Reading the Right

Back in 2010, I made a list of political journalists and pundits who helped shape my views on American politics. While I have always tried to be omnivorous and adventurous in the opinions I seek out, it could not have come as a surprise to people who know my personal politics that almost all of the writers on the list were broadly liberal or left-leaning. (Leave aside for the moment that the “liberal” vs. “conservative” dichotomy is not only useless in describing my affiliation with Nordic social democracy, but even in categorizing the views of most Americans.) In the intervening years, I have in fact tried to broaden my horizon by supplementing my daily diet of liberal punditry with views from the right, for “balance”, education and entertainment. Not all the journalists or pundits who opine about conservatives or conservatism share the right’s outlook, of course, but over the years I have find a handful of people who I turn to if I want to understand a little bit more about how the American right works.

First, a couple of opinionated journalists. Slate‘s Dave Weigel is an interesting case. After he’d made a name for himself at the libertarian Reason magazine and the now-defunct Washington Independent, the Washington Post hired Weigel as a blogger-journalist who was supposed to contribute reporting specifically on the conservative movement. That was precisely what Weigel did, but judging by who WaPo hired to replace Weigel after his named surfaced on a mailing list of centre-left opinionators – Jennifer Rubin of the very conservative Commentary – the paper probably expected his political views to be in line with the conservative movement he was covering. Long story short, though, Weigel moved to Slate, where he runs a blog and a  conversation podcast, all while contributing some of the most entertaining political reporting out there. And the focus on reporting brings me to Robert Costa, a WaPo political reporter whom they snatched from the flagship conservative magazine National Review. Like Weigel, Costa’s number one strength lies as much in his sources and what they’re willing to tell him, as in his prose. Costa is an interesting Twitter presence, and one of the first people I turn to in order to understand how conservatives think and what they’re thinking about, and not just how they’d like you to agree with them.

Moving on from more traditional journalism to the field of punditry, then, I’d like to start by highlighting a fairly new podcast from the aforementioned National Review. Founded by William F. Buckley jr. in the 1950s, NR is the longest-running conservative magazine in the US, and while it is only too happy to revert lazily back to automatic anti-liberal hysteria, the conversational podcast Mad Dogs and Englishmen at least does so in a more entertaining way. Hosts Kevin D. Williamson and Charles C.W. Cooke (the Englishman of the title) converse daily about topics of interest to conservatives, with a special focus on gun rights, federalism and economic policy. Needless to say, I hardly agree with them on anything, but since neither of them are particularly interested in an issue like, say, gay marriage, it’s actually quite fun and intellectually stimulating to expose myself to a point of view so radically different from my own.

Speaking of podcasts and conservatives, I recommend Left, Right & Center from the New York-based public radio station KCRW. As the name suggests, the program features a man of the left (Robert Scheer of Truthdig) and a representative of the Right (most often Rich Lowry of National Reviw or Byron York of the Washington Examiner), with an ostensibly centrist “moderator”. Admittedly, it’s cutting from a small sample of right-wing opinion, but what makes the show refreshing is that you have a debate between non-partisans who have nothing except their opinions on the line. York is my favorite of the conservative lineup (the third periodic contributor is Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon), not simply because he’s slightly less conservative than the others, but also because his calm temperament suits the somewhat amped-up atmosphere of the show better. I usually don’t agree with him much, but like Costa and Weigel, he seems to have good Capitol Hill connections and trust in the movement.

It’s a matter of debate whether we’re moving to the right by shifting our attention from traditional conservatives to the followers of libertarianism, but the mainstay of the libertarian movement is the magazine Reason. My politics could not be further from libertarians commitment to radical individualism, federalism and laissez faire capitalism, but at least libertarians are in some respects less scolding and moralistic on social issues like gay rights, immigration and abortion. While I tend to think that a society built on their philosophy would be a cold and unwelcoming place lacking in solidarity and social cohesion where I don’t want to live, at least we have a few areas of relative agreement, on issues like drugs, defense and civil rights. I’m not prepare to go as far as libertarians on these issues, but considering that libertarianism is a relatively radical ideology and that something doesn’t seem to end up in the pages of Reason unless its writers think the case at hand constitutes a (predictably outrageous) break with the Constitution, that’s not necessarily saying much. There are many interesting arguments to be found there, but beware that he who’s looking for something unconstitutional tends to find it anywhere.

Finally, there are a few of center-right pundits whose views are closer to the mainstrems and whose perches are at the heart of mainstream media, but who I nevertheless almost never agree. Come to think of it, that could be part of the reason. It’s not that New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat are necessarily wrong all the time. What tends to irk me about them is their studious – and often false – “centrism”. I don’t mind ideologues, as long as they’re being intellectual honest and open about their positions. Brooks and Douthat, however, often take what’s called “the view from nowhere”, in which the centrist, “balanced” approach – “both sides are partially right” – is treated, in an unacknowledged way, as morally superior and somehow free of partisan biases. The result, in my view, is often the construction of convenient argumentative straw men, which makes it easier for our two bravely moderate conservatives to achieve moderation and their “sensible center” credibility by attacked the weakest possible version of their opponents’ arguments. In Brooks’s case, this is often evident when he’s talking about Republican tax policy or the Democratic conception of income inequality, whereas for Douthat it can be most easily found when he writes about social issues, and gender issues, abortion and religion in particular.

This is the mixture of movement conservative, libertarian and center-right reporting and commentary that I consume on a regular basis. It’s always good to test your assumptions and prejudices against another viewpoint, particularly if, like me, you come to this political culture from the “outside”. Much of the time, trying to square my convictions with the options available or even imaginable in the American debate is itself an interesting exercise in pragmatism.

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