Conor Friedersdorf: The perils of ‘with us or against us’
“There was an inherent tension between my status as a co-founder of the site and my desire to be a fiercely independent and at times contentious voice,” he wrote in his first post on Substack, adding on Twitter, “I’m looking forward to really telling everyone what’s on my mind to an even greater extent than I do now.”
In our interview, Yglesias explained why pushing back against the “dominant sensibility” in digital journalism is important to him. He said he believes that certain voguish positions are substantively wrong—for instance, abolishing or defunding police—and that such arguments, as well as rhetorical fights over terms like Latinx, alienate many people from progressive politics and the Democratic Party.
“There’s been endless talk since the election about House Democrats being mad at the ‘Squad,’ and others saying, ‘What do you want, for activists to just not exist? For there to be no left-wing members of Congress?’” Yglesias told me. “But there’s a dynamic where there’s media people who really elevated the profile of [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and a couple of other members way above their actual numerical standing.”
Many outlets, he argued, are missing something important. “The people making the media are young college graduates in big cities, and that kind of politics makes a lot of sense to them,” he said. “And we keep seeing that older people, and working-class people of all races and ethnicities, just don’t share that entire worldview. It’s important to me to be in a position to step outside that dynamic … That was challenging as someone who was a founder of a media outlet but not a manager of it.”
One trend that exacerbated that challenge: colleagues in media treating the expression of allegedly problematic ideas as if they were a human-resources issue. Earlier this year, for instance, after Yglesias signed a group letter published in Harper’s magazine objecting to cancel culture, one of his colleagues, Emily VanDerWerff, told Vox editors that his signature made her feel “less safe at Vox.”
Yglesias had been personally kind and supportive of her work, she wrote, but as a trans woman, she felt the letter should not have been signed by anyone at Vox, because she believed that it contained “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions,” and that several of its signatories are anti-trans. The letter’s authors reject those characterizations.
I asked Yglesias if that matter in any way motivated his departure. “Something we’ve seen in a lot of organizations is increasing sensitivity about language and what people say,” he told me. “It’s a damaging trend in the media in particular because it is an industry that’s about ideas, and if you treat disagreement as a source of harm or personal safety, then it’s very challenging to do good work.”