Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NARRATIVE WOES....I had to laugh a bit when I read Conor Friedersdorf's piece in Doublethink about why conservatives have trouble with the media:

Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn't any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rent control. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find a sympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rent ceiling.

As almost everyone long ago conceded, however, opponents of rent control offer superior counterarguments. Limiting rent degrades the quality of a city's housing stock, causes shortages as a dearth of new units are built, and spurs a black market where well-connected elites game their way into subsidized flats. A talented reporter, given enough time and space, could craft a narrative that illustrates how rent control ultimately makes poor families worse off. His job is relatively difficult, however, for he can hardly write a pithy anecdotal lead about the hundred families that won't occupy a non-existent apartment building because a foolish policy eliminated an unknown developer's incentive to build it.

The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occassionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?

The reason I laughed is that liberals complain about this exact same thing all the time. I guess everyone is convinced that the other side has nice, simple heart-tugging narrative storylines while their own side is consistently burdened with complex, bloodless, policy-heavy wonkery.

The real difference, though, isn't that one side or the other has a monopoly on simple narratives, but that left and right tend to rely on different narratives. Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy. Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest. Conservatives don't have the same narratives as liberals, but they've still got plenty of narratives.

Eminent domain? Take your pick of stories about elderly widows kicked out of their homes to make room for a CostCo. Social programs? Ink has been spilled by the barrelful on welfare queens and related undeserving poor. Taxes? I hear the common man is groaning under their oppressive weight. National defense? The commies Islamofascists are coming! Free trade? The media ranks protectionism right up there with creationism on its list of mouth-breathing quackeries. Social Security? There isn't a reporter alive who doesn't believe it's going bankrupt. Unions? Pretty much responsible for the destruction of American industry. Bureaucratic bungling? Reporters love stories about bureaucracy run amok. Hell, the (liberal!) magazine I work for was practically founded on the notion of exposing bureaucratic idiocy.

Obviously each side has issues that it has a hard time with. The conservative case against rent control, granted, probably doesn't lend itself well to narrative treatment — though I'll bet it wouldn't be that hard to come up with one. But if you think that's tough, try the liberal case for higher taxes to fund social programs. Sure, it's easy enough to find some photogenic five-year-old suffering from the ravages of poverty, but the conservative counternarrative against funding a program to help our struggling five-year-old is pretty widespread too: (a) it's your money, (b) it'll just get wasted by the bureaucracy, (c) we already spend enough on welfare anyway, and (d) the free market would take care of this if we just let it. If you're wondering which narrative is more effective, just ask yourself how many big new social programs and how many big new tax increases we've gotten over the past few decades. Not too many.

It's true, of course, that favored narratives rise and fall over time, and right now we're entering an era when the repertoire of conservative narratives is showing every sign of Cheyne-Stokes breathing. But it had a good run until the current crew got hold of it. Blame them, not the storytelling power of conservative thought.

Via Megan McArdle.

Kevin Drum 9:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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Comments

too bad for conor freidersdorf that his first example is such a piss-poor one: you would think there is some large cohort of rent control-defending liberals out there to read him.

in short, it's not a "conservative and libertarian" truth that rent control has many problematic affects.

but the poor little crybabies are so busy feeling sorry for themselves....

Posted by: howard on May 19, 2008 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

Eminent domain? Take your pick of stories about elderly widows kicked out of their homes to make room for a CostCo.

Bad example, since this works as a liberal narrative, too.

Posted by: Grumpy on May 19, 2008 at 9:48 PM | PERMALINK

The narrative for rent control on the conservative side has always been easy - they just find an undeserving person who benefits from rent control(preferably a wealthy lawyer, everyone hates lawyers.)

Posted by: Fides on May 19, 2008 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

Not a bad analysis. The best way for human beings to remember a message is to weave it into a story. We have used it on one another since we told stories around the campfire on the savannahs of Africa before we had the written word. Christ used parables to convey his messages. It has the ring of truth.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on May 19, 2008 at 9:58 PM | PERMALINK

I used to think rent control in New York City was a terrible thing. It kept people from moving out of the city to get a better job. It was really unfair to the people who didn't have a rent controlled apartment, etc.

Then I realized how many NEW rent controlled apartments are being built.

Why are landlords building NEW apartments when they know they will be rent controlled?

I finally realized that the landlords make more money that way. They agree to have a certain number of low income or middle income apartments so they can get zoning variances.

So, I still see a lot wrong with rent control but the landlords actually like it because it helps them get richer.

Posted by: neil wilson on May 19, 2008 at 10:15 PM | PERMALINK

This one time, after the Fall, this thing happened. And it worked out in a certain way, and later had certain consequences. And in the end, THOSE PEOPLE I HATE ARE STUPID!!1!111! The End.

Posted by: absent observer on May 19, 2008 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

Go to Curbed.com and see all the comments about poor people losing their rent controlled apartment - wait - there aren't any. The anti-rent control story is and has always been "Undeserving Freeloader" and it's worked pretty well.

No new "rent controlled" units are being built in NYC. Rent "stabilized" units are, in return for tax breaks and subsidies, but often these "stabilized" units can't even be rented for the amount they are allowed under the law.

Posted by: will on May 19, 2008 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

The other anti-rent-control narrative, at least around here (Cambridge, MA, where rent control was abolished 15 years ago), is the struggling working-class family that's owned a triple-decker for 50 years, but now can't charge enough in rent to cover costs.

Posted by: DonBoy on May 19, 2008 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

What Fides and Will said. The other anti-rent control narrative is that of the tenant from hell who can't be evicted despite the grief he causes his innocent neighbors, because rent control makes evicting bad neighbors almost impossible.

This narrative has the odd feature of actually being true. One of the worst things about rent control is that it gives landlords incentive to evict perfectly good tenants. In response, the law makes it very hard to evict any tenant, good or bad. The law is a blunt instrument.

But there is no contradiction between being a liberal and opposing rent control. As long as you support Section 8 subsidies.

Posted by: Joe S. on May 19, 2008 at 10:57 PM | PERMALINK

What Fides and Will said. The other anti-rent control narrative is that of the tenant from hell who can't be evicted despite the grief he causes his innocent neighbors, because rent control makes evicting bad neighbors almost impossible.

This narrative has the odd feature of actually being true. One of the worst things about rent control is that it gives landlords incentive to evict perfectly good tenants. In response, the law makes it very hard to evict any tenant, good or bad. The law is a blunt instrument.

But there is no contradiction between being a liberal and opposing rent control. As long as you support Section 8 subsidies.

Posted by: Joe S. on May 19, 2008 at 10:57 PM | PERMALINK

I guess nobody cares about facts. What we need are good narratives.

We get the government we deserve, over and over.

Posted by: craigie on May 19, 2008 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

I also appreciated that Megan thinks it's a great article, even though it appears to be based on a laughable premise.
Delightful.

Posted by: dallas on May 19, 2008 at 11:03 PM | PERMALINK

you would think there is some large cohort of rent control-defending liberals out there to read him.

Afraid this is not so. I argued against rent control in comments on this blog and got called a number of uncomplimentary names, and told to take it back to Bear Stearns etc. Rent control still has fans.

Posted by: jimBOB on May 19, 2008 at 11:50 PM | PERMALINK

The difference is that liberals pretend to be newsmen when they are really propagandists, while conservatives identify themselves honestly as commentators. It's conservative virtue versus liberal bullshit.

Posted by: Luther on May 19, 2008 at 11:52 PM | PERMALINK

"I guess nobody cares about facts. What we need are good narratives." What Craigie said.

When an electorate can be led around by sound bites and anecdotes it gets what it deserves. "Look! Bright shiny object!"

The only difference between us and our shaman-directed ancestors is we have indoor plumbing.

Posted by: Everyman on May 20, 2008 at 12:17 AM | PERMALINK

You have some massively screwed-up examples of narratives there. (Laziness on your part? Plain-old muddled thinking?)

"Social Security? There isn't a reporter alive who doesn't believe it's going bankrupt." Huh? Who exactly are these reporters? Joe Blow, local reporter with Channel 8 Action News? I think most reporters are well informed enough to know that Social Security is NOT going bankrupt. So why would you make such an extreme, just plain stupid, remark about extreme just plain stupidity?

And eminent domain? Are you making some argument about the touching stories proffered by liberal opponents of eminent domain??? I think there is HUGE, widespread opposition to the misuse of eminent domain on both the right and the left, and ALL of the opponents are making arguments based on the emotional appeal of victims' stories.

I think you need an editor.

Posted by: Anon on May 20, 2008 at 12:30 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry, dude, not going to McMegan's place no matter how elaborate the lead in.

Posted by: Amit Joshi on May 20, 2008 at 12:43 AM | PERMALINK

Every conservative faction holds a rational as to why they are exempt from showing basic human decency.

Born-agains: You're damned, they're saved. Therefore they should rule your life. God said only "poor" with no qualifier, but God meant "deserving poor." Literally.

Realpolitickan: There is no God, nor morality, only humans who must take the hard decisions to bring the right result, regardless the collateral damage.

Mammonist/Naturalist: Dog-eat-dog world. Survivors and losers. Natural endowment, advantages of bloddlines, decides who's on top. Those not in the game are fungible.

Libertarians: I am my own universe. I spring Unique and Unconnected to all else before or beside me. That you have a universe is beside the point.

Posted by: jim p on May 20, 2008 at 1:03 AM | PERMALINK

"Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy. Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest." -- Kevin Drum.

And so the descent into total hackdom is complete.

Posted by: Brad on May 20, 2008 at 1:43 AM | PERMALINK

Brad, the descent began long ago.

Kevin, nice of you to put the "punch line" in the last line of the post. Beating the pre-Memorial Day rush on ardent McArdleism?

One day, we will look at Kevin's posts that link to Megan as vaguely equivalent to Mojo Dowd columns.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 20, 2008 at 1:53 AM | PERMALINK

hey zeus christo,
Drum's circling the drain.
Take a break, dude.
The posts here lately have been uninspired, hackatucarly boring.

Does the W M give you vaca time? please?
Come back when your intellect is rested.

Posted by: Stiv Bator on May 20, 2008 at 3:26 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps it's as simple to explain as a basic difference in world view. The conservatives that I know tend to view life as a zero-sum game: if one person gains something, another has to lose something by definition. The liberals that I know don't see the world in such stark terms.

Posted by: Randy Kirchhof on May 20, 2008 at 8:19 AM | PERMALINK

Read this morning's Bergen Record article about people dying of cancer because they have no health insurance, and then give me the conservative narrative about how this is OK in a decent society: http://www.northjersey.com/news/health/Amid_gains_on_cancer_uninsured_left_behind.html

And, yes, Elizabeth Edwards has it right: if John McCain's plans were passed into law, most of these people would be in the same place they are now.

Posted by: bcamarda on May 20, 2008 at 9:35 AM | PERMALINK

Nice, thoughtful post, Kevin. Viewing some of the bizarre comments from other readers (total hackdom? circling the drain?) made me remember why I seldom come to the comments section. There are scary people out there, and they are armed with computers.

Posted by: Sean on May 20, 2008 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

Eminent domain and rent control are both horrible examples, because there is no reliable liberal vs. conservative split on these issues. I am a liberal that is opposed to rent control and VERY opposed to eminent domain for private projects.

In my opinion, aside from certain culture war issues and funding welfare, there are very few issues where you can't find opponents or proponents from both parties. There are plenty of bedrock conservatives in this country who oppose an interventionist foreign policy, and who believe in some form of protectionism (see Pat Buchanan). There are plenty of liberals who believe the market has an important role to play in addressing social problems, especially where environmental issues are concerned.

Posted by: lobbygow on May 20, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

There are narratives and narratives. There's 1) the larger, meta-story (that is, variations on the suffering and inefficiency caused by a) incompetent, initiative-stifling government and taxes(the conservative narrative) or b) exploitative, racist capitalists (the liberal narrative)) and 2) there's the narrative hook that starts every story...! Journalists have learned that if they can keep the reader focused on 2) the experience of an individual, they don't actually need to say anything meaningful and they can frame all arguments as either a) or b), depending on their bent.

"Kevin Drum, a California blogger, rose at noon to begin his day of comments on liberal causes, and walked into his study, latte in hand, only to find his large, black and white cat, Inkblot, curled comfortably on the computer chair. When the beast lashed out at him--foreshadowing daily commenter abuse--Drum began his daily skim of other blogs, news sources and reader email seated on a tall pile of old computer manuals. By 3PM, he had fallen off his stack twice, his latte had soured, his editor was phoning to ask where the charts were, his thousands of readers were blasting his opinions and calling him rude names, and competitor, conservative Andrew Sullivan, had not only posted four times the number of posts but included photos, links to YouTube and jokes. "All in a day work for a liberal blogger," Drum sighed. "It's a lonely, thankless job, and I only do it for the pay."

a) But despite his poor work conditions, Drum at 47 finds himself as one of a select number of bloggers who are challenging the way news is reported in America. This media revolution is the result of private industry investment in the telecommunications infrastructure, media deregulation, smaller government and lower taxes, which has made it possible for individual initiative to be rewarded in ways of which terrorists and communists can only dream....

b) But despite his poor work conditions, Drum at 47 finds himself as one of a select number of bloggers who are challenging the way news is reported in America. The conservative gazillionaires who have dominated the major media have lost their stranglehold on the savvy reader. Due to the internet, Americans can now find news and opinions written by common men and women such as Drum. Gone is the day of the celebrity columnist, the groomed sycophants who promote the narrative of the conservative owners....

Posted by: PTate in MN on May 20, 2008 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

DonBoy has it right: Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe's tame conservative (who used to be at least occasionally semi-rational), beat the poor upstanding, hardworking son-of-immigrants landlord narrative to death during the months leading up to the abolition of rent control in Cambridge and Boston. He constantly flogged the story of one landlord who after months of wrangling with the evil Cambridge rent control board (which over the years had in fact gotten arrogant, unreasonable and drunk with power), dropped dead of a heart attack from all the stress.

Jacoby has also spun lurid tales of creditors who can't stay in business because of too-lenient bankruptcy laws and farmers who can't make a living due to environmental restrictions. And so on and so on.

Posted by: Lucia on May 20, 2008 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

As far as liberal and conservative narratives are concerned, you make it sound as if they are equal. Six of one half a dozen of the other. While that is a "centrist" position much of the MSM uses it is not alwasy, even very often, accurate. Opposing positions do not always carry the same weight. So it is with liberal and conservative: One is very often based in fact the other is very often not. Anyone who has observed the last 20 odd years of the conservative movement, especially any thinking person who has observed the Bush years, knows which is which.

Posted by: Henk on May 20, 2008 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

"There are scary people out there, and they are armed with computers."

BOO!

Posted by: Stiv Bator on May 20, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

"BOO!"

Did I say scary? I meant stupid.

Posted by: Sean on May 20, 2008 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: You missed a point.

There are plenty of center-left Democratic policy wonks who are skeptical of rent control. And are willing to say so. There is certainly a Democratic constituency for free trade.

Does the American right have an analogous reality-based constituency that will vet their sides' ideas? Not so much.

We need a better quality conservatives.

Posted by: Measure for Measure on May 20, 2008 at 6:47 PM | PERMALINK

"Did I say scary? I meant stupid."

Did you say "scary"? I don't know, but you did write it.
It takes a really stupid person to type scary, but really meant stupid.

Posted by: Stiv Bator on May 20, 2008 at 7:00 PM | PERMALINK

I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to comment on my piece, but I think many of you aren't reading me right, perhaps because you're only looking at an excerpt of my argument.

For example, if you click through to the piece, my contention that "almost everyone long ago conceded" that rent control is a bad idea links to an old Washington Monthly piece. Nowhere do I claim that most liberals today are still invested in the idea.

The point of that example is that the problems with rent control, though anticipated by many conservative thinkers, were very hard to cast in narrative reform until after rent control was attempted and the damage already done.

Moreover, that example is actually peripheral to the core thesis of my piece, which is this:

a political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone!

Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project. The nation�s English departments, journalism schools, and mainstream publications teem with talented young liberal reporters who, for all their biases and blind spots, regularly produce stunning narrative writing. It certainly persuades me to embrace certain of their positions on occasion, or at least to modify my own. Will the next generation of left-leaning journalists continue to dominate the stories we tell ourselves as a society, as surely as their ideological cohorts dominate The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Newsweek today? Will liberals continue to produce the bulk of reportage in America, to pen the most ambitious literary non-fiction, and to miss relevant facts and narratives that a reporter more versed in right-leaning political philosophy would�ve caught?

Unless colleges and journalism schools start assigning Burke, Hayek, Friedman, and quite a few others, the answer depends upon whether the right is willing to invest in talented young people who understand conservatism and libertarianism, but whose foremost loyalty is to investigating their world and conveying whatever they find. Were the same resources that built National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other right-leaning publications invested in that project, tomorrow�s journalism would afford our ideas their due.

Put another way, the right must conclude that we�re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it. Making this judgment means exhibiting confidence that we are correct more often than not. It means believing that our arguments are not merely relevant, but true. It means trusting that, when examined, the facts and stories of the world will bear out our ideas. Fate has not declared that right-leaning publications shall never be read by liberals. Nor is there a decree that all unaffiliated publications are de facto liberal. Yet as long as the right continues to believe this -- and act accordingly -- it will, I fear, continue to be true.

Posted by: Conor Friedersdorf on May 21, 2008 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

Let's see, Kevin has said he doesn't understand why we're so mean to McMegan, and why we call her a fool and a tool so often.

Then he writes one of his longer posts in a while tearing down an article that McMegan thinks is just great. Kevin really put some thought into his response to the article; McMegan, well, not so much.

She's still a fool and a tool.

Posted by: nemo on May 21, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK
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