Tuesday, December 3, 2013

In Defense of Partisan Hack Pundits

Jonathan Chait argued something yesterday that I think is wrong:
[L]et me reveal a couple professional secrets here. Intellectual consistency is a basic value for political commentators. You want to be sure your strongly held views are the product of an actual philosophy, because the temptation to see events through the prism of partisan bias is strong.
He says this to put the hurt on Charles Krauthammer's flip on the filibuster and the nuclear option between the Bush-era Senate showdown and the recent Obama-era version.

Intellectual consistency is a basic value, perhaps, for some political commentators. But I'm not sure it's necessary for all political commentators.

Put it this way. I might read Chait because I care what Jonathan Chait thinks about things. In fact, I do; he's a smart guy, and a fun writer.

But one also might seek out political commentators in order to hear the best, good-faith arguments for and against something that's in the news. For that, I want someone who reliably supports one side of the partisan divide (or perhaps one ideological strain). I still don't want phony arguments; that's why I didn't title this "In Defense of Krauthammer," because I generally don't think he supplies strong, honest arguments. There's still a requirement for serious intellectual integrity, even for partisan arguments.

I think Chait is talking about something like a "public intellectual" model, and what I'd say is that there's also room for a lawyer model. For a lawyer-model pundit, it doesn't matter so much if she said the exact opposite thing five years ago, but it still matters a lot if she gets her facts right and makes well-reasoned, well-informed, arguments.

I guess the question is whether there's really any need for lawyer-style commentators, given that it's the professional responsibility of many politicians to essentially do that. I'd say: sure. Commentators, as opposed to politicians or their staff, are relatively free to make the argument properly, without having to worry about the political fallout from the various speed traps and potholes that politicians have to shy away from -- or from winning daily spin wars.

Granted, it's unlikely that anyone is going to identify himself as a lawyer-style commentator. And yes, one tip-off that Krauthammer isn't worth bothering with is his extreme certainty that he's correct, even as (as Chait notes) he flips from one side to another of an issue based on partisan tides. But overall, there's probably a lot more room for good lawyer-style pundits than Chait thinks.


  1. Emerson said it well: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

    But Keynes nails it: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

    1. Well as to the latter quote, when the only "fact" that changes is the party in the White House, that doesn't say too much about your intellectual integrity does it?

    2. @resumeman, bravo for your smashing reply.

  2. Hmm. I'm not sure what you're trying to say here, Jonathan, or that you're not being a little too cute with it.

    Krauthammer is not claiming to be a cheerleader. He's claiming to be a thoughtful commentator, who bases his conclusions on reasonable interpretation of factual evidence. This is intellectually dishonest and should be called out as such.

    It would be one thing if the K man recognized his flip and explained why he had flipped. But he just pretends no one will notice.

    Why shouldn't we hold pundits to some kind of standard of intellectual honesty?

    You admit that Krauthammer might not be worth bothering about. I think that's the whole point of Chait's criticism. He's not worth bothering with because he's nothing more than a cheerleader and his flip on the filibuster is just the latest proof of it.

  3. I think Spiderman nailed it when he said that K just hopes no one will call him out on the flip flop. I, for one am disappointed with pundits refuse to acknowledge their flip-flops. I'm not sure if it is dangerous to their Base-Loyalty Score or just hubris, but they sure do miss out on an opportunity.

    I though K was a little crazy in 2005 but basically right that it was time to start stripping away at the Filibuster. He is completely wrong that the Republicans somehow deserve the right to an extra veto on any and all nominations or legislations just because, well, you know, their a pain in the you-know what.

    That said, I would have loved to read a reasoned critique of his former opinion. It would have been much more interesting and defensible if he took his 2005 points and explained why he changed his mind. Explain why he was wrong then and is right now.

    Obviously he couldn't do that for several reasons 1) Saying, "I changed my mind because the Republicans are in the minority," while honest is a very short column. It also would expose him to even more ridicule than he is presently getting. 2) Writing a reasoned explanation would be, you know, hard. It would be work. It would require thinking and self-examination. 3) It would actually take some reasons beyond point one.

    But I would absolutely love to read why someone changed their opinion on something, be it filibuster, gay marriage, Iraq,etc.

  4. This argument would endorse partisan media in general, no?

  5. I think this is a good basic observation, but am I wrong to think that most prominent liberal pundits are of the "public intellectual" variety and that most prominent conservative pundits are of the lawyer-style? I certainly feel that the country would benefit from a few more prominent liberal lawyer-style pundits.

    1. There are plenty of lawyerly pundits on both sides.

  6. I'm for truth in labeling. Not everybody follows these commentators closely enough to know when they are making arguments from evidence, ideology or the party line. A columnist not otherwise labelled should be intellectually honest. Otherwise they should write or talk under the marquee of "A Republican View" or "A Libertarian View" etc.

  7. Some time ago, in support of the Fairness Doctrine, I noted the research of cognitive psychologist Derek Besner, who demonstrated that 'thinking follows language' - what we think is heavily influenced by what we hear, as opposed to what we say being influenced by what we think.

    Though Besner is a mainstream guy publishing in respectable journals, as I recall the idea that 'thinking follows language' was mostly met with disdain in this community of liberal academics; essentially, it was argued, the hideous flipflopping gasbaggery of one like Krauthammer has no influence over someone like Chait, merely because Krauthammer writes that stupid inconsistent garbage.

    No influence. None whatsoever.

    1. I'm not familiar with Besner, but he may be saying that your thinking is influenced by what you say, rather than what you hear. Daryl Bem argued that we infer our own attitudes from observing our own behavior. One consequence of this is that if we say something often enough, we come to believe it even if we didn't in the beginning (assuming we aren't being forced to say it against our will). I don't know how often that situation arises in life, but I suspect it might shape the attitudes of many politicians and lobbyists.

    2. Scott, thanks for taking up the point. As I understand the research, expressed ideas (by oneself or another) guide later perception, even when a subject believes - as we all do - that the process works in the reverse fashion.

      wrt Jonathan Chait's column: reading between the lines, it sure seems like there's something about Krauthammer's chicanery that irritates Chait, as if Chait needs to express the reality to make it stick. If concepts stuck on their own (i.e. if perceptions ruled language), there'd be no need to police the likes of Krauthammer.

      To be honest, my inner libertarian revolts against the Fairness Doctrine, but I do think there's a real problem that it tries to address in an inevitably poor and ineffective fashion.

  8. Jonathan, how would you distinguish lawyerly punditry from spin?


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