Perils of Punditry

Two items in Sunday’s Washington Post op-ed page caught my eye, both of which illustrate the perils of punditry. I bring these items to the reader’s attention with an enormous caveat. As one who earns my daily bread as a pundit, I am aware how easy it is to write something in passing that contradicts a whole host of other assertions I have made. But, these items are noteworthy because of what they say about our current political debate.

The first item came in a column by George Will, in which he offers his take on a new book by Robert J. Gordon entitled, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” and in parentheses no less. The sentence reads: “Gordon says two calamities – the Depression and World War II – fueled the postwar boom: The Depression by speeding unionization (hence rising real wages and declining work hours), and the war by high-pressure ‘productivity-enhancing learning’ that, for example, manufactured a bomber an hour at Michigan’s Willow Run plant.”

“Hence.” The dictionary defines this word as an adverb meaning “as a consequence; for this reason.” Indeed. Unionization did result in both rising real wages and shorter working hours, but I would quibble with the idea that this was a direct result of the Depression. There is an intervening political fact: The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and large Democratic majorities in Congress. It was this that resulted in laws that made it easier to unionize.

Unions did more than bargain collectively and strike when necessary. They allowed workers to feel that they were an integral part of a company. This seems, at first blush, misguided, seeing as the union, representing the worker, often stood against the interests and the arguments of management. But, the strength of the union meant that management could not simply do as it wished, it had to consider the needs and the attitudes of its workers. Their input became normal, certainly not about all decisions a company makes, as is the case in some European countries where workers, by law, have a seat at the management table. But, in the most socially important decision a company makes, the distribution of its profits, unions helped make sure that the company’s success was more widely shared. A CEO could not run off with all the profits, nor the company’s board decide to spend all of its revenues on stock buybacks. A worker who believes he is getting a fair share is not only more likely to be a committed member of the company’s effort, but a more satisfied citizen in general.

Why has there been so little discussion about the important role of unions in this campaign? Because, as Thomas Frank argues in his new book “Listen Liberal: How the Party of the People Learned to Love Inequality” today’s liberals have abandoned their concern for working folk and taken up the concerns of the “creative classes.” Hence, President Obama lights up the White House in the rainbow flag colors after the Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage but sticks his finger in the eyes of working men and women by signing a trade pact that will only further depress wages. Why have so many states adopted so-called right-to-work laws that make it harder for unions to organize? Because, today’s Republicans, especially in state legislatures, are dependent for their money and their ideas upon Koch Brothers’ organizations that view, rightly, organized labor as a principal bulwark against their libertarian ideology. Hayek, et al., celebrate the individual, not the group, and so the thought of workers runs counter to the Social Darwinism they wish to visit upon our country.

All this is so obvious that even George Will found himself putting it into a column. This is an example of what Michael Kinsley famously called a “Beltway gaffe” when a politician or pundit unintentionally says something that is the truth, but a truth they usually deny or obfuscate. Of course rising wages are a consequence of unionization. And Republicans cannot appear to be opposed to rising wages, so how, then, do they fight efforts to unionize?

Ironically, it is the same Mike Kinsley whose article also contained something that caught my eye and which also demonstrates the blinders of the creative classes. His column celebrates a collection of facts about our current politics that he thinks should make us smile. He rightly celebrates the fact that virtually no one is questioning the fitness of the first woman with a better than even shot at winning the White House to serve as president on account of the fact that she is a woman. And, he rightly celebrates the fact that there has been almost no commentary on the fact that President Obama just nominated a Jew to the Supreme Court: If confirmed, Merrick Garland would be the fourth Jew on the court, joining five Roman Catholics. I, too, celebrate the idea that at least one of our branches of government has not a single WASP on it.

Then, unfortunately, Kinsley writes this sentence: “Most encouraging of all, after an initial explosion of joy and self-congratulation, the fact that our president for the past eight years has been a black man has largely receded into the background.” Maybe in Kinsley’s neighborhood. But, if you cannot detect the racist overtones of so much of the current talking points of the Republican Party, you are not paying attention. Some of them date back to Ronald Reagan’s time, the idea that government helps free-loaders and encourages sloth, while others, like the need to build a wall along our southern border, are of more recent vintage. The “again” in Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again!” is a call to nostalgia, to return to a past in which there were good paying manufacturing jobs, to be sure, but also when a black man was not president. Indeed, it is hard not to hear that slogan, and to watch the videos of a Trump rally, and conclude that what it really means is, “Make America White Again!”

At the Oscars, Chris Rock did a masterful job touching on the subject of racism in America, pointing out that, yes, it still and exists and, no, racism does not account for everything. As I have recounted before, my one visit to a Tea Party rally back in 2009 found me leaving early because the black friend who was accompanying me found the looks he was getting and the comments he was hearing dark and, if not threatening, at least menacing. You do not have to subscribe to everything an Al Sharpton has to say, and you are well advised to ignore most of what Cornell West has to say, but there is no denying that racism continues to haunt America, this year combined with nativism which is its kissin’ cousin.

Punditry is a tough business. It isn’t easy to write two columns a week and to keep them fresh, try to say something no one else has said, get past the conventional wisdom. But, yesterday’s Post demonstrated the ways that all of us, pundits included, can live in ways that are blinkered. Poor George Will normally has to deny the obvious fact that unions have been a boon to the country. Mike Kinsley may find that many people he talks to do not even comment on the president’s being black. Will inadvertently hit on the truth yesterday and Kinsley inadvertently told us something about the divide between the creative classes among whom he socializes and the people who show up for a Trump rally. 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here