Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Civil Both-Side Bipartisans

I've got more in-depth pieces on some of the following material in development (and these are familiar themes here), but the election's fast approaching, so here's a roundup of the shorter versions.

Honesty over Civility, Accuracy over Politeness

If you caught the first three debates (the first two presidential and the sole vice presidential), you may be aware of the participants stretching the truth, if not outright lying. While no one is completely blameless in this regard, the Republicans told the biggest and most significant lies.

For the first presidential debate, see FactCheck, Politifact and ThinkProgress (plus this guy).

For the vice presidential debate, see FactCheck, Politifact, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR.

For the second presidential debate, check out FactCheck, Politifact, The New York Times The Washington Post, and ThinkProgress. (Oh, and don't miss the right-wing freakout over journalist Candy Crowley having the audacity to fact-check Romney. Like Josh Marshall said, "Live by the buzzword, die by the buzzword." Karma's a bitch, huh?)

The fact-checkers have their flaws, but they're pretty good overall. It bears mentioning that the sheer number of Romney's serial lies is truly staggering, and Paul Ryan has been well-established as an utterly shameless liar. Every iteration of Romney's and Ryan's budget plans is complete bullshit. Actually, almost every single argument from the Romney campaign has been bullshit, including the theme that launched his campaign. This isn't entirely surprising, since practically all sound criticisms of Obama come "from the left," and Romney chose to attack Obama from the right. If it's true that only fools and clowns believe Republican ideology,

Roy Edroso live-blogged the VP debate last week, and wrote a column on the hypocrisy of conservative reactions to it. (Basically, the same conservatives who cheered on Romney's aggressive style in the first debate and didn't give a damn about his many and significant lies were clutching their pearls over Joe Biden's supposedly rude treatment of Paul Ryan.) My reaction was hoisted from comments over there, and I might as well reprint it here:

Funny, I'd say lying is rude.

Civility has its place, but honesty over civility, accuracy over politeness. Alternatively, if you define "civility" in part as showing respect for the truth, a liar has broken the implicit contract of the debate/discussion, and as a moral matter should be called out. (Not that that happens much in the Village, but boy, it's awesome when it does.)

I'm hardly unique in this take. One of the liberal blogosphere's key critiques of (and chief frustrations with) the corporate media is due to it oddly defining "civility" and exalting it above truth. See, for instance, the archives of Alicublog, Thers, TBogg, Blue Gal, driftglass, Digby, Atrios, Balloon Juice, Sadly, No and many more.

As we've discussed before, the Beltway establishment doesn't really care about "civility" per se, otherwise long-running, shameless bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich would be shunned, and certainly never put on the air so frequently. The Beltway version of "civility" is an odd construct, entailing that certain aspects of the establishment cannot be questioned, that Beltway Villagers in good standing cannot lose respectability, and that the socially-determined conventional wisdom reigns, no matter how false.

Similarly, now is the season for pundits and voters to bemoan all the negative ads. Who cares if an ad is negative? What matters is whether it's accurate or not. An honest ad will sometimes deliver a harsh judgment. That's as it should be. Ads should be accurate, and fair – in the sense that ads should provide relevant context and not be technically true but misleading. Voters face a decision, and any ad that is honest and fair helps them in that decision.

Both Sides Do It

As we've explored before, in most cases:

…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.

Among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults, the following are taken as givens:

1. Neither major party is entirely pure or entirely corrupt. You can find despicable and honorable people in both parties.

2. There is an inherent level of bullshit in politics. All politicians lie to some degree.

Naturally, the same crowd also holds that:

3. Nevertheless – actually, because of this – it's very important to take a closer look at politicians, parties, and their policies, and try to make an informed, comparative, qualitative judgment. Responsible citizenship and basic voting depends on it. Policy matters.

Strangely, most Beltway political commentators will endorse #1 and #2, but reject #3. The same media figures who sagely inform the public that politicians lie, as if this a revelation... will also refuse to fact-check their political guests. Instead of #3, they tend to hold the following views:

A. Wisdom lies precisely between the parties. One side cannot be significantly better/more correct than the other. It's impossible that one side can be overwhelmingly better!

B. It is rude to call out liars, or not invite them back after they lie.

C. Giving both parties a fair hearing necessitates judging that both arguments have equal merit.

D. Anyone saying harsh things about conservatives/Republicans clearly is closed-minded, hyper-partisan and not a Serious Person, regardless of the evidence.

All of this also entails:

E. Policy doesn't matter.

This mindset, whatever you want to call it – faux centrism, "sensible" centrism, centrist fetishism, establishment groupthink, bourgeois authoritarianism, the world view of Very Serious People, the Emperor's New Clothes, the ol' ruling class circle jerk – is absolutely fucking imbecilic. The people who shill it are often highly educated and have sterling pedigrees by Beltway standards, but they are shockingly shallow.

Saying "both sides do it," "both sides are equally to blame," or anything similar doesn't always spring from the exact same motives, however. There are three general categories (a future post may delve into more detail):

1. Social: The old maxim is that, in polite conversation, one should avoid discussing politics and religion. Beliefs on them can be strongly-felt and deeply personal (and sometimes irrational), so it's easy for people to fight. When this happens, a host or other peacemaker might offer "both sides do it" as a way to change the subject, de-escalate the situation and placate whoever's agitated. The person (more) in the right on the political dispute is expected to play the adult and let the matter drop in the name of comity. Strictly speaking, "both sides are equally to blame" is almost always bullshit, but it has its place in friendly social situations, where it can be well-intentioned, defensible, and useful.

All that said, politics and religion can be discussed among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults. It has to happen somewhere, and at gatherings whose express purpose is discussing politics (or religion), it's pretty ridiculous and childish to try to shut down adult conversation by insisting that "both sides do it." The issue is knowing the venue and the participants, and how candid and in-depth one can be.

2. Bullshitting: When someone says "both sides do it" or the equivalent on a political show, it's nearly always bullshitting. This does come in different flavors, however. Cokie Roberts will say "both sides do it" to fill time and collect her paycheck; it's insipid Beltway conventional wisdom, but to her fellow travelers and a certain audience, it sounds smart and will receive approving nods. The benefit is that you really don't need to know anything (certainly not any policy details) to say it, so it's a wonderful gift to lazy pundits. Thomas Friedman says "both sides do it" to affect the persona of a Very Serious Person and Sensible Centrist. It supplies the illusion of being independent and thoughtful to middle-information voters, even if anyone who knows the subject well knows you're talking out of your ass. (More on Friedman's shtick here.) Meanwhile, David Brooks and other conservative propagandists will say "both sides do it" as a rearguard action to minimize the damage to their party. The conservative movement and Republican Party have become so extreme and so irresponsible, it's hard to justify their actions. (This increasing extremism is why Brooks' hack arguments to defend his side have grown more obviously ridiculous, and have become more widely mocked.) The best tactic for this type of bullshitter is to hit the false equivalences hard, cherry-picking and pretending some minor incident or minor player in the Democratic Party is as bad as some glaring offense by conservatives/Republicans. It's possible to find Democratic hacks doing similar spin on individual news items, but they're simply not operating on the same scale. The rules of polite Beltway discourse, mirroring some of the "social" motives mentioned above, dictate that it is terribly rude to point out that Republicans are the (chief) problem.

3. Serious Analysis: This is the rarest form of saying "both sides do it," but it does exist, most often as a criticism of both the Republicans and Democrats "from the left." A good example is Matt Taibbi's work investigating Wall Street corruption and reckless greed, and political complicity with it from both major parties. Taibbi has been criticized for occasionally going slightly overboard in blaming both parties equally. (After all, the Dems passed relatively weak Wall Street reform in a climate where the Republicans wanted none at all, the Republicans have steadfastly opposed the Consumer Protection Agency and related appointments, conservative justices delivered the horrible Citizens United decision, and Republicans have twice blocked campaign disclosure requirements designed to minimize some of the damage from Citizens United.) Still, Taibbi and similar figures are qualitatively different from the bullshitters in that they want to stop corruption and encourage good policies and responsible governance, and they are willing and able to discuss detail and nuance. While saying "both sides are equally to blame" may be sloppy and overstated to make a point, for this group, it's normally meant as the start of a deeper conversation, not a trite conclusion to end it.

Another important note, related to bullshitting and serious analysis on political shows: pointing out significant hypocrisy in a politician or party generally isn't the same as a serious "both sides do it" assertion, although bullshitting pundits on the same panel will try to twist it as such. For instance, Paul Krugman has often pointed out that Republicans are not serious about deficit/debt reduction. The David Brooks of the world might pretend otherwise, but this does not mean that neither party is serious about deficit/debt reduction. (Pointing out bad faith, bad policies and bullshit in one party does not magically transfer those to the other party, just to make anxious wannabe centrists feel better.) While some individual Dems might be fairly criticized, colossal bad faith on the deficit/debt is a distinctly Republican failing – in fact, it's one of the defining traits of the party. If Krugman brings something like this up, it's to have a deeper, more accurate conversation, whereas a Brooks will try to shut it down.

Here's another way to break it down:

If you argue that wisdom often resides outside of conventional thinking, I'll agree with you.

If you argue that wisdom lies precisely between two poles of conventional thinking – which are moving, no less! – I'll say you're a fucking moron. (But you'll be dubbed a Sensible Centrist and the Very Serious People will invite you on the Sunday political shows.)


Most voters don't really care about the things Beltway reporters claim they care about (not in the way described, at least).

For instance, most voters don't really care about the deficit and the national debt, certainly not as a top concern. They "care" about them as proxies for the economy, jobs and wages (and will rank jobs as a higher concern). They're anxious about the deficit and debt as proxies for their anxiety about paying their bills. They express concern over the deficit and debt because they mistakenly believe that deficit is mainly due to wasteful spending, and accordingly favor spending cuts over revenue increases, even while supporting spending on the core government programs that cost the most. (Hat tip Clay Shirkey.)

Consequently, when voters say the deficit and debt are among their top concerns, unfortunately, most are merely parroting the Very Serious People in D.C. or because they've been prompted by a poll question. It's not as if most voters have a good understanding of income and wealth inequality, where the deficit and debt come from, and who caused it all. It's not as if most voters can recommend sound economic policy (stimulus spending) over the austerity that's all the rage among the hoi polloi, never mind that their fashionable solution doesn't work. While some voters value social issues over their economic interests, it's also true that a significant number of voters don't know what policies would be in their own economic interests. It's relatively rare for corporate media outlets to actually break down the likely consequences of policies, who would benefit, who it would cost, and how much. (The Bush tax cuts' heavy slant toward the rich has rarely come up, when it should a central point every time the subject is discussed.) The Very Serious People rarely provide necessary context for voters, in part because the VSP hive-mind believes itself to be brilliant even when it's pig-ignorant, in part because it would necessitate calling out one party as significantly more culpable (the Republicans, of course), and VSPs have that unreflective class bias well-known for millennia: they're convinced that the ruling class is a noble meritocracy (or at least doing the best anyone could) while the lower orders need to suffer (it's redemptive, dontcha know).

Similarly, voters don't really care about "bipartisanship" per se. They want responsible government, and sensible policies, and their longing for "bipartisanship" is a proxy for that. (For that matter, both parties can and have occasionally shown "bipartisanship" in pursuing shitty goals, which is hardly laudable. Substance matters. Policy matters.) To be fair, when the majority of elected officials are responsible adults who care about good governance and policies, "bipartisanship" is present. But it's an outcome, a byproduct, not the cause of good government – and sometimes, "bipartisanship" is incompatible with good government, particularly when one party has gone fucking insane. Most voters don't follow congressional battles, aren't aware of the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate and unprecedented obstructionism by Republicans, and generally aren't aware how extreme the Republican Party has become. They also don't study policy in much depth if at all, and don't know how many measures affect them. They know something is broken and things aren't working, but they can't diagnose the problem with any detail, and they can't – or even worse, won't – call out the biggest scoundrels, preferring instead to wallow in the warm, comforting puddle of piss that is saying "both sides are equally to blame." (See "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" for much more.)

In today's political landscape, clutching one's pearls and bemoaning the lack of "bipartisanship" is like praying for less arson while voting to defund firefighters. Or praying for less crime while voting to defund cops and after-school programs. Or praying for better education while firing teachers to balance the budget and attacking the teachers that remain as lazy, incompetent, overpaid slackers. (Oh, wait, the last one especially is actually happening. Funny, that.) The biggest problem in American politics is not a lack of "bipartisanship" – it's the preponderance of bullshit. It's that low-information and middle-information voters, and the entire corporate media empire that caters to them, cannot and will not call out extremism and irresponsibility.

(Yes, it was a bad film, but that sorta makes it more fun to repurpose its slogan.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful analysis of the various ways the village parrots certain themes. What may also be said is that they think they are protecting their jobs should the other party be victorious. If the truth is somewhere in the middle , why does it seem that so much of the republican dogma and policies are based on what I view as stupidity? Ie:cut taxes , create jobs. Or lies? The left wants free birth control?