Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Over and Over

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post "This week should put the nail in the coffin for 'both sides' journalism". That theme is echoed in several pieces, including Paul Waldman's "Sorry conservatives. There's no equivalence between the extreme right and the extreme left."

We have written about this problem many times, starting with "Both Sides Do It".

Tragically, someone had to die for more to see this problem and, ironically, the awful real life tragedy in Charlottesville where a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd and fled the scene exactly follows the scenario in Mann and Ornsteins's "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" (emphasis added):

"A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers. A prominent Washington Post reporter sanctimoniously told us that the Post is dedicated to presenting both sides of the story. In our view, the Post and other important media should report the truth. Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don't treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way. Whats the real story: Who's telling the truth? Who is taking hostages at what risks and to what ends?"

If knee jerk liberalism is bad and knee jerk conservatism is bad, then knee jerk journalism that seeks out balance between two sides, no matter the circumstances in a particular case, is even worse. For both sidesism leads directly to false balance that yields false equivalence noted in "False Equivalence in His Hands". The argument is not that Republicans are bad and Democrats are good. Nor that conservatives are bad and liberals are good. The argument is that adherence to knee jerk journalistic false balance in objective news media creates a loophole that is exploited by conservatives to create false narratives and leads to the successful propagation of fake news, that is, real fake news, in conservative media. In other words, by bending over backwards to maintain an appearance of impartiality, these mostly liberal media outlets have inadvertently made themselves partial, not impartial.

But wait, something else is woefully amiss.  The president of the United States is the one behaving more like a 'both sides' journalist as he talks about "many sides, many sides" and framing for balance "Not Trump. Not Obama" as if he can escape accountability for his entire term by invoking Obama or Clinton at every turn. Of course, his brand of journalism is actually propaganda as he cries out "fake news, fake news." Always willing to take the credit, but never to admit responsibility that could result in taking blame for anything he says or does that has real life consequences.

Trump is the president. He is no longer a candidate, though he likes to pretend with twitter and rallies that he is still a candidate. And he is not a journalist - propagandist or any other type, no matter how much he shouts "fake news, fake news". He has a role to play as the president, but he avoids fulfilling that proper role any time it makes him uncomfortable. He lapses into the role of a candidate, apparently thinking that reality will never catch up to him - the reality that he is accountable. Unfortunately, as a society, we seem able to force accountability only when horrible events occur, like murder or the start of a war of prosecutable crimes by the president. By then it is often too late.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The 'Better Than Ever' Future of the Democrats

Recent articles in politics have suggested that Democrats have failed in their messaging and need to improve. A few weeks ago party leaders rolled out the new slogan "A Better Deal" which was received with much harrumphing. (Democrats Struggle to Sell A Better Deal) But why?

David Leonhardt delved into this issue in Democrats Still Need a Story, asking readers to come up with A Better Slogan. He received 1,200 responses and collected the best ideas: A New Democratic Slogan? Your Choices. And these really do sound like the best ideas as ideas go.

I would argue that all of these "good" ideas are doomed to failure for many of the same reasons that the Candice Bergen character's best idea fell flat in "Starting Over" after her husband divorces her and then takes up with another woman. The performance of the song "Better than Ever" could be played as is at the next Democratic convention (sorry for the darkness):

Democratic strategy fails because it is so difficult for people to understand the thinking of other people who do not reason the way they do.  Rational, analytic thinkers often have difficulty understanding the minds of conservative, intuitive people. The Dems believe that they just need a better message to get through so that voters will focus on policy that will benefit them. But many instinctive people vote based on trust and they trust people who think and talk like they do and mistrust people who do not. These conservatives vote for a person, not a policy outcome. Policy is complicated, but deciding if you like a person is simple.

I think back to the political arguments my late mother had 40 years ago with her father who worked as a member of the Teamsters in the trucking industry before he retired in 1967. She would argue that FDR's policies were responsible for his Social Security which he should appreciate. Without Social Security, he would have negligible retirement income. But he was not voting based on policy or the personal impact on him . He knew who he liked and it was not the Democrats. He liked Jimmy Hoffa despite the meagerness of his own Teamsters pension. And despite Hoffa's obvious corruption. 

Trump brought a slew of new irrational voters back into the political process - people who had given up on hearing candidates who spoke and thought just like they did. And no one is suppressing the ability of these white voters to cast their votes. Republican strategists want these voters to remain engaged and actively voting.

No, the Democrats will never get through to these people with policy arguments, no matter how clever the messaging. 

Democratic strategy needs to focus on fighting voter suppression and inspiring the Democratic base. Maybe a better than ever slogan would be "Vote or Die - It's Up to  You". (Late update. Oops, apparently Vote or Die is already taken. You get the idea.)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Not So Fast

Many of our pundit class misunderstood the Trump phenomenon - and that confusion continues, at least for those who buy into Matt Latimer's "What If Trump Had Won As a Democrat". Asking that question misses the point - that Trump won as a Republican by taking tried and proven Republican campaign tactics to their logical extreme conclusion. Personal attacks carried to extreme, irrational levels of viciousness. Attacks on the press, including threatening speech aimed at individual reporters at rallies. And lying as a tactic some of the time taken to the extreme of lying with abandon.

Now Latimer's piece may well be a parody, but serves at least a deflection for Republicans who like their party electoral strategy just fine, thank you, and do not see any need for reform, other than to regard Trump as an aberration instead of the epitome that he is.

Jonathan Chait takes down the Latimer arguments, such as they are, in "Could Trump Have Been Elected As a Democrat?" which is accompanied by a fitting photo that implies an equally 'interesting' thought experiment, "could Palin have been selected for VP as a Democrat?":

Chait writes, "Trump is a product of a decades-long evolution in the Republican Party." And he closes with "Trump is an historical outlier. But he is also the product of the political culture of a Republican Party that is fertile soil for his brand of authoritarian ethno-nationalism. The desire to regard him as a fluke who could just as easily have wound up in the other party is the kind of evasion that has prevented many Republican elites from squaring up to the forces that enabled Trump’s rise."

Unfortunately, those who do not understand their own party history are poorly positioned to make a course correction, let alone reverse course.