Do a couple of blog posts prove politics is "broken"?

My friend Matt Lewis writes a condemning column today about John Hawkins on the right and Matt Yglesias on the left to argue that politics is indeed broken, and that two pieces written by them prove it.  In the process, Matt makes the same error of which he accuses John, at least, which is to ignore context and scope, both in his criticism of John’s project and in his application of John and Matt as poster boys of all American politics.

Let’s start with Matt’s take on John’s column, which listed the 25 worst Americans of all time:

On the conservative side, RightWingNews’ John Hawkins asked several conservative bloggers to help compile a list of ‘The 25 Worst Figures in American History.’

Here’s the kicker: While conservative bloggers ranked liberal presidents Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and Franklin Roosevelt at the top of the list of the ‘worst figures in American history’ list (and numerous other liberals made the list), they failed to include some really bad people — like serial killers. …

Certainly, one could make the case that political leaders — because of their reach and immense importance — actually have much greater impact over our society as a whole than any serial killer ever could (though I would argue the Manson murders actually had a major impact on American culture, and essentially ended the “60s”).

But this, of course, is sophistry. Hawkins’ list was not titled “the worst political leaders,” but rather “the worst figures” in American history, and thus, the results seem to betray what we already know to be true: Too many political bloggers view their political opponents as being worse than serial killers.

Just for disclosure’s sake, John usually invites me to participate in his polls, but I’m usually too busy to put much time into them (sorry, John).  This time, I passed for a couple of other reasons.  First, I had already done this exercise five years ago at Captain’s Quarters, about which more in a moment.  The problem with just listing people and then counting numbers is that context gets lost.  That’s Matt’s legitimate complaint here, and also Jim Geraghty’s:

“No Charles Manson? Come on. You’re really telling me Al Sharpton and Michael Moore outrank somebody like Jeffrey Dahmer, who ate people? Race-baiting and rabble-rousing outrank cannibalism?”

But when a political blogger surveys for a list of the 25 worst Americans from political bloggers, isn’t politics the implied context?  When John sent out the query, that’s certainly how I understood it.  Otherwise, such a list would quickly become a descending-order body count for American serial killers, and would be entirely useless and inane.  At the same time, I figured that without a clear explanation, the list would be misinterpreted, as I worried five years ago when I wrote my post.  That’s why I was careful to frame the list with my understanding of the context:

For my consideration, I decided that the status of American had to be part of their “crimes”. In other words, simply picking someone like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson would be too easy. Their evil, though real and in most cases worse than what you’ll read on this list, doesn’t have to do with their innate American heritage. I went looking for the people who sinned against America itself, or the ideal of America. Otherwise, we’d just be looking at body counts.

If anything, my criticism of John’s list would be that it included too many recent figures, which shows a different kind of contextual failing.  That’s a problem with blogging that Matt and Jim miss in their response; it’s too immediate in most cases for long-term perspective.  When a 49-year-old President comes in second all time in worst figures in American history after only eighteen months as President, it shows a remarkable lack of perspective, and ignores at least the potential for redemption.

Next, Matt goes after a really stunning and foolish statement from Yglesias:

But while conservatives were busy ranking liberal politicians as worse than Jeffrey Dahmer, one liberal blogger was busy arguing that the ends justify the means. Responding to conservative blogger Mark Hemingway, liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias fired off the following Tweet:

“Fighting dishonesty with dishonesty is sometimes the right thing for advocates to do, yes.”

When conservative Josh Trevino pressed the point, Yglesias responded, asking: “Do you really think deception is immoral in all circumstances?” (The Daily Caller has more on the Yglesias story.)

There’s not much one can do to defend that.  Deception in almost every conceivable context is not only immoral, but damaging to one’s credibility.  I’ve certainly been wrong before — I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been.  I’m not always the most gracious person when confronted on errors, but I’m not an ogre about it, either.  What I don’t do is deliberately deceive and lie in order to achieve an end, and I don’t think most people on either side of the political divide engage in or condone that kind of activity, either.

In Yglesias’ defense, at least somewhat, it’s pretty easy to be glib and speculative on Twitter, something Octavia Nasr and others discovered a bit too late.  Yglesias is relatively young, which means he has plenty of time to redeem himself from essentially torpedoing his own credibility.

But let’s make it clear that Yglesias’ problems are entirely his own, and John’s his own as well, to the extent the two of them have issues.  Matt Lewis’ criticisms are well founded until he concludes with this:

I know and like both Yglesias and Hawkins (and many of the folks who helped Hawkins select members of the list), and let me stress this is not about them. While it would be wrong to assume these two incidents represent the whole of the political blogosphere, my educated guess is that they do not represent a minority viewpoint, either.

So what’s the sad lesson learned from the convergence of these two blog stories?

In general, too many partisans (or ideologues may be a more accurate term) view their political opponents as actually being more dangerous than serial killers. And thus, in order to beat the bad guys (who, after all, are worse than Manson), they believe lying is justified …

That’s one hell of a jump from Yglesias’ tweet and John’s list of 25 baddies of American history.  Yglesias and Hawkins represent themselves, not anyone else.  When other people lie and smear, well, call them out on it, but painting two bloggers as representative of American politics is somewhat akin to painting Michael Vick as emblematic of American pet ownership.  Matt makes the same error that John did in compiling his list, which is to ignore context.  In fact, he makes another in assigning to John Hawkins the belief that Yglesias tweeted without any evidence that John actually does believe in deception as means to an end.  That’s very unfair, and very unlike Matt, who’s usually a lot more thoughtful than this.

The “sad lesson” that should be derived from this is to pay attention to context — and to resist the urge to paint big-picture, sweeping generalizations from two data points.

Update: John Hawkins has agreed to let me publish his survey e-mail in its entirety in order to allow people to see the context in which bloggers responded:


Right Wing News is going to be running a poll called, “Right-Of-Center Bloggers Select The 20 Worst Figures In American History” on Friday of this week.

What I’m hoping you will do is email me back an unranked list of 1-20 of the worst figures in American history. The figures in question can be living or dead and keep in mind, you don’t have to send me 20 of them. If you can only come up with a few, that’s fine.

A few other details

* Once again, what I need for this one is an unranked list of 1-20 of the worst figures in American history.
* The response deadline for this one is 7 PM EST on Thursday.
* The results of this blogger only poll will go live on Friday.
* If you’d like to be removed from this list, just let me know and it will be done immediately.

All the best

John Hawkins

Update II: Be sure to read Rick Moran’s criticism as well.