Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Fair and Balanced: The Health Summit and the American Hang-up

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2010 at 7:02 am

I have a confession to make. I love to watch Fox News. Now, I won’t do it through the week, because I am one of those anti-TV people. I like to control the programming of my media, so I use the web. But on Sunday morning, I never miss Fox. I also grab it periodically to see how things are going in Peoria. If you hate Sarah Palin, my advice to you is watch more Fox (if love her, take note that Al Jazeera is now available on a channel near yours).

Fox news is great for its ability to reveal the balance of American society that I rarely encounter, the non-urban and little educated metaphorical middle of the country (also to be found up north). What annoys me most about the channel is its motto “Fair and Balanced” This annoys me because these two ideals are related, but they are only identical if taken abstractly. In our two party system we take them literally and this causes all sorts of problems.

Take the example of the health insurance regulation bill that Obama has proposed. Although the bill is a market heavy bill with little government administration and reminds me most of what Newt Gingrich once wanted, the Republicans despise it and are pushing for even less public control. Fine, that makes sense if you want to go that way. This makes the resulting legislation mono-partisan because the Republicans can march in lockstep. The fact that the bill is not bipartisan, and therefore not balanced between the parties, does not mean that it is not a fair representation of the electorate. Why? Because the Democrats control 59% of the Senate and roughly the same proportion in the House. This means that a fair bill under majority rule would appeal to the median voter, corresponding to representative number 51, and would pass as a Democratic bill. It appears that the public does not like the bill (for reasons that can be discussed elsewhere) and if this is true, they have an opportunity in just over eight months to change the structure of representation. Then a fair bill would appeal to the new 51st spot and so on.

In the U.S., we have so ingrained the idea of a two party system that we equate balance and therefore fairness with seeing both sides of everything. One of the key findings of conflict analysis however, is that there are not both sides of an issue until conflict has escalated to a point that all other voices have been crowded out. On most issues, there are lots of sides and nuanced combinations of opinions. We can’t see this because we feel that things ought to be balanced to be fair.

This American Hang-up extends in many directions and is not limited to 50-50 thinking. We also have a sense that all assignment processes ought to represent demographic distributions. On the left, this has helped to fuel a debate on affirmative action for protected groups. In most cases the prima facie cause for suspicion of unfairness in assignment processes is that they do not reflect population totals. Here balance and fairness are caught up as well. We might support Affirmative Action for reasons that are not strictly fair in the sense that we commonly mean it (for example that centuries of discrimination have degraded any plausible sense of a level playing field), but that is to change the game. The fair procedure for assignment is obviously competence and merit. Balance can be invoked as an appeal to historical injustice, but only because the groups in question have some deep connection to historical processes and ontological appeal that cannot be ignored.

In my own experience in studying the political leanings of professors, I find nothing like ideological balance in the university. What is strange is that I have not been able to find much evidence to support the view that something unfair is going on. The particular concept of merit in the University favors people who also happen to be liberal. The best place to see this is to look to the hard sciences. Presumably one can study cells and vote Republican all on the same day. Scientists are liberals too. In reaction critics, call for greater ideological balance in academia and assume that something unfair is going on (this makes many people really hot). Many conservatives in this debate have gone so far to call for affirmative action for conservatives in the University–a point so deliciously ironic that I leave for it you private delectation. I will only say that as I search history, I see convincing cases to suggest how African Americans have been ill placed in the social structure and held back in the race for success, but fewer examples of how ideological conservatives have been.

All of these problems derive from the false equation of fairness and balance. The two are just not the same. So my advice to Congress is to pass the bill through reconciliation and take your chance in the fall. The Republicans need a fair shot to show that they can win that 51st representative and if the people hate the resulting bill, they will throw the bums out as they always do and bring an ideological balance to the Senate. At least at that point, the fair and balanced motto will be less annoying than it is now.

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