The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Identifying Groupthink

July 28, 2010

Many of the Journolist critics have expressed concerns that the listserv’s membership — you had to be political “center to left” to join — fomented groupthink.

Andrew Sullivan’s critique is succinct, but he’s hardly alone in leveling the charge: “It is this tendency to groupthink and exclusivity that concerns me.”

Reihan Salam, who was generally sympathetic to Journolist in an on-line piece he wrote last week, has recalibrated his argument to criticize J-list about the alleged groupthink problem:

What I meant to say, and evidently didn’t say very effectively, is that JList is inevitable. So the best we can do is criticize pernicious groupthink, which is where the tendency of “like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out” goes badly wrong.

The irony, of course, is that this widely embraced criticism (and a few others) — emanating mostly from opinion writers on the right, but resonating throughout the right-wing blogosphere and other media outlets — actually reflects the kind of pack journalism the critics purport to be criticizing.

Of course, critics have lept to this conclusion without any real evidence. Only a tiny fraction of the more than 10,000 Journolist emails have been reproduced publicly and no one has demonstrated that the listmembers (like me) unthinkingly mimiced any kind of ideological line in their public writing.

There is actually another important example of hypocrisy embedded in Salam’s latest piece as well, as the young writer reveals his early days in journalism:

I did work at The New Republic as an intern in 2001, and I spent most of my time there, and as a freelancer the year after, beating the drum for the invasion of Iraq.

Political scientists argued as early as the 2002 buildup to war that the Iraq war drums reflected groupthink. First impressions were apparently accurate — and the media played along with the dominant narrative.

As one final point, keep in mind that “groupthink” worrywart Andrew Sullivan embraced the Iraq war like my sister once embraced David Cassidy.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.