Tag: James Fallows

On fighting straw men

Earlier today, Lis Smith — campaign strategist extraordinaire behind Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run — made this comment on Twitter: It’s why the “CRT isn’t taught in schools” line that’s parroted on cable tv doesn’t translate to voters. It’s a communications challenge Dems need to confront.

You’ve no doubt read volumes about Governor-elect Glen Youngkin’s pledge to Virginia voters that he was going to stop Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. Parents raise concerns about children being taught to be “woke” and to feel badly about those pieces of American History that would make them feel bad or somehow — in spite of all evidence — to become convinced that white people are all bad and non-whites have been victimized.

Often these concerns are based upon anecdotal reports of an isolated classroom somewhere or an overly aggressive diversity, equity, inclusion workshop for teachers. A state legislator in Texas has come out with a list of 850 books available in school libraries that he believes are indoctrinating.

Some have argued that schools became a battle ground over questions of Zoom school or due to mask mandates (or both). There is also a historic patterns of anti-teachers union sentiments that provide a ready reservoir of concerned and vocal parents (even if they are the minority of parents in the district). Terry McAuliffe fed these concerns in Virginia with his bone-headed comment that “parents have no say in education” and then doubled-down when challenged. (Note: McAauliffe was a pretty weak candidate in 2013 against a much more extreme candidate than Youngkin.)

So how do we respond to these concerns, as Lis Smith suggests we should? I suggest that this is very hard to do because 1) the critics are often arguing in bad faith and 2) the goalposts keep moving. Respond to one particular concern (masks keep schools functioning by protecting vulnerable staff and also protect those at home who may have health risks) and quickly the conversation is about pseudoscience and Hitler and oppression. It’s not that the critics actual believe these metaphors are apt — they just work.

Perhaps there’s an avenue in returning to conversations about the purpose of education. For decades, public education has been about learning but also about citizenship. Those are the lessons begun in Kindergarten — sharing, listening, realizing that it’s not all about you. We have gotten test crazy to make sure “our children are learning” (No Child Left Behind) which has confused much. Those same parents who thought we were too reliant on testing now are suddenly concerned about learning loss.

Here’s another example. My Twitter feed has been full of reactions to Senator Josh Hawley’s Axios interview where he said that liberals are attacking masculinity, defining men as part of the problem in modern society. He says that men need to stop playing video games and watching porn.

In response to a prompt from my friend Napp Nazworth, I tweeted the following:

Hard to respond when Hawley makes claims like this. The choice is not between Withdrawn Men and Toxic Patriarchy. There are literally millions of men, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Secular, who look nothing like the straw man he’s offering up.

Again, I have no idea what data Hawley is using to support his claims. My best guess is that he’s posturing, looking for a signature issue that will make him a potential Presidential candidate in 2024 (in case that other guy doesn’t run). Senator Hawley is 41 years old. Like many of his generation, he would have grown up with readily available video games (I’ll forego addressing the porn question). Probably many of his staffers play video games in their free time. But he wasn’t really talking about men but about his continued attempts to paint tech giants as enemies of society.

Concerns about men have been showing up recently, especially around college attendance. Pew shared data today that 20% of men and 12% of women aged 25-34 had college degrees. In 2021, the comparable figures are 36% for males and 46% for women. The subtext in this any many articles is that somehow this is a problem.

It’s quite likely that the 1970 figures reflect some structural barriers to women attending college and a lower percentage of women headed to the workforce. The percentage of men 25-34 with college degrees nearly doubled as a function of the job market. Sure, the percentages for women increased nearly fourfold over the same period. While it’s tempting to argue that this is a turn away from men, but it’s more likely a reflection of the job market for all players. But this isn’t nearly as much fun as the inflammatory claim of a war against men.

Here’s another example. Today, conservative NYT columnist Bari Weiss announced that she and others were starting the University of Austin, a non-accredited non-profit institution that will be a safe place for conservatives to study. This is claimed as a direct response to the belief “that higher education is broken”, notoriously liberal, and unsafe for anyone who won’t follow the party line laid down by indoctrinating professors. This is on top of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance claiming over the weekend that “professors are the enemy”. {It should be noted that there were bomb threats at three Ivy League schools and one Ohio institution this weekend.)

How does one respond to these outrageous claims about college professors? Sure, sociologists (like me) are largely left of center politically. We assign books that those parents discussed above might take issue with. But nearly all professors I know, in Christian colleges, state schools, and research universities want their students to engage the assigned material thoughtfully but would never demand that their students adopt pre-determined positions.

A final example, also from today. In promoting the newly passed infrastructure legislation, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg referenced a historic decision by New York official Robert Moses who intentionally designed an underpass too short to allow buses to go through, keeping people from black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods from getting to the beaches.

Naturally, Senator Ted Cruz responded on Twitter that “The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads.

One could easily point to work of prominent historians and journalists who explain how these things happen. Mayor Richard J. Daley had the Dan Ryan Expressway moved to cut off the “Black Belt” from his Irish neighborhood. There’s a reason that the Ninth Ward of New Orleans was devastated by the levee failures of hurricane Katrina. I won’t even bring up the housing policies of the New Deal that screened Black families out of the housing boom accompanying suburbanization (this, by the way, is what CRT is really about).

This, then, is the problem. There are rational responses to all of the straw men claims that aim to divide the voting population. And Democrats must, as Lis Smith, argues, find meaningful ways of addressing those concerns. The challenge is that even if successfully addressed, the bad faith actors have moved on to three other outrageous and mostly meritless claims.

Gregory Alan Thornbury calls this “kayfabe“. Performative posturing designed to signal the joke to insiders while making outsiders crazy. It’s what is often called “owning the libs” or “celebrating liberal tears”. They aren’t good faith arguments but positions that are advantageous in the moment.

Responding to kayfabe requires discipline and repetition. At the end of the day, it will require us to address the motivations of those posturers, and maybe pull back the curtain to show man making the great Wizard do his thing.

One more point. This weekend I shared a screenshot on Twitter from James Fallows’ 1996 Breaking the News. I was thrilled when Fallows retweeted my item and added to it. My phone was buzzing all weekend as a result. James wrote about it here. Part of our response to all the straw men is to identify the ways in which they are using the news media and social media to promote their bad faith arguments. There are a number of people tackling the issue but many more are needed.

It’s Time to End Primary Debates

Twenty years ago, PBS’ Jim Lehrer wrote a book titled The Last Debate. It was a story about a group of debate Lehrer Debatemoderators who saw it as their responsibility to stop a megalomaniacal man from becoming president. They determined that they were the final vanguard that could prevent the inevitable. After the debate, the ringleader went into hiding in Greece while two other participants went on to dominate the morning gabfest on cable.

It’s not a perfect book by any stretch. But it was intriguing. I’ve returned to it every presidential cycle and found it’s reason for being to be compelling. It captures all of what we see in modern debate politics: the moderator as a persona, the attempt to catch candidates in misstatements, the antagonism between candidates and the media, and the difficulty of getting the candidates to move off their standard talking points.

By now you’ve certainly read about the moderators at last week’s CNBC Republican debate. The general picture that emerged was of moderators inserting themselves into the middle of things, becoming actors in the debate rather than questioners. This assertion is itself at least in part a media creation fostered by opportunistic politicians like Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz made his little “this is why people don’t like you” speech to great applause and guaranteed sound-bite status. But as Ezra Klein observed, Cruz did so by misrepresenting every question that was asked by the moderators to make it sound outrageous.


I’m not saying that the moderators didn’t deserve critique. Some of the set-up questions were deliberately provocative (“comic book campaign“) and unnecessary. I tend to like John Harwood but was surprised to see him on The Daily Show the week before the debate. Harwood shared a clip in which Ben Carson had hinted at “what was next” after gay marriage was legalized. It was clear that Harwood wasn’t going to become a Carsonite at any point in the near future. It’s fine for Harwood to have personal views about candidates. But going on cable television the week before to raise doubts about that crazy candidate isn’t the way to get people to give you the benefit of the doubt.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the impasse we’ve now reached. I’ll mention three.

First, James Fallows’ Breaking the News remains one of the finest books on modern journalism I’ve ever read. He argues that the combination of post-Watergate crusaders, corporate consolidation, cable news talkathons, and lazy journalists combined to make a very different kind of media environment. The presence of opinion shows that allow endless speculation and inside politics looping in a 24 hour news cycle creates news bits where real news is lacking.

Second, as much as I admired the late Tim Russert, his later years on Meet the Press followed the script Fallows described. He would have a newsmaker on, then share a statement made or a criticism offered, and ask the newsmaker to respond. There would be little light thrown on the topic and a lot of dissembling. This pattern of “You said this; what did you mean?” or “Yesterday, Governor Kasich said you were crazy; what would you like to say to him?” builds on that pattern. (As an aside, this is just too easy to do, as Jon Stewart showed for 17 years. Don’t these politicians understand the basics of video recording?)

Third, there is an assumption that a good question will demonstrate that the Emperor has no clothes. I really enjoyed Matt Bai’s All the Truth is Out last year. It’s the story of the 1987 implosion of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign (featuring a bit role by current candidate Martin O’Malley). Bai tells of how Hart was running a campaign from an earlier era at precisely the point when tabloid journalism was born.

All three of these factors combine to create the environment in which contemporary debates occur. They actually provide very little probative value. I think people watch debates the way non-race fans watch auto races: hoping for a terrific crash. What’s memorable about debates from 2012? “Self-Deportation“, “Binders of Women“, and, of course “Oops“. You could see the very moment when the wheels started to skid into the turn.

The CNBC debate somehow managed to make the candidates seem like aggrieved parties. Their response has been to meet together and take control of debate negotiations away from the Republican National Committee. (Why is the RNC allowed to broker the terms of debates? Where is the public interest?). So now the campaigns themselves want to dictate the conditions of future debates. Ben Carson suggested that moderators only be people who have voted in Republican primaries. The Trump campaign announced that they’d negotiate directly with the networks (because “the art of the deal“).

The prospect of the candidates dictating terms under which they’d agree to debate lends itself to easy ridicule, as Andy Borowitz and Alexandra Petri discovered. But the real issue runs much deeper.

These debates serve little public purpose. We are months away from national selection of candidates. Public opinion polls are loosely based on name recognition and media focus. Candidates simply repeat talking points, vague generalities, and mis-statements about the other party. It’s good for energizing the base and keeping donations flowing but plays little role in creating an informed electorate. Policy is not discussed, giving way to promises to make America great again and tell Putin who’s boss.

So rather than find ways of mitigating the symbiotic negative relationship between the media and the political machines of the candidates, I have a better idea. Just stop.

The candidates can continue to make their stump speeches and do their non-interviews on Sunday mornings. But let’s drop the pretense that anything can be learned by putting them all together on a stage and expecting them to say anything meaningful.