Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lady Danville - "Kids"

I like this cover better than the MGMT original.

Eclectic Jukebox

Blogiversary VI: Occasional Return of the Blogger

As of yesterday, this blog turns six. I've had much less time to write since last year, alas, but I hope that will change in the next few months. Thanks to all those who have stopped by for my occasional (and mostly long-form) blogging.

I'll do my usual retrospective. Since last year, I added a couple of entries to the Chart Project (an attempt to visualize issues), "The Stupid-Evil-Crazy Vortex" and "Defining Common Ground in Diagrams."

The latter post was mostly a recap, and a companion piece to "Common Ground and Equal Blame." Both posts are part of an ongoing series on false equivalencies and "both sides are equally to blame" balderdash. "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" is the latest entry. (I suppose "Engaging the Opposition, and a Wingnut Checklist" sorta dovetails with the general theme.)

As for other "series," the post "Asymmetric Inhumanity" was my one addition to the War Series.

This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wrote about Judith Magyar Issacson's memoir, Seed of Sarah.

My annual post-Oscars film roundup can be read here (for now).

Finally, my good deed for the year was organizing the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup of the best posts of the year, chosen by the bloggers themselves, in honor of the much missed Jon Swift/Al Weisel. I'm planning to do it again in late December. (Start working on those best posts!) Maybe by then I'll have updated my blogger template...

Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice

The current debt ceiling "negotiations" – really a hostage situation – illustrate very starkly the extreme recklessness of the Republican Party, and the cowardice of far too many journalists covering the story. The Republicans' actions are unprecedented – no party before has ever openly threatened to damage the country's economy if it didn't get what it wanted. Add to that that the Republicans created most of the mess they now decry, have actively fought measures to fix it, and that most of their proposed measures will make it worse, and "shameless hypocrisy" is too tame. "Sociopathic" and "treacherous," while terribly rude, are more accurate, and certainly more on-target than the usual, willfully gutless "both sides are equally to blame" bullshit you'll often get from reporters and pundits. If you doubt that assessment, stop to consider how many mainstream media pieces you've seen that have questioned the legitimacy of the Republican's stance, or put that stance in historical context of their past legislative actions, or analyzed the actual positions of the parties, or suggested (however gently) that for once, perhaps the solution isn't total and utter capitulation by the Democrats, but sober, responsible action by the Republicans. A recent Onion article satirized the situation, but threatening to default on the national debt never should have happened in the first place. However, it's hardly the first time Republicans have threatened measures which should be routine or the basic functioning of the government.

Once upon a time, there were sensible, civic-minded Republicans, and if one looks hard enough, one can still find them occasionally, but they have been hunted to near extinction, and hold no power in the Party as it exists today. Movement Conservatism – and a very nasty strain at that – reigns supreme. The GOP's sins are many, but chief among them are dishonesty, extremism, nihilism, corruption and cruelty.


Last night, President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner both spoke about the debt ceiling. I'd say Obama was accurate but pulled his punches, not naming the scoundrels outright. Meanwhile, Boehner just flat-out lied outrageously. He's hardly the only one in his party to do so. Let's put some of their claims, and this whole debate, in greater context.

Among Boehner's many claims was a familiar one from Republicans, that government spending is out of control. This is blatantly false. Paul Krugman has pointed this out many, many times (most recently when David Brooks parroted the lie), but the chart from this Krugman post is especially helpful:

(Click any chart for a larger view.) Basically, government spending has remained roughly the same, but because of the economic downturn and taking in less revenue, the deficit (and the debt) have grown. You'll notice, in the vein of Karl Rove, that Republicans like to talk about the deficit in terms of percent of GDP because it obfuscates the real problem. They also like to ignore that Bush roughly doubled the national debt, adding roughly five trillion to it.

Where did all that money go? Well, we've used this CBPP chart before:

Here's another, from The New York Times:

For all their posturing, Republicans were the chief force behind all of this. Bloomberg reports:

Yet the speaker, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all voted for major drivers of the nation’s debt during the past decade: Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts and Medicare prescription drug benefits. They also voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that rescued financial institutions and the auto industry.

Together, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News, these initiatives added $3.4 trillion to the nation’s accumulated debt and to its current annual budget deficit of $1.5 trillion.

Let's be honest; if the Republicans really cared about deficits, they never would have passed the deficit-busting Bush tax cuts in the first place, and they certainly wouldn't have threatened to grind the government to a halt last December if Obama and the Democrats didn't extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. As these Congressional Budget Office charts show, letting the Bush tax cuts expire is probably the single best move Congress can do to decrease the deficit:

As for Boehner's bold, debt-cutting plan:

Over the course of a decade, CBO estimates the plan would reduce deficits by $851 billion. Those are big numbers. But they're less than Boehner's $1 trillion in promised cuts, and would thus make it hard for him to stand by his demand for a dollar-for-dollar match between deficit reduction and new borrowing authority...

Exempting war spending -- which goes untouched in Boehner's plan -- the legislation would reduce spending by only $5 billion next fiscal year. And its impact on the deficit is even less -- a paltry $1 billion.

The Republicans current game is classic shock doctrine and starve the beast strategy. Run up the debt (funneling most of that money to the rich), create a crisis, then use that crisis to try to justify cutting the social safety net. Thom Hartmann gives a great short history of this movement, but the evidence of bad faith is considerable. Reagan roughly tripled the national debt, and Republicans abandoned fiscal conservatism for Reaganomics' fiscal recklessness and plutocratic agenda. (As we examined in "Attack of the Plutocrats," they've been extremely successful.) Reagan's budget director David Stockman admitted that the true goal of their supply-side economic pitch was to lower taxes on the rich. Neocon Irving Kristol said he didn't care about fiscal irresponsibility if it gave Republicans more power. Dick Cheney infamously said that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

You have to look awfully hard to find a fiscally responsible Republican these days. Most congressional Republicans either support fiscal recklessness and don't worry about the consequences, or support fiscal recklessness as a means of destroying the parts of government they don't like. Regardless, it's horrible, irresponsible governing. They keep fighting to make America into more of a plutocracy, and refuse to raise taxes even a tiny fraction on the rich, even though that's where the money's gone:

Rich Republican donors have actually told Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor it's okay to raise their taxes, and he told them no. (The positions of the Republican leadership keep shifting somewhat, but their opposition to raising taxes even slightly has been quite firm.)

The current Republican proposals to balance the budget don't hold up to scrutiny. The same goes for Paul Ryan's earlier, fraudulent, cruel budget built of supply-side fairy dust. In contrast, The People's Budget, introduced by the Progressive Congressional Caucus, actually does balance the budget and creates a surplus by 2021, while protecting the social safety net and investing in jobs programs. Conservatives refuse to use the solutions it employs, though. Occasionally, Republicans have given up the game, and openly admitted to not actually caring about the deficit. As Krugman has often pointed out, they are phony deficit hawks:

So, just to summarize: Republicans are deeply, deeply concerned about the budget deficit; they believe that our nation’s future is at stake.

But they’re willing to sacrifice that future, not to mention risk the good faith and credit of the federal government, rather than accept so much as a single penny of tax increases as part of a deal.

Given all that, it seems almost redundant to mention that federal tax receipts as a percentage of GDP are near a historic low...

So what’s it all about? The answer, of course, is that the GOP never cared about the deficit — not a bit. It has always been nothing but a club with which to beat down opposition to an ideological goal, namely the dissolution of the welfare state. They’re not interested, at all, in a genuine deficit-reduction deal if it does not serve that goal.

And everyone who has preached bipartisanship, who has called for a meeting of minds on the subject, is either a fraud or a chump.

Despite thirty years of fiscal irresponsibility and recklessness from Republicans, and ample evidence of bad faith through their public statements and voting records, the mainstream press insists on taking GOP claims about balancing the budget at face value, with nary a scrap of skepticism. It's pathetic, and does the public a grave (and in this case, dangerous) disservice. The Republican story on our current budget woes is shamelessly dishonest, intentionally omitting crucial context and their own massive culpability.

It's important to also remember that theirs is a cruel agenda, by design or simply default. Lobbying for a favored policy is one thing, but simultaneously lobbying to funnel money to the most privileged while trying to cut aid to the middle class and poor is unconscionable. It's also indefensible in terms of such quaint notions as representative government. The same Republicans who would not budge on tax cuts for the rich in December are the same people who fought to deny umemployment benefits to millions of Americans, and who have fought to fire teachers, nurses and firefighters. Effectively, they've chosen to represent 2–5% of their constituents at the expense of the other 95% plus.

It can't be repeated enough: Overall, Republicans do not care about responsible governance. They do not care about deficits or fiscal responsibility. They do not care about the social contract. They do not care about all Americans, only the wealthy, corporations, and a few other interest groups. Pretending otherwise is naïve at best, cowardly and dangerous at worst.


As Nate Silver notes, the GOP's no tax position is far outside the political mainstream. Based on a recent poll, Americans favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases:

Few Americans, however, take the view that spending cuts alone should be made in a deal, with no tax increases at all. In fact, only 26 percent of the Republican voters surveyed in Gallup’s poll took that position, along with 20 percent of voters overall...

The average Republican voter, based on this data, wants a mix of 26 percent tax increases to 74 percent spending cuts. The average independent voter prefers a 34-to-66 mix, while the average Democratic voter wants a 46-to-54 mix:

Numerous polls show that Americans would prefer raising taxes on the rich first before cutting social spending. Support for that would likely shoot up drastically if more people knew about the massive increase in wealth inequality over the past decades.

Silver continues:

Now consider the positions of the respective parties to the negotiation. One framework that President Obama has offered, which would reduce the debt by a reported $2 trillion, contains a mix of about 17 percent tax increases to 83 percent spending cuts. Another framework, which would aim for twice the debt reduction, has been variously reported as offering a 20-to-80 or 25-to-75 mix.

With the important caveat that the accounting on both the spending and tax sides can get tricky, this seems like an awfully good deal for Republicans. Much to the chagrin of many Democrats, the mix of spending cuts and tax increases that Mr. Obama is offering is quite close to, or perhaps even a little to the right of, what the average Republican voter wants, let alone the average American.

Stop to consider this for a moment. Republicans could have gotten a deal favoring them 75 to 25, or even as good as 87-13, and they rejected it. Meanwhile, many press accounts, true to form (as we explored in a recent post), have ignored the actual positions of the two parties and blamed them both equally, or even worse, excoriated the Democrats for not making a deal. Democrats have been willing to compromise (in fact, Obama has been far too willing).

Why haven't the Republicans taken one of these generous deals? Silver continues:

However, all but 7 Republicans in the House of Representatives, or 97 percent of them, have signed the pledge of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform stating that any net tax increases are unacceptable. One might have believed this to be simply a negotiating position. But the proposal that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell floated yesterday, which would give up on striking a deal and instead rely on some procedural gymnastics to burden Mr. Obama with having to raise the debt ceiling, suggests otherwise. Republicans in the House really may be of the view that a deal with a 3:1 or 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases is worse than none at all.

If we do take the Republicans’ no-new-taxes position literally, it isn’t surprising that the negotiations have broken down. Consider that, according to the Gallup poll, Republican voters want the deal to consist of 26 percent tax increases, and Democratic voters 46 percent — a gap of 20 percentage points. If Republicans in the House insist upon zero tax increases, there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones.

Silver provides another chart:

It's striking, isn't it? This general pattern extends on many other issues. Even a few years ago, some Republican politicians acknowledged global warming existed, even if they advocated only modest action to combat it. Fewer of those halfway-honest souls exist now, and several GOP presidential candidates "are running away from their past positions on global warming, driven by their party's loud doubters who question the science and disdain government solutions." Congressional Republicans have become more extreme on the issue, although they aren't as far to the right of average Republicans on it as they are on taxes. However, as we've explored before, on a multitude of issues, the Republican base believes things that simply are not factually true – and they believe these things because their leaders lie to them, and have done so for several decades.

In a subsequent post, Nate Silver shows that "G.O.P. Governors Swing Right, Leaving Voters Behind," and observes that "moderate Republican governors, a thriving species before last year's elections, are all but extinct." The same is not true of moderate Democratic governors.

Meanwhile, the two parties are not equivalent when it comes to the core concept of negotiation itself. When it comes to the current debt ceiling issue:

A new Pew Research poll finds 68% of Americans say that lawmakers should compromise on the debt ceiling debate, even it means striking a deal they disagree with. Just 23% say lawmakers who share their views should stand by their principles, even if that leads to default.

Breakdown: 81% of of Democrats and 69% of independents favor a compromise to avoid default, but Republicans are more divided: 53% favor a compromise, while 38% say lawmakers should stand by their principles even if it leads to a default.

Once-respectable conservatives have downplayed the dangers of default, or even endorsed it, and many GOP freshmen in the House, a very right-wing bunch, think defaulting on the debt is no big deal. As John Cole notes (and do read his whole short post), they think they are revolutionaries and they are insane. Shockingly, stupid people are more likely to make stupid decisions.

Corruption and Nihilism

When looking at the destructive words and actions of politicians, it's hard not to wonder what mix of stupid, evil or crazy fuels them. With Grover Norquist, the answer's mainly evil, with a bit of crazy. For his devotees and pledges, it may be more precise to speak of corruption and nihilism. Overwhelmingly, they're extremists, but Norquist leads the pack in that regard.

Grover Norquist is most well-known for being president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and for pressing Republicans to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, ever, even in the face of Armageddon – which appears to have arrived. He's infamous for saying that his goal is to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Norquist, a rich man by now, is a zealous proponent of Starve-the-Beast. He doesn't care about the social contract, balancing the budget, or a more functional government. Whether essential social program will be cut, or Americans will suffer, is not Norquist's problem. He doesn't give a damn. He always wants to lower taxes, regardless of the situation. In an amazing coincidence, this would personally benefit Norquist, and presumably his anonymous donors. (The obvious factors, money and power, should never be discounted, particularly with a well-connected player such as Norquist.)

Norquist recently clashed with some other Republicans over cutting an ethanol subsidy. They argued that it interfered with the free market, but Norquist claimed cutting it would amount to a tax increase and would break his pledge... because it lead to more revenue for the government. (Norquist later backtracked and claimed Republicans could eliminate the subsidy as long as they made a corresponding cut elsewhere.) The incident exposed his bad faith; while some conservatives sincerely want "small government," Norquist wants to destroy government altogether. The negative effects of doing so are someone else's problem. Norquist has always been peddling irresponsible fantasy. As Will Bunch documents in Tear Down This Myth, Norquist played a key role in selling the counterfactual mythology of Saint Ronnie Reagan to America after Reagan left office. (Among other things, Reagan raised taxes several times, and would fail Norquist's own pledge.)

Meanwhile, Norquist isn't just a zealot; he's hyper-partisan and corrupt as well. Talking Points Memo has a good summing up of his activities, but he used the (officially) non-profit ATR as a lobbying organization. Working with his close friends Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff, Norquist was one of the driving forces behind the K Street Project, a lobbying scheme to enrich Republicans, and punish and de-fund Democrats. (Tom Delay and Rick Santorum were also key players.) Think Progress gives a good quick overview:

HOW THE K STREET PROJECT WORKED: In his dealings with K Street lobbyists, DeLay explicitly stated he would operate by “the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends.” (To gain influence over legislation, trade associations and corporate lobbyists were ordered to do three things: 1) refuse to hire Democrats, 2) hire only deserving Republicans as identified by the congressional leadership, and 3) contribute heavily to Republican coffers.) Despite being admonished by the House Ethics Committee numerous times for his conduct, DeLay’s pay-to-play machine continued to plow full-speed ahead. With federal benefits up for sale, corporations quickly identified the need to need to hire more lobbyists, giving rise to one of the greatest growth industries in America. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, proudly proclaimed in 2002 that [conservatives] “will have 90-10 [percentage advantage in staffing] on K Street and 90-10 business giving.”

(As Eric Boehlert notes, most of the press did a poor job covering the K Street Project and the Abramoff scandal.) Like his pal Karl Rove, Norquist has worked to permanently de-fund and destroy the Democratic Party. ATR is also a member of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), a conservative group of corporations and right-wing activists who draft up corporate-friendly legislation that Republican politicians then try to pass into law. Far from being some fringe figure, Norquist is one of the most influential conservative figures in the country, and as Nate Silver notes, a staggering 97% of House Republicans have signed his no-new-taxes pledge.

Why this matters should be obvious, but let's consider how far the Norquist model of governance strays from the ideal. If we had a sane, adult, responsible Congress, they would approach the issue of the budget by looking at both spending cuts and tax increases. The goal would be fiscal responsibility, not solely spending cuts, which is a childish, absolutist stance. Voters and their representatives would decide what services they wanted government to provide, and then they would make sure they were paid for. If voters and their representatives wanted lower taxes, they would look at what should be cut. Voters would be mature and reasonably informed, and wouldn't simultaneously demand more services and lower taxes.

If we had adults in charge, they'd consider the strong public support for taxing the rich more, and how a very slight increase in taxes on the wealthy worked very well under Clinton, while the tax cuts for the wealthy under Bush accomplished nothing for the country as a whole (and were a huge contributor to our current woes).

If we had adults in charge, in economic slumps, as we have now, Congress would recognize that fiscal responsibility is not always the same thing as fiscal conservatism. It would use Keynesian spending – stimulus measures, unemployment benefits, jobs programs, infrastructure spending, New Deal-type programs – to invigorate the economy. It would remember the mistakes of the Great Depression, and not repeat them.

Insisting on no new taxes, ever, is childish at best, and downright nihilistic at worst. Politicians are supposed represent all their constituents, not just the rich ones, and not one, unelected rich activist. But somehow, Norquist rarely gets criticized in the press. It's a classic example of IOKIYAR (It's OK If You're a Republican), because if the situation were reversed, both conservatives and the press would raise holy hell. As Ed at Gin and Tacos notes:

Let's say that through a combination of fund-raising prowess, ideological militancy, and personal charisma, Jesse Jackson Sr. is able to assume a position of considerable behind-the-scenes power in the Democratic Party. His sway over elected Democrats is such that he manages to get 95% of the Democratic Congressional delegation, House and Senate, to sign an oath of personal loyalty to his policy goals. Specifically, they pledge that under no circumstances will they ever support cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social welfare programs. Jackson believes that any such cuts will affect the poor and people of color disproportionately. Throughout the debate over the budget and debt ceiling, House and Senate Democrats refuse to even consider any proposal that touches any of those programs. It is a non-starter. Full stop. Because they swore an oath to Jesse Jackson that they wouldn't.

I'm sure you can see through this thin shoe-on-the-other-partisan-foot analogy to Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" that currently holds sway over the GOP. I do think it's interesting to draw out the hypothetical scenario, though, to underscore a point: Can you even imagine the sheer violence of the pant-shitting that the GOP, Teatards, and Beltway media would be engaged in if the shoe really was on the other foot? If every Democrat had signed a personal oath to an interest group and private citizen that took precedence over their oath to the American people and Constitution?

As The New York Times notes, Republicans are signing away the right to govern – and Norquist's pledge isn't the only one they've signed. There's also the Susan B. Anthony pledge (trying to ban abortion and cut off funds), the horribly unrealistic and irresponsible "cut, cap and balance" pledge (its follies are explained here), and the far right, social conservative Marriage Vow (opposition to same-sex marriage, and, until recently, an implicit claim that black children were better off as slaves than they are when raised by a single parent). Consider again how conservatives outsource legislation-writing to ALEC, and the corruption entailed by corporations doing this (as opposed to engaging in strictly-regulated lobbying). Steve Benen has more on all this in "Governing is Not for the Faint of Heart," and Jared Bernstein also weighs in. As I've often written, the Democratic Party is partially plutocratic and corrupt, and the Republican Party is entirely so. The Republican approach to governing is lazy, irresponsible, and corrupt – and at its worst, absolutely reckless and nihilistic. The present debt ceiling hostage situation renders this very starkly.


We've covered media inaccuracies and cowardice before, and shall again. The liberal blogosphere criticizes the Democratic Party all the time, and will continue to do so. However, the debt ceiling threats from the Republicans to tank the American economy (and by extension the global economy) are unprecedented, and the blame in this case is extremely one-sided. It would be refreshing if more of the press showed the basic integrity and courage to call it straight. (It is in fact possible to do so without writing an op-ed.)

To close, let's turn once again to Paul Krugman, who perfectly captures the sins of the centrism cultists, who traffic in false equivalencies and recite the holy scriptures: "Both Sides Do It" and "Both Sides Are Equally to Blame." As Krugman writes in "The Cult That Is Destroying America":

Watching our system deal with the debt ceiling crisis — a wholly self-inflicted crisis, which may nonetheless have disastrous consequences — it’s increasingly obvious that what we’re looking at is the destructive influence of a cult that has really poisoned our political system.

And no, I don’t mean the fanaticism of the right. Well, OK, that too. But my feeling about those people is that they are what they are; you might as well denounce wolves for being carnivores. Crazy is what they do and what they are.

No, the cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president. Once again, health reform — his only major change to government — was modeled on Republican plans, indeed plans coming from the Heritage Foundation. And everything else — including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment — is according to the conservative playbook.

What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.

You have to ask, what would it take for these news organizations and pundits to actually break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault? This is the clearest, starkest situation one can imagine short of civil war. If this won’t do it, nothing will.

And yes, I think this is a moral issue. The “both sides are at fault” people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray.

It’s a terrible thing to watch, and our nation will pay the price.

(See also driftglass and driftglass.)

Once again: Republicans do not care about responsible governance. They do not care about deficits or fiscal responsibility. They do not care about the social contract. The Republican Party has lied about the nature and source of America's budget woes. They've lied about their central culpability. Their "solutions" are cruel to the poor and middle class, their positions are inflexible and extreme, and their conduct is rife with corruption. The most extreme of them are happy to loot the Treasury and watch the country burn; the most insane of them genuinely think this would be a good thing, and would allow them to remake the country more in their image. Drunk with power, ignoring the advice of reality-based experts and the will of the people, they have eagerly fought to a stance of sheer nihilism – threatening to deliberately and deeply wound the country they claim to love. As always, they arrogantly claim the mantle of righteousness and patriotism, but another word describes them much more accurately – traitors.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Onion on the Debt Ceiling

It's sad that satirical site The Onion is so much more incisive and honest than most of the national press corps on the ridiculous debt ceiling hostage situation:

"It is a question that, I think, is worthy of serious consideration: Should we take steps to avoid a crippling, decades-long depression that would lead to disastrous consequences on a worldwide scale? Or should we not do that?" asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), adding that arguments could be made for both sides, and that the debate over ensuring America’s financial solvency versus allowing the nation to default on its debt—which would torpedo stock markets, cause mortgage and interests rates to skyrocket, and decimate the value of the U.S. dollar—is “certainly a conversation worth having.”

Yes, both sides have valid points, and both sides are equally to blame, regardless of the facts. It's a very short piece, but do go over and read the rest. It's got a great last line.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit

"Partisan" is one of the most ambiguous and misused terms in our national political discourse. Beltway pundits usually deploy "partisan" and "partisanship" as insults, but can be wildly off the mark in this. Dismissing someone as a "partisan" – while simultaneously ignoring actual policy, accuracy and honesty – makes our national political discourse dumber.


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:

(Explained in the most depth here.)

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.