Politics & Policy

Media Pieties du Jour: No Facts Need Apply

Here and in the U.K., the commentariat prizes fashionable attitudes over realism and results.

There is a hidden assumption or lazy mental habit in both politics and political commentary that is usually minor but always irritating and potentially quite damaging. It occurs on an epidemic scale. Usually it is implicit in what people say or write, or if it is expressed, it is expressed so subtly as to make criticism of it seem unreasonable. Once in a while, though, someone lays it out clearly and unmistakably. Peter Hoskin, the English conservative commentator from the website Conservative Home, does exactly that in his August 17 column in the Times of London, on David Cameron.

Hoskin quotes from himself in his regular ConHome slot, and I have taken the passage below from his August 17 post there. I should make clear that this is not a general attack on Hoskin; his article is an interesting one, as his articles usually are, and my point is a narrow response to a single idea in it that is representative of a much wider tendency. Here’s the nub:

A recent speech that Mr. Cameron delivered on benefits was tough, as speeches on benefits often are, but it also had a fresh sourness to it. The welfare state, he suggested, had eroded the assumption that “people would naturally do the right thing”. This may or may not be true, but it jars against his earlier freewheeling optimism.

My fogeyish response to this goes as follows: Well, isn’t the main issue whether Cameron is right or wrong about the welfare state? And if he is right, shouldn’t this jar against his earlier freewheeling optimism? Indeed, wouldn’t it show that his earlier freewheeling optimism had been facile and should be abandoned for a more realistic attitude that takes account of evidence? The main defect in Hoskin’s argument is that it elevates an attitude, stance, or disposition of a general kind (in this case, optimism) above such crucial questions as the rightness or wrongness of policy, and thus above the likely results of policy in the real world. Such a preference is irrational and very risky.

Not long ago Tim Montgomerie reported that Andrew Cooper, now a Downing Street adviser on strategy, had argued in the early “noughties” that the Tory party should support entering the euro on the grounds that it would show the party had “changed.” It had become more modern, progressive, etc. Mr. Cooper now disputes this claim (which Mr. Montgomerie’s source still confirms), but we can leave him out of it because at the time many euro backers did advance this and similar arguments. Suppose that we had accepted their advice. What would then have happened to the Tory image of modernity and progress when the euro developed its current collywobbles?

As a matter of fact, we know the answer to that question because exactly the same concerns motivated most of those who pressed for Britain’s entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in the late 1980s. John Major, who was himself strongly influenced by that argument, was chancellor when Britain entered the ERM and prime minister when it inflicted a long and serious deflation on the British economy. When Britain almost inevitably fell out of the ERM, it destroyed the Tory reputation for economic competence that had been its main ticket to office up to that point.

This was not a trivial defeat. The outcome damaged the Tory party almost fatally until Labour’s Gordon Brown heroically more than matched John Major’s achievement. The basis of this major policy change was a vague yearning that the Tory party should appear modern, progressive, and outward-looking rather than outdated, reactionary, and insular. It led to disaster. But before you could say “optimal currency area,” the same suspects were using the same kind of arguments for entering the euro.

Now, I really don’t want to make Andrew Cooper any more than Peter Hoskin the main focus of my argument here, but I recall another example of this tic from Cooper’s essay a decade ago in the collection A Blue Tomorrow. He argued there that it was culturally obtuse and politically risky for the Tory party to argue in favor of the traditional family in a society that included so many single parents. Politically risky? Fair enough. One should always handle such topics sensitively and intelligently, with a view to avoiding any stigmatization of those who fall short of an ideal. But culturally obtuse? The evidence is unambiguous that single parenthood is worse for children than a family that includes two parents. Are we not to notice this, not to point it out, not to ensure that it influences social policy, because it might wound those who don’t live in such families? If so, then we are sacrificing the life chances of innumerable children on the altar of sensitivity. Surely that goes too far.

The fact that David Cameron’s latest speech concedes that the welfare state has eroded the assumption that “people would naturally do the right thing” is a welcome return to realism. The evidence for this “sourness” has been building up since the mid-Sixties. (Doubters should read The Strange Death of Moral Britain, by the distinguished sociologist Christie Davies if they still cling bitterly to the old-time religion of welfare socialism.) This resurgence of realism is even beginning to affect government welfare policy under Iain Duncan Smith in Britain (who is influenced by, among others, social critic Charles Murray, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, and the early work of senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan). But it is certainly an added bonus if it has persuaded Cameron’s strategy director to rethink his earlier preference for the flavor of a policy over its likely results. Maybe we will shortly see a similar realism exert an influence on immigration policy in the European Union. That would be nice. Still, my motto on such things is borrowed from the late prime minister Herbert Asquith: Wait and see.

For the progress of such truths is hard going when the rightness of a policy is determined less by its results than by its consistency with a widespread mood or widely shared “narrative.” Earlier I mentioned that optimism and other attitudinal follies are to be found in political commentary as much as in politics. That understates the matter. Elite journalism is much more conformist — and much more contemptuous of non-elite opinion — on matters of immigration, gay marriage, and foreign aid than it was 30 years ago. Opinions on such issues are close to being class attitudes, and they unite the politicians and the media in a reflexive conspiracy against the common sense of the larger public. The end product of that conspiracy is what one might charitably call intellectual fashion. 

For instance, almost everything written in the serious British press about David Cameron’s “modernization” of the Tory party is intellectually and practically worthless. (The popular media, notably the tabloid “red tops,” are much more reliable.) This is because the Tories’ “modernization” was conceived mainly as a way of appeasing the elite commentariat — either by adopting its cultural outlook, by discarding and downplaying those aspects of Toryism that the metropolitan media class found distasteful, or simply by avoiding any cultural fights with the elites. So it was hardly surprising that the commentators, on examining Cameron’s Toryism, found it seductively appealing. They were looking not through a glass darkly but into a mirror of roseate hue. Much the same could be said about Anglo-American press reporting of the New Labour project or the Obama presidency. Reversed in negative, it could also be said about the same mainstream reporting of the Tory Right and the GOP. The commentators report the flattering-to-them “narrative” rather than the story.

The dangerous aspect of this attitudinal conformity is that its errors and omissions tend to go unnoticed — and thus to persist, to grow, and to deceive repeatedly. As Cameron discovered on Election Day 2010, for instance, the discarded aspects of Toryism — its “sour” realism about crime, etc. — were the very things that many voters liked about the Tory party. But the commentators hadn’t noticed this, and they didn’t really want to notice it even when the election result confounded their analyses. Similarly, the U.S. media are regularly embarrassed when polls reveal that conservative policies they have declared “outside the mainstream” in fact enjoy massive majority support. They don’t stop using the phrase to describe these policies because it has a different meaning from its surface one: namely, outside the mainstream of their opinion. Like all elites, they can’t help thinking that their opinion is and should be the one that counts.

Ultimately, however, it is not these elites but the voters who have to endure the consequences of fashionable opinion. They tend to adopt a more practical and realistic outlook. They also have the last word. To forget that is to become — what’s the phrase? — oh, yes, a “fashion victim.”

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

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