Rejecting Epistemic Closure: Conservatives for Progressives to Read

In the wake of the 47% fiasco, I very much hope that Republican readers took seriously Michael Gerson’s critique of the “libertarian nonsense” too commonly escaping the lips of GOP politicians these days, and David Brooks‘ conclusion that Romney “has lost any sense of the social compact” and joined other Republicans in shifting “from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers.”

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson – Washington Post

But I also hope that my progressive friends read Gerson and Brooks. And not just when they’re critical of the GOP.

After all, the Gerson who criticizes Romney for having only the most vapid of responses to the looming “social mobility crisis” and encourages his quiet steps towards an embrace of climate science is the same Gerson who offers nuanced but largely negative assessments of Pres. Obama’s foreign policy and finds the inspiring Obama of 2008 missing in action in 2012, replaced by a ruthless pragmatist willing to do most anything to get 270 electoral votes. Not that it’s not possible to agree with the first two assessments and disagree with the second pair, but all four should be considered: as coming from a writer whose conservatism is rooted in philosophical convictions and expressed with honesty and civility.

Fortunately, when I check Facebook, I still find some of my more liberal friends sharing links to the likes of Brooks and Gerson. But is this kind of openness to plural perspectives losing ground? Is the decline of bipartisanship in Washington and state capitals being accompanied by (caused by? causing?) a tendency of Americans to read only those opinions that align very closely with their own?

Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, authors of a study published last year in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, would tell me not to worry so much. They found that “ideological segregation” was slightly more common in Internet reading than in consumption of TV news, magazines, and local newspapers and slightly less common than with national newspapers. But it was far less common than the tendency of Americans to segregate along ideological lines at work, in neighborhoods, and in circles of friends and family. At least when consuming new or old media, Americans still seemed to encounter a somewhat diverse array of sources. (For example, those who read Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck’s websites were also more likely than the average Internet user to read the New York Times online; readers commonly read Fox News.)

But while Gentzkow and Shapiro found “no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time,” the most recent data they consulted came from 2009, and it was supplemented by data on individual browsing habits from 2004-2006. I think it’s fair to ask if we haven’t seen a change in reading habits in tandem with the seeming hardening of political battle lines — especially in a presidential election year in which there are also heated Congressional and gubernatorial races and state constitutional amendments on ballots.

Consider, for example, the following post from earlier this month, by technology blogger Dan Mitchell:

“Follow liberally,” exhorts Liz Heron. “You never know who will lead you to discover something unique or important.” This is one of “The Rules of Social Media” that Fast Company thinks we all should adhere to.

Heron, who runs social media for the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t mean “liberally” in a political sense. But if she did, I would tell her that I don’t really have any choice: When it comes to politics, there are no conservatives worth following. This is not good for the conservative movement, and it’s not good for America….

…the fact that the right has almost nobody left who might appeal to non-allies/moderates/non-partisans — especially the younger ones who get most of their information via social media — can’t be a good sign for the future of the conservative movement. And if you care at all about the future of American democracy, you’ll find that disturbing.

In response, Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf diagnosed Mitchell with “an advanced case of epistemic closure,” a problem not so long ago identified by Julian Sanchez with conservatives rather than progressives. Writing of David Frum’s ouster from the American Enterprise Institute (after his criticism of Republican obstructionism in Congress), Sanchez observed in 2010:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

Two years ago, Sanchez found his fellow conservatives much more likely to wall themselves off from opposing viewpoints; Mitchell’s blog post indicates that, in 2012, such “closure” is hardly the exclusive province of the right.

Friedersdorf's feed on TwitterWhile Friedersdorf has no delusions about the crassness of much of what passes for conservatism on Twitter and WordPress — let alone what can be heard on talk radio or even read in The National Review, he had no problem rattling off a long list of conservatives readily available through social media and worth the attention of liberals and progressives.

Off his list, I especially recommend Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, Eugene Volokh, and Alan Jacobs (not that I tend to think of his politics all that much) — none of whom I always agree with, but all of whom are worth reading. To his list, I would also add Front Porch Republic and First Thoughts (the blog of the magazine First Things), plus Friedersdorf himself. Though he’s pushed back a bit against the “conservative” label, he professes himself most influenced by thinkers generally classified as occupying the right and provides an entree for others into the intellectual world of conservatives.

As a postscript to this already-rambling post…

It does strike me that most of the folks I listed (like Brooks and Gerson) are primarily housed within either the mainstream media or the academy, with their web presence mostly a platform for sharing sentiments expressed in more traditional forums. And that might not be an accident. Here’s Sanchez again, on outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post (though I think what’s he’s observing can fairly be applied to the colleges, universities, and law schools that house folks like Jacobs and Volokh):

…there’s a lot of institutional and cultural capital built up in those hoary outlets, which at least produces a set of norms and practices that create pressure toward more fair and accurate reporting—and some of that bleeds over into even the explicitly ideological ones. The output may have varying degrees of liberal slant, but The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right. Their conservative counterparts—your Fox News and your Washington Times—always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative. And that has implications for how each of them connects to the whole ecosystem of media: Getting an accurate portrait is institutionally secondary to promoting the accounts and interpretations that support the worldview and undermine the liberal media narrative. Perhaps ironically, the trouble is that the novel conservative institutions that have emerged as an effect of technological innovation lack that Burkean reservoir of evolved, time-tested local traditions.

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