John McLaughlin has passed. A troubling presence in many ways, he nevertheless played a critical role in how much of a generation conceived of political space. I started watching McLaughlin Group in about 1986, when the most common configuration was Buchanan-Germond-Barnes-Kondracke, with healthy doses of Novak and Clift. Some things that I learned from watching:
- Smart people disagree about politics.
Say what you will about Pat Buchanan, he’s smart, and even insightful. He grasped the political opportunity in the collapse of white privilege at least two decades before Trump, even if he couldn’t turn it into a viable political campaign. Jack Germond was obviously also smart, and yet they disagreed about everything. The idea that ideology could be only tangentially connected to intelligence was a revelation; the enemy was not simply “stupid,” but clearly had something else wrong with him/her.
- Facts are flexible.
An insight that can surely be taken too far. Nevertheless, the McLaughlin Group demonstrated that the cards don’t read; one cannot win an argument simply by the description of a series of facts. Every fact is subject to spin, and every advocate has to have an understanding of which facts to mobilize when, and how to manage the more inconvenient bits of truth. Debates on McLaughlin occasionally devolved to direct disputes of fact, but more often they involved different ways of understanding particular realities.
- Mort Kondracke is a douchebag.
I mean, c’mon. I was a Republican in my early teens, and it was obvious even to me that Mort was an entirely useless advocate for left-of-center ideas.
- Talking politics is fun.
This was the entire point of McLaughlin; political argument could be entertaining. It was fun to watch them spar with one another, and McLaughlin himself had a strong sense of how to heighten the contradictions, and get the best out of his panelists. He also appreciated that the entire project was an exercise in entertainment, which is how he created such an entertaining persona. There are surely unproductive implications of this, and much of our current politics suffers from a fixation on entertainment at the expense of insight. Still, so very many of us track politics because we enjoy it, in addition to its more tangible implications; McLaughlin made politics fun.
- The range of respectable political opinion is narrow.
Politics was almost exclusively the purview of old white guys, with a range of opinion that ended at Jack Germond on one pole and Pat Buchanan on the other. The downsides of this lesson are obvious; in addition to mainstreaming Buchanan and Fred Barnes, it also cut off/made crazy/marginalized a range of left/labor/feminist/intersectional perspectives. Unproductive when you took it seriously; productive when you came to understand the show as an artifact of a particular constellation of political power.