Predictable Ideology is Predictable for a Reason

Joshua Foust’s CJR critique of blog commentary on the Russia-Georgia conflict makes some good points. One failing, though, is that it doesn’t put its complaints in any kind of perspective — the newspaper punditry on the conflict was mostly uninformed and the cable news coverage, as usual, was actively misleading. But more interesting to me is the complaint that “big blogs . . . retreated to their comfortable and predictable ideological corners.”

You hear complaints of this form being leveled all the time and not just against blogs. Something happens that’s politically relevant. And most-but-not-all conservatives see it one way, and most-but-not-all liberals see it another way. Then we bemoan everyone’s predictable ideological responses. It’s as if we’re supposed to believe that in an ideal world, folks would walk around with these ideologies in our heads, but then when things happen in the world our understanding of those events would not at all be impacted by our large set of pre-existing beliefs about how the world works. But why would that happen? And why would that be a good thing? After all, the reason it’s predictable that most liberals will react to a given politically-relevant occurrence is that most liberals have a lot of beliefs and principles in common. Similarly, most conservatives have a lot of beliefs and principles in common. So, again, it’s predictable that people who share many background beliefs will usually have similar responses to new events. But how else could things possibly go?

A lot of the journalistic ideal and bien pensant critiques of partisanship implicitly partakes of some very naive ideas about empiricism whereby if we just all somehow cast aside the blinders of pre-existing prejudice we could see things as they are and our unmediated perception of them would lead to consensus. But nobody who thinks seriously about these issues has believed anything of the sort for a long time — fact and theory are interdependent and all that would happen if we looked at new events without any pre-existing commitments is that we’d have no way whatsoever to make sense of things.