Stop Pretending Partisan Hacks Are Intellectual Leaders

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If progressives can't find effective foils to develop their ideas, that's because they're not looking in the right places.

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A different variety of lazy donkey (Shutterstock)

Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Eugene Robinson believes, as I do, that the Republican Party is failing to provide smart alternatives to the agenda favored by the Democrats. "There will be those who doubt the sincerity of my advice to the GOP, since my standing as a conservative is -- justifiably -- less than zero," he writes. "But I've always believed in competition, if only to prevent liberals from becoming lazy and unimaginative. One could argue that this is already happening." After writing the balance of the column, he concludes that, "Faced with an opposition that verges on self-parody, progressive thinkers are mostly just phoning it in. This won't change until somebody defibrillates the GOP and we detect a pulse."

I get his point ... and yet. There's something here that vexes me.

The column is written as though elite liberal journalists like Robinson are somehow personally constrained by the pathologies of today's GOP -- as if Republican failures somehow prevent liberal journalists from testing their ideas against the smartest critiques from conservatives and libertarians. Isn't that what the audience is owed, so long as the opinion journalist aspires to inform? 

The best critiques of Democrats may appear in places more obscure than Fox News, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and vague House Republican plans to eliminate always-unnamed tax deductions. But let's be realistic: Even in more politically functional times than ours, when did the highest-quality ideas ever reside among hardcore partisans, whether in or out of government?

Yes, American politics generally operates as a two-party system. It's likely true that a reformed Republican Party is necessary before the legislative and executive branches run as well as they might. But that hardly affects Robinson's ability to opine robustly.

Here is a man who proclaims that his own ideas are dulled by lack of solid material on which to sharpen them. So why does he fail to advocate what follows? That we all ought to seek out smart interlocutors. They're out there at various points to his right, and doubtless to his left too.

Let's not hold our own best efforts hostage to the intellectual vibrancy of Congressional Republicans of all things.

There isn't anything wrong with skewering the worst ideas out there. It is necessary but far from sufficient if public discourse and the journalists who participate in it are to achieve their potential. The national debate is nevertheless needlessly constrained by a political press that too often acts as if its job is merely to mediate between Democratic and Republican talking points.  

Says Robinson, musing on the debt, "
It's hard to imagine long-term solutions that don't eventually require more tax revenue from the middle class as well as the rich. But why should Democrats mention this inconvenient fact when Republicans, out of ideological stubbornness, are keeping the focus on the upper crust?" Is that a real question? Democrats should mention facts, insofar as they're true, because ignoring facts guarantees failure. Facts are stubborn that way.

Perhaps the role of Democratic politicians is to game their opponents, truth be damned (though it is precisely the GOP tendency to do this that has Robinson lamenting their pathologies). I don't anticipate that any politicians will start conducting intellectually honest debates. I expect better from citizens, and better still from those who make their living doing journalism. There is no good reason to behave as if the only relevant factor in public discourse is the neverending partisan battle that Republicans and Democrats wage against one another.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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