Practicalities v. Principles: The Prime Beltway Affliction

As I briefly noted yesterday, Michael Massing wrote a lengthy analysis of online journalism and blogs for the newest issue of The New York Review of Books.
In general, his article is much more reasonable, thoughtful, informed
and insightful than the standard establishment journalism piece on this
topic. But one criticism he offers is worth examining further because
it reflects a pervasive and destructive Beltway belief.

As I briefly noted yesterday, Michael Massing wrote a lengthy analysis of online journalism and blogs for the newest issue of The New York Review of Books.
In general, his article is much more reasonable, thoughtful, informed
and insightful than the standard establishment journalism piece on this
topic. But one criticism he offers is worth examining further because
it reflects a pervasive and destructive Beltway belief.

examines the work of several online journalists and commentators and is
largely complimentary of the blogosphere ["a remarkable amount of
original, exciting, and creative (if also chaotic and maddening)
material has appeared on the Internet. The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there,
with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering,
presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and
executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their
own demise."]. He's also largely complimentary of what I do here ("The
bloggers I have been reading reject such reflexive attempts at
'balance,' and it's their willingness to dispense with such conventions that makes the blogosphere a lively and bracing place.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Glenn Greenwald";
"Greenwald offers a single daily essay of two thousand to three
thousand words. In each, he draws on extensive research, amasses a
daunting array of facts"; "In so vigilantly watching over the press,
Greenwald has performed an invaluable service").

But Massing then
strangely undermines his lengthy, emphatic condemnation of "reflexive
balance" with this paragraph that appears to celebrate and demand
exactly that:

But [Greenwald's] posts have a
downside. Absorbing the full force of his arguments and dutifully
following his corroborating links, I felt myself drawn into an
ideological wind tunnel, with the relentless gusts of opinion and
analysis gradually wearing me down. After reading his harsh
denunciations of Obama's decision not to release the latest batch of
torture photos, I began to lose sight of the persuasive arguments that
other commentators have made in support of the President's position. As
well-argued and provocative as I found many of Greenwald's postings,
they often seem oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers
must contend with.

As I noted yesterday, Brad DeLong -- and his commenters -- expertly illustrate
the incoherent aspects of this claim. But since Massing's comment
reflects the common Beltway mentality -- it is highly redolent, for
instance, of Chuck Todd's claim
that insistence on the rule of law makes sense only "from 30,000
feet" and "in a perfect world," but is not grounded in "the realistic
view of how this town works" -- I want to elaborate on one point that I
think is vital.

* * * * *

By the design of the Founders,
most American political issues are driven by the vicissitudes of
political realities, shaped by practicalities and resolved by
horse-trading compromises among competing factions. But not all
political questions were to be subject to that process. Some were
intended to be immunized from those influences. Those were called
"principles," or "rights," or "guarantees" -- and what distinguishes
them from garden-variety political disputes is precisely that they were
intended to be both absolute and adhered to regardless of what Massing
calls "the practical considerations policymakers must contend with."

don't have to guess what those principles are. The Founders created
documents -- principally the Constitution -- which had as their purpose
enumerating the principles that were to be immunized from such
"practical considerations." All one has to do in order to understand
their supreme status is to understand the core principle of
Constitutional guarantees: no acts of Government can conflict with these principles or violate them for any reason. And all one has to do to appreciate their absolute, unyielding essence is to read how they're written: The President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." "[A]ll Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." "Congress shall make no law
. . . abridging the freedom of speech." "The right of the people to be
secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." "No person
shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due
process of law." Even policies which enjoy majoritarian support and
ample "practical" justification will be invalid -- nullified -- if they
violate those guarantees.

Consider how Thomas Paine described the rule of law
and the presidential obligation to obey the law and be subject to it.
Does this sound like it was supposed to be waived whenever "the
practical considerations policymakers must contend with" made it
convenient to do so?

But where says some is the
king of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not
make havoc of mankind like the Royal of Britain. Yet that we may not
appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly
set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed
on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed
thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of
monarchy, that in America the law is king.
For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.

Those principles are absolute and unyielding by their nature. Garden-variety political questions -- what
should be the highest tax rate? what kind of health care policy should
the government adopt? to what extent should the government regulate
private industry?
-- are ones intended to be driven by "the
practical considerations policymakers must contend with." But
questions about our basic liberties and core premises of our government
-- presidential adherence to the law, providing due process before
sticking people in cages, spying on Americans only with probable cause
search warrants, treating all citizens including high political
officials equally under the law
-- are supposed to be immune from
such "practical" and ephemeral influences. Those principles, by
definition, prevail in undiluted form regardless of public opinion and
regardless of the "practical" needs of political officials. That
should not be controversial; that is the central republican premise for
how our political system was designed.

But the mentality reflected by Massing's view -- there are no "principles"; everything must give way to "practical considerations" of Washington officials
-- is precisely what has become so rampant and is what accounts for
most of the lawlessness and corruption in our political class. Instead
of "the President shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully
executed," we have: "Presidents should try to obey the law except when
they decree there are good reasons to violate it." Instead of "in
America the law is king," we have: "we can only apply the law when it
won't undermine bipartisanship." Instead of "treaties shall be the
supreme Law of the Land," we have: "we can't have torture prosecutions
because they'll distract from health care." To "no Warrants shall
issue, but upon probable cause" and "No person shall be . . . deprived
of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," we have
added: "unless there are Terrorists who want to harm us, in which case
we spy without warrants and imprison people for life without charges."

standard Beltway mindset doesn't recognize principles or the validity
of Constitutional guarantees. People who believe in those things --
who take them seriously and think they should be applied independent of
"practicalities" -- are naive extremists and ideologues. But just read
what those Constitutional provisions say: it's not possible to believe
in them without being what Joe Klein derisively called a "civil liberties extremist." Constitutional guarantees and principles are, by their nature, extremist and absolute.

the Beltway mindset also doesn't recognize political controversies
where only one side -- not two -- is right or is speaking factually.
There are many political disputes where there are two or more
reasonable sides and where solutions can legitimately be shaped by
political compromise and "practical considerations" -- by putting Arlen
Specter and Susan Collins in a room with Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe
and arbitrarily dividing everything in the middle in order to attract
bipartisan and "centrist" support. But not all
political questions are supposed to be resolved by that sort of
randomly compromising horse-trading. Yet the Washington mindset
doesn't recognize any other type of political question; they think that
all political matters, including ones grounded in Constitutional
guarantees and the rule of law, must be subjected to that process of

I tend to focus on political issues involving
Constitutional principles ("the President shall take Care that the Laws
be faithfully executed") that weren't intended to be diluted by such
concerns, and on issues were there is only one, not two, reasonable
sides ("when the law says that eavesdropping on Americans without
warrants is a felony and the President gets caught
doing exactly that, he has committed crimes and should be treated like
all other citizens who commit crimes" -- "torture is both wrong and
illegal" -- "war crimes shouldn't be covered-up or shielded from
judicial review with secrecy claims"). Waiving Constitutional
guarantees in the name of "practical considerations" is an extreme and
damaging vice, as is pretending that factually false claims are
entitled to respect in order to appear more reasonable, thoughtful and
balanced or to adhere to senseless, soul-draining journalistic

A related Beltway affliction reflected here is the
inability to distinguish between (a) recognizing conventions and
(b) criticizing and rejecting them as flawed. Yesterday, Matt Yglesias noted that journalists -- when criticized for their work -- often defend what they do by pointing to media conventions in order to explain
the reasons it's done that way, when the whole point of the criticism
is that those conventions are flawed and shouldn't be adhered
to (emphasis his):

What the audience wants isn't an explanation but a justification
of the media's conduct. Typically, though, press figures when faced
with a specific complaint will wave the complaint off by noting that
the output in question was generated according to the prevailing
conventions. The question, however, is whether the conventions are
producing decent results.

I frequently hear journalists
complain that Media Matters or Glenn Greenwald "doesn't understand how
the press works." Which is probably true. But the point is not to understand the details of how it works but to ask whether or not it's working well.

fully aware of what the Washington conventions are that lead to rampant
lawlessness and corruption, and have become aware of media conventions
that enable such behavior. I don't criticize standard Washington
behavior because -- as Massing put it -- I'm "oblivious" to those
conventions. It's that I think those conventions are radically flawed
and twisted and ought to be smashed.

Dispensing with core
Constitutional principles in the name of "practical considerations" --
and treating ludicrous, bad faith claims with respect -- creates a
facade of reasonableness. But there's nothing reasonable about it.
It's intellectually barren and, worse, is the prime enabler for why
our political leaders stray so far and so frequently from those
principles. It's why they break the law with impunity and know they
can. The Bill of Rights and the rule of law aren't like modifications
to the tax code or compromises over the stimulus package. They're in a
fundamentally different category. The failure to recognize that
category is a defining attribute of the Beltway sickness and is a prime
reason why Washington so frequently degrades and destroys whatever it

© 2023 Salon