Michelle Malkin’s journey from ideas to tribes

A former Seattle Times colleague wonders what happened to the libertarian provocateur who used to engage him at their adjoining office doors.
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Michelle Malkin

A former Seattle Times colleague wonders what happened to the libertarian provocateur who used to engage him at their adjoining office doors.

Jumpin'ꀙ John Galt! Michelle Malkin made the New York Times Best-Seller List! Seattle'ꀙs onetime libertarian pundit, who tweaked the sensibilities of Puget Sound liberals in the late 'ꀘ90s, has made the big leagues.

In fact, she'ꀙs been there for years — as a nationally syndicated columnist and a conservative attack dog on Fox News. But now she is in my Sunday Times, having published Culture of Corruption, a 300-page broadside aimed at President Obama and his 'ꀜteam of tax cheats, crooks and cronies.'ꀝ

It's nice to know she hasn'ꀙt forgotten us. Now and then, she snorts at Seattle'ꀙs 'ꀜenvironmental zealots,'ꀝ and her book cites two hometown heroes, Gary Locke and Ron Sims, among the president'ꀙs crooks.

I met Michelle Malkin some 13 years ago, when she moved into the office next to mine on the Seattle Times editorial board. The Times had been looking for a new voice, preferably a minority and a woman. That she turned out to be both of the above, plus a young libertarian was a bonus.

The Times could be a chilly place, so my wife and I tried to make her feel welcome. But Malkin didn'ꀙt need much help. In addition to being smart and hard-working, she was a self-starter and supremely self-confident. And her weekly columns were a welcome addition to the Times editorial page. As a student, she had read Ayn Rand, memorizing John Galt'ꀙs interminable monologue from Atlas Shrugged. Libertarians believe government should 'ꀜleave us alone,'ꀝ she wrote. To that end, she attacked taxes, the war on drugs, affirmative action, the state liquor monopoly, overly zealous police, and environmentalists alike — any regulation she deemed unnecessary.

I didn'ꀙt always agree, but I always enjoyed chatting at our office doors. Asked about abortion laws, she acknowledged she was conflicted. As a Catholic, she valued the life of the unborn; but no libertarian could stand for government telling women what to do with their bodies. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs time not for a federal ban on abortion,'ꀝ she wrote, 'ꀜbut for a sea change in culture that exerts pressure on young people against having an abortion.'ꀝ

She never asked what I thought, but now and then I told her anyhow. America is neither a conservative society, nor a liberal society, neither libertarian nor socialist. We are all of those things. We embrace libertarian ideas such as private property rights and relatively laissez faire economics, and socialist ideas like public education, national parks, and Social Security. We strive to do what works, and we hope to learn from our mistakes.

Michelle said nothing, resisting an impulse to roll her eyeballs.

Malkin spent three unhappy years at the Times. Her job included writing staff editorials, most of which she delivered holding her nose. Newspapering was a temporary detour, a means to an end. And she wanted to make more money. In 1999, she moved on, but not without parting shots at Seattle'ꀙs 'ꀜconstipated community leaders,'ꀝ its greener-than-thou agenda and political correctness. 'ꀜThe physical beauty of the city belies the ugly intolerance it often shows to outsiders, naysayers and whistleblowers,'ꀝ she wrote.

A decade later, she'ꀙs working even harder, pumping out two columns a week, a daily blog, all those TV comments, and now a new book.

She'ꀙs increasingly partisan and combative. In consecutive columns this fall, she attacks, in order, Obama'ꀙs cronyism, ACORN and the hypocrisy of mainstream media, ACORN again, Obama'ꀙs message to school kids, Obama'ꀙs pitch for the Olympics, Michelle Obama'ꀙs pitch for same, Obama'ꀙs health-care plan, ACORN again, Obama again, ACORN again 'ꀦ. Day after day, it'ꀙs the same targets, the same complaints, the same verbiage — corruption and cronyism, scandal and socialism. She snarls at Democrats, at any Republican (like New York'ꀙs Dede Scozzafava) who dares associate with them, and at rival columnists such as David Brooks, whose sin is to harbor some admiration for his president.

This is not the intellectual debate we once engaged in. It'ꀙs tribalism, my people versus your people. I'ꀙm right and anybody who disagrees is ignorant or corrupt or both.

Missing are those ideas we exchanged at our office doors. Search her website, and you find no mention of libertarian thought. She extols the virtues of right-to-lifers, routinely attacks Planned Parenthood and anybody else linked to abortion rights, but never quite gets around to telling us what she thinks should be done about abortion.

Malkin'ꀙs problem plagues pundits at both ends of the spectrum. It is not a lack of civility; it'ꀙs her utter predictability, and the lack of ideas. She has no obligation to be nice. But, if she wants to engage in a genuine national debate, she needs to revisit her roots and remind us what she is for.

Tribalism prospered long before Malkin. For most of our history, newspapers openly catered to partisan readerships. The Seattle Times marketed to Republicans, the P-I to Democrats. But as the number of papers dwindled midway through the last century, publishers saw fit to broaden their appeal by becoming less partisan.

Ideas are risky. Tell readers what you think, and you'ꀙre liable to make at least half of them mad. Tribalism is easy, and it sells — albeit mostly to the choir.

I made several attempts to reach Michelle — via her website and her California agent. She'ꀙs too busy.

Given the opportunity, I'ꀙd ask: What'ꀙs your plan? What do we do about all those tragic abortions? Outlaw them and return to black-market abortions? What does a libertarian say about gay rights and gay marriage? If the market works so well, why did it collapse? How'ꀙs the War on Drugs working for you? What'ꀙs the libertarian health-care prescription? And how do you explain it to your readers who rely on Medicare?

Malkin probably could field those questions. But she won'ꀙt. Libertarian ideals don'ꀙt sell on TV, and they won'ꀙt get her back on the best-seller lists.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.