Pundits and Politicians

David Brooks and Gail Collins debate the proper role for pundits.

This byplay between David Brooks and Gail Collins is a week old but nonetheless worth pointing to:

David Brooks: It’s interesting to me to see how decisions are made in a democracy. This isn’t a debating society. Usually there are 30 pressure groups pushing on each decision, and the outcome depends on a complex web of personalities and relationships. You can’t understand the flux of forces unless you are inside the conversation.

Gail Collins: This is the point where we part company. What you say is absolutely true, but I see the columnist’s job as taking all that complexity and boiling it down so you can make sense of it for the reader. That’s why I love working on the opinion side of the business. You get to say: “And then the Senate, beset with all the pressures and conflicts that bedevil a democratic legislature, did the stupidest thing possible.”

David Brooks: But it’s harder to be scathing when you actually know the people. Occasionally you will run into a really bad person, but that’s pretty rare. Most people in public life are in it for the right reasons. They’re representing a point of view or a group. They’re faced with horrendous character tests — a system that perpetually tempts them to put loyalty to the team ahead of loyalty to the truth. I find the most accurate approach is to view them with sympathetic scrutiny but rarely outright scorn.

Of course scorn is more fun to write, but we’re supposed to be writing for the readers, not for ourselves.

Gail Collins: On behalf of the scorn contingent, I have to protest. I’m with you about there being very few evil people in politics, but there are a LOT of self-satisfied, shallow careerists, and I was put on this earth to make fun of them.

I don’t have Brooks’ “interview three politicians a day” rule nor the resulting insights and conflicts but still come down pretty much where he does.   I’m by no means above scorn and derision but do find my default position to blaming the game, not the players.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Media, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    Some talking head on “Morning Joe” just claimed Afghanistan was not about nation-building until Obama changed the mission. Joe wasn’t there this morning. Maybe he would have called BS. As it was, I turned off the TV in disgust at what passes for journalism.

    Maybe the “head” wasn’t a “bad person” and so he got a pass.

  2. James: If your default position is to “blame the game and not the players,” then you’re admitting that your default position is that a fully grown adult shouldn’t be accountable for his or her actions. How can I take your criticisms of politicians seriously after you say this?

    And realize that I may be (I hope I am) misunderstanding you. But it sounds like you’re saying anyone can be a politician as long as he or she plays the game. And, if the game is to blame, then why criticize anyone?

    I usually don’t read Gail Collins (I do like her. I just don’t read often.) I think she is right here though. If a politician is so weak-willed that s/he just acts like a robot and allows “the system” to determine his or her vote, then that person SHOULD be made fun of and sent packing in the most humiliating way possible.

    American politicians NEED to be held accountable for just “going along to get along.” It may very well be that a heroin addict comes from a place where addiction to narcotics is common. It may be that someone who is on welfare comes from a place where they didn’t have much chance at anything else. It might be that Bernie Madoff was a man who hung out in the wrong club where the temptation was to play the game and soak people for all they have. But no matter what the circumstances, we can and should expect everyone to buck the system and do what is right.

    And when they don’t, they should be held to account. Unless the heroin addict wants help, the right thing to do is live your life and let him go. If someone is on welfare and is trying to get off, we help. When the person refuses to do better, we have to let them go. When people like Madoff play the game, they suffer the consequences.

    When politicians “play the game,” we can, and should, get rid of them.

    And we should hold them to a higher standard and blame THEM – not “the game.”

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    What is being described in the conversation is much the same as what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”. Good, decent, polite people who are pleasant at cocktail parties and in conversation express the best of motives persistently do bad things.

    I can neither excuse nor condemn them. It isn’t “the system” as you and David Brooks aver nor is that they are bad people. The problem is that they are people. They will inevitably conflate their own interests with the public good. They will inevitably make compromises in the interest of a higher good when the higher good is far from apparent.

  4. James Joyner says:

    you’re admitting that your default position is that a fully grown adult shouldn’t be accountable for his or her actions. […] it sounds like you’re saying anyone can be a politician as long as he or she plays the game. And, if the game is to blame, then why criticize anyone?

    Partly, it’s what Dave says above. Partly, though, it’s a function of the incentives. Sure, people are accountable for their actions and should be called out for egregious conduct. But refusing to play the game by the rules as they exist — going along with the party leadership on routine matters, making compromises to get donations, speaking in careful sound bytes during interviews — means ceding the playing field to others. So, yes, it’s self-justifying but that doesn’t make it largely necessary.