We are not living in a time of left-wing intellectual spaces and right-wing intellectual spaces. We are living in a time of neutral-presenting intellectual spaces (The New York Times, CNN, Vox) and explicitly right-wing intellectual spaces (Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart).
That's according to a lengthy piece at one of the neutral-presenting outlets, Vox, about how media polarization fueled Donald Trump's rise and threatens the future of democracy. The piece isn't wrong—in fact, there's much it gets right about the right-wing echo chamber—but it glosses over the left's culpability in this assault on objective truth, and ignores entirely the toxic tribalism that exists within the left's most zealously guarded sacred space.
Vox's David Roberts thinks conservatives who made the conscious decision to vacate the neutral-presenting intellectual spaces are mostly to blame for the current situation.
"What the right wants is not better, fairer, more scrupulous information referees," he writes. "It wants tribal information."
The proof is in the pudding: the right invented Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart, and Alex Jones in order to spin a constant web of alternative facts. These institutions pushed their listeners rightward, poisoned them against flawed but typically reliable purveyors of truth, conditioned them to never accept compromise, and brainwashed them into believing numerous conspiracy theories. As a result, a pathologically dishonest strongman who bears no resemblance whatsoever to the conservatism of decades' past captured their attention, and ultimately, their votes.
Or, as someone on Twitter once put it, "Fox News has done to our grandparents who our grandparents thought violent video games would do to us."
This line-of-thinking ignores that right-leaning alternative media has always existed, to some degree, but correctly states that there appears to have been an explosion in the number of options. Their voice has certainly grown louder.
Some readers are no doubt shouting "good!" at their screens as they read this—liberalism is bad, and anything that moves people away from liberalism is good, they might say. From a libertarian standpoint, this is obviously wrong, and what's happened over the last few years proves how wrong it is. The right has grown more extreme, but it is difficult to find a lot of evidence that it has grown more extreme in any discernibly libertarian direction. As an interest group, it has become more hostile to immigrants, more skeptical of free trade, and arguably more tolerant of big government welfare schemes (as long as these schemes are benefitting white people)—or at least, its contempt for the libertarian position on these issues has become more obvious. In the age of Trump, even the bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform is threatened.
So Vox is correct, broadly speaking, that conservatives deserting traditional media institutions and forming their own has made the right more toxic, more tribal—and, I would add, in some sense less friendly to libertarian ideas. This is a bad thing.
But Roberts is missing something really important: the sequence of events does not begin with conservatives' defection. It begins, at least in part, with their mistreatment at the hands of supposedly neutral institutions that were never all that neutral to begin with. As Slate Star Codex's Scott Alexander puts it in his excellent response piece:
The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternately pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. Then they defected to create their own.
David Roberts ends by noting that he doesn't really know what to do here, and I agree. I don't know what to do here either.
But one simple heuristic: if everything you've tried so far has failed, maybe you should try something different. Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives. They've tried showing anti-conservative bias. They've tried ramping up the conservativism-related bias level. They've tried taking articles, and biasing them against conservative positions. I appreciate their commitment to multiple diverse strategies, but I can't help but wonder whether there's a possibility they've missed.
One can debate the timeline of all this, to some degree, and Alexander's is certainly simplified. It's also true that Vox, The New York Times, CNN, et al are closer to neutral than Breitbart or Fox News. But let's not pretend these outlets have ever been very interested in playing nice with conservatives. And in cases where they were willing to humor a conservative perspective, they are often punished for it. The hysterical response from liberal readers and media folks alike to the NYT's decision to hire Bret Stephens is only the most recent example. Stephens is conservative, but he's neither pro-Trump nor a right-wing extremist. And yet the left reacted as if the NYT had decided to hire Milo Yiannopoulos. "Go eat dog dicks" and "literally go fuck yourself," were things one journalist said about the NYT, and "you're a shithead," and "a massive twat too" were things another journalist said about Stephens himself.
Vox even assailed the NYT for hiring "a climate change bullshitter." The author of Vox's anti-Stephens piece is none other than David Roberts—the writer now bemoaning the fact that conservatives have opted out of the "neutral" media's game. Consider this tweet from Markos Moulitsas: "Beats me why anyone would have a NYT subscription at this point. If you do, you are funding the Right's propaganda efforts."
Moulitsas is a co-founder of Vox Media, the company that owns Vox.
If Stephens' incredibly mild-mannered first column is really an example of the kind of opinion liberals think is beyond the pale—liberals who run media institutions that claim to be neutral clearinghouses of ideas—then they should not be surprised when conservatives part ways with them. The media told conservatives to take a hike, and so they did.
There's something else worth noting. This discussion so far has concerned media institutions. But there are other organizations purporting to communicate truth in a neutral and even-handed manner that end up looking awfully partisan: universities. Indeed, the American university's century-long march toward ideological conformity is even more apparent than the media's. Here, too, conservatives have sought to create their own alternatives—religious colleges, conservative think tanks—and much could be said about the benefits and trade-offs. But more interesting, perhaps, is what's happening within the elite, mainstream, non-alternative educational institutions.
Indeed, some humanities departments are experiencing the Fox News effect in reverse: pushed ever leftward, they have collapsed into a kind of tribalism as horrifying and toxic as anything coming out of the rightwing. Consider what happened earlier this week to Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, who was accused of "enacting violence" because she dared to write something slightly un-PC about Rachel Dolezal and trans issues.
New York Magazine's Jesse Singal called the campaign of misinformation against Tuvel "a modern witch hunt," and he's right. But this isn't a one-off incident. Witch hunts have become a routine facet of university life. Look what happened to Laura Kipnis and Kimberly Peirce and Nancy Shurtz and Sandor Dosman and Nicholas Christakis. Look what happened after Heather MacDonald tried (and failed) to deliver a lecture at Claremont McKenna College: students published a letter explicitly rejecting truth. More than one student has been attacked—physically attacked—for engaging in "cultural appropriation." Plain, non-malicious attempts to engage in free expression, or communicate information, are frequently punished.
Take it from Fredrik deBoer, a writer and academic at Brooklyn College:
For years and years I have denied the idea that campus is a space that's antagonistic to conservative students. I thought Michael Berube's book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? was the last word on the subject. I still reject a lot of the David Horowitz narrative. But as a member of the higher education community I just have to be real with you: the vibe on campus really has changed. I spent years teaching at a university in a conservative state recently and I was kind of shocked at how openly fellow instructors would complain about the politics of their students, how personal they go when condemning their students who espoused conventional Republican politics. I encounter professors all the time who think that it's fine for a student to say "I'm With Her" in class but not for a student to say "Make America Great Again" — that's hate speech, see — despite the fact that both are simply the recent campaign slogans of the two major political parties. Yet those profs recoil at the idea that they're not accepting of conservative students.
I hear people say that they won't permit arguments against affirmative action in their classes — hate speech, again — despite the fact that depending on how the question is asked, a majority of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action in polling, including in some polls a majority of Hispanic Americans. The number of boilerplate conservative opinions that are taken to be too offensive to be voiced in the campus space just grows and grows, and yet progressive profs I know are so offended by the idea that they could be creating a hostile atmosphere, they won't even discuss the subject in good faith.
And while I think conservative students can mostly get by fine on the average campus, I really can't imagine going through life as a conservative professor, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Is that a problem? That depends on your point of view. But if it's happening, shouldn't we talk about the fact that it's happening?
Are these institutions—elite college departments that are overrun by far-left thinkers—at least producing sound and valuable scholarship? There are certainly good reasons to doubt that this is the case. As Bryan Caplan has noted, 18 percent of professors in the social sciences described themselves as Marxists in a survey. This is a big deal, he wrote, "because Marxism is nonsense." Echoing Caplan, Philip Magness, an historian at George Masons University, pointed out that Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto is by some measures the second-most frequently assigned work on college syllabi, only losing out to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, a good-grammar handbook. But the Communist Manifesto is seldom assigned in economics classes—where, presumably, its outdated and disproven ideas would be debunked by professors. It is most commonly assigned in humanities classes, where Marxist thinking is applied to far-flung scenarios.
This does not mean that self-identified Marxist academics should be purged in some kind of second Red Scare. It does mean that teachers beholden to a discredited worldview are responsible for communicating information—via research and instruction—to students and the masses. Let's call the information they are producing "alternative facts."
So, is media polarization a problem? Yes. Is it primarily a problem because some—not all, but some—of the rightwing media alternatives are hellscapes of viciousness and lies? Also yes.
But the fact that this is also happening in certain sectors of the higher education landscape suggests that the problem is more fundamental. When purveyors of facts treat legitimate skepticism with contempt, they breed resentment and foster alienation. Ideological diversity, tolerance, and broad commitments to free speech are important, not just because these are the necessary tools for discovering the truth, but because they are checks against the formation of radical splinter movements—movements whose goals have become, in select right-wing and left-wing echo chambers, the denial of objective reality itself.