political discussion with your family, you know how contentious these debates can get. Now, imagine doing that in front of a packed concert hall where the majority of people in attendance are loudly booing everything you say.
By the time Uygur was introduced, the audience was practically in a frenzy. Most had turned out to support Shapiro, raising their arms in triumph over a sea of red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. When debate moderator Steven Olikara turned to announce Uygur, founder of The Young Turks, he was greeted with thunderous boos.
“Welcome to the Thunderdome,” he deadpanned.
An hour earlier, I had sat down with Uygur to ask him why he had agreed to debate Shapiro in front of such a hostile audience, what people stand to gain from such conversations, and what he sees on the horizon for progressive activists in the era of President Donald Trump. (Note: Conversation condensed for clarity.)
Are you looking forward to debating Shapiro?
Uygur: Not really.
Uygur: The guys in the red hats. If they keep things civil, then God bless. I’m glad that they’re passionate about politics. But I’ve seen them shouting and interrupting panels all weekend. They complain about the political correctness of the Left but they’re wandering around getting triggered by everything. You can’t get a more “special snowflake” than that.
So, why did you agree to debate Shapiro?
Uygur: This still has a potential to go well. We have a solid opportunity to exchange ideas. Am I going to convince his die-hard followers? No. They’ve already written their tweets. I literally saw someone doing a stand-up interview before Tomi Lahren’s debate with Chelsea Handler, already declaring Tomi the winner.
How can progressives and conservatives debate in the kind of healthy exchange you’re hoping for?
Uygur: Preparing for a debate is pretty straightforward. Know what your opponent’s positions are then think through what your answers are. There are no particular Jedi mind tricks. But you have to be aware of their debating tricks. A little conservative trick is filibustering; they will take more time to talk and then they will shout at you about how you’re cutting them off.
Another classic debating trick conservatives love is the “Did you know?” approach. They will throw out an obscure fact, like a piece of economic data from 1978, to make their argument sound smart. Their side falls for it every time. Shapiro writes in his way of debating liberals that they are “angry and mean” so you should just be angry and mean first. But that’s just an excuse to be angry and mean.
You grew up as a Republican in a family of Republicans. What was the turning point for you in moving away from conservative ideas?
Uygur: I was a liberal Republican, liberal on social policy, conservative on economic policy. On that point, I haven’t changed that much, it’s just that the Republicans have lost their mind. Today’s right wing doesn’t want to find any middle ground. I want balanced budgets, but I found the Republicans were just kidding when they talked about fiscal responsibility. The last Republican to balance the budget was Dwight Eisenhower.
After health care, where should progressives take the national debate next?
Uygur: Focus on the issues. There is a thirst for solutions to the actual problems that people have. Minimum wage, free college, Medicare for all. Medicare for all has 77% popularity. That’s a pretty strong position to debate from.
You helped found a group called Justice Democrats that supports candidates who refuse to take corporate campaign contributions. Conversely, you’re not shy about criticizing Democrats who take corporate dollars. How should progressives hold their fellow Democrats accountable?
Uygur: Sometimes we get criticized by saying that by doing primaries we are attacking other Democrats. If you want to run a strong campaign, we are happy to help you. Republicans primary each other to no end. Democrats frowned upon primaries. How has that worked out? Apparently, primaries work. They lead to a stronger party.
Is Bernie Sanders still your preferred candidate to lead the Democrats in 2020?
Uygur: Definitively Bernie Sanders is my preferred candidate. Not only is he right on the progressive issues, he’s been right for decades. The second reason I’m for him is that I’d like to win. What kind of schmuck says, “I don’t want to win?” Let’s go with the most popular politician in America.
The actual debate between Uygur and Shapiro was definitely contentious, but it also showed how progressives and conservatives can engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas, something both men agreed on. They even posed for a photo together afterward. If that’s not a hopeful sign, we don’t know what is.
Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Politicon.