Jeff Bezos and the Great Beyondists

The new Washington Post owner's untethered politics challenge the political class's stale status quo


For people who pride themselves on open-mindedness, elite journalists tolerate a shockingly narrow band of ideological opinion, particularly (though not only) from the people who sign their paychecks.

So you can support gay marriage, drug reform, and reduced defense spending, but do all that while also getting belatedly involved in Republican politics? You're "staunchly conservative" and must be forcibly prevented from snatching newspapers from their rightful owners: corporatist, billionaire Democratic Party donors. You can play stand-up drums for a beloved '60s dirt-rock band that sings songs about heroin and sadomasochism, just don't attend any Tea Party rallies, or you'll spook poor Jacob Weisberg.

There has been a lot of facile commentary about Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos agreeing to buy the legendary Washington Post newspaper for $250 million cash, but one of the most revealing reactions came from former Post reporter Alec MacGillis in The New Republic. In the midst of a Luddite rant about how Bezos has "devastated the publishing industry," MacGillis snorts out a six-word advertisement for journalistic closed-mindedness: "His politics are not visibly objectionable."

Try to move past the fact that The New Republic is now owned by a Facebook billionaire who used to run Barack Obama's social media campaign, and instead focus on the underlying assertion here: Ideology and political activity outside the journalist-drawn boundaries must be objected to. Elite scribblers have been struggling with that imperative ever since yesterday afternoon's bombshell announcement.

"Bezos strong on social issues," tweeted the great baseball/prohibition author Dan Okrent, "but in 2010 gave $100K to defeat measure to levy income tax on WA residents making more than $200,000." Hmmm. What kind of person supports the freedom to marry and the freedom to pocket more of your own earnings?

Indeed, the soft media consensus is that Bezos (who has donated in the past to the Reason Foundation) is a quiet libertarian, though thankfully not the scary kind. "People who know Mr. Bezos describe his political views as libertarian, with a small 'l,'" The New York Times reported. "Widely believed to be libertarian, [Bezos] makes few public appearances [and] carefully guards his privacy," says The Seattle Times. New Yorker Editor David Remnick cut to the heart of the anxiety: "If Bezos is a libertarian, however, he is not one in the deeply conservative mold of the Koch brothers." 

As the commentary suggests, libertarianism itself scrambles the conventional assumptions and categorizations that have long ossified much of elite political discourse. But potentially more radical to the body politic and its hometown newspaper is the strong probability that Bezos, like an emerging plurality of the Americans his company serves so well, just doesn't define himself through affiliations with political tribes. The man who helped facilitate the "Long Tail" economy may just embody and advance what could be called Long Tail politics, or the notion that individual political and ideological identities are far more varied, fluid, and ad hoc than those the political class deem unobjectionable.

The great media columnist Jack Shafer suggested yesterday that Bezos could be classified as a "beyondist," which he described as "David Brooks's clever term for people whose politics appear to be centrist but strive to occupy a political space beyond left and right." I think this is more true than certainly Brooks and maybe even Shafer intended.

In his original 1995 Weekly Standard essay, Brooks used "beyondist" to rightfully mock the above-it-all centrist pretensions of heavily political (and almost always left-of-center) action figures such as Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, and E.J. Dionne, then busy trying to rebrand deservedly exhausted political coalitions and ideas. (It is an interesting irony that Brooks would eventually come to represent the gormless middle he once skewered.) Shafer in 2012 grafted that term—and appropriately so—onto the man he thought would buy the Washington Post, Michael Bloomberg.

But Bezosian Beyondism does not at all resemble the vain, meddlesome noodling of Nanny Bloomberg or even outgoing Post CEO Donald Graham. Where those types of centrists make a show of constantly exercising power to correct the public's mistakes, Bezos quietly sells people stuff they want for a price they like, and leaves the political branding where it belongs: far removed from the wonderful scrum of everyday life. It's no wonder that even libertarian-haters are having a hard time working up outrage at his new toy.

Will all of this add up to a significant recalibration of American political identify? Of course not. The importance of media deals is always overstated by self-interested journalists; legacy institutions are leaking power and relevance, and it's unclear at this writing whether Bezos will be more than a distant presence in the lesser of the two Washingtons. Social evolution is infinitely complex and unpredictable.

But the changing of the Beltway guard is not just a story about technology. Post publishers have long been kingmakers, peacekeepers, and zealous guardians of the acceptable status quo. They helped draw the lines around what is "visibly objectionable" in American political life. Jeff Bezos won't waltz into Washington with an eraser, but his example strongly suggests that power in the 21st century is rightly shifting away from those who dictate agendas, and toward those who get their agendas out of the way.