Donald Trump’s election exposed the irrelevance of conservative intellectuals — and thereby, the incoherence of many a liberal publication’s mission statement.
During the 2016 primaries, the right-wing intelligentsia mobilized in opposition to Trump. In op-eds, public letters, and a special issue of the National Review, Republican thought leaders warned the GOP base that the mogul disdained the core tenets of their shared faith — a demagogue who praised political violence was no defender of the Constitution; a libertine who shouted his sexcapades from the rooftops was no guardian of family values; an isolationist who decried NATO and the war in Iraq couldn’t be trusted to exert American leadership on the world stage; and a cretin who endorsed universal health care would never cut “big government” down to size. Through 12 nationally televised debates, Trump’s Republican rivals echoed these arguments; the front-runner rarely bothered to rebut them.
And none of it prevented him from becoming the Republican nominee — and then, a Republican president with a far higher approval rating than his (conventionally conservative) congressional allies.
This is a problem for America’s mainstream organs of opinion journalism. Magazines like The Atlantic, and op-ed pages like the New York Times’, have long aimed to host a dialogue that represents the major intellectual currents on both sides of aisle — while upholding fundamental principles of civility, good faith, and respect for the equal dignity of all human beings (regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender).
There was a tension in that mission statement before Trump: For decades, many of the American right’s most influential voices had rejected those supposedly shared values, and many of the conservative movement’s animating ideas were manifestly arational and racist. But before the triumph of the birther king — when the Republican Party’s standard-bearers still spoke in a language broadly similar to David Brooks’s — it was possible to frame the latter as a faithful translator of Red America’s thoughts and feelings.
No more. Trump has made the reality of the American right unmistakable: There is no mass constituency for the conservative policy agenda, only one for its paranoid warnings of national, cultural, and racial decline — and its authoritarian reassurances that a strong leader can restore what we’ve lost by taking it back from them. There is no civil way to defend the president’s defamatory claim that Americans who came here through the diversity visa lottery are all “horrendous” criminals. There is no good-faith argument for why Hillary Clinton should be in jail, and Joe Arpaio a free man; no rational case for why Trump actually won the popular vote in 2016. But those ideas have far more resonance with the conservative base than do Paul Ryan’s ambitions for the federal budget. And while the latter are still highly relevant to how Republicans actually govern, it is now clear that this fact is not a testament to the persuasive power of the speaker’s ideas, but only to the economic power of his patrons.
Liberal outlets have responded to all this by publishing the conservatism they wish to see in the world. Republicans with negative views of Donald Trump make up about 5 percent of the electorate, according to the latest Voter Study Group survey, but they are just about the only kind of Republican one will encounter on the pages of The Atlantic or New York Times.
Alas, there is a problem with this approach — it inevitably confronts the editors of such outlets with the thorny question: If the conservatives who are fit to print aren’t actually representative of the Republican worldview, then what do they offer their (predominately) liberal readers? If center-left publications are going to screen out ideas that are undeniably relevant — on the grounds that they violate their institutions’ bedrock values — why retain irrelevant perspectives that are so much in tension with those values?
It’s one thing to employ a conservative writer because he or she is interesting (a distinction I’d personally award to a handful of idiosyncratic reactionaries, Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty, among them); it’s another to employ a substandard columnist because he or she is conservative. And liberal publications, in their quest for balance, have often done the latter.
The scarcity of worthwhile conservative writers reflects the movement’s intellectual paralysis. Conservatives who were willing to abandon their movement’s dogmas once the Reagan-era verities turned stale have ceased to be recognizable as conservatives (see: the “liberaltarians” of the Niskanen Center). The others have clung to ideas too discredited to “challenge” liberal readers: The notions that tax cuts spur growth; high deficits produce runaway inflation; inequality is the necessary and worthwhile price of economic dynamism; and social-welfare programs inevitably breed dependence (and thus, hurt the poor more than they help them) are all empirical claims that have proven demonstrably false.
Granted, the social conservative’s view on fetal personhood is unfalsifiable — and does boast a significant constituency — but it doesn’t generally lend itself to novel or engaging debates. One either accepts the metaphysical premise or one doesn’t. The Kevin Williamson fiasco was born of this basic problem. To make his pro-life convictions appear interesting, the then–National Review columnist rendered them in ugly, extremist terms that even he did not actually believe in. (There’s a popular idea that Williamson’s only offense was taking a widely held conservative belief to its logical conclusion: If a fetus is a person, then abortion is murder — and conservatives support the death penalty for that crime. But this reasoning is spurious. No state sentences all convicted killers to death, without consideration of the specific circumstances of their crime. Believing a fetus is a human being does not require one to ignore all the myriad distinctions between a woman choosing not to sustain the life of a person that lives off of her body, and one who ends a life that would have gone on without her intervention.)
So why, then, should liberal publications go out of their way to hire polite sophists with boring, bankrupt ideas (i.e. Bret Stephens), or stylish trolls with cruel ones (i.e. Kevin Williamson)?
This question was at the center of a discussion among editorial staff at The Atlantic, on the morning after the magazine fired one of the latter. The answer, according to the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, was that failing to do so would result in an ideologically homogeneous publication, devoid of intellectual diversity and lively debate. The Atlantic’s star writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wasn’t so sure. Here’s the critical exchange between them, captured in a transcript of the magazine’s internal discussion that was leaked to the Huffington Post:
Goldberg: Do you think The Atlantic would be diminished if we narrowed the bounds of acceptability in ideological discourse, even as we grow in diversity?
Coates: Again, I don’t think it’s a question of narrowing. I think it’s where the lines are drawn.
Goldberg: Well, it is if you bring the lines in.
Goldberg presumes that moving the rightward bound of The Atlantic’s output to the left would necessarily narrow its ideological range; Coates recognizes that this is only true if the leftward bound is kept in place.
But there’s no reason why it must be. The far left has ideas that can be argued civilly, in good faith, without violating core liberal values. And those ideas are more responsive to the problems of our era than those of the NeverTrumpers. What’s more, by at least by one criterion, they’re actually more “mainstream”: While only 5 percent of American voters are anti-Trump Republicans, 6 percent are self-identified socialists.
There are a lot of interesting questions that currently divide liberals from the socialist left. And exploring those disagreements would almost certainly do more to challenge the average Atlantic reader intellectually than running Kevin Williamson’s latest diatribe against the shiftless poor people he grew up among (but proved himself better than).
Take the most fundamental question dividing left-liberals from socialists: Should the means of production be socialized? Many on the center-left regard this as a dead debate — one that Joseph Stalin settled decisively long ago.
But the events of recent decades have lent some credence to the socialists’ case: The democratic left’s argument has long been that, while welfare capitalism is undoubtedly superior to totalitarian communism, the former is inherently unstable and unsustainable. Eventually, the inequalities that capitalism produces undermine the government’s capacity to spread the wealth around. As Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman articulates the point:
There’s a fundamental contradiction between accepting that capitalists’ pursuit of profit will be the motor of the system, and believing you can systematically tame and repress it through policies and regulations. In the classical Marxist account, the contradiction is straightforwardly economic: policies that reduce profit rates too much will lead to underinvestment and economic crisis. But the contradiction can also be political: profit-hungry capitalists will use their social power to obstruct the necessary policies. How can you have a system driven by individuals maximizing their profit cash-flows and still expect to maintain the profit-repressing norms, rules, laws, and regulations necessary to uphold the common welfare?
The explosions of inequality — and waves of austerity — that have rippled through the West’s mixed economies in recent decades offers some support for this narrative. As does the fact that the power to set many aspects of regulatory policy has moved away from democratically accountable national governments to more independent (and, arguably, capital-dominated) multilateral institutions over the same time period.
And “market socialists” have put significant thought into how a 21st-century socialist state could avoid the economic pitfalls of the 20th-century variety. In Ackerman’s account, the real problem with the Soviet economies wasn’t public ownership of the means of production, per se; rather, it was the lack of autonomous, self-reliant firms that hamstrung productivity and responsiveness to consumer needs. Firms must have access to multiple, independent sources of capital, so that a single central planner can’t veto innovative experiments. And businesses that don’t reliably produce more value than they consume must be allowed to fail, so that resources can be reinvested into other enterprises. But none of that necessarily requires private ownership of the capital market:
What is needed is a structure that allows autonomous firms to produce and trade goods for the market, aiming to generate a surplus of output over input — while keeping those firms public and preventing their surplus from being appropriated by a narrow class of capitalists. Under this type of system, workers can assume any degree of control they like over the management of their firms, and any “profits” can be socialized — that is, they can truly function as a signal, rather than as a motive force. But the precondition of such a system is the socialization of the means of production — structured in a way that preserves the existence of a capital market.
There are a lot of reasons to reject the market-socialist account. After all, the Nordic social democracies are still alive and kicking; historically, concentrating financial power in the state apparatus has often been an invitation to tyranny. But surely, a debate over such matters would be more stimulating than Ed Rogers’s output.
Here’s a sampling of other, ideologically divisive debates that center-left publications could host, if they redistributed some of the column inches away from movement conservatives and to democratic socialists:
• Has the system of international trade that’s governed the global economy over the past four decades been a force for good in the world? Or would many developing countries have achieved even more material progress — and political sovereignty — if they had pursued more nationalist and protectionist economic policies?
• Is the answer to the rise of Amazon, Walmart, Google, the big banks, and other monopoly economic players to return to more robust antitrust enforcement — or to embrace the economies of scale that these firms have produced, but nationalize them so that their immense power is brought under democratic control?
• Is the Supreme Court a legitimate institution that must be protected, or is it an unaccountable, unelected legislature that abets reactionary interests?
• Is the U.S. Constitution bad?
• Should “do no harm” be the first principle of American foreign policy?
• Should people be able to own ideas?
• Should prisons be abolished?
• Should workplaces be democracies?
• Should we eat the rich (to save their souls)?
And then, once all those issues are settled, we can turn to the most vexing question of all: Should political columnists even exist?