The politician philosopher

Matt Johnson is the only professional philosopher I know of whose sense of political urgency is so overwhelming, that he’s actually running for local public office. He’s doing it right now: running for city council in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And he puts most of us to shame. For everybody who thinks that their job is too draining, or their responsibilities too overwhelming, just know that Matt Johnson is out there, teaching seven courses as an adjunct philosophy professor, finishing his doctoral dissertation at Temple University, serving as a human relations commissioner for the city, and running for city council, all at the same goddamn time. Oh, and he wrote a musical last year.

Matt explains: Lancaster is a very blue city in the middle of a very red county, right in the heart of Amish country. It’s about 43% Latinx — and the BBC just named it the refugee capital of America. Matt’s one of the two most liberal candidates in the running this year. Among other things, he’s pushing for increased police transparency, making Lancaster an official sanctuary city, increased support for the impoverished and primarily minority parts of Lancaster, and pushing for more lead removal.

(The following interview is mostly verbal interview, cut together with some email exchanges for clarity.)

So when did you decide: “Goddammit, I’m a philosophy teacher, and I’m gonna run for fuckin’ city council!”?

It’s been on my radar for a long time. But, yeah, I think it was this last election that pushed me over the edge, like: “Hey, we’re losing our minds. Everybody is losing their minds. And, if there’s anybody that should jump into this whole post-truth, epistemic bubble world, it should be a philosopher — who deals with this stuff all the time.”

And that’s basically my pitch. I was calling local committee people trying to get their endorsement, and the first thing they say is, “Why should I vote for you?” And most people would shy away from being an academic philosopher, but that’s the first thing I say. “I have this background that helps me cut through bullshit. And I care about, you know, the facts.” And that seems to help.

Photo: Roxy Poxy

So does it actually work? When you’re out there, and you try to use your philosophy training, does it, like, do anything?

Well… on the trail, it’s more charm. But it does help me when it comes to things like Facebook interactions, where there are people are arguing back and forth about something and really just hitting the periphery of the issue. It helps when I can come in and say, “I really think you’re all focusing on the fringe here. There’s an issue that you’re hitting on and you’re not seeing it.”

Also, after the election, there was a local group, an underground radical group. They were a bunch of my friends, and I became their tag team partner. They’d tag me in a Facebook post, and I’d come in guns blazing. And what I started doing was, I started hosting logic and debate and rhetoric courses. We’d go to the bar, and we’d sit there, and I’d have handouts, and we’d go over good argumentation and rhetoric and we’d wood-shop on these issues.

Wait… are you training activists to argue more clearly?!?

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m doing!

This is like philosophy guerrilla training. Like when the CIA sent people. We’re sending a philosopher, man! Is it working?

It was this amazing experience. We’d diagram stuff! People would come in and say, “Here’s how this argument went.” And I’m like, “Well here’s where we could have gone with this.” It yielded some really interesting conversations. And some activists who were much more able to engage in activists terms with that passive supporter, to turn that passive supporter and to turn the passive denier into a passive supporter.

I know we’ve both been thinking about this thing called the “pipeline problem.” Liberals don’t enter local government. That Rorty article was really striking to me. He said: liberals enter the arts, they enter non-profits, they enter academia, but they just don’t enter local politics, and this seems to be the origin for a lot of the redistricting problems. Do you buy Rorty’s explanation? That the left went to cultural identity, and those are global issues?

I buy it to an extent. I think that the rigors of academia, too, are such that they’re isolating from the local community. I know a lot of younger professors that are getting tenure, and I see them going from these chipper and excited people… but once there’s this pressure to publish and to get tenure, their lives become very insular. Their whole lives are revolving around this institutional structure. It’s almost impossible to divide your consciousness into, “Hey how are we going to solve this water problem?” That seems trivial compared to these other things.

I mean, we’re always like: “Philosophers would be so good at public life! We’re good at talking, we’re good at reasoning.” And then nobody fuckin’ does it. You’re, like, the only professional philosopher I know from, like, a thousand, who’s involved in any kind of governance. So, the questions are: how did that happen? And is there a way to fix it, to encourage people?

When I told people I was running for politics, my old mentor was overjoyed, but he also sure that I was just going to get exhausted with these questions. And to be quite frank, I haven’t. They intrigue me so much more.

I’m currently a human relations commissioner in town. I’m on a board of five people who investigate claims of discrimination. I’m thrilled when we’re in the weeds. I’m so thrilled when we’re like, “Well, how do we solve this problem?” It’s so fascinating to me. It’s exercising judgment, which also seems lost on philosophy too — that it’s a matter of judgment, and not just finding founding principles.

Photo: Michele Johnson Sipel

Do you think you have strategies for convincing philosophers and academics who would be good at public service to leave their insular world and spend their time doing public service? Like, an elevator pitch?

It all relates, privately, back to the kind of nerdy excitement I get in seeing through a problem. And then at the end of it knowing that actual people’s lives will be different based on how well you solve this problem. There was a Sherlock episode recently where he had to solve these problems really quick or people would die, and I was like, “Yeah, there it is. That’s kind of like politics.” It’s not like people are dying, but it’s like: it really matters.

And something else I’m learning the hard way, is that my general philosophical answers to things don’t cut it. They don’t cut it. I can say, “Here are my philosophical beliefs, here are my justifications for these beliefs,” and people go, “Yeah, but what about implementation? What about how you going to balance this faction with that faction.” And then it’s like: oh. Philosophy is kind of like a one-dimensional world, and this adds new and interesting dimensions to problems that normally I’d just sit on my ass and armchair it.

I literally just wrote a paper today, “This is an interesting problem, but I’ll leave it to the empiricists to figure out.”

And there’s a joy in being aware that there’s no purely effective answer that will just solve the problem. There’s a release there. It’s like the Wittgensteinean thing of being able to stop doing philosophy. My pitch has to do with that. “You’ve been training at this level. Now, go out in the real world, outside the simulation, and see how it is for you!”

There’s an article by Matthew Yglesias about why liberals are failing at the local level. And one of his accusations was inflexibility and theoretical and moral purity. It feels like there’s a demand — among liberals, among philosophers — for purity and correctness that makes political life impossible for them.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s like, Cory Booker was the darling of the liberals, and then he votes for that pharmaceutical thing, and suddenly it’s treason. What I always tell people is: do you not make political decisions in your life all the time? Are you part of no organization where you’re like, “Well, I guess we have to put up with Tina’s behavior. But the end result will be a happier office place if we let her whatever.” I mean, we make these sorts of compromises all the time.

Sometimes when I interrogate my very liberal activist friends about why they don’t go into local governance, they’re often this view: “That’s the establishment. You’re selling out. You can’t go in, you can’t change the system from inside. You’ll just be perverted by the system.” What do you say to that?

I don’t know what to say. There’s a swell of activism here, and I support it. And I feel like there’s some tension about my going into politics. Even though people who are in the movement known where I’ve stood for a long time, I feel like there’s an arms’ length thing, now that I’m running for politics.

The way I see it is: division of labor. I feel like I would like to see more activists get into politics, but I’d also like to see more progressive people for whom activism isn’t for them get into politics. I was just talking with a fellow candidate, Ismail Smith-Wade-El, about this and he said: the activists can do things the politicians can’t. I’ve already found this out. There’s our local congressperson. He hasn’t done town halls, he’s hiding, he’s voting for all the things we don’t like. And at first, I was on his Facebook page, I was writing all this stuff. And then I realized: should I get elected, I’m going to need to ask this person to get funding for some of the things that I want. So me just like howling every time he does something… it works for the activists because they don’t have a stake in that game. They’re outside that game. But I’m in the game, and at the end of the day, the moral purity stance… I could say, “Fuck this guy,” every time I get the chance to, but then when I turn around and say, “Hey, could we get $50,000 to get the lead out of some houses in the poorest part of town,” he’s going to say, “No, I remember what you said about me. I remember what you were doing. You didn’t seem to want to cooperate with me then, so no.” So in the end, my moral purity ends up getting me no money for something that will materially improve the lives of people.

So I think that’s what it is. Pragmatism is often thought of as this crude thing. Bertrand Russell thought pragmatism was an American philosophy because everything was in terms of cash value, everything was this capitalistic transactional thing. And I think he’s wrong about that. The pragmatist clearly has values, clearly has ideals, but the only gold standard of whether those values have been fulfilled is whether they happen.

I made fun of a friend of mine who goes to political theory meetings in Philadelphia all the time. Have you seen “Hail Caesar”? It’s exactly like the meetings in that movie.

You’re talking about, like, a third of my world.

And increasingly mine. And I’m like — wow, you really have this theoretical stuff down. What has it ever produced for the people that you love so much? You personally. Not political theory in general, or globally — I mean, what has your group done to materially improve the lives that you say that you’re willing to devote yourself outside the system for?

Totally practical stuff. Is this the kind of job you’re going to do simultaneously with being a philosophy teacher? Is it a part time job?


Another question: are we just past the stage of reason? For some of us, a lot of academics, are at home: everything we see is through Facebook, through the media. And there’s a sense, from that position, that the world has lost its fucking mind, that no one listens to reason any more, and that reason is useless. How does it feel to you, on the ground, in your campaign?

What I’ve had to do, personally, to save my sanity, is that I’ve built… It’s not like reason is useless generally. I don’t like to make these global judgments. But truth be told, I have limited the scope of people that I’m willing to approach with reason. In other words, I’m usually a person who wants to widen the scope of people that you talk to. But in some ways, I have — non-cynically, but just practically — sort of given up on, made the scope smaller. In that sense, when I talk to people who are not listening to reason, my goal is to just resist with my actions and resist with my protesting, and resist with calling my local senator, all that kind of stuff. And then hope that there are people that I can create enough of a bridge of understanding with that we can at least agree to the rules of the game. Because the biggest problem that you have with some Trump supporters — or even some really far out liberal activists — is that there’s no bridging going on. There’s no attempt to even use the same rules. And if you don’t have any sense of how the discussion is going to go, you just have to… it’s like Wittgenstein, the point where the spade hits bedrock. You’re like, “This is what I do. I’m just doing this now. The time for reasoning with you is over. I’m just going to march and sing a song and have a clever sign, and that’s it.”

How does the bridge-building go? If you have somebody that’s on the edge of reason, how do you build that bridge?

I always look for a way I can appeal to their self-coherence. I always look for self-consistency first, before I start throwing facts around. I always say, “Hey, you seem to believe in this. How does this current thing square to that?”

The other key is: some people give up on Facebook debating altogether because they say it doesn’t matter. But I can tell you: over the years over the many years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve had people come back to me months later and say, “You know what? I’ve really been thinking about what you said.” You’re not going to get an instantaneous result. And so you have to be in it for the long haul. You have to chisel; it can’t be a sledgehammer.

Has running for office changed your philosophical views?

Only in that it’s decreased the ego quite a bit. When I’m in a classroom full of students, and we’re talking about Rawls or Nozick or whatever, I’m the expert. Even if they have some ideas, I systematically understand what we’re talking about better than they do. But when I go to a community meeting, I’m the empty one. I’m going the one in there like a student, like “Oohh, I have an idea”… and then I get schooled. They have a much more systematic understanding of what’s going on in their neighborhood. So, it’s humbled me quite a bit.

Have you ever seen that episode of the Simpsons when Mensa runs Springfield? I play it whenever I do the Republic. I play it because it’s what would really happen if philosophers took over.

Matt ringing doorbells, and getting out the dog vote. Photo: Scout Lynch

But isn’t that your pitch though? I’m the philosopher! Elect me!

No, no no! Because in Springfield episode they just become philosopher kings. There is no democratic aspect. But here, it’s all of the intelligence of an academic, all of the abstract reasoning skills, but filtered through the sort of democratic system such that it necessarily weeds out some of the egotism and dogmatism that just don’t fly on a political level. It puts you in touch with the ground.

Do you have to put on a different frame of mind for committee meetings or dealing with other politicians? Or is that very philosophy-like critical reasoning-like skill?

So far I’ve talked almost exclusively about campaigning. The actual job of being a city councilperson, when you’re dealing with other people — the philosophical training comes in really well there. Because there are issues of clarity, seeing where people agree and disagree, and seeing how their ideas cohere. On the city council — at that point, you are creating consensus.

Wait: philosophy skills help create consensus? Nobody thinks that! Philosophy’s for screwing around and stabbing each other!

Except for non-philosophers, who treat you as if you have some magical power. If it’s something that I care about I’m willing to take a pretty bold stance and argue for it well in ways that fit the people I’m talking to. But if it’s something that I just want to find consensus on, it’s kind of the job of the pluralist to see how things cohere. Wasn’t it Sellars who said that our job as philosophers was to see how things hang together? I can say to someone: “Well, your interest in social justice can be consistent with this person’s interest in small-business ownership, and they don’t have to be exclusive even though the rhetoric you’ve used makes it seem so.”

That’s so interesting. When I’m an academic, I have to say things like, “Well, my position is finely different from that other position which is this is worth publishing. So let me expand on the difference.” Academics almost never have, as a professional goal, showing that they agree with other people. It’s always showing that your position is novel. But what you’re saying is: skills of argument analysis can be used to discover coherencies and similarities?

When you put it that way, you’re right! Academic life does try to train you to be on the look-out for difference, for that tiny bit of real estate that you have that nobody else can mess with. But call it a certain optimistic demeanor, or a certain kind of do-gooder… it’s like using the powers for good.

So, last question: how do we heal the political divide in this country?

I don’t know, man. Maybe that’s why I’m into local politics right now. A lot of things I want to do are kind of a thumb in the nose of authority. Maybe through collective action? The data seems to bear this out. We’re getting a bench. A lot of women are entering politics, a lot of people of color are entering politics.

It has to come from somewhere. My high school, for instance, had the worst football team in the history of America. We were tied for the longest losing streak. And the reason was we had no Pee Wee League whatsoever. So everybody bemoaned: oh, we have athletes, and they suck, and they can never get anything done, and it’s an exercise in futility. And the second that we started a youth program in football then we became… well, just mediocre. But at least it’s better than losing 76 straight games.

Liberals! You’ve lost everything. You need to start a politician Little League.

That’s right. Let’s get the minor system working! Let’s work some politicians up from the minors and hopefully they’ll be ready by the time the farm team needs them!