I remember how I became a hard-core Richard Dawkins fan in college. I thought (and still think) The God Delusion was a merely OK book. And his comments comparing religion to child abuse were pretty cringeworthy.
But then I started reading Dawkins’s critics. They hated Dawkins for reasons that had nothing to do with the reasons I was “meh” on him. “Dawkins says the God of the Old Testament is a homophobic bully, therefore we don’t have to take him seriously.” What? Had these people read the Bible? I would hope so, since many of them were purportedly experts on religion, but I had to wonder, given that what Dawkins said about the Old Testament was just obviously true.
I’m reminded of this seeing how too many liberal pundits are covering Bernie Sanders’s campaign. It’s a very weird experience, because my policy views are closer to say, Paul Krugman’s view than those of Bernie Sanders. But many pundits who I normally respect seem to have become detached from reality in their treatment of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Consider:
I. “Bernie Bros”
CW: misogyny, transphobia, suicide
Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary of this issue, but in a nutshell: some Bernie Sanders supporters are misogynistic jerks online–calling Clinton supporters slurs among other things. That’s awful. But some journalists decided to spin this into a narrative of Sanders supporters being especially or uniquely awful online, which there’s no evidence at all for.
The sad reality is that online abuse is a huge problem, especially for women. Both victims and perpetrators can be found among people of pretty much every political persuasion. In his post, Greenwald (who is gay and very much not a Clinton supporter) shares examples of the homophobic abuse he’s gotten on Twitter. He also points to actress Susan Sarandon getting called a “stupid bitch” for supporting Sanders.
In fact, other people have written in some detail about the abuse female Sanders supporters have experienced online. One particularly ironic (and nauseating) example I chanced about entirely by accident on Twitter involved a female Sanders supporter complaining about being told she’s not a woman because she supports Sanders… to which a male Clinton supporter responded with “Enjoy your vag” and “Not finished with your transition?” (the woman had given no indication she’s trans):
Mr. #IStandWithHillary’s premise seems to be that because only men support Sanders, anyone who claims to be a woman supporting Sanders must be lying (and that trans women are men pretending to be women). In reality, young women prefer Sanders over Clinton by large margins.
And now for the part I find most infuriating: when it’s pointed out that journalists and pundits have been pushing a narrative with no factual basis, some of them respond by treating the facts as irrelevant. For example, Vox.com ran one of their feature-length “explainers” on the “BernieBro” meme. Only halfway through does the author, Dara Lind, admit “Unfortunately, there just isn’t any evidence that can settle the question, once and for all, of whether Sanders fans are really more obnoxious online than fans of other candidates.” Yet then Lind dismisses the issue as “derailing”.
When individual women are complaining about harassment, changing the subject to how people on the other side of a debate have also been harassed is wrong. But when the media is pushing a narrative that one side of a debate is uniquely misogynistic, it matters whether this is actually true. If you’re a journalist who thinks there’s no evidence supporting the prevailing narrative, that should be the fucking headline of your article, not buried in the middle and then dismissed as unimportant.
Too many people in online liberal spaces have learned to treat “the other side is racist/sexist/transphobic/etc.” as a trump card in every debate. This norm contributes to a culture of abuse in many of these spaces. But if that wasn’t enough, the fact that they can be deployed to advance the agenda of a powerful and wealthy warmonger should indicate how broken those norms are.
Also amusing: in 2008, the anti-anti-Clinton narrative was all about Obama boys.
II. Single-payer math
I don’t have a ton to say about this that I didn’t say in my post on wonks and the Clinton campaign, but I want to highlight some things Vox’s editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, has been saying about Sanders’s health care plan.
Klein quotes a line from the Sanders health care plan that promises, “no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges”, and interprets this as meaning the plan will pay for any treatment people want, so it will be impossible to control costs (“everything will be covered, under all circumstances”, in Klein’s words). But a more natural interpretation is just that the government will tell people before they get treatment whether a treatment will be deemed medically necessary, so people don’t get surprise bills. This is something many other countries with government-run healthcare systems manage to do (source: my non-US friends on Facebook and Tumblr).
I have trouble understanding how Klein could interpret Sanders’s plan any other way. “Fail to pay for charges” implies the existence of charges, which implies you’ve already gotten treated and are being billed for it. Surprise medical bills are a thing people deal with in America (my partner and I have dealt with it ourselves). And it’s a solvable problem!
I guess some people think pointing this out is nitpicking? But I think if you’re going to attack someone for something they’ve said, you need to deal with the thing they said, and not like, reverse engineer what you think their position ought to be from how their words made you feel?
I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to deal with this without descending into several paragraphs of rambling snark. I feel like I’m being called on to prove that words with different meanings mean different things.
In case this isn’t obvious to people who don’t have experience with other countries’ health care systems–many people believe that the health care systems of other developed countries are much better than the US system in many ways. I’m one of these people. It was especially true pre-Obamacare, but Obamacare is a kludge that leaves a lot to be desired. Making our health care system much better in many ways is something we could do if Congress and the president both agreed to do it.
Klein could argue that by promising to make our health care system much better in many ways, Sanders risks misleading people into thinking the health care system can become perfect in every way–”puppies-and-rainbows” in Klein’s words. But expecting politicians to not only say true things about their plans but also issue extensive disclaimers about possible downsides is a standard no politician meets. A politician’s failure to meet that standard isn’t evidence that he’s uninformed or delusional.
III. Sanders and the Civil Rights movement
Some people were insinuating Sanders’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement was made up or at least exaggerated, even claiming a photo of Sanders at a Civil Rights protest was faked. I thought this was too absurd to mention at first but apparently TIME fell for it at one point.
(Yeah, TIME isn’t punditry–but this example was too rich to ignore.)
IV. Economic growth
When I wrote my post on wonks and the Democratic primary, I threw in a reference to Gerald Friedman’s report on Sanders’s economic plan at the last minute, because I was genuinely flabbergasted that people appeared to be trashing Friedman without actually reading what he had wrote. But let me talk about this in more detail.
Sanders’s campaign, as far as I can tell, hasn’t actually said that much about Friedman’s report. Sanders’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, did tell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that:
It shows that over a 10-year period, we would create 26 million new jobs, the poverty rate would plummet, that incomes would go up dramatically, and we would have strong economic growth… It’s a very bold plan, and we want to get this out there.
But that’s the extent of it. People are comparing this to Jeb Bush’s promise that he can deliver 4% economic growth, but that claim was central to Bush’s campaign, it was plastered all over his website (don’t know how long that will remain true now that he’s dropping out).
By contrast, Sanders has never talked about this, it’s not on his website, and Gunnels’ apparent endorsement may have been off the cuff. There’s no indication that Sanders’s team assumed 5.3% economic growth when drawing up their plan. It looks like they came up with a plan they thought was reasonable (after all, they’re describing things many developed countries manage to do), and then to their pleasant surprise an economist outside the campaign said the plan would be great for economic growth. So I think Paul Krugman, for example, is being seriously misleading when he claims this is evidence “Bernie Sanders’s economic program contains a very worrisome amount of voodoo”.
That said, Gunnels probably shouldn’t have talked as if Friedman’s report proved anything. A single report by a single expert rarely proves anything. Consensus judgements of experts are usually pretty trustworthy, but an individual expert can have idiosyncratic views. But unfortunately very few people understand this–which is why you also have Clinton supporters talking as if Kevin Thorpe’s report on Sanders’s single-payer plan is proof that the plan is unworkable. Clinton herself appeared to do this during one of the debates (when she said Sanders’s numbers “don’t add up”), and I think she was wrong to do that.
After looking at this debate more, it looks like Friedman’s projections are probably wrong–but also within the range of things I expect economists to argue over. His claims about lingering slack from the Great Recession look plausible to me. I’m more skeptical of his claims about productivity growth–but then, it’s a bit of a mystery why productivity growth has been so weak lately, and “we just haven’t had enough fiscal stimulus” doesn’t seem especially crazy as hypotheses about weak productivity growth go. I wouldn’t count on Friedman being right–but again, it doesn’t look like Sanders’s campaign was counting on him being right when they made their plans.
What worries me most here is the double standard. Clinton looks at things other countries manage to do and claims the math doesn’t add up. Not that doing them would be politically difficult but that they will “never, ever come to pass” and that even trying could cause people to lose access to health care. The policy in question is one Krugman himself supports. So why doesn’t Krugman call out Clinton as “not ready for prime time” (the words he uses to describe Sanders)?
V. Mission Accomplished
So far, the things I’ve talked about have been things that could be cases of mere sloppiness. This last one is more bizarre. After the Nevada caucuses, the instant consensus of punditry was that this was the end of Sanders’s campaign. Salon did a great job compiling a gallery of shame–actually, I had to read the article twice before I realized it doesn’t seem to have been intended as a gallery of shame, but uh, good job anyway Salon.
I gave the long boring version of why this is wrong a few days ago, so let me give the short version: Clinton and Sanders are exactly tied in pledged delegates, i.e. the ones people actually voted on. I mean, it’s one thing to argue that polls for South Carolina and Super Tuesday states spell doom for Sanders, but the idea that primary and caucus results so far are a disaster for Sanders has almost no basis in reality.
I say almost because there is one way losing Nevada could hurt Sanders: as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If pundits can convince Democratic voters that losing Nevada means Sanders may as well throw in the towel, Sanders’s supporters may become less likely to turn out, less likely to donate, less likely to campaign hard, and fence-sitters may vote for Clinton just to join the bandwagon.
That’s a truly nauseating thought. When influential journalists and pundits say things that are farcically absurd except (perhaps) as self-fulfilling prophecies, they forfeit any pretense that they’re seeking the truth. Rather, it’s an exercise of power, in this case an exercise of power on behalf of a politician who’s already had the deck stacked in her favor by the establishment to a ridiculous degree.
One entry from Salon’s gallery of shame deserves special mention–a front-page story from the New York Times that ran the morning after Nevada’s caucuses. It’s not punditry, but it sure reads like it. Here are the opening two paragraphs:
Senator Bernie Sanders vowed on Sunday to fight on after losing the Nevada caucuses, predicting that he would pull off a historic political upset by this summer’s party convention.
But the often overlooked delegate count in the Democratic primary shows Mr. Sanders slipping significantly behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination, and the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote.
Okay, what is a claim like “the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote” doing in a “news” piece? I think there are real flaws in American norms of objective journalism, but as far as I know the New York Times still claims to hold to them. Is the change in Sanders’s odds a verifiable fact? How did they go about verifying it? It would be one thing if they’d cited betting market odds–but they did not, it’s just been directly reported in the newspaper of record that Sanders’s odds are growing “increasingly remote”.
But this is actually less inexcusable than the claim that Sanders is “slipping significantly behind”. That claim is demonstrably false. In fact, the article does a great job of explaining why it’s false later on:
Mrs. Clinton already has a huge lead over Mr. Sanders in support from superdelegates — elected officials and party elders who each count toward the magic number of 2,383. But superdelegates could switch candidates if Mr. Sanders is the overwhelming choice of regular voters.
For now, Mrs. Clinton is focused on building her lead among so-called pledged delegates — those awarded proportionally by congressional districts from primary and caucus results. Mr. Sanders is aiming to score wins in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota while holding Mrs. Clinton to narrow wins elsewhere. Small margins of victory keep delegate allocations roughly even. A New York Times analysis found that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders are tied in the pledged delegate count, at 51 each.
You can’t be “slipping behind” if 100% of the reason you’re behind is that you started off with a massive disadvantage because you aren’t part of the establishment. Moreover, as a recent article on AlterNet pointed out, the fact that superdelegates can switch their votes means it’s arguably misleading to claim Clinton is ahead at all–in 2008, once Obama secured a majority of pledged delegates, many superdelegates who’d previously been supporting Clinton threw their support behind him.
I personally have little doubt that whoever wins the pledged delegate count will win the nomination, for the same reason I’ve never taken seriously speculation that the GOP would use procedural tricks to stop Trump from getting the nomination. For either party to deny the nomination to the candidate who won the actual voting part of the primary, whether through arcane procedural maneuvers or the more straightforward superdelegate method, would be signing its own death warrant.
At least that’s my opinion. What isn’t a matter of opinion is that starting out with a huge disadvantage in insider support isn’t the same thing as “falling behind”. That a front-page New York Times “news” story would suggest otherwise is shocking. I mean, this kind of screw up is what I expect from science journalists–but I expect journalists covering politics for the New York Times to understand politics.
All of this–but especially the Times story–makes it hard to avoid thinking that this primary season the journalistic establishment has been turned into an extension of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.