Libertarianism is almost never having a moment, which is unfortunate for the law and politics of the United States but very handy for reminding libertarians that ours is not a normal political perspective in this country. Yes, there are some deep libertarian impulses in the American id, and yes, polling sometimes shows a remarkable cross-partisan convergence on one libertarian position or another. But generally, any self-aware libertarian must know that most of our compatriots don’t think like we do, nor will they absent the persuasion of good arguments and bad governance.
But for those comfortably located within the modern American left or right, who enjoy the major partisan alignment that usually entails, this self-awareness and the reliance on persuasion it encourages might be more difficult to maintain. It certainly seems to be lacking in two buzzy media stories of the past week: the open letter by New York Times contributors complaining about the paper’s coverage of trans topics and the revelations about Fox News hosts found in court documents from a defamation suit. These are cases of opposite but mutually deleterious ways of abandoning persuasion in dealing with ideologically uncooperative swathes of the American public.
The Times letter takes issue with the newspaper’s handling, in its reporting and opinion sections alike, of stories about “transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people.” Its arguments rest heavily on the assumption that what to think about trans identity and how to address its presentation in medical settings are purely matters of settled science that should, by now, be wholly excluded from public debate. The signatories assert that their position is “unremarkable, even common, and certainly not deserving of the Times‘ intense scrutiny.”
What deserves the Times‘ intense scrutiny is debatable, I suppose, but so too are the positions in this letter. That’s not a moral judgment but merely a statement of fact: These views are debatable in America in 2023 in that they are literally under active debate right now. They are “common,” perhaps, but not “unremarkable” and definitely not held by a supermajority of Americans.
This is all very well-documented in extensive polling on the subject over recent years. Americans’ positions on LGBT topics are evolving rapidly, but we are nowhere near done with this debate. In fact, by one measure, average opinion has reversed course and is now trending more conservative.
That’s disappointing to some, I realize, but many disappointing things are also true. And maybe disagreeing with the signatories of the letter makes most Americans ignorant or hateful or both, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s disagreement. Public opinion isn’t always what we want it to be. Declaring one view to be the norm does not make it so.
Meanwhile, over at Fox, prominent anchors like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Maria Bartiromo are evidently very aware that the public—or, more precisely, their public—doesn’t share their view of claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election made by former President Donald Trump and his allies like lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.
Documents from a defamation lawsuit brought against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine manufacturer whose product was implicated in the fraud allegations, show the hosts fully understood that the theories pushed by Powell et al. were, in their words, “insane” ideas from an “idiot” and a “lying,” “complete nut.”
Still, they permitted—even welcomed—advocates of those theories on Fox airwaves because the audience liked it. As Carlson put it, “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” though Carlson himself did not. Or, as Bartiromo agreed, “It’s easier to get good ratings when you give your audience something they want to hear,” and “a peaceful transition” between the Trump and Biden administrations was not what they wanted to hear. Or Hannity: “You don’t piss off the base.” Why try to persuade when you can take the lazy, greedy route of surrendering to nonsense and lies?
The answer, as simultaneously quixotic and anodyne as it may sound, is that it is good, actually, to take seriously ideas held by tens of millions of people in this country. It is good, if we think those ideas are wrong, to subject them to rigorous scrutiny while giving a generous hearing to the rationales of their proponents. It is good to admit differences instead of pretending away the other side’s perspective or our own. It is good to debate. And it is good to try to persuade people who disagree with us to share our thinking instead.
Good is not always the same as easy, practical, politic, or profitable, of course. Persuasion attempts might make you less popular. Being willing to debate or simply document someone else’s debate might bring backlash. These aren’t always attractive options, nor is debate appropriate for every setting. We can always come up with situational and relational exceptions to the rule.
Yet the alternatives—operating in denial about the state of public conversation or abandoning our best understanding of the truth for the sake of convenience—are so much worse. They’re worse for our own strength of intellect and character, and they’re worse for public opinion itself. If ours is not the majority view, neither preemptively claiming victory nor cravenly accepting defeat will accomplish the change we want. Persuasion might not accomplish it either, but it’s at least worth a try.