In Defense of Bret Stephens

By David R. Wheeler, Editor

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens was the best thing about The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section. I’m a card-carrying liberal, but I looked forward to Stephens’ commentary in the Journal every week, eager for a window into what the principled political right was thinking. Although I usually disagreed with him, I appreciated Stephens’ incisive, intelligent columns. They challenged me. They gave me a deeper respect for other side of the political aisle.

They also showed me that not all conservatives will tolerate Trump’s shenanigans. Sticking to his unwavering conservative principles, Stephens has demolished just about every move Trump has made.

I was somewhat surprised when The New York Times poached Stephens from the Journal. For one thing, I didn’t want the Journal to lose their best columnist. For another thing, I was surprised the Times was willing to go so far to the right with one of their regular columnists. David Brooks — despite what liberals believe — is a centrist.

In liberal circles, there’s been a lot of soul-searching since the election, and The New York Times has clearly decided that they want to speak to an audience broader than cosmopolitan liberals. In other words, they don’t simply want to talk to themselves all day, every day. They’re tired of preaching to the choir.

This is a smart move. If we’re really worried about the divisiveness in this country, the chasm that separates Red and Blue America, we need to talk to people outside our own circles. We need to hear viewpoints that differ from our own.

The New York Times has shown a commitment to this approach by choosing Stephens. And man, is he causing a stir already.

In his first column for The Times, Stephens warned people about the dangers of being 100-percent certain about their beliefs, actions, and approach to the world. Hillary supporters, he noted, were 100-percent certain that she would win, and they acted accordingly. If they had shown some humility, if they had questioned some of their own assumptions, their own actions and priorities, their language, their interactions, then things might have turned out differently.

He then compared Hillary supporters’ overconfidence to the actions of select climate activists. Not all, but some. He registered his support for mainstream climate science itself (although he may have gotten some scientific points wrong). “The science is settled,” he wrote. “The threat is clear.”

And then he had the audacity — the temerity! the nerve! the arrogance! — to suggest that the way certain climate activists are going about spreading their message is not helpful to the cause. “Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts,” he wrote.

And then, as if to prove his point, climate activists flooded the internet with outrage at Stephens’ column, and some Times subscribers even threatened to pull their subscriptions. ThinkProgress called Stephens a “climate-denier columnist.”

But wait — Stephens voiced his support for the science of climate change, calling it “settled.” How is this being a climate “denier”? He might get a few scientific points wrong, but haven’t we all? Frankly, it’s a major accomplishment to get a conservative to believe in climate science in the first place. It shows an impressive amount of intellectual discipline on Stephens’ part to disregard what all of his fellow conservatives are saying — especially on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page — and to state his support for mainstream science.

Climate denialism is so strong on the right that a Wall Street Journal columnist once blamed the anti-vaxxer movement on climate activists, because climate activists were the ones “who politicized science first.”

If you couldn’t tell by this point, I’m one of those liberals who believe Democrats should expand the tent, rather than restrict it. Yes, I recognize the pitfalls of this approach. What if Dems open their arms to moderates, fail to energize the base, and lose another presidential election? That’s a real danger. But more dangerous, in my opinion, is reacting hysterically to a valid point made by a true conservative in a liberal newspaper.

Bret Stephens, I look forward to your next column.


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