Rejecting Epistemic Closure: Progressives for Conservatives to Read

Last Monday I encouraged readers to reject the temptation to expose themselves only to those sources that reconfirm their own opinions, as if they have nothing to learn from those with whom they disagree.

Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute called the phenomenon a type of “epistemic closure” in a series of 2010 posts that warned conservatives against closed-mindedness:

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.

As the New York Times reported at the time, Sanchez’s accusation prompted an internal debate on the right, with some conservatives (e.g., former Reagan and Bush 41 official Bruce Bartlett and National Review contributing editor Jim Manzi) agreeing with Sanchez and others contesting the allegation. For example, National Review editor Rich Lowry argued that the very fact that there was a debate suggested a level of intellectual vigor inconsistent with the very notion of “closure.”

Two years after the Sanchez debate, I tried to take up the notion (suggested by Jonah Goldberg in 2010, among others) that the left was just as prone to closed-mindedness. Monday’s post featured Conor Friedersdorf’s response to a tech blogger’s proclamation that “When it comes to politics, there are no conservatives worth following on social media.” I highlighted several conservatives mentioned by Friedersdorf (e.g., Rod Dreher, Alan Jacobs), plus op-ed columnists Michael Gerson (Washington Post) and David Brooks (NY Times).

Then the following day I followed up with links to critiques of contemporary conservatism by Brooks and Dreher. Joseph Knippenberg of First Thoughts — which I had recommended in my Monday post — began his dismissive response to Brooks by labeling the Times columnist an “Erstwhile conservative (if I’m being generous)”…

It seems only fair now to recommend some left-leaning bloggers and columnists for my conservative friends and family to read:

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. – Creative Commons (Bbsrock)

E.J. Dionne, Jr.: The star of the Washington Post‘s roster of liberal columnists, Dionne is intelligent (bachelor’s from Harvard, doctorate from Oxford) without being snobbish, experienced without being hide-bound, and opinionated without being vitriolic. Perhaps most importantly, he offers a decidedly religious voice from the left, a reminder that conservative Catholics and evangelicals aren’t the only Christians whose faith informs their politics.

God’s Politics: By the same token, I highly recommend the blog of Sojourners, long the standard-bearer of the left-leaning evangelicals profiled in David Swartz’s new book, Moral Minority. It rarely ducks a tough issue and publishes writers from a wide variety of Christian traditions. (For example, it recently featured a progressive activist who — owing in no small part to his Catholic faith — is opposing two constitutional amendments on the Minnesota ballot this November: one to require would-be voters to show photographic ID, and the other to define a marriage as consisting of one woman and one man.) See also the various blogs hosted by The Christian Century.

Mark Shields: I’ve got a soft spot for columnists of the crusty old Washington insider type, and few are crustier (or more witty). While Shields is better known for sparring with David Brooks on PBS’ The Newshour, he also writes a syndicated column every Saturday.

Paul Krugman: I know that there are those who would view a Yale/MIT education, a teaching position at Princeton, and a Nobel Prize in Economics as demerits rather than credentials, but I’m impressed. Even though Krugman is more combative (and repetitive) than I’d prefer, I admire that he seeks to articulate positions that are not always popular. To my taste, he’s clearly the best of a roster of liberal New York Times columnists who are generally less interesting and insightful than their conservative and moderate coworkers. (No, Maureen Dowd will not get the much-coveted Pietist Schoolman imprimatur.)

The New Republic cover, April 19, 2012Noam Scheiber: At a time in my life when I was much more interested in politics, I actually subscribed to The New Republic. That became a luxury that I let lapse — reading it reminded me too much of the East Coast at a time when I was thrilled to head home to the Midwest, and by the time that feeling faded, I was the father of twins and tightening every belt I could find. But I still admire how TNR sustains rigorous reportage (Stephen Glass notwithstanding) without its editors feeling the need to engage in the “false equivalence” currently causing so much angst at the New York Times. But partisan as it could seem (e.g., Israel), TNR doesn’t pull punches when reporting on Democratic politicians. See, for example, senior editor Noam Schreiber’s critical coverage of the Obama White House and its economic policies (encapsulated in his book, The Escape Artists). For bonus points, Scheiber is married to Amy Sullivan, who has a keener understanding of the relationship between religion and politics (especially on the left) than any other journalist I read.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Perhaps my favorite young writer — and not just because he and I are the same age — Coates is more like a cultural critic than a political columnist (and he’s the one true blogger on this list). But his political instincts rarely seem to betray him (e.g., I suspect that he’s absolutely right that Mitt Romney’s “47%” statement was no “gaffe” or “misstatement,” but “a coherent, if amoral, argument, delivered with force and clarity”), and he satisfies my chief criteria for a political writer of any stripe: he’s (a) iconoclastic and (b) intellectually curious.

5 thoughts on “Rejecting Epistemic Closure: Progressives for Conservatives to Read

  1. I’d recommend the big Catholic tent at MIrror of Justice, a blog to which a variety of law professors contribute; the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post, which offers much less predictable commentary than E.J. Dionne, Jr., who once was interesting; and William Galston at the New Republic. I also like some of the localists (not all conservative) at Front Porch Republic.

    Brooks isn’t a traditionalist and rightly deprecates doctrinaire libertarianism and business-oriented Republicanism. So what kind of conservative is he?

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Joe! I’d forgotten about On Faith — not because it’s no longer interesting, but because I tend to read it when reminded to do so by a link on the Post’s main page, and it doesn’t seem to be promoted as frequently as it was two or three years ago.

      “What kind of conservative” is Brooks? My initial impulse was to write back, “A self-described one,” and leave it at that. (I’m neither a part of that movement, nor a scholar of it. And in my own circles — e.g., evangelicalism — I tend to find most such definitional battles unhelpful.) But I am struck (a) that I couldn’t find a quick, recent example of Brooks calling himself a conservative in his column, and (b) that when I put your question to a political scientist friend, she hedged and said that Brooks fits the “operational definition” of a conservative — i.e., the mainstream media describe him as a conservative. Which I know has little meaning for those in the movement.

  2. Another liberal commentator whom I usually find thoughtful is James Fallows, also of The Atlantic. He’s covers a diverse set of topics, which makes for interesting reading. He can sometimes stray into straight partisan analysis, but more often than not he seems clear and respectful in his analysis.

  3. Thanks for this and the previous post, both of which tie in to why I enjoy my particular profession so much; why I so highly value one of the library profession’s fundamental tenets–the freedom to read; why it can at times be a challenge to be a pilgrim when extremists of any persuasion try to block the way and/or confuse the mind; and why it is so important to guard my own words and tongue when I’m writing or talking about a topic with which I am passionate. See the American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read Statement” at for the full statement Thanks again!

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