The Week In Horrible Writing: The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait
When I find an essay that appears to be intelligent political criticism yet turns out to be anti-intellectual crap with weird appeals to common sense you’d likely find in pseudo-intellectual conservative discourse in something like The Weekly Standard or The National Review, I’d bet I’m reading The New Republic.
I want to quickly define a concept I use below to address an aspect of the author’s style. Jonathan Chait uses something I like to call hip wit. Hip wit is comfortable, lazy intellectualism that you find in cafe culture, dorm rooms, department meetings, writing workshops, seminars. Sitting around a table with your smart friends, hip wit colors debates about topical topics only tolerating amusing and sometimes seemingly enigmatic zingers that make your friends and colleagues chuckle. It’s smartypants riffing, verbal jamming. Hip Wit is hollow nonsense in opposition to the riffing, playful dialogue that an intelligent autodidact creates. In other words, it’s rehearsed. Hip Wit is stylized bullshit.
On Jonathan Chait’s “Liberalism’s Bumper Sticker Problem”:
The New Republic readers will nod their heads at this title. The author desperately needs that nodding affirmation because his essay won’t attempt to explain the complex implicatures in its messy logic.The problem isn’t necessarily liberalism, is it? The problem is a rank, American anti-intellectual tradition that insists turning complex discourse about serious problems into nonsensical phrases we distribute via cars and culture—automobile bumpers and invisible binaries. This bumper sticker problem is both a liberal and conservative problem. Certainly, we can admit both the hippy and the gun-toting hick—the bleeding-heart liberal and the apple-pie conservative—use their bumpers to communicate to friends and enemies alike.
"Liberalism’s Bumper Sticker Problem" might suggest to a reader the author’s going to address liberalism’s stupid attempt to compete with conservative propaganda via absurd bumper sticker discourse. A reader would be wrong. The title is a bit deceptive. As we’ll see, Chait’s conclusion merely refers once again to the assumed problem. And this is weird because his first point is about writing that resists advancing its narrative.
Chait opens with a note about narrative:
Ryan Lizza’s latest must-read New Yorker piece is framed as the story of President Obama’s abandonment of the doctrine of foreign policy realism and adoption of “consequentialism.” It’s filled with a lot of reporting that doesn’t really advance that narrative but is really interesting anyway.
It’s a critique of “the reporting”: it’s interesting reporting but fails to advance the narrative. I don’t really get it and it sounds a little insider-y to me. Anway, what’s his beef? Chait’s essay is nothing more than a digression about an interesting idea. He also writes, “I was amused by one advisor’s attempt to boil this doctrine down to a bumper sticker”. He then cites one of Obama’s national security advisors boiling something down to a bumper sticker and failing to do so. Of course, the advisor’s statement is supposed to be funny in an inside baseball sort of way. I think that’s clear: the speaker counted on his audience inferring that he believes we should resist bumper sticker messaging.
Chait’s first paragraph confesses one of two things to an intelligent and focused audience: 1) I like what I have to say so much that I’m going to share my trifles with you, the lucky readers; or, 2) I didn’t really work out all the complexities of this idea I had the other day, so I’m offering you an excuse for why you might disagree with me. The first is arrogant, the second lazy. My conclusion is that Chait is both arrogant and imprecise.
Imprecise? Sure. Liberals are not doing a good job distilling their messages into bumper sticker simplicity, correct? Isn’t that a problem with liberalism? Haven’t I heard this somewhere? Well, sure I have. It’s only one of the most popular conservative critiques of liberalism that isn’t necessarily true. It goes like this: Conservatives are good at messaging while Liberals are not. It’s not amusing. It’s not accurate. It’s not precise. If a simple trope (Liberalism is antithetical to Conservativism) is used well in public discourse, Chait seems to believe that’s good enough reason to rely on it in his argument. His essay appears to accept that our cultural and political discourse is only as good as the design of its slogans is precise.
I’m getting off-topic. Chait continues:
The bumper sticker problem is endemic for American liberalism. On foreign policy, it’s actually a murky split, with ideologies cutting across both party coalitions. But on economics, there’s a persistent phenomenon of conservatives having clear bumper-sticker answers and liberals lacking them. That’s because, as I’ve argued before, conservatism is philosophically anti-government in a way that liberalism is not philosophically pro-government. “Market good, government bad” fits on a bumper sticker. So does “Government good, market bad.” The problem is that the former pretty well describes the Republican philosophy, while the latter describes the philosophy only of a tiny socialist fringe operating mainly outside the two-party system.
As with his stupid assertion about how “the reporting” reports “without advancing the narrative,” he stupidly asserts something about a “tiny socialist fringe” and its viable bumper sticker, “Government good, market bad”. Chait never has claimed, to my knowledge, that he’s a well-read historian, theorist and/or economist, but his binary for a conservative v liberal as pro-market v anti-market or anti-government v pro-market is horseshit. He may not be an expert, but he’s smart enough to resist making insipid claims.
I hate to break it to Chait, but the binary his assumptions are anchored within are a conservative construction representing the reality (realities, possibly,) of American discourse and culture as it is used to represent other complex political realities. It’s at least two steps removed from the issue he’s trying to address. The representation itself is anti-intellectual because its construction depends upon traditional representations of Americans that no longer (and never did) accurately imagine Americans. I want to say two things about the bumper-sticker binary: 1) Conservatives do not actually believe government is bad as their deregulation efforts actually amount to subtle regulations that aggressively redistribute wealth and 2) Socialists don’t think the market is bad.
All social actions in the United States take place in “the market”. I put the phrase in quotes because I think we should use “a market”. Conservative Americans like to believe that there is only our market, the market, as if it’s an actual place where we live. But it’s not a place, is it? And everything we do in the market creates a greater, ever-increasing social order that regulates our lives. We can choose to regulate this order or not regulate it. But that’s not the same as passing or not passing legislation.
Republicans and Libertarians, and some progressive conservatives and liberals, would argue that these are the same things. It serves a purpose to do so. Taxing is seen, then, as redistributing wealth while not-taxing is seen as freeing people and businesses from regulation. But that’s a stupid and mistaken way to see the action Republicans take in Congress when legislating tax reform to reduce corporate and wealthy citizens taxes. In this case, Republicans actually love the shit out of government, as do Libertarians, the liars that they are.
I’m also uncomfortable with Chait’s lazy shifting from conservative to Republican and liberal to Democrat. We should insist on consistency and focus in our writing. If we want to write about Liberalism’s Problems we might want to insist we are adressing Liberalism itself rather than the conservative movement’s widely distributed representation of Liberalism.
Moving on, Chait insists:
Liberalism is forever in search of a philosophy that can fit on a bumper sticker. It’s always failing, because a philosophy of leaving the free market to work except in cases of market failure, and then attempting to determine which intervention best passes the cost-benefit test is never going to be simple.
Well, I don’t know what to say about this. The Liberalism Is Always Failing claim is trite. Liberalism has actually been extremely successful over the last 112 years. Chait’s is a libertarian’s critique of popular liberalism from the left and is a rank oversimplification of reality that rather strangely fits his musing about Liberalism’s Bumper Sticker Problem.
At this point, it’s clear that Chait constructs his argument not so that he learns something about a complex idea he wants to explore, an engaging idea that he had while reading Rizza in The New Yorker. He’s not writing in search of meaning at all. This is hip wit at work. He’s had an idea already and has been looking for a place to put it, for a time to share it. And while reading The New Yorker, he saw an opportunity to make it fit in the wider discourse about problems liberals have with creating bumper-sticker messages.
It’s unfortunate, because if he’d spent some time thinking about the actual problem rather than the rhetoric about the problem, he’d have a wonderful piece about the strikingly stupid and aggressively anti-intellectual approach we use to distribute important cultural messages to one another via media outlets. Journalists and Pundits unthinkingly transmit these messages and then, like Chait does in this essay, say amusing things about them. Yet, even the musing never actually approaches useful work. It’s not even meta.
I’m going to skip Chait’s reference to Dana Milbank’s discussion about Obama’s strengths and weaknesses. I’d have to get started on Milbank, who almost never is a useful source for information. Chait concludes:
There’s a psychological equivalence between the certainty of left and right, but the midpoint of the mirror image does not happen to run right between the split between two parties. American politics today is a kind of one-and-a-half ideology system, with a Republican Party acting as the arm of a coherent conservative movement staunchly opposed to government, and a Democratic Party acting as a kind of catch-all for everybody who doesn’t accept the conservative agenda. It’s no coincidence that one party keeps producing leaders who think in simple ways, while the other keeps producing leaders who think in complicated ways.
The first sentence is worthless. It’s the most contrived way to say something simple: the left and the right may be more similar than different. DER DUH DUDE. Pseudo-intellectuals love public masturbation and it almost never produces engaging writing. If you’re a writer, the important thing to remember is rather practical: after that silly, artificial, complicated, contrived sentence you can often find one that directly states a useful and meaningful idea. Cut the bullshit and keep the useful sentence. Chait doesn’t fail to illustrate my point. After his ridiculous psycho-babble, he claims, “American politics today is a kind of one-and-a-half ideology system”. I like that. I want to know more about this.
Unfortunately, Chait doesn’t do a good job of explaining himself. On the other hand, he continues to promote the improper and insidious assumption that the Republican Party is a coherent community representing a coherent conservative movement while the Democratic Party exists as an poorly defined area where people who don’t like Republicans, who disagree with conservatives, mingle. I don’t think it would take much for me to illustrate how Republicans use, without admitting to it, many of the principles of liberalism in capitalism that most self-identifying liberals in the Democratic Party support.
At each step along the way, Jonathan Chait resists critical thought and exploration of engaging complex ideas about his musings in order to arrive at his conclusion. He concludes, “It’s no coincidence that one party keeps producing leaders who think in simple ways, while the other keeps producing leaders who think in complicated ways.” We began with Chait implying that he was going to address a problem that might, he hinted, advance the narrative. We learned that whatever the problem was, Chait was not going to address it because he wanted to dwell on the anti-intellectual, common sense notion that Republicans successfully use simple messages to discuss complex issues to their constituents while Democrats consistently fail to say something most of us can understand without effort.
I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of this conclusion. It’s both a compliment and an insult for both Republicans and Democrats. It’s a cheeky statement. It’s supposed to be amusing, I guess, because Chait says he was amused when it occurred to him. Again, when a writer narrates his own thinking about the issue he’s addressing, he’s often constructing an excuse for its acceptance in lieu of actual work.
This is the worst political writing I’ve seen all week.