A sad search for conservative content at The Atlantic

Last week The Atlantic announced the addition of a collection of “Ideas” columnists, including National Review blogger, Kevin Williamson. Complaints about Williamson have focused on a few of his particularly outrageous comments over the years, like his support for hanging abortion doctors, ugly racial stereotypes, and his knuckle-dragging comments on trans activists. Focusing on these aspects of his portfolio overshadows the meaning of this awkward hire.

Along with The New Yorker, The Atlantic carries a sterling tradition of delivering some of the best essay writing in the English language. What’s unsettling about Williamson’s placement there is not that he holds extreme opinions. In fact, Williamson is so relatively moderate that he brings with him only a small Republican following. His hiring at The Atlantic is not so much a story about declining standards as a testament to the intellectual bankruptcy of the right. There are no smart, reasoned voices that retain any influence among Republicans. Williamson is the best available bad hire. To expose their audience to authentic conservative voices, The Atlantic should have chosen someone much worse.

Williamson’s shtick is writing provocatively contrarian material.  Sometimes that means being ugly or snarky, but it rarely approaches anything resembling insight. Once you’ve calculated the angle his work gets boring, but his work is the closest you’ll get to thoughtful writing on the right. George Will, Jennifer Rubin, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, Josh Barro, Bill Kristol, and David Frum have either openly left the GOP, or lost any influence in that realm. If you have a college education, an ability to resist the ALLCAPS, and you don’t hear the audible voice of Jesus Christ, you’re not a Republican anymore.

The problem facing editors looking to showcase reasoned political voices with influence on the right is that there aren’t any. In fact, there haven’t been any reasoned voices guided conservatives for more than a decade. There is nothing left of the Republican Party but the conservative movement, and there is nothing left of the conservative movement but white tribal rage.

Liberal thinkers are wrangling with universal health care, the implications of automation in the labor market, the possibility of gun insurance, carbon taxation, a universal basic income, and the nuanced role of free speech in an atmosphere of racial injustice. Meanwhile, Republicans’ most interesting “ideas” are arming teachers, harassing immigrants, banning abortion, and vote suppression. There is no fact-based, intelligent policy debate on the right.

It wasn’t that long ago that Milton Friedman designed conservative alternatives for universal health care, the safety net, pollution control, and other complex problems. It wasn’t that long ago that William F. Buckley sat down to have interesting, intelligent exchanges with figures like Gore Vidal, using complete sentences and three-dollar words. There was once a credible intellectual establishment on the right that made meaningful contributions to public policy.

Now Republicans have Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, folksy figures devoid of ideas who earn extra income from scams aimed at their cult followers. They have Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson. Republicans have bungling keystone crooks like Devin Nunes, and cynical manipulators like Mitch McConnell. The smartest, least-frightening people remaining in the conservative movement are the grifters.

The death of ideas on the right is an inconvenient fact with dangerous implications. Without a partner in reasoned debate, politics descends into a zero-sum game in which neither side retains any incentive toward compromise. Our reluctance to acknowledge this condition is not a dreamy-eyed virtue, but a failure of nerve. Until someone decides to challenge the GOP’s white nationalist agenda from the inside, there’s nothing on that side to engage. Liberals looking for intellectual argument on the issues of the day have no one to debate but themselves. In this setting, a quest for thoughtful engagement is worse than a waste of time, it’s a dangerous delusion.

Opinion content isn’t interesting without diversity. If The Atlantic doesn’t hire a guy like Williamson, then who should they hire? Hugh Hewitt is now posting praise of Donald Trump in small words at the Washington Post. Bret Stephens is writing for the New York Times. Major outlets have already dug deep into the slush pile to stock their pages with conservative commentators they can mostly trust not to drop N-bombs on Twitter.  As a credible conservative who retains a modest right wing following, Williamson is probably the safest choice for The Atlantic. That doesn’t make it a good idea to hire him.

There is an alternative. If you have to give the right a forum, do it honestly. Pick figures like Ben Shapiro, Kurt Schlichter or Chuck Johnson, honest trolls with a significant following who dare to own the Republican agenda in all its white nationalist paranoia. They’ll stink up your magazine with falsehoods, slander and bigotry, but at least your audience will be seeing authentic conservative narratives, and understanding their enemy.

The problem with The Atlantic hiring Williamson is not that he lacks qualifications or insight, but that he isn’t enough of a troll to honestly represent Republican views. He isn’t even a Republican anymore. If their intent is to present their readers with conservative voices, The Atlantic should pick real ones in all their ranting, paranoid glory, not relatively house-broken figures like Williamson.

40 Comments

    1. This comment leaves little doubt that there are Republicans/conservatives who feel exactly like Kevin Williamson about abortion. The animus exists whether or not it is mainstream. Yet, when the LT Gov of ID volunteers this statement it makes one wonder how many feel this way but don’t speak it.

      https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/4/4/1754351/-Republican-Lt-Governor-candidate-in-Idaho-says-women-who-get-an-abortion-could-face-death-penalty?

  1. Speaking of despicable television conservatives, Laura Ingraham made personally insulting comments about Parkland Teen David Hogg getting turned down by 4 prominant colleges, despite a 4.2 GPA…How she got this information is not known, but the fact that she attacked this young man of 17, on national TV, for something so personal and private, is unforgivable. Hogg responded after a few hours by tweeting a list of her program’s twelve sponsors, appealing to them to leave her show. Evidently she had second thoughts (or her bosses did) and she “tweeted” an apology “in the spirit of the Easter holiday” – (how kind)….to which this smart, more adult and principled young man responded by tweet, (“Hogg said he felt the apology was merely an effort to save her advertisers.)

    “I will only accept your apology only if you denounce the way your network has treated my friends and I in this fight,” Hogg tweeted Thursday. “It’s time to love thy neighbor, not mudsling at children.”

    Whereupon, four major sponsors of Ingraham’s show quit: Wayfair, Expedia, Nutrish, and Trip Advisor, no doubt responding not only to the crass inappropriateness of the attack on Hogg, but in the firestorm of tweets that emerged from his 600K followers. Game, set, match to Hogg.

    Moral of this story? Don’t mess with teens on twitter…your thumbs and your brain are not nearly fast enough to compete, and, in Ingraham’s case, neither is her sense of good judgement.

    1. BTW, in my own vindictive way, I posted the entire list of Ingraham program sponsors on six FB sites. I pointed out which had left the program and who had stayed and suggested that those so inspired might want to thank those who stood up for Hogg, and comment on the remainders who chose not to take action. Those who stayed are: ATT, Hulu, Allstate, Liberty Mutual, SleepNumber, Bayer, Arby’s, and Nestle. Grab your wallet and shop their competitor!

      I am seriously tired of this shit.

      1. FWIW, Laura Ingraham just announced that she’ll be taking the entire next week off from her show.

        Really, it’s worth taking a step back and appreciating the gravity of this situation for a moment. In less than a week, effectively a single individual has singled out a cable news host (rightly or wrong isn’t the point, so please just stay with me) and brought her to her proverbial knees. That’s an *astonishing* amount of social capital to command, and it was used with nary a moment’s hesitation or remorse.

        These are dangerous, untested waters we’re venturing very quickly into, and this is a social phenomenon that demands a culturally and politically aware electorate, more than ever before.

      2. We’ll see, but the implications for this extend well beyond the midterms – and the playbook’s being written and rewritten even as we speak. You could probably write a whole book on it right now (though I certainly hope it’ll earn its own special section in Chris’ next book!).

        What David Hogg’s accomplished, frankly, isn’t as impressive as the speed in which advertisers have been dumping Ingraham like a lead weight. Business is growing increasingly accustomed to social capital, and *that’s* going to open up new possibilities beyond just taking down asshole television hosts. The more in tune the back-and-forth between the market and increasingly refined and savvy social capitalists, the more it feels like we’re standing on the edge of a vast abyss with no end in sight.

  2. Well there are other well known conservative voices at National Review (Jonah Goldberg, Ramesh Ponnuru, David French, Heather Wilhelm, Rick Lowry etc.) and I’m surprised Chris didn’t mention any of them when discussing Kevin Williamson. Some of them do show up on Face the Nation, Bill Maher etc. so there’s still hope for conservative intellectualism (though I click away from National Review online more often than not shaking my head).

    Over on the liberal side, a fine fight is brewing between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein (of Vox) which is worth watching. Also, Jordan Peterson has become a lightning rod of liberal hate recently which is very, very interesting (since he’s exposing all the fault lines in identity politics).

    1. Chris’ point, I believe, wasn’t solely to find a conservative intellectual to hire (if it were, someone like Goldberg or French would be a viable option), but one that actually held some sway, however small, among Republicans – and all the ones you mentioned, notably, have about as much influence with the base as supply-side economics has with Bernie Sanders.

  3. Welcome back, Chris. The post is very pertinent and gets to the point regarding one of the biggest issues confronting American democracy. To wit, the total lack of reasoned debate from the right wing.

    However, even as a Washingtonian, I am beginning to see the beginnings of reasoned discourse in California, even though it is a dark blue state. In the CA Democratic Party there is considerable discourse between the more moderate groups and the more liberal groups. That is pointed out in the series “California is the Future”, by Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira, in the Medium. This was linked to in some of the comments to one of your previous posts. The link is: https://medium.com/s/state-of-the-future.

    Dianne Feinstein represents the more moderate side, and she is in trouble with the more progressive and militant portions of the party.

    Even in Washington state, there are elements of this debate occurring. The Democratic party just barely controls the legislature, but there is still debate among in the party about how far and how hard to push progressive causes. The primary campaigns shaping up in the 8th CD and 5th CD show this. The 8th is a suburban and exurban district, whereas the 5th is the 2nd most conservative in the state.

    I personally expect this debate in the Democratic party to become more visible as the years wear on and the urban, high tech areas become more dominant, particularly if there is indeed a blue wave that sweeps the nation in 2018 and 2020.

    The dominance of the right at this time is largely due to the bias of the US Constitution towards the rural areas, and the outstanding success of the right wing in money raising, and dominance of the press. Of course there are the elements of racism, lack of education and feeling of being left behind in much of the white, lower income groups.

    But that is enough for now.

  4. Awesome to hear that things are going so well Chris. Just don’t overdo it, especially when it comes to this blog. Perhaps keep up the guest writing from Mary and others, writing pieces that you vet?

    On a much scarier note, I realize how much of an echo chamber this site is, not that I am complaining. Intelligent and insightful people need a place of relative sanity compared to the real world. I point to the new CNN poll that states the Democrat’s generic congressional ballot box lead has shrunk from 16 points to 6 points in 6 weeks. I have no way of understanding how that is possible.

    https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/29/politics/cnn-poll-march-2018-generic-congressional-ballot-midterm-election/index.html

    Sites like this simply do not reflect most of society, and I despair over that. TV shows like the Roseanne reboot that normalize even further the insanity are going to be the death of democracy, not just in the U.S., but worldwide.

    1. I also noted that Trump’s polling number increased by seven points this week. Dems have work to do – we will not take 24 seats from the Republicans in the US House by wishing. It is going to require a lot of hard work. Republicans have the organization in place to make this more difficult. Democrats have passion and the general support of the majority of Americans. The real question is, will people who support change turn out to vote in sufficient numbers to effect change? It is my belief that the November mid-term election is the most pivotal election of our generation. I believe it is that important.

    2. Hey Dins, I watch Gallup weekly. Their poll had trump down to around 34-35 at one point. The number rose to 39-40 after the tax bill. It’s at 39 now. Shouldn’t a large change like that be reflected in a poll that’s done week in and week out in the same way?

      http://news.gallup.com/home.aspx

      I hesitate to say, maybe someone on one side or the other blowing smoke? I say either side, because I can see the possibility of not making strides politically scaring the bejeebers out of anti-trump people and helping get out the vote.

      1. I listen to a couple of political pundit programs daily. They discussed the correllation between the president’s polling numbers and the Democrats polls in terms of winning mid-terms….It was stated that every point that increases in favor for Trump, there is a corresponding decline for the lead of Dems….Not being a pundit myself, that makes sense but I have no way to explain it. They placed him at 42 which is a high point for Trump but still very low for a president at this early stage of his presidency in a good economy in peacetime….fwiw.

      2. Since I heard the 42% rating cited today, and the 538 poll only went through 3/23, it probably will reflect a boost for T when it recalibrates. I was disappointed to see only a 7point spread between the Dems/Repubs poll average.

        I agree with you about the value of averaged polls and the validity of 538’s statistical analysis.

    1. Staggeringly important article, EJ. Alarming to read the depth of cold, calculating decisions Republicans are using to stay in power and satisfy their base.

      This article about CA’s experience with changing its politics is a worthy read. Few people understand the seriousness and meaness of the conservative agenda and fewer are comfortable in engaging at the level necessary to beat them. Chris does. He’s tried to help us understand that we will not win on the basis of being “better people”, or having a “kinder agenda”. This is dread sport, and if Democrats can’t flip the House in mid-terms, we are in for a great deal more pain. It can be done but people need to get real about what it is going to take. Nice guys finish last is a truism but in this case, spot on.

      https://medium.com/s/state-of-the-future/the-great-lesson-of-california-in-americas-new-civil-war-e52e2861f30

      1. The entire series is very enlightening. I linked to it above. Particularly see the 5th Paragraph beginning with “Politcs in California today ….” in the section “Life on the Other Side of Democratic One-Party Rule”. I personnally see that as the restoration of true political debate in the U.S. I would not be surprised if eventually the Republican Party as we know it today fades away and a conservative party consisting of the more moderate sectors of the Democratic Party with the former Republican moderate sector is formed. Of course, that party could still be named Republican, but it would not be the same party we have today. But the Republican Party was formed from the remnants of the Whig Party. Where that leaves the die hard ultra-right wingers, I cannot speculate.

      2. I wouldn’t write off our conservative opponent just yet. Observe the lengths to which they are going to pad their numbers, including the census changes they are making. The one thing I have always respected about the Republican Party is the strength of their structural organization. They run their party like a corporation – only the strongest survive and they will do anything to profit. It is also their greatest flaw, because in the process of succeeding at any cost, they have lost all semblance of principles. That used to matter more than it does today but too few who call themselves conservatives today care about common purpose, equality and yes, kindness.

        An interesting contrast in data analysis has emerged from exit polling in the 2016 election from Pew, who is highly respected in this field. The findings will speak for themselves, but it is information that the Democrats should study and employ in their mid-term voter push. If they ignore its findings, they are making a huge mistake. Exit polls are not always accurate (as this new analysis proves), but, when the analysis reveals major differences, only fools would forgo serious comparison.

        https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/opinion/2016-exit-polls-election.html?

      3. I concur that the R’s will do anything to retain power, but I still think they are fighting a rearguard action. Yes, the D’s do need to pay attention to the bottom line economic issues and not let identity politics appear to be their entire focus.

        Nevertheless, I still see the overall trend lines towards more progressive positions. In a way, I think it is actually the R’s who are focusing primarily on identity politics with their emphasis on “white superiority”. They use that to obscure their bottom line favoritism towards the top 0.1%.

      4. I hope you are correct, but when you’re living in the middle of the Red Sea, it’s more difficult to to see “blue waves” (-; I was struck by the demographic differences cited by Pew and in some respects, gladdened that Dems still have representation among working class people. Women continue to be such a strength and I look for gender to be a significant factor in mid-terms…not withstanding the class break-out factor (white women who lack college are T supporters generally), but the increase in suburban women getting involved. I see this happening first-hand so know it is true.

        Key is to GOTV….it doesn’t do a bit of good for people to be “with you” if they don’t vote.

  5. Good to see your post Chris and see that the treatments hasn’t taken out any vinegar. I love the Atlantic and am sympathetic to their plight but agree the choice was an odd one and don’t see how it moves any debate forward.

    I have family members and former colleagues I no longer speak with not out of any animus but lack of civility. The hate and animosity oozes into any discussion and empirical data not consistent with their vitriol is dismissed as elitist. I don’t think the Atlantic will find this addition of much use. Trumplicans don’t read the Atlantic or the New Yorker or newspapers or respected journals or watch the PBS News Hour.

  6. I think part of the problem is that the managerial, technical, and scientific classes (aka “city folk”) that were in the GOP are fleeing into the Democratic party or becoming independents. They tend to live in the observable-reality-based universe. Since the Dems have to some degree resisted GOP-style purity purges, they tend to be more of a big-tent outfit. Any time a cool idea emerges from what was once known as the intellectual right (like Obamacare), pragmatic Dems who are not afraid of science are going to adopt it and make it their own, especially when times call for a pivot to the center. If an idea is good and it works, Democrats will probably adopt it and find a rationale for it while the people who have taken over the Republican Party are still fighting the theory of evolution.

    Sent from my iPad

  7. Welcome back, Chris. Glad to see that your recovery is coming along as quick as it is.

    Honestly, I feel divided as to whether The Atlantic made the right call here or not. On the one hand, they’re a well-respected publication that has a reputation to defend, and so do they *really* need to be falling on their own proverbial sword, hiring a hack like Shapiro or the relative equivalent just to make a point? On the other hand, there’s a compelling ‘drastic times call for drastic measures’ approach that I’m also sympathetic towards.

    If a middle ground might exist here, perhaps it would be to invite characters like Shapiro or Schlichter in for one-time opinion pieces during times of great national conversation, much like we’ve had about gun policy in the wake of Parkland. The Atlantic needn’t sully their good name by officially bringing them on, but still able to get their voices out and make the point that needs to be made.

    1. What kind of conservatism it’ll be is a subject of much debate. Intellectuals, historians, and a comparative few remember its honorable origins – whereas all anyone who’s grown up during the Bush and Trump Eras know about ‘conservatism’ is increasing animosity towards immigrants and MUH TAX CUTS!

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