Issues as commodities from Politician vendors
Commentators from both the left and the right would benefit if they considered their roles in literary journalism. The intellectual laziness is stunning in its arrogance, as we hear speaker after speaker trot out the identical themes with minor variations.
Ok Ok. We heard the theme that progressives are disappointed in the president’s”failure” with [fill in the blank issue]. How does the drama play out? Insurrection against the once popular leader from his enemies and impatient supporters alike is a timeless drama. One might think that astute politicos would have sufficient access to history to avoid this cycle. Both right and left are united in casting the leader as a failure. It is unclear to me whether any but a handful of commentators are even conscious that they are story tellers and their choice of story has any relation to the story made real in elections and legislation. If the fingers are ever pointed in their directions, they absolve themselves of any responsibility. Oh No- they were not engaging in pro-cyclical mindless parroting of a narrative that gained currency in the 24/7 news cycle- They were simply reporting the facts that happened to be inconvenient for the leader. Donning the Lilly white garments of empiricist journalism, the commentator engages in the farcical pretension of floating above the fray, angelic, representing all sides with third person omniscient detachment.
Consider the October 2, 2011 Sunday show Up with Chris Hayes (video skip to 3:28). In it we hear an echo chamber effect from 3 commentators. We hear the Obama-as-Poltician- generating-cover for a failure theme, the “Politician doing a bait and switch from what the LGBT community really want” theme, and the “Why is the poltician taking so long to fulfill my demands (wait my table)” theme. These sorts of acidic narratives are replayed both by the right and left. From the right we hear from Tea party faithful about how establishment republicans have sold them out, and on the left we hear similar refrains about sell out politicians in near perfect replication from the multitude of interest groups under the big tent of the democrats. The public gets a shiny new toy for a leader, and when it fails to deliver whatever golden egg they were expecting, they systematically take their frustrations out on the toy, finally destroying and discarding it in favor of the next new toy. In many respects, this is what the excellent Vanity Fair articleabout California’s relationship with its action hero governor was about.Accusing the president of being hesitant to spend political capital is incomprehensible- was the president unwilling to spend capital on health care reform (something that has been in the democratic platform for 30 years but not delivered on until Obama)- was he unwilling to spend it to gain passage of the enormous stimulus bill that halted the economy’s free fall in 2008? I don’t mean to pick on Cohan- he wanted Obama to have spent the capital instead on the radical steps Cohan says should have been taken during the financial crisis (He makes a very good point, and his analysis of Goldman is important for everyone to understand). Regarding the other two commentators, I also assume good faith- I think they had the overt intention of doing something positive- of pointing out how much more there was to be done, and want to encourage him to use confrontation more.
What should not be overlooked was that the three were resonating a particular theme dominant in the right wing echo chamber. This may have something to do with why #upwithchris twitter commenters decried the low quality of that particular Sunday show. I don’t think folks were looking for a cheering section for the President. Instead they want to hear insightful issues analysis rather than the echo chamber, pro-cyclic personality and motivation dominated “analysis” common on weekend talk shows. It was ironic that the solitary insightful statement in the entire first segment made was not by a liberal but rather by conservative Reihan Salam. He reminded the panel of Frank Rich’s excellent point that the polling numbers have shifted dramatically on LGBT issues so Fox and other politicians were virtually silent, realizing that spewing homophobic rhetoric offers only political disadvantages. The narrative Salam is offering is that Obama is opportunistically picking low hanging fruit, and the other groups like Latinos with more difficult goals will be left to feel like “their back is not getting scratched”. It is a phrasing that corrupts the public’s attitudes towards public servants, but at least it is not in the tired narrative of the loser action hero who is discovered to be a phony.
I’m not sure which is worse. The cynical politician who only does the easy reforms first, or the superhero politician who is discovered to be an incompetent charlatan.
Fortunately, Hayes provides a positive narrative of how what he called “Obamaism” is actually a triumph over the divisive partisan warfare advocated by both ends of the political spectrum. He points out that the “Don’t ask Don’t tell” (DADT) repeal was a process victory, and how radical this shift in process was from Bush-Cheney political cudgel techniques. Cohan finds this process contradictory, using the terms of Pledges and so on as if Obama was playing by Norquist rules.
Hayes’s writes a new narrative of the slow walk consensus building that produces overwhelming political force around an issue to gain passage without resort to divisive partisan rhetoric. It is heroic, triumphal, hope filled and gives the public heart rather than contributing to the corruption of the public’s attitudes towards governance.
Journalists have a choice… They can continue to be the willing participants in the normal cycle that demands nothing of the electorate. We want services but no new taxes. We want aggressive change but want it for free- as if all that is required is a trip to the polling booth to eliminate entrenched sets of laws and regulations supported by vast networks of vested interests.
We believe Morph “Yes We can” into Yes He Can”, then turn on the leader when he doesn’t instantly save the day single handed with his superhuman oratory but no ruling majorities in either house of congress. Journalists are in a codependent relationship with a public unwilling to maintain an attention span longer than the tail end of an election campaign. Journalists who buck the ordinary narratives are tuned out- their producers become concerned about their sagging ratings.
That is until we run across Journalists of the caliber of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.