Listening is political

People in the media are deeply concerned about the lack of representation of reasonable conservative views in today’s political landscape. Thankfully, serious conservatism has found refuge from the liberal media wilderness at brave anti-liberal outlets like, uh, the New York Times.

This situation came back into the spotlight when the Times featured an op-ed written by Mark Penn and Andrew Stein earlier this month, in which they argued that the Democrats should abandon their alleged leftward drift and return to the center (as though the party has really been anywhere else recently). It is a bad piece and many people accurately commented on it being bad. The Times wasn’t concerned, though: just two days later, they ran another piece (by Tevi Troy, former George W. Bush administration official) that championed conservative values, this time discussing the idea that the modern Republican party is lost and needs to refocus itself on conservative principles. Here he admiringly cited people like William F. Buckley, a figure of paramount importance to the ideal of respectable conservatism and, therefore, someone with horrific politics but an accent that made him sound rich. That Times piece, like an earlier one at the NYT Book Review, gave Buckley a glowing portrait. All of this comes after the hiring of former Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens earlier this year (who later picked up a side gig at NBC News).

This impulse to “reach across the aisle” has been around for a long time. Liberal networks and publications have had their designated conservative commentators for years. But the idea has taken on a new urgency since the 2016 election as liberals try to make sense of, or perhaps make amends with, a political environment and constituency they may have paid little attention to previously. The desire to listen to conservative voices, though, has probably benefitted from an undeserved association with the recent trend (also since the election) of highlighting the lives of poor and working-class white – and it is usually white – Americans, whose experiences have often been underexamined in the mainstream press.

For liberal outlets, these two initiatives go hand-in-hand as part of their attempts to broaden the political perspectives on offer in their pages and on their sites. But these two initiatives are not the same, and the difference lies in who has political power and representation in the country. The perspectives represented by columnists like Bret Stephens, for example, are largely in accordance with the Republican Party’s platform, while poor and working-class Americans have little in the way of material representation in government. By lumping all of these perspectives in with each other under the umbrella of “conservative voices that need our attention,” these outlets accomplish very little in terms of broadening political discourse in the country. Instead, they simply promote bad politics.

The publication of a column like Stephens’ first, in which he defends climate change skepticism, demonstrates the absurdity of this approach to political discourse. Climate change denial is not an alternative viewpoint that deserves extra attention, because climate change denial is the norm. If someone wants to learn about the practical implications of the arguments made by climate change skeptics, that person is already way ahead of the game: they’ve been living in a world shaped by climate change skeptics for their entire life, and will continue to live in that world for the foreseeable future. Climate change denial in the US is policy and industry practice at all levels, and the idea that its proponents deserve a platform – so as to promote a “fairer” debate – does nothing but advance the material interests of denialist politicians and businesspeople. The claim that climate change denial is lacking in representation in this country is a claim made in bad faith, and outlets like the Times have made generous room for it.

There’s a similar misguidedness at work in pieces like this from the end of last year, an interview at The Atlantic with Michael Wear, who makes the case that Democrats need to be more accommodating of white evangelicals. It’s easy to see why a piece like this would be appealing  from the vantage point of a liberal-leaning media enterprise: it looks like an attempt at healing a divide between liberals and conservatives by exposing readers to conservative views in a non-threatening way. Like Stephens’ column, though, it lacks any meaningful political context and, as a result, just acts as an amplifier for conservative orthodoxy.*

Take Wear’s discussion of the Democrats’ unwillingness to appease pro-life advocates as an example. Implicit in this conversation is the belief that it should be the duty of Democrats – or anyone to the left of Republicans on the issue of abortion access – to compromise and cater to pro-life supporters on this issue. Neither Wear nor the interviewer entertains alternative ideas, like otherwise liberal pro-life advocates compromising on their position, or those same people instead aiming to remake the Republican Party into something more liberal. The assumption (as in all of American politics) is that there is only one place for anyone to move, and that is to the right. For some reason, readers of this interview are expected to seriously consider the argument that one pro-life party in this country is not enough. This despite the fact that that same pro-life party controls the majority of federal and state-level government offices and has, over the past few decades, done remarkable damage to the ability of people within the US to get safe access to abortions. It’s possible that abortion could be made illegal within our lifetimes, but still we are supposed to listen to someone concerned about the lack of representation of pro-life views in the Democratic Party in a publication that claims to offer liberal representation.

(Something similar can be said of Wear’s argument that liberals used fearmongering to energize their base around Betsy DeVos’ nomination, instead of trying to appeal to evangelicals who supported her. This is, again, a comment that lacks any recognition of political reality. People opposed Betsy DeVos because her record on public schooling was abysmal, and her proposals – which we’re now seeing put into place – were similarly bad. Her religious affiliation was not the main concern of her opponents. To offer evangelicals an olive branch over her nomination, despite the fact that evangelicals got what they wanted from that nomination and therefore do not need any more olive branches from the people they are trying to oust, does not make much sense.)

Who these media outlets choose to hire and feature in the space they have available – who they choose to listen to – is not a superficial question but a fundamentally political one. Discourse can’t be separated from the circumstances surrounding its creation, and the relevant circumstance for American political discourse is the consistent rightward stride at the local, state, and federal level for the past half-century. This has occurred not just in government office but in media, too, as anyone who is familiar with Fox News’ enormous popularity can recognize. There is no neutral place in which to have the discussions these outlets apparently hope to facilitate. Whenever outlets like the Times or The Atlantic choose to highlight a conservative voice, they choose to highlight the voice of the dominant political apparatus, and they do so at the expense of those most marginalized by it.

There is, of course, another reason for these efforts by ostensibly liberal publications. These publications hope to pull in advertising and subscription dollars from conservative (or self-identified independent/moderate) readers. Editors see these conservative writers and related articles as opportunities to reshape an outlet’s image in the eyes of those readers. I don’t have the numbers on this, so what I’m about to say is a total guess, but I can’t imagine this is a particularly successful strategy. Loyal readers who come to these outlets for their liberal slant will likely be frustrated by these tangents, while committed conservatives stopped giving a shit about publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic years ago. As in the Democratic Party’s attempts to appeal to a mythical suburban moderate voting bloc, this effort chases a population that won’t ever really be big enough to justify the financial expense or the cost to reputation in the minds of serious supporters. The upshot is that the best these pieces can do is create a firestorm online that will lead to a barrage of clicks on an article, offering a temporary traffic boost. Aside from being politically bankrupt, this is not a great long-term strategy.

It is telling that the first impulse of many media organizations in the days since the election has been to cater to the establishment right. It’s among the safest maneuvers they can make. The real work that political discourse in this country needs involves listening to those who have been left out of the conversation for this country’s entire history. It involves recognizing that working class communities are not exclusively white and do not have one single, generalizable sociopolitical experience. It involves challenging the idea that a columnist or lobbyist or politician who claims to speak for the interests of a constituency may not actually be representing that constituency in any substantive sense. As such, it is work that attracts more controversy and risks alienating certain subscribers. It’s far better than what we’re seeing now.

We are not currently lacking boilerplate conservative perspectives in this country. Liberals who are curious to hear those perspectives are welcome to check them out at any of the thousands of sites, newspapers, and networks that host them all day, every day. It’s important to be aware of what you’re up against politically, after all. That doesn’t mean, however, that outlets purporting to represent the opposition have to make accommodation for right-wing politics at the expense of giving a platform to those who are perennially overlooked. There are many voices out there that need to be heard right now. Mark Penn isn’t one of them.

*The intended goal and the actual effect of articles like this are often totally divergent, as can be seen in the comments section here. One reader at The Atlantic is thankful to have a voice in the media like Wear. This poster claims to be a former Democrat who decided to vote for Trump after witnessing Obama become “the first human leader [to promote] homosexuality with a zeal that is difficult to describe.” According to this reader, this went “against nature, science, and good sense,” going beyond even the Greeks and Romans, who, despite their “inexcusable tolerance” of homosexuality, at least maintained, on the law books, the death penalty for homosexuality. As of this writing, this is the top-rated comment on the piece. These kinds of articles at places such as The Atlantic kick the door wide open for comments like this.
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