Causation Confusion In Our Partisan Civil War

[Thanks to POWERLINE for its "pick" reference to this post]

There they go again. Once again, by placing the responsibility for the impending government shutdown squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, the major media have demonstrated that they do not understand how the partisan bias of their reporters — sometimes implicit and unwitting, sometimes not — distorts their reporting of “simple” facts. Here, for example, is the lede of Lori Montgomery’s and David Farenthold lead article in the Washington Post this morning:

The U.S. government appeared on Sunday to be on the verge of shutting down for the first time in nearly two decades as House leaders were running out of time and options to keep it open.

Why is it only House leaders, i.e., Republicans, who are “running out of time and options”? In this telling, and it is the conventional telling reported almost everywhere, the Democrats have no “options.” Everything, in this telling, is on the shoulders of Republicans. The only question left is “whether Republicans would consider the only plan President Obama and other Democratic leaders insist they will accept: a simple bill that funds federal agencies without dismantling any part of Obama’s signature 2010 health-care law.” So, the Democrats’ position is “simple” but the Republicans’ is … what? Complex?

According to the Post and just about every organ of the major media, for some unexplained reason the Democrats simply do not have the “option” of choosing to accept the House bill that funds the entire federal government while repealing a tax on medical devices and delaying the implementation of Obamacare for one year. They would rather close down the government, while blaming the Republicans, rather than do that. But according to conventional press wisdom, the Republicans’ willingness to fund everything except the start of Obamacare bears the entire responsibility. Go, as I’ve argued before on this issue, figure.

The Post’s Montgomery and Farenthold are by no means alone in their failure to appreciate the implicit biases in virtually any attempt to report the responsibility for controversial events, a problem with which historians are quite familiar. The current controversy, in fact, is eerily reminiscent of  the debate over whether the ideologically rigid, moralistic abolitionists and the Republican Party to which they gave rise— premature Tea Partiers uncompromising in their desire to abolish the hated institution of slavery — were responsible for what may yet come to be called our first civil war.

A few months ago I discussed that very issue in The New York Times, Obamacare, And The Problem Of Causation. “What caused the Civil War, slavery or the moral (moralistic, if you’re pro-slavery) opposition to it?” I asked, noting that the coverage of the impending government shutdown in the mainstream press “reveals the same implicit biases and confusion over causation that are at the core of a number of historiographical controversies, especially the causes of the Civil War.” Mainstream media journalists, I continued, often “ let their partisan biases color their news judgment, leading them to write what purport to be factual statements about causation that are really no more than conclusions base on their partisan preferences.”

As any professional (or amateur or former) historian can tell you, causation is a tricky business, often fraught with more moral or political judgment than scientific analysis.

Slavery, for example, is widely thought to be “the” cause of the Civil War, but that view arguably assumes something that shouldn’t be assumed. The desire to protect the institution of slavery was at the core of the decision of the various Southern states to secede, but it was the Northern refusal to allow peaceful secession that precipitated the actual outbreak of hostilities. Slavery may have caused secession, but did secession cause the war, or was the response to secession the cause? These questions cannot be answered by accumulating more facts.

Similarly, the revisionist school of Civil War historians in the mid-20th century frequently blamed the often moralistic abolitionists for making compromise impossible, but there is no objective, scientific way to say their extreme response to evil was the cause of war rather than the extreme evil to which they were responding. To say they were “the” or even “a” cause of war is to say they shouldn’t have acted the way they did, but that is a matter of moral and political judgment, not fact.

By not going along with Obama, in short, the Republicans weren’t acting the way conventional journalistic wisdom would have had them act, just as the abolitionists didn’t respond to the evil of slavery in the calmer manner preferred by the revisionist historians.

Indeed, not only are Montgomery and Farenthold not alone in their fumbling inability to handle the issue of causation; they have joined what can be described as a veritable tradition at the Post of such reporting being undermined by partisan bias (a bias that is no less real for being unconscious). Almost exactly a year ago, for example, in The Causes Of Our Partisan Civil War I posted a long criticism of an even longer article by Post reporter Dan Balz suffering from the same problem, and two years before that, in Causation And Our Partisan Civil War, I demonstrated (at least to my own satisfaction; if you disagree, let me know) that the late David Broder — who the Post writes “set [the] ‘gold standard’ for political journalism” and “was often called the dean of the Washington press corps” — was snared by the same trap of allowing how he thought politicians should have behaved color his ostensibly neutral description of how they did behave.

Civil War revisionists who blame fanatical abolitionists for provoking secession and war implicitly assume that the evil of slavery was given but the degree and nature of opposition to it was contingent, an “option.” (And while we’re at it, is there an objective, unbiased, factually determined answer to the question, “which was the primary cause of the Civil War, the secession of the Southern states or the unwillingness of the North to allow secession?”)

In short, today’s major media journalists at the Post and elsewhere, writing what is commonly called “the first draft of history,” are writing bad history when they assume that the Democrats’ willingness to close down the government rather than accept any tinkering or delay with Obamacare is given and the Republican opposition to Obamacare, despite majority public opposition to it as confirmed by polls, is contingent and hence responsible for any shutdown.

UPDATEThe Problem Of Causation And Calcified Conventional Wisdom (20 November 2013)

If there is one bit of fatally flawed conventional wisdom that is so conventional, so endlessly repeated virtually everywhere, that it has rapidly become calcified it is the notion — repeated again this morning by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times — that the “Republicans shut down the government.”

The facile and simplistic view of causation on which this judgment rests would be laughed out of any decent introductory history seminar. I explained above why it is facile and simplistic, pointing to my earlier discussions of this argument in Again, Why Blame Republicans?The New York Times, Obamacare, And The Problem Of CausationThe Causes Of Our Partisan Civil War; and Causation And Our Partisan Civil War.

These posts make the argument (among other arguments) that identifying causation is often more a matter of condemnation than explanation, though frequently camouflaged in the more neutral-sounding language of labeling what we condemn as contingent and what we admire as given.

Now there is proof that the calcified conventional wisdom blaming Republicans for shutting down the government is wrong, that it reflects partisan bias and not an objective, disinterested description of causation. The Hill lists three bills under construction by Senate Democrats, endorsed by a larger group of Senate Democrats, that would significantly modify or delay implementation of Obamacare. It could also have mentioned the 39 House Democrats who supported the recently House-passed Upton bill that would allow insurance companies to continue selling policies that do not meet Obamacare’s stringent new requirements.

All of these proposals contain measures that the Democrats would not accept in the period leading up to the “Republican” shutdown. That is, the Democrats would have chosen — in fact, did choose, if it had come to that — to shut down the government rather than accept. Thus you would think that, at least now, even mainstream journalists would see that it makes no sense to blame Republicans alone for shutting down the government when Democrats now are proposing the same sorts of things with no such charges being made against them.

UPDATE IIContinuing Causation Confusion (14 December 2013)

As I have explained above and in the older posts linked there, the conventional wisdom blaming Republicans for past, present, and even future government shutdowns is based on a fundamental confusion between causation and condemnation.

Simple example: Did slavery cause the Civil War? It is certainly true that without slavery, and the secession of 11 Southern states that resulted from it, there would have been no Civil War. But it is equally true that without the Northern opposition to the spread of slavery and to secession there also would have been no Civil War. To conclude that slavery caused the war is to assume that Northern behavior was a given — fixed, essential, inevitable, immutable — while the Southern position was contingent, the result of free will and choice. One need not be a defender of slavery or secession to point out that they were not more a cause of the war than the response to them. Similarly, one need not defend radical ideologues to point out that the argument that those demanding the immediate abolition of slavery or at least a halt to its expansion were the villains responsible for causing the Civil War is analytically identical to arguing that those trying to abolish Obamacare or at least impede its expansion were the villains responsible for the government shutdown.

The attribution of “causation,” in short, is often, as here, simply blame dressed up to look like history or social science. (Anyone interested in pursuing this issue should read the superb article by the impressive philosopher of history, William Dray, “Some Causal Accounts of the American Civil War,” Daedalus 91 [1962: 578-92], which can be found here.)

To apply this incontrovertible (if I do say so myself) analysis to the recent partial government shutdown, the Republicans were no more (or less) responsible for causing the government shutdown by insisting on impeding the implementation of Obamacare than the Democrats were  for refusing to agree to any delay.

The “wisdom” that the Republicans were to blame for the shutdown is far more than conventional; it is all but universal, in part due to the well nigh uniform opprobrium heaped on them by the mainstream press. Even conservatives are not immune. Thus Larry Kudlow, writing on National Review Online yesterday (“Ryan Saves GOP From Itself“), defends the recent Ryan-Murray budget deal, though far from ideal, because it prevents the Republicans for being blamed for another budget impasse and possible government shutdown.

If the GOP wants to retake the Senate and hold the House in 2014, the key issues must be the catastrophic pitfalls of Obamacare and better economic growth. A shutdown would be a distraction. It would take the heat off Obama and Obamacare, and all the Democrats who falsely promised that if you like your insurance and doctor, you can keep them.

Obama’s “like it, keep it” promise was just named the lie of the year in the annual PolitiFact survey. Reminding voters of that lie is much more important than a government shutdown — which would be blamed on Republicans anyway. (Emphasis added)

In fairness to Kudlow, he did not say or even imply that he agreed that any future shutdown should be blamed on Republicans, only that it would be. Still, for Republicans to give up more than they otherwise would (especially when what they gave up, among other things, is objecting to continuing funding of Obamacare) because they would be singled out as the blameworthy culprit in any ensuing gridlock is a dramatic demonstration of the political power of flawed and biased analyses.

Say What? (4)

  1. Peg September 30, 2013 at 11:46 pm | | Reply

    John – right on the money here (as usual). The “x” trillion dollar question, however – is what on earth can we do about it?

    Not sure if you are aware, but several years ago, I participated in a group at Poynter Institute for journalism. It met 2 years in a row – and what an eye opening experience. Out of roughly 25 participants, everyone excepting me ranged from “liberal” to “too bad Karl Marx isn’t around anymore” socialist. Waaaaay too many journalists aren’t attempting to slant or not “report”. But, they live in such a protected society, they rarely get exposed in a real and challenging way to ideas that are counter to their own.

    Anyway – I wish the MSM could somehow awaken and hire a few dastardly libertarians/conservatives so that the field could start to correct this serious issue.

  2. David O'Donoghue October 1, 2013 at 2:23 am | | Reply

    Thats all very well, and true. But this is not new. Surely after observing the msm over the past 5 years we should know that the gop was always going to be blamed. This is why any government shutdown was always going to be a disaster for the gop. What can we do about the media bias?
    1) well we cannot change it – the sooner we learn that it is structural and not temporary the better
    2) stop being surprised by it
    3) the gop needs to avoid situations like this, its just plain dumb not to know that in 2013, anyone other than the gop would be blamed for anything. This situation neede to be avoided.

  3. CaptDMO October 1, 2013 at 9:12 am | | Reply

    Please explain: Blah blah blah “NEW” Debt Ceiling isn’t under discussion right now.
    Previous Debt Ceiling somehow brought U.S. to a CR fight.
    Exactly WHY is there even a need for discussing/con-fabing yet another Continuing Resolution, a (so called)”clean” one (astonishingly bold statement from ANY Democrat), rather than say …oh….
    operating within the bounds of the semi-annual “reasoned” budget, based on actual “income”, as required by law?

    Oh, right. It’s those “House”…um… Republicans.

    Tell me again why the ENTIRE Senate isn’t in jail right now?

  4. LTEC October 2, 2013 at 11:38 pm | | Reply

    “And while we’re at it, is there an objective, unbiased, factually determined answer to the question, ‘which was the primary cause of the Civil War, the secession of the Southern states or the unwillingness of the North to allow secession?’ ”

    To my mind, this is not the interesting question. The better question is: what SHOULD have been the cause of the Civil War? What was worth fighting for, to the tune of 800,000 dead? Was anything the South wanted worth it? NO!

    Was it worth it in order to keep the country together, as the North wanted? For example, consider Canada, with about the same population now as the U.S. then. If Quebec votes to secede, would it be worth a million dead in order to keep the country together? I think everyone will answer NO. The only possible justification for anyone fighting the Civil War was to end slavery.

    (By the way, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a muddled mess. Without a mention of slavery, the bloodshed becomes incoherent. And I don’t buy that his speech was a coded plea against slavery. It was just empty, nice sounding rhetoric which should have been forgotten.)

Say What?