Monday, August 25, 2008

The fundamental problem with US politics

As the Democratic Convention gets under way in Denver, now is a good time to step back and wonder just what makes American politics so incredibly disfunctional. I think a good place to start is the media. Take this clip, for example:

That blathering idiot was Mark Halperin, a well-respected political writer on TIME magazine's payroll. To recap, McCain's housing gaffe was bad news for Obama because now McCain will be forced to go negative.

What fucking planet has Mark Halperin been on? Did he somehow forget the past couple months, during which McCain has been relentlessly negative, sometimes disgustingly so? And what makes this genius think that the Republicans wouldn't push the Rezko/Ayers stuff anyway? Only in the world of these moronic beltway reporters is McCain not knowing how many fucking houses he owns good news for McCain.

So the housing gaffe was bad news for Obama, because everything is good news for McCain. That's why this election is going to be an uphill battle, no matter how bad the fundamentals are for the Republicans. The media will always defer to Saint Maverick, they will always play up the horserace/neck and neck aspect whether it is warranted or not, they will always draw equivalence between baseless smears against Democrats and valid criticisms directed at Republicans.

Liberal media, you say? Ha! Whatever they are, they sure aren't "liberal", unless "liberal" means doing their very best to tear down the Democratic candidate, mindlessly repeating every baseless smear, lie and attack on their patriotism that the Republicans volunteer. We saw it with Gore, we saw it with Kerry, and now we're seeing it with Obama.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush was repeatedly portrayed as a salt of the earth cowboy who you'd like to have a beer with, and who is a strong and decisive leader. John McCain is a war hero who always stands up for what he believes in, even when it means bucking his party (never mind that he's flip-flopped on 74 different issues or that he voted with Bush more than 90% of the time last year).

American democracy is being very poorly served by its farcical political press, this much is clear. But the American public must also take its fair share of the blame.

I'm not going to say that the American electorate is less intelligent or more ignorant than the electorates in other democracies, because that isn't fair. The truth is that a lot of voters in every democracy are unintelligent and/or ignorant. It's an imperfect system; there will always be voters making uninformed choices. But that's why we have the media, to cut through as much of the spin as possible, and give people a clear picture of where the parties stand on the issues that are important to them.

When the media utterly fails to do this, as in the US, and voters do not have a clear understanding of the candidates' policies, voters tend to vote based on other things. Who sounds more confident (Democrats tend to give nuanced answers, so they appear less confident in what they are saying)? Who would they rather have a beer with? Who has the more scandalous personal life? Hilzoy has a good post up in which she bemoans this lack of focus on what is important, and how it almost invariably benefits McCain.

When these things obscure the real issues, you have events like the 2004 election, in which a disastrous President was nevertheless reelected. On policy, there was no comparison. But Kerry was boring. He was too intellectual, too nuanced for the American public. And when the election became obscured by bullshit like the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, it gave Bush an opening that he would not otherwise have had. And the media played along. They did the obscuring. What got more coverage during the 2004 campaign, windsurfing or budget deficits? The Swiftboaters or the environment? "Elitism" or the importance of developing alternative energy?

At every step of the way, the media was only too eager to play along. It gave them an easily presentable campaign narrative; "Kerry is weak and a flip-flopper," "Kerry is too elitist and can't connect with Middle America," "Bush is a strong and decisive wartime leader". It didn't matter who was right, just as it won't this year. The candidate who best manipulates and spins the media will win this year, just as in 2004. And that is a depressing thought.

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