It's essential to recognize that at least two extremely different usages of "partisan" exist.
In the first usage, "partisan" means someone who believes "My side, right or wrong." Generally, this type of partisanship is divisive and destructive. Straight-party voting or party loyalty can make a great deal of sense locally or nationally, depending on the political landscape. Some degree of power is necessary to get anything done, or to prevent likely bad measures from the other guys. However, this type of "partisan" goes beyond loyalty to zealotry or hackdom. They tend to be tribal and authoritarian. Typically, such people believe that in the fight to gain or maintain power, almost anything goes. Party comes before country for them, even if they boast of their patriotism; they will lie for the party even if it hurts individuals or the nation. Hurting the other side is a bonus, or a major goal in itself.
Bob Dole provided a splendid example of this sort of partisanship when, during the VP debate in 1976, he referred to the "Democrat wars of the 20th century." Scott Horton covered another striking example in a December 2008 piece, "What Motivates the Torture Enablers?":
What drives the torture enablers like Rivkin and Hunter? The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page considers the torture debate to be a left-right struggle; torture is the cause of the right and the critics are on the left. But anyone who has studied the debate knows this is absurd, for there are as many convinced conservatives in the ranks opposing torture as liberals. Andrew Sullivan offers this week a series of posts that make this point. He looks at Glenn Reynolds and Jonah Goldberg, two powerful voices on the political right, both staunch defenders of Bush policy. How did they react when the first photographs of Abu Ghraib surfaced? Both were quick to condemn the images as grotesque, sickening, and criminal. Both called immediately for prosecutions to restore the nation’s honor. And how do Reynolds and Goldberg react when the Bush Administration is revealed as the author of that abhorrent conduct? Suddenly what was once morally reprehensible, is a necessary tool in a just cause. Indeed, it makes us safer they suggest against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Is their agenda to support and justify the conduct of their political leader, no matter how depraved or unlawful that conduct is? The threshold from principled analysis to partisan propaganda has been crossed.
Exactly, and right-wingers have often crossed that line when it comes to "debates" on torture, due process and human rights (see John Kyl and Lindsay Graham, Marc Thiessen, Liz Cheney and many, many more). If you don't draw the line at torture, where do you draw the line? Moreover, changing one's position to defend one's party for despicable behavior is about as "partisan" as one can get (in this first usage). The attitude is, "Don't you dare hold my side accountable," and it severely hurts the country. Likewise, the "give me mine," "screw the other guy," "winner-takes-all" mentality eliminates any ethic of responsible governance.
The second usage of "partisan" is strikingly different, and typically means, "someone who cares about the outcome." These "partisans" do hold positions, sometimes strongly, but their process for arriving at them is very different from the first type of partisan. For this second type, studying the issues takes precedence over party loyalty. After studying a given issue, they tend to arrive at – horrors – a position on it.
This shouldn't be surprising. Study any issue or subject in some depth, and you will likely have an opinion on it. Ideally, you will have an informed opinion on it; you will at least be conversant on the subject, and aware of other opinions on the matter. You'll be able to, for example, muster an argument for the best Shakespeare play, or the best quarterback, or the best films of the year. Even if those arguments come down mostly to personal connection or team loyalty (naming a "favorite" isn't necessarily the same as claiming it's the "best"), conversant folks recognize that other people have different opinions, and legitimate (or silly) reasons for them.
Moving into the realms of public policy and scientific evidence, some people will still offer highly subjective opinions, and still others will employ theoretical and ideological arguments, but the more wonkish will cite historical examples and empirical data. For instance, on health care, while America can boast many great doctors, the overall system itself has many problems. The evidence is overwhelming that other advanced nations provide better basic care for much less money. It's one thing to acknowledge all that, and then argue that the Affordable Care Act should be repealed, and outline the reasons for that stance. It's quite another to claim that these other systems are horrible, lie about how they work, and ignore what the doctors and citizens in those countries think. (Typically, even if they're critical of some aspects of their systems, they would not change to the old American system.) In the world of adults – certainly when it comes to public policy – major decisions often require tradeoffs, and weighing the costs and benefits of action versus inaction, or action one versus action two or three.
Type two partisans tend to focus on policy, while type one partisans typically focus on power and political advantage. While the first type of "partisan" tends to be destructive, the second type is generally constructive, or even essential to good governance. (In ordinary usage, the term "hyper-partisan" for type one partisans may be helpful and more accurate.) These two types of "partisanship" are not equivalent – but media figures often treats them as such.
It's time to revisit an old graphic:
The terms are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but in this diagram, the first type of "partisan" is a hack or zealot, while the second type is a wonk. Hacks and zealots favor positions because of their party, while for wonks it's precisely the opposite.
None of this is to say that wonks are perfect, or that Hack-Americans are necessarily dishonest about everything, or that Zealot-Americans are crazy about every subject under the sun. All human beings suffer from confirmation bias, have their blind spots, and can be vain and stubborn. Even smart people with great intentions can be hampered by incomplete or incorrect information. However, when it comes to weighing empirical data versus team loyalty, wonks and hacks value these very differently. It's hardly surprising that people interested in crafting good policy are more likely to succeed at doing so than the people furiously jockeying for political advantage.
Despite these important differences, the Beltway gang often does not distinguish between these two types of "partisanship." All they tend to see is the surface, that someone holds a position, even a strong position – but then they ignore why he or she holds that position. (The media also tend to ignore the consequences of various policy positions, but we'll tackle that a bit later.) As Jay Rosen has often noted, the press worships in the church of the savvy, and in their view, savvy reporters and "objective" journalists don't care about outcomes. Their unstated assumption is that anyone who has a strong position on an issue must be closed-minded. Caring isn't cool; it isn't savvy. The dominant media approach holds that being fair entails not only hearing out different parties, but also judging them equally honest, valid, and worthy. It entails withholding any sort of substantive analysis or critical judgment.
However, all opinions and ideas are not created equal. Being open-minded means giving someone a fair hearing, not turning off one's bullshit detector. A Flat-Earther who doesn't believe in global warming, and an oil company PR flack who insists global warming doesn't exist, simply do not have the same support for their beliefs that a climate scientist does. Policy matters. Facts matter. Having evidence, and strong basis for one's beliefs, matters. And strangely enough, honesty matters, too.
Conscientious citizens have diametrically opposed goals to those of most TV chatterers – they hate bullshit, and want less of it, while TV chatterers love it. Hell, it's the coin of their realm.
While some excellent reporters can be found in the corporate media, several factors contribute to a preponderance of bullshit – and a hostility to calling out bullshit – in our national political discourse. As we explored in The Bullshit Matrix, the media has a strong aversion to calling a lie a lie or a liar a liar, even when the proof is overwhelming. It's considered impolite, or even – partisan. Because of this, the more conscientious reporters are left doing contortions, trying to report matters accurately without using the "L" word. This gives liars a tremendous tactical (and strategic) advantage.
He said-she said reporting and "both sides do it" analysis are immensely popular in journalism for many reasons. One, fact-checking and substantive analysis (especially of policy) take time. Reporters rushing to meet a deadline or who are just lazy don't want to do it. Two, the "he said-she said" and "both sides do it" approaches present the appearance of neutrality, and inoculate journalists somewhat to charges of bias or partisanship.
Poor reporting is also simply cheaper. Corporate news is a commercial enterprise, and it depends on volume, viewers, and page views. For a few decades in the 20th Century, the major television networks treated their news departments as a public service, in return for being able to use the public's airwaves. They weren't expected to make a profit, or at least not much of one. In the 70s, management started expected a profit from the news. In the 80s, Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine, and also attacked the very notion of holding the powerful accountable. In 2003, a court ruled that Fox News had no obligation to tell the truth in a news program, and could fire two whistle-blowing journalists. While there have always been discriminating news consumers, the bulk of corporate media is not aimed at them. It's simply more economical to churn out a pulpy, news-like material, with that fresh, newsy taste, but not much substance. In another sense, news consumers aren't consumers at all – they're the commodity being sold by news companies to their real consumers – corporate advertisers.
Media corporations are normally loathe to criticize other corporations, their sponsors. Journalists tend to self-identify as liberal, and they are – but on social issues, not economic ones. The owners of news outlets tend to be economically conservative, and they tend to hire reporters who are very much part of the establishment. As we've explored in several other posts, it's not a surprise that health care reform was overwhelmingly covered in the corporate media from a scared insurance company perspective, and the outlook of those without health care didn't get nearly as much representation. News anchors weren't pressing Obama for more radical change, asking him why America shouldn't go further, and adopt any of the more successful and cheaper models from around the world. National news anchors are in the richest 1% of the country, and most do not question the ruling class and its plutocratic worldview.
Add to all this the 24-hour news cycle, and the aforementioned matter of volume. Cable news channels in particular typically have small viewing audiences compared to the major networks, so a slight increase can make a big difference. Hence we get eye-catching headlines and transitory "hot" stories – the more sensationalistic the better. Stories tend to be short, and shallow. Television news programs also resist covering stories that can't be visualized easily. To fill the news cycle, media corporations need "reporters" who can churn out news-flavored "content" quickly and constantly. This is most pronounced with cable TV news and talk radio. To fill all that air time, networks also need people who can talk endlessly. One option would be to hire really smart, articulate people – but another route is to hire vapid, shallow chatterboxes. Some shows do book great guests, and have sharp reporters, but the TV landscape is infested by prattling gasbags.
While there are many structural, financial reasons for the preponderance of bullshit, we shouldn't overlook that the chattering class contains many truly awful people who make the world a worse place. Despite being paid to cover politics – sometimes paid obscenely well – they show little interest in the details of politics. If you study any issue in some depth, and you follow the news, the chances are high that you'll encounter a political hack lying about that issue, and a supposedly objective reporter who is extremely poorly informed about it. As Bob Somerby put it in a 2008 post (that I've cited before):
In short, these people hate knowledge, complexity; they hate the infernal need to explore. Let’s put it another way: They hate politics. It’s weird, yet the contrast constantly strikes us. Sports reporters love to talk about sports. [Richard] Cohen hates talking about politics.
The political reporters on TV certainly don't like talking about policy. During campaign season, they love covering the horse race. Otherwise, they like covering "who's up and who's down." Their coverage mainly consists of gossip, and their analysis is often no more in-depth than People magazine is on celebrities. Local reporters tend to be more hard-nosed with local politicians than their national counterparts, because fluff and bullshit don't sell as well to local audiences who actually care about the outcomes. On the national stage, time must be filled, and bullshit is the easiest way to accomplish this.
Consider Newt Gingrich – a fraud, liar, grifter, hack and horrible human being. As of May 2011, Gingrich had appeared on Meet the Press thirty-five times, and was the most popular guest in 2009 (five times). All this is despite Gingrich having left office in disgrace in 1999 and never holding political office since. His current presidential run (mostly another fundraising scheme, apparently) does give more excuse for booking him for the moment. However, there was little reason before. For all the pundit moaning about a nasty tone in politics and a lack of "bipartisanship," Gingrich has somehow remained a member in good standing in the Beltway, despite his long record of hyper-partisan, McCarthy-esque bomb-throwing and many attacks on the very notion of a functioning government. His legacy is one of division and destruction. Fox News and conservative think tanks will book Gingrich for obvious reasons, but for other, supposedly respectable outlets, why book Newt at all? Well, he will attack the Democrats – and that will generate headlines. Elevating Newt is bad for democracy – but it might be good for profits.
Some other factors are at play. On top of reporters being establishment-oriented by nature, as Josh Marshall's observed, Washington, D.C. is wired for Republican rule. There's often a double standard that benefits Republicans and conservatives; when Tim Russert created the Sunday show universe, in the beginning was the Word: IOKIYAR (It's Okay If You're a Republican). Conservatives also just lie more often about important issues (a necessity when one's policies stink), and the result is that large numbers of the conservative faithful believe things that simply are not factually true. Liberals and conservatives are not remotely equivalent on this front. However, Republican political figures are rarely called out as liars by the media (sometimes not even by the Democrats), and this gives them a tremendous tactical and strategic advantage. Moreover, fact-checking Newt Gingrich or challenging his preposterous claims might irritate him, and then he might not come back. While his absence would benefit viewers, pissing off too many dissembling guests would dry up the supply of bullshit. Members of the shallow chatterers' club rarely call each other out; calling out liars and noting that one side is significantly more dishonest than the other is bad for business – but also terribly rude. It would violate decorum and class solidarity. At times, the Beltway gang may be best understood in terms of anthropology and social norms; for them, the truth is socially rather than empirically determined.
Conscientious citizens hate bullshit in the political discourse. However, many average folks, while concerned, don't have the time to pay close attention to political issues, and thus can't always gauge the level, slant and precise nature of the bullshit in a given story. Meanwhile, some viewers want bullshit from their news – and they want it in a certain flavor. (These are the type one partisans we discussed earlier.) Fox News is the most obvious example of a bullshit dispenser, and it serves a conservative audience, but it's possible to find lefties who like bullshit as well. However, authoritarianism and conservatism have a strong natural affinity. In contrast, organizing liberals can be like herding cats, and Will Rogers' quip about "belonging to no organized political party – I'm a Democrat" holds surprising true almost a century later. The left and right blogospheres also take a very different approach to corporate media in general. As John Dickerson noted in 2006:
One of the healthiest things about the left-wing blogosphere is its confrontational dislike of the mainstream media. There's a distinction here with the media's critics on the right. At some level, the right doesn't much like that the press exists. They don't want to fix it, they want to drive a stake through its heart. The left, on the other hand, just wishes the establishment press would do a better job. The Kos-type critique of the media is intertwined with its passion about politics. When the press gets it wrong, left-wing bloggers believe, the people are ill-informed and democracy suffers. There's respect in that anger, though you wouldn't always know it if you're the target of one of their flaming arrows. (Sometimes they apologize.)
Older readers will remember centuries ago to 2001–2008, during the reign of Bush the Younger, when the White House and the conservative faithful demonized all perceived opponents as traitors. Eliminationist rhetoric about killing one's political opponents is relatively rare on the left, but it's common on the right, and certainly was in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Ann Coulter: "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.") Some bullshit is simply annoying, and most is corrosive, but certain forms of bullshit can become truly dangerous – especially when left unchallenged.
All of these factors contribute to a national political discourse that does not always serve the public, and sometimes misinforms it very badly indeed. There's simply too much unchecked bullshit. Sadly, if you're a conscientious citizen, the corporate media is generally not on your side. You have different interests.
Policy matters. The consequences of policies matter. This graphic, featured in an excellent series on wealth inequity by Tim Noah, shows a striking difference between America's two major political parties (and the Democratic Party is less liberal and more corporatist these days). The Democratic pattern is one of shared prosperity for everybody, while the Republican pattern is one of funneling more wealth to those who are already the richest. These basic patterns can be seen in the parties on most issues – the Democrats (certainly the liberals) fight for more equality, while the Republicans (and conservative, Blue Dog Democrats) fight for more inequality, seeking to maintain or accumulate more power. This means, if the two parties sit down to negotiate, they are not fighting for the same things, and they are not even fighting solely for their own interests. If the Democrats win and get everything they want, the Republicans, the wealthy and the powerful still do quite well; if the Republicans win and get everything they want, they, the wealthy and the powerful do extremely well, but everyone else gets comparatively screwed. That's the general pattern between the parties, although if we look at every single issue, there's plenty one can quibble about, especially since there are certainly corrupt, plutocratic Democrats. However, the key point is that policy matters, and most media coverage ignores this. They ignore that, in a situation like this, if the two parties negotiate, and meet in the middle, the result will be lopsided toward the Republicans, because what each side is fighting for is not equivalent.
These dynamics are exacerbated by the actual negotiations. Obama has often begun negotiations with concessions, and then conceded more. In contrast, Republicans typically bargain from a maximalist, extreme position and do not budge. They also often argue in bad faith. This was the case on health care reform, on extending the deficit-busting Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and is currently the case on raising the debt ceiling. The Republicans' deficit stance is especially shameless, considering their policies created the bulk of the mess:
As of this writing, the Republicans have staked out an extreme, reckless position, refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and thus endangering the economy and America's future. Despite all this, Village idiots such as Mark Halperin have attacked Obama for his tone in criticizing the GOP's radical plan. It would be one thing if the Republicans were just offering an alternative, equally valid plan, but instead, they're threatening the government's very ability to function. Halperin refuses to acknowledge this; his analysis is insultingly obtuse. Not making a value judgment on two such stark choices is itself a value judgment; it legitimizes the extremists. Put another way: The Republicans have every right to make their pitch, but it should be fact-checked and put into context so viewers can better understand. What the two sides are fighting for does actually matter, and some basic substantive analysis, such as, oh, exploring and explaining the probable consequences of defaulting on the debt, would be both fairly easy and helpfully informative for the public.
The childish Halperin pattern of media criticism has prevailed throughout Obama's presidency. Obama has often been criticized for not fulfilling a campaign promise of changing the tone in Washington. Okay, he deserves some blame for that, in that it was a somewhat stupid promise, fine as an aspiration but requiring adjustments to the realities of the political landscape. However, most of the criticism Obama has received ignores that the Republicans play any role in all this. George W. Bush barely won election in 2004, yet this was hailed as a mandate. Meanwhile, the Republican approach was rejected by the American public in 2006 and 2008. In response, the Republican Party did not change their approach, and if anything, became more conservative and extreme. Their policies are neither good nor popular. Most of the corporate media has ignored all of this. Rush Limbaugh announced that he hoped Obama failed, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." As mentioned above, there's ample evidence of bad faith by Republicans on policy (follow the links). Yet somehow, this rarely gets noted by the so-called objective media. While Obama certainly deserves plenty of valid criticism, attacking him for "not changing the tone in Washington," while simultaneously ignoring Republican behavior, is absolutely imbecilic. As it stands, the blind, substance-free "bipartisanship" fervently urged by the DC Village can only be achieved through total capitulation by Obama and the Democratic Party. The Beltway gasbags don't seem to notice or care. (However, this only seems to be the case when it comes to Democrats; whether the Democrats are in power or not, and whether the public backs their policies or not, the Villagers somehow always feel that the Democrats are obligated to capitulate to the Republicans.)
There are also some well-intentioned folks who plaintively ask "can't we all just get along?" but similarly ignore policy and how far right and insane the Republican Party has become. The state of the GOP is deeply unfortunate, but there's no way to fix the situation by ignoring its actual nature. One such person is Jon Stewart, who, while often brilliant, funny, and insightful, can get caught up in wishful thinking and "both sides do it" false equivalencies. As driftglass put it (featured in a an earlier post):
Jon's problem is that, for all of his formidable comedic and observational skills, he is still in an almost catatonic denial about the country in which he lives. He obviously, deeply wants us to be something more than we are. Something better than we are. A place where people with different but sincere and well-reasoned beliefs can fight hard, come together afterward to figure out a good-enough compromise, and then move on to the next thing.
You know who else wants that? Every fucking Liberal I know.
But this simply is not that country: not some feisty middle-brow Camelot with a couple of equally wacky, equally flawed and equally honorable political philosophies contending in an arena with rules and referees. Instead, this is a country where one political party is ruled by loathesome men with grotesque motives on behalf of a tiny clique of plutocrats and bulwarked by an electoral army which is kept constantly tweaked to the point of near-riot by a carefully-cultivated media cocktail of rage, ignorance, bigotry and God.
What Jon cannot face is that he will never have the country he wants -- that we all want -- by clevering and cajoling and joking and reasoning it into existence.
We've tried that for the last 30 years...
Stewart is much better than the mainstream press, but he, too, tends to conflate the two types of partisans. Reporters see passion and recoil. They value being savvy, and the savvy are embarrassed by passion. Something similar can go on for Stewart and his audience, who prize appearing hip – and hipness (apart from championing a favorite, hip-acceptable cause or two). can also entail rejecting passion. In some circumstances, caring just isn't cool. To the "can't we all get along" crowd, condemning conservatives sounds harsh; surely it means that those doing the condemning are closed-minded, and haven't given those nice Republicans a fair chance. Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" took pains not to condemn the GOP, which was understandable. However, it was also pitched at a crowd that's sorta embarrassed by activism, and who doesn't want to acknowledge that, yeah, both parties suck in some respects, but the GOP has gone completely fucking insane. The thing is, type two partisans (the more reality-based), aren't happy about that at all. The entire point of a national political discourse is to become better informed and to make critical judgments, particularly on whom and what to vote for. Unfortunately, certain people and institutions really dislike anyone making such harsh-sounding-but-justified critical judgments about politics. (More on this in future posts.)
Privilege and the Personal
As we wrap up this discussion of partisanship, policy and bullshit, it may help to also consider privilege and the personal. "Partisan" can be awfully misused. As mistermix wrote in January:
Calling someone “partisan” carries a lot of weight among Villagers, because the savvy insiders know that partisans are caught up in unrealistic zeal and lack the reality-based worldview of the those who really know how things work. But if you strip away the veneer of respectability, “partisan” is just a sophisticated form of name-calling often deployed, ironically enough, in partisan argument. Since [Ross] Douthat generally supports Republicans, he’s as partisan as anyone else, if you think that word has any bite.
Ah, but Ross Douthat, master of the poor argument, is in a position of privilege, and thus entitled to pass judgment on the little people. It's a Beltway prerogative. Bloggers and activists, particularly of the liberal variety, tend to get derided by the corporate media as angry. (In contrast, the tea party has been largely feted.) Such anger truly seems to shock them. One thing such media figures just don't get – probably because it would require some self-reflection and self-condemnation – is that such anger stems from giving a damn.
For example, personally, I find bullshit offensive, much more so than saying harsh things – especially if those harsh things are true. I realize people view issues differently, and generally don't have problems with people who possess divergent views but a basic sense of decency. But when someone proposes, say, cutting social services for the poor while simultaneously cutting taxes on the rich, that genuinely upsets me. It is both immoral and bad policy. The rich are doing extremely well (duh, they're rich), and will do extremely well even if we enact good policies that make economic sense and honor the social contract. So the people who are already winning, who go out of their way to screw over those with the least and give to those with the most – a reverse Robin Hood mentality favoring plutocracy and plutonomy – have entered the Asshole Brigade. (I've played with a Wingnut Checklist to identify such people, but this post is probably better for it, or there's just using one's moral compass and bullshit detector.) There is no common ground to be found with members of the Asshole Brigade. They must be fought, debunked, fact-checked and exposed, because they have chosen to put their efforts into needlessly screwing over their fellow human beings and making the world a worse place. If they can be persuaded to leave the Asshole Brigade, great. But in the meantime, they need to be fought and defeated wherever possible, in both the short game and the more important long game. Most corporate media figures don't have skin in the game, in the sense that a dysfunctional government and ailing America don't really hurt them. (It might even be good for business.) In theory, this makes them more "objective" – but in practice, it more often makes them disengaged, cowardly, and appallingly shallow.
"Partisanship" or "hyper-partisanship" that puts party before country is destructive. Favoring a policy because of research, reflection or history is not. If that's "partisanship," it's the good kind. Similarly, getting angry at bullshit is not what's hurting American politics and American political coverage; it's the massive amount of bullshit itself. Policy matters, policy consequences matter, and political "analysts" who always ignore substance for gossip do far more damage than the most vituperative blogger. Our national political discourse badly needs to be more substantive, more wise, more honest and more accurate.