Voices on the left are rising in the US. Why aren’t they in mainstream media?

May 8, 2018
The Los Angeles March for Immigrant Rights. (Photo via Molly Adams/Flickr.)

Not many happy hours have their own weekly newsletter, but Sean McElwee’s does. The left-wing researcher and Nation contributor started writing last October off of his popular weekly drinks night, where journalists, activists, and politicos swig whiskey and Miller High Life and swap notes on the progress of progress. The newsletter links to news and views—often contributed by FOTHHs (Friends of the Happy Hour)—from the left media scene and beyond, and shares hopeful data on rising public support for progressive policies in the US.

The happy hour, which began about four years ago, has become a weekly diary point for a cross-section of New York’s young left—McElwee sometimes books in Democratic Party candidates and others to come meet the crowd. On a recent, balmy evening, McElwee didn’t have a guest in tow as he brushed into the East Village dive where he plays host, but he did have politics on his mind. “Did you see the Manuel Duran thing?” he asked, naming the reporter detained by ICE while covering a protest in Memphis in early April. “Where’s the New York Times opinion piece about that?”

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Happy hour conversations range from gossip to gripes to meatier contributions to the daily discourse. “It grew out of my sense that there weren’t a lot of left-wing spaces in the city really, other than, like, book-launch parties,” McElwee writes in a direct message (his current display name on Twitter is “abolish ice. send [ICE Acting Director Thomas] homan to the hague.”). At the moment, the state of mainstream opinion sections is an especially hot topic for regulars. Kevin Williamson—who has said that abortion should be punishable by hanging and who was recently hired, then swiftly fired, by The Atlantic—for example, serves as a prodigious rant-starter.

The radical left in the US has felt invigorated in recent years. Backlash to Donald Trump has boosted it, for sure, though its energy predates his election and even his rise, catalyzed notably by the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, then channeled through Bernie Sanders’s near-miss Democratic nomination bid (much media coverage of which remains a sore point for the young left). But while the success of these movements has earned left-wing voices column inches in most mainstream outlets, those pieces are almost always written about those voices, rather than by them.

Left-wing thinkers—who offer structural criticisms of capitalism, US foreign policy, race relations, and other modes of power—are sometimes invited into these fora. But they often enter as one-off or infrequent contributors: At the end of April, for example, the philosopher Jason Barker wrote a piece for the Times entitled, “Happy [200th] birthday, Karl Marx. You were right!”

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Elizabeth Bruenig does have a more permanent column at The Washington Post, and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb write regular reported pieces and analysis for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, respectively. And yet the opinion pages at the Post, the Times, and elsewhere—as well as the time-worn, Democrat v. Republican knockabouts of cable news shows—don’t count enough voices like these as staff writers or permanent fixtures. “Major outlets will talk about [structural] issues. What they won’t do is have an expression of these ideas on the opinion page,” says Cobb, who is also a professor at Columbia Journalism School. “It’s all couched in a particular type of language. ‘Income inequality’ is a euphemism. There are no verbs in that phrase, whereas years ago people would say ‘class exploitation,’ which is actually telling you someone was doing something to someone else.”

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The absence of regular left voices in mainstream publications is made more notable by the fact that explicitly left outlets are having a moment. The Nation reported a 500 percent increase in subscriptions after the 2016 election, while newer socialist magazine Jacobin has been growing fast, boasting over a million pageviews a month as of late 2017. Magazines like The New Republic contain influential reporting and commentary, while British progressive outlet The New Statesman just announced its plans to open a US edition. And alternative news shows like Pacifica’s Democracy Now are a staple of many young people’s media diets.

According to a 2017 YouGov poll, over 75 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Sanders, whereas only 13 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of Trump. And yet while avowedly socialist commentators are rare in the mainstream press, opinion editors have continued to offer a full menu of (usually white male) never-Trump right-wingers, from David Brooks, Bret Stephens, and Ross Douthat at the Times to David Frum and (briefly) Williamson at The Atlantic, and from the Post’s George Will to recurring cable and public radio talking heads like Jonah Goldberg and Bill Kristol. If Americans are supposed to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives, why does so much commentary feel lopsided?

“Major outlets will talk about [structural] issues. What they won’t do is have an expression of these ideas on the opinion page.”

Readers are clearly demanding greater ideological diversity: When the Times op-ed section asked for feedback in April, many responded that it could use “more unabashedly left-wing” voices. While older left writers are sometimes wary of the mainstream press, younger generations often say the mainstream press is the only way to make their views, well, more mainstream.

“I don’t think that political change lives and dies at an MSNBC round table,” says Sarah Leonard, who recently left The Nation to edit In Justice Today, a criminal justice news site. “But at the same time, if we care about getting these views out—because we think that we have some insights into what’s going on—then we should always be willing and eager to meet people where they are.”

“I do wonder….if most people give a fuck what the latest New York Times op-ed is? I feel like they don’t,” adds Gaby Del Valle, a staff writer at The Outline. “But then at the same time, I do feel this is all driving a national conversation, whether we’re aware of it or not.”

These outlets strive—and are thus perceived, at least in some quarters—to set the boundaries of legitimate debate in the US. Politicians and other influential public figures read them, and filter what they say into their own thoughts and speeches. And while social media may have democratized speech, its raw clamor has arguably boosted the prestige of more austere, better curated commentary pages. “If you’re a mainstream publication, a large publication, you’re creating a public record of thinking,” says Cobb.

Times Opinion Editor James Bennet has come under fire of late—including from Times staffers—for putting controversial conservative columnists like Stephens and Bari Weiss at the center of this public record. Weiss had the left Twittersphere up in arms again on Tuesday after she published an article claiming an “Intellectual Dark Web” of prominent right-wing thinkers has been forced out of mainstream discourse.

When Bennet met with staffers in December to explain his vision for the section, he told them ideological diversity is important, even (especially) when it’s uncomfortable. According to a video of the meeting obtained by HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg, however, he also said, “I think we are pro-capitalism….The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of….it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.” (Bennet, who sits on CJR’s Board of Overseers, did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Some on the left say mainstream media outlets are owned and backed by interests that feel threatened by anti-capitalist perspectives, and so shut them out. “News media are constrained, as any industry, by where the money comes from. In the case of corporate media, the money comes from corporate owners and sponsors, powerful companies in important spheres of public life,” writes Janine Jackson of FAIR, a group that advocates breaking up consolidated media ownership. “None of these entities has any interest in sustained, serious criticism of the processes by which their wealth is gained and maintained.”

Others see a subtler dynamic. “I don’t doubt that [Editor] Jeffrey Goldberg is sincere in what he thinks The Atlantic’s ideological diversity should be,” says David Klion, who has written about Trump, Russia, and the left for The Nation and The Guardian, among other publications. “It’s not like he would love to hire more leftists but there’s some money man telling him ‘no, you can’t.’ It’s more that the system selects for people with Jeffrey Goldberg’s biases to begin with.”

“It’s less about ideology than social class. These are all elite-educated people of a certain income level who have certain assumptions about how the world is supposed to work,” adds Chris Lehmann, editor in chief of politics and culture magazine The Baffler. “I think of [Bennet and others] as like characters in Victorian novels, besieged by a world they don’t understand….They’re not doing their jobs, and this is an urgent moment where political discourse is realigning in fundamental ways, and we don’t have institutions that are treating it for the crisis it is and taking it seriously.”

While few beyond the Twittersphere will have noticed, Bennet has had to explain himself, and Williamson is out of a job, because of persistent pressure coming from the left. Making the gatekeepers take notice is a step in the right direction, even if getting them to systematically include marginalized views will be a harder task.

As the traditional party system collapses, the model of the media opinion forum is undergoing an identity crisis. An opportunity exists, however ill-defined, to mold this moment of uncertainty into a more inclusive future, where including radically left perspectives isn’t an exception but the norm. Much recent reporting has driven at deeper structural criticisms, for example, of race relations and the immigration system, or focused on left touchstones like unionization campaigns and activism around sexual assault, guns, and more. That reporting invites the sort of analysis that columnists, rather than reporters, can bring to bear.

“The consensus around the inevitability of capitalism makes any anti-capitalist view appear almost immature in the eyes of people who share that consensus. I think that reflects a short-sightedness that hopefully will change,” says Leonard. “Almost everybody in younger generations thinks we must be able to do better than this. There are growing movements on the left. People are going to want to know what those movements think. I think people who are used to commissioning within the ‘bounds of the reasonable’ are going to need to understand that what’s ‘reasonable’ is changing.”

It can feel frustrating, however, that left issues are mostly implanted in the mainstream press by movements external to the media itself. And Trump’s presidency poses an important ongoing question for left journalists. Is Trump a longer-term game-changer; a catalyst for structural critiques that will stick around after he’s gone? Or will his eventual departure from the scene drain the mediasphere of its current outrage, and thus diminish its interest in left perspectives?

As a recent happy hour wound down, McElwee, who’d been holding forth at the bar, was talking to a fellow writer about the problem. “We need movement builders, not people who can dunk on Twitter. But our current institutions are structured for people who can dunk on Twitter,” he said.

“Let’s hope….the Parkland kids realize that gun violence and police violence and state violence and capital violence are all the same violence, and are braver than I was when I was 20,” the other writer replied.

McElwee paused. “I look forward to the day when people call me center-left,” he said.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.