Welcome to “Notes from the Middleground”
It’s a beautiful day for a relaunch
After weeks of hinting about changes to come on this Substack, I’m thrilled to be able to make them official today.
Eyes on the Right, which I launched in June 2022, will continue—and indeed, it will probably be the newsletter I write for most often, especially with the U.S. heading into a presidential election cycle in which former president Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and others will be competing for the Republican nomination.
But Eyes on the Right will be joined by two new newsletters, which I’m launching this week.
In Looking Left, I will take note of and critically evaluate trends on the progressive left, especially so-called “woke” developments.
And in Above the Fray, I will write on non-political topics, including music, books, film, and other cultural subjects, as well as personal essays.
These three newsletters will find a home under a new name—Notes from the Middleground, which is what my Substack publication will be called from this point forward.
The Three Newsletters
I launched this Substack as Eyes on the Right because I consider the rise of the antiliberal right over the past decade in the United States and around the world to be the most important and ominous political development of our moment. My background as a former conservative situated on the right side of the left (somewhere in the broad liberal center of our politics) gives me a unique perspective on the trend—sharply critical but also intellectually empathetic in the way I discuss in my inaugural post at Eyes on the Right, which I hope you will read if you haven’t yet.
I’m quite proud of the work I’ve done at Eyes on the Right during its first nine months—if you’re a recent subscriber, I hope you’ll spend some time in the already quite extensive archives—and that work will continue. Most of my writing will continue to appear in this newsletter—because the right makes a lot of news, because I think its evolution warrants greater attention than other developments in our politics, and because I have a lot to contribute to the discussion.
But that doesn’t mean I want to be monomaniacally focused on the right in my writing, which I have been since June 2022. That’s why I’m launching Looking Left, a newsletter where I will weigh in on the cultural politics of the progressive left. That’s a fancy way of saying “woke trends.” There are a lot of smart people with this precise focus, including a number at Substack. I’m hesitant about attempting to compete directly with them, in large part because I think wokeness is much less acutely dangerous than threats from the antiliberal right, and I don’t want to give in to the temptation to engage in hyperbole about the threat it poses in order to stand out from the crowd.
Yet wokeness is nonetheless important, both on its own terms (as a political and cultural phenomenon) and also in relation to the antiliberal right, which gets a lot of its fuel from reacting to what people on the progressive left say and do. (The reverse is true, too.) That means any attempt to make sense of what’s happening in our highly polarized politics needs to pay attention to developments on the left as well as the right. I hope to do that in a fresh and distinctive way, including suggestions about how best to counter these trends, at Looking Left.
I launched Above the Fray for a very different reason—because I have an interest in and critical judgments about lots of subjects beyond politics. Like many classical liberals and some conservatives, in fact, I think the core of life is usually found in private pursuits far removed from the passions that dominate public life. Music, film, serious fiction, theater, poetry, scholarship, the visual arts, essayistic reflection on broader trends in the culture—I wrote about all of these topics in my work as a columnist at The Week, and I want the chance to do so here as well.
As someone who once aspired to be a rock-music critic, I expect to write most often about new albums, songs, concerts, and longer-term trends in popular music for Above the Fray. The highest-trafficked essay in my writing career was about the coming death of just about every rock legend, and I suspect I’ll have occasion to write obituaries of some of the greatest of these icons over the coming years. But I also look forward to writing about other topics in culture and the arts, as well as the occasional personal essay. (It’s fitting that I’ve placed the eulogy I wrote on the occasion of my father’s death last October in the archive of Above the Fray.)
The Meaning of the New Title
And that brings me to the new title of my Substack. Why Notes from the Middleground? Because more often than not I find myself betwixt and between the contending parties in our politics. That doesn’t mean I judge them equally good or bad, or reflexively situate myself equidistant from each, adjusting my position in reaction to their own evolution over time. That’s the style of punditry often justly derided as “Broderism.”
I prefer to follow the example of Alexis de Tocqueville, who spoke in Democracy in America of being “not precisely in anyone’s camp” and not aiming to “serve or contest any party” with his writing. Instead, he “undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties.” While they were “occupied with the next day,” Tocqueville “wanted to ponder the future.”
That’s my aspiration as well—and I’m convinced there is no better standpoint from which to do that work than the middleground, surrounded by the to and fro, the perpetual back and forth, of our politics, while not being fully in it as an engaged participant. That points to two meanings of “middleground”—not just the ideological sense of standing apart from the fervently held policy commitments of right and left, but also in the dispositional sense of maintaining some ironic distance from the inevitable simplifications, easy solidarities, and barbed animosities characteristic of the active life of politics.
I’ve spoken at times as if this effort to stand apart from the clashing factions in our public life is synonymous with liberalism. But isn’t that a blatant contradiction, identifying my own liberal convictions with a kind of otherworldly neutrality? I don’t think so. I’m not neutral. I have voted exclusively for Democrats for nearly 20 years now. And as I noted above, I am more concerned about the right than I am about the left in our present moment.
Yet these and related political stances follow from considerations other than tribal partisanship or ideological certainties. I am a partisan of self-government—of the institutions, laws, rules, regulations, and norms that make it possible in the United States. I judge the two parties and individual political actors by the standard of whether they are more or less likely to strengthen or weaken, fortify or undermine these institutions, laws, rules, regulations, and norms. Put in somewhat different terms, I am a partisan of America’s liberal-democratic regime. That’s the sense in which I am a liberal—and the sense in which I reside in the middleground, defending the shared common ground on which our ideological and policy battles take place.
How Things Now Work Around Here
When you subscribe to Notes from the Middleground or any of its newsletters (free or paying), you automatically become a subscriber to all three—though you have the ability to stop receiving emails for any of them by going to your account page and adjusting your preferences. You’ll definitely get the biggest bang for your buck by keeping emails active from all three channels, since most weeks I will publish three substantial and professionally written posts across all the newsletters.
Whatever you choose to do, signing up helps to make my writing possible. That’s especially true when you become a paying subscriber. Doing so not only gives you access to the entirety of every post. It also enables you to take part in the community we’ve been building here since June 2022 by following and contributing to discussion threads, interacting with me and other subscribers in the comments sections, and submitting questions I respond to in “Ask Me Anything” posts that run every month or so. Paying subscribers also receive access to podcast-style audio versions of everything I write for Substack. (These can be found at the bottom of every post, including this one. Because this is a rare fully public post, even non-paying subscribers can listen to the audio version below and leave comments. Normally these are paywalled exclusively for paying subscribers.)
Thanks for being here, for reading, and for supporting my work. I’ll do everything I can to make you want to stick around.
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