Overrated: Andrew Sullivan

The centre-right celebrity is now firmly placed in the twitterati pantheon, but he’s long since abandoned his principles

Overrated US Politics
Illustration by David Smith

On the right side of the political spectrum, different types of conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals and independents exist and thrive. Yet in this modern age of political shape-shifting and quasi-ideological viewpoints, some attempts to fit political cogs into right-leaning wheels end up being miserable failures. As a case in point, look no further than Andrew Sullivan. 

Sullivan has a decent resumé. He has written five books, is a former editor of the New Republic, and is currently a columnist for the Sunday Times. He’s also been a blogger for Time, the Atlantic and currently the Daily Beast. It would therefore be farcical to deny Sullivan hasn’t a following in print journalism and on the internet. 

Even so, it’s important to try to understand what the roots of this attraction are really all about. Is it because he regularly speaks his mind, or is it because he claims to be a conservative regularly speaking his mind? If it’s the former, it would hardly make him a unique political commentator. If it’s the latter, Sullivan is misrepresenting his position because he’s often bereft of principled conservative ideas.

The so-called blogger extraordinaire certainly supports some sensible economic policies, including small government, low taxes, and more private sector initiatives.  He even wrote a piece in the New York Times magazine back in 2000 in favour of a flat tax — and to his credit, continues to defend it.  

But it was the way he crafted this argument that (to me, anyway) initially awoke my doubts about his conservative credentials. Consider the opening two lines: “I suppose I first developed a fondness for the flat tax when both Jerry Brown and Steve Forbes supported it. It had that energising Right-Left whiplash I’ve rarely been able to resist.” There is a huge Right-Left dichotomy on tax reform — and support for the flat tax is overwhelmingly on the Right. 

Conservatives have always promoted ideas that make sense to us, and in turn, make sense for our respective countries; acquiring the support of left-wingers is rarely on the political radar.  So why was it important to Sullivan that the Left was onside?

When you start to examine his other political positions, it begins to make more sense.  

Sullivan is left-leaning on most social issues, including his opposition to capital punishment, criticism of the war on drugs, and support of same-sex marriage. In fact, Sullivan (who is gay) has written so extensively on sexual politics that it seems to have had a lasting effect on his opinion and analysis. Many conservatives have noticed this. In one noteworthy example, Tunku Varadarajan, Elisabeth Eaves and Hana R. Alberts correctly observed in their 2009 Forbes piece, “In Depth: The 25 Most Influential Liberals In The US Media”, that Sullivan’s “advocacy for gay marriage rights and his tendency to view virtually everything through a gay prism puts him at odds with many on the Right.”

In terms of foreign policy, Sullivan is sharply to the Left. He initially supported the war on terror and the 2003 Iraqi invasion, but eventually withdrew that support in favour of a mushy, isolationist position. He has become increasingly critical of American initiatives abroad, and his distaste for neoconservatism has intensified.

  Israel has also become a favourite target.In a Sunday Times column last month, Sullivan decried the fact that “the all-mighty Israel lobby convened in Washington and swamped Capitol Hill with visitors raising the spectre of Auschwitz”. He went on to describe the worldview of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) as “Manichean” and “apocalyptic”. Rather extreme language, especially from someone who has  in the past claimed to be a Zionist.

Sullivan’s views on religion in society are decidedly negative. In 2009, he wrote in his blog for the Atlantic: “Conservatism has become a religious movement. Although I am a religious person, I do not believe that any specific form of religion has a veto in determining who is or is not a political conservative in a secular society.” 

Religion has played a crucial role in the growth and development of democratic nations. As Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell noted in their excellent book Amazing Grace, religion may occasionally divide us — but it unites us far more regularly than left-wing academics and pundits care to admit. (For the record, I am a non-religious conservative who has never been told what to think or how to act by other conservatives, religious or not.)    

There are plenty of moderate conservative thinkers in this political movement, and they’ll always be welcomed with open arms. Sullivan isn’t one of them. He doesn’t understand how other conservatives think, because he doesn’t think like a conservative. Without the word “conservative” attached to his biography, he’s nothing more than an overrated vanity blogger — and he knows it.