PUBLIC DISCOURSE

A consumer guide to political snark

 
 
MCT
MCT
Hollingsworth / MCT

Bloomberg News

Whenever public figures speak, a lot of people respond with snark. They try to cast ridicule or contempt on such figures, and to demonstrate that they are mere cartoons or perhaps even demons.

There is high political snark, which can be quite sophisticated. (Maureen Dowd and Jon Stewart are able practitioners, as is Charles Krauthammer, though his version is darker.) There is low political snark, which consists of little more than name-calling.

Whether high or low, political snark comes in just a few basic flavors — seven, to be precise — that can be wheeled out on almost every occasion. For readers of political snark and for those seeking to produce it, here is a consumer’s guide. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

• Hypocrisy. Senator Smith objects that President Obama has taken an unduly expansive view of presidential power. You might ask: Did Senator Smith say the same thing about President George W. Bush? If not, she’s a hypocrite, and she needs to be exposed.

Here’s a variation on the same theme: Senator Jones believes in the importance of public education and strongly opposes voucher systems, but he sends his own children to private schools. Isn’t he a hypocrite?

Consumer advisory: We have no reason to accuse Smith of hypocrisy. Maybe she did say the same thing about Bush, and if she didn’t, maybe it’s because she wasn’t focused on politics at the time. Whether she’s right today doesn’t depend on whether she spoke out a few years ago.

As for Jones, it isn’t hypocritical to believe in the importance of the public school system while also sending your kids to private school. In any case, his views deserve to be evaluated on their merits.

• Conflict of interest. Mary Johnson, head of a large corporation, argues against campaign-finance regulation, contending that it violates the right to free speech.

You might object: Would Johnson say the same thing if she didn’t have a ton of money to spend on campaigns?

Consumer advisory: It’s easy to charge people with conflicts of interest, but the charges often turn out to be speculative, false or unhelpful. When people complain about conflicts of interest, they are avoiding discussion of the substantive questions, which are the ones that most matter.

• Hidden agenda. Representative Smith argues in favor of restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions. The restrictions would impose big costs on the coal industry. You might object: Smith has a hidden agenda; he wants to kill the coal industry.

Consumer advisory: Most people’s agendas aren’t hidden. It’s perfectly possible to support greenhouse-gas regulations without wanting to kill the coal industry (so long as the regulations are reasonable rather than draconian). There is no logical contradiction there. Smith’s agenda is out in the open.

• Absurdity. Representative Taylor argues against recent food-safety regulations, contending that they will cause serious economic damage, especially to farmers. You might object: Taylor doesn’t believe in regulation at all. He would have opposed the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, too.

Consumer advisory: It is a defining feature of snark (especially the lowest kind) to suggest that a narrow claim, about a particular proposal or policy, is really a much broader claim, and an absurd or alarming one. That’s unfair. If people make a narrow or a qualified claim, there is no reason to attribute the broader one to them as well.

• Cowardice. Senator Burns supports a fiscal deal that allows funding for programs to which he recently expressed strong opposition. You might object: Burns has no guts; he is pandering to special interests.

Consumer advisory: Burns probably believes the deal is the best he can get. In American politics, most compromises reflect a form of principled pragmatism. Burns might be wrong, but that doesn’t mean he’s gutless.

• Elitism. Senator Young argues for increased tobacco taxes and also for educational measures to reduce childhood obesity. You might object: Young is an elitist; she doesn’t trust us to make sensible decisions. She thinks we’re stupid.

Consumer advisory: We need to know why Young endorses these policies. Nothing is inherently elitist about efforts to tax products that cause harm, or to educate people about risks. Maybe Young is an elitist — who knows? — but an epithet isn’t an argument.

• Dumb priorities. Representative Jacobs complains about discrimination on the basis of age. He says older people need to be protected, especially in the current economy. You might object: If we consider the economic challenges facing the United States today, age discrimination looks pretty minor. Doesn’t Jacobs have a nutty set of priorities?

Consumer advisory: In all likelihood, Johnson agrees that other problems are more serious and more fundamental. But he also believes that age discrimination isn’t a trivial matter, and that it is feasible to address it. His beliefs may be wrong, but they should be assessed on the merits.

Those beliefs deserve a rebuttal, not contempt. That point is also the best response to the world’s many purveyors of political snark.

Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

© 2014, Bloomberg News

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