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September 14, 2016

Weighing in on the debate about Hillary Clinton’s “controversial” characterization of Trump supporters, the New York Times editorial board argues that presidential candidates have become too intellectually cozy with their biggest financial supporters; that they have spent too much time with them and been unduly influenced by their worldviews.This is hardly a controversial thesis, however, the Times’ spin here really should be.

They are arguing that Hillary Clinton’s characterization of “half” of Trump’s supporters as “deplorable” reflects a serious problem of contemporary American politics that was likewise reflected in controversial claims by other presidents and presidential aspirants. In this vein, they include Bill Clinton’s admission to a donor audience that he, like many of them, thought that he had raised their taxes too much; Barack Obama’s infamous assertion about GOP fear mongering causing folks to “cling to their guns and bibles;” and Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously-recorded and leaked claim that because the Democrats had bought off 47% of the country by making them dependent on government programs, he wouldn’t seek to persuade them to vote Republican.

By ignoring the contexts of each of these examples and lumping them all into a single category, the Times editors have done a serious disservice to their readers. The idea that politically controversial claims made to influential stake holders are somehow automatically problematic if they reflect the perspective of the audience, combined with the fact that Romney’s audience was not the public, while the arguments of Bill Clinton, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton were made to an audience they knew included the general public, contributes to my conclusion that this Times editorial is yet another example of the kind of false equivalence that seems to be crowding out objectivity and intellectual sophistication in contemporary commercial journalism. EVERY claim made by a presidential candidate deserves to be judged objectively on the merits and in context.The reality is that all of the examples in the Times editorial are more objectively reasonable when judged in context.They all reveal a real perspective; a real interpretation of reality that can and should be judged not simply by anyone’s “reactions,” or even by whether the remarks were intended for the public to hear, but by an evidence-based evaluation of accuracy.

Instead, we get political bromides about optics, campaign rules of thumb, speculation about how such comments “will play,” and civility scolds.In each of the examples given by the Times editors, the comments highlighted were by and large objectively defensible claims that revealed sincere sentiments, all of which were couched in speeches containing qualifications that were basically ignored by the Monday morning quarterbacks in the media. These four example could and should be judged comparatively in terms of their veracity, but doing so doesn’t seem to fit within the contemporary definition of “newsworthy” in the commercial political press.

When it comes to controversial comments that might be insulting to someone or some group, counseling diplomacy and urging greater delicacy is fine, but the most important assessment of any claim should be about veracity, not political correctness.Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump’s supporters was by every scholarly measure at least fair and by some too kind. Her assessment was clearly accurate, though arguably imprecise. There is no question among objective analysts that a large chunk of Trump’s base support comes from racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and misogynists.This truth, easily verified by polling data, should not take a back seat to what amounts to a style critique.This is also true of Trump’s claims.Serious journalists should put the veracity and/or reasonableness of Trump’s boasts and claims front and center. It appears, however, that with Trump that task is too cumbersome for reporters and pundits working on tight deadlines, though a valiant effort to at least catalogue Trump’s misstatements and misdeeds was recently attempted (ironically enough) in GQ Magazine by liberal commentator Keith Olberman.

When intellectual standards dominate purportedly serious evaluations of the claims of presidential candidates, the level of anger and frustration Americans presently feel about our political process should be positively impacted. Sadly, the incentives of virtually all the influential stake holders in American elections are not presently structured for the advocacy of clear intellectual standards in public discourse.

The New York Times, Hillary Clinton, Deplorables, Donald Trump, Barack Obama

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