How to Begin All Political Interviews
I am a voracious consumer of political news on all media—TV, radio, Internet and print. To put my cards on the table at the outset, I consider myself an independent voter, which is not to say that I don’t have strong views, but rather that some of them lean right (such as the right to free speech on campus, tort reform, the deficit and border security) and some of them lean left (such as the environment, voter suppression, gerrymandering and gun- related issues). Like many centrist Americans, I decry polarization in America and think that those who are at the more extreme ends of the political spectrum (seemingly becoming a larger and larger portion of the electorate by the day) present an existential threat to our country, more so even than a military attack, or an economic calamity.
With the foregoing in mind, it has always been my fervent belief that every political interview—especially when conducted with politicians or pundits who are either extremely liberal or extremely conservative—should begin with a very specific question, and then, depending on the answer to that specific question, should be followed up with a second specific question. Unfortunately, despite listening to thousands of interviews, I have never heard either of these questions posed in a single interview.
The first question is as follows: On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the most liberal, and 10 being the most conservative, where would you place yourself on that spectrum? (In other words, every point move in either direction represents a 10% shift from liberal views to conservative views or vice versa. So for example, if you give yourself an 8, that means you perceive yourself as 80% conservative and 20% not conservative, or liberal.)
This question seems, paradoxically, both innocuous and yet overly personal at the same time. Yet, it is neither, and in fact, it is a wonderful, though never-asked question. If someone is going to give an interview and express political opinions in the process, then the listener or reader deserves to know where that person is coming from in terms of their underlying overall political philosophy. As we know from Miles Law (named after Rufus Miles, an administrator under Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson): “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
In other words, if I know in advance that a politician or commentator considers him or herself extremely liberal and conservative, I can probably guess in advance his or her views will be on issues such as gun control or abortion. Moreover, if that speaker gives an opinion that is not in keeping with your “number”, I may be inclined to give that opinion more weight than if that was not the case.
The question is also not inappropriately personal or private. Indeed, if an interviewee is going to foist their political views upon us, then their degree of liberalism or conservatism should not be a secret. Therefore, before commentators give people their views, I would like to know how they evaluate yourself along my spectrum. A man cannot on one hand be heard to complain “That’s a personal question!”, but then give us his opinions, some of the issues which underlie that “personal question.”
While my first prayed-for question is obviously useful in cases where the interviewees are on the lower end of the fame spectrum, it is just as useful when posed to famous people. The fact that we may ascribe our own number along my spectrum to a famous interviewee does not mean that they ascribe the same number to themselves, and that difference may itself be fascinating.
In response to the first question, interviewees have two choices: either they can give themselves a number towards one of the extremes —say 1-3 or 8-10, or they can give themselves a more “moderate” number, say 4-7. If their views truly are on one of the extremes, then they will paint themselves into a corner no matter what answer they give. This is where my second question comes in, and it depends on what answer is given to the first question (although I consider the second question as more optional, especially if the interviewer does not want to be perceived as confrontational).
If they answer to the first question with a very high or low number (say 1-2 or 9-10), then the follow-up question should be: “If your views are correct, then why should the “other” political party exist at all? Why don’t we simply have a one-party country—namely your party?” I can’t imagine that there are too many people in America—even the Sean Hannity’s or Rachel Maddow’s of the world—who would come right out and say: “Yes, I believe that we should get rid of the “other” political party entirely so that only “my” political party would remain. I think that a one-party system is best for America.” I believe that such an extreme viewpoint would be categorically rejected by everyone on both sides of the political aisle, no matter how extreme.
Another consequence of giving oneself a number of 1-2 or 9-10 is that, while it may be honest, it is also kind of an embarrassing answer. In other words, in addition to apparently advocating a one-party system, it means that there are no nuances in the person’s political views. Everything is black and white for that person. Subtlety and shades of gray are completely absent. Thus, if you are a 1 or a 10, there is probably no need for me to ask your opinion as to hot-button issues such as abortion, the environment, immigration, defense spending, voter suppression (or, if you’re a conservative, voter fraud), the government safety net, gun control, or any of the other issues which dominate today’s headlines. I already know where you stand. I don’t think that anyone wants to be thought of as robotic, predictable, and with no nuance to our views.
Let us now assume that for the foregoing reasons, the extremist interviewee is “hip to the question,” and does not want himself or herself to be perceived as a reflexive extremist on either side of the political spectrum. Therefore, they give themselves a more “moderate” number then may actually be the case, say in the 3-7 range. In that case, especially if the interviewer believes that the interviewees are falsely attempting to portray themselves as more moderate than they really are, that “moderate number” leads to our other second alternate question: “Given that you have not evaluated yourself as a pure liberal or a pure conservative, please provide examples of issues on which you are more liberal (if the person gave a high number) or examples of issues on which you are more conservative (if the person gave a low number).”
I suspect that, in many cases, the extremists who have tried to hide would be hard-pressed to give an answer to that question, because every example given would chip away at their ideological purity. Moreover, in today’s extremely polarized era—especially were the most polarized among us are the ones who appear on cable news and talk radio—it may be considered sacrilegious for any of them to say: “Even though I consider myself a conservative, here are the issues on which I am more liberal …”. Would the Sean Hannity’s or Rachel Maddow’s of the world ever admit to such heresy?
There is not a day that goes by where one doesn’t hear multiple interviews where these two questions (or at least the first question) would have been perfect to begin the interview. By way of example, on March 26, 2018, Tucker Carlson interviewed a woman named Katie Hopkins, a British journalist who works for a site called Rebel Media. She was on to discuss the fact that she had spent a weekend in what they referred to as "skid row—tent city" in Los Angeles. The purpose of the segment was to revisit to one of Carlson's favorite themes, namely the collapse of California (read: collapse of states and cities controlled by "the left").
Carlson was well aware that neither Ms. Hopkins nor Rebel Media are well known in America, and thus he began the segment by saying that "Rebel Media's Katie Hopkins came over from London, and spent the weekend in downtown Los Angeles.” He then stated—and this is key—"You're not from the United States, you don't live here, and thus, I think you have a fresher perspective." In other words, the subtext of his comment and the signal he was trying to send to his audience is that this was a "foreigner", someone with no ax to grind, someone who cannot be stereotyped as a liberal or conservative. In other words, he was trying to imply to his audience that she was an impartial observer, and thus we can assume that she may get a 5 on my 1-10 scale.
At first, I was assuming exactly what Carlson wanted the audience to assume. However, as the segment went on, and I listened to her answers, I began to have my suspicions as to just how much of a "fresh perspective" she actually had, because she sounded a lot like a fervently conservative person. For example, she said, "it's no wonder that Democrats would rather talk about sanctuary cities or dreamers, because that sounds so much nicer than potential Bubonic plague." I then looked her up, and sure enough, Wikipedia describes Rebel Media as a "Canadian far-right website.” Her bio suggests that her beliefs align closely with those of the sight.
In my ideal world, this is exactly the kind of segment that should have begun with my two questions (or at least the first question). If Hopkins had answered the question truthfully by giving herself a 9 or 10, that would be truthful, but it would have immediately colored the listener’s perspective as to the answers she gave for the rest of the interview. However, if she tried to present herself as being more of a moderate by giving herself a lower number , that would call her truthfulness into question (especially if one reads her biography) and also, she should then have to provide examples of areas in which she considers herself more of a liberal than a conservative (and there probably are none).
I'm not imagining that Carlson would actually ask these questions of this woman because it would have ruined her mirage of neutrality. Remember, he advised us that she had a “fresh perspective.” The point is however that this interview is exactly the kind that one hears day after day, in every medium. If Carlson had asked her even the first question alone, her answer-- no matter it was -- would be telling and informative. My second question is always an optional follow-up, it is not required. In other words, the interviewer answer can choose to pose the first question only, and then let the answer just “hang out there” without being challenged. If every political interview began only with my first question, that would still be good enough for me.
Why are these two questions so important? First, I think it is a very useful way of getting some of our public figures to be forced to admit to their extremism, which I don’t think most people are comfortable doing, even the true extremists among us. I would think that most people would be embarrassed if their true number was a 1 or a 10 for the reasons given. Second, if a person accurately grades themselves at one of the extremes, it automatically colors our opinion about whatever views they are about to give on the subject at hand. Third, whether the interviewee’s number is accurate or not, it is revelatory for the listener to know exactly how the interviewee perceives himself or herself (or, just as interestingly, pretends to) in terms of where they are on the political spectrum.
I’ll be listening to see if the political interviewers in our media decide to take me up on my suggestion, and if so, I can’t wait to hear the responses!