This Will End With President Tucker Carlson

The British experience should be a warning: Don’t let journalists go into politics.

Illustration of a microphone and flames
Getty ; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Helen Lewis is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

The United States is responsible for so many questionable transatlantic exports—The Apprentice, gray squirrels, dressing your dog up for Halloween—that we in Britain deserve to have our revenge. As if sending you James Corden wasn’t enough, our latest gift is that quintessentially British figure, the journalist turned politician. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is considering a run for governor of Oregon in 2022, a development unusual enough to make headlines in state and national media. “I have friends trying to convince me that here in Oregon, we need new leadership,” he wrote in a statement.

A British journalist would not need to be so coy about moving into politics. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, famously began his career as a journalist. He was soon fired from the Times newspaper for making up a quotation, which was good preparation for switching to politics and getting fired from the shadow cabinet for lying about having an affair. (He initially described the story as an “inverted pyramid of piffle.”) Both of these events, in turn, were even better preparation for winning the leadership of the Conservative Party by promising to leave the European Union on October 31, 2019—“do or die”—and then failing to do so, because the process turned out to be exactly as complicated as his luckless opponent said it would be. (After repeated defeats in Parliament, Johnson suspended 21 rebellious members of his party, called a general election, won it, and eventually got his Brexit the next year.)

Johnson’s biography shows the problem here: Journalists make dangerous politicians because they can talk their way out of trouble, have an eye for an arresting phrase and an appealing narrative, and know how to win over a crowd. Throughout the 20th century, British politics was full of ex-journalists. Winston Churchill spent a year during the Boer War as a correspondent for The Morning Post. Nigel Lawson, the father of the food writer Nigella, edited The Spectator magazine in the 1960s, before serving as chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher. Ruth Davidson, the 42-year-old former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, began as a journalist, as did current cabinet minister Michael Gove. The British left has also had its share. The man who led the Labour Party to a crushing defeat in the 1980s, Michael Foot, once edited the London Evening Standard, while the woman who should have been Britain’s first female prime minister, Barbara Castle, began her career at Tribune magazine.

Some well-known American journalists have also run for office, although many of these candidates—such as the 19th-century newspaper editor Horace Greeley—lost in a landslide; other bids, including those of William F. Buckley and Mickey Kaus, were doomed from the start. A handful of American politicians, including Al Gore and Sarah Palin, had brief stints as reporters, but Britain has a far grander tradition of putting former journalists in high public office. Even if they have never run anything more than a bath.

The Johnson comparison is unfair to Kristof, who has covered unfashionable subjects such as human trafficking and maternal mortality with tenacity and rigor. His recent investigation into rape videos on Pornhub forced the company to change its moderation policies; any politician would have been proud to achieve such a victory. He writes about women’s issues without sounding like The Onion’s “Man Finally Put in Charge of Struggling Feminist Movement.” (Asked for comment on his potential run, Kristof referred me to his published statement.)

Notably, however, in a postwar American journalism tradition that prizes the separation of opinion from news, Kristof is an op-ed writer. Britain has no such qualms about the need to keep facts and feelings separate: Two of its most high-profile journalists are the former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and the Labour activist Owen Jones, neither of whom makes a secret of his political leanings. British newspapers also have a tradition of straightforward partisanship that is alien to the U.S., where some of the largest publications are technically local newspapers, and once expected to attract readers from both sides of the aisle. The Mirror—where Barbara Castle worked—is an explicitly Labour-supporting paper, while Lawson’s Telegraph was explicitly Conservative-supporting. In recent decades, Britain has been much more at ease than the U.S. with the idea of journalism as a continuation of politics by other means.

Values in the U.S. are beginning to change, however. Barely a month passes without an article dissecting the generational split in American journalism, and the accompanying rise of news organizations and individual writers who reject the old ideas about “objectivity” and the “view from nowhere.” In this climate, surely more American journalists will feel comfortable with the move from writing about policy to making it. They will do so in an attention economy, which rewards a particular type of journalism and a particular type of politician: It is an advantage to be entertaining, and to have a personal fan base and a big platform.

Kristof is already on leave from the Times, in line with the paper’s ethics policies, but you’d have to be a more trusting person than me to expect a Fox News star to bow out of the TV spotlight before formally declaring a run for political office. (Fox did not respond to a request for comment. After the Fox host Sean Hannity appeared onstage at a 2018 Donald Trump rally, the network said that “Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign events,” but he went right on hosting his show.)

In the absence of strong norms keeping politics and journalism separate, the boundary between them is sure to be porous, as it is in Britain. Both jobs have no mandatory qualifications, no equivalent of an M.D. or a bar exam, and both reward the supremely confident bullshitter. Having attended the University of Oxford helps, as does showing a breezy assurance that everything will turn out okay in the end. Both professions have an almost religious belief in the power of deadlines: David Cameron was known as the “essay crisis” prime minister for his habit of performing best at the last minute; he revived his 2005 campaign for the Conservative Party leadership with one rousing speech. He maintained focus during long summits by refusing to visit the bathroom, which is exactly the kind of thing most journalists would do to force themselves to file a story on time.

Another bad habit journalists have is that many mistake provoking a reaction—whether effusive or angry—for genuine achievement. Getting a rise out of your opponents might be satisfying, but it’s not a substitute for getting things done. Even during a pandemic, Boris Johnson needed the sugar rush of compliments about how funny he is, what a great master of rhetoric he is, what a lovable clown he is. And so he couldn’t go cold turkey on the kind of weird phrases that pad out a light-hearted op-ed column. He claimed that the leader of the opposition, a former lawyer, had “more briefs than Calvin Klein” and that his coronavirus policies had “more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.” During the Brexit referendum, he kept doing the one about how he was “pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto.” Journalism rewards this sort of talk. Politics shouldn’t. Yet British politics does.

When Johnson decided to move into politics, he was the editor of the London-based Spectator magazine—a job that, by the way, he got on false pretenses, after assuring the proprietor that he had abandoned his parliamentary ambitions. (Spot a theme?) Although Britain’s political and media capital is now a left-wing city, it is surrounded by Conservative areas within easy driving distance. The Conservative Party found Johnson a safe seat in Henley, a pretty riverside town about an hour outside London; later, when Johnson returned to Parliament again, after a stint as the capital’s mayor, he was given another safe seat close to central London, in Uxbridge. Throughout this time, he was based at his family home in Islington, north London.

Contrast this with the United States, a far larger country where a politician’s place of residence matters far more. You can’t live in New York or Washington, the hubs of U.S. journalism, and hope to run for election in Maine or Arkansas. According to The Oregonian, Kristof, who grew up on a farm 25 miles outside Portland, moved back to Oregon in 2019 to “transition his family’s cherry farm to a cider apple and wine grape farm”—which simultaneously sounds charming, folksy, and very much like something a New York Times columnist would do.

The Times report on Kristof’s candidacy downplayed his chances of victory, because of a strong field of local leaders. Perhaps that’s for the best, as the British tradition of journalist-politicians is not something to emulate. The foreign reporter Nicholas Tomalin once said that the “only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.” If anything, he was being too polite. The journalist’s motto might as well be: Well, I don’t know about this, but give me 30 minutes and I’ll sound like an expert. Remember all those commentators who sounded like world-class economists a decade ago, during the financial crisis. Aren’t we lucky that they all retrained as epidemiologists?

So consider Boris Johnson to be a warning. Nick Kristof seems like a decent, thoughtful man who may someday have access to some extremely high-quality alcohol. But overall, the heights of modern journalism select for loud, polarizing attention-vampires with huge egos and short attention spans. And if American voters start rewarding journalists who switch to politics, don’t come crying to me on Inauguration Day for President Tucker Carlson.