Opinion

Confessions of an unreliable columnist

On the art of thinking critically in a polarizing time

My favorite political metaphor in recent years has been "centrifugal forces" — an image meant to capture the dynamic of negative partisanship and reactive polarization that often pulls highly engaged commentators no less than many ordinary citizens away from a collapsing centrist consensus and toward ideological extremes.

You know what it's like when those forces take hold. Donald Trump spews racism, or displays flagrant cruelty and corruption, or attempts a hapless coup — and it instantly feels like empowering any Democrat would be preferable, even absolutely essential to preserving democracy in America. Or a progressive politician, journalist, or bestselling activist proposes a blend of socialism, radical institutional reform, and post-Protestant moral revolution, and suddenly Trump and the Republican Party look like the only things standing in the way of sweeping changes that you passionately oppose and fear.

I get it. But that doesn't mean I like the tendency toward partisan polarization — or think it's good for the country or the clarity of my own thinking.

Loyalty, solidarity, and reliability are important virtues, but they arise from and belong to the practical sphere of life that includes family, community, politics and warfare. The life of the mind points toward and demands different notions of excellence, including a sometimes ruthless independence and willingness to question pieties of every kind, including those affirmed by one's own "side" in the conflicts of the moment.

This helps to explain how I approach my own work as a political analyst — and also why one unusually pointed column of mine written just after the presidential election recently inspired author Laura K. Field to call me out, along with fellow centrist Andrew Sullivan and a handful of others, in The Bulwark.

The headline on Field's piece accurately summarizes her critique: "The Centrist Rush to Blame the Left for the Closer-Than-Expected Election: Is it too much to ask moderates to stop playing into the hands of right-wing propagandists?" I was one of several writers who blasted "the left and wokism" for the disappointing outcome of the election for Democrats down ballot. This was a mistake, Field claims, because the evidence didn't support the conclusion and emphasizing it "often replicated (and so legitimated) bad-faith right-wing assertions."

Sullivan is more than capable of defending himself against the charge that he misconstrued the election results by relying on inaccurate exit polls. I'll only note that Field's contrary interpretation, according to which Joe Biden won because of "unprecedented mobilization of (majority black) urban voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia" is undercut by the data — not unweighted exit polls, but county data from actual vote totals — which show that Biden's advantage mainly came from (racially mixed) suburbs. (Trump increased his vote share from 2016 to 2020 in both rural and major metro core counties.)

When Field turns to me, she highlights one paragraph in the offending column — where I tick off a series of proposals or actions by progressives over the past year or so that I claim contributed to Biden's blue wave being nearly matched by a somewhat smaller but still formidable red counter-wave. It was this Republican counter-wave that led Trump to win millions more votes than he did four years ago and Democrats to fall far short of expectations. Despite winning the presidency, Democrats failed to take the Senate, foundered in their efforts to flip congressional seats (with their House majority significantly narrowed), and made practically no state-level gains at all.

What did the progressive wing of the Democratic Party do to contribute to this outcome? They staked out a series of unpopular positions: They entertained defunding the police. They proposed packing the Supreme Court with liberal justices, abolishing the Electoral College, adding new and reliably left-leaning states to the country, and breaking up others to give Democrats huge margins in the Senate. They suggested (and rewarded each other for suggesting) that white supremacy and racism be placed "at the very center" of American history. They asserted that the victorious Democrats establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to highlight the evil of Trump supporters and enablers. And the vice presidential nominee advocated in a video published on the eve of the election that the country should aim for economic "equity," not just in opportunity but in outcomes.

Field doesn't deny that some on the left proposed such things. She denies that it should matter because Biden was a moderate candidate who opposed (either explicitly or implicitly) everything on this list. I largely agree with this view of Biden, which is why I voted for him without hesitation. It's also why, in my view, he was able to beat Trump, and why he may have been the only Democrat who could have. But it is not true, as Field also contends, that these more leftward positions have no meaningful place in the Democratic Party. On the contrary, the progressive wing of the party favors them all. It was against that wing, and in defense of the party's more moderate faction, that I was quite obviously writing.

Is it possible to do this without sounding a little like Tucker Carlson, as Field claims I do? I'd like to hope so, but that isn't my primary concern. I've written dozens — probably more like hundreds — of columns critically analyzing and sometimes outrightly denouncing Trump and the populist right over the past five-and-a-half years. That continued and even accelerated over the last nine months, as we headed into the general election. I also wrote plenty of columns highlighting the excesses of the left. But I've focused on the right more frequently. Why? Because I was (and am) convinced that a Trumpified Republican Party poses a graver threat to the country than the left.

Which means that for several months, and to some extent for the duration of the Trump presidency, Field and I made a similar judgment call. Not always. But often, and especially as we neared the electoral moment of truth. Now, though, the election is behind us. And yet Field expects me to pull my punches against the left for fear of "play[ing] into the hands of right-wing propagandists."

But here's the thing: The right isn't always wrong. It often is. And the purposes to which it puts its genuine insights into the electorate, political philosophy, and human nature is sometimes execrable. But that doesn't make those insights worthless. It makes them truths that Democrats ignore or deny at their peril — and that thoughtful human beings of any partisan leaning owe it to themselves to reflect on and wrestle with. Progressives, meanwhile, really do exercise an enormous influence on the culture and wield considerable influence within the Democratic Party — and their ideas are often (not always, but often) foolish on substance and electorally damaging in regions of the country that the party needs to win in order to achieve and hold political power.

That's how I see it. I could be wrong, and I'm open to evidence that I am. But I'm not going to keep my mouth shut out of fear that a demagogic talk-show host might quote me on air or that I might end up playing a role in, as Field puts it, "recycling damaging right-wing tropes." To do that would be to turn myself into a propagandist for the left in order to avoid contributing inadvertently to propaganda for the right.

I'd rather write what I think is true and not worry too much about whether I'm being politically unreliable.

Thinking and judging are hard, especially when they're done honestly and without a banister of partisan certainty to hold on to. All that each of us can do is work to understand the world as best we can — and offer a little hard-won wisdom to those capable of and interested in considering it.

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