Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Our National Political Discourse

I wanted to try to visualize how our national political discourse should work, and discuss how it does work instead. Here's a simplified version:

Politicians make their pitches; the media asks them questions; voters make judgments based on this process. The political lineup shuffles accordingly with each election, and the process repeats. Long live democracy!

Of course, this is basic civics class stuff, and extremely simplified in terms of what actually happens. For instance, politicians often lie, the media may fail to fact-check them, and citizens may be ill-informed or irrational in their voting choices. Politically active citizens also do far more than just vote. Still, this model expresses an ideal central to our nation's founding: our system of government works better the more that voters can make informed choices. Thomas Jefferson was a fierce advocate for both a free press and public education for precisely this reason. On the press, he wrote:

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Jefferson argued that public education in America would help international competition, but also that it was vital to democracy:

...Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

It bears mentioning that Jefferson was quite critical of the quality of the newspapers in his time, and felt one might be better informed if one didn't read them. (Some things don't change.) Nevertheless, his goal was a "well-informed" electorate, and he felt a free press and public education were important mechanisms for achieving this. Jefferson's views on these issues epitomize Enlightenment thinking, as does the notion that "all men are created equal." (Although let's not forget women or other historically disenfranchised groups.)

Enlightenment ideals stand in sharp contrast to the ideology of certain conservatives, neocons, neo-feudalists, a large section of the ruling class, and their attending suck-ups and wannabes. This crowd is not too keen on the whole "democracy" thing, and focuses more on acquiring and keeping power. Its members feel it's okay to lie to the populace – ostensibly for the benefit of the citizenry – but in an amazing coincidence, those lies always benefit themselves. Irving Kristol, the "godfather of neoconservatism," was somewhat candid about this selective honesty to the public:

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that 'the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

It's one thing to follow the writer's old maxim to "know your audience," and quite another to "lie to obtain and hold power." Kristol, like many of his fellow travelers and descendants, was an advocate of the supposedly "noble lie."

All this bears mentioning because it would be wrong to assume that every political player actually believes in democracy, representative government, the social contract, basic civic responsibility, informing the public and voting rights. Far right activist Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the Heritage Foundation, stated in 1980:

Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome – good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Although of course decent people exist who self-identify as conservatives, conservatism itself has always had an anti-democratic strain. It's not a coincidence that voter suppression efforts for the past few decades have been almost exclusively conservative and/or Republican – and this past election cycle was no exception. However, the mainstream media struggles to call this out.

It's naïve to believe that all political players are acting in good faith, or that citing "principles" automatically ennobles actions or renders them beyond criticism. Some ideologies and their principles are noxious (slavery, white supremacy, female subjugation, theocracy, voter suppression, "I always get to win," etc.). Denouncing taxation as forced labor, theft or slavery is childish, and complaining that you object to your taxes helping the poor "on principle" doesn't make you any less of an asshole… just a less honest one. As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, "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."

As for democracy, the various versions of it have their flaws. Winston Churchill (who certainly had his own flaws) reputedly said, "The strongest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter," but he definitely said:

Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

A More Complex Model

Here's a more complex graphic that better depicts the many disparate groups in our national political discourse:

(Click or go here for a better view. No lines for this one, because it would get too messy, but you can draw your own for specific groups. Yeah, I made this quite a while ago.)

This isn't drawn to scale, of course. For instance, third parties are smaller in terms of their actual influence, and corporations are much larger. (That's kinda a joke, but not really.) Corporations aren't always allied, either, but when it comes to politics, they tend to have one voice, which unfailingly promotes a pro-corporate viewpoint. (Several charts making the rounds show how corporate consolidation has increased over the years in the media and elsewhere.) In case there's any confusion, I'll briefly explain these different groups:

Democratic Leaders: The chart doesn't show smaller factions, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but that one doesn't get a great deal of press, anyway. This icon represents the political leadership of the Democratic Party.

Republican Leaders: Likewise, smaller factions aren't shown (especially since members of "the Tea Party" are just rebranded conservatives). This icon represents the political leadership of the Republican Party.

Third Parties: More than one "third party" exists, and they don't agree on every issue, but obviously they all dislike America's two-party system. I picked Nader for this one because he's relatively well-known as a third-party candidate, but picture another figure (Jill Stein, Gary Johnson) if you prefer or find Nader too polarizing.

Corporations: It would be difficult to overestimate how much influence corporations exert on the entire political process, including the national political discourse. The "mainstream media" is for the most part corporate media, and it's rare that it will allow a viewpoint that isn't corporate-friendly.

Conservative Think Tanks: The pictured Koch brothers fund an enormous amount of conservative "thought" and media (sometimes called "the Kochtopus"). Their numerous outlets can give a false sense of multiple factions that are in consensus that the rich are taxed too much and so on, when in fact it's one message delivered by multiple mouths. Left-leaning and "centrist" think tanks do exist, but as SourceWatch notes, "there are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money." Exceptions exist, but for the most part, conservative think tank "scholars" are pedigreed hacks masquerading as wonks. Most nominally libertarian organizations can be placed here or with the conservative voting groups, the Libertarian Party notwithstanding. Although the Cato Institute and Reason, both Koch-funded, will stray off the conservative reservation on some issues (e.g. legalizing pot), they reliably support plutocracy or plutocrat-friendly policies, environmental deregulation, and a gutting of the Commons, just like the Kochs.

Academics and Experts: This group would be much better to feature in the news than most think tank "scholars," in that they're less likely to have a predetermined political agenda and more likely to tell the truth. However, some academics and experts aren't very good at explaining their field to laypeople, and some aren't good at facing off with hacks (who aren't there for an honest discussion).

Corporate Media: There's more than one corporate media outlet, and they're not always in complete agreement (hence the two icons, although many more could be added to represent the "mainstream media"). Still, they tend to share a basic worldview, often unconsciously, that defers to power, from corporate interests to elite Beltway consensus (the "Very Serious People").

Fox News: Although Fox News is also a corporate media outlet, it's significantly different in that propaganda is a key driver in addition to profit, and the network has shown eagerness in not letting the truth get in the way of a conservative political attack. (For more on this, see basically everything every posted at Media Matters.)

Right-Wing Talk: The hosts and guests on right-wing talk radio overlap considerably with those on Fox News, but there's enough separation it deserves its own category. (The radio-only crowd tends to be even crazier.)

PBS/NPR: Public broadcasting has its faults, but its news coverage is generally better than that of for-profit corporate outlets. It has a little more independence. (Its non-political stories are generally excellent; for anything touching on politics, they sometimes tread too carefully or even bend over backwards not to call out conservatives – unfortunately, conservatives frequently threaten to defund them.)

Independent Liberal Media: Truly liberal media outlets don't have the deep pockets behind them that other outlets do. Still, they do exist, even if they can be harder to find.

True Swing Voters: The notion of the "independent" voter is largely a myth, but there is a small group that will actually switch between the two major parties (or go third party) in major elections. (This mainly applies to national elections, not local ones.)

Likely Republican Voters: This group has a preference for the Republican Party and normally votes for it (at least on the national level). In certain circumstances, members of this group might vote otherwise.

Likely Democratic Voters: This group has a preference for the Democratic Party and normally votes for it (at least on the national level). In certain circumstances, members of this group might vote otherwise.

Diehard Conservative Cheerleaders: This group puts political party and the movement before most other considerations. General loyalty makes some long-term sense, but a "my party, right or wrong" attitude is a big problem, especially when a party/movement's leaders act egregiously. This is the group that still approved of George W. Bush as president no matter what, or stuck by Nixon to the bitter end (or, even if they never badmouthed him publicly, 'only liked him after Watergate').

Yellow Dog Democrats: This group puts political party before most other considerations. (As the joke goes, if the party nominated a yellow dog for office, these people would vote for it.) General loyalty makes some long-term sense, but a "my party, right or wrong" attitude is a big problem, especially when a party/movement's leaders act egregiously. Perhaps it's lack of opportunity, but I don't think this group has been as bad as their conservative counterparts. The closest equivalent would party loyalists who have defended actual (versus alleged) corruption by Democratic politicians or will not hear any criticism of the Clintons or Obama.

Conservative Activists: This group is typified by right-wing bloggers and activists (for instance, pro-life/anti-choice demonstrators). They believe they are the true conservatives and the rightful adjudicators of ideological purity. They tend to be more conservative than the politicians they eventually support (they almost all voted for Romney, but often supported other candidates in the primaries). Still, the activist-politician gap is smaller for them than for their liberal counterparts, since a sizable number of genuinely right-wing public officials do exist.

Liberal Activists: Members of this group tend to identify themselves as "liberals" or "progressives" rather than (or at least before) "Democrats." They typically think that the Democratic Party isn't liberal enough, and will criticize its politicians (although they may still judge them better than the Republicans on given issues or overall). For example, they probably agree with most positions of the Congressional Progressive Caucus or other individual politicians on the liberal end (e.g. Bernie Sanders), but are more critical of Democratic leaders and "centrist" to conservative factions such as the Democratic Leadership Council or Third Way. (It is true that the American Democratic Party as a whole is not very liberal compared to its international counterparts.)

Astroturf Groups: These groups pretend to be grassroots activists, but are actually heavily corporate-funded. Pictured is Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader and rich lobbyist, who went on to be the chairman of FreedomWorks (he's since resigned), a supposed "Tea Party" group backed by rich conservative donors. (And sure, Dick Armey, establishment millionaire, clearly spoke for the little guy as he claimed.)

Third Party Independents: This group is frustrated with the existing two-party system but also eschews internal reform in favor of supporting a third party instead. (There's more than one "third party," making the term technically inaccurate, but it's a common shorthand.) I wouldn't put establishment "centrist" groups such as "No Labels" in this category – they're closer to Astroturf Groups or perhaps the "Likely" groups.

Artists: Not every artist is politically insightful, but some are extremely astute. As we've discussed here before, the Arts can sometimes capture the true nature of politics (particularly its mindsets and pathologies) better than "straight" journalism can.

Political Jesters: The fools who can (and often do) speak truth to power. Sure, there are comics that traffic in cheap, shallow political humor, but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, while not infallible, often do a better job at covering politics than traditional journalism, because they're not afraid to call bullshit. (In fact, it gives them greater credibility.)

Not pictured are the various political groups out there, because simply too many exist. Plus, many roughly align with the various voting/activist groups. For example, the right-wing group Focus on the Family fits in with the Conservative Activists, even though not all conservative activists are theocrats or even social conservatives. Meanwhile, the ACLU is nonpartisan, but right-wingers hate it and civil liberties so much (except when it comes to their own) that it gets pegged as "liberal." The same basic dynamics hold true for Planned Parenthood, if more contentiously because abortion (and unfortunately, even birth control) remain so politicized. Planned Parenthood follows both the law and standard medical practices, so it could be argued it's more "conservative" than the strident activists of Focus on the Family, but of course most conservatives would never see it that way, and such a stance does not describe actual conservatism (versus the fantasy version). As we've explored before, despite their hype, most self-described conservatives aren't fighting to maintain the status quo; they're fighting for what they view as the natural order with themselves on top. They often speak of these efforts as a "restoration," even though their preferred hierarchy is long gone (and was horrible, and remains widely rejected) or never existed in the first place.

It bears mentioning that not all reasons for being in a given group or listening to specific outlets are created equal. Nor is someone's self-labeling necessarily accurate. Voters often like to describe themselves as "independent" when they really mean "sensible." (Late in an election cycle, it's extremely rare for any "undecided" voters to be well-informed but truly ambivalent; at a certain point, almost everyone claiming to be "undecided" is a liar, attention-seeker, or ignoramus.) This chart could likely be improved, but I hope it's somewhat useful for discussing the mechanisms of political discourse (and how those affect the quality of discussion).

The Types of Guests (and Where the Process Breaks Down)

When it comes to political shows in the corporate media, the quality of the guests is often lacking. The various reasons for booking a guest are not all mutually exclusive, but the breakdown goes something like this:

Merit/Expertise: Guests possessing actual merit, expertise and insight on the subject matter should be the most valuable and the most common, but sadly, they don't dominate the airwaves. As mentioned above, academics and experts don't always know how to adapt their speaking style to the demands of a political show, and some wonks can be flustered by hacks. Additionally, the producer of the show booking guests has to have some sort of mechanism in place for evaluating actual merit. Ideally, someone on the producing team would have some small expertise to help judge potential guests or be able to obtain a recommendation from a trustworthy source. Some sharp potential guests may not be on the producers' radar (certain bloggers).

Reputation/Credentials: Instead of actual expertise, producers will often book guests based on reputation, which isn't quite the same thing, but the two aren't mutually exclusive. Paul Krugman, for example, certainly has the credentials to speak on economic matters, but he's also legitimately smart and insightful. Sadly, this category is where think tank hacks dubbed "scholars" often come in (as covered above, think tank wonks do exist, but certain institutions are dominated by hacks). This category is also the measure by which genuinely perceptive writers without a Beltway pedigree and worldview, such as Digby, are excluded.

Power: It's reasonable to book guests possessing the power to influence or outright control a vote or policy, even if their views have little to no merit. For instance, James Inhofe's notion that "global warming is a hoax" is batshit crazy, but he was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and fights for climate change denial wherever he can in Congress. The same dynamics held true when the Republicans held the debt ceiling hostage or have engaged in similar recklessness. Ideally, journalists will question those with power about the merit of their positions, but in the more corporate outlets, such pressure typically only goes so far.

Cosmetic Balance/Appeasement (Whining): This category demands the most discussion. Guests are booked because they represent a different point of view, even if that viewpoint has little to no merit. This makes more sense on the basic "power" level, inviting a representative of each major political party to discuss a policy or upcoming vote. It's much less defensible when there's a sizable "reality gap," and, say, an actual climate scientist is asked to debate an oil company shill, or a biologist is asked to debate a creationist on evolution, or any situation where an honest wonk is asked to debate a dissembling hack or sincere loon. This approach provides the image of balance while ignoring content and merit. Effectively, it entails that policy doesn't matter, because the show's producers essentially abdicate any fact-checking or vetting of merit, leaving this up to the viewer in the name of being fair while habitually denying the viewer crucial context for making an informed judgment. This approach is also employed to appease the conservative Wurlitzer, flogging its latest manufactured shitstorm, not that such appeasement typically works. (Liberals don't really have anything comparable.)

The late Molly Ivins, back in 1987, had a great take on these dynamics (emphasis mine):

The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject.Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicaragua or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatrch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to off in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."

The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality:

Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.

In "The Heritage Foundation Has Always Been Full of Hacks," Jason Stahl presents similar dynamics as the result of aggressive conservative lobbying in the 70s and 80s:

...The highest value in debating policy would no longer be “best solutions” but merely having a balanced marketplace where the ideas of liberals and conservatives would be heard simply because they “balanced” one another. Such a way of debating policy, which we are still living under today, means that a policy’s identity as a conservative one that balances a liberal one is the only thing required for it to be heard. Such a discourse does not rule out the idea that liberal and/or conservative policies could be founded on analytical rigor, but also does not require it.

This approach creates an anti-empirical, anti-qualitative, anti-content, anti-thoughtful, anti-social-contract, anti-policy framework for discussion. It's not good for the country, but it is a much cheaper product to churn out, especially in the bulk required for the 24-hour news cycle. It also provides the veneer of objectivity while generally discouraging deeper analysis. Good journalists still exist, of course, but their bosses higher up the ladder are another matter. Corporate media heads view news primarily as a commodity to be sold versus as a public service.

Member of the Club: This category often overlaps with Cosmetic Balance and Reputation, but when it's present, it's the dominating factor. Certain pundits and gasbags rarely say anything original and insightful, and at best shill the conventional Beltway wisdom (usually wrong) or their party's talking points. No matter how insipid or appalling their remarks, they never seem to be banned from the club; at best, they're banned for a short time. Reliable hack, grifter and verbal bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich is the poster child for this category, and proof the chattering class doesn't actually care much about "civility." (See driftglass on the Gingrich rules for much more.)

Headline Generation: This category can overlap with the others, especially Member of the Club, but doesn't necessarily. For example, in her heyday, Ann Coulter wasn't really a "member of the club" by Beltway standards, although she was a regular on Fox News and other right-wing outlets. Still, she was booked by major corporate outlets because she was ridiculous, inflammatory and "controversial." She didn't further the national discourse one iota, but she did generate headlines, and that made money. Newt Gingrich, who is a "member of the club," can be similarly counted on to say outrageous things in a calm tone to generate headlines.

The general public and corporate media heads often aren't seeking the same things in news coverage, and it would be wise to remember that.

A More Complex Outlook

In general, our national political discourse is shallow and discourages nuance. It also avoids assigning accountability if only one party is indicted. None of the following statements are unusual or difficult for reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-informed adults, but they're rare to find on the Sunday shows (especially the conclusions):

I could be wrong.
Wonks on my side could be wrong.
Wonks on the other side have some decent ideas.
The wonks on the other side are wrong on certain issues, but they're still decent people.
Dialogue with smart people who give a damn is a good way of coming up with better solutions.
Nevertheless, one side's ideas are qualitatively better.


There are hacks and scumbags in the political party I prefer.
Corruption is not limited to one party.
Nevertheless, one side is considerably less corrupt (at least on certain key issues).


There are ill-informed citizens who believe things that simply aren't true.
There are crazy people with genuinely dangerous ideas.
There are zealots with genuinely reckless ideologies.
There are people who seek power, whatever the cost to the country.
There are truly evil people in politics.
Many stupid, evil or crazy people don't view themselves as such.
Many dangerous, reckless or evil people are legitimized by the Beltway establishment or the corporate media.

Sadly, an American citizen will often be better informed if he or she avoids watching political talk shows, with their conventional, false wisdom and addiction to saying "both sides do it" and its variants. To quote a previous post:

…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.

There's a saying that democracy is a form of government where the country gets what the majority deserves. That would be more accurate if our national political discourse were more honest, more accurate, more civic-minded and more in-depth.

(Previous posts on these themes: "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit," "Both Sides Do It: Partisanship Redux," "Civil Both-Sides Partisans," "Common Ground and Equal Blame," "False Equivalencies," "The Bullshit Matrix" and "The Social Contract.")

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