Friday, February 19, 2021

"Playing Politics" While Texans Freeze and Die: Nonsensical Bothsidesism Again

by Neil H. Buchanan
The crisis in Texas this week is causing misery on a vast scale.  People who rely on electrical devices to keep themselves alive are not able to recharge batteries.  Hospitals have been without power or water for days.  People are being forced to live in group settings with strangers during a pandemic -- where such options are even available -- simply in order to survive.  Some are sitting in sub-freezing homes, trying not to die of hypothermia.  Not all are succeeding.

My worst personal experiences with power outages have been two 3-day disruptions during winter storms, but in each case the weather dramatically improved while I was without power.  Also, because the outages were spotty and not region-wide, the only question was whether I would need to drive two towns over to get a hot meal from a restaurant.  Nonetheless, it was amazing how quickly life could change, where even sitting in a house that is 50 degrees Fahrenheit can make one feel that survival is at stake -- especially because we could only know after the fact that the outage was "only three days."  While it is happening, with no information (and in some cases, no way even to try to obtain information) about when it might end, it makes life seem very, very harsh and primitive.
Even people who might think that we as a society have become too spoiled and consumerist would have to concede that suddenly being deprived of the things that we take for granted is a recipe for disaster.  Yes, humans survived (with much shorter life expectancies) for centuries without central heating and running water, and even now, people go camping.  Still, suddenly putting people into survival mode, including people who are in serious danger of not surviving, should be unthinkable.
That means that we should rightly be angry that this crisis was the result of political blindness by the Republican Party.  But when is it okay to "be political" when responding to a crisis?  It turns out that making political arguments during a crisis can be perfectly appropriate.  What is inappropriate, however, is for news reporters to revert to meaningless talking points and both-sides-do-it accusations.  With the return to "normal" politics in the Biden era, we unfortunately see journalists lapsing back into their lazy attempts to sound objective.  This is dangerous.
The usual bromides about putting politics aside are all well and good, but the time when people are most clearly focused on how bad the problem is can be the best time to think about how we got here and what to do to prevent it from happening again.  Yes, if a person has the option at a particular moment to drop everything to save a life or end someone's despair, that must take priority over political arguments or anything else.  But just as we rightly ignore right-wingers whose first words after another school shooting are to tell liberals not to politicize the tragedy, we should not allow the conversation about Texas to be flattened by meaningless appeals to political neutrality.

As it happens, the Republican politicians in Texas who caused the problem when they should have prevented it were the first to politicize it.  If they had been able to make a decent political argument, that would have been fine (again, assuming that they were not arguing instead of doing their jobs).  As has been widely reported, however, Texas Governor Greg Abbott decided to stop trying to manage the crisis a few nights ago in favor of going on Fox News and blaming the electricity crisis on wind turbines and renewables.  Quickly parroted by others in the right-wing universe, including Abbott's predecessor Rick Perry (who continues to prove that wearing smart-guy glasses does not actually make a guy smart), the Big Lesson on offer from the committed-to-ignorance right is that the Green New Deal would be a disaster.
Even though that argument was utter nonsense, and even though many non-Fox commentators quickly shredded Abbott's deceptions, late on Wednesday evening I saw a YouTube video with the title, "Politicians Play The Blame Game As Texans Huddle In The Dark."
Oh no, I thought.  They're going straight for false equivalence?  I was especially surprised when I noticed that the clip was from Brian Williams's show on MSNBC, a network that does not have a track record of playing up false equivalence.  As it turns out, however, Williams tried to lead a completely sensible discussion.  When he turned to his panel, however, Peter Baker of The New York Times smilingly offered this non-analysis:
"What we see here, unfortunately, during a crisis is -- in addition to actually trying to tackle the substance of this issue, and put power back on and get people some warmth and power back in their homes -- is we see, immediately, both sides running to the ramparts.  Democrats see an opportunity in Texas where Republicans have been in charge now for a number of years.  Republicans of course as you saw with Governor Abbott trying to say this is a sign of why the Green New Deal wouldn't work, when in fact the natural gas infrastructure  is as much as anything else that's in trouble because of the cold.  So, it's very typical, I hate to say, of today's political environment.  Rather than deal with the crisis first, and then come to a rational debate later as to what caused it and what could be done to make it better, people  immediately are heading straight to the ideological bunkers and shooting each other across the terrain.
I should stress again that Williams did not ask a slanted question, nor had the discussion up to that point suggested that Baker was simply going along with groupthink.  This was all him.  It goes without saying that the Chief White House Correspondent for The Times is, in the eyes of the right-wing mediaverse, part of the enemy camp.  Baker has done some very important just-the-facts reporting over the past few years, and he has gone on TV and taken liberal positions.  Both of those sins make Republicans hate him.
Yet true to the apparently unbreakable habits of mainstream reporters, Baker simply went straight for bothsidesism: "[W]e see, immediately, both sides running to the ramparts," with both sides "heading straight to the ideological bunkers and shooting each other across the terrain."  If only Democrats and Republicans alike could be rational problem-solvers!

Part of the problem is that all people have familiar phrases and frames that they fall back on, fitting the facts to their priors rather than updating their views.  For example, there was a segment on CNN a few weeks ago in which a reporter described her recent trip to Wyoming to talk to people about U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney's vote to impeach Donald Trump.  The reporter described a harrowing visit, with people showing open hostility toward her and some people refusing to be interviewed unless she took off her mask.  At one point, she said, she decided to attend a crowded indoor meeting, maskless, adding: "Was that a bad idea?  I'm in quarantine now, so I guess I'll find out within the next two weeks."

This was all truly interesting and tragic, showing how extreme certain Trump-friendly people and regions have become.  Yet the reporter could not stop herself from ending with this: "It just shows you how much of a disconnect there is between the rest of America and the elites here in D.C."  What?  That is not at all what her reporting demonstrated.  Had she been in, say, Des Moines or Albuquerque, she would have had a very different experience.  It is not DC-versus-America, but that was the off-the-shelf description that fell out of her mouth, apparently out of sheer habit.

And so it was with Peter Baker's comment.  Yes, both Republicans and Democrats in Texas are saying political things.  But it is Republicans who actually have the power -- and the responsibility -- to deal with problems that come up on their watch.  And that would be true even in an alternative situation where no one could be blamed.  Texas Democrats, meanwhile, were actually helping in getting the Biden Administration to send assistance.  And Beto O'Rourke, who is no longer in office, was out helping people through his own efforts.  Was he doing that "for show"?  I honestly do not care, because he was helping, simply as a private citizen.

Meanwhile, it is essential to notice that all forms of "being political" are not created equal.  Baker decries that both sides went to the ramparts, but what were they saying once they got there?  Republicans in Texas and in the national media were simply lying, with Tucker Carlson even asserting that Texas had somehow, while no one was looking, been forced to rely on renewable energy.  They were "being political" in the sense of making craven, evidence-free, ideological pronouncements that were designed to shift blame.

In that environment, were Democrats supposed to refuse to be political, accept the blame and let Republicans off the hook?  Of course not.  Democrats said, completely accurately, that Republicans have been running Texas for decades (and the previous version of Texas's Democratic Party was extremely "blue dog"), and holding Republicans like Abbott responsible for the state's problems is thus a reasonable thing to do.  They also pointed out that this particular problem -- the loss of power to millions of homes for days on end-- was the result of a uniquely conservative blind spot about regulating public utilities that Texas Republicans took to the extreme, with people like Perry and Abbott gladly allowing power companies to make profits by gouging customers.

Finally, Democrats pointed out that this very problem had devastated Texas once before, in 2011.  In the ten years since then, four with Perry as governor and then six under Abbott, the state deliberately ignored federal guidance that would have required the relevant companies to spend money to make equipment capable of functioning in low temperatures.  This was, in short, a predictable and predicted -- and thus avoidable -- tragedy.

Note also that Baker's own description of how the two sides are both being political was completely asymmetric.  Before correctly pointing out Abbott's abject lying, all Baker could say about the Democrats is this: "Democrats see an opportunity in Texas where Republicans have been in charge now for a number of years."  Well, yeah.  And the reason that they see an opportunity is that Republicans followed their ideology, protected the profits of their donors, and millions of people suffered.  Seizing an opportunity is not the same thing as being opportunistic.

When people walk into a civil trial, it would make no sense to say, "Oh, look, lawyers for both sides are saying things that support their own side.  How typical!"  If both sides are hurling nonsensical arguments at each other, then both sides deserve criticism.  When one side makes a bad argument, however, why would we say to the other side, "Oh, you see an opportunity here.  How very typical of you to go to your ideological bunker."

What happened in Texas this week is one of the clearest cases of the dangers of Republicans' market idolatry.  Failing to set up a market's rules in a sensible way led to disaster and needless death.  Democrats can and should make political hay out of this for years to come.  Not doing so would be political malpractice.  It would also be irresponsible and even malicious, allowing another replay of this avoidable tragedy to play out in the future, as the climate becomes ever more unpredictable and deadly.


CEP said...

Journalists are entitled — even obligated — to report both sides of the facts when there is a real factual dispute at the core of the story. For example, right around the 2016 elections, there were real factual disputes regarding contacts between Russian agents and proxies on the one hand and the President-Elect (and his agents and proxies) on the other hand. Reporting the changes in facts as they came in was their job. That's not "bothsideism."

Once the factual record itself is reasonably clear, though, it's not for journalists. It's for opinion/editorial/advertorial writers, and prosecutors, and (sad to say) elected officials hewing to some ideological/partisan standard. When journalists start equating ridiculous, distorted conclusions from a reasonably clear factual record with conclusions that are neither ridiculous nor distorted (and actually engage with the factual record), that's bothsideism. And it's no longer journalism... even when employed by a purportedly journalistic organization. Once the facts related to Lt Gen Flynn's unauthorized contacts, for example, became clear, that was the story; that was the end of journalistic endeavor. Any justification on ideological/partisan grounds was just that.

I am carefully not referring directly to the Texas power situation because I don't pretend to know all of the facts.

Greg said...

I live in Texas, obviously don't have all the facts, but feel like I have enough to make a reasonable guess at what's going on.

This was a lack of sufficient regulation requiring winterization in an area that rarely needs it. This lack of regulation affected both wind and fossil fuel energy alike. As a percentage, I think the effect of the cold weather may have been moderately higher on wind generation, but not in any way that definitively proves that wind is necessarily worse when properly maintained and regulated.

The scarier thing is that ERCOT, in an attempt to defend themselves, is arguing that if they hadn't done what they did things would have been MUCH worse. The funny thing is, they don't seem to recognize that this means that as bad as things appear right now, their failures and the failures in regulation are actually WORSE than they seem.

James Freiberger said...

I saw that about ERCOT'S argument how much worse things might have been. And it was truly nightmarish what they described! But my skeptical reader's soul did wonder if they were doing some "we prevented worse disaster" butt-covering. After all, it's not like the stories people are telling in Texas aren't horrifying enough as is.

I had a monster absentee landlord in Minnesota who wouldn't pay to fit the apartment for winter properly. Meaning that with two space heaters running 24/7, I could get the temperature on the worst winter nights up to about 59. That's plenty cold for my 21st-century self!

Greg said...

From an immediate danger of system collapse perspective, I suspect ERCOT is telling the truth and the operators were doing exactly what they were trained to do in an emergency situation. While I blame ERCOT leadership and the Texas legislature for failing to properly take precautions after the 2011 outages, I'm inclined not to blame the individuals at ERCOT struggling to keep the system running this past week.

The local power companies are saying that they were told by ERCOT that they had to drop usage by some large double-digit percentage, and do it immediately, which lines up with the story that ERCOT is telling.

We only lost power for a little over 24 hours and bottomed out at around 58 degrees inside when the power came back on. We have friends who had it much worse. I don't live in the coldest areas of the state and we've got good windows, so I think that helped. Like most of Texas we're on a boil water notice (easier to handle now that we have power,) but we never completely lost running water. My college student's apartment complex cut off the water to the whole complex due to how many broken pipes there were, which seems to have been pretty common.