Dem 51
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GOP 49
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(V) and (Z): From the Teacher to the Preacher?

Christiane Amanpour just celebrated her 40th year at CNN. That was long enough ago that the month she started, Ronald Reagan let the world in on a new toy the U.S. military had been working on called GPS, the Soviets shot down a Korean Air flight, The Big Chill was the top movie at the box office, Hill Street Blues won the Emmy for best drama series, Greg LeMond became the first American ever to win the men's Road Racing World Championship, the Detroit Lions' streak of years without winning the Super Bowl numbered just 16, and (Z) turned 9 years old.

As part of the festivities, Amanpour sat for a few interviews, including one with CNN's own Inside Politics. Host Dana Bash brought up a particularly notable moment from Amanpour's career, in which Amanpour held Bill Clinton's feet to the fire over the Bosnian War. In response to Bash's questions, Amanpour explained that the incident was formative in her thinking about journalism in general, and political journalism in particular. Her mantra, from that point forward: "Be truthful, not neutral."

We took note of this because, although we had not formulated it in quite so pithy a way, it's a pretty good description of the operating philosophy of this site. Truth be told, it is considerably easier to write about politics when partisans on both sides are basically reasonable, and are trying to pursue similar kinds of goals in similar ways. Then, it's not that much different than writing about a football game or a chess match. X won for this reason, Y lost for that reason.

It gets way, way harder when both sides are not operating in good faith. When, in fact, one side isn't even in the same good faith ballpark. Or neighborhood. Or universe. At some point during, say, the Civil Rights Movement, there was one side that was right and one side that was wrong, and pretending otherwise was not only dishonest but offensive. Put another way, bothsidesism is just a different form of bias, and often a particularly nefarious one. So, we do not, and generally will not, treat Joe Biden and his party as being roughly equivalent to Donald Trump and his party because it just isn't so. That said, it requires constant vigilance to make sure that we are picking the right things to talk about, and talking about them in the right way, and making sure to be as truthful as possible.

Needless to say, we are not perfect. Nobody is. And we get plenty of letters that remind us of that. Most of those speak to smallish slip-ups, where we fumbled one sentence, or one paragraph, or one item. Some of those letters, however, are targeted at our very foundation, and suggest—in various ways—that we have moved away from being the dispassionate academics we profess to being, and have moved into advocacy. That is to say, we have gone from being the teacher to the preacher. There was a letter of that very sort in this week's mailbag:

A.D. in Charleston, WV, writes: I have been a reader of the site since 2004, back when I was a youngster forced to report on "current events" as they were, in my high school history class, and not spend my afternoons playing on my Playstation 2. Back in the days of periodical posts on the site, I'd be excited to take Votemaster's take on the issues of the day, because it felt unbiased, honest, and to-the-point, and generally made me reconsider my own cognitive biases with the news and how I saw things. Being an independent voter (my voting record is McCain, Obama, Johnson, Biden...) I think the latest poll you mention in your item does, actually, matter, because it highlights people like me who are super dissatisfied with the current state of our national politics. I cannot fathom, out of 330,000,000 Americans, the best we can do is sour orange juice and spoiled milk, and not once do we have to pick between these two, but TWICE?! Give me a break, already!

Zenger, for your part, your bias and unwavering defense of the spoiled milk is just plain starting to stink at this point, and your constant dismissal of all the legitimate concerns that are raised about Biden (I can literally link these all day, if need be) is starting to undermine that aforementioned unbiased report blogging that made people like me come to to begin with. We get it. You don't like the orange one; me neither. I do, however, challenge you to pick a Democrat you like better than the incumbent president, because I assure you, there are way better options than him.

We generally do not comment on letters like this, unless they contain factual errors, because to do so is not especially instructive or appropriate.

With that said, a number of readers were roused to respond to A.D. in Charleston. And they generally did so at some length. We don't particularly like to edit down letters for the mailbag, but we also can't get away with running multiple letters of this length. And since they speak to readers' perceptions of the site, and its operating philosophy, we thought it would be OK to share them on a weekday. And so:

S.H. in Hanoi, Vietnam, writes: A common complaint from those deeply dissatisfied with U.S. politics is a theme-and-variation of "voting from the two parties is choosing between the lesser of two evils." This is literally how Bernie Sanders characterized eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton mere weeks before he lost the primary race to her. A.D. in Charleston chose a liquid simile instead, calling the parties "sour orange juice and spoiled milk." It provides a noxious image, and this kind of complaint strongly resonates with a certain type of voter, whether their lean is left, right, or center; the only question is which politician to whom they throw their support, but over the last 20 years, the beneficiaries have included Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, Jill Stein, A.D.'s favored libertarian Gary Johnson, the aforementioned Sanders, and, arguably, Donald Trump.

While it's evocative, the "pox on both their houses" trope almost always fails to offer a specific critique of why given politician X or political party Y is "evil." Certainly on the left, much of the appeal of the Greens is borne of a frustration with Democrats "not getting it done"—i.e. not putting more progressive policies in place. Prior to the Republican majority in the House, Democratic-sponsored bills required passage with the thinnest of margins for error, and needed to be approved by a Senate in which the requisite votes to create a majority came in the form of a business-friendly centrist who watered down the most lefty policies (Joe Manchin, D-WV) as well as a seemingly closeted Republican (Krysten Sinema, D-AZ/I-AZ). This is the reality, but the Greens draw the disaffected, who believe that "sending a message" to Dems by not voting for them will help pull the party further left. It won't, and in close races they end up throwing elections to ever-further-right Republicans making it even harder for even the mildest political programs to be implemented. A.D.'s politics are presumably more centrist than those who support the Greens, but the intellectual approach appears the same, and conveniently ignores the actual conditions in which U.S. politics currently finds itself, and likewise offers no actual solutions. It just complains.

I'll take the risk of sounding like (Z)'s personal apologist, and further risk projecting my own political biases onto (Z) and (V), but if I had to guess, I would guess that (Z), and probably (V), think that the single, defining issue of U.S. politics over at least the past 10 or more years has been the rise of a small-d anti-democratic, anti-expertise, pro-authoritarian, nationalist, protectionist view, which has coalesced into one of the two most powerful voting blocs in the country. Donald Trump did not create this movement, but he did understand how to resonate with these voters in a way that no Republican before had, and to channel it into the movement it is today. (Republican never-Trump apologists consistently fail to understand this point, and regard Trump as a hurricane out of nowhere instead of understanding the decades of culpability the Republican party had in creating this mindset.)

While there are certainly other issues that are important, and are often discussed on, everything about U.S. politics right now hinges on the question of whether democracy itself is an institution worth preserving, or whether "we" wish to go the way of, say, Hungary, which is a truly rigged system, and where anyone who stands in the way of Viktor Orbán and his cronies is essentially powerless. And it's pretty clear that (Z) thinks the ascension of this viewpoint, once on the margins of U.S. politics but now right at the heart of it, is a bad development. A very bad development.

With all that said, Biden's presidency is, effectively, an afterthought; in some sense, the most important thing that his administration can do to be considered a success by sane people is merely to observe the rule of law and avoid having profoundly corrupt advisors and cabinet members, which both he and Barack Obama have done well. Whatever else he accomplishes, given the razor-thin room for error with the legislature, is basically gravy. And it turns out that the Inflation Reduction Act was a fairly impressive piece of legislation given the current political environment.

None of that means that (Z) has turned into a personal Biden cheerleader. The understanding of Biden's re-election campaign, such as it is at the moment, involves the recognition that a sitting president with the smallest of Electoral-College advantages is highly likely to be the only hope the Democrats have of retaining the White House. If Biden were to step down, a bruising free-for-all significantly increases the chance of a Trump presidency, and the commentary on over the past several months reflects this analysis. That doesn't mean that (Z) and (V) are carrying the President's water, it means they understand that the most likely chance of countering the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War lies in avoiding internecine Democratic warfare. And that means Biden is re-elected, whether Biden would be their first choice in an alternate world or not.

Again, this is a guess, but after years of reading their views, I would guess that (Z) as well as (V) are to Biden's left on most or even all major policy debates, and are likely at some level to have their share of disappointments regarding the state of the Democratic Party, which despite having a fairly liberal caucus in both the House and Senate, at present is essentially beholden to the two senators mentioned above (as well as Biden's near fetishism with institutionalism). But I think (Z)'s bias—and if I'm right, I share that bias—is that none of these frustrations hold a candle to the single most important problem facing America today, and until that problem gets resolved, everything else is commentary.

E.S. in Maine, NY, writes: Reading the letter from A.D. in Charleston, words like "naive" and "uninformed" come to mind. And worse, but I am too polite to describe a fellow reader as such. Joe Biden is the only choice we have. No one else will be the Democratic candidate, barring death or a serious health issue. And the thing is, he has done an amazing job. The fact that you and others do not see that seems to be due to a lack of perspective and a lack of understanding of how the world works.

What candidate, among those you think would be better, would have had the experience, knowledge, and skill to rally NATO, to confront the naked aggression of Russia without our forces firing a single shot? The extremely fine line of stopping Russia while not allowing World War III to happen is a existential achievement. Age brings experience and wisdom to some. Knowing how to do the job is important.

This also deters China from attacking Taiwan—which, if you think it is not our issue, then perhaps you do not know that just about ALL the most advanced microchips in the world are made there. Biden's bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act will work to eliminate that vulnerability. I could go on with many other areas of the world where Biden's administration is actively engaging, but let's get to the domestic side.

The economy is performing fantastically. Historic low unemployment, real wage growth, inflation reduced much better than other comparable economies. The Inflation Reduction Act, which has the biggest climate change package in history, is a step towards fixing another existential crisis. And he, and Nancy Pelosi (83) and Chuck Schumer (72) did it with Mr. Coal from West Virginia and who-knows-what-her-problem-is from Arizona "on their side". You really think your mythical better candidate would herd the cats better?

Remember, your mythical better candidate has not faced the harsh glare of a presidential campaign. Even people who would be good or great presidents can wither under the glare of national attention. I wanted Elizabeth Warren, voted for Bernie Sanders, and supported Biden, of course, over Donny. I did not expect to be extremely thrilled with what Biden has done. Would I like more? Of course! But, at this point, no one else has a proven track record of getting stuff done like Biden. All new candidates are unknown/untested until they are in the spotlight. No predicting how they will do—see Ron DeSantis, Jeb!, John Edwards, Gary Hart, America's Mayor etc.

And, by the way, I really do not agree that either of the writers "constant dismissal of all the legitimate concerns that are raised about Biden." (V) and (Z) address them; just because one reader thinks they are more, or less, important is not dismissing them.

P.S.: Sorry this is so long, and I know (V) and (Z) are more than capable of defending their own honor, but wisely let things like this go. My main issue is the people who fail to realize how much Biden has done. Your honor is just a side effect.

C.P. in Malden, MA, writes: A.D. in Charleston writes about the site's "dismissal of all the legitimate concerns that are raised about Biden." I'd be interested to hear what concerns those are. As far as I can tell, it all boils down to one of three things: (1) Hunter Biden, (2) he's too old, (3) He's not liberal enough for me.

(1) is irrelevant because Joe Biden himself hasn't been implicated in any improper conduct. If legitimate sources say otherwise I'd be interested to hear about it, but Fox News / Newsmax / Russian propaganda sources won't cut it.

(2) could be relevant. In my view, it's mitigated by two facts. First, Joe Biden has a great track record. I doubt any other 2020 candidate would have been able to do as good of a job on the climate crisis, the economy, energy independence, countering China's influence, and the war in Ukraine as Biden has. Second, Kamala Harris doesn't have any issues that I'm aware of. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea of her taking over as president in the (hopefully unlikely) case that Biden is unable to continue in the role.

(3) is a political question. I actually do agree with (3), but I also don't think anyone else could have won in 2020. Since then, Biden has proven himself a strong ally to liberal causes, with a good amount of practicality mixed in.

A.D. also writes "your bias and unwavering defense of the spoiled milk is just plain starting to stink at this point." I would say the bias against the Republican Party is a bias in reality. It's not bias to say the Republicans are anti-Democracy—that has been borne out plenty. It's not bias to point out that Donald Trump is a criminal and (Joe) Biden isn't. And it's not bias to point out that it's irrelevant if Hunter Biden is a criminal, as long as his father isn't involved.

M.V.E. in Kitchener, ON, Canada, writes: For someone who claims to read a lot of this site, I think A.D. in Charleston has missed a few things.

First, as much as the poll "matters" because it shows your dissatisfaction, let me ask (rhetorically, since it's kind of rude to ask and I'm Canadian), whom did you vote for? Biden? Then you've proven the point already made on this site many times over the approximately 20 years of this site's existence. Further, with "options" you mean "people you wish you could vote for." But when (V) and (Z) write, they are speaking to "people you are likely to choose from in 2024" (the whole point of the site).

Also, you note that you could "literally link these all day" and yet don't provide a single link, nor even a bullet list of the top 3 or 5 concerns. And I suspect any such have already been discussed on the site several times in the context of relevance for the likely ballot matchup.

I vaguely recall (V) and (Z) discussing their own bias a couple of times on the site over the years, and the fantasy that anyone is entirely unbiased. But you can be fair, transparent and open to criticism (which is exactly why your comment even appeared on Sunday for me to dispute).

I'm not even an American and I know there may well be "better people" for the job, but the combination of those individuals and the electorate has not yet accomplished what it takes for such "better options" to be a likely choice at the 2024 ballot box. Right now, Biden's it. That's on you and the rest of the electorate. Your voting choices are not (V) and (Z)'s fault. (Z)'s "unwavering defense" (assumed in arguendo) seems to me to be only in comparison to the past and likely future alternatives. From where I'm sitting (and for democratic world leaders), the guy has done an amazing job for you despite monumental challenges. Could it be better? Get to your primaries and elections and show the world what you've got.

Again, we don't comment directly on letters like these, so we'll just say that we think they have some interesting thoughts about the site, and about American politics, enough to be worthy of doing what we just did. (Z)

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