“But it feels myopic to interpret this as a larger victory or cheer for more of the same, especially if the ultimate goal is to restore some sense of ideological pluralism to mainstream institutions.”
n case one has not heard, there is a culture war going on outside from which no man, woman, or child is safe. Even seemingly innocuous facets of life—including one’s choice of razor, home improvement store, or canned beans—have been converted into active fronts where boycotts, hashtags, and innumerable opinion pieces are mercilessly deployed by the Left and Right.
Conservatives are happy to forgo Starbucks or stock up on black beans in a show of solidarity. But when it comes to the fights that actually matter, those over the cultural institutions upstream of politics, increasingly, the Right seems to have taken to strategic retreat—or at least that is how conservatives are selling it to themselves.
A little over a month ago, “controversial” New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss resigned. Her somewhat-acrimonious resignation letter depicted a hostile work environment and confirmed what many have suspected for a while: that there is tremendous pressure to conform to progressive doctrine from The New York Times staff and online readership, as well as that the Overton Window at the “paper of record” is rapidly shifting as a result.
Three days later, former New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote his farewell column, describing a similar work environment. Unlike Weiss, Sullivan did not leave his post of his own accord, but he was quick to look on the bright side, announcing that he would be reincarnating his old blog, The Dish, as a weekly newsletter. As Sullivan noted, his decision to leave blue chip media and publish independently is part of a trend: “There is a growing federation of independent thinkers and writers not subject to mainstream media’s increasingly narrow range of acceptable thought.”
If the cultural right thinks it has something valuable to offer to America, it should make its case and try to exercise some influence over institutions.
Because Weiss and Sullivan’s exit stories align with their suspicions of mainstream media, conservatives and others concerned about the growing ideological imbalance and rigidity of the industry have largely found their departures cause for celebration—or, at least, cause for a cathartic I-told-you-so.
I am not so sure the elation is warranted.
Weiss and Sullivan will be fine. Their lives may even improve—not least because they have removed themselves from unwelcoming work environments. Both have large followings and may gain some notoriety as high-visibility victims of cancel culture. Maybe their future success will even serve as a rebuke to The New York Times and New York. But it feels myopic to interpret this as a larger victory or cheer for more of the same, especially if the ultimate goal is to restore some sense of ideological pluralism to mainstream institutions. In reality, both reputable publications were further homogenized by Weiss and Sullivan’s departures.
It is a mistake to assume that just because legacy media and other institutions are losing currency with conservatives that their perceived legitimacy is in decline across the board. They still matter, and their status cannot be replicated by upstart outlets. These institutions do not simply relay information; they shape truth, to an extent. Withdrawing from them voluntarily—or encouraging the few heterodox thinkers who remain in their employ to do so—is an own-goal, a forfeiture of cultural influence that will leave the Right sequestered to niche or overtly ideological publications, while allowing progressive activists to inherit the mantle of presumed viewpoint neutrality unopposed (provided they are so interested).
Can retreat in the face of institutional adversity ever make sense? I think it can, provided a realistic goal to structurally reorient an institution and the possibility of support from beyond activist circles. Writing at the American Mind, Inez Feltscher Stepman outlines such a plan, advising parents to join what she believes will be a large exodus from public schools, which she characterizes as anti-American propaganda mills. But, crucially, she does not simply want conservative parents to opt out of the public school system: She wants to leverage their departure (and others’, for it must be said that dissatisfaction with public schools is not limited to conservatives) to pressure legislators to reallocate resources from school districts to parents. She writes:
“Conservatives should step directly into this opening. If parents are being asked to shoulder the duties of actually educating their children, the tax dollars allocated for that purpose should flow directly to them to use for learning pods, private school, homeschooling equipment and curricula, tutors, or any other educational purpose they see fit…
Providing families with a portion of the state funds that currently flow directly to districts, whether they’re serving families or not, would allow parents of all income levels to hire teachers for small-group, in-person learning, alleviating both fears about risk from the virus and some of the equity concerns now raised by unions and The New York Times.”
Whatever one thinks of this idea ideologically, it is strategically superior to a fit of quixotic martyrdom that results in a loss of power and influence over American institutions. If the cultural Right thinks it has something valuable to offer to America, it should make its case and try to exercise some influence over institutions. Or, at least, it should stop confusing retreat with victory.
Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at eddiethoughts.com. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardFerrara_