The misery of the protracted presidential campaign season

Tuck in for some cheap, empty, accountability-free punditry -- also called "coverage of the presidential campaign"

Published August 16, 2011 11:17AM (EDT)

Rick Perry at the Iowa State Fair on Monday.
Rick Perry at the Iowa State Fair on Monday.

The 2012 presidential election is 15 months away.  The first primary vote will not be cast until almost six months from now.  Despite that, the political media are obsessed -- to the exclusion of most other issues -- with the cast of characters vying for the presidency and, most of all, with the soap opera dynamic among them.  It is not a new observation that the American media covers presidential elections exactly like a reality TV show pageant: deeply Serious political commentators spent the last week mulling whether Tim P. would be voted off the island, bathing in the excitement of Rick P. joining the cast, and dramatically contemplating what would happen if Sarah P. enters the house.  But there are some serious implications from this prolonged fixation that are worth noting.

First, the fact that presidential campaigns dominate news coverage for so long is significant in itself.  From now until next November, chatter, gossip and worthless speculation about the candidates' prospects will drown out most other political matters.  That's what happened in 2008: essentially from mid-2007 through the November, 2008 election, very little of what George Bush and Dick Cheney did with the vast power they wielded -- and very little of what Wall Street was doing -- received any attention at all.  Instead, media outlets endlessly obsessed on the Hillary v. Giuliani showdown, then on the Hillary v. Barack psycho-drama, and then finally on the actual candidates nominated by their parties.  

Obviously, at least in theory, presidential campaigns are newsworthy.  But consider the impact from the fact that they dominate media coverage for so long, drowning out most everything else.  A presidential term is 48 months; that the political media is transfixed by campaign coverage for 18 months every cycle means that a President can wield power with substantially reduced media attention for more than 1/3 of his term.  Thus, he can wage a blatantly illegal war in Libya for months on end, work to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past his repeatedly touted deadline, scheme to cut Social Security and Medicare as wealth inequality explodes and thereby please the oligarchical base funding his campaign, use black sites in Somalia to interrogate Terrorist suspects, all while his Party's Chairwoman works literally to destroy Internet privacy -- all with virtually no attention paid.

Paradoxically, nothing is more effective in distracting citizenry attention away from events of genuine political significance than the protracted carnival of presidential campaigns.  It's not merely the duration that accomplishes this, but also how it is conducted.  Obviously, how the candidates brand-market themselves has virtually nothing to do with what they do in power; the 2008 Obama campaign, which justifiably won awards from the advertising industry for how it marketed its product (Barack Obama), conclusively proved that; or recall the 2000 George W. Bush's campaign vow for a "more humble" foreign policy.

But worse still is that the media coverage all but ignores even these pretenses of policy positions in lieu of vapid, trite, conventional-wisdom horse-race coverage -- who will be the next American Idol? -- that virtually all ends up being worthless.  Over and over, commentary throughout 2007 fixated on the inevitability of Hillary and Giuliani, the death of McCain's GOP candidacy, and various other forms of trivial idiocies; now we are bombarded with identical forms of shallow, speculative chatter from self-proclaimed experts who know nothing and babble about the most ultimately irrelevant matters (as but one illustrative example, see this bit of prescient brilliance from Jonathan Bernstein in The Washington Post a mere three weeks ago, mocking as "silly" the notion that the Pawlenty campaign was in trouble ("It's time to buy Tim Pawlenty stock. . . . He remains a very viable candidate in a field without many of them"); then once Pawlenty dropped out a mere 22 days later, Bernstein went to his blog to proclaim it "no great surprise").  That's the cheap, easy, empty, accountability-free, trivial punditry nonsense -- called "coverage of the presidential campaign" -- that swamps political discourse for a full year-and-a-half.

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But coverage of these presidential campaigns has even more pernicious effects than mere distraction.  They are also vital in bolstering orthodoxies and narrowing the range of permitted views.  Few episodes demonstrate how that works better than the current disappearing of Ron Paul, all but an "unperson" in Orwellian terms.  He just finished a very close second to Michele Bachmann in the Ames poll, yet while she went on all five Sunday TV shows and dominated headlines, he was barely mentioned.  He has raised more money than any GOP candidate other than Romney, and routinely polls in the top 3 or 4 of GOP candidates in national polls, yet -- as Jon Stewart and Politico's Roger Simon have both pointed out -- the media have decided to steadfastly pretend he does not exist, leading to absurdities like this:

 And this:

There are many reasons why the media is eager to disappear Ron Paul despite his being a viable candidate by every objective metric.  Unlike the charismatic Perry and telegenic Bachmann, Paul bores the media with his earnest focus on substantive discussions.  There's also the notion that he's too heterodox for the purist GOP primary base, though that was what was repeatedly said about McCain when his candidacy was declared dead. 

But what makes the media most eager to disappear Paul is that he destroys the easy, conventional narrative -- for slothful media figures and for Democratic loyalists alike.  Aside from the truly disappeared former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (more on him in a moment), Ron Paul is far and away the most anti-war, anti-Surveillance-State, anti-crony-capitalism, and anti-drug-war presidential candidate in either party.  How can the conventional narrative of extremist/nationalistic/corporatist/racist/warmongering GOP v. the progressive/peaceful/anti-corporate/poor-and-minority-defending Democratic Party be reconciled with the fact that a candidate with those positions just virtually tied for first place among GOP base voters in Iowa?  Not easily, and Paul is thus disappeared from existence.  That the similarly anti-war, pro-civil-liberties, anti-drug-war Gary Johnson is not even allowed in media debates -- despite being a twice-elected popular governor -- highlights the same dynamic.

It is true, as Booman convincingly argues, that "the bigfoot reporters move like a herd" and "put[ their] fingers on the scales in elections all the time."  But sometimes that's done for petty reasons (such as their 2000 swooning for George Bush's personality and contempt for Al Gore's); in this case, it is being done (with the effect if not intent) to maintain simplistic partisan storylines and exclude important views from the discourse. 

However much progressives find Paul's anti-choice views to be disqualifying (even if the same standard is not applied to Good Democrats Harry Reid or Bob Casey), and even as much as Paul's domestic policies are anathema to liberals (the way numerous positions of Barack Obama ostensibly are: war escalation, due-process-free assassinations, entitlement cuts, and whistleblower wars anyone?), shouldn't progressives be eager to have included in the discourse many of the views Paul uniquely advocates?  After all, these are critical, not ancillary, positions, such as: genuine opposition to imperialism and wars; warnings about the excesses of the Surveillance State, executive power encroachments, and civil liberties assaults; and attacks on the one policy that is most responsible for the unjustifiable imprisonment of huge numbers of minorities and poor and the destruction of their families and communities: Drug Prohibition and the accompanying War to enforce it.  GOP primary voters are supporting a committed anti-war, anti-surveillance candidate who wants to stop imprisoning people (dispropriationately minorities) for drug usage; Democrats, by contrast, are cheering for a war-escalating, drone-attacking, surveillance-and-secrecy-obsessed drug warrior.

The steadfast ignoring of Ron Paul -- and the truly bizarre un-personhood of Gary Johnson -- has ensured that, yet again, those views will be excluded and the blurring of partisan lines among ordinary citizens on crucial issues will be papered over.  That's precisely the opposite effect that a healthy democratic election would produce.

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Perhaps the worst outcome of the protracted obsession with presidential campaigns is how it intensifies partisan tribalism, and bolsters divisions among ordinary Americans who have far more in common than differences.  I recall a conversation I had early on in the Obama presidency with a civil libertarian; at the time, progressives were rarely critical of the new President, but because civil liberties was the very first area where he so blatantly embraced Bush policies and revealed how he truly operates, that was the one area where harsh criticisms were somewhat common.  I suggested in that conversation that the trend of progressive criticism of Obama would be expressed by an inverted "U":  it would continuously increase as the Real Obama revealed himself in more and more areas of prime importance to progressives, and then would decline precipitously -- more or less back to its original levels -- as the 2012 election approached.  I think that's being roughly borne out.

Because presidential elections are such a stark either/or affair, many people feel compelled to choose one side and then elevate its victory into the overarching -- even the only -- political priority that matters.  For that reason, even those willing to criticize their own side's Leader a couple of years before the election become unwilling to do so as the election approaches, on the ground that nothing matters except boosting one's own team and undermining the other.  That, in turn, further reduces the already-low levels of independence, intellectual honesty, and -- most importantly --  accountability for those in power.

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.  For as long as I can remember, Republicans -- every election cycle -- have insisted that the Democratic Party has "now become more radical than ever," while Democrats insist that the GOP has now -- for the first time ever! -- been taken over by the extremists.  That was what was said when Ronald Reagan was nominated in 1980 and then appointed people like Ed Meese, James Watt, and Robert Bork; it's what was said with the rise of the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's 1988 second-place finish in the Iowa caucus (ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush); it's what was said of the 1994 Contract with America and the Gingrich-led GOP's impeachment of Bill Clinton, and was repeated after Pat Buchanan's 1992 "culture and religious war" Convention speech in Houston and again after Buchanan's 1996 victory in the New Hampshire primary; and it's what was said repeatedly throughout the Bush/Cheney presidency.

Yes, some of the leading GOP presidential candidates (Bachmann, Perry) are truly extreme -- -but no more so than was Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, or (in his own way) Pat Buchanan.  Jesse Helms was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and all but threatened Bill Clinton's life.  The GOP is extreme now and has been extreme for 30 years.  The "Tea Party" is little more than a rebranding of conservatism in the post-Bush age.  That they're MORE EXTREME THAN EVER!! is a fear-mongering slogan -- hauled out every four years -- to cause Democrats to forget about, or willfully ignore, their own leader's glaring, gaping failures.  

The reality is that both parties' voters, early on in the process, like to flirt with candidates who present themselves as ideologues, but ultimately choose establishment-approved, establishment-serving functionaries perceived as electable (e.g., the Democrats' 2004 rejection of Dean in favor of Kerry, the GOP's 2008 embrace of the "maverick" McCain).  In those rare instances when they nominate someone perceived as outside the establishment mainstream (Goldwater, McGovern), those candidates are quickly destroyed.  The two-party system and these presidential campaigns are virtually guaranteed -- by design -- to produce palatable faces who perpetuate the status quo, placate the citizenry, and dutifully serve the nation's most powerful factions. 

They can have some differences -- they'll have genuinely different views on social issues and widely disparate cultural brands (the urbane, sophisticated, East Coast elite intellectual v. the down-home, swaggering, Southern/Texan evangelical) -- but the process ensures a convergence to establishment homogeneity.  The winner-takes-all, Most-Important-Election-Ever hysteria that precedes it masks that reality, creating the illusion of fundamentally stark choices.  That's what makes the 18 months of screeching, divisive, petty, trivial rancor so absurd, so distracting, so distorting.  Yes, it matters in some important ways who wins and sits in the Oval Office chair, but there are things that matter much, much more than that -- all of which are suffocated into non-existence by the endless, mind-numbing election circus.

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In cartoon form, Vast Left summarizes much progressive discourse on these matters over the past two years:

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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