Reihan Salam’s Favorite Debate Opponents

For the conservative journalist, high school debate was a transformative experience. We asked which pundits make the most formidable arguments—from either side of the aisle.
  • Transcript


Question: How did high school debate shape your future career?

Reihan Salam: It was a wonderful experience for a lot of reasons. Partly because of the other kids who were involved, but actually one thing that is important is that I wasn’t so much a debate champ as a guy who did it and made a lot of friends, but I think that actually the more formative experience was losing and losing frequently and I remember that I felt at the time as though I had an agenda and whenever I would go into give some sort of an extemporaneous speech or something like that I remember I kind of had certain thoughts and I was like I want to convey these. I want to proselytize. I want to like challenge people and provoke people and winning is secondary and mainly it was just this thought I have this opportunity to have a captive audience and these people have to listen to me for seven minutes and I think that I didn’t necessarily takeaway entirely good lessons from that experience, but it was magical. It was just a group of really idiosyncratic kids and particularly the ones who didn’t go to my high school. I went to a public magnet high school, but there were these other kids from Catholic high school who had these really different backgrounds and I was struck by…I was someone who had never met someone who was a Republican, a conservative, someone who was pro-life, and through debate I met all these people and was just kind of dazzled by the range of opinions that really exist in the world and it had a huge, huge effect on me and just having respect for people who have different ways of engaging and just yeah, being around people for whom being quick and verbal, that was the way that you were valorized. You know what I mean? It was quite neat and more important to me than I…I don’t reflect on it as much as perhaps I should.

Question: Which pundits argue most rigorously, on either side of the aisle?

Reihan Salam: That’s a really good question. Lately I’ve been really drawn to thinkers like…I’ve been drawn to thinkers like Casey Mulligan. He is a good example. He is an economist at the University of Chicago who in some ways is accused of really radically oversimplifying things. You know he likes single, good models of the world. He really likes…Also he uses very arresting language. You know he has talked a lot in the context of the recent recession about work disincentives and what a powerful role they play and people are often times offended by this like are you saying that people have decided to go on a vacation and that is why they’re unemployed and the beauty of him is that he is so not embedded in a kind of social cultural context of the kind of niceties and the kind of obligatory things that one says that is just really arresting to read this kind of 200-proof version of kind of his particular style of argument. I love it.

I also think that Paul Krugman is a tremendously impressive voice coming from a kind of diametrically opposed worldview, and Krugman is someone that I find sometimes pretty tendentious, but that is part of what is so impressive about him. He is able to kind of construct this kind of coherent argument that, again, you could think wait a second, wait, I don’t buy that or I don’t buy this, but he…It’s like a freight train and you know, kind of once he leaves the station, you know it’s suddenly is that, well, if you disagree with him you’re clearly an unreasonable and perhaps even dangerous person, and that is admirable in a sense. That is certainly not my own style.

Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen