Dave Rubin's Political Awakening

The host of The Rubin Report discusses the 'regressive left,' his thoughts on Islam, and breaking with progressives.


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In an era of daily internet outrage, Dave Rubin stands out for his willingness to engage a wide spectrum of political opinions with a civil tone. His show, The Rubin Report, has hosted the likes of alt-right gadfly Milo Yiannopolous, crusading atheist Sam Harris, and ex-governor-turned-conspiracy-theorist Jesse Ventura, all in a spirit of non-partisan intellectual inquiry.

Chatting with political adversaries has affected Rubin's politics in unexpected ways. As his beliefs turned towards individualism, he broke with the progressive show The Young Turks over the issue of identity politics. Rubin explains his ideological shift in his influential video, Why I Left the Left, which has racked up 1.7 million views in just a few months.

Today, Rubin describes himself as a classical liberal. "I do believe that the state has some use," he explains. "Now I don't want a huge state. I firmly believe in individual liberty more than anything else. And that you have to live the life you want for yourself." The one-time progressive even cast a vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson in the last presidential election.

Although his even-keeled approach to dialogue hasn't changed much, he now sees value in the outrageous style of internet punditry. "Sometimes there is use in laying out bombs that are going to upset people, because out of the chaos of that, you can actually build some bridges, you can actually find some people waking up," he says.

Edited by Alex Manning. Cameras by Zach Weissmueller and Austin Bragg.

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INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: This is a rush transcript. Check against video for accuracy.

Rubin: Sometimes there is use in laying out bombs that are going to upset people because out of the chaos of that, you can actually build some bridges, you can actually find some people waking up.

Reason: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie with ReasonTV, and today we are talking with Dave Rubin of the Rubin Report. It's an online talk show that is extremely well regarded for it's civil tone, and depth, and breath of topics. Dave Rubin, thanks for talking to Reason.

Rubin: Nick, it's good to be with you. Civil tone. I'm not bringing that here.

Reason: No, no. That's on your show. Now we're doing this.

Rubin: I'm going to be doing something completely different.

Reason: A lot of cursing and below-the-belt shots. You've hosted people ranging from alt-right rockstar, Milo Yiannopoulos to Sam Harris, the atheist, anti-Islam crusader, and we'll talk a little bit about him. Jesse Ventura, Reason contributing editor Deirdre McCloskey, the economic historian [Ian Herseley 00:00:55]. A lot of people, a lot of different types of people. You also talk about the regressive left a lot. What do you mean by that term? The regressive left?

Rubin: Yeah, well first on the guest portion of it, it's funny, people say, "You talk to people from all over the political map," as if that's something so special or inventive, or I'm doing something that is so wild. It's like, "When did sitting down with someone that you might disagree with become so rare?" It's actually kind of sad. I cherish that. I love doing that. I hope in the course of this we'll find some things that we disagree on.

Reason: I think we already have.

Rubin: That right there. I would say the regressive left, I considered myself a progressive. I was far on the left, I worked at the Young Turks Network, they're an online news network, progressive, and what I realized is that these ideas, they're all based in collectivism, basically, that we should judge as a group, usually on immutable characteristics, so we're judging everyone on their color, on their religion, on their sexuality, on all of these things, and yet they're telling you that everyone else is the bigot, and the racist, and all of that stuff, when really we should all be judged as individuals. Now I know you guys at Reason are all about this. This is so obvious that we should all be judged only as our own thoughts dictate, and as our actions dictate. What I realized is that this progressive ideology, which sounds good. It sounds liberal. We're looking out for gay people, we're looking out for trans people, we're looking out for Muslim people, this is not progressive any more. It's actually regressive because what you have to do is throw out the minorities within the minorities if you're judging as a group. Sadly, I think it's only gotten worse, although I think I've moved the dial back a little bit and got some liberals to go, "Wait a minute, something's not right here."

Reason: Why were you part of … Before we talk about how you got to leaving the left, and in February you did a piece for Prager University, a video which has been viewed over 5 million times saying, "Why I Left the Left," and I want to get to that, but why were you on the left originally? Where did you start out and why were you a progressive?

Rubin: To me, I've said this many times, in 1988, when Michael Dukakis was running against George H. W. Bush I was in seventh grade, I was in a mock election, and I was running Michael Dukakis's campaign, and he was a liberal, and I remembered H. W. Bush said to him, "You're a liberal," meaning this as a bad thing.

Reason: "A card-caring member of the ACLU," and that was like a bad thing.

Rubin: Then he backed off and it was suddenly liberal was a bad word. I didn't understand that. Liberals were always looking out for people. Liberals cared about the other. Liberals cared about poor people. All of these things. I think progressives really saw that and just grabbed it. For example, something like five years ago I married … I'm gay married. I'm married to a guy. I'm for gay marriage.

Reason: Are you for gay divorce as well, or …

Rubin: I'll let you know in a couple years.

Reason: Five years. You've got two more good years.

Rubin: Yeah, I'm not even in … I'm only like 10 months in right now. So far so good. Basically I think progressives grabbed all of this stuff, this social stuff, and they made everyone think that if you don't agree with them … The second they evolve on something, so the second they evolved on gay marriage, if you don't evolve the day they evolved, then you're a bigot. Now, Barack Obama, the first time he ran for president, was not for gay marriage. I suspect he was not a homophobe at the time, but right now, there are people out there in the country, there are Christians in the middle of the country who I may disagree with on virtually every political thing, and philosophical thing, and religious thing, but they have personally held beliefs that they're not for gay marriage. Now I don't want them to legislate those beliefs, but I can't expect them to evolve the second I want them to and that in and of itself doesn't make them a bigot.

Reason: Doesn't it make them a bigot against gay people if they say, "I should be able to marry who I want, but you can't?"

Rubin: I don't know that it makes them a bigot. I don't like that … I think in general we use these words way too easily. Everyone that we disagree with is a racist, and a homophobe, and Islamophobe, and a bigot. It's just silly. It's lazy thinking, and I think it gets us nowhere. It gets us nowhere to have this, right? I don't think if you, and your parents, and your grandparents, and go all the way back, even if you're looking at a religious text that I think is completely irrelevant and not real, if you have a personally held belief, you're allowed to have a personally held belief. You just are.

Now, if you're out there … The Mormon church, for example, which was putting al to of money to fight against gay marriage, now that's a problem because now we have a company, a company in fact, it's a religious organization, but acting as something to move the political dial while they're tax exempt. I have a problem with that. The average person, I think … Let's put it this way. I think for me, as a gay person, I can convince a lot more people to be fore gay marriage by not screaming at them, and berating them, and embarrassing them, and belittling them, but by showing them that we're all exactly the same. I think you can win a lot more people like that, and I don't even think it. I know it because of the evidence that I get from doing my show and what people are saying to me.

Reason: When you worked with the Young Turks, and then you had a pretty public falling out, or a big falling out with Cenk Uygur, the kind of he head of the Young Turks. What? The mullah? The imam of the Young Turks?

Rubin: I'll let you [crosstalk 00:06:24].

Reason: Okay, yes. The patriarch.

Rubin: Sultan, I think.

Reason: The sultan of … That's the word I'm looking for. Talk a little bit about that, because that is a … It's an interesting case where he has Sam Harris on, who is a critic of Islam, and Sam Harris says that there are certain types of that Islamic jihad, you know the Islamic part matters, and they had a big, long conversation about that. What about the tenor and tone of that conversation turned you off and had you go it on your own?

Rubin: There's so many people that I think had their political awakening right around where I did, and mine sparked the night that Sam Harris was on Real Time with Bill Maher and he got into that big fight with Ben Affleck.

Reason: With Batman.

Rubin: Yeah, with Ben Affleck.

Reason: I like to think of him as Daredevil, but I realize I'm in the minority.

Rubin: I know he's not that happy being Batman right now, so he'd probably prefer that too, but basically Bill Maher, who had been the standard-bearer for the left, the most outspoken liberal there is, who has fought against wars, who has fought for every minority, and [inaudible 00:07:26], and welfare, and all of these things. He's been a standard-bearer of the left, and suddenly this guy Sam Harris, I didn't even know who this guy was, I asked the guys on the streets, I wasn't even following him on Twitter, didn't know who he was. Here's this calm guy, lays out a couple of PEW statistics, talks about the difference between the nominal Muslim, the Islamist who wants to change things using political power versus the jihadist who wants to use violence, et cetera, et cetera. The response from Ben Affleck is, "You're gross and racist."

Then suddenly the next day the onus was on Bill Maher and Sam Harris to prove that they weren't racist, now forgetting that Islam isn't a race, but that's a whole other thing that gets lost in the conversation. My point being it exposed so many things. It exposed lazy thinking of progressives, in this case, Ben Affleck, where we're trying to have a complex discussion, you immediately go to these buzzwords, it shuts down the conversation, but it also showed me some other things.

For example, the next day, all the newspapers, all the online outlets, now saying, "Is Bill Maher a racist?" I mean, Bill Maher. No one can point to evidence of him ever being racist. Then Sam got dragged into that. Then Sam sat down for a three hour conversation with Cenk. I was still working at the Young Turks at the time. It was just … I would welcome any of your viewers to watch it because for three hours Sam sits there calmly with his leg crossed and one glass of water and just absolutely decimates Cenk, who's freaking out the whole time, and can't get a cogent point across.

Speaker 3: If you're being incredibly specific on suicide bombers, we had Buddhist suicide bombers, kamikaze fighters. We've had them all.

Speaker 4: Let's not be so scatter shot here. I've written and spoken about the link between Zen Buddhism and the kamikaze pilots, right? You can get a death cult out of some quasi-Buddhist ideas …

Rubin: I realized in the midst of that that I thought this … I don't really want to work here. Then a couple months later Charlie Hebdo happened, there was a lot of pushback from various hosts on the network about we shouldn't do this. Yes, you can do it, but you shouldn't upset people with cartoons. Then it was just enough.

Reason: You now tend to define yourself as classical liberal. Is that different to you than libertarian? I mean these sort of terms that are often used interchangeably, what goes into your definition of a classical liberal?

Rubin: This has been one of the biggest issues that I've talked about for the last couple of months. First of all, a liberal … People don't understand this, but a true liberal really is a live and let live attitude, which people usually prescribe to libertarianism. The only way that I can say there's, at least in my view, a difference between the classical liberal and the libertarian is that a classical liberal sees a little more utility for the state, and Deidre McCloskey, for example, had on … We discussed this. There's an … I do see some use for the state, in terms of that I don't think tax is theft automatically, and that we do need roads, and that I'm a product from SUNY Binghamton upstate …

Reason: Cut this. This interview is over.

Rubin: I'm a product of state schools, SUNY Binghamton, and I do believe that the state has some use. Now I don't want a huge state. I firmly believe in individual liberty more than anything else, and that you have to live the life you want for yourself. That's the best way for humans to prosper.

Reason: You're talking about a basic social safety net, that national defense is a legitimate function of government, some roads, courts, things like that.

Rubin: Absolutely. There are plenty of libertarians that believe in all that stuff. That's the interesting thing about libertarians, which I'm sure some libertarian out there could probably sit me down long enough and get me to say I'm a libertarian. The whole point of libertarian, because it's about liberty, it's a pretty wide net. That also is the weakness of libertarianism because it's hard to get these people to coalesce around anything and actually make something happen, which if you look at the libertarian party today, I think it's a good example of that.

Reason: Why do you think the left, broadly speaking, or the contemporary liberal or progressive, why are they becoming more authoritarian? Why are they becoming more collectivist? You're right. Say, in the 19th century, and still in Europe, when people say they're liberal, they mean more or less libertarian. Minimal state, maximum freedom. What's going on in the left that they're becoming more authoritarian and saying, "It's our way or the highway?"

Rubin: It is my way or the highway with them. I mean, that really is what it is. This is why we see violence at colleges when people speak. People who you don't like. Interestingly you mention Milo Yiannopoulos before. I spoke at UCLA with him. We did a little talk about a year ago, and there were about 500 kids that were there for it. About 200 protesters. The kids that were there were great. Great all over the political map. There were liberals, and leftists, and Trump people, and conservatives, and they were having a great time. The people that were protesting, they literally created a wall. They created a physical wall, so they're not against walls, they're just against Trump's wall, and they were spitting in people's faces, dumping garbage cans, getting up in cops faces and putting cell phones, just waiting for a reaction so they can Snapchat it and all that stuff.

Why are they becoming less tolerant? I think it's a function of the words that they use. It started with words. If everyone that is your intellectual opponent is a racist, or a bigot, or now it's a Nazi, right? Their new thing is now everybody is a Nazi. There are these white supremacists coming to get all of us. Now, by the way, what's the new thing after Nazi? Now you're allowed to punch Nazis, because you probably saw that guy Richard Spencer get punched, and suddenly all these people on the left were saying, "We should be out there punching Nazis." They think we're in Indiana Jones, and this is 1941, and we're fighting Hitler. It's just not real. When you've pinned yourself into an intellectual corner where everyone against you truly is evil, then of course de-platforming is fine, and burning things down is fine, and punching people and the rest of it. It's just an obvious extension of the ideology that they've laid out.

Reason: In the election of 2016, you flirted with Gary Johnson, you were a big Gary Johnson fan, and then you lost …

Rubin: Oh, Gary …

Reason: You ended up voting for him, right?

Rubin: I did vote for Gary.

Reason: Talk … If we go off the campus, say, where students always tend to be a little bit more extreme, do you see the same problems that you see on campuses with the regressive left? Is that also infecting national politics?

Rubin: Oh yeah.

Reason: Are Democrats part of the regressive left, but then is the Republican party also to blame? I mean, they're very extreme. There are no Republicans in Congress who will say, "I support a woman's right to an abortion."

Rubin: Yeah.

Reason: That's just not allowed.

Rubin: No.

Reason: Talk a little bit how this plays out in your national partisan politics.

Rubin: To the second part of that … First, it's funny. People say to me, "You're always attacking the left. You must be a conservative. You must be a Republican." No. I'm not even proud to say this, but I've never voted for a Republican in my entire life. I think the last time Giuliani ran for that third term, I'm not even sure if he was an independent at the time, or a Republican, but I did vote for him, so maybe once, but I've never … I voted for Obama twice, I voted for Bill Clinton, so I've never even voted for a Republican. I don't defend the Republicans. They've created a huge set of problems. If they would have been willing to negotiate with Obama over the course of eight years we wouldn't have seen this now reaction to them, which by the way, now the Democrats are being as intolerant as the Republicans were. I thought liberals were supposed to be liberal, meaning you were supposed to be a little better than the worst of the people that you're constantly railing against.

The open liberal in the Democratic party basically doesn't exist. Imagine John F. Kennedy. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

Reason: Which, by the way, as a libertarian, I find a repulsive thought.

Rubin: Fair enough. You might find it a repulsive thought, but imagine a democrat saying … Imagine Bernie Sanders saying that right now. He would be booed off the stage. As a Democrat, you're supposed to say, "No, we will give you this. You will get free education. We will artificially force the minimum wage to be higher."

Reason: Even somebody like Bill Clinton, who you said you voted for, was a free-trade Democrat. They don't exist anymore.

Rubin: Sure. They've consistently gone to the left now. There is no home for an actual liberal. This is why recently on my show I've found it much easier to build bridges with guys that five years ago I thought I would never talk to. Just in the last couple of weeks I've had Glenn Beck on, I've had Dennis Prager on, Ben Shapiro. These guys are staunch conservatives, and yet because we care about liberty, individual liberty, even if I disagree with them on some tax stuff, some of them on gay marriage, and things that I hold very dear, and abortion, and death penalty, where I disagree with all of them on all of those things I think, I can see some bridge-building there because we're trying to create the most opportunity for human liberty versus where are the bridges to build with the progressives if their only resolution is more state power, but not only that, if they're just going to say that if you don't agree with them then you're a bigot and a racist. I know that sounds a little collective, right, if I say "them," but sometimes you get caught in we have to use labels to describe people.

Reason: Who were your show … I mentioned it in the intro. There is a civil tone to it. You talk to all sorts of different people. Who are your idols as talk show hosts? I mean, it is always struck me as particularly strange that now we have an infinite amount of time where we can talk, we have different media, different platform, everything is still super polarized and super partizan. Where is this coming from?

Rubin: I think for me personally I just truly truly don't feel the need to be right all the time, or to know everything all the time. I actually genuinely like listening to people, and I like seeing the gears working. How do they think. Maybe you can … I learn something from everybody that I have one. Sometimes I learn just that they're bullshit artists.

Reason: What did you learn from Milo?

Rubin: What did I learn from Milo? What I learned from Milo is that sometimes there is use in laying out bombs that are going to upset people because sometimes in the chaos of that you can actually build some bridges. You can actually find some people waking up. The best way I can lay that out is when I was at UCLA with Milo there were kids coming up to me after who were saying, "Dave, I don't even really like Milo, but I found you because of him, and I like sort of the more measured, decent conversation." There's value in what he does. That doesn't mean I agree with everything. Of course I don't. You know people say this all the time. "I don't agree with everything that person says." Since when was that even a thing that you had to agree with someone all the time. I genuinely like talking with him.

To answer your question, Johnny Carson, I remember when I was in high school and I just stay up for a little bit of the interviews, that he just seemed decent. He just seemed decent. I always liked that. My friend and mentor is Larry King. He's truly the king of this, and I think the best piece of advice he ever gave me and I think I had already incorporated it without even knowing it, is that he said to me, he said, "Dave, when I had the show on CNN it was called Larry King Tonight. My name was in it already, so my ego had already been stroked, so how much more did I need?" I try to view it the same way. The show is called the Rubin Report. They're not replacing me. You can try, Nick, but it's going to be tough.

Reason: I'll change my name.

Rubin: It is possible, I suppose, but because of that it's like what would be the point of every week me bringing on somebody so that I can berate them or battle with them or whatever? Let me … If you let someone talk, usually you'll watch them put the noose around their neck and hang themselves, which I may have done here today.

Reason: What do you think has to happen to make classical liberalism, libertarianism, more popular? You mentioned Gary, and I like Gary Johnson, I think he did very well. Not as well as a lot of us would have hoped. What has to happen for the idea of freedom for me and for you, and of people being able to disagree but get along at the same time? What has to happen for this to become the next big political or cultural identity?

Rubin: I think it's happening right now. I think it's obvious that it's happening right now because people are seeing that the sides, the extremes make no sense. Look at the far right. Look at the far left. Most people, most thinking people, don't agree with either of that. We've been caught in it. We live in a world of Twitter where we're just caught between everyone aiming at each other all the time and firing at each other all the time. Most people, if we can get the ideas across, we can just use media to get the ideas across, I don't care what you do in the privacy of your own home. I simply don't. You could do whatever you want, and as long as it's legal, whatever you're doing, and I don't … Actually if you were doing something illegal, if you were smoking some illegal drugs in your house, I personally wouldn't care about that either, but I think most people really do feel that, that it is your life to live, it is your responsibility to get something good out of it, it's your responsibility to take what's yours and not be owed anything. None of us are owed anything.

I think this idea that the left has given us, this idea of the oppression Olympics where victimhood is the highest virtue, and that you have to be more of a victim than the next person because that means that you're higher up on there scale, and by the way, what do they hold on the top of that pyramid is Islam, which is the most regressive ideology there is. Islam, wherever it is, this is simply the truth. I know this sounds upsetting, but it is true, wherever it is, it's bad for everybody, including Muslims. Wherever Islam has taken root, it is bad for gays, for women, certainly for any religious minority, and it's bad for any free-thinking Muslims at the same time.

Reason: I will question that. It is certainly the case in many places, particularly in the middle east, places like Malaysia and Indonesia it's more temperate.

Rubin: It is.

Reason: There's more than one type of Islam.

Rubin: No, but that's … The people that you're talking about, that are more temperate, they've done the work of not paying attention so much to the ideology. The ideology remains. The simple fact is if we were, right now, if we were in any Islamic-controlled country, we would have much different feelings about having this conversation.

Reason: We would not be having this conversation in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, most of Iraq.

Rubin: That's why I'm making the distinction between a doctrine, a set of ideas … This can't be overstated, but I know …

Reason: You have to repeat it all the time.

Rubin: Right, because I am not talking about the average Muslim person. I judge everyone on what they say and think and do. I don't judge everybody on the doctrine of anything. There's plenty of stuff in the Old Testament that's completely bananas. Fortunately there aren't a lot of Jews walking around that believe in that. There's actually …

Reason: Not even that many Christians.

Rubin: There's not even that many Christians that believe in it. That doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of Jews that I would disagree with on some Biblical stuff, obviously, and Christians that I would disagree with. As I said before, there's a lot of the anti-gay marriage stuff in this country was religiously-based. The simple fact is that where Islam has taken root, it is bad for everybody. It's an ideology I don't know that we need to defeat it, but we should be pushing out better ideas and if liberals were acting liberally they would realize that this isn't the ideology that you should be holding hands with.

Reason: As a final question, how do you feel about Trump? You've talked a lot about him recently on your show, obviously. Surprisingly wins the election, he gets inaugurated. What are your fears, what are your hopes for the Trump era?

Rubin: First off, I wasn't surprised that he won. I was on Joe Rogan's show the day before and I said I truly believe this is 50/50. Now I guess that's not the greatest betting man thing ever to say, but everyone was saying this thing is over. If you look at what Nate Silver was saying that day it was 90% and all that stuff.

Reason: Then one of your guests, Scott Adams called it for Trump months before.

Rubin: Exactly. The reason that I felt that it wasn't in the bag was because I listened to people. I listened to Scott Adams. I listened to Mike [inaudible 00:23:37]. These people that I disagree with on plenty of stuff, I listened to Milo, and I thought, there's something happening here. There's something that the media is missing. There's an outrage that a certain amount of people are feeling that is not being addressed. I think Clinton was a terrible candidate for a series of reasons.

Reason: Have you seen the recent … A bunch of economics redid the debates …

Rubin: Someone sent it to me this morning. I haven't seen it yet.

Reason:: It's kind of fascinating in that a lot of Hilary supporters when they saw Trump's message being addressed to them from a female, from a woman, they were like, "I understand why Trump won, because he had a very direct, insistent, and repeatable message that spoke to a lot of people's anger or sense of alienation."

Speaker 5: I know how to really work to get new jobs and to get exports that help to create more jobs.

Speaker 6: You haven't done it in 30 years, in 26 years.

Speaker 5: [crosstalk 00:24:30]

Speaker 6: You haven't done it. Excuse me.

Rubin: The simple fact is most people think politics is absolute bullshit, and it basically is. We have created a system where people who are all in bed with each other, who now we know through Wikileaks, are all in bed with the media, and look how many administration officials are married to people that are executives at the news networks. The whole thing is absurd. Even now, Trump said he's not going to do the White House Correspondents Dinner. The White House Correspondents Dinner, watch them for the last eight years. I'm sure you've watched them. This is … They call it nerd prom because they love thinking that they're so nerdy too. This is the worst kind of collusion there is. The people who are supposed to be guarding the power, the fourth estate, what are they doing? They're going to dinner, they're having drinks. Guess what? If the president walked in here and took a picture with us and we could have dinner with him, we might treat him a little bit differently as media members, but this is what we've allowed them all to do.

My fears with Trump are he absolutely has an authoritarian side. There's no doubt about it. I was against executive actions when George W. Bush was doing them. I didn't like them under Obama. I don't like them now. We're seeing why they're so weak, right? All it takes is a new guy to come in and sign something and that's that. If you legislate via executive action, get ready for it to be reversed via executive action. By the way, where's Congress right now? Why aren't these people … The Republicans have the House. Why don't you maybe write a law? Let the guy sign a law instead.

They're all to blame and I think until we realize that these people are just doing nothing … That's why the answer … What's the answer? Stop giving them so much power? The answer is take away the power for these career politicians and all this money to control us. You know who you should control? Who should control you? Is you. Who should control me? It's me.

Reason: Also me.

Rubin: Also you. I almost butchered that. In which case, that would have been very …

Reason: Well, we will leave it there. Thank you so much.

Rubin: My pleasure.

Reason: We have been talking with Dave Rubin of the Rubin Report. Check out his YouTube channel and check him out online. Dave, thanks so much for talking with us.

Rubin: Absolutely.

Reason: For ReasonTV, I'm Nick Gillespie.