PC Culture

Kevin Williamson and the Diversity of NR

Kevin D. Williamson at the 2017 National Review Institute Ideas Summit
The notion that a publication can be home to a wide range of perspectives is under intense strain.

Media criticism isn’t really my thing. I prefer to leave it to the experts. But in the ongoing controversy over Kevin Williamson’s short tenure at The Atlantic, I have come across the following claim: that while liberal outlets feel obliged to publish conservative writers, conservative outlets, such as National Review, do not extend the same courtesy to liberal writers. This proposition is of particular interest to me, as I have been deployed as evidence for it. For several years I wrote regularly for Slate, a journal of opinion that I first started reading at its inception in 1996. A short while ago I began writing for The Atlantic, where I briefly worked as an editor in the 2000s. My presence in these publications is said to be a mark of their open-mindedness. Surely if they are willing to publish me, they are more than willing to publish hardcore right-wingers, as I am known on the streets as the brown Torquemada. But where, pray tell, are the dissenting liberals at National Review?

Gabriel Rossman, one of my favorite writers, has written an excellent piece for us on exactly this subject. He details the interaction between scandal as accusation (i.e., the driving force is not the supposed transgression, but the presence of determined accusers who force the issue) and the niche partitioning of media (essentially, lower barriers to entry have made it easier for specialized new entrants to chip away at the audience of general-interest incumbents), and how it illuminates many recent media controversies. If you are interested in these matters at all, I urge you to read it. Gabriel’s observations strike me as entirely correct; e.g., many of the publications that are being identified as avowedly liberal have not, at least until recently, understood themselves as such. It seems we are in the midst of a phase shift: The notion that any publication can be home to a wide range of perspectives is under intense strain.

Yet I would argue that National Review represents something of an exception. For one, we publish libertarian conservatives, cosmopolitan libertarians, centrist neoliberals, national developmentalists, and egalitarian nationalists, among many others, who hold differing opinions on taxes, the size of federal expenditures, the virtues of balanced budgets, the regulation of abortion, immigration policy, the regulation of narcotics, gun rights, policing and criminal justice, climate policy, the wisdom of industrial policy, and much else besides. We disagree about quite a lot, almost always in a collegial spirit. Indeed, I suspect there is more intellectual diversity at National Review than at most general-interest journals of opinion.

Granted, it is true that National Review mostly publishes self-identified conservatives, in keeping with our explicit role as a conservative publication. Yet this has not stopped us from publishing self-identified liberals, especially when they write on topics of particular interest to our readers. Moreover, to identify as a conservative is to identify with a capacious category, as the political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson established in Ideology in America. Some interpret this internal diversity as a sign that many conservatives are “secret liberals” who lack the sophistication necessary to embrace a coherent and consistent ideological worldview.  My interpretation is that conservatism is more than one thing: To draw on Karen Stenner’s work, it variously refers to defenders of the status quo, champions of laissez-faire, and so-called “right-wing authoritarians,” a term (not loaded at all, of course) denoting people who seek order and stability over novelty and change. It should hardly come as a surprise that people who identify as conservatives might disagree on, say, how we ought to tax capital income.

I am sure National Review’s relative openness can be frustrating at times, especially to those who would prefer that we were more ideologically doctrinaire. There are more than a few National Review readers who would, I am sure, consider me a conservative in name only, on the grounds that I am far too statist. Others want to write my more libertarian-minded colleagues, such as Charlie Cooke and Jonah Goldberg, out of the conservative movement, on the grounds that they are insufficiently populist, or Victor Davis Hanson for being too pointedly so. That is part of why it is so odd when people attribute views to National Review as an institution that are in fact the views of individual contributors, all of whom are, in the best sense, special snowflakes.

Most of us are saturated in social media, where ideological labels are everything, and all right-wingers and left-wingers are treated as part of undifferentiated ideological blocs that practically invite mutual demonization.

What is it that unites us? Part of it, I suspect, is that we are all accustomed to holding beliefs that go against the consensus among elites, whether defined by income or educational attainment. (See Megan McArdle’s discussion of liberal hegemony in the Washington Post.) Some of our writers embrace the elite perspective on economic issues while rejecting it on social issues, or vice versa. Others are comprehensively anti-elite in their sensibilities — my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty comes to mind. Regardless, just about all of us hold views that are held in disfavor, or are actively stigmatized, by the rich, the highly educated, or both. (I’m sure leftists united by their disdain for mainstream liberalism feel much the same way.) One result is that even when we disagree with each other, there is a degree of fellow-feeling and solidarity among us: We are willing to give our fellow conservative dissenters the benefit of the doubt, even when their reasons for dissenting are not at all the same as ours. After all, we are at the very least ideological cousins.

Outside this cone of collegiality, though, most of us are saturated in social media, where ideological labels are everything, and all right-wingers and left-wingers are treated as part of undifferentiated ideological blocs that practically invite mutual demonization. So while it is possible to have interesting, challenging, and constructive exchanges with our ideological cousins, with whom we share overlapping identities and commitments, it feels increasingly difficult to have them with those outside the circle. I wish there were a solution. The only thing I can think of — and it is woefully inadequate, and biased against those of us who might not otherwise have a platform — is to withdraw from social media entirely, on the grounds that it trains us to be reactive rather than reflective, and it rewards a bullying posture.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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