International Policy Digest

Gage Skidmore
Politics /11 Feb 2020

No, John Chait Didn’t Learn His Lesson.

Recently, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece in NY Magazine arguing that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders can’t win in the general and that running him against Trump “would be an act of insanity.” Chait argues, “the totality of the evidence suggests Sanders is an extremely, perhaps uniquely, risky nominee.” Chait also claims that Sander’s vulnerabilities are untested, implying that a primary election is not an effective way to test a candidate. I don’t use this piece to respond to his points, however, because there are already articles disagreeing with Chait. I want to point out that Jonathan Chait wrote basically the same article about Donald Trump in 2016, but instead argued that Democrats should support Trump’s candidacy because he had no chance of winning in the general (an idea shared by some Democrats at the time). So why is he trying this same line of rhetoric again?

When Chait’s 2016 article is pointed out to him, he is quick to remind detractors that he admitted his mistake later and therefore it is unfair to use it against him. This mindset is a microcosm of the media’s inability to wrestle with its own failings. The problem is not that pundits or editors can’t acknowledge their mistakes; it’s that they think acknowledging mistakes is the same as learning from them. Jonathan Chait has not evolved from being wrong about Donald Trump, and I know this because he’s still presenting the same analysis now.

Chait already performed this song and dance in support of the invasion of Iraq. Arguing in January of 2007 that he fears “we’ll learn too much” over the failure of the Iraq War. Since Bush has left office, Chait authored “Iraq: What I Got Wrong, and What I Still Believe” attempting to go over what Bush got wrong. Here Chait argues, “The absence of weapons of mass destruction is the most crucial element of my argument that I got wrong, though the part I have the least regret for getting wrong, as it was very hard to know at the time.” That is characteristic of the piece’s attempt to absolve himself of blame. Later he claims that he was actually right and agreed with many of the anti-war arguments, he just didn’t bother to articulate them during the war.

In 2011, he wrote multiple articles arguing for an invasion of Libya, debating the anti-intervention arguments of Sullivan, Klein, and Iglesias. In these articles, he had already accepted the idea of removing Qaddafi and was only concerned about whether, “the operation in Libya could devolve into a quagmire, fail to achieve its objections, or achieve them at unacceptable cost.” Whether or not America can afford it is the only acceptable line of argument when dealing with military intervention. When Igeslias asks if Chait would support intervention in Myanmar, again the argument Chait makes is purely operational. The problem with this framework is that even though Libya did not turn into a quagmire for the United States, it has turned into one for Libyans, with slave markets rising up in the wake of Qaddafi’s overthrow.

Jonathan Chait is not an outlier among pundits in this regard. I chose to write about him because he’s a recent example of a larger problem of pundits rarely admitting their mistakes. In an interview with Andrew Neil of the BBC, Ben Shapiro was asked about his comments claiming “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue,” and his use of the term “JINO” (Jews in name only) to refer to Jewish American Liberals. The actual Breitbart article accusing Obama Jewish voters of being JINOs was taken down following Shapiro’s departure from Breitbart.

In response to Neil’s arguments, Ben Shapiro offers several deflections (occasionally accusing the notoriously right-wing Neil of being a left partisan) but most interesting is when he points out that he has “an entire website of dumb and bad things I’ve said.” That’s true, though the list is behind a paywall. The issue is that his argument only amounts to admitting those quotes themselves exist. Though he tries to imply it, Shapiro’s argument is not that he no longer agrees with them, his argument is that the expiration date on using them has passed. Throughout the conversation, Shapiro demands that Neil ignore the specific comments for a broad critique of his philosophy, but it’s not as if one doesn’t inform the other. It’s the same issue with Chait. He’ll admit he wrote something bad, but his fundamental arguments remain intact. As an argument, they’re just calling a foul on using their words.

My issue here isn’t that everyone needs to always carry everything they’ve ever said; it’s that acknowledging that you were wrong and “learning a lesson” are not the same thing. Jonathan Chait supported Iraq, got it wrong by his own admission, and then supported Libya. The ethics of American invasion are still taken for granted. And on the issue of the 2015-16 elections, Chait claiming Trump lacked the coalition to win should be a stain on his record. Admitting he got it wrong didn’t stop him from making broad predictions about the viability of candidates now.