Careerism Is Destructive of Public Discourse

Intellectual dishonesty abounds in political commentary

A few months after the United States invaded Iraq, it started to become clear that the invasion was going to go poorly. This produced a great deal of commentary among those paid to comment on American politics. You could generally divide that commentary into four groups:

  1. Some supporters of the Iraq War were chastened by the insurgency, the lack of success on the ground of US forces, the inability to stop the placement of improvised explosive devices, and the specter of a potential long occupation and counterinsurgency. These commentators, such as Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart, started to reconsider their support of the war and to look for reasons why the project was failing.

  2. Some other supporters of the Iraq War, especially hawkish Republicans such as Bill Kristol (as well as Republican members of Congress who were loyal to the Bush Administration) searched for explanations and arguments that the war was still on track, that the liberal mainstream media was overemphasizing bad news, etc.

  3. Almost all political commentators who opposed the Iraq War (and there weren’t that many) were saying some version of “I told you so” and complaining about how the mainstream media routinely fails to listen to dovish voices in the run-up to American military action.

  4. Conservative writer and television pundit Robert Novak, who opposed the Iraq War from the start, announced that he thought it was actually going well and flip-flopped to support.

The purity of this example is that there is obviously no possible reason for Novak’s behavior other than careerism. He obviously wasn’t stupid, and he obviously knew what was on the news. He knew why he opposed the war in the first place, and must have seen some confirmation of his views in all that was going wrong. And yet, he flip-flopped from sane to crazy on an issue where he could have justly taken credit as one of the few people in the mainstream media to have made the right call in the first place. Why would anyone do this- except that Novak worked for and with conservative media, and relied on conservative politicians to source his stories, and they obviously were upset at a prominent conservative opinion-maker dissenting from the central project of the Bush Administration and Republican Party at the time.

Everyone knows the old Upton Sinclair aphorism, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. And we all apply it to, in certain circumstances. For instance, almost every television viewer gets the joke of the “spin room”, even helpfully labeled as such, after a major presidential debate. No matter how badly John Q. Candidate did, JQC’s campaign surrogate is going to repeat pre-planned talking points about how great the performance was and how he clearly won. And then Josephine R. Politician, JQC’s opponent, will also have a representative who spouts her pre-planned talking points about how she clearly won.

I don’t think those antics move the needle at all. Indeed, one thing I can tell you from my experience as a lawyer is that you are often much better off admitting shortcomings in your case. In court, this may mean forthrightly taking on the strongest piece of evidence or the strongest language in a prior decision that the other side has, and logically laying out why it doesn’t win the case for the other side. Judges and juries appreciate lawyers who directly take on strong arguments and dislike those who ignore them or talk around them and never meet them.

In the political context, I suspect that after a bad debate performance, it would be much more effective for a surrogate to acknowledge whatever viewers just saw on the screen, but tell them it doesn’t matter. “Yes, Senator Candidate had a bit of trouble answering that question on Black Lives Matter, but the voters know that he is committed to fighting crime and holding bad cops accountable, and that’s much more important than an imperfectly phrased debate answer.”

And of course, we know why the spinners don’t say that- they want to continue to work in politics, and politicians have huge egos and hate when anyone working for them makes them look bad in any way. Careerism prevails over optimal strategy. And, of course, over the truth as well.

But while in the post-debate spin room, the careerism is obvious, and I think, obvious to viewers, in most other media contexts it isn’t so obvious. But in fact, careerism is one of the biggest single factors influencing what political commentary you see and hear and read.

For instance, have you ever noticed how the public discourse seems to settle on one topic that EVERYONE is talking about? I don’t mean news-driven topics- obviously, whether you think the coverage and discourse was healthy or not, it’s impossible to imagine a world where a great deal of attention wasn’t paid to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I mean other stuff. Like Amy Cooper threatening to call the police on the Black birder in Central Park. Or the confrontation between the Covington Catholic high schooler and the Indian activist. Or the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

These topics aren’t particularly newsworthy; they don’t concern important current events with major implications like Afghanistan does. But they bubble up and when they do, it’s like they are all anyone wants to talk about in the media. Well, that’s the product of careerism.

You see, as Sinclair’s aphorism would predict, people say what their employers- or prospective employers- want them to say. And commenting on whatever blown-up micro-controversy is currently broiling is exactly what employers want- getting people outraged over these things generates clicks and sells ads.

But even that’s somewhat visible. What happens behind the scenes is what Novak was doing in 2003: taking public positions based on what one of the two major factions in American politics wanted him to take.

Examples of this abound. For instance, let’s take legal commentators, a subject close to my heart. You won’t find many liberal legal commentators taking the position that court packing is a bad idea or that arguments about how bad the Supreme Court is are overblown. It’s not that nobody on the left believes these things. But if you write these things, you are likely to be unpopular with Democratic-leaning editors and publishers and the financiers of major publications, who are all loosely part of the Democratic Party coalition and don’t like to see off-message takes from their regular writers.

Meanwhile over on the right, you won’t see too many conservative legal commentators pointing out that no matter how one feels about abortion or Roe v. Wade, Texas’ SB8 is an abomination that is designed to evade judicial review and create a chilling effect on those who wish to exercise what is still a constitutional right. I’m sure some of them believe that; indeed, I am sure some are extremely afraid that the left might adopt the tactic and pass some law chilling a right treasured by conservatives. But they aren’t saying it. Because the people who fund and edit and publish conservative publications are not interested in amplifying off-the-reservation takes by conservatives.

This dynamic extends to all sorts of journalism. Left wingers generally don’t write about legitimate examples of campus cancel culture or that situations like the Wi Spa incident might be avoided if pre-op trans women who enter certain kinds of women-only spaces behave with some modesty and respect for cis women and girls. Right wingers don’t write about how successful President Biden has been at getting people vaccinated or that all the recent extreme weather events potentially confirm that we should do something about global warming. And when people do write about these topics, they usually just try to do minimization and damage control: conservatives’ writing about global warming over the past 30 years, when they do admit it is happening, has been replete with claims that it isn’t that bad, that the earth can heal itself, and that we don’t know enough to justify drastic action. Liberals who did write about Wi Spa claimed it was a hoax.

And it isn’t just what people write about. Take talk radio, a medium dominated by conservatives. I don’t recommend anyone spend much time in that toxic swamp, but I have been known to listen to a bit of it on long road trips, and I can tell you that besides everyone else trying (and not succeeding) to imitate the late Rush Limbaugh, the dominant feature of the medium is its absolute slavish adherence to Republican Party talking points. Whatever it is that the Republican message machine is talking about, they talk about all day long on talk radio. And rarely with any nuance. There are a handful of interesting conservatives on the radio who can be a little heterodox- say, folks that criticize big corporations as well as critical race theory. But they all are on at 2 in the morning and nobody hears them. This is not an accident. If you want to build a big audience for your radio show, you had best be talking about whatever it is your employers want you to be talking about.

Twitter, a medium that presents itself as people talking off the cuff and just bluntly saying what they think, is also dominated by this sort of careerism. Twitter has become a sort of resume and employment search service for writers on culture and politics. And there have been high profile examples of gigs and even careers derailed by a handful of tweets. The result is, a lot of people are saying whatever it is they think employers and prospective employers want them to tweet.

The result of all this careerism is that public discourse centers around statements that are being made to further careers, by people who either explicitly know or are intuiting what their current and future employers want them to say. And in a country that is already politically polarized and built around two, and only two, political parties, that means that there are often only two available positions that are widely discussed on the issues of the day, and those issues of the day are selected based on the political and messaging agendas of the two parties. Anything that doesn’t fit within that paradigm- anything heterodox, or inconvenient- has trouble getting oxygen.

And public discourse is impoverished by this. If there’s an issue where the only two legitimate positions are those held by the messaging operations of the two major political parties, that is only true by complete happenstance. Indeed, at bottom, the careerist model discourages independent thought- trying to figure out the truth is replaced with trying to figure out what will please your patron.

The marketplace of ideas, as conceived by John Stewart Mill and expounded by Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr., is supposed to move us towards the truth. But in a careerist marketplace, the truth is incidental. The bias towards careerism is both much more insidious, and much less visible, than the sorts of issues that “media critics” blather on about. And in a media landscape where careers are more and more precarious, it is only going to get worse.