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Political Fallacies of Composition
Posted by: Jon Henke on Monday, May 08, 2006

I'd like to see if I can square the ideological circle that Glenn Greenwald has been drawing these past few days. (along with me, Jonah Goldberg, Digby and others)

One initial observation would be that most of the mistakes here—on both sides—come down to fallacies of composition. It's absurd for one to claim, based on some very un-conservative policies, that Bush is a "liberal". On the other hand, it's equally absurd to claim that pointing out those distinctly un-conservative tendencies is "dishonest"; that calling Bush a "liberal Republican" is disingenuous; that criticising his "liberal" policies is somehow new.

As Josh Trevino points out at Swords Crossed, conservative criticism of Bush has always "been at question, since the rollout of “compassionate conservatism”". Moreover, there's substantial variance between the Bush administration's essentially big-government giveaway policies and the initial idea of "compassionate conservatism" which was focused more on aligning the incentives of the welfare state in a more conservative direction.

In any event, when Conservatives — or those on the Right, in general — criticize Bush for being "liberal", they intend to say that Bush has embraced a very Big Government Is Here to Help approach. Not only is this not a new criticism, it's not even one with which Greenwald appears to particularly disagree... (Note: he seems to think it dispositive that some Bush policies are un-liberal, though that just takes us back to the fallacy of composition)
That "conservatism" has come to mean "loyalty to George Bush" is particularly ironic given how truly un-conservative the Administration is. It is not only the obvious (though significant) explosion of deficit spending under this Administration – and that explosion has occurred far beyond military or 9/11-related spending and extends into almost all arenas of domestic programs as well. Far beyond that is the fact that the core, defining attributes of political conservatism could not be any more foreign to the world view of the Bush follower.
Understand, the same Glenn Greenwald who now criticizes Conservatives for disassociating themselves and Conservatism from Bush was, just a few months ago, criticizing Conservatives for not disassociating themselves from Bush and his "truly un-conservative" administration. ("there is nothing remotely "conservative" about this Administration")

He even cited reports on how truly un-conservative the Bush administration was. Those reports were from the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute. (now back to your regularly scheduled "they won't criticize the President!")

Arguments about what, exactly, "Liberal" and "Conservative" mean will generally crash upon the rocks of subjectivity. Both tend to be more political tendencies, rather than coherent philosophies, so we'll never really settle exactly what defines a liberal or conservative.

Of course, if we accept Greenwald's previous definition of Conservative — "conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible" — then it's very difficult to understand the Digby suggestion that Greenwald is pushing that this all can be viewed as a viewed as "a failure of conservatism".

As if, somehow, an out of control government discredits the philosophy based on "fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government" and the "belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible". The out of control government certainly discredits the politicians responsible for it, but if anything it ought to reinforce the desire to restrain government.

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Furthermore, Greenwald's "authoritarian cultist" construction has always been a gross oversimplification — one which Greenwald has compounded by simply tossing in people (Goldberg) who often agree with the Administration without regard for their oft-stated criticism of the same. (and other times, he appears to simply make stuff up, as when he writes that he is "an avid reader of [Michelle Malkin's] blog" and he believes "that she would be in favor of setting up camps for Muslim-Americans". In fact, she has answered that particular smear, writing that it is "a blatant lie, a malicious smear" and that "Nowhere in my book do I support such actions with regard to Muslims")

One can assert that Goldberg, et al, require "blind loyalty to George W. Bush", or one can acknowledge that they frequently "criticiz[e] specific [Bush] policies". Those roads diverge; one cannot travel both and be one traveller.

The reason Greenwald's theories are all over the board and his accusations self-contradictory is not, I believe, that he is dishonest. In my opinion, the problem is that he is wedded to defending a poor theory. There are better explanations for the hyper-partisan phenomenon. I described a Political Teams theory here...
The overt partisans to whom Greenwald refers are not "authoritarian cultists". That's a cynical, absurd characterization — hyperbole. But there [are] a substantial number of people who filter information through partisan allegiance. More weight is given to ideas and information that align with their team; less weight is given to those that conflict with their team.

With the enormous data matrix now available — confirming information, contradictory information, and broad areas of doubt — people are using team membership as a signaling mechanism. In the absence of (what they consider) substantial evidence to the contrary, the auto-assumption is that +MyTeam information is correct and -MyTeam information is incorrect. The default intellectual stance is "accept confirmation, doubt contradiction".
The problem is not ideological so much as it is intellectual. It is "the political equivalent of blind nationalism. My team, right or wrong." It's only going to get worse so long as pundits continue to aim these fallacies of composition at their ideological opponents.
 
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"conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible"

This would come as something of a surprise to Burke, let alone Hobbes.
 
Written By: D.A. Ridgely
URL: http://
This would come as something of a surprise to Burke, let alone Hobbes.
Yes and no...the discussion centres on Political not Philosophic Liberalism. Philosophically many folks hereabouts are Liberals (Smith, Locke, Ricardo, Hayek, John Stuart Mill), but politically that translates into Conservative politically. I think a strong case can be made that the Progressive/Liberals of the US are truly conservative, in that their goals seems to be PREVENTION of change.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
While I disagree about Greenwald being "all over the board", I do agree on your theory of a partisan filter on information playing a major role in the fracturing of an American consensus. And the unremitting attacks on the media are compounding the problem. Nobody is "Balanced & fair", every editorial decision is subjective. Weighting the source of information is natural but if you carry it to the extreme, Fox is almost always right and the NYT is almost always wrong, or vice versa, you’re going to find yourself increasingly divorced from reality. When did we stop teaching healthy skepticism?
 
Written By: Ed
URL: http://
Fox is almost always right and the NYT is almost always wrong, or vice versa, you’re going to find yourself increasingly divorced from reality.
I don’t know that this is an INCORRECT formulation, IF you allow me to substitute MSM for the NYT, exclusively. I don’t see Fox, or Faux News if you prefer, running around using "Fake, but accurate memo’s" as the basis for their stories.
When did we stop teaching healthy skepticism?


When the Left decided that Republicans were/are evilllllll. That translates into when Reputhugs were able to beat Jimmuh and then to take the House and Senate in the 1994 Elections. Since then, healthy skepticism has been scarce on one side more than another, Ed.

You’re trying to be "nice" and say, "Both sides bring something to the table" or that both sides have flaws, or that both sides are blinded by their hatreds, to an extent it’s true, HOWEVER one side is crazier and less truthful than the other. There is a scarcity of healthy skepticism, questioning the accuracy of received information, on the Left/Democratic side, replaced with wild conspiracies and acceptance of the worst in their opponents. The Left and it’s Left-of-Centre Party aren’t skeptical of information, IF it says Republicans are evil, or duplicitous or immoral, illegal or fattening it’s believed and mouthed as a Gospel Truth, anything else is merely Wingnut Propaganda and/or shilling for the Administration.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
I don’t read Greenwald as being inconsistent in his claims that Bush supporters won’t criticize Bush and his subsequent argument that they are kicking him to the curb for being a "liberal." His huge analytical and/or rhetorical mistake, however, was in having characterized them as “cultists.” (And this was unnecessarily inflammatroy, and makes Greenwald look unserious.)Cult members do not repudiate their leader when he becomes unpopular. Ideologues, however, will, when they perceive that that leader is unpopular and so a drag on their Cause.

On anything touching and concerning national security or foreign policy, Bush supporters of all stripes, including social liberals who disagree with Bush on much domestically, will criticize him only from the right. That continues to be true, even at NRO, where Goldberg has now announced that Bush is a “liberal.” Some, like Goldberg, are moving past merely disagreeing that Bush is the wrong kind of conservative, to declaring him not to be such at all. But they still defend Bush’s foreign policy goals and the theories of Executive power Bush stands on to do everything from torture, to spying without warrants, in violation of congressional laws.

They are a movement in search of a new leader – a popular one — to whom they will transfer their extreme willingness to subordinate nearly all values, in the name of national security, to a Machiavellian prince. They are authoritarian ideologues, not authoritarian cultists. Bush’s basement-level approval ratings render him an unworthy prince, but they will find another to support. So, it is now ok to reject him as a liberal; indeed, this must be done so that their “conservative” approval of Bush’s foreign policy and his domestic security policies, can be salvaged. And they will still never criticize him, except from the right, in those areas.
 
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
They are authoritarian ideologues, not authoritarian cultists.
Oh Mona you were doing ok to this point, to quote MONA:
(And this was unnecessarily inflammatroy, and makes Greenwald look unserious.)
It also makes MONA appear unserious.....

Yes, yes, we NRO reading, GWoT-supporters we’re authoritarians, please, Mona do you hear me calling YOU anything, other than unserious and inflmmatory?

You make the Leftist/Libertarian mistake that anyone who might believe in the value of State power to protect us, must also believe that Freedom is Slavery or some such. It simply is that, many of us don’t see the biggest threat to our freedoms in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but see folks like Hussein, Amadinejad, Usama and the like as a threat that is bigger and more real than the mostly hypothetical fears of you and Jon Henke. That does not make us authoritarians, it makes us people with whom you disagree, and there IS a difference.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Greenwald occasionally has something useful to say, but it’s mixed with so many over-the-top generalizations that are all over the map.

So far, he’s managed to claim that: 1) Conservatives are cultists who have sworn absolute loyalty to Bush, but at the same time, conservatives should be criticized for ditching Bush; 2) Bush’s policies are NOT conservative (which is why it can only be "cultish" for conservatives to support him), but at the same time, it’s dishonest for any conservative to point out that Bush’s policies are not conservative, and any failure of Bush is really a failure of "conservatism."

The problem isn’t that Greenwald is dishonest; it’s that he isn’t smart enough to recognize a contradiction. I don’t know why anyone takes him seriously, except for semi-literate liberals who are impressed to see that someone who’s on their side can write so many long posts.
 
Written By: Niels Jackson
URL: http://
Yes, yes, we NRO reading, GWoT-supporters we’re authoritarians, please, Mona do you hear me calling YOU anything, other than unserious and inflmmatory?
Joe, you were doing fine until:
HOWEVER one side is crazier and less truthful than the other. There is a scarcity of healthy skepticism, questioning the accuracy of received information, on the Left/Democratic side, replaced with wild conspiracies and acceptance of the worst in their opponents. The Left and it’s Left-of-Centre Party aren’t skeptical of information, IF it says Republicans are evil, or duplicitous or immoral, illegal or fattening it’s believed and mouthed as a Gospel Truth, anything else is merely Wingnut Propaganda and/or shilling for the Administration.
And then:
It simply is that, many of us don’t see the biggest threat to our freedoms in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but see folks like Hussein, Amadinejad, Usama and the like as a threat that is bigger and more real than the mostly hypothetical fears of you and Jon Henke. That does not make us authoritarians, it makes us people with whom you disagree, and there IS a difference.
As a threat to my freedom, I see the US Gov’t as a far more dangerous threat than the folks you mention. Not a bigger threat to my life and safety, but definitely a bigger threat to my freedom. The chance that radical Islam will take over and destroy the United States is beyond remote. The chance that we as citizens will continue to cede our freedoms to the gov’t in the name of increased safety and security is not remote, it is happening as we speak. It hasn’t gotten to the point where I live in fear that the gov’t will swoop down and scoop me up, but the consequences of events like the Patriot Act and the Padilla case make it more likely that it could happen than before those events. We live in a time now when so many things have been criminalized that an extraordinary number of people who we would all consider law abiding, decent citizens can have their lives ruined by an overzealous prosecutor. I don’t blame all this on the Bush Administration... it has been going on since the Nixon Administration and probably before that. But I do think it is fair to say that in its zeal to "restore" Executive power, the Bush Administration has accelerated this trend in ways that should concern most Americans.
 
Written By: Steven Donegal
URL: http://
Steven, you were doing fine until:
As a threat to my freedom, I see the US Gov’t as a far more dangerous threat than the folks you mention.
;)
 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://
uh capt joe, i think steven did it all fine. He made a divide between the type of threats each impose. The dictators of the world may be a much larger threat in general, and specifically to our life, our allies lives and economic well being in the world, but our govt is the only entity even remotely capable of taking away our freedom. We’ve seen it with income tax, social security, the war on drugs, environmental laws, ect.
 
Written By: Chris
URL: http://
Steve that’s the reason I’n NOT A LIBERTARIAN...UBL and his minions have killed THOUSANDS of people! And he’s not a threat or as MUCH a threat the US government. Hussein and Ahmadinejad were/are sitting right next door to 50-60% of the world’s single most valuable commodity, their actions driving up the cost of oil, limiting the growth in the World’s economy, killing thousand in the Developing world, but the existential threat to your liberties outweighs that threat.

I also note that you worry about the surrender of your liberties, but seem to ignore that in times of emergency the US has limited liberties, from at least the Civil War to the internment of the Japanese, YET can you HONESTLY state that you live in an unfree America? In fact, US citizens are enjoying an unprecedented degree of personal freedoms, unless you think that only economic liberties count...
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Sure Joe, we’re free to smoke in designated places, to wear our seatbelts behind our airbags and wear our helmets when we ride our motercycles, to have the IRS confiscate our property or the FBI storm our homes or the NSA tap our phones and computers, to be exposed to roughly the same in-processing at an airport previously reserved for convicts entering a penitentiary, to make sure we don’t spend too much money on political speech, to be protected from the temptations of drugs and gambling... why the list just keeps on growing!

And, by the way, are you suggesting that the internment of Japanese during WWII was a justified policy?
 
Written By: D.A. Ridgely
URL: http://
The simple answer to Greenwald’s grossly negligent characterizations: A whopping amount of ignorance about conservatives, what they stand for and how they’ve responded to Bush’s big government preservatism.
 
Written By: Bird Dog
URL: http://
No DA merely to point out that the US did a horribly nasty thing and it DIDN’T LEAD TO WORSE, that’s right no slippery slope and that was a hugely bad thing done....Yet, Freedom flourished and flourishes... and if you think that restrictions on your ability to drive without a seatbelt or restrictions on smoking equal Auschwitz or the Gulag Archipelago, well I can’t help you. And if that’s the limit on your personal freedoms, even in the age of Terrorism, you’ve got very little to complain about.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Well, Joe, I could have extended my little list almost forever. I admit some of the things I mentioned are trivial, but others aren’t, as I suspect even you would agree. And, as Sam Spade would have said, look at how many there are.

I think the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII did indeed contribute to the sort of mindset that led the current administration to believe it could and should round up "enemy combatants" and other suspects and ship them off to GITMO without legal recourse.

Finally, if your sense of proportion is such that your default comparison in this sort of discussion is Auschwitz or the Gulag Archipelago, well, I can’t help you either.
 
Written By: D.A. Ridgely
URL: http://
chris, maybe you missed the ";)" at the end or you have a serious irony deficiency. I was pulling his leg.

David, The case of enemy combantants and the Japanese internment are a bit different. In most part the Japanese were hard working US citizens and the majority of enemy combatants are foreign citizens (Padilla being the exception there). While some of the Japanese may have been sleepers, the majority of Japanese did love their country in spite of this (considering the actions and war honors of the Japanese nisei regiment).
 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://

Bird dog writes:
The simple answer to Greenwald’s grossly negligent characterizations: A whopping amount of ignorance about conservatives, what they stand for and how they’ve responded to Bush’s big government preservatism.
Uh, no. His posts over the past many months reflect a very good understanding of the various historical strains of conservatism. If there is anything he is not, it is ignorant about conservatives. As he told Jon in a comment at his blog recently, Greenwald has long read National Review. And, he was published in the march issue of American Conservative.

In a response to another several months ago — someone who had inquired about Greenwald’s specific political posture — Greenwald said he rejected aspects of both left and right, and tended mostly to agree with those who identify as libertarians.

This is how I see his blog: his legal analysis of Bush’s theories of Executive power, why the NSA warrantless spying would never — and should never — be upheld by the federal courts & etc, all of that is masterful and spot on. But he is a man clearly on a mission, a mission to defang the modern, big govt GOP and an untrammeled Executive. As a consequence, his most obvious cohort of support hails from the left/Democrats. That being so, he is overly involved with and influenced by them, and has let himself be pushed into rhetorical excesses and claims that I think are a mistake; they are off-putting to reasonable people outside of his echo-chamber. And sometimes he simply throws these folks red meat.

His comments section is disintegrating into a sewer, where once it attracted many lawyers and well-educated laypeople who, in an almost scholarly fashion, parsed law and history. Now, there are legions of foul-mouthed, leftist cretins who routinely engage in vicious castigations and baiting of libertarians, Republicans, and demonization of the right. Many defend Communists.

It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but it disgusts me to be told in comments there that if someone were only able to be in my presence he would strangle me. Another advised me that I was essentially sub-human, an entity not entitled to the respect accorded a human being. Endless vituperation is sent my way, and toward a Randian there, and any others who are not leftists. In my case, the nastiness was earned because I don’t follow the left party line regarding Communists, believe that Michael Moore is an outstanding patriot, or endorse the theory of The Total Evil of the Swift Boat Vets.

When Greenwald is good, he is superlative (I highly recommend his new book). When he’s overtaken by a desire to depict all Bush supporters as reprehensible, and to please his legions of left-of-center admirers, he is, well, less than superlative.
 
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
Mona, your examples are why when I read left side blogs but refuse to read their comment sections. The left side comments sections are not worth reading.

Balloon Juice is an example where a right leaning blog got a similiar sewer infestation (albeit from the left side of the sewer). John Cole let the comments section be a free fire zone between left and right. What ended up happening is that all the reasonable people left and only the most vile and intemperature remained.

I feel that it is the responsibility of the host to police that sort of behavior. Both John Cole and Greenwald are clearly unwilling to do so My belief is that Greenwald prefers it so that he can have his heavies take out differing points of view without him having to dirty his hands.

I like QandO for the explicit reason that they do not permit it to become a sewer. All of us become rather hot under the collar but McQ or Jon is there to point out when we should be more reasonable.
 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://
Capt.Joe writes:
Mona, your examples are why when I read left side blogs but refuse to read their comment sections. The left side comments sections are not worth reading.

Balloon Juice is an example where a right leaning blog got a similiar sewer infestation (albeit from the left side of the sewer). John Cole let the comments section be a free fire zone between left and right.
Well, some right-side comments sections are pretty vicious as well. Because I am very critical of Bush’s illegal activities, which he justifies by extreme theories of Executive-cum-monarch, I was told to "f*ck off and die" at one popular, pro-Bush blog. That was the most disgusting, but not only, example of pretty severe attacks on me for holding the "wrong" opinions about George Bush.

I’m sort of partial to John Cole’s site, maybe because he and I are in such close ideological conformity. But anyway, I think the issue is that unless site owners moderate, or at least signal displeasure at gross insults and trolling, a political blog of any persuasion is very likely to be over-run by foul-mouthed, frothing cretins.
 
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
Oh, and about this:
My belief is that Greenwald prefers it so that he can have his heavies take out differing points of view without him having to dirty his hands.
No. He’s almost religious in his free speech absolutism, and finds the idea of policing discussions so extremely distasteful, that altho he publicly considered instituting some moderation in the comments, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. That’s a mistake in my view, but it isn’t my blog.
 
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
He’s almost religious in his free speech absolutism, and finds the idea of policing discussions so extremely distasteful, that altho he publicly considered instituting some moderation in the comments, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. That’s a mistake in my view, but it isn’t my blog.
We don’t moderate here and haven’t really had much bad luck with the mouth breathers. That’s not to say they don’t show up here (and much of that depends on the subject) but for whatever reason they don’t last long.

My guess is that’s because we have a core of regulars who, for the most part, are quite articulate and moderate in their comments and simply don’t tolerate the wing-nuts and moonbats.

I’d also guess that it is because we don’t neatly fit into the "big two" in terms of party ideologies.

But on the whole, I’ve been quite pleased with the quality of our comments and for the most part, the behavior of our commenters.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog

 
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