The Genius of Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat may be the most talented columnist alive, and by perusing some of his most recent articles, for instructional purposes, we can get a better understanding of his style and why it’s so effective.

When reading a Douthat column, typically the first paragraph sets the scene, almost like a panorama, giving a bird’s-eye view of the protagonists and scenery before delving into more detail.

From The Myth of Cosmopolitanism (his July 3rd article, which went viral):

NOW that populist rebellions are taking Britain out of the European Union and the Republican Party out of contention for the presidency, perhaps we should speak no more of left and right, liberals and conservatives. From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. From now on the loyalties that matter will be narrowly tribal — Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England — or multicultural and cosmopolitan.

Notice how he lists the ‘actors’ all at once, and in the first sentence: rebels, Republican Party, European Union, left and right, liberals and conservatives.

Another characteristic is repetition and redundancy. ‘Left’ and ‘liberals’ are, for demonstrative purposes, tautological, but listing both gives ‘weight’ to the sentence.

And when he writes ‘Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’…note the repetition, and the emphasis on ‘Make America Great Again’ in reference to Donald Trump, and all capitalized. Also the assonance (repeated ‘ea’ sound) in ‘earth’ and ‘realm’. He also uses the ‘rule of three‘, but often he extends it to five or more items.

Another characteristic is the use of contrast, from The Donald Trump Show:

USUALLY political conventions are attempts to tell a story — a story about what a party stands for, a story about where its presidential candidate came from, a story about what kind of chief executive he would be.

The Donald Trump National Convention in Cleveland (technically the Republican National Convention, but let’s be real) wasn’t really much for storytelling. Its messages were muddled, its shared agenda boiled down to hating Hillary Clinton, many of its speakers didn’t want to talk about the candidate and one declined even to endorse him.

Note how he contrasts a typical political convention, which is supposed to tell a story, to the Donald Trump convention, which didn’t.

The parenthetical statement ‘technically the Republican National Convention, but let’s be real’ adds a conversational tone to the writing.

Also ‘one declined even to endorse him’ is in reference to Ted Cruz. But by not mentioning his name, it adds wryness to the writing in reducing Ted Cruz to the gender-neutral pronoun ‘one’. It’s subtle, but little details like that matter.

Back to Cosmopolitanism, although the sentence belongs to Peter Mandler, it’s still effective:

They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”

Note the use of lists again, and the attention to detail: ‘Increasingly hereditary caste of politicians’…not just any politicians, but a hereditary caste.

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

Again, the use of contrast: ‘Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project,’ to show the hypocrisy of the elite.

They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

The writing is rich with indignation, with words and phrases like ‘self-serving’, ‘it alone’, ‘their vision’, ‘caste’, and ‘rule the world’ – all packed into one sentence.

Figurative language such as ‘history’s arc bending inexorably away’ produces images in the reader’s mind of a curved trajectory such as that of a cannonball. Also, the adverb ‘inexorably’ modifying ‘away’ adds more detail and specificity to the sentence.

Also, the introductory clause ‘they can’t see that’ is repeated (anaphora), adding rhythm and emphasizing how the elite are blinded by their hubris.

Note his extensive vocabulary: ‘paeans’ and ‘coteries’, words that usually don’t come up in everyday conversation, and adding richness to the writing and boosting Douthat’s own credibility as a highly educated expert. In The Trump Show, he uses synecdoche in a sentence, another ten-dollar word. Yeah I know there’s a widely-shared ‘study’ that shows how using ‘big’ words doesn’t make you sound smarter, and I can tell you it’s bunkum. Ceteris paribus, someone who uses bigger words will sound smarter than someone who doesn’t [1]. Also, specialized, well-targeted words that have a specific meaning can add both variety to writing and succinctness, instead of having to use six words when one may suffice.

Now that we’ve focused on the structure, it’s also worth asking: Why are Ross Douthat’s articles so well-received, both by liberals and conservatives, and always go viral, whereas Paul Krugman’s articles do not?

Paul Krugman and Ann Coulter are like opposite sides of the same coin, and although I am partial to the latter, they are stalwarts of what I call ‘pre-2013′ online journalism, which is partisan and emotive. By contrast, as I discuss in Solvent Part 1, post-2013 journalism is more nuanced and intellectual, and focuses on ‘shared narratives/themes’ that transcend the left-right political divide, rather than just browbeating your readers with your political opinions. This new intellectual style as epitomized by sites like Vox.com, Priceonomics, and WaitButWhy is seeing rapid growth, whereas traffic and readership for opinionated political blogs peaked years ago. This is possibly due to readers growing weary of angry partisanship and yearning for more evolved discourse that touches on existential/humanistic matters and ‘shared narratives’ such as:

-anomie and ennui arising from rapid societal (both economic and social) changes and the breakdown of the ‘family structure’

-distrust of elites and central planning

-anxiety about the economy

-will technology eliminate all jobs?

-existential questions such as ‘What if we’re all living in a computer simulation?’

-how to find meaning in life

-social anxiety, existential depression, social isolation, etc.

-how to afford healthcare, tuition, etc., student loan debt being too high

and so on…

These are questions and issues that are vexing to everyone, beyond the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, and Ross Douthat frequently addresses them, especially the first two items.

Importantly, Douthat makes an effort to empathize with his subjects and his readers, despite being a member of the ‘elite’ himself, to understand and be mindful of why there is resentment against the elite, and to understand why people make the choices they do or hold the beliefs they have, as described by Scott in his recent post: HOW THE WEST WAS WON:

This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist.

Rather than ridicule, dismiss, or belittle the ‘outgroup’, Douthat lends an ear. But it’s not so much about trying to being right or wrong – rather it’s about understanding why the stakes have become so high, and why there is so much passion about these issues.
From the Art of War, victory isn’t through attrition, but by reconciliation that renders further conflict unnecessary, ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’ It’s very difficult to defend a moral high ground or to change minds; it’s easier to find common ground and understanding. Like why there so much resentment towards the elite (a common criticism is that the elite are insulated from the consequences of their actions), not so much whether the elite are right or wrong policy-wise. Douthat explores the meta-discussion and the humanistic angle to issues, not just the issue itself isolated in a vacuum removed from the human condition. For example, instead of explaining why ‘guns are good or bad,’ Ross implores, ‘why do people care so much about this issue, and what it says about America and society.’ He takes it to the next level, the meta level.

Although Paul Krugman is a Nobel Laureate, which lends a lot of credibly (even though he has been wrong on many occasions), he can’t elicit the necessary visceral reaction, the meeting of the minds, that is necessary to make readers on the sideline (those who aren’t already initiated) actually like him and want to share his ideas. Everyone is wrong occasionally, myself included, but when you put yourself on a pedestal or sanctimoniousness and infallibility, the harder the fall from grace and the more inclined people are to push back and go after your weak spots. Yes, Paul Krugman is popular, but his columns read like a shill rant, hammering the same partisanship and divisiveness over and over again and devoid of worldly introspection.

[1] Big words may backfire if they are misused.