the national circus

Why Liberal Media Need Conservative Columnists

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debate on Firing Line in 1968. Photo: ABC via Getty Images

On January 14, 2009, incoming president Barack Obama ventured to the home of George Will to have dinner with a group of right-wing luminaries including Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Larry Kudlow, David Brooks, Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, and Paul Gigot. Every one of those figures opposed essentially every single one of Obama’s major policies, both during the preceding campaign and during the two terms that followed, frequently in hysterical and paranoid terms.

Why, then, would Obama even bother? Because he believed there was a certain value in bouncing his ideas off the conservative opposition, probing his own thought for weaknesses, and searching for useful points to take from the opposing side.

The merits (or lack thereof) of listening to conservative opinion has become a point of contention and angst among liberal journalists. Staffers at the New York Times and The Atlantic have both held gripe sessions, which leaked publicly, to air internal complaints about their conservative columnists. (Both have right-of-center voices, and the Atlantic hired and immediately fired right-wing provocateur Kevin Williamson.) Meanwhile, some of the smarter liberal writers, like Dave Roberts and Brian Beutler, have argued that liberal media should give up its attempts to represent conservatives on the op-ed page. Their case reflects the renewed belief on the left, which has understandably gained force from the election of Trump, that exposing liberal or mainstream news audiences to conservative argument has no value at all.

I would agree with many of the premises these writers offer. Trump is merely the latest evidence of the intellectual degeneration of conservatism. Probably the single most common theme of my professional work has been arguing that American conservatism is a dogma incapable of grappling with reality. Conservatives have greeted every new advance of social policy, from child labor laws to civil rights to Obamacare, as overweening exercises in socialism doomed to fail, and both the nature of their ideology and the structure of the movement’s internal political logic has prevented conservatives from acknowledging their repeated failures.

Trump has exposed the underlying crisis in an especially dramatic fashion. Trump so completely disregards the value of ideas that he does not confine his wild lies to notions that have been nurtured on the right, like climate-science denial or the IRS “targeting scandal.” Instead Trump denies statements he has made on camera, concocts his own conspiracy theories on the fly, and makes barely any effort to keep his story straight. Trump has abandoned even the pretense that words have value. It is almost impossible for even a pseudo-intellectual to defend him outright, which is why the conservative pundit class has mustered some half-hearted anti-anti-Trumpers but few outright Trump defenders.

This divide provides the argument against the existing litany of conservative voices in the mainstream media. The anti-Trump conservative columnists at the Times and other elite organs, writes Roberts, are “alienated from the animating force in U.S. conservatism, which is Trumpism. They command no divisions. They have nothing to do with what is going on in American politics today.”

But representing the views of conservative America is not the only function of conservative columnists. They also put useful pressure on liberal ideas. The theories of philosophers like John Stuart Mill, and the premise of democratic government, is that ideas have to be contested openly, or else will harden into dogma. All political communities have an inherent tendency to gravitate toward the positions of whoever holds their shared belief most ardently.

Roberts, and my colleague Eric Levitz, urges liberal publications to bring in more left-wing and socialist writers to challenge their liberal readers from the left. That idea certainly has merit as a supplement to challenging them from the right. But as a substitute, an ethos that permits criticism of liberalism and Democratic politics exclusively from the left is a formula for intensifying rather than resisting the gravitational pull of orthodoxy.

Conservative media have always been filled with bitter criticism of the Republican Party. Yet that criticism takes the predictable form of criticizing leaders for their fecklessness and lack of ideological courage. This form of denunciation is completely different than criticizing one’s own side for going too far, either in policy ambitions or in aggressiveness of political tactics. Exhorting one’s own side to push harder or go farther is essentially the opposite of breaking ranks.

And there are certain kinds of flaws in liberal politics that conservatives are far better suited to identify. Liberals need to at least be presented with cogent challenges to their beliefs about government’s capabilities in the economic sphere, and lack of capability in the military sphere, and the speed at which culture can and should be changed, in order to test and sharpen them.

In theory, liberals can fulfill the role of calling out their own side’s shortcomings and errors. In practice, not many liberals like to do so these days. When I started in opinion journalism, left-of-center opinion writers were heavily incentivized to criticize the Democratic Party from the right. (Conservative media had, and still have, very different incentives.) I frequently found it hard to be published in general-interest magazines because my perspective was too partisan and liberal.

That incentive system has corrected itself, and perhaps overcorrected. Social media has formed tribal bonds that make progressive writers far more reluctant to violate tribal taboos. Upsetting your friends, not to mention setting off angry tweetstorms and alienating the allies you might want to rally to your side in the inevitable online flame wars, can be a hassle. Even if you enjoy it, as I must confess I do, it is a time suck. It is much easier to tell yourself that the more important targets are those on the opposing side. And after all, especially in a world where Republicans control the entire government, they are.

But if everybody on your side devotes all their attention to the biggest problem in the world, then nobody will look after the other problems. Criticizing the left amounts to a small minority of my work, but every time I do it, I am met with a hail of friendly critics wondering why I am focusing on the smaller problem at the expense of far larger ones. The huge stakes of the partisan struggle have all kinds of spillover effects, one of which is to raise the social and professional costs of holding fellow members of your coalition to account.

Neither Beutler nor Roberts directly challenges the value of holding one’s side to account. Instead, they argue that conservatives are almost categorically incapable of meeting the intellectual standards of the liberal media. “The editors who have responded to Trump by opening their platforms to more conservatives, while trying simultaneously to uphold the standards of their institutions, have repeatedly seen their best intentions run aground because most conservatives don’t share those standards,” writes Beutler. “There is no Goldilocks conservative up for hire and there never will be.”

I find this case not so much wrong as incomplete. It is hard to find conservatives who literally never commit factual errors or obvious logical fallacies. It’s not that easy to find liberals immune to these shortfalls, either. And while I believe there is a gap in the intellectual standards between opinion journalism of the left, which is an offshoot of the culture of journalism, and opinion journalism of the right, which comes out of activism, I think the gap has shrunk over the last decade or so.

It is easy for the left to exaggerate the scale of the gap because we tend to flyspeck errors committed by the other side while going easy on the errors committed by our own. This bias is hard-wired into the human brain. All of us — left, right, and center — naturally interpret friendly reasoning in the best possible light, and unfriendly reasoning in the worst. Social media has played a role here, too. A large portion of Twitter consists of competing mobs whipping up outrage or demanding corrections over the factually, logically, or morally weakest points made by any member of the opposing tribe. Nobody manages to summon the same level of outrage over false, illogical, or outrageous claims made by their own side. Conservatives who write for liberal publications are subjected to a much higher public standard than their liberal colleagues, whose weakest work is more easily forgiven or overlooked, rather than held up for ridicule.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a 2014 post by Scott Alexander, titled “Beware Isolated Demands for Rigor.” He shows how completely legitimate questions about statistical validity, if only applied to the opposing side, can pose a hindrance to objectivity. The liberal media publishes plenty of flawed columns. Standards are vital, but if we fall for the temptation of using them only as grounds for excluding conservatives, standards are ultimately having the effect of closing our minds rather than opening them.

I’ve been making two arguments that seem to be in tension, and may even appear impossible to reconcile: that conservatism is a failed dogma and that liberals need to take it seriously. These two seemingly polar ideas can be reconciled, though, as follows: Liberalism has succeeded in adapting itself to the world because, unlike conservatism, it has opened itself to internal correction.

Why Liberal Media Need Conservative Columnists