LSA on Politics: In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, our four-part series takes a look at the different ways LSA scholars and alumni are engaged in the political landscape and informing the debates of our time.
Jonathan Chait (A.B. ’94) grew up watching his father hold a running dialogue with the evening TV news and commenting on whatever he saw there—subjects like Ronald Reagan, the “nuclear freeze” movement, and the election of conservative firebrand Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate. Politics were a frequent topic of discussion for both parents in Chait’s house in the Detroit suburbs, and it didn’t take long for young Jonathan to share his own provocative opinions. In first grade, Chait “talked [himself] blue” trying to convince classmates that Santa Claus didn’t exist. In high school, a fierce debate with an English teacher about George Orwell’s Animal Farm ended with her labeling him a Communist.
Nowadays, Chait is New York Magazine’s national affairs columnist, and he’s still happy to prod, poke, and provoke. Pieces like “Donald Trump Poses an Unprecedented Threat to American Democracy” and “The Case Against Bernie Sanders” give an idea of the tone and temperament that he brings to his online and print pieces. In January 2015, he penned a lengthy essay titled “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: How the Language Police Are Perverting Liberalism” that triggered aftershocks across the country. Slate, Salon, Gawker, the Atlantic, the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the New York Times were among the outlets to publish responses. That kind of tough dialogue is important to democracy, Chait says. One sentence from his “P.C.” piece reads, “Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree.”
But Chait admits that a fiery dialogue also suits him, personally. “Somehow, hostility is energizing for me,” he says.
Make ’Em Laugh
In lecture halls at U-M, Chait soaked up classes on political theory, history, and philosophy. (He says he still references his old textbooks “all the time.”) Outside of class, he was immersed in a large, diverse, ideologically passionate campus filled with partisan factions. There was a competitive student council and a robust press corps—in other words, “all the real elements of a political system, but they were all smaller, and the stakes were smaller,” Chait says. “You could study everything up close and understand how it all worked.”
Jonathan Chait (on the right, pictured here with his parents, Ilene and David, during his college days) courted controversy even as a student, when he wrote for the Michigan Daily and co-founded the Michigan Independent.
Courtesy of David Chait
At the time, Chait dreamed of becoming a humor writer in the vein of syndicated columnist Dave Barry. Unfortunately, his first attempts at reporting news for the Michigan Daily—newswriting being the traditional stepping stone toward a columnist gig—fizzled due to the fact that he was, in his own description, a “stammering, inept interviewer.” Undeterred, Chait submitted unsolicited humor columns to the Daily and, eventually, the paper started publishing them. Shortly thereafter, the reactions arrived. Chait remembers picking up a copy of the paper one morning on his way to class and spotting a letter to the editor with the headline, “Chait Needs to Be More Sensitive.” That moment brought an “electric jolt of excitement,” he says. A columnist was born.
After graduation, Chait worked and wrote extensively, covering politics for the American Prospect and the New Republic, serving as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and making a long list of guest commentator appearances on national TV and radio stations. Over time, he garnered more than 70,000 Twitter followers and published an acclaimed book, 2007’s The Big Con: Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America. In 2014, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called him one of the “internet’s most admired liberal journalists.”
His mission as a writer, Chait says, is simple: to explain the world as he sees it. “I synthesize as much information as I can. I develop an analysis of what’s happening in American politics,” he says. From there, Chait tries to give people something they haven’t heard somewhere else—regardless of whom it ticks off. In 2011, he argued that Congressional Republicans were approaching “a more right-wing position [on Israel] than even the right-wing party within Israel.” In February 2016, he wrote that the Senate’s “blockade” of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland “has never happened in American history.”
Unsurprisingly, Chait hasn’t shied from perhaps the country’s most controversial subject: the presidency. In January 2014, he produced a 3,400-word piece in New York arguing “history will be very generous with Barack Obama, who has compiled a broad record of accomplishment through three-quarters of his presidency.” At that time, the 44th president had, according to Chait, “incontrovertibly made major progress on, or fulfilled, every one” of the major goals he laid out in his first inaugural address: “not only to rescue the economy from catastrophe but also to undertake sweeping long-term reforms in health care, education, energy, and financial regulation.” The piece resonated, and Chait recently completed a book-length expansion titled Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America.
Like many aspects of his career, there’s a U-M connection to the new book, too. Chait calls it the culmination of ideas he’s been pondering since college, ideas “about liberalism, as a philosophy and a political style, as distinct from conservatism and also distinct from Marxism.” For Chait, who describes himself as a “mainstream liberal . . . near the middle of the Democratic party,” Obama is “a politician who embodies the kind of style that I’ve always admired and believed in.”
But, of course, Obama’s term is ending. And the campaign to replace him, an eye-popping and contentious primary season that left Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton standing as party nominees, has been extraordinary. On the Democratic side, Chait offered a detailed analysis of Clinton in a May column titled “Looking to Harry Truman to Understand Hillary Clinton,” pointing out that both politicians were mocked for the sound of their voices, haunted by charges of corruption, and attacked relentlessly by ideological purists within their party. And yet, as Truman eventually carved out a respected legacy, Chait sees a path for Clinton, too.
“An über-establishment president leading in anti-establishment times may, over the long run, come to be seen as commanding the American center—even, perhaps, something like an American consensus,” he wrote. “Truman was a figure of crushing ordinariness, a quality that, over time, came to assume something close to greatness. Clinton gives off a similar sensibility despite her extraordinary life experience. If you withdraw the presumption of calculation that is attached to her every action, one can see her character aging well through history.”
As for Trump? When asked about him, Chait hardly hedges, calling the prospect of his victory—which he believes is slim—“a devastating change in the course of American history” and “off the grid of the good and bad outcomes we had imagined, in the bad way.”
Regardless of the outcome on November 8—or in 2020, or 2024—Chait won’t be shy about sharing his opinion on the matter.
This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
LSA on Politics: Read Other Stories in the Series