The dreadful fad of entry-level political opinion

When the legacy liberal opinion journal The New Republic imploded, Julia Ioffe was just one of the magazine’s many capable authors to storm out the door in protest.

“[I] am excited to see if the new @tnr can write about anything other than identity politics,” Ioffe, an expert on Eurasian affairs and a prolific opinion writer, wrote. “Like, you know, the rest of the world.”

Ioffe landed on her feet — she now writes for The New York Times Magazine – but the diagnosis of what ails her former employer proved prophetic. With a handful of notable exceptions, most of the remaining TNR scribes could not do much beyond issuing trite opinion pieces aimed at litigating grievances related to race, gender, or sexual preference. TNR isn’t alone in this condition; much of the liberal opinion and commentary ecosystem has been infected with a particularly virulent plague that saps an author of an ability to think critically and with nuance on subject matters unrelated to accidents of birth.

This malady has been exacerbated over the course of the last seven years while the country has been caught up with the groundbreaking “firsts” associated with an African-American and/or a woman occupying the Oval Office.

“The celebration of a potential president on the basis of her natural characteristics shows that the growing vacuum where big and serious ideas ought to be is being filled with biologism,” Reason’s Brendan O’Neill wrote of the toxic identity grievance litigation that today masquerades as deep political thought, “with a view of people as little more than bundles of genes, accidents of birth, colors, sexes, genders.”

“The rotten thing that human beings struggled against for generations—the tendency to judge individuals by their biology rather than their talents and beliefs—has made a comeback under the banner of identity politics,” he continued.

He’s right. Too often, and mostly on the left, opinion readers are privy not to profound argumentation, clever prose, and a depth of insight, but to the establishment of genetic legitimacy and the facile condemnation of obscurities. As though the opinion journalism sphere were little more than a small claims court, modern opinion bloggers occupy their time tilting at windmills of minor empirical value. What’s more, this process often mandates that the writer inflate the gravity of their subject to absurd proportions if only to retroactively validate holding such a strong opinion on matters so trifling. And you know what? This is a wildly successful approach to opinion journalism.

It’s entry-level political opinion. One need not have a profound historical understanding or a background in the social sciences to have a fully-formed outlook on why a particular shirt or a Marvel Comics film adaptation could be construed as offensive. Nor would anyone care if that were merely a subjective objection. Those grievances must be framed as oppressive in the extreme, and objectively so. People enjoy consuming this form of “political opinion” for the same reason some like to write about it; there is no barrier to entry in order to read, understand, and draw your own absolute and self-righteous conclusion on the banal transgression at issue.

Only the latest example of this phenomenon is the infinitely pedestrian tribulation currently occupying the minds of mock political commentators: The $20 bill. More accurately, the former president who graces that note. It seems as though everyone has an opinion on the matter, and most of those opining on the topic display all the depth of a koi pond when doing so.

“My public high school wasn’t the best, but we did have an amazing history teacher,” Slate’s Jillian Keenan admirably concedes at the open of a piece demanding Andrew Jackson’s image be retired from American currency. She might have stopped there, pondered her lot in life, and left historical grievance-peddling to the professionals.

“Andrew Jackson engineered a genocide,” she asserted after making the case. “He shouldn’t be on our currency.”

Now, Keenan isn’t wrong, per se. Jackson was a horrible president, and not merely for his execution of what we now refer to as the Trail of Tears. His pathological fear of banks and the decision not to renew the Bank of the United States charter ushered in the most financially turbulent period in American history. The 7th President of the United States would probably find it grimly ironic that his portrait graces one of the country’s most widely circulated currency notes backed only by the faith and credit of the federal government. Perhaps that’s penance enough for Jackson’s crimes.

In fact, every member of the founding generation engaged in practices and behaviors modern observers should find abhorrent. The most common offense to modern sensibilities exhibited by America’s earliest leaders was the accommodation of American slavery, slaveholding, or simple anti-black prejudice. Even the Great Emancipator wrote of and honestly believed in the inferiority of the African race. Should Abraham Lincoln be banished from the $5 bill? Patience. Jackson first.

“No historical figure is perfect, but we don’t need perfection,” Keenan concedes. “In fact, it’s a low bar to clear: We just need someone better than Andrew Jackson.”

Enough people agreed with this assertion that a campaign has sprung up to demand not only the reprinting of the $20, but the need to put a woman on the currency. A campaign dubbed “The Woman on 20s” held an informal contest and, after 600,000 votes were cast, found that most of its participants wanted to see the famed anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman replace Jackson on the $20. She narrowly defeated Eleanor Roosevelt for the honor.

But no hot take would be complete without its antithesis. After all, one cannot cede all the web traffic to one particular author. Thus, The Washington Post provided us with an opinion from “mental health social worker and feminist writer” Feminista Jones, who insisted that no woman, much less Tubman, should be featured on American currency.

“Harriet Tubman dedicated much of her life to subverting the system of forced labor and oppression that built America’s economy,” Jones declared. “Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism. Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting.”

That’s right. Ultimately, it’s not Jackson that’s the problem, but the system of free market economics altogether. Tubman was really a proto-Marxist, you see? This kind of schlock wouldn’t be published in The Post if it did not help the magazine to meet its fiduciary obligations, even if it insults the country’s intelligence in the process.

While this manner of commentary is all nonsense, it stimulates a particularly dull-witted readership that cares little for arcane and often tedious aspects of genuine political commentary like crosstabs analysis, coalition dynamics, monetary policy, economic theory, and international affairs. All of these subjects require the reader have some basic grasp on a variety of assumptions before they can fully comprehend the author’s point. The average identity crusader thrust into an analytical post by John Sides would be as at sea as college freshman compelled to attend a fourth-year Chinese language course. Rather than elevate the reader, however, the country’s aspiring opinion makers have determined to talk down to their audiences.

Entry-level political opinion is not a new phenomenon. Nor is this fabricated fracas over the $20 bill the first manufactured bit of blog fodder designed to generate more emotion than deliberation from readers. That said, denouncing the small people who are increasingly consumed with small things but nevertheless imagine themselves thought leaders has got to start somewhere. This seemed as good a place as any to begin.