Poverty and Polarization of Media Foreign-Policy Debate

A very good insight of what could be called the “Beltway Bubble” on foreign-policy thinking can be gained by a study of the September 19 National Journal’s “Insiders Poll” in which 115 Democratic and 116 Republican “insiders” ranked prominent columnists, bloggers, broadcast personalities, and other media types by their influence in “most help(ing) to shape (the insider’s) own opinion or worldview.” Each “insider” could name as many as five opinion-shapers, and, in tallying the rankings, a first-place vote was give 5 points, a second-place vote 4 points, and so on. While the website lists all of the 146 opinion-shapers rated by the poll (and is helpfully interactive), the actual magazine (p. 6 in the 9/19 edition) displays the top-ten vote-getters:

1) Thomas Friedman (335 votes divided between 230 Democratic and 105 Republican insiders);
2) David Brooks (282 votes evenly divided between 141 Dems and 141 Reps);
3) Charles Krauthammer (281 votes divided between 1 Dem and 280 Reps);
4) George Will (246 votes divided between 23 Dems and 223 Reps);
5) Paul Krugman (182 votes divided between 181 Dems and 1 Reps);
6) David Broder (165 votes divided between 106 Dems and 59 Reps);
7) E.J. Dionne (147 votes divided between 143 Dems and 4 Reps);
8) Karl Rove (126 votes divided between 1 Dem and 125 Reps)
9) Peggy Noonan (101 votes divided between 5 Dems and 96 Reps); and
10) William Kristol (91 votes) divided between 5 Dems and 86 Reps).

Of course, most of the 146 media personalities rated in the survey are concerned primarily with domestic issues, and a relative few write or talk frequently, let alone exclusively, about foreign policy. But a few general points about the rankings of those who do write about foreign policy, at least fairly regularly, stood out for me:

a) The list helps demonstrate how polarized the parties are. The only columnists in the top ten with apparent bipartisan cross-over appeal are Friedman, Brooks, and Broder. All the rest are heavily weighted to one party or the other, as are virtually all of the 136 others on the list. (Indeed, aside from the above three, the only ones who write about foreign policy who are influential in forming the views of insiders from both parties are Jon Meacham of Newsweek (26th rank with 25 votes), Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal (33rd rank with 33 votes), and Andrew Sullivan of the The Atlantic Online (47th rank with 10 votes).

b) With the exception of Will and occasionally Noonan, all of the opinion-shapers favored by Republicans in the top 10 are neo-cons, leading, of course, with the powerhouse combination of Brooks (2) and Krauthammer (3) and followed up by Kristol (10). (In my view, Brooks can be considered Kristol-lite.) Among the top 75 media personalities with impact on Republican insiders who write or otherwise opine on foreign policy on a fairly regular basis are Mark Steyn (22), Jonah Goldberg (39), Fred Barnes (43), Rich Lowry (49), Larry Kudlow (52), Robert Kagan (58), Andy McCarthy (60), Newt Gingrich — who is a kind of neo-con — (61), David Frum (66), Michael Barone (67), and Anne Applebaum (71). Important caveat: I hardly watch any television and never listen to talk-radio, so I am excluding from my own count prominent right-wing and neo-con anchorpersons, such as Rush Limbaugh (15) and Sean Hannity (23) and who, as I understand it, generally espouse strongly neo-con foreign-policy views. My point here is that by far the most prominent foreign-policy opinion-shapers for professional Republicans are neo-cons, which explains why, despite the Iraq and “global war on terror” fiascos, they remain an integral and even “legitimate” part of the national foreign-policy debate. On foreign-policy issues, they now speak for “the opposition,” the Republican Party.

(That conclusion tended to be confirmed by the Republican heavyweights who were given the spotlight at last week’s Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) conference: John McCain and presidential still-hopefuls Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich. Remember also that Sarah Palin (who had a scheduling conflict in Hong Kong last week) just signed a letter to Obama from FPI, the latest incarnation of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), calling on him to “fully resource” the war in Afghanistan earlier this month.)

c) By contrast, foreign-policy realists, who have traditionally found their home in the Republican Party, seem to be far more influential now among Democratic insiders. Of the top ten influentials, only Will, who is still strongly favored by Republicans, could arguably be called a realist, at least as concerns his scepticism about Iraq and, more recently, his opposition to escalation in Afghanistan, although his views on other regions of the world remain typically reactionary. As for those who are more often seen as classic realists, Fareed Zakaria (12) is cited as an influence by 67 Democrats and only 13 Republicans; David Ignatius (25) is cited by 20 Democrats and only six Republicans; Seib (33) got 12 Democratic votes versus eight Republicans; and Fred Kaplan (73) and Steve Clemons (83) appealed only to Democrats. Of course, Democrats were also strongly attracted to liberal internationalists, such as Krugman, Frank Rich (11), Bill Moyers (18), and Eugene Robinson (30), as well as liberal interventionists, such as Friedman (1) and Nicholas Kristof (35).

d) There were some encouraging results on the lower end of the “insider” influence scale; among them: former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, a regular columnist at the Washington Post, received only three votes (all Republicans), as did, surprisingly, Bret Stephens, the main foreign-policy columnist in the Wall Street Journal. An arch-Likudist and former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, Stephens inherited the weekly “Global View” column from George Melloan in 2006, and it seems he has not yet been able to reach “influential” status even among Republican insiders. Similarly, Jackson Diehl, a liberal hawk with serious neo-con tendencies, received only one vote (a Democrat) despite his weekly column in the Post.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. What a fascinating piece! When you bring all these names together, one realizes just how mediocre the American punditocracy is. How narrow are the differences between its two wings! The “realists” differ by degree from the neocons, rather than fundamentally. No one with influence — or at least no one on this list — advocates real departures in U.S. foreign policy. Not a one of them favors retracting American power around the world in any significant way. It seems quite clear that the most influential media minds will continue to advocate foreign entaglements right up until the moment we go broke! Truly a sad state of affairs.

    How we arrived at this point, with the community of prominent public intellectuals marching almost in lockstep, would make an interesting essay. I’m not sure that anyone has seen far enough to be able to write it, however. Not even you! Not even me!

    Agree with your recent comments about Mr. and Mrs. Kagan. I fear, though, that when the Potemkin village of their thought is finally exposed, they will be able to slink away with much greater ease than did the “intellectuals” who got us into Vietnam.

  2. I really like James Baker who’s James A Baker Institute occasionally puts out some exceptional work. He’s a realist that I really enjoy and miss. He’s as interesting as Kissinger and far easier to understand. His Institute is run out of Rice University in Houston and has the most sober assessments of policy I’ve found. They were critical of the Iraq war, blamed the oil spikes last year on financial speculation and took a number of surprisingly critical stances relating to the Bush Admin.

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