Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Both Sides Do It: Partisanship Redux

I find I keep on returning to themes explored in a piece from last year, "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit." Among other things, it contended that Beltway pundits tend to obtusely conflate different types of "partisanship," and explored why there's such a preponderance of bullshit in our national political discourse. Here's a partial recap and riff on that piece, focusing mostly on an extremely popular variety of bullshit: sagely pronouncing that "both sides do it."

Members of the chattering class tend to be well-educated, and it's not that they're stupid per se, but they mistake pedigree and status for merit. They're also lazy and really don't like to do policy analysis. The Beltway Conventional Wisdom is socially determined, not a matter of careful thought and analysis. As a class, pundits are shallow, careless people, and most of their opinions are issued after putting a finger in the wind and judging what will play well with the other club members. (Centrist fetishism, such as saying 'both sides are equally to blame,' goes over very well in what Jay Rosen calls the church of the savvy; it supplies the illusion of independence and insight while obviating any need for critical thinking and qualitative judgment.) Many Beltway pundits do not really think per se as much as they regurgitate unreflective class attitudes; their pronouncements are based on cosmetics, not substance. The Emperor's New Clothes isn't just a parable; it's the eternal ethos of the ruling class. (For the rest of this post, we'll refer to this crowd derisively as Very Serious People, or VSPs, because that's how we DFHs roll.)

Let's start with two statements:

1. My party is morally pure and the other party is evil.

2. This party is better than the other party (on this issue, and/or overall).

Very Serious People tend to conflate these. Every time someone (say an expert or activist) states anything that hints of #2, VSPs will take offense, acting as if that the person was actually claiming #1. Only a hack or zealot would insist on #1. Similarly, only a dogmatic breed of centrist would insist that wisdom hangs precisely midpoint between the two major parties (especially since they do change positions, making this type of "centrism" a shifting, moving target versus wisdom for the ages). Substantive political discussion between adults depends on accuracy and nuance, including assessing the consequences of policies, and when necessary, assigning appropriate degrees of blame.

Let's move on to two related statements:

2a. I support this policy because my party supports it. [Type one partisans, "hyper-partisans," hacks and zealots.]

2b. I prefer this party on this issue (or overall) because their policy positions are better. [Type two partisans, wonks and conscientious citizens.]

Very Serious People tend to conflate these as well. The process by which people come to their positions is very important. Not all opinions are created equal. Not all opinions are equally grounded in reality. Not all opinions are offered in good faith. However, if you're a lazy pundit and don't want to do any policy analysis, or discuss the reasons why someone holds their positions, you'll judge everything on cosmetics, and can opine sagely that both sides are equally valid, equally to blame, etc. Thus, a Very Serious Person or Sensible Centrist might pretend that a climate scientist, an oil company flack, and a religious fanatic all have equally sound views on global warming, that "opinions differ on the shape of the earth," and so on.

Tom Friedman is a classic example. Like many other Very Serious People, he proves he's one of society's indispensable "producers" by essentially rewriting the same column over and over again. He's fond of clutching his pearls over the equally rabid partisans from both sides!, and points to our salvation – Sensible Centrism. The problem is, on multiple occasions, the 'sensible centrist' positions that Friedman has championed are actually held by Barack Obama and other Democrats. The Republican Party has moved far to the right over the past thirty-some years, and for the most part, the range of discourse in D.C. occurs between far right Republicans and left-of-center Democrats (with others mostly excluded). Furthermore, the Republican Party has become obstructionist to an unprecedented degree. Friedman, however, can't be bothered to pay attention to any of this, or simply believes that accurate analysis would not play well with his target audience. It would necessitate calling out one side, and that would be terribly partisan, uncivil and unsavvy, especially in the eyes of the Aspen and Davos set. (You won't see Mann and Ornstein on many talk shows, because the thesis of their book, It's Worse Than It Looks, while well-supported, assigns blame and is thus extremely impolite.) Friedman, like many pundits, is obsessed with selling the image of being a sage, and desperately wants to be seen as a Very Serious Person; he is unwilling to embrace the fact-based analysis, honesty and courage necessary for delivering actual sage insight. The "Both Sides Do It" mentality sometimes manifests in the ol' "Even though I haven't studied this issue, I'm certain that I'm wiser than you" gambit. By legend, a large portion of Socrates' wisdom was that he knew how little he knew; in contrast, Very Serious People feel entitled to opine on matters they are largely ignorant about, and especially entitled to scold those silly "partisans" who surely must be looking at things all wrong.

Here are our next two statements:

3. Winner-Takes-All: We'll take all we can, and screw everybody else. [YOYO; You're On Your Own.]

4. Win-Win: Everybody benefits, there's still inequality, but things are slightly more equal and fair. [WITT; We're In This Together.]

Very Serious People tend to equate these, too. (You may be sensing a trend.) The useful YOYO versus WITT distinction comes from Jared Bernstein. It highlights that liberals and conservatives have very different views on the social contract. They also hold very different views on compromise, with liberals and independents valuing it and many conservatives opposing it. (See also Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's book, Winner-Take-All Politics.) As we’ve explored before, generally speaking, liberals are concerned with issues of fairness, while conservatives are focused on issues of power. They're simply not speaking the same language, nor are they fighting for the same things. This significantly affects both policy consequences and policy negotiations… although you'd never know it from watching the mainstream Sunday chatter. A black and white, "both sides are equal" worldview presents the illusion of open-mindedness while ignoring reality. Centrist fetishism is as dogmatic as hyper-partisanship (2a above)… and considerably more sanctimonious. It ignores substance, nuance, and important differences, and is thus irredeemably obtuse: Both sides do it. Policy doesn't matter.

Two charts featured in previous posts help illustrate these dynamics. Last year, Nate Silver provided some sharp analysis of the debt ceiling hostage situation (examined here at length in "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice"). Silver observed that the 'Republican's no-tax stance was far outside of the mainstream,' and significantly to the right of even Republican voters. When it came to a debt deal, congressional Republicans even rejected a deal that favored their position by 83 to 17 (the percentage of spending cuts to tax increases). Silver broke down the reasons and supplied a useful chart:

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.


If you remember the coverage from the time, you'll recall that the Very Serious People scolded both sides for their intransigence, ignoring everything Sliver pointed out. They also ignored (among other things) that the very same Republicans who screamed of fiscal Armageddon with a Democrat in the White House eagerly ran up the debt under Bush. (Plus, they fought like hell to keep the Bush tax cuts in place, when letting them expire was/is the single easiest measure to help balance the budget.)

The second chart appeared in "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit," which I'll just quote:


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.


Unless every Beltway pundit has suffered a severe head trauma, describing these dynamics is really not that difficult. It's not a matter of minute nuance, merely a matter of honest evaluation and a few shades of grey. Simply describing policy consequences and who benefits would generally do the trick. Similarly, it's really not hard for columnists (who can issue opinions) to criticize the failings of the Democratic Party (as liberal bloggers do all the time) yet still point out the many areas where the Republican Party is considerable worse. (As a few people have noted, the American Republican Party is really the only major political party in the developed world that denies global warming and opposes universal health care.) But Beltway journalists will do their damnedest to avoid uttering certain obvious conclusions.

None of this is to ignore the significant corporatist and imperialist factions in the Democratic Party, or the faults of the Obama administration specifically. But Beltway pundits, VSPs and "Villagers" rarely criticize the Democrats from the left. It's striking that so many pundits have such an off-base view of Centrism, Moderation, and Seriousness (not to mention Liberalism versus Socialism). Republicans can falsely claim that tax cuts to the rich raise revenues and rarely get challenged, and Paul Ryan's fraudulent budget plan will be praised by VSPs who haven't bothered to read the damn thing, but the quite good People's Budget from the Congressional Progressive Caucus is almost completely ignored. (And good luck getting coverage, Green Party.) Digby recently wrote about the supposedly "centrist" group Third Way, and their latest attempt to shred the New Deal and the social safety net, just as she's written frequently about efforts by Pete Peterson and other Very Serious People to do the same (covered in passing here in a post on wealth inequity). Certain opinions are deemed wise or foolish by default in the Beltway, regardless of their merit. This brings us to two stalwarts of the VSP mentality:

5. Shut up, Krugman, the emperor's clothes are gorgeous!

6. The rich are not working because they have too little money, the poor because they have too much.

(#6 paraphrases John Kenneth Galbraith, who also observed that "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.")

If you read Paul Krugman regularly, you know that austerity is all the rage among Very Serious People, despite all the data arguing against it (and the history of such tiny, forgettable events as the Great Depression). Preaching austerity just feels right to them, and expresses a set of moral values that entail... that the very people who caused the global economic mess should continue to stay in power and prosper, while the already-squeezed middle class and the poor should "sacrifice." Similarly, it's terribly rude to question that nice Mr. Cheney about his evidence of WMD in Iraq and a 9/11-Iraq link, or hold the Bush administration responsible for torture, or challenge the surveillance state that still continues, or discuss how other countries successfully deliver universal health care, and so on. Basically, in an amazing coincidence, the ruling class and its courtiers always think they're just swell folks (who should be deferred to, and not held accountable), but that the lower orders are lazy moochers (who need a good scolding and the boot). The more aware among this set are exploiting the shock doctrine (evil in the stupid-evil-crazy vortex), but many in the chattering class don't think that deeply, and are merely expressing unreflective class attitudes. They are simply arguing for what they view as the natural order of things. Part of the problem is that they're terribly cloistered, and cut off from the consequences of their own blithe idiocy (most are in the richest 1%). Not all of them are unredeemable. Still, it shouldn't be ignored that many of them are truly awful people.

To briefly recap the issue of the preponderance of bullshit: the 24-hour news cycle depends on a steady stream of content, or the appearance thereof. Hiring smart people to fill that time would be one solution, but there are only so many Rachel Maddows to go around (and she's got a pesky habit of wanting to research things, which takes time). The simpler, cheaper solution is to hire vapid chatterboxes who can gab away endlessly. (Pick up a dozen Steve Doocys and you're good to go!) Most TV political commentary is no more than gossip, and very insipid, fact-free gossip at that. Basically, the TV news model depends on the constant generation of bullshit. It is the coin of the realm. Cokie Roberts isn't going to call out Newt Gingrich, because he's a member of the club, and lord, it's not as if she wants to be held to any standards, either. Great reporters do exist, and discriminating new consumers do exist, but they do not drive the dominant corporate media model, particularly as exists in television. A corporate media is unlikely to challenge the status of corporations (except on comedy programs). In one sense, the corporate media is selling a cheap, pulpy substance with that genuine newsy flavor to the masses. (As Homer Simpson would say, "Infotainment.") In another sense, news viewers aren't really the consumers at all – they're the commodity being sold by the media to their real customers – their corporate advertisers.

Considering that any honest evaluation of the faults of our national political discourse would condemn most pundits to the pits of hell (well, the journalistic equivalent), it's not surprising that pundits are a wee bit reluctant to acknowledge these failings. (As long as we're talking in metaphors and fantasies, sending a few pundits to Purgatory or Limbo would be lovely. They assure us that suffering is redemptive.)

Most Beltway pundits value the appearance of bipartisanship for its own sake, not bipartisanship as a means of getting things done. They don't care about substantive differences between competing factions, and they really don't care about good policy and responsible governance. A change of the party in power rarely adversely affects them. While civility is a worthy trait, it's of secondary value to honesty and accuracy. But why discuss policy when you can discuss the slighted feelings of the powerful ("fee fees"), and the all-important issue of tone? Rather than criticizing Obama for his actual policies and other valid reasons, why not attack him for being mean? From the earlier post:

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 primary "bias" of our media is shallowness. (Although this naturally benefits the reality-challenged, those of bad faith, and the status quo.) When Jimmy Carter called the Bush administration the "worst in history" in 2007 (he later apologized), there was little discussion over whether it was true or not; the discussion wasn't Holy crap, he's right, and that's a serious problem to have a horrible president, and what are we going to do about it?, it was about how terribly mean Carter was, and that it was a breach of decorum. Most mainstream "debates" about torture don't focus on actual facts, including the findings of reports by the Senate and Red Cross, or a study by McClatchy; the Very Serious People have decided that calling someone a "war criminal" is much worse than actually being one. Similarly, why bother to ask what the hell America is still doing in Afghanistan, or press Obama about the high civilian death toll from drone strikes, when you can prove your manhood by attacking Chris Hayes for being un-American instead? Why discuss blowback and serious issues of foreign policy when you can harp about how a flag pin is the ultimate measure of one's patriotism? Occasionally, the truth is harsh. Good government depends on pointing out when the emperor has no clothes, and that's one of the key reasons we have the First Amendment. At times, it really is breathtaking that our national political discourse is so fucking insipid.

Basically, saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level. (There are exceptions, but they are few. We'll delve into this further in future posts.) Obsessing about "tone" and other cosmetics serves the same function. 'Sensible Centrism' is very popular because it gives the appearance of wisdom, objectivity, independence, impartiality and so on without having to commit to much of anything. It can adapted to almost every occasion, and is ideal for pundits who don't want to do their homework or deal with backlash from angry hyper-partisans (predominantly right-wingers). The tactic is a bullshitter's dream. Effective government and citizenship depend on making judgments and choices, the more informed, the better. Some level of qualitative analysis is essential for political figures when discussing policy, and for citizens in terms of voting and activism. Typically, our national political discourse shuts down honest discussion and reality-based analysis rather than encouraging it.

4 comments:

joel hanes said...

You're getting very good at this.

I'm bookmarking this one, and hope to link it when appropriate.

gcwall said...

A disturbing aspect of the chattering class is that their mendacity is a betrayal. It is a betrayal of a "free press" when the when the phrase translates to "free to be dishonest with their audience." The duty to inform the American people is betrayed in their laziness and the writing of manipulative articles.

Using false equivalence and "reverse ferret" are at the very least unethical.The arrogance of certain influential personalities is astounding in their ability to commit to paper or to stare into a camera a complete lack of integrity. Intergrity doesn't seem to matter much any more, and a lack of shame for their betrayal is galling.

New York Crank said...

I really can't quibble with anything you said, save to point out that you used an awful lot of words just to point out that Tom Friedman is a pompous jerk.

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank

D. said...

Linking to this stat.

In a just universe you would be one of the people you're writing about. Without the falsehoods, of course.