Unpersuasive Arguments Are Actually at a Disadvantage

by Conor Friedersdorf

Awhile back, I published an open letter to Jonah Goldberg asking him why he believes that if the right returns to power things will turn out better than last time. Contra the conservative base, I argued, the ills of the Bush Administration weren't due to moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe or Arlen Specter, but to the folks actually pushing the reckless spending and corrupt culture -- partisan conservatives like Karl Rove and Tom Delay who are never called RINOs or fake conservatives, despite crafting and passing the agenda that the Tea Party right is now furious about.

I wrote as someone who wants to vote for a resurgent, functional conservatism, but I think the only way you get there is by routing out intellectual and financial corruption within the movement, developing a successful strategy for actually governing if you’re elected, tempering ideology with pragmatism, and obliterating the impulse to sycophantic partisan loyalty that did so much harm during the Bush Administration. For this reason, even as President Obama pushes a domestic agenda that I'd like to temper, I see dissidents on the right as key to its future.

All this is brought back to mind by this post. In a complaint about The Week magazine, Mr. Goldberg writes:

I generally like the magazine. But it has a very annoying bullpen of columnists. This is not to say all the columnists are annoying, merely the line-up. Bob Shrum is the worst of the bunch by far. He is relentlessly hackish. Nearly every column is a tendentious spin job (See today's, for example), that is better suited as a posting at the DNC if not the Democratic Underground. Democrats are always right, facts be damned. Republicans are always stupid and/or evil, facts be damned.

They often seem to pair Shrum with David Frum. The problem is that, whatever your disagreements with David may be, he is no right-wing version of Bob Shrum. Not even close. David is an unpredictable pundit. Of late, he has made it his project to go after the GOP and the conservative base of the party. Often quite often his arguments score more legitimate points against the Right than Shrum's ever could.

What bothers me is that this strikes me as a classic example of the elite liberal media's idea of "balance." PBS's Newshour is another such example: One unapologetic lefty say, Mark Shields versus something of an apologetic righty, say David Gergen or David Brooks. The thinking seems to be: Highly partisan liberals are insightful and so are conservatives who think the highly partisan liberals have a point.

Then there's the rest of the bullpen. Will Wilkinson is in there and I think that's good, because smart libertarians deserve more mainstream venues. But Will loathes partisan politics and has a what I think is fair to say an unhealthy contempt for the GOP and conservatism proper. For even more "balance," they include Daniel Larison. I don't read his columns often and surprise I hear much, much less about the guy now that Bush is out of office. But he is hardly a defender of mainstream conservatism or the GOP.

Interesting that Mr. Goldberg seems to assume that this disadvantages the right. I've never read a Bob Shrum column, but presuming for the sake of argument that his writing is "tendentious spin" suited to the Democratic Underground, it doesn't sound very convincing! Having read a lot of David Frum's writing, I can attest that it is often insightful, and conducive to the sort of robust discourse political movements require if they're to test assumptions, generate new ideas, etc. When Mr. Goldberg says that Mr. Frum's arguments score points against the right, he sees it as a handicap, but isn't it actually the case that "points scored against the right" presumes that the right had something wrong? Aren't those points that we should be eager to see scored?

"What bothers me is that this strikes me as a classic example of the elite liberal media's idea of 'balance,'" Mr. Goldberg writes. "The thinking seems to be: Highly partisan liberals are insightful and so are conservatives who think the highly partisan liberals have a point." That seems like a weird way to characterize Daniel Larison or Will Wilkinson or David Frum, whose critiques of the right spring from their own political convictions, and seldom share any but the most obvious criticisms with highly partisan liberal propagandists.

And as it happens, I am far more bothered -- and the right is far more disadvantaged -- when the opposite situation arises: when, for example, The New York Times chooses as its conservative voice Bill Kristol, who phones in unpersuasive partisan talking points for the duration of his tenure, or when the Washington Post has Sarah Palin as the right's representative on climate change, though her piece couldn't possibly persuade anyone who didn't already agree with it, rather than Jim Manzi, who concedes points to liberal interlocutors when facts justify doing so, and persuasively offers counterarguments and alternative perspectives that benefit from actually being logically sound.

Perhaps Mr. Goldberg's post was actually a call for The Week to keep on David Frum, Will Wilkinson, and Daniel Larison, and to pair them with more intellectually honest folks from the left -- let them square off against Kevin Drum, Brad Plumber and Kerry Howley. I'd certainly welcome the change, since I am ultimately interested in good journalism and a robust public discourse than short term partisan advantages, but it sure seems like Mr. Goldberg was bemoaning the absence of a right-wing version of Bob Shrum. Am I wrong?