Saturday, October 2, 2021

Why I Hate The New York Times: Centripetality

Josh Gottheimer gets a commitment from the Speaker, 24 August. Via.


Josh Marshall does an excellent job of skewering the dreadful New York Times reporting on what happened yesterday on Capitol Hill, according to which the House's failure to vote on the "BIF" (Bipartisan InFrastructure bill, though it's getting less bipartisan every day as its few Republican supporters dwindle in number and commitment) is a "significant setback" for Biden's agenda produced by a "liberal revolt" and a "humiliating blow to Biden and Democrats" ("Something's Very Wrong With the Times"):

The president’s goal throughout has been both bills. They both have to pass. The last week has appeared to be on a steady course toward decoupling the two bills, passing the BIF bill and then facing negotiations over a reconciliation bill with no leverage at all over the two Senate holdouts who seem increasingly happy to let the reconciliation bill die on the vine. This is far from over. But what really happened is that the threat to kill the BIF bill got the two holdouts or at least Joe Manchin to actually start negotiating. What the Times calls a “significant setback” and a “humiliating blow” is actually the two bills being recoupled which has been the White House’s aim literally for the entire time.... But the outcome of yesterday is th[e] first good news supporters of the President’s agenda have gotten in days. Not seeing that means having a profoundly distorted understanding of the most basic dynamics at play here.

But he's not so clear on what exactly is wrong with the paper—what exactly is the profound distortion, and where does it come from? 

It's not just hostility to Biden, or Democrats, and desire to make them look like failures, though that clearly plays an increasing role in the way they (and Politico and Axios and that kind of publication) cover the presidency and the party. I think it also has a lot to do stuff we're always concerned with here, with journalistic worldview, and the left-right spectrum analogy for political thought.

Namely, I think there's a tendency in political journalism to conflate the "view from nowhere" fallacy discovered by Jay Rosen with a version of the argumentum ad temperantiam fallacy (the "argument from moderation" or golden mean fallacy according to which truth is always found in the temperate middle between two extremes)—to identify the nowhere of perfect objectivity with the center of political discourse. 

Which makes a lot of sense from my point of view, in that both places don't exist, in more or less equivalent ways. You cannot observe politics from a nowhere outside the polis, even if you take measures as extreme as those of Peter Baker, because you can't get there. You can define each virtue as a midpoint between two paired vices, as Aristotle did in the Nicomachean Ethics (temperance between the equally repulsive dissipation and abstemiousness, and so on), but if you project this picture on actual people and their moral views—Senator Sanders is a spendthrift and Senator Lee is a miser—then you get stuck identifying the beau idéal of modest liberality. Is it Senator Romney or Senator Tester? Neither: it's imaginary. To choose is to acknowledge that there are more than two sides, and take one of them, but the exact centerpoint is a fiction.

And what The Times consistently does is to project just that view of political thinking as a kind of bell curve arrangement, where the "center" is the norm (implicitly virtuous) and the "left" and "right"  deviations (implicitly vicious). And that's where they made their error yesterday: they can't stop thinking that Biden, long stereotyped as a "moderate", and "the Democrats" make up a "centrist" majority of the party, in opposition to some reckless minority of the "liberal revolt" (the fact that The Times characterizes them with the wishy-washy "liberal" instead of e.g. "progressive" or "radical" shows how deeply enslaved they are by the paradigm), care more about the BIF than the BBB (if they care about the latter at all), and have been grievously "set back" by the Progressive refusal to vote for the BIF without a BBB. Even though it's a historical fact that the division of the Biden program into two separate bills. BIF and BBB, was invented only a few months ago to gratify a single senator with a bipartisanship fetish and is otherwise not a necessary part of the plan at all, 

You cannot locate a truth by splitting the difference between two extreme falsehoods (the way Aristotle located the virtues equidistant between vices in the Nicomachean Ethics), because there's no reason to presuppose that's where it is: if you think you've discovered the extreme points, it's because you've decided you know the truth.

The author of the Times piece seems to have the idea that the President is trying to mediate between his party’s ‘moderates’ and ‘progressives’ and things got off track because the ‘progressives’ rebelled. As we’ve discussed a hundred times, that’s not what’s happening. Virtually the entire party is united on a plan and a couple senators and a handful of reps are holding out. The key drama of the past week was that the rest of the party was saying, ‘Fine, you won’t accept $3.5 trillion. Tell us what your counter is. Then we’ll discuss.’ The answer they were getting was. ‘No. Just pass our bill. Then we’ll see what happens.’

What the progressives did by stopping the vote on the BIF, with obvious permission from the Speaker and the White House (neither Jim Clyburn, the majority whip, nor the White House was whipping the bill at all, as Marshall points out, while Kevin McCarthy was whipping his own caucus to make sure it didn't pass), was to save the at least equally important BBB from the plot of that handful of reps, the Gottheimer faction, to destroy it. Because it can no longer be doubted that that is what they had in mind with their insistence on a separate BIF vote before the BBB came under consideration. Gottheimer's extremely intemperate outburst of rage at the Speaker:

“It’s deeply regrettable that Speaker Pelosi breached her firm, public commitment to Members of Congress and the American people to hold a vote and to pass the once-in-a-century bipartisan infrastructure bill on or before September 27. Specifically, the Speaker said, “I am committing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage.” That agreement was sealed with the vote of every Democrat in the House on August 24, which put the commitment in writing.

Along with a group of Members, I’ve been working around-the-clock to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, legislation we helped craft back in April with my Senate colleagues. But a small far left faction of the House of Representatives undermined that agreement and blocked a critical vote on the President’s historic bipartisan infrastructure bill....

We cannot let this small faction on the far left — who employ Freedom Caucus tactics, as described by the New York Times today — destroy the President’s agenda and stop the creation of two million jobs a year — including for the millions of hard-working men and women of labor. We were elected to achieve reasonable, commonsense solutions for the American people — not to obstruct from the far wings. This far left faction is willing to put the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk. They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk.

The furious disrespect and flagrant dishonesty on view here (neglects to mention that the bill couldn't have passed in part because Gottheimer's beloved Republicans were refusing to come to the rescue, but I'm especially irked by the funhouse mirror contrast between his nine-member-and-shrinking "group of Members" while the 95-member Progressive Caucus is a "small far left faction", and by his references to "two million jobs" as if the BBB, which he doesn't mention at all, would not create many millions more, and to "the president's agenda" as if he hadn't spent months fighting against most of it) is because he's lost a really big battle in the war and it looks like a turning point. As Josh says,

(Read the whole thread.) Manchin, who has been driven by Gottheimer's misstep into negotiation, and Sinema, who continues to be inexplicable, remain part of the process, but he's pretty much finished, and he's butthurt.

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