The Hack Gap

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JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 22, 2011

The Hack Gap

Great point here by Adam Serwer:

[T]he press is turning a much more skeptical eye towards Obama’s dubious arguments than it ever did towards Bush’s arguments. Indeed, media outlets mostly acquiesced to Bush’s argument — recall the New York Times’ decision to deploy euphemisms for “torture” because Bush and his supporters had simply redefined the term. This is partly because the Obama administration never tried to bully the press into adopting its chosen terms the way the Bush administration did.

More to the point, though, is that President Obama faces what you might call a “hack deficit.” There simply aren’t many legal scholars on the left who are willing to give Obama a pass. Unlike right-wing legal writers, left-leaning ones are treating Obama and Bush equally. Bruce Ackerman, who called for the impeachment of torture memo author Jay Bybee, has now blasted the White House, claiming it “has shattered the traditional legal process the executive branch has developed to sustain the rule of law over the past 75 years.” His colleague Jack Balkin wrote: “If one is disturbed by Bush’s misuse of the process for vetting legal questions, one should be equally disturbed by Obama’s irregular procedures.” Liberal writers like Eugene Robinson and James Fallows have also rejected Obama’s attempt to redefine the term hostilities. Even in his own administration, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh was the only one of Obama’s top legal advisers who backed his interpretation of the War Powers Act while the OLC, Pentagon Counsel Jeh Johnson, and Attorney General Eric Holder all disagreed.

Unlike with Bush, Obama doesn’t have a large stable of liberal legal scholars and commenters who are willing to pretend they don’t speak English in order to defend his policies.

I think this phenomenon is best understood within a larger context. Conservatives have developed an ideological critique of a wide swath of elite institutions that serve a mediating role -- media, academia, even science. In the right wing view, all these institutions are bastions of liberalism hiding behind a facade of disinterestedness. Conservatives have developed their own alternative networks, whose members operate under a far more partisan and ideological ethos, on the view that they're merely offsetting the liberalism of their counterparts. Thus the political culture is tugged right by the asymmetry of liberal elites trying to act objectively and conservative counter-elites making no such attempt.

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