Confusing Public Discourse with a Strange Counter-narrative
Last night may mark the final step of this campaign season into the surreal. It started as I picked up my daughter from an athletic practice and heard Congressman David Cicilline on the radio, during the WPRO primary debate, say:
These Republicans aren’t kidding, they are serious about trying to fundamentally change the America we live in.
With its inverted echo of some Barack Obama rhetoric from the 2008 election, it sounded more like a GOP talking point than something one would expect from an ultra-liberal Democrat from Providence.
Later in the evening, one may have been forgiven for forgetting that it is the political right that is often accused of being of the “bootstrap” school — as in, pull yourself up by the bootstraps. First Lady Michelle Obama’s convention speech was heavy on self-reliance and personal pull-ups.
From a Rhode Island perspective, though, the strange rhetorical inversion was put most forcefully by Governor Lincoln Chafee, during his own convention speech. The extremely liberal Independent actually insisted that he represents “traditional conservatives.” He claimed to represent the “broad middle,” too, which would leave actual conservatives very little room on the spectrum if the public discourse were to attempt honestly to assess the field.
And that’s the real tragedy. Even as Democrats were publicly articulating an us-too-and-maybe-more message about not only their centrism, but their conservatism, their party was pulling its political platform to even more extreme stages.
Yesterday’s pre-primetime convention speeches presented a paean to same-sex marriage and abortion. The platform itself knocked Israel down a peg. The party erased God officially from its party line. And a DNC video insisted that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” [UPDATE: Party poobahs have since insisted that political appearances should outweigh internal processes, and they forced God and Jerusalem back into favor.]
The Spectrum Distortions of Mainstream Media
Just after Chafee’s proclamations of conservatism, I had an interesting Twitter exchange with WPRI’s Ted Nesi. It began when he challenged my statement that the governor had articulated a “far-left vision” (read here then here):
Oh come on man, Chafee’s certainly liberal but “far left”? What would you call Dennis Kucinich or Dave Segal?
The conversation moved to whether Senator Jack Reed is “far left,” too, and I pointed out that he is regularly in the top quintile of Senatorial liberalism, as Nesi himself has noted. Or look at his voting record and the rankings that various groups give him: 0% from National Right to Life and 100% from the National Abortion Rights Action League; 100% from the Campaign for America’s Future and 0% from the Christian Coalition; the list goes on.
The question, then, is how we define the political center. Is it the politician’s context (e.g., Rhode Island) or his nation? Is the spectrum viewed on a given day, or over a period of historical trends?
One gets the sense that many in media think that simply being centrist enough to be elected to public office in the first place must mean a lack of extremism, except in rare circumstances, but such a gauge would require a whole lot of assumptions.
Chief among them is that voters are presented an accurate vision of politicians’ politics. As the first segment of this post showed, partisans have incentive to distort their extremism (or even disguise which way they lean). And if the media shorthand for Jack Reed is “centrist” or “more moderate than others,” then that’s the impression that people who rely on media for the service of summarization will have.
Fact-Checking Craze Finally Reveals the Game
On that note, James Taranto summarizes the media fact-checking craze well.
When I worked in the publishing department for a high-tech market research company, fact checking meant literally checking facts. Do these equations add up? Are these numbers accurately collected from their source? Did such-and-such a CEO really use those precise words?
In the hands of the modern media, as Taranto explains, the practice of “fact checking” has become more like presenting the opposing argument, especially when the person being opposed is conservative or Republican. As among the clearest examples, he points out some of the media’s attempts to paint Congressman Paul Ryan as a liar (in eerie parallel to its attempts to paint the last GOP vice presidential nominee as an idiot):
… the AP neither disputes nor verifies the factual accuracy of Ryan’s statements. Each of these is simply a tu quoque–an argument against Ryan. Under the guise of fact checking, the AP is simply taking sides in a partisan political dispute. …
The usual conservative complaint about all this “fact checking” is the same as the conservative complaint about the MSM’s product in general: that it is overwhelmingly biased toward the left. But the form amplifies the bias. It gives journalists much freer rein to express their opinions by allowing them to pretend to be rendering authoritative judgments about the facts. The result, as we’ve seen, is shoddy arguments and shoddier journalism.
And that, in turn, does grievous harm to the public’s understanding. As Taranto goes on to suggest, if we define “facts” in about the same way as the political center appears to be defined above, it gives advocates and extremists cover for outright propaganda.
A Softer Kind of Hardship
That imbalance in fact checking leaves it to more explicitly partisan media (or more honestly partisan media) to take on the truth-stretching of the party that the mainstream likes, as Joel Pollack does regarding the Obamas’ early struggles:
Both Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama began their adult lives with a leg up on the rest of America. They attended elite schools: Michelle went to Whitney Young, the public magnet school for Chicago’s upper class, while Barack attended Punahou, the private prep school for the top stratum of Hawaiian society. They were accepted to Ivy League schools despite undistinguished credentials, and both attended Harvard Law School.
Things got better from there.
The U.S. No Longer at the Toppermost of the Poppermost
There are all sorts of difficulties with international comparisons of things like health systems and economies, but the continuing downward trend of the United States on World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report is worrisome regardless:
The United States took the top spot in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index as recently as 2007 and 2008, but then dropped to 2nd place in 2009.
I think Bush bears the full blame for that unfortunate development. But the decline has continued in recent years, and Obama deserves a good part of the blame for the drop to 4th place in 2010.
The U.S. then fell to 5th place last year, in part because of horrible scores for “Wastefulness of Government Spending” (68th place) and “Burden of Government Regulation” (49th place).
Given this dismal trend, I opened the just-released 2012 Report with considerable trepidation. And my fears were justified. The United States has now dropped to 7th place.
Keep in mind that this is competitiveness, not economic activity. One would think that a nation with a struggling economy would have even more reason to ensure that it is competitive. As I suggested yesterday, though, I fear the United States may have a strong contingent interested in pursuing the Rhode Island economic model.
(By the way, for those who don’t recognize my subhead… and those who think me locked into the cultural experience of Gen X… see here, but be aware of some objectionable language.)
Back to September 10
One line in Gov. Chafee’s speech continues to bother me deeply (emphasis added):
In 2001 President Bill Clinton handed the Republicans a surplus. They went on to squander this surplus by launching two wars, expanding the cost of Medicare, and giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans – and failing to pay for any of these.
Yeah, we could play political games about the erstwhile Republican’s Clinton-surplus talking point and the fact that Chafee voted for one of those squandering wars. But what’s disturbing is the unqualified joining of Afghanistan and Iraq as a pair of partisan adventures. By “unqualified,” I mean that there’s no mention — not so much as a nod or poorly coordinated hand gesture — to a history-changing day in early September eleven years ago.
Always remember, never forget, right?