Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2013

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A 2007 Jon Swift picture.)

Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel. He left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. Lance Mannion put it well in 2010:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the “reasonable conservative” blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows...

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's 2007 and 2008 editions. Meanwhile, here are the revivals from 2010, 2011 and 2012.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column.

Meanwhile, Blogroll Amnesty Day (co-founded with skippy) is a celebration of small blogs that's still going strong, and coming up again the first weekend in February.

Thanks to all the participants, plus a special shoutout to DougJ at Balloon Juice for posting a submission thread every year. (I continue to try to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) Apologies to anyone I missed who wanted to participate. You still can, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2013.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

You Might Notice A Trend
"Long October: the Ambitious Damage of the Hollow Men"
Paul Wartenberg: "A rant during the end days of the October shutdown about the modern GOP's obsession to destroy a working government."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Weapon Wonderland (Song Parody)"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "Pro-gun control song parody, which can be sung to Winter Wonderland."

Pruning Shears
"Shoddy gun paper excites right wing"
Dan: "A poorly written pro-gun tract is dragged back from the memory hole and (briefly) gets conservatives worked up."

Herlander Walking
"Be Lysistrate, Be a Maenad…Hell, Just BE Mad!"
Labrys/Syrbal: "An old-school feminist looks back across progress or lack thereof, and the religious ideation of ages and how it hampers women. And what hampers women hampers the entire human race."

"Preserve The Core -OR- Fuck The Extremities"
Rehctaw: "Preserve The Core looks at the more or less eternal power structure that determines how the rest of us must cope."

"Intelligence Chief James Clapper Answers A Craigslist Missed Connection"
Paul Bibeau: "America's top spy saw your ad, and he wants to help. He's quite persistent about it."

"I Feel the Breeze"
Melissa McEwan: "A post recounting some of the key moments in which my marginalized body reconnected with the breeze I had been urged to deny it."

A Blog About School
"Don't Sign the Homework (Part 2)"
Chris Liebig: "Everyone talks about "helicopter parents," but what about helicopter schools? Here's why I won't sign my kids' homework every day, and why you shouldn't either."

David E's FaBlog
"The Agony and the Exabytes"
David Ehrenstein: "The New York Times (aka. The World's Worst Newspaper) decides that its important to make an ACTUAL COUNT of PRECISELY how many gay men there are out there. At heart this is no different from the days of Abe Rosenthal who decreed that the NYT should never discuss THE GHEH at all."

Show Me Progress
"Of state fair rodeo announcers and clowns: res ipsa loquitur"
Michael Bersin: "The day after the Missouri State Fair rodeo clown in an Obama mask story broke."

The Way of Cats
"The Heart of Cat Civilization"
Pamela Merritt: "One of the things I encourage and promote on my blog are the joys of multiple cats. Here I celebrate the big-hearted anchor of my current cat group, Reverend Jim."

The Brad Blog
"Yet Another Reason Internet Voting is a Terrible Idea: Targeted Attacks Hijacked 'Vast Amounts of Data' to Foreign Countries Earlier This Year"
Brad Friedman: "Unknown to users, 'massive security vulnerability' built into the architecture of the Internet allowed massive 'man-in-the-middle' rerouting earlier this year. The same technique could easily be used to modify votes cast across the Internet -- and nobody would ever know it -- if we are dumb enough to move to Internet voting as many proponents (many of the Democrats!) are now calling for."

Poor Impulse Control
"Lightning Pushes the Edge of a Thunderstorm"
Tata: "Those bloody bastards who were wrong but never in doubt and still won't listen to dirty hippies who got it right? Fuck them."

"The Human Face on Which They Stomped"
Deborah Newell Tornello: "Back in February, I wrote about the tragedy of ex-policeman Chris Dorner (you may remember the horrible story, which ended up in his being burned alive in a remote cabin)."

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Goodbye, Perrysburg"
Mustang Bobby: "In August I said goodbye to Perrysburg, Ohio, the town I grew up in as my parents prepared to move away. Our family had lived there since 1957, and I looked back on the years I spent there and the memories they held."

"60 Minutes Report Confirms All Obama Conspiracies"
Jon Perr: "From the moment he announced his candidacy for president, Barack Obama has been surrounded by allegations and conspiracy theories calling his citizenship and his patriotism into question. But as 60 Minutes' year-long investigation has revealed, all those stories you've heard—about the Kenyan-born, pot-smoking Muslim Marxist sympathizer who abandoned Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya—are true."

his vorpal sword
"As I Enter My Fifth Decade as a Writer"
Hart Williams: "I hate writing about my life; my readers love it. The story of how writing found me, mid-Watergate, in a university that was soon to be systematically physically destroyed (WITH demolition videos!) Naturally, I hated this. – except for the videos."

World O' Crap
"Plato's Retreat"
Scott Clevenger: "A wandering philosophy professor uses airtight logic, ironclad sexism, and shapeshifting metaphors to prove that the Affordable Care Act will make your wife screw the gardener behind your back."

The Rude Pundit
"A More Realistic Bush Museum"
Lee Papa: "Come along on a tour of the George W. Bush Library and Abattoir of History."

"Shuffle Up and Deal"
ranchandsyrup: An entry "in the Shuffle series whereby I hit shuffle and write about the song that comes up."

The Debate Link
"Criticizing Israel without it Seeming Anti-Semitic is Hard (and That's a Good Thing)"
David Schraub: "The claim that it is impossible to criticize Israel without it being (or being labeled) anti-Semitic is preposterous. But to the extent the idea is to ensure that questions of Jewish equality and anti-Semitic oppression are given due weight and consideration by persons who might otherwise be inclined to ignore or downplay them, it is a good thing that we promulgate a norm whereby people who want to speak about Israel also are obliged to think carefully and deeply about the issue of anti-Semitism."

"On Fathering"
infinitefreetime: "Me, late at night on my second Father's Day, talking about my own apprehension about being a dad and how my feelings toward my son/fatherhood in general have changed since he was born."

The Insufferable Movie Snob
"What the Heck is 'Pre-Code'?"

Donkey Mountain
"America's Poet"

Kiko's House
"'We're Number 17! We're Number 17!' America's Hellbent Race To The Bottom"
Shaun Mullen: "In recent decades America's standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures. This, of course, will come as news to many of us, not the least of whom are the inside-the-Beltway politicians who fiddle while America crumbles."

"Guns Only Give Americans The Illusion Of Freedom"
Marc McDonald: "Gun advocates often claim that guns play a crucial role in giving Americans freedom. But the fact is, real democracy died long ago in America--and guns did nothing to prevent it from happening."

"How Someone Ends Up in Disability Studies"
Eric Hayot: "Given that German laws on the treatment of disabled people are just as good, if not better, than US ones, I felt pretty confident enrolling my three-year-old, mildly disabled son in a German school. I was wrong."

"The Famous 50% (Lawful Gun Owners Who Should Be Disarmed)"
MikeB: "Further to an earlier post in which I argued that 10% of gun owners are in need of being disarmed, I present links to sites that quantify problems like drug and alcohol abuse, rage, mental illness and stupidity, things that obviously make people unfit to own and use guns safely."

"I Surrender"
Darrel Plant: "Paul Krugman's words made flesh. Living the dream of the 'permanent class of jobless Americans.'"

Connecting the Dots
"A Sinkhole of Spying and Secrets"
Robert Stein: "A media veteran weighs NSA revelations that wash over every area of American political life: civil liberties, government lying, foreign policy, traditional journalism—raising questions about who we were, are and are becoming."

Kathleen Maher's Pure Fiction
"Space Mountain"
Kathleen Maher: "Al as Jon Swift was uniquely supportive of my fiction blog 'Diary of a Heretic,' which became the title of a novel on Kindle. My new site is supposed to help sell the novel but features a good deal of my 'work-in-progress.'"

I Should Have Been A Blogger
"Fans Threaten to Boycott Game of Thrones, Take Two"
Anibundel: "The Red Wedding is over and fans react like they didn't learn anything the first time GoT killed a major character. Here's why they're wrong." (SPOILERS for season 3, obviously.)

Naked Capitalism
"Out of Control – New Report Exposes JPMorgan Chase as Mostly a Criminal Enterprise"
David Dayen: "This post was mostly the summary of a report on the many criminal activities of JPMorgan Chase, but in a year when the bank supplanted Goldman Sachs as the poster child for Wall Street misbehavior, it resonated. Though published in March, it still gets linked to this day."

Strangely Blogged
"How Has Uncle Sam Probed You Today?"
Vixen Strangely: "Being quite weirded-out by an anti-ACA advertisement featuring a somewhat creepy Uncle Sam, I endeavored to understand the thinking behind it."

"The Year without a Chrismukkah"
J. of J-TWO-O: "In which we ask, Is it kosher for Jews to celebrate Christmas when Hanukkah is in November? And why did Rankin/Bass never make any cool stop-motion animation shows about the Festival of Lights?"

Simply Left Behind
"Nobody Asked Me, But..."
Actor 212/Carl: "How Nelson Mandela was an exception to history's staunchest rule: Power is forgetting."

Real American Liberal
"Debunking Extremist Gun Arguments"
John Sheirer: "Ignoring gun extremists should be our first choice, but, unfortunately, responsible people have to meet radical distractions and distortions with clear, reality-based rebuttals. This detailed and extensively sourced post takes on the worst of the radical gun fetishists' false claims."

p3 – Persuasion, Perseverance, and Patience
"A quantum of umbrage: What's the Second Amendment done for you lately?"
Bill Nothstine: "Five months after the Newtown school shootings, and following a series of incidents where conspicuously-armed citizens paraded in public in a so-called attempt to "open public dialogue" with fellow-citizens who were diving for cover, I decided it was time to tally up what we'd really gained from the first two amendments."

Mister Tristan
"Bush to Baghdad?"
Gary, a relative of Mister Tristan: "Gary suggests that President Obama should tap former president George W. Bush to head up a special diplomatic mission...to Iraq. Think of it as a listening tour or a series of town hall meetings, across the length and breadth of Iraq, to explain our justifications for going to war in 2003 and to listen firsthand to the Iraqi feedback."

and that's the way it was
"Islamic History part 2: The Pre-Islamic World"
DWD: "Part of my ongoing Islamic history series; I picked this one because it's gotten the most positive feedback; it's hard for me to judge my own writing but I do like this one. It discusses the world on the eve of Muhammad's first revelations and the rise of Islam out of Arabia, focusing primarily on the two superpowers of the period (Rome and Persia) and how their ongoing conflict weakened them both and paved the way for the Arabs to build their massive empire."

Mock, Paper, Scissors
"The Further Adventures of Peggy Noonan"
Tengrain: "The story behind the story of Peggy Noonan going to the Bush Library Dedication. I try to imagine what happened that leads to one of Noonan's strange columns. As Noonan is the official hagiographer of the GOP, she makes herself a grand target for parody."

"For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger . . ."
Ellen O'Neill: "A review of Man of Steel and its unsettling doxology. What struck me was the unchecked anger of the beloved Superman, and the unchecked cosmic anger that Zack Synder and, dare I say, Hollywood seems to be suffering from.

Brilliant at Breakfast
"Dispatch from Casa la Brilliant"
Jill: "A chronicle of disease, humor, hope, and despair."

I Spy With My Little Eye
"Republicans Are The Dissatisfied and Angry Diners At The Table Of Life"
Aimai: "This post, which was originally posted at No More Mr. Nice Blog, connects the attitude of Republican voters and politicians during the Shut Down to the attitude of the angry diners who use tips and the threat of not tipping to express their disgust with workers and their anger at their own social position and treatment during the meal. Republican dislike of the federal work force is shown to be similar to angry tippers attitudes towards non tipped waitstaff—both are workers from whom the correct amount of deference can not be extracted by the judicious use of rewards and punishments."

Blue Gal
"The Professional Left Podcast (Ep 210)"
Blue Gal and driftglass: "The episode 'Downton Abbey Jesus' discusses Megyn Kelly's White Santa/Jesus comment and the Blue Gal post features a photoshop by BG."

"Nick and Me"
driftglass: "The totally true story of how I made a big-time Hollywood actor and Conservative nut job cry like a toddler and run away."

Big Bald Bastard
"Invisible Privilege"
Big Bald Bastard: "The beneficiaries of straight white privilege are typically unaware of its existence, and those of us who recognize it and are uncomfortable with the fact that it exists still benefit from it. The ultimate expression of this privilege was the assertion that President Obama's "You didn't build that" line was a personal attack. The privileged class actually believes that they made it on their own, and that women and minorities are somehow stealing from them when they compete in industry."

Tom Watson: My Dirty Life & Times
"Bridge and Tunnel Kid"
Tom Watson: "This is the start of a blogging project about the past, about New York, and about my life. I think Al would approve."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time
"Boston bombing reaction: why are we such a frightened people?"
LarryE (aka Whoviating): "The most frightening thing about the Boston Marathon bombing was not the attack itself, it was the public reaction to the police reaction to the attack. With links to my two earlier posts about the attack."

This Is So Gay
"Deliver Us from People"
Duncan Mitchel: "My traumatic encounter with NPR's TED Radio Hour, and our new BFFs, the robots. Host-entity Guy Raz asked 'Do we need humans?' and his answer seemed to be 'No."'

Southern Beale
"Journanimalism: The Passive Voice Gun Dodge"
Southern Beale: "A new spin on the old canard "guns don't kill people, people do." When it comes to covering accidental shootings, the media persistently ditches placing blame where it belongs by switching to the passive voice. The most hilarious example is a headline from the Dayton Daily News: "Man Saves Self From Shooting." In this case, the man accidentally shot himself when he reached for his gun."

"Culture Clubbed"
Roy Edroso: "write a lot about culture warriors and their sad, sick idea of what moves people. In this one I took the chance offered by an especially idiotic post by William Jacobson to lay out what I think is the big issue."

The Reaction
"HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM: Popetastic conclavular 2013 ends with a surprise win for Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio"
Michael J.W. Stickings: "My blog is mostly American and mostly political (with a great deal of attention on Republican craziness), but there's no denying that one of the key stories of 2013, and one of my blogging obsessions despite not being Catholic, was the papal election that produced the increasingly admirable Pope Francis, with global repercussions for us all."

"Shakespeare and the Scientists"
Lance Mannion: "Note to ego: Never have dinner with scientists."

Balloon Juice
"T-Bones and Cadillacs"
mistermix's conversation about welfare with his conservative neighbor.

They Gave Us a Republic
"This Ought to be Universal"
Blue Girl describes her health care odyssey.

Schroedinger’s Cat
"Austerity Explained"
schroedinger’s cat: "I explain austerity using a photograph of two cats."


Vagabond Scholar
"Our National Political Discourse"
Batocchio: "An attempt to explore how our national political discourse should work, and how it does work instead."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2014.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Our National Political Discourse

I wanted to try to visualize how our national political discourse should work, and discuss how it does work instead. Here's a simplified version:

Politicians make their pitches; the media asks them questions; voters make judgments based on this process. The political lineup shuffles accordingly with each election, and the process repeats. Long live democracy!

Of course, this is basic civics class stuff, and extremely simplified in terms of what actually happens. For instance, politicians often lie, the media may fail to fact-check them, and citizens may be ill-informed or irrational in their voting choices. Politically active citizens also do far more than just vote. Still, this model expresses an ideal central to our nation's founding: our system of government works better the more that voters can make informed choices. Thomas Jefferson was a fierce advocate for both a free press and public education for precisely this reason. On the press, he wrote:

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Jefferson argued that public education in America would help international competition, but also that it was vital to democracy:

...Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

It bears mentioning that Jefferson was quite critical of the quality of the newspapers in his time, and felt one might be better informed if one didn't read them. (Some things don't change.) Nevertheless, his goal was a "well-informed" electorate, and he felt a free press and public education were important mechanisms for achieving this. Jefferson's views on these issues epitomize Enlightenment thinking, as does the notion that "all men are created equal." (Although let's not forget women or other historically disenfranchised groups.)

Enlightenment ideals stand in sharp contrast to the ideology of certain conservatives, neocons, neo-feudalists, a large section of the ruling class, and their attending suck-ups and wannabes. This crowd is not too keen on the whole "democracy" thing, and focuses more on acquiring and keeping power. Its members feel it's okay to lie to the populace – ostensibly for the benefit of the citizenry – but in an amazing coincidence, those lies always benefit themselves. Irving Kristol, the "godfather of neoconservatism," was somewhat candid about this selective honesty to the public:

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that 'the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

It's one thing to follow the writer's old maxim to "know your audience," and quite another to "lie to obtain and hold power." Kristol, like many of his fellow travelers and descendants, was an advocate of the supposedly "noble lie."

All this bears mentioning because it would be wrong to assume that every political player actually believes in democracy, representative government, the social contract, basic civic responsibility, informing the public and voting rights. Far right activist Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the Heritage Foundation, stated in 1980:

Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome – good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Although of course decent people exist who self-identify as conservatives, conservatism itself has always had an anti-democratic strain. It's not a coincidence that voter suppression efforts for the past few decades have been almost exclusively conservative and/or Republican – and this past election cycle was no exception. However, the mainstream media struggles to call this out.

It's naïve to believe that all political players are acting in good faith, or that citing "principles" automatically ennobles actions or renders them beyond criticism. Some ideologies and their principles are noxious (slavery, white supremacy, female subjugation, theocracy, voter suppression, "I always get to win," etc.). Denouncing taxation as forced labor, theft or slavery is childish, and complaining that you object to your taxes helping the poor "on principle" doesn't make you any less of an asshole… just a less honest one. As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

As for democracy, the various versions of it have their flaws. Winston Churchill (who certainly had his own flaws) reputedly said, "The strongest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter," but he definitely said:

Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

A More Complex Model

Here's a more complex graphic that better depicts the many disparate groups in our national political discourse:

(Click or go here for a better view. No lines for this one, because it would get too messy, but you can draw your own for specific groups. Yeah, I made this quite a while ago.)

This isn't drawn to scale, of course. For instance, third parties are smaller in terms of their actual influence, and corporations are much larger. (That's kinda a joke, but not really.) Corporations aren't always allied, either, but when it comes to politics, they tend to have one voice, which unfailingly promotes a pro-corporate viewpoint. (Several charts making the rounds show how corporate consolidation has increased over the years in the media and elsewhere.) In case there's any confusion, I'll briefly explain these different groups:

Democratic Leaders: The chart doesn't show smaller factions, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but that one doesn't get a great deal of press, anyway. This icon represents the political leadership of the Democratic Party.

Republican Leaders: Likewise, smaller factions aren't shown (especially since members of "the Tea Party" are just rebranded conservatives). This icon represents the political leadership of the Republican Party.

Third Parties: More than one "third party" exists, and they don't agree on every issue, but obviously they all dislike America's two-party system. I picked Nader for this one because he's relatively well-known as a third-party candidate, but picture another figure (Jill Stein, Gary Johnson) if you prefer or find Nader too polarizing.

Corporations: It would be difficult to overestimate how much influence corporations exert on the entire political process, including the national political discourse. The "mainstream media" is for the most part corporate media, and it's rare that it will allow a viewpoint that isn't corporate-friendly.

Conservative Think Tanks: The pictured Koch brothers fund an enormous amount of conservative "thought" and media (sometimes called "the Kochtopus"). Their numerous outlets can give a false sense of multiple factions that are in consensus that the rich are taxed too much and so on, when in fact it's one message delivered by multiple mouths. Left-leaning and "centrist" think tanks do exist, but as SourceWatch notes, "there are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money." Exceptions exist, but for the most part, conservative think tank "scholars" are pedigreed hacks masquerading as wonks. Most nominally libertarian organizations can be placed here or with the conservative voting groups, the Libertarian Party notwithstanding. Although the Cato Institute and Reason, both Koch-funded, will stray off the conservative reservation on some issues (e.g. legalizing pot), they reliably support plutocracy or plutocrat-friendly policies, environmental deregulation, and a gutting of the Commons, just like the Kochs.

Academics and Experts: This group would be much better to feature in the news than most think tank "scholars," in that they're less likely to have a predetermined political agenda and more likely to tell the truth. However, some academics and experts aren't very good at explaining their field to laypeople, and some aren't good at facing off with hacks (who aren't there for an honest discussion).

Corporate Media: There's more than one corporate media outlet, and they're not always in complete agreement (hence the two icons, although many more could be added to represent the "mainstream media"). Still, they tend to share a basic worldview, often unconsciously, that defers to power, from corporate interests to elite Beltway consensus (the "Very Serious People").

Fox News: Although Fox News is also a corporate media outlet, it's significantly different in that propaganda is a key driver in addition to profit, and the network has shown eagerness in not letting the truth get in the way of a conservative political attack. (For more on this, see basically everything every posted at Media Matters.)

Right-Wing Talk: The hosts and guests on right-wing talk radio overlap considerably with those on Fox News, but there's enough separation it deserves its own category. (The radio-only crowd tends to be even crazier.)

PBS/NPR: Public broadcasting has its faults, but its news coverage is generally better than that of for-profit corporate outlets. It has a little more independence. (Its non-political stories are generally excellent; for anything touching on politics, they sometimes tread too carefully or even bend over backwards not to call out conservatives – unfortunately, conservatives frequently threaten to defund them.)

Independent Liberal Media: Truly liberal media outlets don't have the deep pockets behind them that other outlets do. Still, they do exist, even if they can be harder to find.

True Swing Voters: The notion of the "independent" voter is largely a myth, but there is a small group that will actually switch between the two major parties (or go third party) in major elections. (This mainly applies to national elections, not local ones.)

Likely Republican Voters: This group has a preference for the Republican Party and normally votes for it (at least on the national level). In certain circumstances, members of this group might vote otherwise.

Likely Democratic Voters: This group has a preference for the Democratic Party and normally votes for it (at least on the national level). In certain circumstances, members of this group might vote otherwise.

Diehard Conservative Cheerleaders: This group puts political party and the movement before most other considerations. General loyalty makes some long-term sense, but a "my party, right or wrong" attitude is a big problem, especially when a party/movement's leaders act egregiously. This is the group that still approved of George W. Bush as president no matter what, or stuck by Nixon to the bitter end (or, even if they never badmouthed him publicly, 'only liked him after Watergate').

Yellow Dog Democrats: This group puts political party before most other considerations. (As the joke goes, if the party nominated a yellow dog for office, these people would vote for it.) General loyalty makes some long-term sense, but a "my party, right or wrong" attitude is a big problem, especially when a party/movement's leaders act egregiously. Perhaps it's lack of opportunity, but I don't think this group has been as bad as their conservative counterparts. The closest equivalent would party loyalists who have defended actual (versus alleged) corruption by Democratic politicians or will not hear any criticism of the Clintons or Obama.

Conservative Activists: This group is typified by right-wing bloggers and activists (for instance, pro-life/anti-choice demonstrators). They believe they are the true conservatives and the rightful adjudicators of ideological purity. They tend to be more conservative than the politicians they eventually support (they almost all voted for Romney, but often supported other candidates in the primaries). Still, the activist-politician gap is smaller for them than for their liberal counterparts, since a sizable number of genuinely right-wing public officials do exist.

Liberal Activists: Members of this group tend to identify themselves as "liberals" or "progressives" rather than (or at least before) "Democrats." They typically think that the Democratic Party isn't liberal enough, and will criticize its politicians (although they may still judge them better than the Republicans on given issues or overall). For example, they probably agree with most positions of the Congressional Progressive Caucus or other individual politicians on the liberal end (e.g. Bernie Sanders), but are more critical of Democratic leaders and "centrist" to conservative factions such as the Democratic Leadership Council or Third Way. (It is true that the American Democratic Party as a whole is not very liberal compared to its international counterparts.)

Astroturf Groups: These groups pretend to be grassroots activists, but are actually heavily corporate-funded. Pictured is Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader and rich lobbyist, who went on to be the chairman of FreedomWorks (he's since resigned), a supposed "Tea Party" group backed by rich conservative donors. (And sure, Dick Armey, establishment millionaire, clearly spoke for the little guy as he claimed.)

Third Party Independents: This group is frustrated with the existing two-party system but also eschews internal reform in favor of supporting a third party instead. (There's more than one "third party," making the term technically inaccurate, but it's a common shorthand.) I wouldn't put establishment "centrist" groups such as "No Labels" in this category – they're closer to Astroturf Groups or perhaps the "Likely" groups.

Artists: Not every artist is politically insightful, but some are extremely astute. As we've discussed here before, the Arts can sometimes capture the true nature of politics (particularly its mindsets and pathologies) better than "straight" journalism can.

Political Jesters: The fools who can (and often do) speak truth to power. Sure, there are comics that traffic in cheap, shallow political humor, but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, while not infallible, often do a better job at covering politics than traditional journalism, because they're not afraid to call bullshit. (In fact, it gives them greater credibility.)

Not pictured are the various political groups out there, because simply too many exist. Plus, many roughly align with the various voting/activist groups. For example, the right-wing group Focus on the Family fits in with the Conservative Activists, even though not all conservative activists are theocrats or even social conservatives. Meanwhile, the ACLU is nonpartisan, but right-wingers hate it and civil liberties so much (except when it comes to their own) that it gets pegged as "liberal." The same basic dynamics hold true for Planned Parenthood, if more contentiously because abortion (and unfortunately, even birth control) remain so politicized. Planned Parenthood follows both the law and standard medical practices, so it could be argued it's more "conservative" than the strident activists of Focus on the Family, but of course most conservatives would never see it that way, and such a stance does not describe actual conservatism (versus the fantasy version). As we've explored before, despite their hype, most self-described conservatives aren't fighting to maintain the status quo; they're fighting for what they view as the natural order with themselves on top. They often speak of these efforts as a "restoration," even though their preferred hierarchy is long gone (and was horrible, and remains widely rejected) or never existed in the first place.

It bears mentioning that not all reasons for being in a given group or listening to specific outlets are created equal. Nor is someone's self-labeling necessarily accurate. Voters often like to describe themselves as "independent" when they really mean "sensible." (Late in an election cycle, it's extremely rare for any "undecided" voters to be well-informed but truly ambivalent; at a certain point, almost everyone claiming to be "undecided" is a liar, attention-seeker, or ignoramus.) This chart could likely be improved, but I hope it's somewhat useful for discussing the mechanisms of political discourse (and how those affect the quality of discussion).

The Types of Guests (and Where the Process Breaks Down)

When it comes to political shows in the corporate media, the quality of the guests is often lacking. The various reasons for booking a guest are not all mutually exclusive, but the breakdown goes something like this:

Merit/Expertise: Guests possessing actual merit, expertise and insight on the subject matter should be the most valuable and the most common, but sadly, they don't dominate the airwaves. As mentioned above, academics and experts don't always know how to adapt their speaking style to the demands of a political show, and some wonks can be flustered by hacks. Additionally, the producer of the show booking guests has to have some sort of mechanism in place for evaluating actual merit. Ideally, someone on the producing team would have some small expertise to help judge potential guests or be able to obtain a recommendation from a trustworthy source. Some sharp potential guests may not be on the producers' radar (certain bloggers).

Reputation/Credentials: Instead of actual expertise, producers will often book guests based on reputation, which isn't quite the same thing, but the two aren't mutually exclusive. Paul Krugman, for example, certainly has the credentials to speak on economic matters, but he's also legitimately smart and insightful. Sadly, this category is where think tank hacks dubbed "scholars" often come in (as covered above, think tank wonks do exist, but certain institutions are dominated by hacks). This category is also the measure by which genuinely perceptive writers without a Beltway pedigree and worldview, such as Digby, are excluded.

Power: It's reasonable to book guests possessing the power to influence or outright control a vote or policy, even if their views have little to no merit. For instance, James Inhofe's notion that "global warming is a hoax" is batshit crazy, but he was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and fights for climate change denial wherever he can in Congress. The same dynamics held true when the Republicans held the debt ceiling hostage or have engaged in similar recklessness. Ideally, journalists will question those with power about the merit of their positions, but in the more corporate outlets, such pressure typically only goes so far.

Cosmetic Balance/Appeasement (Whining): This category demands the most discussion. Guests are booked because they represent a different point of view, even if that viewpoint has little to no merit. This makes more sense on the basic "power" level, inviting a representative of each major political party to discuss a policy or upcoming vote. It's much less defensible when there's a sizable "reality gap," and, say, an actual climate scientist is asked to debate an oil company shill, or a biologist is asked to debate a creationist on evolution, or any situation where an honest wonk is asked to debate a dissembling hack or sincere loon. This approach provides the image of balance while ignoring content and merit. Effectively, it entails that policy doesn't matter, because the show's producers essentially abdicate any fact-checking or vetting of merit, leaving this up to the viewer in the name of being fair while habitually denying the viewer crucial context for making an informed judgment. This approach is also employed to appease the conservative Wurlitzer, flogging its latest manufactured shitstorm, not that such appeasement typically works. (Liberals don't really have anything comparable.)

The late Molly Ivins, back in 1987, had a great take on these dynamics (emphasis mine):

The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject.Thus we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicaragua or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatrch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to off in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are themselves replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."

The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality:

Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.

In "The Heritage Foundation Has Always Been Full of Hacks," Jason Stahl presents similar dynamics as the result of aggressive conservative lobbying in the 70s and 80s:

...The highest value in debating policy would no longer be “best solutions” but merely having a balanced marketplace where the ideas of liberals and conservatives would be heard simply because they “balanced” one another. Such a way of debating policy, which we are still living under today, means that a policy’s identity as a conservative one that balances a liberal one is the only thing required for it to be heard. Such a discourse does not rule out the idea that liberal and/or conservative policies could be founded on analytical rigor, but also does not require it.

This approach creates an anti-empirical, anti-qualitative, anti-content, anti-thoughtful, anti-social-contract, anti-policy framework for discussion. It's not good for the country, but it is a much cheaper product to churn out, especially in the bulk required for the 24-hour news cycle. It also provides the veneer of objectivity while generally discouraging deeper analysis. Good journalists still exist, of course, but their bosses higher up the ladder are another matter. Corporate media heads view news primarily as a commodity to be sold versus as a public service.

Member of the Club: This category often overlaps with Cosmetic Balance and Reputation, but when it's present, it's the dominating factor. Certain pundits and gasbags rarely say anything original and insightful, and at best shill the conventional Beltway wisdom (usually wrong) or their party's talking points. No matter how insipid or appalling their remarks, they never seem to be banned from the club; at best, they're banned for a short time. Reliable hack, grifter and verbal bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich is the poster child for this category, and proof the chattering class doesn't actually care much about "civility." (See driftglass on the Gingrich rules for much more.)

Headline Generation: This category can overlap with the others, especially Member of the Club, but doesn't necessarily. For example, in her heyday, Ann Coulter wasn't really a "member of the club" by Beltway standards, although she was a regular on Fox News and other right-wing outlets. Still, she was booked by major corporate outlets because she was ridiculous, inflammatory and "controversial." She didn't further the national discourse one iota, but she did generate headlines, and that made money. Newt Gingrich, who is a "member of the club," can be similarly counted on to say outrageous things in a calm tone to generate headlines.

The general public and corporate media heads often aren't seeking the same things in news coverage, and it would be wise to remember that.

A More Complex Outlook

In general, our national political discourse is shallow and discourages nuance. It also avoids assigning accountability if only one party is indicted. None of the following statements are unusual or difficult for reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-informed adults, but they're rare to find on the Sunday shows (especially the conclusions):

I could be wrong.
Wonks on my side could be wrong.
Wonks on the other side have some decent ideas.
The wonks on the other side are wrong on certain issues, but they're still decent people.
Dialogue with smart people who give a damn is a good way of coming up with better solutions.
Nevertheless, one side's ideas are qualitatively better.


There are hacks and scumbags in the political party I prefer.
Corruption is not limited to one party.
Nevertheless, one side is considerably less corrupt (at least on certain key issues).


There are ill-informed citizens who believe things that simply aren't true.
There are crazy people with genuinely dangerous ideas.
There are zealots with genuinely reckless ideologies.
There are people who seek power, whatever the cost to the country.
There are truly evil people in politics.
Many stupid, evil or crazy people don't view themselves as such.
Many dangerous, reckless or evil people are legitimized by the Beltway establishment or the corporate media.

Sadly, an American citizen will often be better informed if he or she avoids watching political talk shows, with their conventional, false wisdom and addiction to saying "both sides do it" and its variants. To quote a previous post:

…saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.

Among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults, the following are taken as givens:

1. Neither major party is entirely pure or entirely corrupt. You can find despicable and honorable people in both parties.

2. There is an inherent level of bullshit in politics. All politicians lie to some degree.

Naturally, the same crowd also holds that:

3. Nevertheless – actually, because of this – it's very important to take a closer look at politicians, parties, and their policies, and try to make an informed, comparative, qualitative judgment. Responsible citizenship and basic voting depends on it. Policy matters.

Strangely, most Beltway political commentators will endorse #1 and #2, but reject #3. The same media figures who sagely inform the public that politicians lie, as if this a revelation... will also refuse to fact-check their political guests. Instead of #3, they tend to hold the following views:

A. Wisdom lies precisely between the parties. One side cannot be significantly better/more correct than the other. It's impossible that one side can be overwhelmingly better!

B. It is rude to call out liars, or not invite them back after they lie.

C. Giving both parties a fair hearing necessitates judging that both arguments have equal merit.

D. Anyone saying harsh things about conservatives/Republicans clearly is closed-minded, hyper-partisan and not a Serious Person, regardless of the evidence.

All of this also entails:

E. Policy doesn't matter.

This mindset, whatever you want to call it – faux centrism, "sensible" centrism, centrist fetishism, establishment groupthink, bourgeois authoritarianism, the world view of Very Serious People, the Emperor's New Clothes, the ol' ruling class circle jerk – is absolutely fucking imbecilic. The people who shill it are often highly educated and have sterling pedigrees by Beltway standards, but they are shockingly shallow.

There's a saying that democracy is a form of government where the country gets what the majority deserves. That would be more accurate if our national political discourse were more honest, more accurate, more civic-minded and more in-depth.

(Previous posts on these themes: "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit," "Both Sides Do It: Partisanship Redux," "Civil Both-Sides Partisans," "Common Ground and Equal Blame," "False Equivalencies," "The Bullshit Matrix" and "The Social Contract.")