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Very Serious People

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And a dirty dozen more
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One reason that propaganda often works better on the educated than on the uneducated is that educated people read more, so they receive more propaganda. Another is that they're the commissars. They have jobs as agents of propaganda, and they believe it. By and large, they're part of the privileged elite, and share their interests and perceptions.
Noam Chomsky[1]

"Very Serious People" is a mocking title given to "inside the Beltway"[2] pundits whose views remain "respectable" among centrist politicians despite either:

  1. being dishonest and self-serving,
  2. presenting facile "common sense" analyses as Great Wisdom, and
  3. consistently getting political predictions or policy recommendations wrong.

While the term originated from the irreverent blogger Duncan Black (Atrios), it was picked up and popularized by Paul Krugman.[3]

It has been nothing really new. Napoleon was a beloved dictator in France for his sometimes absurdly moderate policies (such as declaring Christianity as the official religion of many French people). He ended up being so beloved that his nephew rose to power simply on the credentials that he was going to do the same thing as his uncle.

Characteristics of Very Serious People[edit]

We last met in Chicago on a television talk show. A third-rate woman writer went on and on about how blacks had nothing to complain of in the American paradise. Finally, the Bird leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. Nervously, the host asked, "Tennessee? Are you asleep?" "No," the Bird responded, eyes still shut. "I am not asleep, but sometimes I shut my eyes when I am bored."
Gore Vidal on Tennessee Williams[4]
  • They identify with upper middle class, respectable person values and culture to a man, regardless of original background. Tends to wear white-collar clothing at all times. Public policy discussions are filtered via a parochial, gated community lens.
  • They value common sense over scientific consensus when there is a conflict. When pushed far enough, VSPs will eventually err on the side of science, but will hold a candle for pseudoscience as long as it has a veneer of respectability. (Not having expertise of any kind is a feature of a VSP, not a defect.)
  • They love the hell out of the balance fallacy and the misapplication of the horseshoe theory. They feel uncomfortable pointing out flaws concentrated in one end of the political spectrum without pointing to an opposite example so that they can say, "both sides do it!"
  • They are reluctant to identify their exact politics, but if they do, they usually identify themselves as something uncontroversial such as being "moderately liberal", "moderately conservative,", "center-left", "center-right", a "traditionalist," or as being a "responsible conservative" or being a "grown up".[5] Be wary when using this standard to judge politicians outside the American sphere of influence, though. David Cameron and Nick Clegg would fit in the exact mold, but they're not this stupid.
  • They consistently take the moderate positions of their time. Very rarely will an individual Very Serious Person have an opinion that is too far out of the mainstream. This also leads to VSPs being reflexively dismissive of alternate political perspectives, such as libertarianism and socialism, regardless of the truth value of individual claims.
  • They overemphasize civility and niceness in public discourse. The Tea Party movement and Donald Trump on the right, and the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements on the left, are looked down upon not because of their aims, but because their tactics are too "disruptive" and "mean".
  • As long as the previous caveat is satisfied, they have a fondness for the style over substance fallacy when evaluating political positions. Bullshit wrapped in a folksy anecdote and a G-rated zinger is more worthy of praise than the sober counter-point.
  • Many (but not all) are overtly optimistic about the nature of politics, to the point of idealism. Oh, one party is willingly prepared to hijack the world economy because a law they don't like got passed? Oh, stop complaining and compromise like a Clinton. It's all good.
  • They get bored examining proxy causes or causal chains with more than two links. They love the abuse of Occam's razor.
  • They are hegemonic. The government, regardless of ideology, is given the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true of the U.S. military.
  • They have an odd fascination with/admiration of the "Real America," usually meaning small towns in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. (Rarely the South, due to its association with Christian fundamentalism and racism, or the Western US, due to its association with the militia movement and the lawless pop culture image of the "Wild West".) They are very protective of these areas from what they considered negative forms of elitism, such as Hollywood values and "liberal elites", though suburbia and corporations that disturb "traditional" small town/city life (e.g. Wal-Mart) may also be met with hostility. Ironically, they themselves are usually city-dwellers and members of the elite; see the very first bullet point on this list.
  • They get hysterical at generalized criticisms of Christianity, heteronormativity, privilege, and Western history or foreign policy. Criticizing excesses is on the table as long as it's made out to be a unique event. Don't you dare suggest that Abu Ghraib was caused by a toxic culture of Islamophobia and authoritarianism in the military; it was just lone American-hating perverts! And everything's fine now!
  • This courtesy is not extended to subcultures at large. Muslims, pacifists, female public figures, campus activists, and French politics can be and are slammed without reciprocity being extended, and before the mainstream successes of the civil rights and gay rights movements, non-white and LGBT people were often treated the same way. In the '60s, they were the "white moderates" that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of as being greater obstacles to civil rights than overt segregationists, more committed to maintaining order and not rocking the boat than anything even if it meant blocking pushes for justice.[6] This double standard has a lot to do with a mix of faux individualist ideology, unchecked privilege and bigoted presuppositions about people that aren't privileged white men. Daniel Hannan is probably the best example of this in action. He scolds anti-racists for disliking horrible people who happened to have some good ideas (Thomas Jefferson among others), but seems perfectly willing to justify atrocities committed by the British Empire (he wrote a book pretentiously named How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, i.e., the British invented it according to him[7]).
  • Their views on feminism differ. Some, like Hillary Clinton or Tom Friedman, tend to be somewhat supportive albeit reticent on some issues (like campus sexual assault) or outright hypocritical (Hillary Clinton defending a rapist that she knew was guilty) on others. Others, like Mona Charen or George Will, tend to be anti-feminists, repeating the usual right-wing platitudes (gender pay gap is a myth cause choices, rape culture ain't a thing, etc.).
  • Prior to the #MeToo movement, they were your typical conservative rape apologists, spouting platitudes about "due process" and "the rights of the accused" while at the same time being tone-deaf to the slut-shaming of female rape victims on the right and the backlog of rape kits due to police dereliction. They were viciously opposed to any attempt by the Obama administration to create a conversation on campus rape, going as far as outright lying about it. After the #MeToo movement, they did something of a partial about-face and began believing rape victims, though they more often than not warned of "witch hunts" and engaging in their usual balance fallacy. This can be partially blamed to these people hating Trump so much that they were willing to jump on the #MeToo bandwagon as a means of sticking it to the Donald, epitomized by Bill Kristol saying that the Trump sex scandals brought out his inner feminist (despite his magazine The Weekly Standard publishing rape-apologetic material several years prior). On a much darker note, some of them have used the movement as a means of promoting right-wing social policies. This is best evidenced by Mona Charen suggesting that the real problems are the campus drinking culture and the sexual revolution, not entitled sexual abusers taking advantage of drunk victims.

But most importantly:

  • They face no punishment, ridicule, or loss of status for incorrect predictions or mistaken opinions, as long as the predictions and opinions were mainstream when they were made.

Typical policies[edit]

On economics, they are neoliberals to a man. They are staunch and reflexive supporters of free trade, supporting all trade deals while often not going into detail about why they actually support them beyond "just because". This includes hardline support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and dismissal of anybody (even actual economists) who disagrees. The European Union and NAFTA are sacrosanct and must never be questioned, and as such, they are very hostile to Euroskepticism and the Brexit, which they blame on ignorance and consider blasphemy of the worst order. This is coupled with deficit hawkery, placing an emphasis on budget deficits and "fiscal responsibility" over and beyond what both left-wing and right-wing economists do. They led the call for austerity in the face of the Great Recession, arguing that countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal should be forced to impose large budget cuts or else face sanctions. They love the International Monetary Fund keeping the world on the hook with insupportable debt, and call it democracy. They're also fans of consumerism, except when it is perceived to challenge traditional values, and skeptical towards social safety nets less out of economic concerns than moral ones. (They love themselves some welfare queen memes.)

On that note, when it comes to social issues and civil rights, they're typically non-interventionist in either direction. While VSPs are strongly against rolling back civil rights that are already in place or fighting against long-held viewpoints on civil rights (such as an acceptance of women in the workforce), they prefer quieter "middle-ground" solutions like civil unions or don't ask, don't tell. They are eager to co-opt issues like LGBT rights and "diversity", but only after those gains became a fait accompli without them lifting a finger to help. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, "the reactionary is always willing to take a progressive attitude on any issue that is dead."[8] Related to the above, they hold a live-and-let-live viewpoint on subcultures, with some mild disdain at worst. This is laudable, but it often dovetails into being tolerant of intolerance, as long as it's quiet. (The exception is hippies, but everybody disses and makes fun of hippies.) The main exception comes with criminal justice policies. They will offer firm support for policies that purport to be "tough on crime", which caused them to rally around the War on Drugs in the 1980s and "All Lives Matter" (translation: cop lives matter more than black lives do) in the 2010s.

When it comes to foreign policy, they are boots on the ground internationalists who enthusiastically support wars, along with peacekeeping operations and nation building as long as these military operations aren't too bloody.[9][10]The Gulf War is a darling of the VSP because it had all of the excitement of war with none of the messy (read: American) casualties or length. The Falklands War has a similar status for equivalent types in Britain, for those reasons but also because it gave Margaret Thatcher the political strength to take on and defeat the trade unions at home. American VSPs are big into American exceptionalism, while their British counterparts are fans of "whig history", both viewpoints that, in the 1990s and 2000s, led to support for a neoconservative policy of "spreading democracy". Some VSPs occasionally call for reinstating the draft in preparation for these military operations.[11][12]

They are #NeverTrump, but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of opposing the Donald Trump candidacy for its open pandering to white racial resentment, brownshirts red-hatted vigilante biker thugs, and obvious resemblance to classic fascism, they oppose him because of their knee-jerk support for NATO and NAFTA and because they think he's too uncouth. (You're supposed to be hiding your racism behind dog whistles like we do, not laying it out in the open!)

They will offer support for environmentalism, but chiefly of the Sunday school variety. Environmentalism is another issue VSPs eagerly co-opted once it became a fait accompli without their help, but they tend to limit it to things like banning incandescent light bulbs or supporting "green" consumerism and construction. Whatever you do, don't mention "overpopulation" or "limits to growth".

In summary[edit]

While Very Serious People are mostly harmless insofar that they allow the country they reside in to bumble along inefficiently, the insistence on respectability and consensus over the more important concern of being correct can have disastrous consequences. The Iraq War was one such example, and if they don't show some spine really quickly, climate change may be another.

The 2012 US Presidential Election was a great example of observing VSP mentality. In the single vice-presidential debate, you had Joe Biden, a flippant, buffoonish, smirking incumbent, up against Paul Ryan, a calm, charming, and attractive challenger. It's quite obvious who got the benefit of the doubt, even though the latter was also consistently talking out of his ass. For historical examples, the Nixon-Kennedy and Carter-Reagan debates went along much the same route — VSPs were more impressed by the charisma, likability, and swift comebacks and zingers of Kennedy and Reagan, while judging Nixon as stiff and unlikable and Carter as a poor communicator.

That said, the existence and historical failures of Very Serious People should not be evidence of useful idiots propping up some sinister government agenda. Rather, it's a result of insular groupthink and the need to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible. Very Serious People have existed throughout history. The truth hurts and confrontation is offensive, but pablum is a warm puppy. Paul Krugman also refers to this as "Serious Person Syndrome," which states "it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right."[13] Furthermore, VSPs do serve at least one useful purpose — they are often among the first to see through demagoguery, even if only because it violates their principles of what constitutes acceptable public discourse. It was the "chattering class", as VSPs are often derisively referred to as, who came out against the paranoia of McCarthyism and legitimized mainstream criticism of it, and during Donald Trump's Presidential campaign in 2016, they found themselves aligned with staunch leftists in outrage against Trump's remarks.[14] As noted above, their reasons for criticizing demagoguery may stem more from hostility to radicalism of any sort than actual, substantial criticism of what is being said, but they can be counted on to oppose it.

Very Serious Pundits[edit]

Non-American examples:

  • Barbara Kay
  • Kate Andrews
  • Johan Norberg
  • Paulina Neuding

Your Milage May Vary[edit]

These pundits aren't as clearly lazy as the above but may still have some of the traits of the above. Some have a problem with them, other don't. Alternatively they may have VSP traits but are too partisan or controversial to be considered "Beltway Respectable". Others have quasi-VSP views but make actually thoughtful defences of them rather than deferring to them knee-jerkishly or defending them in a pseudo-intellectual manner.

  • William Bennett
  • Jonathan Chait: Has done great work debunking trickle-down economics and attacking the balance fallacy that "both parties are the same", and has actually called out racists for being racist not just for sounding "rude".[17] On the other hand his self-identification as a "liberal hawk" and early support for the Iraq War can come across as VSP-like (though he's since admitted the latter as a mistake). Some of your more ideological leftists also hate Chait for his criticism of no platforming and political correctness, despite his criticisms arguably being based more on liberal free speech principles than on "tone policing". Tends to defer more to establishment liberals than "outsiders" and can seem to be reluctant to make harsh criticisms against Obama. Overall, could be considered an improved version of Thomas Friedman, but may still be too VSP for some.
  • Ezra Klein: Technocrat and more policy-wonkish than your average VSP, but is also uncomfortably connected to power for some and has been accused of being loyal to the Obama administration simply to get interviews with the president.
  • Steve Chapman
  • Linda Chavez
  • Lanny Davis
  • E.J. Dionne Jr.
  • David Gergen
  • Michael Gerson
  • Jonah Goldberg
  • Brit Hume
  • Claire Lehmann - Incessantly complains about "identity politics", but at the same time has written in support of James Damore's neurosexism.
  • Amanda Marcotte
  • Dana Perino
  • Ralph Peters
  • Jordan Peterson
  • Kirsten Powers
  • Mark Shields
  • Christina Hoff Sommers — Has elements of this, though her relentless misrepresentation of her political views makes her hard to pinpoint.
  • Michael Steele
  • George Stephanopolis
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Juan Williams

Very Serious Publications[edit]

  • The Atlantic
  • The Economist — A major home for the British version of this as a whole.
  • The Hill
  • National Review — Their online version is decidedly less so.
  • The Politico
  • The New Republic
  • Washington Post — Their editorial section is VSP Central Headquarters.
  • Vox
  • The Weekly Standard

Very Serious Politicians[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Gawker.com: archive.is, web.archive.org How to Write Love Letters to America's Nonexistent Political Middle by Adam Weinstein

References[edit]

  1. Chomsky, Noam, "Propaganda Systems: Orwell's World and Ours", Propaganda Review no. 1 (Winter 1987-88).
  2. This is a phrase that refers to Washington D.C., the capital of the United States, to whose politics and policy this article mostly confines itself.
  3. Ironically, Krugman is considered a Very Serious Person by MMTers, but tu quoque aside, the underlying concept has some merit insofar as skepticism is concerned.
  4. Vidal, Palimpsest, p. 406, Literary Creation Enterprises (1995).
  5. Coleman, Jack, "David Brooks on MTP: We're at 'Adult Table', Ann Coulter, Hebdo at 'Kiddie Table', Newsbusters.org, January 11, 2015.
  6. "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
  7. How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters by Daniel Hannan (2001) Head Of Zeus. ISBN 1781857563.
  8. Source.
  9. Boot, Max, "Liberal Imperialism". Americanheritage.com, June/July 2002
  10. Nau, Henry R., "Conservative Internationalism". Nationalreview.com. September 30, 2013
  11. Paul, Ron, "National Service is Anti-Liberty and Un-American", Campaignforliberty.org, October 20 2014.
  12. Young, Andrew, "Manly Teddy and the Neocons". Antiwar.com, May 28, 2005
  13. Serious Person Syndrome, The New York Times
  14. Mindich, David. "For journalists covering Trump, a Murrow moment." Columbia Journalism Review, 15 July 2016 (recovered 8 July 2016).
  15. Charen, Mona, Real Message of #Metoo: The Sexual Revolution Has Not Been Kind to Women Nationalreview.com. January 18, 2018
  16. Drennen, Kyle, Margaret Hoover Relaunches Buckley's Firing Line By Accusing GOP o Racism Newsbusters.org. June 25, 2018
  17. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/08/nr-days-since-last-racist-rant-sign-back-to-0.html