Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist well-known on the internet for “destroying” and/or “obliterating” his critics, has a new mission: restoring civility to American politics.
The lightning-rod professor has spent the last few days on Capitol Hill, holding meetings and dinners with lawmakers and their staff to sell them, not on his usual obsessions—the perils of modern political correctness or the benefits of his strictly all-beef diet—but on the idea that empathy is needed among political foes.
“I’ve had a lot of experience trying to get people to listen to one another, and know what the ground rules for that are,” Peterson told The Daily Beast in a brief interview off the floor of the House on Wednesday.
His goal, he said, was to convince Democrats and Republicans of “the utility of putting a human face on the people who are across the aisle. That’s all. And to decrease unnecessary tension.” But even he wasn’t sure if he was up to the task.
“I’m not sure I am the right person to do it,” he said. “That’s what I’m here to sort of find out.”
For decades, the project of chipping away at entrenched partisanship in Washington has been taken up most enthusiastically by think tanks and corporate-backed centrist groups. Peterson, by contrast, was once an obscure academic who in recent years has become a leading figure of the so-called “intellectual dark web” and something of a folk hero in some conservative and far-right circles.
Though Peterson shuns ideological labels, he’s championed views at the vanguard of the right, criticizing all forms of political correctness, and inveighing against Islam, Marxism, and feminism. He has argued that the cure for the social ills posed by so-called “incels” is “enforced monogamy;” his unofficial mascot is a lobster, whose behaviors Peterson has argued prove that social hierarchies are natural. His advice book, 12 Rules For Life, is a bestseller hit that’s turned him into a surrogate father figure for young men who needed pearls of Peterson wisdom such as “clean your room.”
As he stood off the House floor on Wednesday, leaning against a wooden shelf in a three-piece suit and a tie festooned with lobsters, Peterson was approached several times by starstruck young men asking for selfies. “I just love your work,” said one, who said he’d seen Peterson speak recently in Arizona.
The focus of Peterson’s trial run at his bipartisan project was a sit-down dinner on Tuesday night. His partner in the venture, the writer Gregg Hurwitz, said that 20 lawmakers attended, a diverse mix of Democrats and Republicans. What was discussed at the dinner—and which lawmakers were there—was strictly off the record. The Daily Beast was unable to confirm any members’ attendance, despite asking over a dozen offices.
The dinner, said Peterson, was filled with talk about lawmakers’ lives, their careers, what drove them to public service. “I think it was palpably relieving for everyone to have a conversation where they could just talk personally,” he said.
Former Rep. Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican defeated in the 2018 midterm election, accompanied Peterson and Hurwitz as they walked through the Capitol building, functioning like their congressional sherpa.
“It was awesome,” Hultgren said of the dinner. “In my eight years here, I have never had something like that.”
But not everyone found the visit worth crowing about. “Oh God,” texted one Democratic aide, who was shocked any Democratic lawmakers had broken bread with Peterson. “Bad staffing.”
Peterson estimated that about half of the lawmakers he met knew who he was, and said that those who he had dinner with on Tuesday were familiar with his ideas.
“I guess it’s a consequence of the fact that my name is somewhat of a draw,” he said.
Hultgren, who said he met Peterson at a similar dinner in December 2018 and has kept up with him since, introduced his friend to former colleagues as a New York Times bestselling author. But the one-time congressman acknowledged that courting controversy is as much a part of his brand as anything else.
“I think he feels, my sense is, he’s surprised from this last couple of years at the resonance, the controversy, but the attention and opportunities that have been given to talk,” said Hultgren. “If he and Greg together could help bring some people together to have a conversation that couldn’t have happened otherwise, it’s worth it.”
—With reporting from Will Sommer