August 20, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

By centering ‘choice’ over obligation, the press enables a political minority to literally steal a political majority’s freedoms

Two words: delta variant. 

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Peter Baker is a reporter for the Times. He said this yesterday: “The Biden team’s cold political calculation is that Americans won’t care what happens in Afghanistan as long as Americans are safe. To their point, today there are no front-page stories on Afghanistan in cities like Boston, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Fresno or Miami.”

This is in keeping what I’ve been saying in the Editorial Board. Most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. This goes double for August, that time of the year when normal people are thinking about vacations or preparing for the reopening of school. The Washington press corps barely paid any attention at all to Afghanistan, because most people most of the time stopped paying attention to it a decade ago, after the US killed the man responsible for murdering nearly 3,000 Americans a decade prior. 


Some things are good. Some things are bad. Some things are so clearly and morally one or the other, there’s a bipartisan consensus. A president is wise to take such preferences into account.


But Baker’s use of “cold political calculation” carries with it at least one presumption. It’s that Joe Biden is doing something obviously morally wrong; that “informed people” (i.e., elites) know he’s doing something obviously morally wrong; and that the obvious moral wrong is rooted in the fact that US forces are leaving Afghanistan. Moreover, it’s that Biden is betting he won’t pay a price for that obvious moral wrong given that voters have short attention spans and short memories, especially in August. It’s a presumption that itself presumes everything is as good or bad as everything else and nothing really matters.

“Cold political calculation” does not accurately represent reality, however. The Associated Press released this week the results of a new poll showing that two-thirds of the population does not think “America’s longest war was worth fighting.” That’s 67 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans. The poll, moreover, shows a gigantic switcher-roo over the duration of the “forever war.” In 2001, most people were worried about foreign terrorists. Now, according to the AP’s poll, most people see “major national security threats as being internal. Roughly two-thirds say they are extremely or very concerned about the threat of extremist groups based inside the United States.”

My point here isn’t to pick on Peter Baker. My point is to note how the press corps often overlooks, or ignores, majority opinion, especially as it relates to the dynamics of power in Washington. When put in its proper context, you can see the president and his team were not making a “cold political calculation.” To the contrary, they were acting in accord with the will of the majority. Everything is not as good or bad as everything else. Some things are good. Some things are bad. Some things are so clearly and morally one or the other, there’s a bipartisan consensus. A president is wise to take such preferences into account. I wouldn’t call this “cold political calculation.” I’d call it good politics.

That’s my first point. My second point is that the press corps’ tendency to elevate minority views above majority views, with indifference to the moral implications of each, is–how should I put this?–enabling theft? A majority of the American people has done their part in the face of a pandemic that will, before it’s over, kill a million of us. They have gotten their shots. They have waited patiently while others come around to seeing the wisdom of getting theirs. And yet the vast bulk of the press coverage regarding the covid pandemic is focused on the so-called “freedoms” of Americans who refuse to do their part. This centering of “choice” rather than obligation has created conditions in which the minority is literally robbing the majority of its freedoms.

Think about it. Political resistance to wearing face masks and getting shots has made just enough room for the new delta variant (and soon enough, the new lambda variant) to spread and grow and evolve so now those of us who had done our part in the fight against the covid are getting sick in what’s being called “breakthrough cases.” (Three United States senators said yesterday they tested positive.) Today, there are more covid hospitalizations in Florida than there were last year during the pandemic’s peak. Public schools and private universities in the South are already reverting back to remote learning. Kids under 12 are more vulnerable. The vaccinated will need boosters sooner than expected. Just when we thought society was heading back to normal, here come insurgents prepared to stop that from happening. And yet no one is talking about freedoms being robbed from the majority.


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None of this is broadly apparent yet. We’re in the middle of August, a time when most people most of the time are thinking about other things. But once the school year gets going, as it has in some parts of the country, it’s going to be apparent in a hurry. Teri Carter lives in Anderson County in rural Kentucky in the heart of Trump country. In a report on her local school board for the Editorial Board, she describes what I’d call the difficulty of feeling sympathy for muggers:

When I read the articles pleading for those of us who are vaccinated to remain compassionate toward the unvaccinated, understanding of those who still refuse masks, 18 months into this pandemic—about how we need to listen better to their fears and make them feel heard—I want to invite those people to our county where we we remain below 50 percent vaccinated, where our overworked health department can’t give away free vaccines, and where we sit in routine school board meetings knowing that most of the people in the small, enclosed room with us are proudly, unapologetically, defiantly unvaccinated and unmasked.

I’m describing a kind of “silent majority” that Donald Trump invoked cynically during the last election and that Richard Nixon invoked cynically decades before. But it wouldn’t be silent if the Washington press corps did not unthinkingly place a higher value on one kind of freedom over another kind — the freedom of individuals over the freedom of communities, the freedom of “choice” over the freedom of obligation, the freedom of thieves over the freedom of stake-holding citizens whom the thieves prey on safe in the knowledge that their interests will be portrayed in a brighter light than their victims’. 


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

2 Comments

  1. Adam on August 20, 2021 at 8:04 pm

    Why would being “informed” make someone an “elite”? What does “elite” even mean? Smart? Rich? Neither but with access? The word “elite” is misused to smear “THEM” — whoever the writer wants to smear. Don’t use it. Be specific.

    • John Stoehr on August 20, 2021 at 8:10 pm

      I tend to use “normal people” and “elites” in particular and peculiar ways. Normal people are not elite. Elites are not normal. If you insist, I mean people whose opinion actually moves the levers of power. That includes the very obscenely rich, but in the case of war that includes anyone who has any influence in the machinations of the military-corporate complex, which is to say, not normal people.

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