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How Vox Makes Us Stupid

Vox will explain the purity of liberal positions to liberal readers in a comprehensible way. What it probably won’t do is help anyone “understand the news” any better.

The hoi polloi can relax. Vox has kicked off the era of explanatory journalism. There are flashcards for your convenience.

To help you better understand why Vox is needed, Ezra Klein has written a lengthy piece, a mission statement of sorts, entitled “How politics makes us stupid,” in which he laments the fact that ideology — rather than “evidence” — is propelling our policy decisions. You won’t be stunned to learn that in Klein’s post, and most other Vox pieces, liberal views seem to comport seamlessly with the evidence.

His piece begins with this puzzling contention:

There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion. It courses through the Constitution and is a constant in President Obama’s most stirring addresses. It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

Vox may be here to teach us a thing or two, but the fear of us “misunderstanding” each other is no more an underlying theory of American politics than it is “coursing” through the text of the Constitution.  The idea that we can stop “fighting” doesn’t sit “hopefully” at the base of our national debate; it exists in the disagreeable imaginations of technocrats. Because “fighting” – or what people commonly refer to as “debating” — is driven by regional, historical, religious, cultural, philosophical, personal, and generational disagreements. Diversity. The Founders created checks on the state because they understood that some of these disagreements would be intractable, and we only exacerbate the “fighting” with coercive centralized government.

At least that’s what the evidence tells me.

Klein knocks down his straw man — though it seems he believes conformity of opinion is something to strive for — to make a broader point: “But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong,” he writes, “It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.” The smarter the person is, in fact, the dumber politics can make them, according to a study by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan. (Caleb Crain argues pretty persuasively that Klein has misread the study, which weakens his argument considerably. But judge for yourself.)

And Vox may be here to bring us unvarnished facts, but ideology, which can instill a coherent philosophical framework to your positions, is undeserving of its bad reputation. There’s little reason to doubt that many people seek out evidence to bolster their own worldview. And by many people, I mean smart folks like Ezra Klein, who retreats from Vox’s raison d’être only a few thousand words into his article. On climate change, for example, Klein contends that evidence tells us that “action is needed quickly to prevent a disaster that will happen slowly. There, the reckoning will be for future generations to face.” Evidence may prove climate change exists, but evidence does not prove that “disaster” beckons if we fail to pass progressive environmental policies immediately. It’s merely his opinion. One can find evidence to bolster the argument that it would be less costly and damaging for us to adapt to environmental changes rather than hamper technology, growth, and prosperity to institute regulations that would inevitably do very little to mitigate global warming, anyway.

We weigh tradeoffs. We “fight” about it. We come to an agreement. Or maybe we don’t. “Evidence” — by which explanatory journalists mean data they’ve decided is important — doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just because we can compile some evidence that banning alcohol or rationing food would lead to a healthier America, does not mean that coercion is tolerable. Maybe evidence can demonstrate that Obamacare has helped the uninsured. Yet, if it also undercuts religious freedom and creates dependency that voters find corrosive or immoral, it’s no longer just a debate about numbers — it’s a debate about competing values. If the voter’s life experiences or intuition tells him that a government bureaucracy will create an inferior health care experience, there’s no chart that’s going to change his mind. These are all are valuable facets of political decision making.

It’d be easier to buy into the whole explanatory journalism experience if the editor-in-chief believed confirmation bias and identity-protective cognition existed on both sides. Not just with a throwaway line, but with an example. In Klein’s thought experiment, though, it’s radio host Sean Hannity — not Paul Krugman or Rachel Maddow — who is captive to an audience of rabid ideologues that would run him out of business if he took a contrarian position. Hannity, according to Klein, is slave to faulty ideas because he is a slave to his paycheck. Yet, in the same piece, Klein also brings up Justice Antonin Scalia, a man with a lifetime appointment and no fear of financial retribution for changing his position. Yes, he too is wedded to the very same evidence-free ideology because…well, because, evidently, it’s not politics that makes a person stupid, it’s right-wing politics that makes them stupid.

So why are liberals immune from this destructive partisanship but not conservatives? You know the reasons.

1. Conservatives are innately intolerant.

2. Conservatives have been duped by plutocrats.

3. Conservatives are slaves to faith-based mumbo jumbo.

4. Conservatives are misinformed — typically by Fox News.

5. All of the above.

Nowadays, the preponderance of political attacks from the Left focus on reasons 1, 2, and 3. Democrats can find the rancid heart of a misogynist or racist behind every “R.” President Obama’s “most stirring” speeches (whichever those might be) are nearly always packed with strawmen that highlight the nefarious intentions of the right, but rarely focus on evidence. The leader of the Senate goes on paranoid rants about boogeymen. The leading pop intellectual on the left doesn’t even bother reading what conservatives have to say, because he contends there’s an asymmetrical stupidity among wonks. Convenient. As Noah Rothman ably points out, the perception that conservative media lacks intellectual firepower on serious policy issues is a myth.

But none of these people pretends to be apolitical. Vox, judging from its early pieces, does. And judging from its pieces (and staff) it will focus on No. 4 above and treat liberal truths as if they were empirical truths. The left wrestles with facts, while conservatives, according to Vox’s editor, function under political ideals that aren’t only wrong, but also irrational. So I have no doubt Vox will explain the intellectual purity of progressive positions to many liberal readers in a lucid and entertaining way. What it probably won’t do is help anyone with genuine intellectual curiosity “understand the news” any better.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of the The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.

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