For years, Stephen Colbert dined out on the line “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” not just because it’s a good turn of phrase, but also because it’s true.
Reactionary elites know that their arguments can’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s why Fox News and Newsmax host far fewer left-wing commentators on their debate panels than places like CNN or ABC do with conservatives. But here’s the thing about engaging with bad faith actors—they’re way more scared of you than you should be of talking to them.
I recently witnessed the right’s fear of informed critics first-hand after I boosted a video uncovered by Media Matters researcher Olivia Little which showed supporters of the Christian supremacist group Moms for Liberty cheering the mention of Adolf Hitler during a recent conference. After millions of people had seen the clip, the group’s co-founder Tiffany Justice, who had been featured in it, challenged me to a debate on my podcast, Theory of Change.
“Have me on your show,” she demanded in a Twitter response. “Let’s talk. Or are you scared that you can only manage women when you lie about us on social?”
I accepted and invited her to direct message me on Twitter to work out the details for a live video conversation, suspecting that she would ultimately try to back out. My low expectations were met as she rapidly tried to modify her own proposed debate format by bringing in reinforcements.
“Let’s do a Twitter space,” she replied after I proposed a time window. “I’ll bring two people, you bring two people. We can have a moderator.”
I refused, saying that I had no interest in using Twitter’s very buggy Spaces feature, which infamously crashed repeatedly during Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ill-fated presidential campaign launch with the site’s owner, Elon Musk—and which continues to crash in heavily attended events. I also didn’t want a group debate, where too many voices would drown out the argument on the table.
After one more round of replies, she stopped responding. I was not shocked.
I had seen this type of attitude so many times before. My earlier career was as a conservative political media consultant. I spent years trying to get Republicans to think seriously about public policy and be respectful of people who weren’t straight white Christians. Finally, I realized it was a doomed effort because the current GOP is more interested in identity politics than in serving the public. I decided to critique Republicans from the outside rather than the inside. I took a major financial hit as a result, but I enjoy having a clean conscience.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to debate horrible people, but understand that simply letting them spew their toxic lies no longer works.”
Since I left the world of conservative media in 2015, numerous reactionary activists and commentators have refused to debate me. Rather than respond to my pointed critiques of their lies and delusions, many prominent right-wingers like professional senator’s daughter Meghan McCain or the recently indicted Rudy Giuliani have simply blocked me on Twitter.
I’m far from the only left-leaning pundit who’s witnessed reactionaries cowering away in fear rather than face a hard challenge. Evangelical commentator Steven Crowder demonstrated one of the most hilarious examples of this behavior. After avoiding a confrontation of ideas with progressive YouTuber Sam Seder, Crowder literally ran away from a 2021 livestream when Seder showed up unannounced.
The fear that Republican pundits have of serious challenge is palpable at Fox News, which court documents show went to extreme lengths to prevent tender viewers from being told the obvious truth that Joe Biden won the 2020 election fairly—and that there was no evidence of large-scale voter fraud.
“I can’t keep defending these reporters who don’t understand our viewers and how to handle stories,” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott wrote in a Nov. 19, 2016, message to a colleague telling him to rein in reporters who dared to tell the truth. “The audience feels like we crapped on [them] and we have damaged their trust and belief in us.”
It’s been this way since the modern American right began emerging in the 1940s. The historical record couldn’t be clearer that the reactionary movement that calls itself “conservatism” was proudly anti-intellectual. William F. Buckley began his career by railing against atheist professors and, as documented in the new book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars, he used his newly formed Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) organization to launch numerous attempts to censor students and professors who dared to disagree with his capitalist-inflected Christianity.
Unable to prove their obsolete views about science, religion, and government in scholarly literature, reactionaries created a parallel universe of self-described “think tanks” which were more about applying ideological precepts to governance than they were about actually solving economic or social problems. Unsurprisingly, many of these organizations are still fixated on trying to prove creationism or that America’s founders were fundamentalist Christians.
As fragile and irrational as reactionary beliefs are, however, of late, more than a few people on the center-left have begun deciding that there’s no need to rebut the torrent of lies and false beliefs. Some even insist that arguing with them at all is “platforming” them, and providing them with an audience they otherwise would not have.
After years of witnessing unqualified right-wingers spew nonsense about the coronavirus, many science advocates are uninterested in arguing with idiots. Many transgender activists are also likewise disinclined to hold debates with self-proclaimed “theocratic fascists.”
These are fully reasonable viewpoints, especially since Christian supremacist activists raking in millions of dollars a year are not open to new ideas. But, nonetheless, the center-to-left cannot willingly cede the public discourse to propagandists pushing ideas that are dangerously asinine.
It makes sense not to waste time arguing with social media trolls or bad-faith preachers, but prominent purveyors of broken thinking need to be challenged in order to protect casual observers from their misinformed notions. That’s because the lies that reactionaries tell do not exist in a vacuum and, unfortunately, many of them have far greater reach than many people on the center-to-left realize.
The Daily Wire, which regularly tells its audience that trans people and Democrats are demon-possessed and whose hosts routinely praise dictators, has a monthly audience of 26 million readers and is often one of the top U.S. Facebook publishers. The right-wing video propaganda factory PragerU has had over 1.7 billion views on YouTube. Joe Rogan, who insists he’s a left-leaning independent but is increasingly known to parrot right-wing conspiracy theories, claimed 190 million downloads a month before he went exclusive to Spotify. Right-wing propagandist Tim Pool has 1.2 billion views on YouTube.
I could do this all day, unfortunately.
Without question, the far-right media ecosystem has grown to such an enormous global size that it cannot be ignored by people who disagree. Obviously, it’s not worth engaging with random anonymous trolls, but the biggest reactionary commentators must be challenged on the lies and hatred that they spread daily into the world.
As progressive media commentator Oliver Willis recently explained: “Liberals simply can’t ignore this information that is in the bloodstream of the right. We don’t live in a three-to-four channel universe anymore where bad ideas need mainstream media oxygen to catch on like wildfire. Democrats are continually on their heels because they don’t pay enough attention to right wing information networks, and closing ourselves off just makes things worse.”
It’s fine if you don’t want to debate horrible people, but understand that simply letting them spew their toxic lies no longer works. None of the things these propagandists say hold up to scrutiny, and it’s important that people on the center-left stop ceding the political discourse to them, especially in places like YouTube where millions of people tune in for news.
Debunk or debate, whichever you prefer.