Ross Douthat's real mistakes in 2014: Why his "confessions" fall short

The NYT columnist's list of "wrongs" in 2014 omits his most egregious mistakes around LGBTQ rights and racism

Published January 5, 2015 8:00PM (EST)

Ross Douthat               (HBO)
Ross Douthat (HBO)

Last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece on his regret that, until recently, he remained mostly silent on the allegations that Bill Cosby drugged and raped multiple women over a span of decades. “I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts,” he wrote at the Atlantic. “I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough.” It was powerful to read along as Coates, easily one of the most influential writers and thinkers we’ve got, grappled honestly and publicly with what he viewed as a professional and personal failure.

Compared to the rawness of Coates' reflections, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s Sunday accounting of what he got wrong in 2014 feels hollow. He includes a misjudgment (that could still prove correct, he adds) about Jeb Bush’s presidential prospects. He says he regrets giving short shrift to America's Ebola prevention efforts and acting "alarmist" in the face of the disease. He also writes that he was overly optimistic about the prospect of demilitarizing the police, acknowledging that politicians’ fears about seeming weak on crime or national security and the muscle of police unions make reform slow, difficult work. (But Douthat's belief, also expressed in the piece, that there has been "persistent rioting" in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown is head-scratching. Unless he considers sustained protest "rioting," he's just dead wrong. Maybe that can go on his list of 2015 mistakes.)

But to a progressive eye, the list of what Douthat wished he’d done differently in 2014 mostly falls flat because of what it leaves out. Like the column about why those who want to discriminate against LGBTQ people are somehow being victimized by recent wins for equality. Or the one that equates mass incarceration and no-fault divorce as on par social ills, at least when it comes to marriage. Or later in the same column when he suggests that abortion bans might be sensible bargaining chips for better jobs programs. Or the one that suggests identity politics are perhaps the real story in the aftermath of Ferguson and the other killings of unarmed black men and boys.

It is obviously silly to wish Douthat had written a column in which he effectively renounced his worldview, but in each of these examples there is a tendency to value a "both sides" moderatism and the appearance of civility over the real lives at stake when we're talking about police forces with military-grade weapons or businesses that refuse service to gay families. It's pretty strange to talk about a ban on later-term abortions as a way to strike a deal with Republicans over a jobs bill without considering the women whose lives would be harmed by the denial of medical care at often traumatizing moments in their pregnancies. Stranger still is the impulse to call liberal resistance to such bans "a worldview that privileges moral absolutes over social science evidence," when medical associations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as well as ample social science show that these bans are neither medically justified nor good for the health of women and families.

Coates said he regretted looking away when he knew better, when he felt deep down that he owed people more. Douthat’s version of getting it wrong feels more about political or analytical miscalculations than a failure to see the real people at the center of the issues, whether police violence, abortion, bipartisan cooperation or LGBTQ rights. That's the column of regret he could have written instead.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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