The View From the Sidelines

The pros and cons of political self-marginalization


At reason's weblog (reason.com/blog, which you really should read), some commenters frequently complain about our disdain for the two major American political parties and the broad worldviews they represent. When we ding professional Republicans for coming late to the anti–Transportation Security Administration party, or bash professional Democrats for opposing the marijuana liberalization their base supports, readers more closely aligned with either camp express frustration with our arm's-length cynicism.

Before defending this permanent View From the Sidelines, let me admit those readers' criticism contains important elements of truth. Refusing to dirty your hands with practical politics limits your ability to influence public policy. Carping on politicians' behavior can permanently alienate people who would otherwise be allies on significant issues. Serially declaring independence from political tribalism can devolve into a kind of reflexive moral vanity in which public displays of purity become more important than acknowledging that some pragmatist done good.

But coalition membership has pitfalls as well. In a November column, New York Times pundit Ross Douthat cited a striking illustration of party-anchored thinking. Gallup periodically asks Americans whether they think the government poses an "immediate threat" to them. In 2006, when Republicans controlled the White House and both branches of Congress, 57 percent of Democrats answered yes, compared to just 21 percent of Republicans. In 2010, when Democrats ran things, those numbers were almost perfectly reversed: 66 percent of Republicans, compared to just 21 percent of Democrats. 

It's no wonder that many principled libertarians consider major-party alliances to be transient at best. Those who wield or support power quickly lose interest in restraining it.

Douthat is less charitable about this phenomenon than I am. "Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset?" he writes. "On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy." My hunch is that there is something in human DNA guiding us toward large (if shrinking) political blocs, toward pooling our honestly acquired sympathies and antipathies in ways that can look like groupthink to cynical outsiders. What interests me more is the advantages that marginalization can offer.

More than a quarter century ago, the great baseball writer and theoretician Bill James wrote a seminal essay titled "Inside-Out Perspective" on roughly the same theme. Back then James was a voice in the baseball wilderness with a mostly cult following, pushing such then-heretical ideas as the notion that pitchers' win-loss records were not the best method for determining their value. To the extent that mainstream baseball professionals and writers were aware of James, most ridiculed him as a clueless outsider searching in vain for statistical patterns with his newfangled computer.

"I've never said, never thought," James wrote in the essay, "that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than anyone else's. It's different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is, since we are outsiders…let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that."

One of the most important things you learn on the outside looking in is how pervasive the conventional wisdom is and how little self-awareness the insiders have of it, to the point where they vehemently deny having any guiding principles at all. Hence President Barack Obama can say in his inaugural address, weeks before unleashing more than $1 trillion* in largely indiscriminate stimulus/omnibus spending, that "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Nearly two years later, after Obama's record spending, deficits, and debt, New York Times columnist David Brooks can urge America to move past "the same-old big government-versus-small government debate toward more concrete challenges." The New York Times editorial board can support the TSA's new intrusions on privacy and common sense because complaints about the agency "are purely partisan and ideological." Defending the status quo means never having to admit that you're guided by ideology.

The shrewd press critic Jay Rosen calls the journalistic source of such sentiments the "view from nowhere"—a self-aggrandizing, above-it-all perch where, burdened with the responsibility of serious discourse, mainstream news purveyors look down their noses at those less "savvy" about the nation's important business. During the height of the TSA controversy, Rosen collected a dozen examples of world-weary journalists basically telling the little people complaining about passenger screening to "grow up." My former colleagues on the Los Angeles Times editorial board went so far as to write the shameful headline "Shut up and be scanned." The condescension can be staggering.

But even away from the fields of power politics and power journalism, the View From the Sidelines can produce sights almost undetectable by members of the dominant groups. Last fall you could have filled a large concert hall with the rock enthusiasts and/or liberal journalists bemoaning news that Moe Tucker, drummer for the seminal '60s rock band the Velvet Underground, had been identified attending a Tea Party rally. Prefix magazine called it "depressing" news that will "bring you down." Slate honcho Jacob Weisberg tweeted, "Must admit I'm very shaken." Many subjected the retired grandmother to a rigorous policy fact checking the likes of which they'd never administer to Tucker's lefty former band mate Lou Reed. While the episode should be taken mostly for laughs, V.U. fans inhabiting a different political universe can't help but notice what the Jacob Weisbergs can never quite see: The breadth and velocity with which even people far from the corridors of power are sometimes denounced as having the wrong flavor of politics can be pretty creepy.

This issue of reason, devoted to questions about what the November 2 elections mean for public policy in this country, is a quintessential product of the View From the Sidelines. On page 22, economics columnist Veronique de Rugy plumbs recent spending history to answer the question "Can We Trust the GOP?" On page 24, reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie interviews the legal scholar Richard Epstein on the dangerous intellectual incuriosity of his former colleague Barack Obama. On page 50, Managing Editor Jesse Walker identifies the recent Republican flap over National Public Radio as "theater," unlikely to be acted upon in any meaningful way. We look at the pols who hate pot ("Just a Matter of When?," page 32), the action-movie actor who hates video game violence ("The Terminator vs. the Constitution," page 60), and the canny, once-marginalized political operatives who foisted Prohibition onto a wet (yet temporarily willing) country ("When Booze Was Banned But Pot Was Not," page 56). 

To paraphrase 1980s-era Bill James (who, interestingly, is now very much an insider, advising the very successful Boston Red Sox), since we are outsiders, this is how we view the world: with a learned skepticism about power but a cockeyed optimism about eventually breaking the shackles of bad policy. In these fluid political times, that day may come sooner than we can imagine. 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor-in-chief of reason.

* Correction: Originally said "$1 billion."