It stands to reason that someone, somewhere, thinks Chris Cillizza is good at political commentary. The Washington Post kept him on for 12 years, after all, before CNN hired him away this March, apparently on purpose.
That someone, however, was not in evidence on Tuesday afternoon, when Cillizza decided it was a good idea to invite random strangers to ask him questions on Reddit. He got the ball rolling by introducing his newly launched project, the Point With Chris Cillizza, as “a multiplatform brand that helps you cut through the crap,” not bothering to cut through the crap of his own description. It was all downhill from there.
To his credit, Cillizza seemed unfazed as one Redditor after another rightly eviscerated him for his glib approach to political analysis, in which there is no such thing as right and wrong, only winners and losers.
Cillizza largely ignored the barbs, opting to answer softballs such as “How did you get your first job in journalism?” and “Chris, how much do you really make?” (His reassuring answer: definitely less than $10 million per year.)
He did, however, give precisely one illuminating answer, which helped to simultaneously explain what makes him such a bad pundit and why the criticism of his punditry seems to roll off his back. It came when he graciously responded to a question from Fusion’s Libby Watson, which the r/politics moderators had apparently deleted in a misguided and ultimately fruitless effort to stem the flood of brutally critical questions. Cillizza paraphrased Watson’s question as, “Why do so many journalists think you suck?” His answer was essentially a shrug emoji in prose form:
Here’s the key passage: “And I know it is fun for some people to call me an ‘insufferable hack’ or something similar. That’s ok. I understand that they feel that way. But I can’t—and won’t—spend my days swimming in a sea of negativity. It’s not a healthy way to live.”
Cillizza understands that people feel he’s an insufferable hack. But he clearly doesn’t understand why people might reasonably believe he’s an insufferable hack. That’s because he refuses to consider the possibility that criticism might be substantive—that is, grounded in evidence and argumentation. Instead, he writes it off as “negativity,” which he can then disregard on the grounds that it’s unhealthy. This rules out a priori the possibility that the critics could be right or that he might at least learn something from them.
That may be a tenable stance for a lifestyle guru or a self-help author. But that deep-seated aversion to uncomfortable truths is a big part of what makes Cillizza such a disastrous pundit. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the health care debate is a life-or-death issue for millions of people—so he reduces it to smiley and frowny faces. It’s uncomfortable to think that our country is being run by an unhinged megalomaniac and pathological liar and that one of the two major parties has mortgaged its conscience to support him—and so he covers Trump and the Republicans the same way he covers everyone else, focused always on the optics of their latest moves rather than the substance of the damage they’re doing.
In his Twitter bio, Cillizza features a quote from Trump, in which the president called him “one of the dumber and least respected of the political pundits.” Cillizza’s use of the quote comes across as self-effacing and good-humored, if also a bit of a humblebrag (I’m important enough to have been dissed by the president!). The irony is that it happens to be true.