“That commitment to truth seeking made Sullivan one of the earliest advocates for gay marriage and one of the most potent and consistent critics of ‘wokeness’ today.”
have never tried to be popular.” So writes Andrew Sullivan—the influential journalist and public intellectual, once of The New Republic, New York magazine, and now Substack fame—in the introduction to his new compendium of essays, Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.
Indeed, he has not. Sullivan is an all too rare breed of public intellectual, one so unwed to a particular party or tribe that he consistently tells the truth as he sees it. A gay, Catholic, British immigrant and committed small-c conservative attached to small-l liberal principles, it is easy to see how Sullivan has never felt especially committed to a particular party or tribe in America. With the Republican Party prostrated at the feet of “an openly proto-fascist cult leader” named Donald Trump, in Sullivan’s words, and the Democrats overly enthralled by their own left-wing illiberal variant, Sullivan is a political man without a home.
He has made good use of that independence. For Sullivan, “the goal has always been the same: to look at the world, to make sense of it as best I can, and to tell the truth.” That commitment to truth seeking made Sullivan one of the earliest advocates for gay marriage and one of the most potent and consistent critics of “wokeness” today. It has left him vigorously advocating the Iraq War and then publicly disowning his previous support for it. It has motivated his critiques of hate crimes legislation and critical race theory but also his disgust with the illiberalism and conspiracism of Trumpism.
This is not to say that I agree with Sullivan on every score, but there is a refreshing, principled candor that courses through his work. And I wonder, to some degree, if his medium has shaped his message. Although he worked at standard big-name magazines like The New Republic and New York, it is important to remember that Sullivan was one of the earliest and most influential bloggers. In a November 2008 Atlantic essay, “Why I Blog,” he stressed the instantaneity of blogging and the close, even personal connections the blogger often forms with his or her readers. That connection is unmediated by institutions like traditional magazines or newspapers and their editors. At times, reader feedback could be “instant, personal, and brutal.” Yet Sullivan was impressed by how learned and thoughtful his readers were on the whole. Moreover, being held directly accountable by these thoughtful readers enhanced his accountability, commitment to getting things right, and following wherever common sense and the facts may lead. Why? Because “there is nothing more conducive to professionalism than being publicly humiliated for sloppiness.” Sullivan’s blogging and constant, close engagement with readers seems to have intensified his predisposition to independent thinking and taking uncomfortable, unpopular positions as needed, allowing readers to “pivot [him] toward relative truth.”
That anti-fundamentalist bent is especially present in Sullivan’s writings on faith and sexuality.
In an October 2006 essay in TIME magazine, Sullivan laments fundamentalism at work on both the geopolitical stage (radical Islamism) and at home (white evangelical right-wing politics). There, he pushes back on the dichotomy between fundamentalist religiosity and a similarly militant and committed secularism: “Fundamentalism is not the only valid form of faith, and to say it is, is the great lie of our time.” Sullivan instead counsels “a humble faith” marked by toleration. “And from that toleration comes the oxygen that liberal democracy desperately needs to survive. That applies to all faiths, from Islam to Christianity…From moderate religion comes pragmatic politics.”
This might explain why he has been so taken with the humility and the openness to doubt and complexity of Pope Francis. In Francis, Sullivan sees “an epistemology of doubt as the central truth of faith.” He goes on: “Benedict XVI and John Paul II focused on restoring dogmatic certainty as the counterpart to papal authority. Francis is arguing that both, if taken too far, can be sirens leading us away from God, not ensuring our orthodoxy but sealing us off in calcified positions and rituals that can come to mean nothing outside themselves.” As a small-c conservative in politics, Sullivan counsels “seeking the right prudential balance from exigency to exigency, from era to era, from year to year.” That willingness to muddle through, to keep an open mind, to never grasp so tightly on to a conviction that it might blind one to an additional sliver of truth seems to have carried over into his faith life as well.
There is a certain pragmatism or realism here. And as a younger reader, I was struck by that pragmatism in the context of his earlier writings—especially on topics like homosexuality and gay marriage—of which I was less familiar. In a 1989 essay for The New Republic, “Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage,” Sullivan made a compelling, practical case for the legalization of same-sex marriage: “Since persecution is not an option in a civilized society, why not coax gays into traditional values rather than rail incoherently against them?” Sullivan wrote that by legalizing gay marriage, the law could extend, not deny, family values, by incentivizing homosexuals to form the same sort of monogamous, stable relationships as is the case with married heterosexuals. Promoting economic and emotional stability, as well as stronger and more stable households for children, he added, were social goods whether they were being distributed to heterosexuals or homosexuals.
Yet there are times where Sullivan seems to have lost touch, even just a bit, with his pragmatic streak and dispassionate view of things. He certainly got carried away by then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy. In his December 2007 Atlantic essay, “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” Sullivan predicted that an Obama victory could bring about “a truce” in the culture wars. He was wrong. By February 2009, he was lamenting that “Republican Taliban Declare Jihad on Obama” in The Sunday Times.
To some extent, Sullivan-esque inflated expectations for a President Obama might have fueled the worsening of the culture war. In the words of the late Senator and intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who, like Sullivan, offered a unique brand of conservatism):
“The malaise of overpromising derives almost wholly, in my experience, from the failure of executives and legislators to understand what is risked when promises are made. With a more homogeneous people, as for example the British, the risks are fewer. Governments take chances, hope for the best, and if things do not work out it is not normal to assume sinister motives. We are different; an immensely diverse people. We really don’t know one another very well. When things don’t work out as promised it is all too easy to suspect that someone intended that they should not…The polity must take care what it undertakes to provide, for failure to do so is likely to be attributed to malevolent purpose.”
The polity—and its politicians, like President Obama—must be wary of overpromising. The culture wars could not be overcome by one man alone. Buoyed by the over-optimism of Sullivan and others, President Obama overpromised. Disillusionment ensued.
But this is not to say that Sullivan is a poor political observer or that he is an incapable predictor of the future. Indeed, while seemingly hyperbolic at the time, his prediction that a Trump victory in 2016 could eventually threaten America’s liberal democratic experiment was certainly on the mark (see January 6th). On that note, the fact that Sullivan is so alarmed by illiberal thought variants on the Left today should leave us vigilant. He knows illiberalism when he sees it. We should listen.
We should also follow in his footsteps when it comes to political temperament: seeking the truth in politics, no matter where it may lead us, but always with a hefty dose of humility and plenty of raw humanity. That is why Sullivan’s December, 2011 “Dear Ta-Nehisi” piece is so important. There, Sullivan mentions that his friend, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, was frustrated with Sullivan’s willingness to engage openly with arguments and data regarding IQ differences between races. Coates pointed out that openly airing these sorts of questions could cause deep hurt to many, while also providing aid and comfort to veritable racists. Sullivan would not back down, stating that “a writer’s core loyalty must be to the truth as best as he can discern it.” Intellectual openness and an aversion to bowing to stigma are part and parcel of that openness.
However, that did not mean Sullivan could not acknowledge that “the hurt remains.” Vigorous debate need not preclude empathy: “And so I ask Ta-Nehisi for forgiveness; not as a writer, where good faith and honesty alone matter, but as a friend and human being, where empathy counts.”
We should do the same: rigorously and vigorously vetting and arguing our thoughts about this great big world, remaining open to new evidence and changing our minds, and not being jerks in the process.
In other words, we ought to join Andrew Sullivan out on the limb.
Thomas Koenig is a student at Harvard Law School and the author of the free “Tom’s Takes” newsletter on Substack. He can be found on Twitter @thomaskoenig98