The Multiple Levels of Hackish Political Commentary that Reinforce Conservatives' Preferences

by Neil H. Buchanan

There are few things more reliable and predictable than hack punditry on the right.  The world of opinion writing in general is highly insulated, and its gatekeepers sort for people who are not qualified to speak or write about anything in particular.  On the right, the added problem is that there are certain assertions -- what Paul Krugman has memorably labeled "zombie ideas," such as the repeatedly refuted (by evidence as well as logic) claim that tax cuts pay for themselves -- that right-wing pundits simply refuse to abandon.

As I have written many times, the problem is made worse by the asymmetry of left-leaning commentators' repeated willingness to adopt conservative framing for their arguments.  For example, I recently criticized the undoubtedly progressive MSNBC commentator/host Joy Reid for reinforcing the right's anti-deficit rhetoric.  Whoever sets the terms of the debate is at a huge advantage, yet the left tends to cede that opportunity again and again.

Why do they do that?  In my new Verdict column today, I use the recent politico-pundit freakout over an uptick in the US inflation rate as a lens through which to analyze this broader question.  I identify different levels at which the political discourse is ruined by unthinking adoption of the conventional wisdom, and I will add to that analysis here.

The big picture that emerges is that there is an endless supply of self-impressed conservative writers who hide behind safe claims that advance their political aims without being backed up by any actual thought.  And the result is that politicians -- especially Democratic politicians -- are hemmed in by what counts as "thinkable thought."  Whether it is deficits, inflation, going to war, or anything else, the American insider conversation is tilted toward right-wing nonsense.

Today's Verdict column is Part One of a two-part column, and as I noted above, its putative concern is the recent rise in the inflation rate in the US.  More than half of today's column, however, was an analysis of what I labeled "Talking About People Talking About Inflation," by which I meant that there was something interesting about the way that the usual suspects are talking about inflation, which has taken the story to a meta level.

Specifically, I identified two levels of content-free hackery, which I will explain presently.  First, however, I will add a level that logically precedes the two that I identified:

(1) Nonsense From Nowhere
Sometimes, a politician or pundit says something that is silly or embarrassing (if only embarrassment were still a thing), but at least he is not merely tracking what everyone else is saying.
For example, this past October, I had some fun critiquing a column by one of The Washington Post's in-house conservatives.  This person, based on nothing more than wishful thinking, decided to say that Senator Ron Wyden's (D - OR) proposed tax on "unrealized income" is probably unconstitutional.  Although the piece included quite a bit of the usual anti-tax claptrap, the somewhat unconventional claim was that a tax on income of this type is in fact a tax on wealth, which supposedly would make it per se unconstitutional (except that it would not be unconstitutional even if it were a tax on wealth, which it also is not).

Among the many problems with that claim was that it had the columnist saying, in essence: "Billionaires will be able to hire good enough lawyers that they'll surely be able to come up with a reason why Wyden's proposal is unconstitutional."  Assertion: taxing unrealized income is a "possibly unconstitutional mess."  Argument: TBD.  Readers who, in their generosity, suspect that the Post's columnist said something more defensible, and that I am being unfair in my characterization, are free to check the original for themselves.  There is no there there.

I bring up that example here to make the point that there are ways to be a hack -- and thus rely on prejudices and unthinking habits -- that are not merely a safe recitation of the received truth that everyone else is repeating endlessly.  That is, it is possible to be ridiculous without being trite.

(2) Conventional Non-Wisdom

The most familiar problem with right-wing punditry -- a problem that, as noted above, is especially damaging because it is amplified by many left-ish pundits -- is the old problem of parroting the conventional wisdom.  Sometimes, as with the federal debt and deficits, the conventional wisdom is encrusted after decades of unthinking repetition.  Other times, as with insta-commentaries on things like the president's pardon power (or the issue with which I have a love/hate relationship: the debt ceiling), people who have never thought about an issue in their lives quickly converge on a conventional wisdom that is baseless but is suddenly the "safe" position to take.

This is most easily seen in post mortem discussions of political non-debates, such as the immediate consensus that Senator Tim Kaine's vice presidential debate performance in 2016 was "too fidgety" or something.  But the real damage comes in discussions of the policy issues that are somewhat more technical and that thus challenge the abilities of politicians and journalists (who are generalists at best, ignorant and illogical at worst -- when they are not being purely malevolent) to think for themselves.  This is one of the reasons that legal scholars (who, for understandable reasons, tend to view themselves as generalists) were such easy marks for the law-and-econ types; I can still see nervous legal scholars on panels with economists saying things like: "Now I admit that I'm not an economist, so other people on the panel might be able to prove me wrong, but ..."  Pundits have the same problem of being generalists, but with none of the modesty.

The very lifeblood of political commentary in the US (and probably elsewhere), not just from pundits but from politicians and non-opinion journalists, is to hew to the conventional wisdom.  This phenomenon has lately been re-branded as "the Overton Window," but I first encountered it when Noam Chomsky ridiculed "the limits of thinkable thought," the phrase that I used at the beginning of this column.  As I argue in today's Verdict column, technical topics like inflation are daunting to so many people that pundits and politicians are even more likely than usual to flee to the safety of repeating what "everyone knows."

(3) Meta Nonsense

The new-ish argument that I make on Verdict today is that there comes a point at which certain bits of the conventional wisdom become so entrenched that they jump into popular conversations as markers of being in the know, even when they are not relevant to what is being discussed.  Here on Dorf on Law, I recently offered as an example of this (without having yet identified this meta-category) Stephen Colbert's odd side comment about college football players supposedly not being paid for their efforts.
One of John Oliver's only bad shows, by contrast, was a 2015 episode that did nothing but reinforce the conventional wisdom about paying college players.  But again, Oliver was on topic, whereas although Colbert's topic was in fact related to college football, it had nothing to do with the pay-to-play question at all.  Because the conventional non-wisdom about college football is so widely believed, however, Colbert and his writers knew that they could make a cheap side comment on the topic, and everyone would nod along.

In my column, I refer to this as the "Am I right?" method of referencing some kind of received wisdom that is not in any way pertinent to the topic at hand.  I give three examples -- a journalist referencing Social Security's imagined demise, legal academics absurdly tying their policy proposal to anti-deficit hysteria, and a tax expert very recently lapsing into a comment about "today's high prices" -- all of which can be seen as the respective writers saying: "Social Security, am I right?"  "Deficits, am I right?"  "Inflation, am I right?"

In other words, rather than directly making an argument that is merely a repetition of the conventional wisdom but is on point -- for example, attacking tax increases because "everyone knows" (incorrectly) that tax increases harm the economy, i.e., trickle-down economics -- the meta-nonsense step attempts to establish credibility in readers' minds by appealing to something that will be sure to resonate with their unchallenged assumptions.

As I argue in my column (and as I will develop in greater detail when Part Two is published this Thursday), it becomes a bigger political problem when a policy issue jumps from Level 2 Conventional Wisdom to Level 3 Meta Nonsense.  It is hard enough to find people who will be allowed (and who have the mainstream credibility) to push back on the conventional wisdom.  When it reaches the meta level, it is all the more infuriating because pushing back against it runs the very real risk of sounding out of touch with what "real people are experiencing."
The response is almost certainly going to take this form: "Wait, you're saying that inflation isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world?  How dare you!  People are sitting in their kitchens right now, making hard decisions in the face of these horrible increases in the prices of gas, milk, and the necessities of life.  You're an elitist!"
It is important to understand that the difficulty of pushing back is difficult both directly and indirectly.  That is, once a subject has reached the Meta level, there are two ways to push back.  The direct route is simply to try to set the record straight regarding an issue that is being currently distorted.  Thus, an essay can say directly: "I know that everyone has now absorbed the conventional wisdom such that it is at the meta level, but here is why the conventional wisdom is still wrong."  That is difficult for the reasons noted above, but consider how much more difficult it is to call out an "Am I right?" moment.

This is most difficult in conversation, but even in writing, it is a strategic challenge to decide how to call out a person who is making a point that is irrelevant to their own point -- or even whether to call them out at all.  If, in the course of an argument about some other topic, a person says that "we all know that Social Security is going bankrupt, but anyway ...," how should we respond?  Is it better to derail the entire conversation, which might be important on its own terms, to try once again to say that the throwaway line is based on nonsense?  At the very least, that opens one up to a condescending response: "You're not following my real point, are you?"

Currently, Republicans are trying to create a conventional wisdom in which President Biden's promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court is reverse racism and sexism, to say nothing of "ignoring merit."  Many non-conservative commentators will be tempted to make a concession along the lines that Biden has the right to nominate a qualified Black woman but that he should not have "limited" his options.  If that becomes the conventional wisdom, however, we are another step closer to the Meta level in which "Black women, am I right?" will be a damaging stand-in for validating the anti-progress panic of White men (and, sadly, even many White women).

All of which explains why it is essential to fight the initial battles to prevent a dangerous conventional wisdom from taking hold in the first place.  It only becomes more difficult as bad ideas work their way up the levels of insanity.