James Fallows: the GOP Pulled Off an Institutional Coup With the Help of Enablers in the Media
Over the past year or so, when he wasn't working on his new book, China Airborne, James Fallows, a veteran political reporter for the Atlantic, has been taking his colleagues to task for giving cover to an increasingly extreme GOP by constantly referring to the inability to get legislation through the Senate as generic “dysfunction” or “gridlock.”
The reality is that since Obama came into office, Senate Republicans have blocked an unprecedented number of measures that had majority support, and failed to confirm dozens of appointees. It is not simply a generic matter of “dysfunction.”
As Jean Edward Smith noted in the New York Times, “the routine use of the filibuster as a matter of everyday politics has transformed the Senate’s legislative process from majority rule into minority tyranny.”
Leaving party affiliation aside, it is now possible for the senators representing the 34 million people who live in the 21 least populous states — a little more than 11 percent of the nation’s population — to nullify the wishes of the representatives of the remaining 88 percent of Americans.
Fallows joined Joshua Holland on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss this, and to chat about his book. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion. (You can listen to the whole show here.)
Joshua Holland: Jim, let me first get your take on the state of fact-checking. These independent fact-checking organizations have grown like mushrooms in recent years, and the big papers have their own in house fact checkers -- these ombudsmen.
Mitt Romney had a truly awful week last week. One of the stories had to do with when he actually left Bain Capital. He has long said he left in 1999, but in SEC filings and in sworn testimony before the Massachusetts State Ballot Commission it shows him as the Chairman and CEO of Bain through 2002. On Friday, the Washington Post ombudsmen, Glenn Kessler, gave this story three Pinocchios. The grounds for that were highly technical. He didn’t really debunk the story so much as he pondered the meaning of being in charge. What does “it” mean?
That kind of reminded me of this infamous case in which Politifact named Democrats’ claim that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget would bring Medicare to an end as its lie of the year. That statement would be 100 percent accurate if they said Ryan’s plan would end Medicare as we know it, but they didn’t give it a half-true rating, or a mostly true rating. They gave it the lie of the year. The two previous lies of the year were Republican claims. One that Obamacare has death panels and one that it’s a government takeover of our healthcare system. So it seemed to me that they were going out of their way to find a Democratic claim.
You’ve written a lot about political reporters’ tendencies to push false equivalencies -- this notion that both sides do it. What do you make of this fact-checking phenomenon? Is it just an outgrowth of our he-said/ she-said reporting model?
James Fallows: I think it is. I think when you look back on this election cycle -- or even the last years of Obama’s term so far -- we’ll end up thinking that these so-called fact checking organizations did more harm than good in really understanding what’s going on. As you say, there is such a powerful impulse in the mainstream reporting that you have to balance every criticism of “one side” with the other side. If, for example, the Republican minority in the Senate is filibustering at a record rate, you have to find some way to say there’s a symmetrical Republican and Democratic responsibility for things not going through the Congress.
If you take this most recent episode about Romney with Bain Capital, it’s really the most startling one. You would think -- and I don’t know myself how it’s all going to sort out with Romney’s claims -- that if you have SEC forms showing he is the CEO and only stockholder within a certain company, then at least at face value that suggests he has something to do with that company.
You can imagine if with Obama there were some William Ayers charitable foundation of which he was the CEO and only shareholder, that he wouldn’t be able to say he had nothing to do with it. I think that the instinct to think there has to be 50-50 symmetrical Republican and Democratic fault in any kind of public event in the press has not lined up with the reality of today’s polarized politics, where the Republicans are objectively much more extreme right now than the Democrats are. So it is an awkward moment for reporting.
JH: Last year the New York Times’ ombudsman Arthur Brisbane asked his readers whether or not the Times should be a “truth vigilante,” and actually look critically at the claims made by the politicians they cover. It seems like this is the job of the media. The fact that he would even ask that question suggests some deep cultural flaws in our fourth estate.
JF: I think so. To indulge in my own little false equivalence rhapsody for a second, I think you can understand it as an institutional mismatch, as I think most political scientists argued. Even the deeply responsible and careful Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have argued that the Republican Party is simply, by historical norms, in an extreme way right now. People will feel free to say that in retrospect. We can look back on the 2008 campaign and nobody has any problems with saying Sarah Palin was an extreme and irresponsible choice. But it was very difficult for mainstream reporters to say that then, four years ago. We can look back on Barry Goldwater and say that was an extreme moment for the party.
In real time, it’s an extreme moment for the party, but it is very hard for the institutional press to say that. That’s the kind of tension that has a lot of mainstream journalism wrapped up in knots now. It’s not something they’re used to dealing with.
JH: You’ve written a lot about the abuse of the filibuster -- about 20 posts in the last year.
JF: I’ve gone on at Strom Thurmond-like lengths.
JH: I was very happy to see that. When you see a headline like the Senate kills such and such measure by a 51-47 vote, with 51 votes in favor of the measure -- what impact do you think that has on the average news consumer?
JF: You have to recognize that most people don’t even know what a filibuster is and probably couldn’t name five senators. I think there’s been a profound Republican Party victory in the last five years. Five years ago is when the Democrats won control of the Senate again in the 2006 midterms. So starting in 2007, the Republicans, with Mitch McConnell went into the minority, and for the first time in history they essentially decided to filibuster everything. They subject everything going to the Senate to not a 51 vote requirement, like in the Constitution, but a 60 vote super-majority. They’ve done that so often that they’ve changed people’s sense of what reality is. You have stories in responsible papers saying the measure lost 51-47, when the 51 were for it. You see offhand references that it takes 60 votes to pass the bill. So it’s the biggest recent amendment to the Constitution that’s happened just de-facto. We act as if it requires a super-majority to do anything.
In California, my home state, a super-majority requirement has had a very destructive effect on its ability to govern itself. We’re seeing it now on a national level and there was no Constitutional amendment; it just happened. And the press has endorsed it.
JH: Today, you can’t name a post office after a war hero without 60 votes. This gives people a very skewed idea of who is responsible for this dysfunction. There’s something that you wrote about this that’s very interesting.
You wrote, “liberal democracies like ours depend on rules, but also on norms. On the assumption that you’ll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends.” Adherence to those norms, you write, “implies some loyalty to the system as a whole that outweighs your immediate partisan interest. Not red states nor blue states, but the United States of America.”
Can you unpack that for us and just explain what you mean by institutional rules and institutional norms?
JF: Our Constitution, as everyone knows, was set up in all sorts of ways to balance the majority’s interest in getting things done with the minority’s interest in being protected against a majority running roughshod over them. It’s a very carefully crafted work. In the 200 years since that balance was set many things have become askew. For example: when the Senate was created the difference between the biggest state in population and the smallest was only 10-1. Now it’s almost 70-1 in California versus Wyoming, and yet they have the same rights in the Senate. There is a change in the balance that way.
Also there’s been a change in behavior. The right to filibuster has been around forever -- for more than 100 years -- but until very recently was used only sparingly. The senators only did it when there was something that really mattered and it didn’t get in the way of basically all the routine business of Congress.
There’s always been partisan division, but not the idea that the only thing that mattered was blocking whoever had won the last election. There’s been an effort to nullify the election by a Republican minority in the Senate. Rules have been there for a long time, but the abuse of loopholes has reached a new level that creates a different kind of problem for the government. When this is described in the newspaper as being a “dysfunctional Senate,” it leads to the sense that there’s a coming-from-nowhere failure of government -- as opposed to an actual strategy by one side to hamstring the other, and slow down the process of government.
JH: I think that’s a really important point. One problem with the idea that both sides do it is that Republicans have a story that government simply doesn’t work. One result of that is that they benefit from that idea being reinforced – that the government is dysfunctional and you can’t get anything done.
I think this is one reason that progressives are often frustrated by what they see as Democrats capitulating on the issues. Yet when it comes right down to it, the Democrats have an inherently weak hand because they want to govern. Dysfunction government doesn’t reinforce their own overall narrative as it does that of the right. Do you agree with that?
JF: I agree entirely with that. There is a price Republicans pay for seeming obstructionist – they suffered some damage in this crazy and irresponsible debt ceiling showdown last year. But they see the price they pay to their reputation as smaller than the price the Democrats pay for not being able to get things done. The Democrats, on balance, would like to use the government in more activist ways, which I say not in the pejorative sense but a positive sense. Having a national healthcare system, building infrastructure, having trade policies that can do something about the erosion of the middle class. The Republicans are willing to take the hit in looking unreasonable for the larger pain they exact from the Democrats’ not being able to do things. Unfortunately that creates, in my view, comparable pain for the country as a whole. It’s a lose-lose-lose bargain, with the greatest loss being for the nation.
JH: I also have another additional pet theory, which is that there’s something inherent in the difference in the stories liberals and conservatives tell, in that liberals think that, aside from the very wealthy, people who vote for conservatives have been kind of hoodwinked by their economic betters to vote against their own self-interest. You can look at Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas, for example. I think that’s a prevailing idea on the left. We see there’s been a long tension between the left and the right, between plutocrats and Democrats that go back to the nation’s founding.
If you look at the stories that conservatives have told for so many years it’s about how liberalism is inherently un-American. It’s foreign – you know how you hear all sorts of complaints about how insuring people is European? There’s a pervasive belief on the right that the founders were all religious conservatives as one would define that term today. I wonder how that idea -- that their opponents don’t just disagree but are fundamentally illegitimate -- plays out in their willingness to discard long-standing institutional norms.
Is there hope for getting the media to look more critically at these issues. You wrote about 100 posts on this false equivalence. Do you think you’ve had any impact? Have you gotten any feedback?
JF: In my many years in the press, I cling to the idea of "what’s the alternative?" You try your best to explain the world as you see it, and it doesn’t change everything. But you have to think that if nobody were trying it then it would be even worse. With those cheering words I pass the baton onto future generations of reporters and citizens to say, "let’s see what we can do to improve things."
JH: James, before I let you go -- you have a new book out, China Airborne.
JF: I’ve been living in China for most of the last six years. This is my way of arguing about whether China, which has been such a success the last 30 years, is reaching the limits of its economic and political models. I basically argue that it has more problems ahead than most people think.
JH: Now what do you think about when you see this reflexive China-bashing. I see a lot of this in our political discourse. Is it merited? Should we be fearful of the Chinese?
JF: One of the things I try to argue is that if you were the president of China, versus the president of the United States, you would have 10 times more problems, and strangely, less leverage to deal with them -- even less than a hamstrung American president has. I think when Americans are upset about China it generally reveals what are legitimate uncertainties about how things are going here. As you know, there are lots of problems here. Also it naturally exaggerates the sense of how successful and powerful China is. They just view it through photos of Beijing or Shanghai, which look a lot more impressive than the places where hundreds of millions of peasants are living.
JH: I think part of it is also a sense of frustration with our own leadership -- that we don’t always pursue our own narrow, national economic interests in the same way that you see China doing. This is certainly not to indulge in China-bashing, but it is a reflection of popular discontent with our own leadership.
JF: I think that’ so. When I came back from China a couple years ago I did a big story in the Atlantic about whether America was going to hell. I asked historians about that. One of the things people argued is that throughout American history there’s been these cycles of real concern about the foundations of the republic. In the last 60 or 70 years it’s been natural to argue that point by looking at some foreign competitor, whether it’s the Soviet Union, the Japanese bor the Chinese now. There are some real areas of competition between the countries, but I think the proper area for concern is what is happening to our political and economic system, whether or not China existed.
JH: I agree wholeheartedly. I think part of this is also a natural sense of decline coming from the end of World War II when we controlled 50 percent of the world’s global economic output, to today when we’re a little bit below 25 percent. Obviously others are going to get into that game. I don’t think that’s something we need to fear.
JF: And it's relative decline -- having a smaller share of a bigger pie. I think that’s still nothing to worry about. In the old dimensions of national strength, including military, cultural, universities, and research on top of sheer economic output, the United States is still in a class of its own.
As your listeners will know, and as you’ve written, the texture of our society -- the change in my lifetime as a tattered baby boomer, from the relatively thick middle-class of my youth in California in the '60s to the polarization now -- I think is the proper area of worry. That’s what we have to worry about, not what’s happening in Japan, China or Korea.