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Writing While Biased

Max Stearns

I’m biased. I’m a blogger, professor, and author. I am now writing a book on how to save our democracy. This post isn’t about the book’s central claims. It’s about the process of writing it. Writing while biased.

Over the course of the writing my forthcoming book, “Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy” (forthcoming 2024 JHU Press), I’ve asked thoughtful friends and colleagues to read drafts and provide comments. Without exception I’ve benefited greatly from their reactions. As with virtually anything I write, the ultimate work product will unquestionably be improved for their efforts.

Commenting on someone else’s writing is an act of tremendous generosity. Nobody does it because they anticipate being thanked in prefatory materials; they do so because they’re committed to the project of improving cultural or academic discourse, along with promoting mutual understanding. They believe in the process of writing and publishing as a core part of the project of conveying ideas. I deeply respect everyone who has been generous with me in this way. That doesn’t imply embracing all responses. Indeed, reasoning through disagreements is among the most significant benefits of writerly engagement.

An emerging theme among some readers is that I should better mask my biases. I’ve been told that in diagnosing the fundamental failures of our democracy and explaining how to fix it, I too readily expose my views on the current political landscape and on several underlying questions of law and public policy. I know these commenters intend to benefit me, and I’ve thought deeply about it. I’m compelled to come out otherwise.

It might be surprising that as author of this blog, “Blindspot: A Blog About Law, Politics, and Culture,” which assumes that across the ideological spectrum everyone has blind spots, I’m disinclined to mask my biases, especially in writing such an important book. But it’s mistaken to assume that masking biases improves one’s ability point out others’ blind spots or to recognize one’s own.

Writing exposes an inevitable tradeoff. A writer can pretend not to hold biases yet have them emerge sub-textually, leaving the reader to question whether the author really is presenting her or his most important analytical claims dispassionately. Or a writer can make such biases known, and then explain why those with alternative or opposing biases nonetheless should agree on an identified set of core analytical claims as a starting point for conversation and mutual engagement. I’ve long been committed to the latter approach.

I'm certain that that I can learn from people who hold sharply different biases respecting most issues ripe for legitimate policy debate. And I’ll readily admit that one of my biases is certainty that not everything is ripe for legitimate policy debate. But the process of writing to persuade benefits by mutual awareness of biases, not by masking them and making it more difficult to isolate claims grounded in clearly articulated premises coupled with reasoned analysis.

I’m certain it’s better for writers to candidly expose their biases, not to pretend not to hold them. I occasionally wonder if some who admonish masking biases imagine that in doing so the writer will be more open to the biases of critics. I don’t believe that’s the case with my thoughtful commenters who know me too well. I’m confident that they believe such masking will benefit me as I seek to persuade readers of the merits of my claims. I simply think they’re wrong.

Among my biases are holding firm as a center-left Democrat, eschewing positions of the hard right, and believing the MAGA contingent, which has overtaken Republican Party, poses a serious threat to our democracy. I’m biased against those identifying as Democratic Socialists and many Progressives, who too readily disregard the role of markets in improving social welfare, yet who almost invariably perceive zero risk, ever, of governmental market failure. I’m biased in being certain that economic analysis, broadly understood, enriches our understanding of the world but can never dictate the resolution of questions of law and public policy devoid of external normative considerations. And I’m biased in believing that moderation doesn’t imply a lack of principle and that compromise doesn’t imply weakness. Those are some of my biases. With those on the table, I hope to explain, using clear and dispassionate analysis, why I’m certain that our democratic system is in crisis, that we need radical electoral reform if our democracy is to survive and thrive, and that I have critical insights that others are missing on how to do it. Those points will have to await another day.

I believe that informing readers of my biases strengthens my writing by making it more candid at the same time it makes my analysis more powerful and persuasive. I believe that those holding different or opposing biases, knowing mine, can take the journey with me (my book will take my readers on a virtual world tour) as I articulate fundamental analytical framings that don’t depend on my biases, but that reveal the root causes of our democratic failure and what we must do to overcome them.

I welcome your comments.

[Special thanks to Bob Condlin for insightful comments on an earlier draft.]

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