Reconstructing a Center That Can Hold

Breakthrough Journal Moves to Substack

Almost 15 years ago, editors Ted Nordhaus (here again) and Michael Shellenberger (long gone) launched the Breakthrough Journal with an ode to the recently deceased and heterodox sociologist Daniel Bell, whose The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, written in the mid 1970s, hauntingly foretold America’s social, cultural, and political coming apart. Bell’s masterwork anticipated that rising atomization and narcissism, and declining social solidarity, was rendering America increasingly ungovernable.

That theme, which would run through the first issue of the Breakthrough Journal, and continues today, already marked a turn of sorts from the Breakthrough Institute’s early work. Just four years earlier, the book Breakthrough, From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility had chided liberals for studying reality while conservatives created it. Breakthrough cited positively a quote from a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind in which a senior Bush administration aide had mocked Suskind for being part of “the reality based community,” in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” the aide told Suskind. “And while you're studying that reality… we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too… We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Those words, arguably, have a different valence today, in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the forefront of American political life, much to the horror not only of those who opposed the Bush administration but many who had worked so diligently within it to create that new reality. Today, Trump and his MAGA followers insist that the 2020 election was stolen, that America is under assault both from without (immigration) and within (woke indoctrination), and that the nation’s essential identity must be defended by any means necessary, traditional democratic norms be damned.

But it is no less true that the progressive, Democratic Left has largely taken up the call to create new realities. Comfortably ensconced within elite institutions, from which meaningful viewpoint diversity has largely been banished, and immersed in mainstream and social media echo chambers, the Left insists that a climate catastrophe is already unfolding, that every hurricane, heat wave, and wildfire represents the sign of the climate beast; that only systemic change, not policing or housing or mandatory mental health and addiction treatment can solve the endemic crime and homelessness that plagues American cities; and that we can rapidly build dense, livable communities, served predominantly by mass transit and electric vehicles, and powered predominantly with clean energy, without fundamentally reforming the maze of federal, state, and local policies that make it impossible to build almost anything excepting, apparently, pipelines, highways, and subdivisions.

Some will, no doubt, object to the symmetry in this comparison. Whatever political grotesqueries the mainstream Left may have engaged in in recent years, it was not the Democratic Party or its followers that stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result of a democratic election and prevent the peaceful transition of power. Nor, notwithstanding various lunacies that can be found on the Left, can one find federal office holders who subscribe to anything equivalent to QAnon within the Democratic Party.

But that is actually the point. Crazy feeds on crazy. The increasing detachment of American politics both from real social, political, economic, and technological constraints and from actual popular sentiment is driven by crazy. And crazy is asymmetrical in what it serves. The bar for those wishing to defend functioning institutions, effective governance, and wise public policy is unavoidably higher than for those intent on undermining them. “Whataboutism” serves the purveyors of nonsense, not the defenders of pluralism, democratic institutions, and some semblance of a shared reality or, at least, a few commonly agreed upon facts.

And yet, any effort to reconstruct a pluralistic and functional center in American politics must grapple with the profound failure of the institutions that we long depended upon to broker such arrangements — the academy, the mainstream media, and the scientific establishment. The Left’s long march through America’s institutions over the last 50 years has left them largely incapable of distinguishing fact from interpretation or science communication from political advocacy. The lines between peer-reviewed research and commentary, news reporting, news analysis, and opinion, pedagogy and ideology have become increasingly difficult to distinguish.

Consensus climate science, we are now told, not only establishes that human combustion of fossil fuels are warming the planet but that we must limit warming to 1.5 degrees and, even, vote for Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump. “We believe in science,” among the educated, increasingly liberal classes, implicates all sorts of beliefs for which there is no credible scientific basis, from the idea that climate change is the reason for extreme weather to conviction that outdoor masking is a medically proven measure to slow the spread of the Covid virus to the fear that nuclear waste could bring an end to human civilizations.

The capture and debasement of the institutions that produce knowledge, distribute it, and collectively produce, or at least once produced, shared realities is inseparable from the perverse incentives that also undermine them. Declining public trust in these institutions has led to declining public support for them. As a result, universities and media outlets now shamelessly prostrate themselves before a range of corporate and philanthropic masters in pursuit of self-preservation. A self-reinforcing spiral of media fragmentation, driven by both digital media technology and audience self sorting drives the public into alternate reality silos of media consumption and negative polarization.

Having driven the Right out of the mainstream institutions, the Left is now shocked to discover that half the country have not simply accepted, as Paul Krugman memorably insists, that the truth has a liberal bias. Instead, the Right have simply created their own institutions. The abandonment of pluralism within mainstream academic and media institutions — by which we mean the recognition that the facts that are relevant to any matter of public contestation are often, themselves, legitimately contested and that even the same set of facts can lend themselves, again quite legitimately, to very different conclusions or interpretations — has led to the construction of knowledge and information ecosystems on both sides of America’s political divide that broke no real dissent or challenge within them. This is, to say the least, not a recipe for civility or comity, much less evidence-based policy making. Facts now come with partisan affiliations.

But in pursuit of shared realities or, at the very least, respectful disagreement, we should not forget that reconstructing a center that can hold demands that we either create new institutions or reform the old ones. This requires more than commentary. Yes, ideas matter. But making them matter does indeed require creating new facts on the ground: new realities if you will.

In 2011, Breakthrough Journal was in the vanguard in attempting to create new spaces where productive and open minded discourse might flourish. Today, those opportunities have proliferated at (mostly) online venues such as Our World in Data, Works in Progress, Asterisk Magazine, Construction Physics, Faster Please, Eating Policy, and Roots of Progress. Some have described this collectively as the progress movement, others as the abundance movement. Much of that discourse now lives on Substack, which is why we’ve decided to move The Breakthrough Journal to Substack and to spend less time micro-blogging, and more time going long on the alternative to regressive environmentalism and catastrophic climatism.

But we should remember, also, that so many of those who have flourished at Substack have done so as they have fled the mainstream institutions. And while Substack has proven to be a powerful and useful platform, it is not an institution, capable of brokering new shared understandings or advancing new political possibilities. That, as ever, requires new institutions, capable of acting in politics in ways that commentary alone cannot.

So the challenge for all of us, in the progress and abundance movements, and indeed for all who wish to save America from its continuing descent into political madness and polarization, is to recognize that political critique and commentary bring with them a responsibility, ultimately, to act in the world. In that spirit, all of the writing that we post to Substack will also live on our website. In part, that is a hedge against the, perhaps inevitable, enshittification of Substack. But it is also out of a commitment to keep our writing closely connected to the Breakthrough Institute’s core work, which must, to matter, create new political coalitions, develop different policy approaches, and prevail in debates tied closely to actual political outcomes.

At the new Breakthrough Journal, we will publish original, thought-provoking writing from members of the Breakthrough Institute staff and external authors — both in agreement and disagreement with our principles — on a weekly basis. Our publication will be customizable. You, as a reader, can decide to subscribe to the entirety of our publication — and receive up to three emails a week with our latest writing — or choose to just subscribe to the specific contributors you want to hear from. To customize your experience of the Journal, you can choose what you receive in your subscription settings.

What will not change will be our commitment to stay out front of the continually evolving environmental and climate discourses, to deconstruct environmentalism in service of reconstructing a better ecomodernist politics that swims with, rather than against, the broad trends of social and political modernization, and to do that work in service of not only Breakthrough but a growing cohort of institutions determined not to abandon America to the extremism that our polarized political, media, and academic establishments have wrought.

Please join us, and our writers, on this new journey.