A Sketch of a New Kind of Political Website (Part IV)
For the past year or so I’ve been nibbling away at sketching out this imaginary website that would “cure all of the ills of the U.S.’s democracy” and so forth (Parts I, II, and III here). Meanwhile, our country’s democracy has undergone significant changes. Among the features of our society drawn out by these changes is the so-called failure of journalism and the media establishment to do its job (either by, depending on your perspective, enabling King Orange’s ascent or failing to take it seriously). For my own purposes, I have to answer the question: does this political website project I’m imagining still make sense? The cynical answer is that no matter what one is doing before a epoch-changing political event, one can always concoct a reason after to justify continuing to do exactly what one was doing before it. (e.g. in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, how many economists admitted they were wrong and fundamentally altered their thinking about the global financial system?)
So be slightly skeptical when I tell you I think this project does still makes sense and — here’s the predictably line — I think that the events of this past political cycle have given greater clarity for why this website idea would be a useful one. Firstly, we have been made more aware of the way that we consume political news as a form of entertainment. Look through your search history and you’ll likely find thousands of articles that go in one eye and out the other and that did and do not help you become a better citizen. So I hope it would shift the experience of taking in political information from the mode of entertainment to engagement.
Secondly, one of the great media embarrassments of the election (and there were many) was the mis-predictions of 538.com. The lesson to take from this is not that its algorithms were wrong (they weren’t really) but that the act of treating an election as a prediction or a horserace and not as a debate over issues was itself distracting and damaging for democracy. Similarly, I think, the debate over fake news is a partial smokescreen — we should be spending less time on news and more time on opinion. We have been using differences in fact far too long as a proxy war for differences in value, and our unawareness of differences in value is what has allowed such a disconnect to open up in our country between the far right and far left. Instead of haggling over alternative facts, we should ask questions like what creates the needs for different sets of facts, and why do we look to facts for our own arguments in the first place.
The proxy wars over facts and polls prevent us from recognizing that the opinions of our opponents do have some basis in truth, and recognition of this gives us humility. Humility would be one of the central aims of this website. One might object that — with executive orders looming that are sure to uproot thousands of American lives — humility is not a political virtue that is necessarily needed for a crisis. My response would simply be that one can act on several levels at the same time, and that passion and action are not necessarily correlated.
But what would this site actually be able to accomplish? Obviously it’s not the case that those who read Breitbart would be particularly interested in this kind of content. The project is elitist in the sense that it has no pretension to appeal to many outside of those with a certain background. It is aimed up rather than down. One theme of the election, of course, was the rejection of elites. So what kind of strategy would that leave me with? As I’ve said before, the model is the Russian intelligentsia, which aimed up but from the middle. To speak to power on behalf of the people.
So the target audience would be two-fold: for people who want to know better (e.g. students, “free-thinkers”), it would educate them to think more broadly. And second, for people who ought to know better (e.g. “thought-leaders”), it would remind them that they ought to know better when they err from what the mission of intellectuals should be. So part of the content would entail having a whack at the second-rate public thinkers. In other words, to try to influence the influencers. I use “second-rate” intentionally; as in, I mean only 2nd-rate and not 3rd-rate or 4th rate or so forth. The latter don’t need to be exposed as missing the mark because no one mistakes them for being good representatives of viewpoints. It’s not worth your time to engage with them. If you do you’ll end up looking mean-spirited and pathetic like conservative intellectuals who spend a good chunk of their time making fun of college students or liberals who spend theirs making fun of ruralites.
Okay, so let’s move to the nuts and bolts of how this site would present itself. The main regular entree would be an in-depth presentation of a single issue. The page would have two columns for each side of the issue, and each column would present the best arguments for each side. The language will be as simple as is possible to make the best points for each position. When appropriate, empirical data would also be included at the bottom, but only in support — and not substitute — for argumentation.
The goal of this is to get all thoughtful readers to see how that at the root of each side is a belief that a reasonable person can hold.
How is it possible that on every side of every issue a reasonable view can be found? This was shown nicely by Immanuel Kant a long time ago when he articulated the limits of what language and reason can accomplish. The quickest way I think to show why this is the case is to recognize the impossibility of disproving the existence of god or revealed religion. For, if one tries to construct a rational argument for why revelation doesn’t exist then one has already assumed that reason is superior to revelation. On the other hand, it is impossible for revealed religion to satisfy the demands of reason because it can never explain why revelation is necessary without an appeal to its own incomprehensibility. So one is left with a situation like Schrodinger’s Cat — in advanced, you can never know for sure if the cat is alive or dead. In practice, or course, you must act as if a determination must be made. So you recognize that in your actions you are necessarily living out a limited part of the truth.
Knowing that revelation is possible also means that revelation can contain anything (to limit its possibility in advance would be to have reason overstep its bounds) and thus it means that it is not unreasonable to hold that everything is possible. Thus, any individual political argument must have something of the truth in it.
But if every viewpoint has truth in it, then what’s the point of debate? Why have a discussion at all if it is not possible to fully convince someone? First of all, it is instructive to know why precisely we cannot convince them, knowledge of which one gains only by engaging in the discussion. Secondly, there are a range of benefits that come when two people have a conversation and realize that they both are reasonable. Agreeing to disagree is useful. It can increase humility, harmony, and trust in each others’ good intentions.
Importantly, even if we recognize we cannot settle first-order debates, we can still reason about the second-order consequences of those first-order principles. We know very well that intractable first-order disagreement doesn’t preclude 2nd-order alliance. Consider the “Judeo-Christian” coalition. Needless to say, Jews and Christians don’t see eye-to-eye on something each considers to be essential, and yet they work together on many issues without having to solve that first-order conflict.
Finally, this engagement with the best arguments on the other side will help you purify your own thinking from bad arguments (or arguments that seem persuasive at first but ultimately fail to get at what’s really important to you). And it’s also a way for you to help you purify your opponents of their inessential arguments.
Presentation of both sides of issues wouldn’t be the only kind of content the site ought to have. Some other types of pieces I think would be useful to have are:
- Public Intellectual Deathmatches: commentary covering instructive debates taking place elsewhere on the web within political camps (e.g Chait vs. Coates or the reaction to the “Flight 93 Election” article)
- Future Takes: essays that try to bring into the mainstream arguments that aren’t yet considered viable
- Long-View Takes: essays that remind us how a current debate we’re having actually has a long and complicated history that’s worth remembering
- Video Content: I think most arguments can be pretty easily distilled in a pretty short amount of time, and so short-well-produced videos laying out each reasonable side of an issue could be really useful for reaching larger audiences than a written form could. Imagine a John Oliver that gave both sides of an issue instead of just one.
What will make this project succeed is being motivated by sound principles and if there are solid people who contribute to it. Ten’s a nice round number, so here are 10 motivating principles I’ve taken from various places (feel free to suggest improvements/emendations):
1) Politics is about life and death
2) Life is about more than politics
3) You should read to learn, not to be entertained
4) You don’t need to have political information all the time
5) You should write to learn, not to articulate what you already believe
6) You do not need to be writing all of the time
7) Leave the “kitchen sink” at home: stick only to the best arguments
8) Seek out and engage the best arguments on the other side as well
9) If you are going to criticize others, criticize only those who are 2nd-rate, not lower than that
10) Think for yourself. Think for all others. Think consistently.
It is easier to try to hold yourself to these when you have others who make sure you do. So obviously this would only work if you could come up with a group of people who could keep each other honest as well as be able to truly cover all important major and minor backgrounds and viewpoints in the U.S.. Everyone doesn’t necessarily have to all agree on much, but the issue-breakdowns would be collectively authored so everyone would have to share the belief that it is salutary for democracy to have the best arguments on all sides of an issue presented in the same place. Obviously also everyone will have to be motivated by a sense of citizenship, not by monetary considerations. But if we’re confident in the principles and in the people, then the raising-the-money part would be the least difficult aspect of the project.
Anyway, thanks for reading this. Perhaps I’ll get around to distilling these four parts into a single more coherent sketch sometime soon. But in the meantime, feedback is appreciated. Email me at jhoerger(at)g.harvard.edu if you want to be in touch.