Liberalism, out of fashion in the United States since the victory of Richard Nixon in 1968, is suddenly in vogue again. To keep up with the times, Forbes magazine has compiled a list of the “The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media”. It’s a very curious document, revealing more about the editors of Forbes and the claustrophobic constraints of mainstream American political discourse than about the nature of American liberalism.
Most of the names on the list are familiar enough but I’ve provided ID’s for the more obscure ones:
1. Paul Krugman. 2. Arianna Huffington 3. Fred Hiatt – editor Washington Post 4. Thomas Friedman 5. Jon Stewart 6. Oprah Winfrey 7. Rachel Maddow 8. Joshua Micah Marshall 9. David Shipley – editor New York Times 10. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga proprietor Daily Kos blog 11. Fareed Zakaria 12. Chris Matthews 13. Bill Moyers 14. Christopher Hitchens 15. Maureen Dowd 16 Matthew Yglesias 17 Hendrik Hertzberg 18. Glenn Greenwald 19. Andrew Sullivan 20. Gerald Seib – editor Wall Street Journal 21 James Fallows 22 Ezra Klein 23. Kevin Drum 24. Kurt Anderson 25. Michael Pollan.
This is a bizarre list because many of the people in it aren’t, by any reasonable description, liberal. To pick a few random examples, under Fred Hiatt’s editorship the Washington Post has largely supported Bush’s foreign policy and has been hostile to labour unions and progressive economic policies; Thomas Friedman is widely despised among liberals for his pro-war cheerleading (famously saying that the Arabs need to be told to “suck on this”); in his wayward life Christopher Hitchens supported everyone from Trotsky to Bush, Jr. but he would probably throw a punch if you called him a liberal; Maureen Dowd is an anti-feminist, and more interested as a writer in personalities than politics; Fareed Zakaria is a sensible conservative realist, which often makes him critical of neo-conservatism but doesn’t mark him as a liberal; Andrew Sullivan, as stern as he has been of the Bush administration since around 2004, is a Tory at heart. And whatever her political opinions might be and however public her support of Obama was, Oprah Winfrey is a self-help guru and interviewer of celebrities, not an “influential liberal”.
Tellingly, Forbes misspelled some of their influential liberals (Maddow and Hertzberg were given the wrong first names). This indicates, I think that they authors of this piece weren’t entirely on familiar ground.
In general, the list is very white and very male, making it more appropriate for the age of George Bush Senior than the Obama era.
What this list brings out is that the so-called liberal media isn’t very liberal. Most of the true liberals on the list are younger bloggers associated with think tanks (Yglesias, Klein). The more mainstream and establishment someone is on this list, the less likely they are to be outspokenly liberal (Paul Krugman is the great exception, since he has an enviable perch in the New York Times and is fiercely liberal).
Liberals, to the American establishment, are only acceptable if they aren’t really liberal, if they spend most of their time criticizing genuine liberals (hence the great success of what might be called New Republic liberalism, a liberalism compatible with nationalist war-mongering). The whole idea of a liberal media, a confabulation of Nixon-era conservativism, needs to be put to rest.
Just by flipping through a few old issues of the Nation, I came up with a list of many people who should be on the Forbes list: Katha Pollitt, Gary Younge, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jessica Valenti, Barbara Ehrenreich, Eric Alterman, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Thomas Frank. These are people who actually speak in the dialect of American liberalism (sometimes even left-liberalism) unlike, say, Fred Hiatt, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, or Maureen Dowd.
But the point is not to suggest an alternative list (since influential is such a vague category, countless different plausible lists could be made). The real point is to realize that your typical editor of Forbes are so insulated in his moneyed-cocoon that he wouldn’t recognize liberalism if it came up and made a deep bite in his hide.
An Andrew Sullivan reader makes the excellent point that some of the quirky choices for the Forbes list seem to come out of a convulated identity politics: “Did you notice how many people on the list were seemingly chosen not for their writing or their politics, but rather their identity? Oprah is a liberal because she is black, Hitch is a liberal because he is atheist, and [Andrew Sullivan is] a liberal because [he is] gay.”