The Dangerous Dishonesty of the Both-Sides-Do-It Reflex

by Neil H. Buchanan

Despite everything that we have seen in the past generation, journalists and others (most especially trolls) continue to treat the statement of a fact- and logic-based conclusion as some kind of mortal sin.  A person who notes, for example, that the theory of evolution is not "merely a theory" will be denounced -- even by people who should know better -- as somehow taking sides rather than simply describing reality.

One of the more respectable of the never-say-anything-that-anyone-might-denounce-as-ideological crowd is the writer Jon Meacham, who is usually referred to as a "presidential biographer" for having written books about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George H.W. Bush.  Based on his appearances on talk shows flogging his books and other projects, Meacham is a bit of a hagiographer (especially about Bush) and very much a happy-talk kind of guy, often crossing the line into smarminess.

The other day (April 3), as I spent time trying to find YouTube clips to fill the endless hours, I watched Meacham being interviewed on PBS's Amanpour & Company by Walter Isaacson.  (Video and full transcript here.)  Meacham did one very surprising thing -- announcing that he will vote for Joe Biden -- but then defaulted back to bothsidesism as if returning to the comfort of the womb.  Both aspects of that performance offer some larger lessons about our current dysfunction.

I have long wondered why some people are so determined to "keep their powder dry" by pretending not to have an opinion about anything controversial.  The theory, as far as I can tell, is that a person is automatically removing herself from certain conversations -- and ultimately, the ability to have influence and power -- by allowing one side or the other to call her biased.

As far as it goes, that approach has an obvious appeal.  The problem is that it has no stopping point, because no matter the current outrage in which one side is obviously and horrifically wrong, those who wish to preserve their reputations for neutrality will always think, "Well, I shouldn't say anything, because the next thing might be even worse, and I'll want to be deemed neutral and fair when I weigh in at that time."  And then the next thing happens, at which point the logic reasserts itself.  Repeat as needed.

Of course, being judgmental is different from reaching considered judgments.  Actual judges make judgments all the time (that being their job), and unless we have evidence of bias, we do not think that they are being rash or non-neutral when they render those judgments.  Even in everyday life, people decide who their friends will be, which careers to follow, and so on without thinking that drawing conclusions is evidence of bias or somehow taints their ability to make fair judgments later.

And if it ever were possible to believe in the dry-powder theory, where we keep in reserve our ability to render important judgments by refusing to be candid in the here and now, we now know that there is no such thing as a person who is respected for having been previously neutral.  As soon as a judgment is rendered and Republicans or Trump do not like what they hear, the speaker is automatically deemed always to have been at war with Eurasia.

Hence the "so-called judges" of Donald Trump's fevered imagination, women and men who cannot possibly have been unbiased when they reached conclusions unfavorable to him.  They are either "Mexicans" and thus hate him for his wall, or they want him to lose the election, or whatever.  Waiting for just the right moment to make a statement unfavorable to Trump or the Republicans is a sucker's game, because as soon as the moment comes, the speaker learns that his carefully cultivated reputation for being a neutral centrist counts for nothing.

In the interview noted above, Isaacson led into Meacham's endorsement of Biden with the following observation: "I have known you, Jon, for almost going on 40 years now. ... And I have never known your political orientation. I have never known whether you felt more of a Republican or a Democrat."  Isaacson appeared to mean that as a compliment, which baffles me, but no matter.  He then gets to the point: "And yet right now, you said you would favor Joe Biden because he has certain character traits. Explain to me why you came to that conclusion."

Meacham then offers a thoughtful summary of what many people have observed recently, which I will quote here in full:
"I think that we are seeing, in the most elemental way, the significance and relevance of a fact-based, enlightenment-driven, empathetic presidency of the United States. I wrote the piece about Vice President Biden because it seemed to me that, at a certain point, if you have any claim on people’s attention, however minor, you have a moral obligation to say what you think. And I believe that, as we read more and more of these reconstructions, as we look at more and more of what we used to call the ticktocks, we will see that the Trump administration, because of the character of the person at the top, created a reality distortion field that slowed and warped a response that is going to kill more people than the Vietnam War did. And in that case, given those stakes, and if there’s a choice at hand, I don’t mind saying who my choice would be."
Biden's great strength is his empathy and the fact that he obviously cares about people.  He is reality-based, and it is unimaginable that he would tell the states to go it on their own (or threaten governors who cross him with retribution that would harm Americans).  His widely discussed weaknesses are still there, but this moment is all but perfectly designed to make him look like the leader that we need.  I still do not like Biden's neoliberal, defensive-crouch instincts, but just as I look at the ego-driven, teacher-bashing Andrew Cuomo quite differently these days, I appreciate what Biden brings to the table more than ever.

The problem is that anyone looking at Donald Trump in 2016 knew that he was a disaster waiting to happen, yet as far as I know (and as implied by Isaacson's question), Meacham was apparently one of those people who thought it wise to measure his words and not call out Trump as the dangerous charlatan that he had always been.  And Meacham's hero Bush Sr. and his family, all of whom disdained Trump, could not bring themselves to publicly support Hillary Clinton, even though they all knew that the Hillary-as-ambitious-liar media trope was simply a successful long con by their Republican friends.  (Whatever else I might think about the Bushes, they do understand politics in all its ugliness.)

So if people like Meacham think that they need to choose their exact moment, it is possible to miss that moment disastrously.  Whatever he says now about the 2020 election is nothing compared to what could have been avoided if more of those careful pseudo-neutrals had done what they should have done when this all could have been avoided.

Again, however, that is not to say that Meacham was wrong finally to reveal that he has opinions that will now make him unpopular in Trump's world.  And because I have written about the Republicans' longstanding assault on Enlightenment values, I especially like his ability to articulate how that party's assault on reason itself is so dangerous.

All of which makes it even more shocking that Meacham immediately and effortlessly pivoted back to both-sidesism, prompted by Isaacson's framing of a question: "How did we get here so that even pandemics are viewed in a partisan way?"  Again, here is Meacham's complete answer:
"I think what we’re living in is the great test of whether the enlightenment lives, right? The enlightenment was about, you follow reason, data, contrary fact, and you reach conclusions based on reality, not preexisting theological views, right? I mean, that’s the basic definition. Interestingly, our partisanship has become almost a religion for us, right? We have our own prophets. We have our own martyrs. We have our own holy books. Some people have written about this. It’s a great sociological insight. And I think, to some extent, I mean, for all the obvious reasons, the media, the partisanization of the media, all that, but there’s something in the human spirit, there’s something in the human condition that appreciates certitude and rushes to embracing almost a kind of fundamentalism. It’s easier. If you pick a team and you don’t have to think anymore, that’s easier than having to think and then figure out which team is closest to what you think. It may be — here’s an overly grand point. It may be that the enlightenment era, the Lockean era of thoughtful republican democracy may be the exception, and not the rule. I mean, maybe we — maybe the last 300 years or so will end up being a different chapter, as opposed to an ongoing one. I hope not. But that’s not unlike — that’s not impossible."
So "our partisanship has become almost a religion for us, right?"  Well, no, if we are talking about "us" as all Americans, Republican and non-Republican.  No matter what one thought of Brett Kavanaugh's jurisprudential views, for example, it is not a matter of tribalism to have seen his howling self-pity and lashing out at Democrats as having revealed his unfitness for the bench (any bench, to say nothing of the highest court in the land).  And believing that regressive tax cuts trickle down and pay for themselves requires a religious-like faith unburdened by evidence, while concluding the opposite is not evidence of an equal and opposite faith in some other crackpot theory.

This is the reprehensible shrewdness of Mitch McConnell's brand of partisanship.  Even if the other party offers a compromise that includes plenty of what Republicans have long favored -- say, the Affordable Care Act -- adopting a "party of no" attitude allows one to say that the other side is being partisan.  After all, the Democrats insisted on voting on a bill that no Republican supported.  Bias!

Even so, concern trolls and Republicans thrive on scolding people for being "opinionated" when the reality is that non-Republicans can and do draw conclusions without being faith-based in their thinking.  Trump, Pence, and the others now want everyone to believe that they never minimized and dismissed the dangers of the coronavirus, and anyone who says otherwise -- relying on actual evidence -- is attacked for being a partisan who "hates Trump."

But it is possible to hate someone because they are wrong, not to think that they are wrong because we hate them.

Again, Meacham took a big step when he finally said out loud what he should have said all along -- that there is something seriously wrong with Donald Trump and the anti-Enlightenment party that supports him unthinkingly.  That Meacham immediately reverted to the both-sides-do-it reflex tells us all too much about how people want to believe that refusing to draw obvious conclusions is somehow evidence of virtue.