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Should Conservatives Be Allowed To Write For Mainstream Publications?

The lesson of Williamson-gate

On March 22, the Atlantic, a prestigious mainstream outlet that is broadly center left, hired conservative columnist Kevin Williamson away from his more ideologically affirming home at National Review. Just a few weeks later, after Media Matters researchers unearthed a podcast in which Williamson claimed that women who have had abortions should be hanged, Williamson was abruptly fired.

Though it’s only a minor skirmish in the American culture wars, the Williamson firing is instructive. While much criticism has been directed solely at Williamson, a few on the left have been open about their strategic goal of pushing conservative viewpoints out of the public square:

Similarly, Noah Berlatsky, an Arc contributor, argues in an article at HuffPost (written before Williamson was fired) that not only should the Atlantic have fired Williamson, but all mainstream publications should refuse to employ conservative writers for the simple fact that conservative ideas are morally and intellectually bankrupt and have led to enormous amounts of misery and suffering.

The problem with Berlatsky’s approach, however, is that he highlights the best of his ideological allies and the worst of his enemies. Williamson is defined by an abhorrent tweet and a racist description, while Ibram Kendi, another recent hire at the Atlantic, is defined by a groundbreaking monograph. Williamson is then cast as the best representative of conservative thought, while Kendi is merely one of several great liberal thinkers. The implication is clear: The best conservatives have to offer are vile, anti-abortion racists while the left enjoys an embarrassment of intellectual riches.

I have no love for Williamson, whose rhetorical flourishes served only to underscore his callous and acerbic disposition. Yet any fair comparison between two serious writers should avoid such a lopsided appraisal. Why not compare the full body of each author’s work, book to book, article to article, offering a comparative evaluation of their themes, virtues, and vices?

I am not suggesting that conservatives cannot come in for critique until their full oeuvre is juxtaposed alongside a liberal counterpart for comparative purposes. This would make criticism impossibly difficult. At the same time, however, doing so would puncture a habit that online commentators seem to have picked up: Cherry-picking the worst from an opponent and demanding that it be used as a prism through which the author’s entire offerings must be viewed, all the while picking out the best from an ideologically aligned writer and assuring the internet that the excerpt you’ve chosen is fully representative. A fuller, more intellectually honest dive into the work of both friend and foe would serve the broader conversation far more.

But more importantly, casting Williamson as the best representative of conservative thought is facile. It unfairly excludes other conservative thinkers who do not behave like the Williamsons of the world.

Berlatsky’s argument also violates a basic societal norm: that it is morally right to listen to the concerns of our neighbors. And if anyone counts as a neighbor in our republic, it is our fellow citizens, who share the task of appointing representatives to govern the use of our common resources.

One of the best ways citizens can learn about the views of those who do not live in their geographic area or share their social circles is through mainstream media. The ideological breakdown of Americans favors conservatives over liberals 35 percent to 26 percent. On what moral grounds could mainstream publications exclude the leading voices of the most popular political ideology in favor of the least popular one while staying true to their centrist creed?

Though his approach strikes me as unfair, I cannot fault Berlatsky entirely for his sweeping dismissal of conservatism. He openly advocates for what most Americans have already done in quiet, shuttering themselves in ideological silos that flatter our moral and intellectual prejudices.

And some of this “siloing” is manifestly justified. A great deal of what passes for political commentary is valued in ways that distort intellectual exchange. Many political writers trade in snark, misrepresentation, indignation, sloganeering, poorly understood statistics, and vague generalizations. Cultural incentives and social media algorithms push writers toward the hot take because, it is assumed, not to have an opinion on the current news cycle is not to have influence.

The American right is particularly susceptible to this. For reasons both structural and temperamental, there are significantly fewer conservative intellectuals than liberal ones. (When recently described as a leading conservative intellectual, Roger Scruton replied, “Admittedly, there isn’t much competition.”) The American engines of cultural and intellectual progress — cities and universities — are dominated by liberals. These are places where talented men and women can spend a lifetime honing their intellectual skills in a creative milieu dedicated to the art of rhetorical and visual persuasion. Conservatives, who prefer to defend old ideas rather than promote new ones, tend not to participate in this culture, and generally lack the resources and skills necessary to compete in it.

This creates pressure for committed conservatives to latch onto anyone who seems to have the power to influence our country’s mediating institutions. These are usually rhetorical bomb throwers who generate an attention currency that holds out the (false) promise of lasting political and social power. It is an ersatz influence that trades in inflammatory language and bigotry, and I do not fault anyone for ignoring the these provocateurs of the right.

Yet there are still thoughtful conservatives who do not share Williamson’s manifest faults and it would be wrong to automatically exclude them from mainstream institutions. Two I recommend are Roger Scruton and Michael Brendan Dougherty. Scruton is not just a conservative intellectual, but one of the few intellectuals who is willing to articulate and defend the basic premises of his political and moral vision. Dougherty, who is both clever and articulate, offers a conservative view of the world that is skeptical of unchecked international warfare and sensitive to the religious and political concerns of Christians in both the United States and Europe.

Conservatives can offer what might be called a Burkean defense of our social order, drawing attention to those forgotten features of society on which we most depend. The freedom and prosperity that defines much of American life only exists in a cultural and social framework that liberals often take for granted. The laws and markets that govern our countless daily interactions emerged over centuries of disputes and transactions between neighbors. These deceptively simple principles of moral conduct and monetary efficiency could never have developed by mere fiat or long periods of reflective thought. And if 20th-century totalitarianism taught us anything, it is that these principles are exceptionally fragile. What was built over centuries can be undone in a generation.

Taking something for granted in this way isn’t necessarily bad; I took “for granted” public transportation when I lived in Manhattan because, for the most part, it worked well and enhanced my daily existence. But because we tend not to draw attention to what is working, we risk overlooking how new regulations or social shifts will damage our current standards of living. Thoughtful conservatives tend to be observant about the good in current social and political systems; they can offer a perspective that can temper the sometimes overzealous innovation of those whose primary ideological commitment is progress.

Conservative intellectuals do not just offer caution about change; they sometimes perceive bipartisan solutions to enduring political problems. Consider the notion that conservative principles entail that conservatives should be environmentalists. Roger Scruton offers this argument as the natural outworking of his commitment to preserving what has come before for those who come after us. It promises an area of political cooperation between liberals and conservatives. But if intellectual conservatives are never allowed at mainstream platforms, who would hear it, let alone consider it? To be deprived of this sort of argument hampers the possibility of working together.

Some liberals might say they don’t need conservatives to make progress on the environment or any other serious issue. I would believe this if Republicans were not currently enjoying their political zenith, controlling most state legislatures and all three branches of the federal government. Even when (not if) Democrats take back one or two branches, the likelihood that Republicans will hold power in at least one branch and most of the judiciary requires liberals to consider at least some conservative participation in any sweeping legislative efforts.

This drives at strategic reasons to give at least a few intellectual conservatives mainstream platforms. One theory of Dougherty’s is that people voted for the GOP as a way to prevent total liberal control of every aspect of society. If that’s true, giving non-liberals more participation in cultural and intellectual life could increase their desire to defend—rather than destroy—critical public institutions. On this measure, conservative inclusion in public discourse plays a strategic role in preserving institutions that liberals can enjoy dominating.

Of course, none of this matters if the goal is to treat conservatives as enemies rather than neighbors. Unfortunately, Berlatsky tipped his hand too early; conservatives represent about half the voting population and will continue to win elections. I would rather find ways to cooperate, or at least live amicably in our shared spaces — yet that will never happen if one side of the ideological spectrum is routinely ignored or held to be beyond the philosophical pale.

Resentment breeds conflict and, as history reminds us, continued resentment sometimes leads to armed conflict. Treat an enemy like an enemy for long enough, and after a while he will start to act like one. I very much doubt the intellectual culture Berlatsky zealously guards will survive a prolonged civil war in a country with hundreds of millions of guns, weapons that are primarily owned by conservatives who control most of the country’s food and fuel supplies.

If the moral reasons are not enough to listen to conservatives, consider the pragmatic ones. To not do so risks war.

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