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Bret Stephens’s Opinions Aren’t the Problem

Ideological diversity doesn't justify lowering argumentative standards for conservatives, or anyone else.


To many liberals, The New York Times’ decision to hire neoconservative opinion writer Bret Stephens was an obvious error, and one the former Wall Street Journal columnist drove home by using his very first column to posit that environmentalists overstate the likelihood of catastrophic climate change. “Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong,” he wrote. “Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”

The ensuing backlash was swift and loud. From the perspective of Stephens’s critics, the Times exposed itself by ignoring Stephens’s past, troubling writing—about climate change and other issues—in a futile effort to appease those who accuse the paper of harboring liberal bias. By prioritizing an arbitrary and ill-conceived quota over its commitment to truth and other cardinal values, the paper had sown the wind. On its own terms, this is a critique of Stephens per se, and of those who question the dangers (or existence) of climate change as a group. It is an answer to the question, posed by Vox’s David Roberts, of “whether dismissing climate change as a ‘mass hysteria phenomenon’ is, or ought to be, disqualifying,” and many liberals would say yes.

But this creates a dilemma, because a standard that would exclude Stephens, and everyone to his right on the issue of climate change, would come perilously close to excluding all conservatives from the Times’ editorial pages. It is paradoxical to support the concept of ideological diversity while insisting on a standard that excludes everyone on the right. The way to resolve the paradox is to eschew ideological litmus tests and insist on rhetorical ones instead. What matters isn’t that Stephens is a conservative, but how he argues for conservatism.

Imagine scientists discovered a large asteroid on a collision course with Earth, but couldn’t say for certain whether it would extinguish all life on the planet, or disintegrate before impact and cause significantly less damage. The ensuing debate over how to intercept the asteroid might be fierce, but the argument that the federal government had little or no proper role to play in destroying or deflecting it wouldn’t get very far at all.

U.S. conservatives face a similar predicament across a wide range of issues, including climate change, but few of them are prepared to do the dull, repetitive, and frequently unconvincing work of explaining why their opposition to an active federal government should trump other urgent concerns. It would be unpersuasive to argue, “Stopping runaway climate change requires federal interventions that I object to on the following abstract ideological grounds” over and over again; applying the same principles to other pressing questions—like whether we should reduce the rate of uninsurance, or provide poor children adequate nutrition—yields similarly unsatisfying opinions.

The remedy most conservatives have adopted, consciously or otherwise, is to devise more genial justifications for their conclusions and use those to backfill their arguments. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait called thisa tic of American conservative-movement thought — the conclusion (small government) is fixed, and the reasoning is tailored to justify the outcome. Nearly all conservatives argue this way...”

In Stephens’s case, the tic manifests in his depiction of policies designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions as “abrupt and expensive,” and his intimation that supporters of such policies may harbor unspoken “ideological intentions.” The truth is very nearly the opposite. The debate over how aggressively to limit greenhouse gas emissions is driven, to coin a phrase, by how “abrupt and expensive” it might be if the response comes up short. The unspoken ideological intention, on the other hand, is harbored by conservatives, whose aversion to taxes and regulation outstrips their interest in insuring against worst-case climate change scenarios, and motivates them either to play down the risks of climate change or deny that human activity is changing the climate in the first place.

It is this same tic that aligned the entire Republican Party behind the claim that a conservative health care bill would cover more people and at a lower cost than Obamacare, rather than admit the truth, as conservative writer Phil Klein admirably did when he encouraged Republicans to say, “We don’t believe that it is the job of the federal government to guarantee that everybody has health insurance.” The tic, in other words, is a fallacious mode of reasoning that commits many conservatives to sloppy thinking or outright dishonesty.

After the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, conservative lawyers scoured the statute for legal infirmities, hoping to hobble it in court. They ultimately seized upon some sloppy drafting that, taken out of context, made it appear as if the ACA prohibited the subsidization of insurance purchased on Had their challenge succeeded, it would have crippled the law, which made it a tantalizing cause for the entire conservative movement. But almost no conservatives made the above-board admission that they supported the lawsuit for purely instrumental reasons. They overwhelmingly adopted the view that the law had only one plausible interpretation (theirs), and even propounded the theory that Democrats had intentionally designed the law to be vulnerable to sabotage. To acknowledge even a trace of ambiguity or doubt would have both undermined the legal argument and amounted to an admission that the law’s challengers were engaged in cynical mischief. So almost no conservatives did.

A decent touchstone for newspapers to apply to opinion writers of all ideological persuasions would test whether they engage in that kind of sophistry, and a decent rule would be to not publish them if and when they do—basically, to hire good editors for their editorialists. It would be ideologically cocooning for newspapers to censor the opinion that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about, but it is neither partisan nor biased to insist that the supporting arguments be factual, logically rigorous, and sincere.

This test would impose hardship on liberal writers, too.

For all the harping on this particular Stephens column, and on Stephens’s past controversies, I can not recall a single instance in the past dozen years when the Times hired a conservative writer and liberals were generally fine with it. Yet relatively few liberals would admit to believing that the Times should be a conservative-free zone. One of the central criticisms of Stephens’s column is that he smuggled unreasonable doubts about the need to combat climate change into print by cloaking them in the language of enlightenment. Yet ironically, routine objections to each individual conservative the Times hires suggest some liberals are engaged in a similarly disingenuous argumentative style.

There are cogent ways to argue that a newspaper with a liberal editorial bent shouldn’t hire conservatives at all, or that they should hold conservative opinion writers to lower standards for the sake of fostering ideological diversity. But those arguments, too, ought to be made on the level. My own view is that newspaper editors should hire whomever they want, but their readers and staffs are entitled to be upset about these hiring decisions; that ideological diversity is good, but publishing poorly reasoned arguments of any kind does ideological diversity no favors.