Anyone who has followed the work of Bruce Bartlett in recent years knows him to be an odd combination of qualities: he is a deeply informed analyst of American political and economic policy, an acerbic and crotchety critic of the Republican Party, and—a rarity on the political scene—a man who has changed his mind.
Bartlett worked in the 1970s for Republican Congress members Ron Paul of Texas and Jack Kemp of New York. He was an economic adviser for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and later for George H.W. Bush. For a while he was a believer in the magical theory called “supply-side economics,” which conveniently held that cutting taxes was in everyone’s interest, since it would inevitably lead to economic growth. Bartlett had a good thing going through the 1990s as a Republican columnist, think tanker, author, and respected Washington sage. But during the presidency of George W. Bush, he lost the GOP faith. His book Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy (2006) marked his transition into the status of a political independent.
This week, Bartlett is out with a slim new book, The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks. His model, he writes, was The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. His book is economical, to the point, and it serves as a useful manual for journalists and news consumers alike. He brings the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the media divide—having been interviewed by elite journalists countless times, while also contributing as a columnist and commentator to the nation’s media output. Anyone who keeps up with Bartlett on Twitter (currently 47.3 K followers) knows he uncovers all manner of useful documents in his wide-ranging reading and research. Some of his sources and methods are described in his new book. Followers also know he hectors the Trumpist wing of his former party mercilessly. That side of him is not in the book, but it came out in our phone conversation last week. What follows is a transcript edited for length and clarity.
Dave Denison: You talk in the book in a general way about being on guard against fake news, bad information, and you’ve got many useful pieces of advice about checking things out. But it’s a short book and you don’t go into much detail about some specific new aspects of this problem. I’m thinking of the way mysterious forces were flooding Facebook with bogus stories and claims during the campaign season, for example. It seems to me there’s more going on with fake news than just a phenomenon of bad reporting. Do you agree?
Bruce Bartlett: A lot of what we’ve learned about Russian meddling in our media has only become known since I wrote the book. So I couldn’t really get into that. And secondly, beyond wanting the authorities to investigate these things and try to do something about them, I don’t know that there’s much an individual can do that would be different if [on the one hand] the person peddling fake news is some group such as Breitbart that is funded by a right-wing billionaire named Robert Mercer, or [on the other hand] some other group that is funded by the Russian government. The end result is the same in either case.
D.D.: That is a big part of it. Not just the Russian question but—and this is probably also something that we’re just now learning more about in recent months of reporting—Robert Mercer, as you mentioned, funding Breitbart News; part of that was that he was a hugely powerful source, his people, his company, whoever is working with him, in helping to figure out how to promote right-wing outlets not just on Facebook but through gaming the Google searches.
B.B.: One of the reasons why people like Mercer had an outsized influence is because the economic position of the mainstream media has become so precarious. It doesn’t take a whole lot to upset the balance. So I think most of our problems today in the media are fundamental. You’ve got a problem that newspapers have been closing. People simply don’t read newspapers the way they used to; they have a different place in our system. You have cable news, you have internet-based publications, every major publication is also on the internet. My own news consumption has changed enormously over the last few years. At one time I used to get six newspapers delivered to my house every day and I would read the paper editions quite thoroughly, at least glance at the headlines on every single page, and I would clip them, and so on. And now I’ve become much more lazy, I don’t get any newspapers at all delivered to my house. I read them online. I only pay for a couple of them.
D.D.: I had another question by the time I got to the end of your book. I wondered how you feel, as an astute observer of all this, about a big question about why the media ecosystem has become so polluted. People in politics use the term “asymmetric polarization” to describe the right-left balance in this country. Do you think there’s been an asymmetric propaganda factor as well?
There’s more of an attitude on the right that the ends justify the means.
B.B.: I think that a lot of this has to do with the fact that the mainstream media tilted a bit to the left for a long time. When Spiro Agnew first began attacking the media back in 1969, he wasn’t completely wrong. And because the conservatives have viewed the media as their enemy they developed a deep skepticism that is going to take a very long time to change, if it ever changes. And they developed alternative media. Even when I was much younger there were very few newspapers in the United States that had any kind of conservative tilt other than the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal and the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a few others. And, of course, there was no conservative voice in television. And hardly any whatsoever in radio. So conservatives tended to get their news from alternative sources—newsletters used to be very popular in the conservative community, and small magazines. People on the right learned to be more trustful of these alternative sources. And when they were amplified by the internet, I think it just exploded. There are a lot of conservatives who just inherently distrust anything that comes from the mainstream media and are more inclined to believe conspiracy theories and things of this sort. How you change that, I don’t know. But I think part of it is that I think people are simply not aware of it. They consume the news they consume and confirmation bias has an enormous amount to do with this—that is to say, you’re more inclined to believe things that are more congenial to your point of view, whether it’s your religious views or your political views or something else. And, of course, there are a lot of people who simply don’t consume the news at all! Where they get it from is a mystery to me. It’s a mystery to me where the president of the United States gets information from.
D.D.: You’re talking about the old days when the mainstream media may have had a liberal tilt. I’m talking about something different. I made a note of an interesting phrase you used in a magazine piece for the American Conservative back in 2009. You talked about the “saga of Republicans closing their eyes to any facts or evidence that conflict with their dogma.” And you can say that’s a common problem of partisanship. And yet what I wonder about is, do you agree that in recent years we’ve seen something worse than that? Not just partisanship and tilt, liberal bias, conservative bias—I’m talking about outright lying and propagandizing as a Republican strategy.
B.B.: I think that’s true. I like to think that it’s not pervasive, but I can’t say for sure. But I think there’s more of an attitude on the right that the ends justify the means. I think conservatives more so than liberals have a view that it’s not just right versus left it’s right versus wrong, it’s good versus evil. A lot of conservatives have that point of view. Therefore, anything goes. I mean, if it’s God versus Satan, you should use whatever weapons you have available, even if they would be otherwise considered reprehensible, because the magnitude of the threat is so great that it’s justified. This kind of worldview permeates a lot of conservative strategy that has led to the destruction of norms that kept things under control, so to speak. And have led to a coarsening of debate and lawmaking. I don’t think we fully appreciated the extent to which a lot of the rules that governed political debate were never written down, they were just understood. I think Republicans, conservatives, have taken advantage of that, and have pushed the limits of what they could do legally, and even what is not legal but which they could nevertheless get away with. I don’t know how you put the toothpaste back in the tube.
D.D.: It makes me think of that famous quote from the Ron Suskind article where someone, I think it was believed to be [Karl] Rove, was saying “you people are part of the reality-based community.” More or less, his point was, “we’re playing a different game here.”
B.B.: Yes, that was a very profoundly important insight. Interestingly, if you go back and read that article, the first three paragraphs are a block quote from me. I was very much a part of that article. The sad thing is, it was a very important insight; I just wish it hadn’t been. There are a lot of things that are going on in society in which the media is merely a microcosm.
D.D.: Going back to your book, a question about teaching media literacy. Do you see signs of movement in educating students about how to think critically about media?
B.B.: The problem I have with that is that if they are not already teaching students to think critically, what are they doing? It’s the same problem I have with fact-checking sites on newspapers and elsewhere. Fact-checking is obviously all to the good, but if they’re not already fact-checking every single article that is published, then what are they doing? It kind of bothers me that something that is so fundamental to the nature of education and newsgathering is being treated as if, Oh, we just discovered we’ve got a problem here, and we need to be teaching something that they should have been teaching forever.
D.D.: Critical thinking should be synonymous with being educated, for sure. But I don’t know if I agree. I wonder if we don’t really need, even at the high-school level, certainly at college, specific courses on media literacy that are talking in detail about the stuff you’re talking about in this book.
B.B.: Well, maybe we do. There’s lots of stuff people need to learn to be good citizens. For example, the illiteracy that many people have about just basic scientific knowledge, or basic mathematics or statistics. You’ve probably seen these same polls that I have, that are published periodically, where you find out that some huge percentage of the population believes that the sun revolves around the earth rather than the other way around. You see things like that and you think, geez, the problems with the news media are the least of our problems.
D.D.: You mentioned the question of confirmation bias. In your book you made a few glancing acknowledgements about that. People have written entire books on this particular subject, but in one of your phrases you boiled it down to “People believe what they want to believe.” You’re writing from the premise that we all have to get better at sifting evidence, which is true, yet when you talk about people believing what they want to believe it gets us into that difficult area where so much of how people decide isn’t sifting through evidence, it’s emotional.
I like to believe that truth wins out in the end. But there’s precious little evidence that that’s the case.
B.B.: That’s right. And a lot of research is rather dismaying. I like to believe that truth wins out in the end. But there’s precious little evidence that that’s the case. For example, here’s one of the most dismaying things you find when you look into the research being done by psychologists. If you take somebody who has an incorrect idea, who wrongly thinks a lie is the truth, and you try to dissuade them from this by explaining that this lie is a lie, in the course of doing this, people will believe the lie even more strongly than they did before. One theory for why this is the case is the mere repetition of a lie, even in the course of refuting it, tends to reinforce that lie. When you’re faced with that kind of situation, you kind of throw up your hands and say “what’s the point?” I find it very dismaying. I put a lot of my faith in changing trends. We’ve gone through some of these things before. In the early part of the twentieth century you had something called yellow journalism. You had newspapers that were peddling lies to hype circulation. We’ve all seen Citizen Kane, which shows you a little bit about what that era of journalism was like. Eventually it became more professional. Journalistic standards became more acceptable across the board and these tabloids ended up being sold in the supermarkets rather than being delivered to your house every day. It sort of got under control. And now I think we’ve gone beyond the traditional methods of news distribution and something needs to be done for the internet era, the cable news era. A lot of people are working on this. If you talk to people in Silicon Valley, they’ll tell you, “Oh this is just a technological problem. We just need to tweak this algorithm and all the fake news will disappear, or something.” I think that’s ridiculously naïve, but certainly there are ways that technology can help, or at least I hope it will. It’s a deeper problem than that.
D.D.: On a more general note, because your own story is so interesting, what was the moment that you remember most clearly that made you decide to leave the Republican Party? Because you consider yourself an independent now, right?
B.B.: That’s right. Well, it was a very specific day, as a matter of fact. It was November 22, 2003. Which was the day the Medicare Part D legislation passed. Prior to that, I was working happily for a conservative think tank, I had a syndicated column that ran in many conservative publications, such as National Review and the Washington Times and elsewhere. I believed that small government stuff. And so I was appalled when the Republicans, my party, just threw all this rhetoric and beliefs about how we need to be reining in entitlement programs and cutting spending and reducing the size of government —they just threw that all out the window and enacted this massive expansion of government spending, not a penny of which was paid for, and they did this in the dead of night, literally. They held the vote open in the House of Representatives for three hours while they almost literally twisted arms to get the votes they needed to enact this thing. And I was just absolutely appalled. It shook my faith. It showed me that these people just absolutely didn’t believe a word of what they said. They were just lying.
And all that they really wanted and cared about was power. As far as I can tell, the only reason they even want power is so that they can deliver unjustified benefits to their supporters. And maybe even to smooth the path toward them becoming wealthy themselves as a lobbyist, or things of this sort. It was a crisis, an intellectual crisis for me that I’ve never recovered from.
And really from that day forward I’ve been drifting to the left, and shortly thereafter I wrote a book critical of George W. Bush, not just for the Medicare business, but a lot of other stuff.
D.D.: I believe you called him an imposter.
B.B.: Yeh. Because I didn’t think he was a real conservative, from my understanding of what conservatives were. And all my criticism of Bush was from the right. Yet in spite of this, I was disowned, and cast out of the conservative movement. And now it would be impossible for you to find a conservative anywhere who disagrees with a word I wrote in that book. At the time, the conservative line was, “We must stand with Bush, because he’s Horatio at the bridge. He’s the only thing standing between us and Democratic rule.” The irony now is that Bush has become almost the voice of reason in the Republican Party. He made a speech yesterday that was actually pretty good and I was forced to say something positive about him because of it.
He was a shitty president, but may yet turn out to be a pretty good ex-president. https://t.co/99zc9Vqdx3
— Bruce Bartlett (@BruceBartlett) October 19, 2017
D.D.: I don’t know whether you’ve burned all your bridges, but I wondered whether you have any inside perspective now into something so many of us on the outside wonder about: whether there a lot of private conversations going on among Republicans that acknowledge worries that the current president could be mentally unbalanced.
B.B.: God, I hope so. Here’s my insight. When I wrote my Imposter book, it was all based on things that people on the right were talking about. But the thing is, they had this idea that you can only say these things behind closed doors. You must never, ever, say them publicly for the simple reason that that gives aid and comfort to the enemy. I’ve been watching this Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns. And it’s interesting to see how many of the attitudes on the right I think were formulated during that era, when they took the view that Vietnam may be a complete disaster and a mistake and people are dying over there for nothing, but you don’t dare ever say that, because that helps the Viet Cong, it helps the communists. In public you must have a united front, that we are all together in this, and anybody who says otherwise is a traitor.