In Defense of Partisan Hack Pundits

Jonathan Chait argued something yesterday that I think is wrong:

[L]et me reveal a couple professional secrets here. Intellectual consistency is a basic value for political commentators. You want to be sure your strongly held views are the product of an actual philosophy, because the temptation to see events through the prism of partisan bias is strong.He says this to put the hurt on Charles Krauthammer’s flip on the filibuster and the nuclear option between the Bush-era Senate showdown and the recent Obama-era version.

Intellectual consistency is a basic value, perhaps, for some political commentators. But I’m not sure it’s necessary for all political commentators.

Put it this way. I might read Chait because I care what Jonathan Chait thinks about things. In fact, I do; he’s a smart guy, and a fun writer.

But one also might seek out political commentators in order to hear the best, good-faith arguments for and against something that’s in the news. For that, I want someone who reliably supports one side of the partisan divide (or perhaps one ideological strain). I still don’t want phony arguments; that’s why I didn’t title this “In Defense of Krauthammer,” because I generally don’t think he supplies strong, honest arguments. There’s still a requirement for serious intellectual integrity, even for partisan arguments.

I think Chait is talking about something like a “public intellectual” model, and what I’d say is that there’s also room for a lawyer model. For a lawyer-model pundit, it doesn’t matter so much if she said the exact opposite thing five years ago, but it still matters a lot if she gets her facts right and makes well-reasoned, well-informed, arguments.

I guess the question is whether there’s really any need for lawyer-style commentators, given that it’s the professional responsibility of many politicians to essentially do that. I’d say: sure. Commentators, as opposed to politicians or their staff, are relatively free to make the argument properly, without having to worry about the political fallout from the various speed traps and potholes that politicians have to shy away from — or from winning daily spin wars.

Granted, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to identify himself as a lawyer-style commentator. And yes, one tip-off that Krauthammer isn’t worth bothering with is his extreme certainty that he’s correct, even as (as Chait notes) he flips from one side to another of an issue based on partisan tides. But overall, there’s probably a lot more room for good lawyer-style pundits than Chait thinks.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.