Note: This article was originally written for EA Worldview in May, but I decided not to publish it. Though the article was objective, there was a fear that publishing such a piece would appear as bias, potentially tainting my readers' understandings of my writing on the Middle East.
This is a perfect illustration of the problem - even objective-but-critical analysis of an American political party can be dismissed outright if it argues too strongly in favor of factual analysis or quantitative assessment that runs contrary to political sentiments.
The events of Septment 11, 2012, have triggered the need to publish this article, which is as true now as it was in May. See my post September 11th entry here. Below is the original entry:
It's election season in America. Every time I turn on American news, the only time anchors take a break in their election coverage is when talking heads, pundits, politicians, or experts debate and analyze the election. As a result, I've heard just about every argument for and against each candidate, and very little political news shocks me.
Which is why I nearly drove off the highway last week. I was listening to NPR when two guests began a discussion about a book that they recently co-authored about Congress. The unsurprising-but-provocative conclusion of the book is that this Congress is the worst one in the history of the United States, and each Congress in recent history is worse than the last one, a pattern that hasn't been seen since the years preceding the American Civil War. At fault - rampant ideology, refusal to compromise, and serious disagreement on facts, reason, and science.
The most provocating claim - one political party was mostly to blame - the Republicans.
One of the two men making the claim was Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute, one of the most centrist and respected Washington think tanks (though it is considered left-center by some, that label is often considered inaccurate). Brookings is largely centric, so such a strongly-worded condemnation gave me pause for thought.
But the reason why I nearly drove off the road - the man making that argument the loudest was Norman Ornstein, a member of the Conservative-leaning think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI. A respected Conservative thinker, an ultra-capitalist, a Reaganite, had just accused the Republican Party of abject failure to govern.
AEI is everything that you would expect a right wing think tank to be. They are ultra-capitalist, support lowering taxes and cutting government spending. Its members regularly praise deregulation, dislike environmental restrictions, and have supported an aggressive foreign policy. AEI has even been slammed as an imperialist neo-conservative organization by some on the left. Whether AEI is a champion of conservativism, or simply an engine for electing Republicans, has often been debated. Such a strong condemnation of the GOP from an author from AEI should give everyone food for thought. But such a strong rebuke of the Republican party, from a Conservative think tank in an election year that the GOP has branded "the most important election of our lifetimes" is perhaps the strongest evidence that there is a serious problem in American politics.
The primary problem identified by these authors was the failure to put the country ahead of politics when a significant body of factual evidence suggested it was time to choose a solution that lined up with the agenda of the Democrats. The book even quotes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, exemplar of the problem with the GOP, as saying that if the Republicans supported one of Obama's ideas that worked, then Obama would get all the credit. If that's not putting party ahead of country, the authors argue, then nothing is.
But the second part of this argument is also a key to this conclusion, that the GOP has abandoned facts, science, and all sense of historical evidence, instead relying solely on far right-wing ideological absolutism. In other words, when Democrats in Congress were using logic-based arguments for their proposed solutions to problems, the GOP wasn't seeking conservative answers to problems, but rather were content to either block Democratic initiatives or propose counter legislation that had no historical or factual basis.
But the authors were really just getting started. Then came the truly revelatory piece of the segment - the push back from NPR. Surely, the host asked, the Republicans could not be entirely at fault? The tone in his voice was a mix of befuddlement and panic - NPR, often accused of being anything from left-leaning to outright communist, was somehow in the rare spot of finding themselves far to the right of one of the most important right-wing think tanks in America. The answer was clear - most of the fault is the GOP's.
"One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." (Excerpt from It's Even Worse Than It Looks)
The most interesting part of the interview had to do with media, not politics. Essentially, when the NPR host pushed back, proposing that sometimes Democrats have also resorted to name calling or ideology, the authors basically dismissed these arguments outright, treating them as noise (true noise, but inconsequential). The heart of the argument is not that sometimes "politic-ing" happens, but that there has been a fundamental breakdown in our political system, due primarily to the actions of the Republican Party, and that the media has completely failed to cover this most fundamental reality of our current political era. That the truth about our political situation was being masked by a media that is trying so hard to be neutral that it has failed to be objective.
How can one take such a generalized and politically charged conclusion seriously? If it were coming from another source, perhaps a liberal think tank, such an argument would be dismissed as typical elitist propaganda. Most Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, would likely dismiss the thesis as rhetoric, and the authors as biased, unobjective, and not worthy of consideration. After all, most Americans would say that the authors have gone far beyond the presentation of the objective facts and have crossed into pure partisanship by offering such a conclusion.
Enter one of the most commonly perpetrated myths of our time - Aren't "neutral" and "objective" synonymous? Absolutely not. In fact, the opposite is true. Objectivity (a word that was used in social science nearly 100 years before it was used in journalism) literally means to make something that is "subjective," or qualitative, into an "object," a data point that is objective. The whole idea of applying "objectivity," and the scientific method generally, to social questions was to attempt to find definitive answers to societal problems, and to do so without becoming hostage to bias or individual perspectives. What factors effect the suicide rate in a society? What role does religion have on prosperity? How does one's specific primary language effect one's understanding of thee world? These questions, or the problems behind them at least, had plagued society for generations, and had previously been the subject of philosophy. Now, with the advent of the scientific method, the earliest social scientists were seeking to adopt that methodology to social issues in order to find real, fact based, answers. Objectivity was essential to this process as it is the key guiding principle that one uses to transform observation into data. But the goal was not to remain "neutral," it was to remain unbaised.
How does this process work? Any use of the scientific method starts with a basic question or problem - in this case:
"Our political system is broken. How did it get this way?"
Then comes the hypothesis:
"Our political system has broken down because of hyper-partisanship elevating ideological desires over what objective analysis predicts would be good for the country."
Then the formula:
We will look at the actions and statements made by members of Congress to look for occasions when progress and compromise were shunned solely on the basis of political expediency (e.g., I know it's right, but it's not politically convenient, so I will not do it).
We will look to see how many bipartisan bills have passed, and will examine the nature of bipartisan efforts.
We will compare this data to the past actions of Congresses and other political leaders.
Then comes the data collection, analysis, and the conclusion.
As such, the authors in this study seem to have done everything right, and their conclusions do not appear to be biased. Each author clearly illustrates the formula he used, and the methodology for data collection. Each author clearly spelled out what kind of evidence they would try to collect. And each author has analysed that data to form a conclusion. Just as SCIENCE concluded that, yes, penicillin does kill bacteria, these authors have concluded that our political system is broken and the Republicans are largely to blame. Considering the backgrounds of the authors, hardly left-wing lunatics, that should give food for thought for anyone who encounters their work.
One could argue with their methodology, or their data collection methods, or their sample size, or how they analyzed the data, or even their conclusion, but unless there is a problem with their application of the scientific method here, one cannot argue against their facts, and one cannot label their work biased just based on the strong conclusion.
Strong conclusions aren't unobjective. To dismiss, or water down, or fail to utter the strong and conclusive findings of their work, without any sort of critical evaluation of their entire project - well, that's unobjective and biased.
In many ways, however, the main conclusion of this book isn't that the Republicans are to blame for our problems - its that the media has failed to cover the failures of the Republicans in an effort to be faux objective, an effort to remain neutral when the facts were conclusive, just in order to escape the label "liberal bias." In fairness, the media doesn't just do this with problems coming from the US political right, but in almost all matters set before them. So few in the media are willing to state the facts and call out those who defy them, on the right or the left. Even in matters far from our shores, stories that should escape the traditional left-vs-right narrative, I've pointed out that the media's faux objectivity has limited its ability to report reality.
Instead, most of the media's faux objectivity hinges on what I would like to define as "tokenism." Basically, the media is content to find two opposing viewpoints and present them uncritically to the public. The Syrian government says one thing and the Syrian opposition says another, so get a representative from both, and let them make statements that remain heavily qualified and largely unverified by the media. Have a story about black Americans? Get a comment from Reverand Al Sharpton. Have a story about gay marriage? Find one priest or pastor to represent the beliefs of all of Christianity, and find a gay person to talk to. You're Arianna Huffington and have been accused of being an unapologetic propagandist and crusader for the American left? Hire Andrew Breitbart to work at the Huffington Post, an unapologetic propagandist and crusader for the American right. Allow two political pundits to come on to a talk show, each spouting the party line. Maybe, if convenient for ratings, do fact checking afterwards, once they have left the room, and when no one is watching. If your network shows a political speech from Romney, then your network will follow that with one made by Obama. Instead of assessing the factual accuracy, or dissecting the claims and arguments made by the two speeches, have experts argue who scored the most points. It's ok to pick winners, but never to asses truth. When it comes to truth, whatever you do, avoid taking sides at all costs.
That is not objectivity. It's not even journalism. It is, however, the status quo.
And it needs to be challenged. To be fair to the media, I could name many instances when the faux objective status quo is challenged. There are plenty of great reporters doing fantastic, unbaised journalism every day. However, too many of these good stories are pushed to the sidelines, particularly on broadcast media stations. One has to sort through the noise, the junk, and banter, the fluff, and the "milk toast" to get to the good stuff. As a result, too many Americans, in particular, are now victims to a corporate media that refuses to hurt people's feelings or present uncomfortable truths because it refuses to risk ratings drops, partisan labels, or worse - losing access to key news makers. For lazy, greedy, and/or self-serving reasons, the media refuses to look deeper, to challenge its audience, or to risk offending anyone by stating the objective facts.
I nearly drove off the road last week because the most eloquent voicing of this problem was coming from a Conservative think tank that was swimming against its own interests to present the stark reality. - that the Republicans have abandoned facts to serve partisan, self serving ends, and that the media has been ignoring this because it's terribly inconvenient for its standing with half of the American public.
Until we fix both problems, there will be little incentive for anything to change.