Politics, like sports, is a subject whose barrier to entry is nonexistent. That is to say, it takes virtually no knowledge of any sort in order to have an opinion on the topic. That is why politics, like sports, is such a popular thing to talk about. It is also why the vast majority of the political talk by professional political talkers is worthless.
It would seem, logically, that someone who is paid money to express their opinions on political topics— newspaper columnists, TV talkers, and pundits of all stripes— would, in fact, have an opinion that was worthwhile. Not that you'd be expected to agree with every pundit, of course, but that, due to their years of experience, their insights into the political process and the thoughts that drive it, their special access to the people in power, and their presumed expertise in the history and philosophies of political systems, their opinions would be illuminating and of a more refined quality than those of any old jerk sitting on a bar stool, spouting off at the TV.
In fact, this is not true. The thoughts and opinions offered by most paid political pundits and commentators have approximately the same value as the thoughts and opinions of you, and your friends, and your family, and the people you work with. Which is to say, very little value at all. If you were asked to discuss why the political opinions of the average "man on street" should not be accorded a great deal of intellectual weight, you might point out that he is probably ill-informed on many complex political issues; that his positions are probably driven more by emotion and his own prejudices and his own background and other random factors than by a systematic, logical appraisal of the facts at hand; that he probably inappropriately projects his own personal experiences onto the nation at large; and that he has probably never taken the time to construct a full and rigorously examined political philosophy with which to drive his decisionmaking process, instead just reacting to things as they arise based on gut feeling. These suspicions would be well-founded, because they describe how most of us average people think about politics. We hold strong opinions on issues we really know little about. We base our conclusions on only the flimsiest and most superficial qualities of politicians. And we unconsciously construct narratives based upon media coverage that may bear little to no resemblance to the actual state of affairs in the world. People who have never traveled farther than Disney Land have strong opinions on what should be done in Iran; people who cannot understand their own mortgage documents have strong opinions on how the economic crisis should be solved. This is, to some extent, just human nature. We like to have things to argue about. We know better than to take each other's opinions too seriously.
But whereas the sports world, for example, boasts a class of professional commentators that have a legitimate claim to their positions—Jon Gruden can offer more genuine insight into football than your drunk friend in the Packers jersey—the same cannot be said for politics. The political commentator class is, for the most part, little more than a bunch of regular people like you and me who were lucky enough to land jobs writing down their thoughts on politics for money. It's not that there aren't truly insightful political experts in the world. Professional political strategists know tons about how elections are won, and philosophers and political science professors and economists at universities across the country can all offer fascinating and sagacious arguments on how and why various political positions are justified. But, with a handful of notable exceptions, these are not the types of people who compose our nation's political pundit class. Our political pundits are mostly just spitballing. You might as well just listen to yourself.
This problem is not confined to any particular side of the very moderate left-right spectrum that defines mainstream American political disagreement. Peggy Noonan is one of our nation's most prominent Republican columnists. Here she is, in her latest column, explaining to those of us who do not have the benefit of her experience and access why the president looked bad in the Oct. 3 debates: "What he couldn't do was present himself, when everyone was looking, as smaller than you thought. Petulant, put upon, above it all, full of himself. He couldn't afford to make himself look less impressive than the challenger in terms of command, grasp of facts, size. But that's what he did."
Any asshole—you, or me, or your teenage child—could have watched the debate and written that very same paragraph. Or an equal and opposite paragraph. I am not arguing for or against Peggy Noonan's conclusion. I am simply pointing out that she has absolutely no more insight into any element of politics than does anyone who watches CNN and Fox News. Now, here is equally prominent moderate columnist David Brooks today, explaining to the unwashed masses "what being a moderate" means: "First, let me describe what moderation is not. It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Only people who know nothing about moderation think it means that... The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most... Moderation is also a distinct ethical disposition."
Though a true political philosopher could offer an illuminating defense of pragmatism (which is really what Brooks is describing), this column is not that. It is not even "What Moderation Means." This column is "How David Brooks would describe the beliefs of David Brooks." Pragmatic, incisive, bravely realistic yet boldly ethical—exactly how a "moderate" imagines himself to be. While flattering self-description is indeed a popular pastime for most humans, it does not constitute a valuable education in political reasoning. Nor do the feelings and emotions felt by a newspaper columnist constitute a valuable descriptive tool of the state of our nation. Here is the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, a prominent establishment liberal, purporting to sum it all up today: "This election is only tangentially a fight over policy. It is also a fight about meaning and identity - and that's one reason voters are so polarized. It's about who we are and who we aspire to be." He concludes, "Some of Obama's opponents have tried to delegitimize his presidency because he doesn't embody the America they once knew. He embodies the America of now."
Well, that would all be very nice if Obama were a brand of soda, or a mobile phone. "Obama: the refreshing flavor of now." But as political commentary goes, it is both brashly fact-free and aggressively dumb, setting aside policy in the very first sentence so as to be able to spend the next several hundred words in a breezy recitation of feeling that comes 100% off the top of Eugene Robinson's head.
This is just a single day's worth of examples. You can conduct this same depressing punditry survey on any day of the week. It's not that there are few pundits for us to agree with; it's that there are few pundits whose agreement is worth a damn. Regular mainstream journalists are bound by the pretense of objectivity, and real academic intellectual experts have neither access to a large audience, nor an easily intelligible writing style. The pundit class, therefore, is the only set of people who are able to talk about real ideas in a way that can reach a lot of people. So it's a tragedy that the pundit class is not any smarter than the rest of us. We're not all that smart.
[Image by Jim Cooke]