Jeffrey Isaac On Political Asymmetries (and Evaluative Standards in Journalism)

Earlier this month, Jeffrey Isaac, who is a professor at Indiana University and friendly contributor to The Constitutionalist, wrote a great short analysis for Common Dreams, about the problem of false equivalencies in American politics.

Isaac’s article discusses the media’s treatment of Marjorie Taylor Greene, referring back to a profile by Jonathan Chait (“Marjorie Taylor Greene Blamed Wildfires on Secret Jewish Space Lazers”), as well as an odd Axios piece (“The Mischief Makers”) that tried to identify the most troublesome members of the two parties. Isaac’s piece is valuable because he pushes further than most on the problem of false equivalence. Isaac shows that identifying simple differences and asymmetries isn’t enough: it’s essential to articulate and evaluate the nature and significance of the disparities. And ideally – or at least I take this to be the implicit thesis of Isaac’s piece – we should be using the language and standards provided by democratic constitutionalism to do so. 

Isaac rightly points out that the idea of any kind of parity between Marjorie Taylor Green and, say, AOC, is simply wrong. But it’s not enough to say that Marjorie Taylor Greene is quite a bit more extreme than AOC, or even to point out her many incredible (racist, unhinged, conspiratorial) beliefs and past actions. Responsible political commentators need to be able to place their arguments in wider political context. And in the course of making his argument, Isaac demonstrates one evaluative/normative standard according to which this might be credibly done: commentators can refer back to how a given actor relates to our basic political institutions. Does person X defend and uphold basic element Y of our constitutional system (the free press, fair and free elections, equal representation, the rule of law), or do they pose some kind of obvious threat? Implicit in the piece is the idea that, if an author/commentator fails to mention something obvious along these lines, then they have failed their reader.

To make his point, Isaac critiques Jonathan Chait, whose critique of Marjorie Taylor Greene, which Isaac calls “eviscerating,” still falls short of this other, more political standard. In other words, Chait identifies all kinds of problems with Marjorie Taylor Greene, but he never articulates the fundamental difference between the “two sides” in a clear and satisfactory way. He does not explain that Marjorie Taylor Greene threatens constitutional democracy, while others like AOC and the Squad, represent and defend it. And so, while Chait’s piece has merit in some respects, it falls short as a piece of political commentary.

For his part, Isaac puts effort into making the core matter plain: Marjorie Taylor Greene supported the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy and insurgency against the legitimate government (an insurrection that targeted her colleagues in Congress); AOC, besides being a target of the attack, is plainly a staunch supporter of the American system of government. One of these people is complicit in the attack against our democracy, the other person is its representative and defender. The “Squad” defends voting rights and promotes a progressive policy agenda using normal democratic channels; the GOP extremists peddle lies and sought to overturn a democratic election, thus posing a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy. THAT is the difference that matters. It is a difference that could hardly be more obvious, or less subjective, or more important, and yet it’s the sort of evaluative observation that journalists are not always good at making clearly.

As with Trump, it’s nearly impossible not to dwell on what is most outlandish and outrageous about Marjorie Taylor Greene, and she certainly deserves all manner of opprobrium and scorn. But it’s also important to stay clear and focused about the key political asymmetry between the Trumpified GOP and the Democrats. One side threatens the Constitutional order, and the other side doesn’t. That’s the difference that matters most. And it’s still plenty scandalous.

You can read Jeffrey Isaac piece here.

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