August 17, 2011

The Neverending Campaign

I don’t remember when the 24-hour news cycle kicked in. My big reference point is the days after 9/11, once the actual news died down, when the tickers that CNN and the rest started running along the bottom of the screen held on and became fixtures. But I’m sure it started well before then.

Likewise, I’m not certain when the political realm kicked into perpetual campaign mode. Nobody actually governs anymore, they just lurch from one electoral contest to the other. Maybe it’s always been like that and I was once too young to notice. Maybe it took the 24-hours news cycle to feed it. After all, when you’ve got no other news to digest, handicapping the presidential horserace is an easy way to fill time. Even if the first real vote is months away.

Which is a long way of saying I agree with just about everything that Glenn Greenwald had to say in his column yesterday. Far from simply noting the ongoing campaign season and bemoaning it, he does a good job of arguing why it’s actually bad for the country as a whole.

For one thing, Greenwald argues that the near exclusive focus on the campaigns helps obscure what those same politicians are actually doing in office. It also impacts the way the news media treats the whole business, turning into just another reality show that’s more focused on style and personalities rather than substance. That the bloviators are often wrong when it comes to the handicapping of the race in which they allegedly have some expertise (Greenwald mentions a Washington Post columnist who three weeks ago argued that questioning Tim Pawlenty’s chances was “silly,” but said of his withdrawal from the race over the weekend that it was “no great surprise”) is icing on the cake.

More detrimental, in my eyes, is how the relentless campaigning feeds the political tribalism that forms the debate in this country. Elections are either/or affairs (for the most part) and the constant campaign drumbeat makes it easy for people to slip into “my team rules, your team sucks!” positions without much thought. As Greenwald points out, that makes criticism of “your guy” more difficult and, therefore, less frequent and less helpful to the overall discussion.

And it goes beyond that:
Those depressing, destructive trends are exacerbated by the manipulative fear-mongering that drives these campaigns. Every four years, The Other Side is turned into the evil spawn of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. Each and every election cycle, each party claims that -- unlike in the past, when Responsible Moderates ruled and the "crazies" and radicals were relegated to the fringes (the Democrats were once the Party of Truman!; Ronald Reagan was a compromising moderate!) -- the other party has now been taken over by the extremists, making it More Dangerous Than Ever Before. That the Other Side is now ruled by Supreme Evil-Doers means that anything other than full-scale fealty to their defeat is viewed as heresy. Defeat of the Real Enemy is the only acceptable goal. Election-time partisan loyalty becomes the ultimate Litmus Test of whether you're on the side of Good: it's the supreme With-Us-or-With-the-Terrorists test, and few are willing to endure the punishments for failing it. It's an enforcement mechanism for Party loyalty that -- by design -- breeds slavish partisan fealty.

None of this has anything to do with reality.
How to solve the problem? I have no clue. Greenwald doesn’t offer any ideas, either. I sometimes hear people ask why we can’t have short to-the-point campaigns like they do in, say, the United Kingdom. That overlooks the wholesale differences in political structures and the presence of the First Amendment. It would be nearly impossible (and clearly unwise) to try and muzzle a potential candidate, or media outlet willing to cover her, for a certain amount of time before an election. We could always rely on the good taste and common sense of the American people, but only if we’re willing to ignore the fact that it’s what got us here in the first place.

The one place I disagree with Greenwald in this piece is the lament (as I’ve read elsewhere) that Ron Paul is being unfairly ignored in the wake of the results in Iowa last weekend. Greenwald argues he’s being made “all but an ‘unperson’ in Orwellian terms.” John Stewart, of course, makes the case in a more amusing way:

I think that overlooks two things.

First, the Ames Straw Poll is of dubious use as a predictor of electoral success. Of the five prior winners only one-and-a-half (Bob Dole and Phil Gramm shared the title in 1995) went on to win the GOP nomination and only one of them, Bush the Younger, went on to become president. It’s not quite the curse of death that the Best New Artist Grammy is, but it’s not much better.*

Second, the nature of the straw poll is that it serves candidates like Ron Paul, who have small but dedicated followings, very well. He’s done well in such forums before, as when he won the CPAC straw polls in 2010 and 2011, but those results never materialize into wider electoral support in caucuses and primaries. In other words, the media has seen this story before and knows how it ends. If there’s one thing the news media doesn’t want, it’s old news and Paul appears to be it.

I’m not saying the media should ignore Paul while he’s still in the race. The coverage would probably be richer for it. But it’s not “unfair” and I understand why they’ve moved on to newer, shinier people to cover.

Which, I suppose, goes back to Greenwald’s main point. So maybe he’s right after all. Fuck.

* Ironically enough, today at work I was listening to a lot of stuff from Frank Zappa’s 1988 tour, which including lots of digs at the idea of a Pat Robertson presidency. Robertson won the Ames poll in 1987. He didn’t get the GOP nomination.

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