Reality-based journalism?

by John Quiggin on May 22, 2011

The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, as witness:

* Jacob Weisberg, who only a little while ago was giving qualified praise to the Ryan Plan, now says the Repubs have

moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

  • The Washington Post, home of High Broderism says “the Republican Party, and therefore the U.S. government, have moved far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

The precipating event, I think, was Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate. The timing was brilliant, and indicative of political skills that seemed to have deserted Obama for some time. By the time he acted, it had become clear that the majority of Republican supporters supported birtherism (at least verbally) and that no-one in the Republican Party (or among conservatives more generally) was prepared to confront birtherism head-on as a racist delusion. The par position among “sensible” rightwingers was something like “Of course, I believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but he has only himself to blame for not releasing the long-form certificate (and, in any case, Democrat supporters also believe crazy things[1])”. That position sounded safe, but looked awfully silly in retrospect, especially when Donald Trump took the credit for it.

The killing of bin Laden a few days afterwards set the seal on things. As Scott McLemee observed, Obama seemed to be making life difficult for himself in his quest to impose Sharia law on an unsuspecting US populace. The desperate attempts of Republicans to claim that it was their policy of torture that made Obama’s success possible looked even sillier given their longstanding endorsement of, or acquiescence in, birtherism.

Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of events, minor in themselves, and unlikely to have counted for much in the past, that fit the frame “Republicans=delusion”.

  • The release of yet another authoritative report on climate change by the National Academy of Sciences
  • The exposure of massive plagiarism and other misconduct in the work of Edward Wegman, lead expert in the attack on the climate change “hockey stick”
  • The massively publicised predictions of a Doomsday rapture, which have permitted general mockery of a belief that (minus the nomination of a specific date) is held by lots of Americans[2] and almost certainly the majority of the Republican base
  • The debate over budget policy, the Ryan plan and the debt ceiling, in which the Very Serious Centrists (a group exemplified, until very recently, by Jacob Weisberg) took a hammering from real experts like Krugman, who could work with numbers rather than being taken in by rhetoric.

Once the frame is in place, examples can be multiplied indefinitely (evolution, DDT, bogus US history, “Climategate”, the Breitbart scams etc etc). Moreover, thanks to blogs and work like Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, both the framework and the material required on most individual topics is ready to hand. So, no great intellectual effort is required to fit any particular story into this analytical framework. That’s important given that most journalists (like most people) aren’t too keen on intellectual effort.

And, there is no obvious way back for the Republicans or for the US right more generally. The great majority of the conservative/propertarian intellectual apparatus (thinktanks, commentariat, blogs) has been actively engaged in peddling delusions (most notably on climate change and economics) and none[3] has been willing and able to mount a consistent defence of reality. The few who have tried to do this on individual issues (for example, Bruce Bartlett on economics) have been read out of the movement in short order, and have mostly found themselves questioning their conservative position more generally.

So, the shift in the Overton window shouldn’t prove too difficult as far as analysis and op-eds are concerned. On the other hand, as Jay Rosen has been tweeting today it’s a big challenge for political news reporters are concerned. Rosen says

Political journalism exists so that politics can be reality-based… right? But if one of the parties isn’t, the press circuits get fried.

Rosen is an acute observer, and I respect his judgement, but I think he overstates the case here. As he implicitly admits, the press routinely treats as presumptively false claims made by any political group that lies outside the Overton window. And for the Murdoch media (Fox, WSJ etc) that includes the Democratic Party. There’s nothing technically difficult about writing political news stories with the premise (implicit at all times and explicit when necessary) that the subject is either deluded or dishonest.

The real problem is that such a shift will mean the end of what has been a united front of the journalism profession against everyone else (most obviously bloggers and other outside competitors). This front was seen in operation when the Obama Administration tried, early on, to take a stand against Fox and was threatened with a general boycott. Objections to Fox lies were seen as a political attack on the press as an institution. Of course, the political right has long had it both ways, exploiting mainstream adherence to conventions of balance and ‘objectivity’ (not to be confused with willingness to state objective facts as such), while disregarding these conventions.

As Rosen implies, a world in which one party is actively hostile to reality is a world in which there is no such thing as “the press”. Rather there is a pro-reality press and an anti-reality press, and it’s up to the audience to determine which is which. It’s no doubt a reflection of my perennial optimism, largely unjustified by the events of my lifetime, but I see the pro-reality side gaining the upper hand at last, and the advocates of centrist objectivity finally being forced to recognised this.

A pro-reality journalism will inevitably be hostile to the Republican party and its intellectual apparatus, but that doesn’t mean it should fall into the trap of reflexive support for the Democrats. The point is to report the truth, and report lies as lies, without falling into the equal and opposite traps of ‘balance’ and partisan loyalty.

What of the implications beyond the US? In all the English-speaking countries, there is a large section of the conservative commentariat (most obviously, but not exclusively, the Murdoch Press) whose business consists mostly of importing and retailing Republican/conservative/propertarian ideas. If these ideas become the subject of consistent ridicule in their home, they will be steadily harder to sell abroad.

Nevertheless, the political consequences of a shift to reality-based journalism won’t be entirely beneficial. The delusions on which the Republicans rely are a cover for the class interests of the very rich, and for the tribal loyalties and hatreds of their base. Blowing the cover may well produce an even cruder politics of interests and tribalism. And, as I’ve argued before, the centrist managerialism of leaders like Obama (or for that matter, most of the current crop of social democratic politicians) doesn’t provide the genuine hope needed to counter the politics of tribalism.

fn1. I plan a long post on this false equivalence or tu quoque argument Real Soon Now.
fn2. There are lots of references to polls by Time and Newsweek suggesting that majority of Americans belief in the Rapture, but the second-hand reports of the questions seem too vague to allow this inference
fn3. Counterexamples accepted with gratitude

{ 73 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 05.22.11 at 12:24 pm

“The great majority of the conservative/propertarian intellectual apparatus (thinktanks, commentariat, blogs) has been actively engaged in peddling delusions (most notably on climate change and economics) and none[3] has been willing and able to mount a consistent defence of reality.”

As an exception I would offer myself. OK, so I’m not American and I’m small fry: but I am at a “proprietarian think tank” if that’s what you want to call the Adam Smith Inst.

My basic position is (and so is the ASI’s for the reason that it is mine) that climate change is happening, largely man made and that we do want to do something about it.

Sadly, the Overton Window (and this is in violation of fn1) does not allow “yes, let’s do something but not this something”. It only allows that if we must do something then we must carry on with ever more windmills, feed in tariffs, anti-globalisation, localism and all the rest of the Green Party’s wet dreams.

I even wrote a book on the point which I believe that you’ve at least skimmed John. There are a number of sensible, desirable, things we should be doing from that proprietarian, neo-liberal, viewpoint which will aid in curtailing climate change. There are also so less desirable from that viewpoint but still necessary things that also need to be done. A carbon tax for a start.

That few conservatives/proprietarians are listening to this argument is not the same as the statement that none are making it.

And if I’m too small fry to count, people like PERC are making many of the same points.

2

Tim Worstall 05.22.11 at 12:27 pm

In violation of fn1 again:

“regarding the Republican adoption of fringe economic theories suggesting the US can safely leave the debt ceiling unchanged.”

Would that be young Galbraith, arguing that the govt doesn’t have to borrow, it can just print the money then tax it back again?

3

Brett Bellmore 05.22.11 at 1:01 pm

“The par position among “sensible” rightwingers was something like “Of course, I believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but he has only himself to blame for not releasing the long-form certificate (and, in any case, Democrat supporters also believe crazy things[1])”. That position sounded safe, but looked awfully silly in retrospect,”

I’m unclear as to what’s supposed to be silly about this position. He’s released the long-form certificate, birtherism has imploded. And Democrats do indeed believe some crazy things themselves.

4

Anders 05.22.11 at 1:04 pm

Tim Worstall – would you mind directing me to a considered rebuttal of JKG Jr’s proposal?

5

mpowell 05.22.11 at 1:08 pm

@2: Galbraith’s economic views certainly count as fringe at this point, though I believe the deserve more engagement. But in this sense he is not really advocating anything different than Keynes might. Low inflation/high unemployment call for deficit spending. It is a far cry from suggesting that either the government can default on it’s debt or just stop spending money without negative ramifications, which are the implications of not lifting the debt ceiling.

6

Steve LaBonne 05.22.11 at 1:24 pm

A truly functional political journalism establishment would be one in which an idiotic weasel like Weisberg would permanently lose his reputation and his job. Not holding my breath.

7

politicalfootball 05.22.11 at 1:43 pm

It’s nice that it was possible to shame Weisberg – an alleged liberal, mind you – into acknowledging the absurdity of the Ryan plan. As long as people like Krugman exist to call out people like Weisberg, maybe there’s hope.

But please note that USA Today couldn’t discuss climate change without including an opposing view from Inhofe. The Washington Post, likewise, has long hosted both sides of the climate change controversy. And Politico (like Weisberg) isn’t doing anything here that can’t be taken back tomorrow.

You can view the media’s acknowledgment of Obama’s birthplace as a victory for the Reality-Based, or you can view it as evidence of how debased the media are in this country, that such a thing could remain a controversy. I guess I see the glass as half-empty.

8

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.22.11 at 1:45 pm

Is it possible that this is, as usual, a manifestation of power struggle? The Republican establishment trying to fight off a new, hungrier, younger, more ambitious, more zealous group of challengers; that sort of thing.

9

icastico 05.22.11 at 1:51 pm

A pro-reality journalism will inevitably be hostile to the Republican party and its intellectual apparatus, but that doesn’t mean it should fall into the trap of reflexive support for the Democrats. The point is to report the truth, and report lies as lies, without falling into the equal and opposite traps of ‘balance’ and partisan loyalty.

This is the key. While the Republicans have a greater problem with reality-based policy positions than the Democrats, the difference is not, in my view, as great on that front as your piece suggests. So if news coverage of a topic starts with the premise of giving the D and R view of the issue as a strategy for providing complete coverage, it is likely to be very far from reality-based.

10

Paul Montgomery 05.22.11 at 1:57 pm

You had me until you mentioned the Rapture. That is not an anti-Republican talking point.

11

Red 05.22.11 at 2:31 pm

“Rosen is an acute observer, and I respect his judgement, but I think he overstates the case here.”

Substitute “Quiggin” for “Rosen”. Way too early to tell.

12

Andrew 05.22.11 at 2:44 pm

By the time he acted, it had become clear that the majority of Republican supporters supported birtherism (at least verbally) and that no-one in the Republican Party (or among conservatives more generally) was prepared to confront birtherism head-on as a racist delusion.

This isn’t true, at least in the polls I’ve seen. For instance, in this Gallup Poll, in late April prior to the release of the “long-form” certificate, 35% of Republicans believed Obama was probably/definitely born in the US, 43% believed he was probably/definitely born elsewhere, and (I guess) 22% did not know, with a +/- 4% confidence interval at a significance level of .05.

The polling showed a split within the Republican Party, and a lack of consensus on the “birth” issue. It did not show that birtherism had become the majority view of the GOP.

I strongly suspect, moreover, that “the birth issue” was/is important to a very small proportion of Republicans – well behind the economy, budget, taxes, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, gas prices, and others. I therefore doubt most Republicans invested any serious time in investigating the issue, because most of them simply didn’t care. The polling data likely shows deliberate ignorance, not active denial of reality.

When Trump drew media attention with his absurd claims, Republicans not only immediately distanced themselves (see e.g. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus’s comment that “the president was born in the United States – and I don’t think it is an issue that moves voters” and that the debate is a huge distraction) but practically scorned Trump for making the claims (see e.g. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s comments).

13

Ed 05.22.11 at 2:49 pm

There have been some political party systems where the largest opposition party has been essentially an anti-system party. In other words, it is viewed as seeking to destroy the political system itself, and often its supports will build there own networks to distributing political information that are separate from the information distribution channels used by most voters.

These parties will go for decades getting enough votes to prevent more credible opposition parties from emerging, but not enough to votes to take power; the relatively sane majority of the population form something of a united front against them. Examples of this would be late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany (the SPD), mid-and-late twentieth century Japan (the Socialists) and mid and late twentieth century Italy (the Communists), and there are probably others.

This is not a good party system. As the Japanese and Italian examples indicates, in this situation the governing party or governing coalition usually becomes very corrupt.

14

William Timberman 05.22.11 at 2:54 pm

I’m trying to think what reality-based principle it was that governed the rise of the late, lamented isms of the Twentieth Century. Free-market capitalism, and its associated witch-burners may just be the last of them to go. I’m tempted to say good riddance, but the fact is, it’s a bit to early to say anything like that in public — not without looking over one’s shoulder first.

Outside the academy, what’s real and what isn’t is always a power struggle before it becomes anything useful — which is why I prefer Michel de Montaigne to Brad DeLong as a political philosopher.

15

shah8 05.22.11 at 2:57 pm

Granted, I’m up too early, but I think I should offer the meta that this posts jumps around too much, and that there are four or five themes here that could be fleshed out better. Now, I know this is a blog post, but at least some easy transitions so I know where you’re going next?

1) There is no real point in reading American mass media news (especially watching). For all intents and purposes, it’s Pravda, better done. As bad as it has been in the past, it didn’t use to be this focused on manipulating mindset *to the exclusion of all else*.

The subsidiary point is that the American News Cycle (long form) is in the “hard hitting” credibility generating phase. It will not stay on that tack forever. Secondary subsidiary point is that we should probably exclude global warming stories, because I think those are for preparing people for certain ugly realities about their future. The racist/sexist/whatever stuff waxes and wanes, because they are part of forming national group identities.

2) Obama won an election. Obama is most comparable to Jimmy Carter, and three years into his presidency, he’s consistently shown a level of adroitness and effectiveness that Jimmy Carter has never shown. He has managed to sign some pretty noteworthy bills that actually benefit normal people–something that neither Carter nor Clinton has done. His political skills have never deserted him, and saying so marks people as rather hyper in the Tweety sense. It was entirely to be expected that Obama would try to sequence events to his benefit. This is the sort of stuff that when I read people talking about 11D chess, I know they can’t play 2D chess. Geez.

3) In US political history, the Republicans haven’t been permissive of reality-based heterodoxy outside of New England since the Harding era (more or less because of Roosevelt and the increasing “big tentness” of the Democratic Party). The press has always given a pass to the patrician party, and it has always played a role in spanking the fringe when the money people need more reality in the public discourse. The way back simply is when the press stops being so mean. If the republicans are materially out of step with american identity/ethos, what generally happens is that republicans stop talking about one issue and start talking about a new issue that works better, and people forget.

4) Political journalism has never existed to assist people’s ability to be fact-based. Political journalism has always been at least partially about propaganda. That is inherent to the nature of politics.

5) Reality based reporting wouldn’t blow the cover on anything. That’s Straussian levels of cynicism. People, by and large, are poorly educated and weak. They follow the lead of their betters, self-defined or otherwise. And that last point rang very odd to me. Republicans peddle delusions because they are intensely hierarchal in a very non-meritocratic sense. Delusions have the benefit of being clear and nonambiguous, and delusions allow strengths in coordination. It’s how groups of “harder core” people flank ever further to abstract doctrines in order to seize political power. If people were generally told the truth in a way that is accessible to them, people would have generally reasonable outlooks. To think that they would go tribal is to diss the intense political work and propaganda that allowed racist police states to exist. More than that, if people were generally told the truth, it’s much harder to do the standard divide and conquer techniques, like stampeding idiots over a bunch of free-thinking people you don’t like (the worst US example would be Bleeding Kansas). All that “tribal” stuff in the post is unsophisticated (and slightly classist).

16

Omega Centauri 05.22.11 at 3:10 pm

I agree with Red @11, it is too early to tell. John is looking at the glass as 10% full, I still see it as 90% empty.

So what are reasonable stats on Rapture belief? I’d venture less than 50% of Republicans, although they dare not for strategic reasons belittle those who have them. I do note John said of the base (not repubs in general), so we may not be so far apart as appears on the surface.

17

The Raven 05.22.11 at 4:35 pm

I think, though, that it is only the most crazy ideas that have been tossed. As I wrote about a month ago, “A bipartisan coalition of conservative Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans is the governing consensus of the USA. Now…will this coalition address unemployment? Nope? The housing crisis? Only on technical issues. The banking disaster? Nope. …and global climate change and other international environmental issues?”

I see I didn’t include racism in the list, but it belongs there. I think we are now going forward on less completely crazy, but still wrong and destructive beliefs.

18

Jim Harrison 05.22.11 at 4:46 pm

Most Republicans reject the idea of simply waiting for the Rapture. If you want the apocalypse, you’ll have to make it happen through political effort.

19

Patrick D 05.22.11 at 5:00 pm

Whatever the number of conservative Republicans who believe in the imminent return of Jesus, it only takes one in the right spot (James Watt at Interior, George W. Bush as commander in chief), to really mess things up.

20

AntiAlias 05.22.11 at 5:24 pm

I knew the Ryan Plan was all about Rapture!

21

Cranky Observer 05.22.11 at 5:37 pm

> You had me until you mentioned the Rapture.
> That is not an anti-Republican talking point.

Given that George W. Bush sponsored regular prayer breakfasts for his senior staff with a religious figure who is an explicit proponent of the “End Times” theology, and that such talk informs the foreign policy views of a substantial portion of the Republican primary electorate, why exactly is this not an issue with the Republican Party that deserves to be addressed?

Cranky

22

geo 05.22.11 at 5:56 pm

JQ: a reflection of my perennial optimism

I know this is wildly (and, if impermissibly. please just ignore it) off-topic, but would you mind reflecting publicly just a bit on the basis of your perennial optimism? Mine has been gravely (perhaps decisively — I haven’t decided, whence this question) eroded by the last three decades. I keep telling myself that moral progress can be very slow, and perhaps must be if it is to be fundamental and permanent; that certain illusions, like the inerrancy of the Bible and the market, simply can’t last for more than a few more generations, at most; and that certain dispositions, like reflexive violence and obliviousness to other people’s suffering, currently so prevalent in American (perhaps also Chinese?) society, are not immutably rooted in human nature. But I’m getting old, and I crave some reassurance. Got any?

23

adam@nope.com 05.22.11 at 6:16 pm

My apologies, but I think the factors you list have minimal weight. Seriously – who cares that Edward Wegman (who is this person ???) plagarized something.

Far more important is the split between the GOP party base and the GOP business interests, exemplified by the US Chamber of Commerce, over raising the debt ceiling. This is merely the Republican version of the dirty-hippy bashing routinely engaged in by Democratic business interests. It even proceeds the same way – with the business interests claiming that the party base makes the party as a whole look extreme and unreasonable.

As for the Democratic attempts to reign in Fox news – they were merely attempting the same game Bush played throughout his first time (even before 9/11 BTW). Bush talked about a national media filter and made a point of offered interviews to local and regional media – making it very clear that he could and would cut off access to him by national reporters. The Democrats tried the same thing, but as usual they were ineptly heavyhanded and chickenshit, focusing on the network (more powerful, less administration leverage) rather than the reporters (less powerful, more administration leverage) and folding at the first hint of resistance.

24

neonnautilus 05.22.11 at 6:33 pm

The precipating event, I think, was Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate.

I believe the beginning came with Trump’s foray into presidential politics. He looked ever more ridiculous with each right wing lunacy he espoused. Obama’s jabs at the press function simply highlighted the absurdities and made it very difficult for anyone to report on them with a straight face. Trump’s antics, juxtaposed with the killing of bin Laden, brought to light how utterly empty our political conversation is – for a short time, at any rate. I don’t share your optimism that things might change permanently, though. With few exceptions, the Democrats continue to aid and abet in moving the window farther right. And Fox is still around to perpetuate lies and lunacies.

25

John Quiggin 05.22.11 at 7:40 pm

@7 USA Today always publishes a view opposing their editorial position, so there’s no significance in their doing so this time

As regards WaPo and Politico, I agree (and snarked in the OP) that they’ve always been deplorable. To be sure there’s plenty of time for them to turn back, but their past history makes them more notable in the current context.

As regards Rapture Republicanism, here’s Tim LaHaye, author of the Left Behind series, discussing the Campling fiasco and denying that either Obama or Hillary Clinton is a Christian.

26

bianca steele 05.22.11 at 8:26 pm

The par position among “sensible” rightwingers was something like “Of course, I believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but he has only himself to blame for not releasing the long-form certificate (and, in any case, Democrat supporters also believe crazy things[1])”.

Unfortunately, it could have been worse; they might have said, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the fact that anyone would think the birth certificate is an issue is sufficient proof that there is at least some real issue that is real to a large number of people who are quite reasonable to worry in those terms–if not quite based in reality.” (It’s not as if there actually are large numbers of people who have been fretting for decades about the fact that they don’t have their real birth certificates to hand.)

27

bianca steele 05.22.11 at 8:32 pm

My uneducated guess is that belief in the Rapture is fairly uncommon among American Christians whose denominations don’t include or don’t stress such a belief and who are very interested in theology, and increasingly common among others, themselves increasingly aware of the Left Behind series (which I’ve seen in churches belonging to the prior set of denominations) as well as of the repeated claims of its imminence.

28

neonnautilus 05.22.11 at 9:41 pm

A NY Magazine article with Roger Ailes claims that [f]or Ailes, Tucson was a turning point, suggesting an end to the silly season that had lasted most of Obama’s term as president

29

neonnautilus 05.22.11 at 9:47 pm

Clicked submit too soon. Here’s the link to the Ailes article. http://nymag.com/print/?/news/media/roger-ailes-fox-news-2011-5/

30

Colin Danby 05.22.11 at 10:19 pm

Given the way false prophets figure in Christian scripture, it’s easy to interpret Harold Camping’s activities as a *sign* of the impending apocalypse, not disproof of it. And, John, true believers *expect* mockery, especially mockery by educated secular elites. It’s a sign that they’re on the right track.

Birtherism is/was mainly a way to express an underlying feeling that Barack Obama is not one of us, by people who can’t handle the fact that a black man with an African name is their President. Has the not-one-of-us part has changed in the aftermath of the release of the long form?

This is not to deny that President Obama has had a good few weeks, But I think shah8 has the better broad analysis.

31

ovaut 05.23.11 at 12:43 am

Is it true that there is only one commentator who is as good as Krugman? The possibility that it’s true worries me.

32

ovaut 05.23.11 at 12:56 am

@geo when i think about moral progress, two intuitions are in tension:

1) i am too perennially pessimistic, and history is just too long (that is, it doesn’t stop) and the world too big, for the idea of ‘moral progress’ to be allowable, for me

2) but on humanly-relevant (that is, apprehensible) timescales, it evidently has happened, and by all means may again; so this sense i hope is all we need to mean by the phrase

33

Lemuel Pitkin 05.23.11 at 1:25 am

I think the factors you list have minimal weight. Seriously – who cares that Edward Wegman (who is this person ???) plagarized something. Far more important is the split between the GOP party base and the GOP business interests

Word.

34

bad Jim 05.23.11 at 7:51 am

Regarding the apocalypse:

Forty-four percent of all Americans said that recent natural disasters could be a sign of the Biblical end times, with 67 percent of white evangelicals holding that view. (In comparison, 58 percent of Americans attributed recent severe natural disasters to global climate change, as did 52 percent of evangelicals.)

Given that white evangelicals are the Republican base, I think it’s safe to conclude that the average Republican thinks that the end is nigh.

35

Richard H. Serlin 05.23.11 at 8:26 am

Fantastic post.

I too think the internet has done much to improve the traditional media. People like Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, and Jonathan Chait constantly expose and shame them, and they do do a great deal of the intellectual/analytical work for them.

You note, “most journalists (like most people) aren’t too keen on intellectual effort.” This gets at the monumental – and pretty much unaddressed – externalities of good serious journalism. Good hard intellectual work and investigation has enormous positive externalities and so is not profitable to supply at anywhere near the socially optimal level. Horse race, personality, the superficial is far easier, cheaper, and more salable.

Many blogs are so impressive precisely because they aren’t motivated predominantly by private profit. For more on this see:

http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-to-shift-profit-advantage-away-from.html

36

Countme-In 05.23.11 at 1:31 pm

“Far more important is the split between the GOP party base and the GOP business interests.”

Ah, yes. The Rupture!

What’s the recalculated timeline on this oft-predicted event?

37

mds 05.23.11 at 1:59 pm

Given that white evangelicals are the Republican base, I think it’s safe to conclude that the average Republican thinks that the end is nigh.

Indeed. And they didn’t get reality egg on their faces Saturday, because only a small minority of fundamentalist Christians bought into Campling’s specific prediction. “No man knoweth the hour” gets quoted an awful lot in right-wing evangelical sermons. In between all the tax-exempt instructions to vote Republican to stop the far-left Muslim who has usurped the governance of the world’s only Christian nation, of course. Colin Danby has the right of it: if anything, any backlash feeds the self-righteous fire of “persecution,” because just like in ancient Rome, people are making fun of them.

I know this is wildly (and, if impermissibly. please just ignore it) off-topic, but would you mind reflecting publicly just a bit on the basis of your perennial optimism?

I second Mr. Scialabba. Kansas (by amazing coincidence) has just enacted the latest in a long string of viciously misogynist state laws placing all sorts of additional burdens on women’s reproductive rights. I mean, yes, ha ha, Republicans are objectively deranged thugs smashing everything they can touch, but how does having them behave so unequivocally like rampaging lunatics actually help us, if they keep getting political power? Following the repudiations of 2006 and 2008, when Thoughtful Pundits intoned that the GOP would have to use this time in the wilderness to restore some sense, Republicans decided instead to double down on pyschotic repudiation of reality … and it’s worked. They peeled off enough Democrats-in-Name-Only to block or gravely water down virtually everything attempted by a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress, they regained the House, they hold a slew of legislatures that are shredding the social compacts of their states, and they’re potentially going to regain the Senate even if the nation re-elects Obama the moderate Republican. The Harper goon squad just gained a majority government in Canada from 24% of eligible voters on a record of blatant unaccountability and contempt for the public. Spain’s nominally socialist government is on the ropes because of its willingness to enact “austerity” measures, and all the benefit is accruing to a right-wing party that would be even more brutal in imposing austerity on the weakest. But on the bright side … Jacob Weisberg is concerned about the effect of all this on the credit markets? Wisconsin has just enacted a “disenfranchise students, the elderly, and other poor people” law, so excuse me if I’m just not seeing where all that optimism is coming from.

38

someguy 05.23.11 at 2:45 pm

bad Jim,

Awesome quote.

52% percent of evangelicals “attributed recent severe natural disasters to global climate change,”

That really stands out on this thread.

39

JM 05.23.11 at 3:41 pm

The Washington Post, likewise, has long hosted both sides of the climate change controversy.

I’m sorry, what “controversy” do you mean?

40

chris 05.23.11 at 4:45 pm

Following the repudiations of 2006 and 2008, when Thoughtful Pundits intoned that the GOP would have to use this time in the wilderness to restore some sense, Republicans decided instead to double down on pyschotic repudiation of reality … and it’s worked.

It seems too early to conclude this (not that this stops the media, of course). The opposition party’s victory in a midterm election during very bad economic times was overdetermined (and predicted in advance on that basis); any ideology they could possibly have advanced would have won them a lot of seats and possibly the House just by being “not what we’re doing right now”.

41

MQ 05.23.11 at 5:24 pm

Would that be young Galbraith, arguing that the govt doesn’t have to borrow, it can just print the money then tax it back again?

He was pretty much right about this. Or to put it another way, if he’s wrong it’s about the limits of the political ability to tax, not about the technical ability to make print/tax pretty much identical to borrow/spend/debt service.

.

42

gVOR08 05.23.11 at 7:31 pm

I hope Quiggin is right. I pray Quiggin is right. Well, I would pray, but, you know… Right now there does seem to be a little more willingness on the part of the Establishment Press to call balls and strikes. My fear is that this is just part of the Republican asylum management bringing the inmates, the Tea Party types, to heel. As soon as the debt ceiling is passed and Wall Street feels comforatable, we’ll revert to accepting the better dressed craziness from AEI and Heritage et al as responsible points of view.

43

gman 05.23.11 at 8:12 pm

I knew in the run-up to Iraq the WMD story was a sham…the press was “chastened” by that period as well..only have WMD scams replaced by Birtherism…”chastened again” but don’t expect it to last. 2012 Republican candidates are already gathering around the “hard currency” postiion…
The unquestioned insanity just evolves..

44

gman 05.23.11 at 8:25 pm

“Serious, innovative, intellectual…return of the Gold Standard!”

45

Hugh Sansom 05.23.11 at 8:44 pm

With regard to economics, Democrats and Republicans alike rely on delusional beliefs. Those of Republicans are more extreme, but both are delusional.

As for climate science, Republicans are almost entirely in the denialist camp, but is this the phenomenon to be explained or what does explaining. The outcomes on both ‘sides’ are the same…. Democrats overwhelmingly align with Republicans in doing nothing. There is a broader spectrum of opinion among Democrats but only marginally broader spectrum in behavior on policy. Both camps cave to big oil, to the automakers and car dealers. Both are painfully ill-informed on matters of science, economics and anything else pertaining to fact. This pattern repeats glaringly on health care and insurance, big pharma, foreign policy, domestic liberties and due process and on and on and on.

An adequate explanation has to go deeper than differences in delusions between Democrats and Republicans.

46

gman 05.23.11 at 8:44 pm

The Economist this week had a nice chart of the plummeting number of journalists relative to exploding number of PR hacks. That goes a long way to explaining where we are today.

I apologize for the numerous posts.

47

Don 05.23.11 at 8:57 pm

If I were running a news organization, every quote would be accompanied by a rating of some kind. Senator X (R-TX), caught lying Y times, said bla bla bla. Economist Z, who ( predicted | was completely surprised by ) the Great Recession, said yadda yadda yadda. If you’re a public figure and you’re wrong, it should follow you around for more than one news cycle, it should become part of your name.

48

PB 05.23.11 at 9:09 pm

John Q. is jumping ahead of himself. While some of these things have gotten well into the main stream consciousness (Long form Birth certificate, and death of bin Laden) and have given Obama some credibility. I don’t see evidence that the masses of climate change deniers are changing direction.

Denial is a powerful thing. The US faces some very hard questions with respect to climate change and the economy. Rather than make the tough decisions people may continue to deny.

I have friends who are very smart in other areas, but vigorously deny one or more of these issues. I don’t think it has to do with intelligence, but deeper emotions. For example to accept climate change at a minimum requires giving up the big SUV used by soccer moms. As a result otherwise intelligent subconsciously people deny the problem rather than change their life style.

49

Jay Rosen 05.23.11 at 9:30 pm

Hi, John. Thanks a lot for your post.

I’ve been trying to alert our political journalists to this asymmetry for five years or so, since this 2006 essay: The Retreat from Empiricism. I can’t say I’ve had much success. As far as I know this problem has yet to come on the radar screen of anyone responsible for day-to-day coverage in the political press. Pundits like Weisberg: yes. And it was good to see his piece. But I can’t say I’m optimistic.

While it’s true that, as you say, “there’s nothing technically difficult about writing political news stories with the premise (implicit at all times and explicit when necessary) that the subject is either deluded or dishonest,” there’s a huge problem in crafting news stories from the premise that one of our two parties is decidedly less reality-based, although both parties have problems with reality denial. The more true that is, the less possible it is for the press that acknowledges this asymmetry to present itself as viewless, even-handed, disinclined to make political judgments in the conduct of its reporting.

But ideologically (meaning: as a matter of professional ideology) the Washington Post, Politico, the New York Times, the PBS Newshour, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, Time magazine have to present themselves as viewless, even-handed, disinclined to make political judgments in the conduct of their reporting. They have no choice. That’s why I said: if one of the parties isn’t reality-based, the press circuits get fried. I think the Republicans understand this, and this is part of what has emboldened them to go beyond what was previously thought possible in reality-denial.

I would add that I have never see any journalist from one of those organizations talk about or acknowledge any grasp of the Overton Window. I’m not saying that they don’t “get” it. They simply cannot show it if they do.

I’ve tried to give a name to this pressure: the quest for innocence. I would love to see you factor that in to what else you write on this theme. Thanks again.

50

Glen Tomkins 05.23.11 at 10:38 pm

Don’t overthink this.

The newsmedia are great whores. I don’t mean that literally. Such a comparison would be unfair to people who earn a living selling sexual services. What I mean is that they are great whores to success, great flatterers and fluffers of the winners, and despisers of the losers.

They seem to have concluded that, given the current Republican field of presidential candidates, Obama is a shoo-in to win in 2012. Personally, I think that judgment is way premature. I think even a very poor R candidate would have an excellent chance against him if unemployment isn’t better by Labor Day, 2012, and I don’t like the odds on that. I think the idea that his ObL bounce will last is foolish, as the only people who will be lastingly impressed by the death of ObL are people foolish enough to believe that the phrase “global war on terror” actually means anything, and those people are going to vote R in the end, because that party owns the patent on that foolishness.

But that’s just me. The conventional wisdom seems to have shifted to the idea that Obama is a lock for 2012, and therefore people like Palin and Beck, instead of being oracles of some sort of higher logic that proceedeth from electoral success (vox populi, vox Dei), are now, to the newsmedia, just idiots, and their dumb-ass theories can now, must now, be described as dumb-ass.

The newsmedia have no more inclination or ability to identify reality vs BS today than they did yesterday. Today the reality-based community look like it’s going to take the next election, so we’re geniuses. The polls shift to Palin, and she’ll go back to being some sort of populist oracle and genius.

51

TomR 05.23.11 at 11:09 pm

We should go deeper into why some think it’s acceptable to deceive others about reality:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/TomR/baby-goes-waahhh_b_846692_84045548.html

52

TomR 05.23.11 at 11:19 pm

…the advocates of centrist objectivity finally being forced to recognised this.

We make a critical mistake when we grant that centrism is objective rather than based in a logical fallacy.

53

gordon 05.23.11 at 11:25 pm

“A pro-reality journalism will inevitably be hostile to the Republican party and its intellectual apparatus, but that doesn’t mean it should fall into the trap of reflexive support for the Democrats. The point is to report the truth, and report lies as lies, without falling into the equal and opposite traps of ‘balance’ and partisan loyalty”.

If the story of Wikileaks is any guide, a pro-reality journalism will be attacked by both sides, Democrat and Republican, and all their hangers-on outside the US. I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

54

Eli Rabett 05.24.11 at 1:46 am

Take note of the beating Trump took from Obama and the other speakers at the press dinner that weekend. They made trump look like the ass he was and it washed a lot of cobwebs off eyes.

55

John Quiggin 05.24.11 at 2:34 am

@geo I’m definitely an optimist as regards the battle of ideas, but it is a matter of decades rather than years. After all the current dominance over the past twenty years reflects the failures of the left (in nearly all the versions mentioned in Chris’ post) in the 1960s and 1970s.

Twenty years ago, Republicans saw themselves, and were generally seen as, winning that battle, in particular as regards hard-nosed realism. Examples
* The first round of the “Science Wars” when Republicans saw themselves as the defenders of science against politically correct postmodernism. A lot of scientists sympathised at the time. Now, they are, as a group, among the most reliably anti-Republican in the country (six per cent Republican, slightly more than African-Americans)
http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1276/science-survey
* Catchphrases like “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”

Even ten years ago, when I started blogging, people like Glenn Reynolds saw themselves (and were widely seen) as objective fact checkers rather than wholesalers of talking points.

These days, as I said in the footnotes, not even Republicans claim to be based in reality. Their standard defense is that Democrats are just as bad.

56

Peter Principle 05.24.11 at 3:07 am

“there is no obvious way back for the Republicans or for the US right more generally. “

But there’s absolutely no sign that the GOP (either the leadership or the grassroots) WANTS to find a way back — nor it is obvious that their current course inevitably will lead them to political failure.

It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think I have to violate Godwin’s Law to make the point that there have been moments in world history when political movements have flourished, even triumphed, by doubling down on the crazy.

Face it: The USA is fucking scary country.

57

RMF 05.24.11 at 4:58 am

If the republicans are materially out of step with american identity/ethos, what generally happens is that republicans stop talking about one issue and start talking about a new issue that works better, and people forget.

And the “journalistic media” can be counted upon to pick up this new republican issue/distraction/meme and run with it exclusively, until people forget.

58

John Quiggin 05.24.11 at 11:34 am

@Jay Rosen Thanks for your response, which gets to the nub of the problem. As you say, there’s a professional ideology, embracing most of the news media, which takes it as axiomatic that any position advanced by a significant section of one of the two official US parties must be treated as if it is a defensible claim and not a simple lie or delusion. So, how can this co-exist with widespread recognition by editorialists and analysts in the same media that most things said by Republicans are simple lies and delusions?

One model is the mirror image of the pre-Murdoch WSJ, where the news coverage was reality-based and the oped pages were utterly delusional. That might have survived longer without Murdoch, but then again it might not.

A second possibility is that all of this is just a flash in the pan and that normal Broderist service will resume shortly.

But I think there is also a possibility that things will go the other way. Once the frame is available, the idea that (insert latest Republican talking point here) is just a variation on birtherism and climate denialism, is easy to apply, because it’s nearly always true – the corruption of the rightwing intellectual apparatus is such that even where they might have a case, it will still come loaded with crazy trimmings.

And if that frame is established for analysis, it may gradually seep over into news reporting, in the same way as the analyst consensus that Al Gore was wooden, or that John Kerry was effete.

I suspect, as Paul Krugman says, that there will still be a longing for a ‘daddy Republican’, and a rush to nominate the latest hope (Ryan, Daniels or whoever), but that may co-exist with an increasingly overt recognition that actually existing Republicans are crazy.

59

CharleyCarp 05.24.11 at 12:49 pm

EO 13492 wasn’t signed by a fantasy.

60

Mark D 05.24.11 at 6:22 pm

Great point, @PB (comment #48), especially this part:

I have friends who are very smart in other areas, but vigorously deny one or more of these issues. I don’t think it has to do with intelligence, but deeper emotions. For example to accept climate change at a minimum requires giving up the big SUV used by soccer moms. As a result otherwise intelligent subconsciously people deny the problem rather than change their life style.

While, yes, it’s impossible to deny that great swaths of the American right believe things that are simply not true — and many, many more than those on the left who hold untrue beliefs — IMHO, it has more to do with a natural (if annoying) human trait of not admitting mistakes.

It’s hard enough for people to admit when they screwed up something as simple as a quote from some famous person, or who had the right of way at a four-way stop, or something else fairly petty. So to think we’ll see large chunks of people admit that they were wrong about a topic as major as climate change is just wishful thinking. Especially if admitting the mistake has to be accompanied by actual action — the only thing worse than admitting a mistake, it seems, is making an effort to correct it.

I mean, I’d love to be more positive, but there’s simply too much tribalism, mixed with overinflated egos, all stirred together with a heaping helping of willful ignorance, for it to be any other way.

61

John Quiggin 05.24.11 at 6:42 pm

Jack S, you’re swamping and derailing the thread. Please comment at my blog and not here (that’s a standing request, not specific to this thread). I’m deleting all your off-topic comments, along with one in reply.

62

mclaren 05.25.11 at 12:16 am

In re: footnote 3: depends on whom you call “conservative.” Is David Frum a conservative? He’s been sounding a warning about Republican denial of reality for a while now. How about Daniel Larison? Is he a conservative? He’s been hammering away at these points for years. Is David Stockman a conservative? He’s been vocal about the fiscal delusions of the Republican Party of late. Is Kevin Phillips a conservative? (He wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which served as the bible of Republican organizers for decades.) He’s been lambasting the Republican party on its lack of connection with reality.

“Retreat from empiricism” gets at the heart of the problem, but it uses complicated Latinized words. “Delusional” says the same thing and packs a bigger punch. Policy-making in America has gotten delusional. It still is. Obama’s continuation of a pointless lost war in Afghanistan illustrates that, as does the bizarre decision to pump up America’s military spending by 8% this year while freezing all other government programs. The only function the U.S. military serves today is to project impotence around the world. We have a military led by incompetent careerists, manned by gang members and rapists, armed with wildly overpriced superweapons that don’t work, and incapable of defeating a bunch of barefooted teenagers who are armed with bolt-action rifles. Yet the delusional American public and the delusional congress and the delusional president of the united states think it makes sense to continue to pour trillions of dollars into this worthless useless impotent military in order to maintain our cherished capability of “full spectrum impotence”: — the capacity to lose three different wars simultaneously.

Delusional thinking also prevails in America as regards our petroleum usage. Instead of gearing up for a massive changeover from the single-passenger automobile to mass transit, Americans think it’s a good idea to invade countries in the middle east in order to stabilize oil prices — without realizing that every time we invade, we create such chaos that oil prices destabilize and skyrocket.

Delusional thinking also holds sway in our broken health care system. Americans somehow think it makes sense to hand over every sick person in America into the claws of a set of corrupt collusive medical cartels ranging from bribe-paying medical devicemakers to bribe-taking doctors to hospitals that use nondisclosure agreements and sweetheart contracts to lock in high prices and prevent competition, to health insurers which act as monopolies. Then we’re surprised when the cost of health care continues to skyrocket many times faster than inflation.

Denying and ignoring Peak Oil and the utter impotence of our military and the pathological condition of the broken American medical-industrial complex isn’t peculiar to the Republican party. Denial of reality today seems a general trait of American culture. From unsustainable tuition increases to unsustainable offshoring of high-paying white-collar jobs, delusional thinking has become the hallmark and imprimatur of American culture in 2011.

63

Curmudgeon Killjoy 05.25.11 at 1:04 am

Mr. Krugman puts his faith in econometric models that recommend the government pay one worker to dig a hole in the morning and another to fill it in the afternoon. This faith in Tooth Fairy economics — the belief that a nation will find prosperity and increased employment under its pillow tomorrow if the government runs a deficit today — is itself delusional. The activity wastes labor, produces nothing of value, and wears out the shovels. Maybe the models are not reality based?

64

John Quiggin 05.25.11 at 1:18 am

@mclaren Frum is similar to Bartlett, read out of the movement and on the way to being an ex-conservative. Phillips is all the way along that road – he’s definitely on the left these days. Larison is good as regards being anti-war, but he is (or at least was) delusional on climate change, and I suspect on economic policy also. Stockman is probably the best example.

65

JP Stormcrow 05.25.11 at 2:27 am

Jy Rosen @49: But ideologically (meaning: as a matter of professional ideology) the Washington Post, Politico, the New York Times, the PBS Newshour, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, Time magazine have to present themselves as viewless, even-handed, disinclined to make political judgments in the conduct of their reporting. They have no choice.

So even granting that I (don’t like how that works out in the current climate, but sure), why don”t they do a better job of boundary policing and just a better job of competing against FoxNews or talk radio? I’m thinking of Jake Tapper’s, “How are they any different from, say – ABC. MSNBC. Univision. I mean how are they any different?”

66

JP Stormcrow 05.25.11 at 2:44 am

In answer to myself, I guess Fox being “fair and balanced” is the view of one of the parties in question, so there you have it. But accepting that is self-undermining in ways beyond that of their “balanced” points-of-view on issues outside of media itself.

67

Jay Rosen 05.25.11 at 7:50 pm

I got on Tapper about calling Fox News a “sister organization.” To say that he could not hear this criticism would be understating it by a lot.

The best I can explain it is: not only is it forbidden to present themselves as anything other than viewless, even-handed, disinclined to make political judgments in the conduct of their reporting, but, going further, it isn’t even possible within the ideology of the mainstream political press for the people in the press to think politically about their institution, even when it’s a matter of self-survival.

I addressed this in another context–culture war and NPR–here and also here (Breitbart and ABC.)

68

gordon 05.26.11 at 1:28 am

There’s nothing new about deliberate denial of reality on the far Right. Marcuse was writing about this back in the 1930s. From his essay “The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State” (1934):

“In the [Fascist] theory of contemporary society, playing up natural-organic facts against ‘rootless’ reason means justifying by irrational powers a society that can no longer be rationally justified and submerging in the hidden darkness of ‘blood’ or the ‘soul’ contradictions recognised by the light of conceptual knowledge. This is intended to truncate comprehension and criticism”

The essay is reproduced in H. Marcuse: “Negations” Penguin, 1968. I think the idea that Fascism has strong irrationalist tendencies isn’t particularly controversial, though I can’t quote contemporary writers.

69

JP Stormcrow 05.26.11 at 3:13 am

JR@67: Thanks. And yeah, the NPR thing really illustrated several facets of the issue. For instance I thought Jamison Foser’s “How NPR Helped Empower James O’Keefe” captured part of the dynamic well:

So James O’Keefe’s much-hyped NPR video turns out to have been misleadingly edited, just like his previous efforts. Shocking, isn’t it?

Actually, it might be — if you get your news from NPR.

70

John Quiggin 05.26.11 at 4:48 am

@Jay This is a very neat statement of the problem. My counterpoint is that, if news journalists keep on reading things like those I cited in the editorial columns of their papers, they are going to face a severe problem of cognitive dissonance.

The only real solution is to abandon the idea of Fox as a sister institution, and of the typical range of rightwing info sources (Heritage, AEI etc) as credible institutions. It would still be possible to do “he said, she said”, with respect to elected Repub officials, for example paired with a refutation from a credible independent source. Traumatic perhaps, but as you point out, there’s no viable alternative.

71

Martin Bento 05.27.11 at 1:19 am

Here’s what I suggest: use the O’Keefe case as as example, as the MSM omissions and distortions on the series of stories concerning him are fairly clear-cut and have had significant real-world consequences. Focus on the NYT, as they set the tone for the MSM, in terms of what needs to be said and what it is respectable to say. Draft a letter detailing the ways in which the NYT has miscovered this story. For example, when it became clear that O’Keefe did not dress as a pimp, the NYT stopped saying that he had, but, to my knowledge, never retracted its earlier statements. Has the NYT ever pointed out the misleading editing on the NPR recotding? Lay out the case clearly that the NYT has poorly served its readership and betrayed its reputation. Point out how consequential the destruction of Acorn has been. Don’t get into ideas about why the NYT is behaving as it is, as this gets into speculation. Get this signed by a lot of the type of people the NYT has to respect: emeritus journalists, professors of journalism, academics in history or political science, senior statesmen. Raise money on the Internet. Publish it as a full or half page ad in the New York Times. Pay for the right to go visibly right over Keller’s head and speak directly to his readership. If the NYT refuses to run such an ad, that too will speak very loudly.

72

LosGatosCA 05.27.11 at 3:04 pm

I admire your optimism. But delusion (and it’s partner, outrage) is a completely renewable resource, for all purposes inexhaustible, for politically active organizations. The ‘liberal media’ lie is 50 years old now. And in combination with the ‘success whore’ situation – that’s not limited to the press – the ‘reality based’ reporting hoped for will never happen. People generally don’t like seeing or hearing things they don’t want to see or hear. The market for public lying is quite large and always will be.

See, also ‘Peak Wingnut was a Lie’ at Balloon-Juice, too.

73

JP Stormcrow 05.28.11 at 2:12 am

MB@71: For example, when it became clear that O’Keefe did not dress as a pimp, the NYT stopped saying that he had, but, to my knowledge, never retracted its earlier statements.

Actually they did finally print a retraction to that one claim but still got it wrong by saying he *had* posed as a pimp.

Several articles since September about the troubles of the community organizing group Acorn referred incorrectly or imprecisely to one aspect of videotaped encounters between Acorn workers and two conservative activists that contributed to the group’s problems.

In the encounters, the activists posed as a prostitute and a pimp and discussed prostitution with the workers. But while footage shot away from the offices shows one activist, James O’Keefe, in a flamboyant pimp costume, there is no indication that he was wearing the costume while talking to the Acorn workers.

Their attempts to avoid doing so were laughable and included Public Editor Clark Hoyt at one point incredibly defending the story (in e-mail, not publicly) by writing “The story says O’Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time.” An incredible classist and racist bit of work from the NYT.

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