An Open Letter to the National Punditry

Dear Esteemed Pundits of America,

Beck Chalkboard The 2010 mid-term elections are behind us, and all the post-mortem analyses of the races are complete. Yet the 24/7 news cycle, and the corresponding demand for your incisive commentary, will not abate. So, what next? Will you turn your attention to the Congress and examine the ways in which the new House leadership clashes with President Obama? Will you look ahead to 2012 and offer odds on who will be the Republican nominee and how likely he or she is to defeat Obama? Will you continue to discuss the Tea Party in your ongoing attempt to discern who they are, what they want, and whether they matter? Will you investigate the gradual implementation of our healthcare bill and monitor the inevitable dissolution of DADT? Will you be able to sustain your interest in our increasingly quixotic military adventures? Or will you take up a cause you regard as underappreciated among the American people? These are all arguably worth your consideration. But we have a better idea: Resign from your job in broadcasting and run for public office.

We admit that this is a bold suggestion. Perhaps it has never occurred to you to seek political office. But consider how this course of action is required in light of the things you say and how you understand yourselves.

You take yourselves to be public figures committed to keeping the American government in check and on the right track. You offer daily commentary on national politics as a crucial contribution American democracy. You do not merely report the day’s news; indeed, many of you claim that you are not reporters at all. Rather, you claim to be commentators on the news, and you draw a sharp conceptual divide between yourselves and “the mainstream media.” We understand that you must insist on this distinction, for you take one of your central tasks to be that of exposing the media’s biases, distortions, and blind-spots. You understand your job to be that of helping the American citizenry to strip away propaganda, double-talk, and spin. You present the facts, and then you help the American people to understand what they mean. We’re thankful.

As critics, you play an invaluable role in American democracy. If, as you say, nearly everything reported on the nightly news and in the daily papers is infected with spin and bias, democracy surely needs people like you to help us to sort it out. Democracy is centrally about holding power accountable to those over whom it is exercised. And transparency is necessary for accountability.

That’s where you come in. You help us to hold power accountable by making transparent to us all the ways in which our government is incompetent, inefficient, dishonest, untrustworthy, two-faced, and unscrupulous. In fact, many of you go further than this. You claim not only to expose the intellectual and moral failures of those in power; you also take yourselves to know how to do better. You frequently speak as if seemingly complex questions about domestic and international policy are actually simple and easy, once the scales of stupidity and immorality are lifted from one’s eyes. You take it upon yourselves to educate us. Consequently, in your daily communications you present your cases in support of the policies you think best. And since you are in control of a forum which enables you to address large masses of people over many days, weeks, and months, you can be highly persuasive.

Since you take yourselves to know so much, and to know that others know so little, it arguably is a very good thing that you wield the power to persuade sizable portions of the American citizenry. However, there is a catch. And it’s a catch that should come as no surprise to you, given the principles you espouse. The power to persuade people about political matters is itself a form of political power. And, as you know, in a democracy, those who wield political power must be accountable.

Thus we find it odd that you, political commentators who hold that accountability is so crucially important, are content to hold positions of power that are not accountable to the people. How can you stomach it? Everyday you call your audience to indignation over the incompetence, duplicity, cowardice, and immorality of those who hold public office. You claim for yourselves the heroic role of uncovering governmental ineptitude. You proffer warnings of our great country’s immanent demise. You openly condemn those who hold public office for being out of touch with the American people. And you freely provide what you claim are fail-proof prescriptions for restoring freedom and prosperity in America. Still, you sit in a television or radio studio, safe from actually having to work to put your ideas into practice, forever insulated from the accountability you claim to so highly prize.

At the risk of sounding unappreciative of your daily service to American democracy, we ask: Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? You profess to know so much about how the country ought to be run. You claim to know how to save America. Isn’t it immoral of you to decline to serve the American public in an official capacity? Given the principles you embrace concerning power and accountability, it would seem that you should take yourself to be morally required to seek public office. So why don’t you?

Of course, a cynic would assert that in writing this open letter, we are simply proving our naïveté. They will say that we have falsely assumed from the start that you sincerely take yourselves to be serving American democracy, when in fact you couldn’t care less about America, but care only about that which you on a daily basis purport to hold in contempt: amassing money and exercising power. To be clear, we’re not cynics. But we must confess that in light of the considerations above we find it increasingly difficult to resist the cynical conclusion that you’re nothing but a collection of wind-bag opportunists immorally and obscenely profiting from the civic decay that you are in significant measures willfully precipitating. So consider: Major elections are coming up in 2012. Now is the time to begin planning your campaign. Resign from your comfy studio, get up from your armchair, and hit the pavement. Present your ideas to audiences that are not composed of self-selected sympathizers. Defend your views in forums where you cannot control the phone-lines or edit the footage after the fact. Seek a position where your political power and ambitions are constrained by the constitution you say you honor above almost all else. Hold yourself accountable to the people whose interests you claim to serve and for whom you profess to speak. Prove the cynics wrong.


Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Department of Philosophy

Vanderbilt University