Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Campaign About Nothing

Russell: What's the show about?
George: Nothing.
Russell: Then why am I watching it?
George: Because it's on TV. [1]

A quarter century after Seinfeld parodied itself, the Republican candidates for President have taken that iconic program to its logical conclusion - a reductio ad absurdum exercise in banality aided and abetted by a willing press corps more interested in acting performances, manufactured slap fights, and triviality than the important business of deciding who should be our nation's leader.

This bizarre incentive structure encourages over-the-top behavior to garner media attention. As was noted on (of all places) The McLaughlin Group, many of the questions posed in the second GOP debate were modeled on (of all things) The Real Housewives franchise, where one "housewife" says something mean about another "housewife" and then the latter is asked to comment on what the former said. Essentially, Jake Tapper acted as that smarmy kid in school who walks up to someone and says "you won't believe the shit so and so said about you" and then steps away to watch the fight.  

Further, because so much of the "reporting" that goes on these days focuses on the horse race aspect of the primary (that is, on polls, not policy), it is no wonder that a guy like Donald Trump spends most of what passes for his stump speeches patting himself on the back for leading in those polls. Polls = popularity = attention by the chattering class = more popularity = higher polls in a virtuous cycle that redounds to the benefit of whoever is riding the crest of that wave.

While the media has done its best to ridicule and mock Trump, demand policy prescriptions from him, and otherwise attempt to pierce his balloon, the dirty little secret they are reluctant to admit is that his popularity, along with that of Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and even Ted Cruz, reflects the true mainstream of Republican orthodoxy. The longer this goes on, the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway that the "adults in the room" - the Jeb Bushes or John Kasichs - will bubble to the surface once Republican primary voters get their wits about them, looks more and more foolish. 

Perhaps this is because the idea that policies matter is no longer applicable in a party that does not live in the (to borrow from a W-era apparatchik) "reality-based world." When a large portion of your party does not believe the President is a Christian or that the deficit has gone down on his watch not up, objective "truth" no longer matters. That insiders are stunned at Trump's rise is amusing if only because he espouses little more than the greatest hits from Fox News in the age of Obama - anchor babies, illegal immigration, repealing Obamacare, a weak foreign policy - while putting some New York attitude behind it. 

And even if policies did matter, the media is doing a lousy job reporting about them. Do not get me wrong, it is not like they provide no coverage of policy pronouncements, it is just that the proportion of that coverage is a fraction of the ink and airtime used on the latest dust-up or Trump insult. Examples abound, but to take just two, consider Jeb Bush's tax policy. It was announced about 2 weeks ago to almost no fanfare even though an analysis of it indicated that more than 53% of the benefits of his policy would benefit the top 1% of income earners. [2] What coverage was provided focused mainly on his willingness to scrap the so-called "carried interest" loophole, an idea championed by Democrats for years and recently supported by Donald Trump. Bush got a lot of credit in the media for including this idea, but the reality is that the loophole's closure would bring in less than $20 billion a year to the Treasury - less than 1% of the overall "cost" of Bush's plan - and his other giveaways to the wealthy would more than make up for this loss. In other words, Bush got credit for taking a penny away from the rich and no criticism for giving them a dollar in return. 

Similarly, Carly Fiorina was roundly praised for her performance at the second GOP debate. She was declared the winner because she seemed in control of the room and fluent in both foreign and domestic policy. Of course, a riff about the Sixth Fleet and increasing troops in Western Europe sounded impressive, and she spoke with great passion (but little accuracy) about Planned Parenthood, but within a day, four (!) falsehoods or misstatements she uttered in a scant 15 seconds were flagged. [3] Those errors, which once upon a time would have mattered - flat out lies used to mean something - were brushed aside because she was being judged not on the probity of what she said, but what it did for her, wait for it, poll numbers. She was, to use the media's preferred buzzword this cycle, "authentic," even if she was lying through her teeth.

In Matt Bai's outstanding book All The Truth Is Out he argues that the tabloidization of national media coverage began in 1988, when Gary Hart's campaign was taken down amid rumors of an extramarital affair and peaked during Bill Clinton's time in office. Since then, while sex still sells, caricaturing candidates has proven equally effective in belittling them - Al Gore was a phony, John Kerry was an effete flip-flopper, Mitt Romney, a soulless corporate takeover artist (ok, that last one was true) - while excusing the press from doing its job of questioning the ideas, not the motivations or personalities, of those they cover. If Jeb Bush's idea to privatize Medicare, Mike Huckabee's suggestion that the rule of law can be ignored, or Lindsey Graham's call for tens of thousands of troops in Iraq get a <shoulder shrug emoji> from the press because they are too busy dissecting Donald Trump's latest insult, why should they be surprised that candidates traffic in invective, the populace is so ill informed, and we blankly stare at the freak show on television?

That candidates are going to respond to the best ways to get attention is unsurprising - after all, they are politicians trying to get elected, but the media has abdicated its role as fact checker in favor of becoming carnival barkers because their incentive structure is no longer built on objectivity, but rather, on ratings, clicks, and page views.  

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1. The Pitch, Season 4, Episode 3.

2. On this, he has outdone his brother, who "only" handed over 40% of the benefits of his tax cuts to the 1%.



  1. exercise in banality aided and abetted by a willing press corps more interested in acting performances, manufactured slap fights, and triviality

    Democracy has become Demockery.

    Thanks, corporate overlords.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. We are going to entertain ourselves to death & the media is making it possible.