Saturday, August 13, 2005

Praxywatch: Progress for America for John Roberts

John Roberts, you beautiful bastard. You've given me more than enough propaganda fodder to last the rest of the month, and you've hardly done anything at all. Since enough toner and airtime has already been spent discussing the much-denounced NARAL anti-Roberts commercial (which I'll gladly go on record to disown), I'll focus on a Progress for America ad supporting the surprisingly non-controversial SCOTUS nominee.

The Progress spot is pretty straightforward, highlighting his Harvard education, service to past presidents, ABA honors, and peer accolades against dissolving judicially-themed background graphics. It ends with the question "shouldn't a fair judge be treated fairly?" followed by an exhortation to the Senate to "give John Roberts a fair up or down vote." I don't know if PfA thinks Roberts is an appellate nominee or what, but I haven't seen a single Democrat try to stonewall his nomination yet, so I'm at a loss to figure out who they're trying to convince. Maybe this is all some kind of preemptive strike against a possible Democratic filibuster, but the agreement reached by the Senate 14 ruled out that tactic in May, so it looks like PfA might have wasted their money.

I'm also noticing that conservatives have been driving the word "fair" into the ground recently. Seems like you can't look at a newspaper, blog, or TV news show these days without running across some right-winger carrying on about the "fair tax," a "fair up-or-down vote," or the "unfairness" of the estate tax. This particular tactic looks to be a winner: the estate tax is down and nearly out, the most egregious of the appellate nominees got voted in, and the FairTax book is sitting pretty at #1 on the NYT's non-fiction bestseller list. But the real question seems to be: under what circumstances do invocations of fairness work and when do they backfire? In other words, why is it that discussions of fair taxes and votes frequently get people fired up, but talk of fairness in trade and elections is so often met with indifference or even outright hostility?

Phrased that way, the answer becomes clear: most people only seem to care about fairness when they're the ones being treated unfairly. They find it difficult to empathize with fairness questions that don't affect them directly. We can see this pattern in questions of affirmative action, redistributive taxation, and international employment standards. Liberals can use the power of the fairness doctrine to their advantage, but evidence suggests it works best when tied to situations their audiences can readily identify with. Sometimes that's not easy, especially with respect to international issues, but finding a way to bring the issue home (e.g. tying the unfair overseas employment practices of American multinationals to outsourcing) might make a big difference in the final opinion the audience ends up forming.