Take a peek at the bestseller lists and it’s clear that people are grappling with President Trump by reading things they might not have otherwise. As of this morning, George Orwell’s 1984 is No. 3 on Amazon’s list of bestselling books and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at No. 8. But in this time of filter bubbles and “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” it’s important to stretch beyond dystopian fiction (and Facebook) to get an idea of what the side opposite to yours thinks.
The Guardian — a newspaper whose owner is dedicated to “remaining faithful to its liberal tradition” — is aiming to do that in part with a column, Burst Your Bubble, that lists “five conservative articles worth reading to expand your thinking each week.”
Burst Your Bubble is written by Jason Wilson, a U.S.-based freelance journalist who’s spent years immersing himself in conservative media as part of writing about the right, including for the left-wing site Alternet. “It’s difficult for news consumers of all kinds now to construct themselves a media diet that features high-quality information and considered commentary,” he said. Guardian readers lean left, but they “really are curious about what conservatives are thinking and doing,” he says, and he sees his column as a service for those who “don’t have a lot of time or energy to curate that sort of stream of conservative ideas for themselves.”
For each article he includes in his column, Wilson includes context on the author, some background on why you should read the story, and an excerpt. Here’s an entry from the January 26 column, for instance:
Publication: National Review
Author: José Cárdenas served in foreign policy positions in the Bush administration. Until recently, it was probably difficult for people on the left to imagine a worse pedigree. But he does know Latin America, and this article sounds a warning.
Why you should read it: Almost nowhere in the mainstream press have we seen a discussion of the way that the election of Trump has affected his bete noire, Mexico. Cárdenas has an ideological revulsion for leftwing populists such as André Manuel López Obrador, but his point still stands: Trump’s policies and posturing may have the unintended consequence of electing a government that is actively hostile to him, and to US power.
If you read Burst Your Bubble regularly (and the column has become quite popular on The Guardian’s site, Wilson said), you’ll notice that many of the same news outlets and authors — National Review, Commentary, Reason, The American Conservative, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, The Atlantic’s David Frum — keep popping up. While those are not ideologically monolithic, they are broadly “highbrow conservative publications struggling with the reality that a candidate that a lot of them attacked during the election is now the president,” Wilson said. It’s perhaps these types of articles that are most satisfying for liberals to read, so I asked Wilson whether the strong presence of #NeverTrump conservatives defeats the column’s point (though there are certainly plenty of articles to enrage liberals as well).
Selecting the right content for the column has been a challenge, he said, and one of the reasons that he tends to rely on fairly established outlets is that “a lot of the new outlets on the right are more sensational, more of a tabloid style, with more tabloid-style values.” (A couple examples he cited: Heat Street and Twitchy.) A lot of newer conservative commentators — Tomi Lahren, Tommy Sotomayor — have risen to popularity not through traditional media channels but through social media and popular YouTube clips. These are “interesting, distinctive voices,” Wilson said, but they probably aren’t the kind of things that he is going to direct Guardian readers — which perhaps illustrates the degree to which one’s filter bubble can be as much about format and tone as ideology or partisanship.
“We’re trying to show people that there are thoughtful conservatives, conservatives who are critical of Trump, and their criticism may take different forms from the progressive side, but it’s nonetheless interesting and productive and useful to see those kinds of criticisms being made,” he said.
(As for white nationalist sites like Stormfront, “we’re not gonna send people there. I read that stuff, but it’s not particularly productive to send our readers to that sort of thing…and anyway, the really extreme sites are very much the minority.”)
When I asked Wilson if he’d actually changed his mind about any political issue through all the reading he’s done — if he’d come around to the right-leaning view on an argument — he struggled to think of an instance. He’s clearly not a Trump supporter; he said that his reading and research have at least made him “less existentially frightened” about Trump as a political figure because “he’s quite isolated, and it just wasn’t like that in the Bush years…it lets you put Trump in perspective.”
If there’s one thing he has changed his mind about, he said, it’s that he’s come to see that many of the conservatives whose writing he cites “just inhabit a completely different value system” from people on the left. “It’s useful to be exposed to that because it gets across the idea that the divergence in values in this country is real and persistent. It doesn’t mean that conservatives are stupid or hoodwinked. It just means that human values really do diverge, and that’s something that we find increasingly difficult to negotiate in our policies.”
It’s that divergence that has made consensus and compromise so difficult, he says: “We turn our political opponents into monsters and kind of dehumanize them,” he said, and he hopes his column can change that. “We’re always going to disagree, and some of those disagreements are going to be quite vituperative. But if we see our opponents as people who disagree with us, but have, in other ways, pretty similar lives and pretty similar limitations to us, I think that helps us engage with politics in a more realistic way.”