Media Criticism

The Liberal Media's Answer to Ideological Diversity Concerns: Ban Conservatives, Hire Socialists

When Kevin Williamson isn't welcome but Joseph Stalin is


Reason TV

Should the liberal, conservative-disdaining media be even more liberal and disdainful of conservatives? It would be hard to make a better argument for including a broader range of right-leaning perspectives at mainstream publications than this recent, tone-deaf plea from New York magazine's Eric Levitz to do just the opposite.

Responding to The Atlantic's much-discussed (at Reason and elsewhere) hiring and firing of conservative journalist Kevin Williamson over his comments about hanging women who have had abortions, Levitz makes note of a recent discussion about the Williamson affair between Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the transcript of which was leaked to The Huffington Post. Goldberg claims to desire intellectual diversity at his publication—though not if it means making women who work at The Atlantic and have had abortions feel unsafe—and asked Coates whether he was concerned that narrowing the bounds of acceptable discourse would hurt the magazine:

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.

Coates: Well, no, you open it up. You understand what I'm saying? Like, as I said before, I don't think 15 years ago or 20 years ago we would have ran "The Case For Reparations." So that means it's opened up in a different direction. I think if we publish kick-ass stories, very little of this will actually matter.

Coates was essentially saying that the publication could still have intellectual diversity without conservative opinions, as long as it shifted the goalpost in the other direction—i.e., by including more perspectives that were further and further left.

Levitz takes this ball and runs with it, providing two basic arguments for doing so: first, most conservative opinion writers are completely irrelevant to the conservative movement as it exists the age of Trump; and second, conservative arguments are obviously wrong and thus not worth debating at all.

Socialist arguments, on the other hand, Levitz asserts, have yet to be debunked, and so mainstream magazines and op-ed pages would be well-served by hiring more advocates of such views. According to Levitz:

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…

I'm fairly convinced that full-on socialism leads to poverty and totalitarianism, but yes, journalistic outlets that strive for ideological diversity should make space for smart writers to present the best case for this system. It seems incoherent, though, to insist that Williamson-esque opinions like abortion is murder and should be dealt with as such and poor people bear much responsibility for their lot in life are uninteresting or beyond the pale while Joseph Stalin was on to something is not. To think that severe social conservatism is so kooky as to be un-printable, but Stalinism is at least debatable, requires a certain amount of unhealthy ideological blindness. These kinds of contradictions are what result from blithely and selectively declaring certain conversations off-limits.

It can be difficult to overcome our biases, but the project of opinion journalism requires good writers and editors to do so. Even bad or extreme arguments may contain kernels of truth, or may contribute something to the public's awareness that the conventional, moderate liberal punditocracy would have missed. For instance, virtually the entire liberal press seemed assured of Hillary Clinton's victory. Had they listened more closely to the far-left grievances of the Bernie Sanders wing, they might have been better prepared for the actual outcome of the 2016 election.

Showcasing the various shades of opinion on the right is no less vital than extending a platform to a newly relevant socialist left. That might mean including a Trump-sympathetic writer from time to time, instead of yet another neoconservative. It would certainly mean recognizing that there are a whole lot of people—in the country at large, and within intellectual circles—who dissent from both liberal and leftist orthodoxy and have something worthwhile to say. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in response to Levitz, "You've got conservatives representing the center-right flank of #TheResistance, conservatives experimenting with European-style nationalism and Catholic integralism, conservatives for isolation and internationalism and everything in between. These arguments aren't shaping Trumpian policymaking because nothing is likely to shape Trumpian policymaking. But it is very likely that they'll shape future formations of right-wing and centrist policy, and have influence on the liberal-left debate Levitz cites as well."

It's true that op-ed conservatism doesn't have very much influence in the Trump administration at the moment. But the further left that the opinion pages move, the easier it is for Trump to rally his base around the idea that the media hates them. If you think Trump voters are too reliant on Fox News, talk radio, and explicit conspiracy sites, you should be at least a little wary of exacerbating this problem. Widening the range of permissible views on the left while banishing conventional, widely held conservative opinions hardly seems like an antidote for the polarization afflicting American discourse.