Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this morning about one of my obsessions, Why the New Data Journalism Really Is Partisan. Unfortunately, Chait doesn’t come right now and say what the truth is. So let me lay it out. Yes: liberals and conservatives both have their own base ideologies. Liberals believe that collective action ought to be used to improve society. Conservatives believe that every man is for himself. But since this goes against the beliefs of the vast majority of the population, conservatives have to feign interest in the practical social good of policy, even though they have no interest in it.
This gets to the heart of what always looks like hypocrisy on the part of conservatives. We often scratch our heads when conservatives seem to be resistant to facts. But the hypocrisy is not this, but rather their unwillingness to admit to what they actually believe. I say it all the time, but it can’t be said enough: conservatism is the ideology of the powerful. So it isn’t surprising that they don’t like Obamacare. It cuts government spend, insures poor people, and taxes the rich. Conservatives are ambivalent about the first, uninterested in the second, and despise the third.
This leads us to Stephen Colbert’s great comment, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” I’ve long been annoyed that the Brookings Institution, which is studiously non-partisan and non-ideological in the sense that science is non-ideological, is now referred to in the media as a liberal think tank. It is supposedly the liberal counter to the conservative Heritage Foundation. But I guess in a deeper sense, both groups provide justifications for the two ideologies.
But what’s important here is that conservative intellectuals are something other than what they claim. Liberal intellectuals are really intellectuals. They really are looking at and for the facts. Conservative intellectuals are engaged in apologetics. They do various things in this regard such as cherry picking and often outright distortion. I run into this with libertarians, who are by far the most honest of the conservatives. They almost always try to make practical claims for their beliefs. It is generally easy to show that the claims don’t hold up. And then they retreat to what they really think, which is that it is immoral for collectives to interfere with individual decisions. And that’s fine! We can argue about that. But most conservatives will never admit that their ideology has no interest in creating a better society as a practical matter.
Chait applies this notion of liberal ideology to say that Ezra Klein’s new Vox venture is rightly seen as ideological. And I accept that in the context of Chait’s article. But it is only ideological in a sense that conservatives won’t admit to: it is fact based. So I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to take Colbert’s comment as true as long as conservatives continue to argue that their preferred policies are based on real world results. If they want to have an honest debate, they can depend upon getting no more than 20% of the vote. After they do that, I’ll be more than willing to admit that all my facts are ideological in nature.
Otherwise Chait’s argument is simple relativism: NASA and the Flat Earth Society are equally ideological. And in a narrow sense, that’s true. But it isn’t that interesting. In the end, what matters is what works. The NASA mode leads to satellite communications and cancer treatments. The Flat Earth Society leads to witch burning. The partisan divide is clear enough. But I don’t think such distinctions mean all that much. And I think Chait would agree.
I’ve been really impressed with the work that Vox has done so far. It is really worth checking out.