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The Georgetown Cocktail Party Paradox

July 21st, 2009 · 7 Comments

I’ve said something similar before myself, but this from Conor Friedersdorf jibes with my own experience:

There is this idea among movement conservatives—especially the rank-and-file—that Washington DC journalism is populated by a lot of disingenuous, careerist sell outs. These elites write to enrich themselves, to inflate their sense of self-importance, and to garner social capital, invariably measured by invitations to the dread “Georgetown cocktail party.” Thus they are unconcerned with truth, intellectual honesty, or the actual interests of anyone outside the New York to DC corridor.

This narrative is largely true! Anyone who pays close attention to DC journalism can easily spot intellectually dishonest hacks writing stuff they don’t actually believe, whether to advance their careers or to further a political agenda by the most cynical means imaginable. A blogger could write five posts a day fisking political journalism that is either astonishingly ignorant or disingenuous – and a Washington DC journalist doesn’t have to attend very many happy hours to hear people basically admit that they are hacks who don’t actually believe significant parts of their oeuvres. What vexes me, having observed this game over the last couple years, is that the people accused of being inside-the-beltway sellouts are often the folks who write exactly what they believe; whereas the kinds of publications that rank-and-file conservatives revere for “never selling out” actually do so all the time.

Conor has some examples, and that old post suggests some of the reasons this might be so. The guy at that cocktail party laughingly acknowledging that his last column is a load of crap designed to placate or pander to either the base or allies on the Hill is a lot more likely to be the guy movement types admire as a principled purist than the one they deride as a sellout XINO. And in a way, this is sort of predictable. Over a large number of issues, a thoughtful person applying shared principles to a particular debate or fact pattern is all but guaranteed to sometimes interpret those principles in a different way from the consensus, and so come out at odds with the orthodox movement/party position. Just as being perfectly average in every way is actually quite remarkable,  agreeing with the party-line view every single time as the upshot of serious, honest, independent consideration is actually pretty wildly improbable in the aggregate, even if you assume the same underlying value set. Reasonable people not only can differ, as the saying goes; they do, constantly. But if readers assume—maybe this is a sort of ideological strict constructionism—that different people applying the same broad principles will converge on the same, obviously and uniquely correct, political or policy conclusion, then the only way to seem perfectly principled is to be a perfect hack.

I think the paradox arises, not because readers are blinkered, but because normal people don’t actually have the time, energy, and information to formulate their own position on each of the myriad issues out there after serious, honest, independent consideration. I mean, God knows I don’t: There’s a handful of issues I know well, and a bunch more where I trust people who seem both smart and simpatico. In an area where you’re outsourcing, it’s especially easy to conclude that the general consensus view is therefore the uniquely, obviously principled one. More so when the outsourcers in the base adopt the consensus view held at the outset by, say, 60 or 70 percent of the pundits, and suddenly it’s the overwhelming majority view of the “movement” as a whole. Perversely, people then forget that the consensus itself was originally substantially elite-driven, and dismiss the dissenters as out-of-touch elites. Psychologists call this an information cascade, and while cascades have their uses, they’re probably especially unhealthy for a movement whose current trajectory is toward increasing marginalization.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Washington, DC



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 the teeth // Jul 21, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    If the X stands for Xenophobe, that’s hilarious & awesome.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jul 21, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Err, I was thinking X in the sense of a variable for which one might substitute a D or an R.

  • 3 the teeth // Jul 21, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Oh. If you insist on being reasonable & fair-minded that does make much more sense, though in a non-hilarious/awesome way.

  • 4 The Morning Metropolitan « // Jul 22, 2009 at 8:06 am

    […] The Georgetown cocktail party, deconstructed. […]

  • 5 Ottovbvs // Jul 22, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Anyone would think Shilldom was a newly discovered phenomenon. It’s been with us ever since the invention of moveable type and monarchs ceased breaking the fingers of over ideological scribes. That people lie for money is nothing new. What surprises me is the degree of compartmentalization that must be required to maintain the pretence. For someone with a fairly high intelligence level, and most professional journalists are fairly bright, the stress must be considerable. Somewhat akin to knowing one’s wife is conducting an affair with another man. To take to particularly egregious cases Goldberg and Kristol. Now right wing spinning is a family business in both cases but surely they can’t REALLY believe all this stuff. Douhat is mentioned by Friedersdorf and I suspect many of his comments about Douhat’s intellectual honesty are probably fairly accurate judging by the abysmal quality of just about every offering of his I’ve seen in the Times. He along with Brooks is the conservative voice but he’s clearly conflicted about it. I actually see something of the same conflict in Brooks sometimes although he’s extremely erratic and usually solves the dilemma by disappearing into clouds of social philosophizing. Rather than just the public dissembling, surely the interesting issue is the interior conflicts this must create in all those outside the totally corrupt. Or am I being too kind to the journalistic profession?

  • 6 Barry // Jul 22, 2009 at 10:42 am

    People can solve many such conflicts by believing whatever they need to keep the money coming. Those who don’t tend to mess up their careers; this has both a weeding-out effect, and a ‘warning to others’ effect.

  • 7 Ottovbvs // Jul 22, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    “Barry // Jul 22, 2009 at 10:42 am

    People can solve many such conflicts by believing whatever they need to keep the money coming.”

    ……..Believing your own propaganda you mean…certainly true but the end result is usually a set of mediocrities…..I’ve worked in both environments and the better run businesses were alway the places where the dissidents could speak up……once the consensus was agreed you had to salute the flag but that’s fine……but if you have any competence at all existing forever in a bubble is not very satisfying. Particularly when it involves the total suspension of reality as it does in so many of these cases.