I do think we are seeing the end of a sort of liberal tolerance here. But it's not the tolerance that the NYT editorial board has in mind. It's the end of an era where liberals tolerate grading conservatives on a curve.
For the last several decades -- really as long as I've been politically aware -- liberals have been required to simply accept mediocrity out of conservatives. Mediocrity in science -- as when Stephens spitballs at widely accepted data, not for scientific reasons, but simply because it doesn't match his politics. Mediocrity in argument -- as when a prominent writer at one of the top "intellectual" conservative outlets excreted Liberal Fascism and then had the gall to promote it as "a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care." Mediocrity in temperament -- as when conservative temper tantrums are accepted as simply a fact of political life; the responsibility of Democrats to dissipate by playing better babysitter.
There's no sin in mediocrity, of course. The problem is that it's coupled with a pervasive sense of entitlement. This mediocrity is supposed to earn them respected academic posts, earn them prominent editorial positions, earn them airtime on prestigious networks, earn them attention and thorough consideration. The problem isn't that liberals are asked to engage with good conservative arguments -- they should (although they in fact rarely are). The problem is that liberals are supposed to just close their eyes and agree for the sake of the camera that a terrible conservative argument is a good one; a thoughtful one; a demands-deep-consideration-and-serious-inquiry one. It's the political equivalent of social promotion. It's participation badges for Boomers and Gen-Xers.
And if you challenge that entitlement? Well, suddenly the right finds its post-modern streak. Can we really can know what a "good" argument is? Who's to say what is or isn't "true"? It's no accident that the straw that seemed to break the camel's back was Kellyanne Conway's blithe assertion that the White House was simply providing "alternative facts", and that a fair and just media shouldn't adjudicate the matter. It represented the explicit articulation from the right that merit no longer mattered -- and liberals were obligated to accept it as the apogee of liberality. "Reality has a well-known liberal bias" indeed.
We're finally seeing a revolt. A world where one of the two major parties can simply claim an exemption from standards of argument and deliberation is what gave us a birther as president. It's not about intolerance towards different opinions. Those objecting to Stephens have been rather clear that they don't object to alternative opinions, but they absolutely object to alternative facts. An alternative opinion may be good or bad -- it depends on how well-reasoned and supported it is, the degree to which it engages with the best possible arguments on the other side, and other such considerations. Good alternative opinions are a great virtue in political society. An alternative fact -- when it comes from a politician or writer -- should never be thought of as anything more than being bad at your job. If enforcing that standard lands harder on contemporary conservatives, that should be a sign of their weakness, not of the injustice of meritocracy.
The New York Times is not an open-mic night. Being employed there -- whether as a journalist or as an opinion-writer -- should be a mark of outstanding talent. Their editorial team should consist of those rare souls -- of any political persuasion -- who can make solid, lucid, provocative, compelling, well-warranted arguments in an accessible form. We can obviously argue amongst ourselves about which NYT columnists do or don't meet that criteria. But what's distinctive about Stephens is that his place at the Times is explicitly justified and defended on the grounds that his mediocrity of scientific thought is actually the virtue of political disagreement. That degrades science and, in a better world, would degrade conservatism as well.
To be crystal clear -- no governmental or quasi-administrative entity (like a university) should ever ban any speech (good, mediocre, bad, controversial, racist, or otherwise). Those on the left (and they tend to be more left than liberal) who support censorship, disruption, or violent retaliation against persons for their speech deserve naught but scorn. And beyond legal entitlements, liberals should be exposed to and consider good conservative arguments, and vice versa. I've learned a ton from reading, e.g., Clarence Thomas and Robert Nozick; among my earliest blog sources were the right-leaning Volokh Conspiracy and Daniel Drezner. I'd be worse off if I wasn't exposed to them, because they are all outstanding thinkers even when I disagree with them. Anyone who can't conceive of an ideological adversary who is nonetheless capable of making great "alternative" arguments isn't thinking hard enough.
But the reaction to Stephens and his ilk isn't about juridical rights or some sort of blind antipathy to foreign points of view. It's a much more simple and straightforward matter of deliberative virtue. The only persons suggesting that the attack on Stephens represents an attack on all conservatives are those who think denial of basic scientific consensus is inherent to contemporary conservatism. It's their culture! How dare you impose your "truth" on the Other? Again, who is patronizing who here?
Enough is enough. Conservatives are not infants and it is no mark of respect to treat them such. They are perfectly capable of elevating their game. Maybe it will sting for a while. But both the right and the left, and America, will be better for it.
UPDATE: Just to gather up some sources to confirm my sense that this is a trend:
New Yorker fact checker Sean Lavery on how he'd handle Bret Stephens: "By all means publish Bret Stephens. But edit and factcheck him too. If his argument can't pass muster or the piece can't be fixed: goodbye!"
Jon Chait on how conservatives are shocked and angry that the media is finally accurately reporting that the Republican proposal for regressive tax cuts which primarily benefit the rich is a regressive tax cut which primarily benefits the rich.
And finally, Matt Yglesias on Sebastian Gorka reportedly leaving the White House:
America getting to be so intolerant that a wildly unqualified guy can't even work in the White House if he's maybe a Nazi. https://t.co/elzbxkJY5H— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) May 1, 2017