Last week the New York Times deigned to notice that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is running for president – have you heard about this? – and even by the Gray Lady’s usual standard of treating everyone to the left of the Obama-Clinton Democratic center as a two-headed, kazoo-playing talking dog, it was quite a piece of work. Times reporter Jason Horowitz’s dispatch from a recent Sanders rally in Dubuque, Iowa, barely even pretended to be a news article. It emanated tangible hostility from beginning to end – sometimes veering toward distaste, sometimes toward mockery -- and was loaded with scare quotes and attack adjectives. Sanders was described as grumpy, angry, disengaged, uncharismatic, judgmental and suspicious “of all things ‘feel good,’” yet also, despite those unappealing qualities, as a cult figure surrounded by a “circle of believers.”
Sanders’ references to the “corporate media” were enclosed in ironical quotes – what a ridiculous thing to say about the New York Times! – and his refusal to engage with questions about Hillary Clinton’s perceived political liabilities was described, twice within two paragraphs, as disdainful. Toward the end of the article, Horowitz finally expends a single paragraph outlining Sanders’ proposals for single-payer health care, expanded Social Security, free college tuition and breaking up the banking cartel. Without quoting anyone or citing any sources, Horowitz then introduces “the critique that none of these proposals is remotely plausible given the political realities in Washington,” and describes the political future envisioned by the Sanders campaign as a “fantasy scenario.”
Now, there are valid reasons to be skeptical that Sanders will end up as the Democratic nominee, still less our next president. Hillary Clinton’s strategists seem well prepared for the likelihood that Iowa and New Hampshire will be close, and that Sanders could conceivably win one or both states. Clinton remains far ahead in national polls of likely Democratic voters, and is well positioned in many Southern and heartland states where Sanders is unlikely to compete effectively. She has huge amounts of conventional campaign funding plus super PAC zillions up her sleeve, and controls much of the local and state Democratic Party apparatus through her nationwide army of robot ninja assassins. (I exaggerate for effect: They aren’t technically robots.)
But that sneering Sanders character assassination in the Times, which sought not just to demean the candidate but his supporters and the entire American progressive tradition he represents, went far beyond that kind of conventional horse-race analysis. It felt less like an effort to report the news than an effort to shape the news. I’m not saying that Horowitz was sent to Dubuque with specific instructions to rip Sanders apart with his glittering aperçus -- in the print edition, the article’s pull quote read “A call for an uprising comes with little belief that it will occur” (oh, SNAP) – because that wasn’t necessary. Those instructions were undetectably but unmistakably present in the oxygen of the Times newsroom.
One might argue that this season of topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass politics, which continues to defy conventional expectations and deliver unexpected twists and turns, offers the political and media establishment a chance for some badly needed reflection and humility. I mean, none of us saw this coming, pretty much. It's a moment to listen and learn, no? No one predicted that Donald Trump would surge to the front of the Republican field and stay there; no one predicted that a socialist septuagenarian from one of the smallest and whitest states in the nation would galvanize college-age crowds from coast to coast and emerge as a credible alternative to the Clinton coronation. Across the pond, almost nobody noticed when 66-year-old left-wing renegade Jeremy Corbyn threw his hat into the British Labour Party’s leadership race, in defiance of the apparent consensus that the party needed to tack rightward after its recent electoral defeat. Barring some unforeseen and nearly unimaginable turn of events, it now appears that Corbyn will take the reins as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition on Sept. 12, despite overwhelming opposition from Labour insiders and elected officials.
While the Corbyn surprise is a peculiar artifact of British party politics (as I discussed a week or so ago), it illustrates the fact that the political future remains unwritten and that we cannot rely on conventional wisdom to tell us what will happen next. That is a fact the political and media establishment desperately wants us not to notice -- so instead of humility or reflection, we get full-on panic. For once, the Times, Fox News, CNN, the Bush and Clinton dynasties and the leadership caste of both major parties are united by a common cause: The destabilizing populist insurgencies of 2015 must be stamped out by any means necessary, and rightful order restored. (In Britain, Labour Party centrists and Guardian columnists have already moved on to plotting the anti-Corbyn coup of 2017.)
In what you might want to call a striking coincidence, Friday’s edition of the Times also carried a report from Jeb Bush’s floundering campaign that was not just more neutral in tone than the Sanders article, but positively glowing. Bush has resorted to what he hopes is the nuclear weapon in his anti-Trump arsenal by accusing the real estate billionaire of being a closet Democrat who is squishy on abortion and healthcare policy. Reporter Ashley Parker did not observe, for instance, that one could interpret this as a thoroughly cynical gambit from a candidate who has no discernible principles and who campaigns by tacking in all directions simultaneously. (In the course of one speech, Bush veered hard right against Trump, swung back to the middle on the “birthright citizenship” issue, and not so subtly reminded everybody that Ted Cruz was born in Canada.) Instead she described Bush as entering “a new, more combative phase of his campaign,” speaking in a “machine-gun burst” and exhibiting a “scrappy” demeanor that delighted his New Hampshire audience. A follow-up story on Monday, by another reporter, characterized the reborn Bush as "vigorous" and a "street fighter."
Also on Friday, Huffington Post editorial director Danny Shea appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to defend his decision to consign coverage of Trump’s presidential campaign to the site’s entertainment section. That was a funny news blip for about half a second, but Shea is wrong about this in so many ways I can’t count them, and despite theoretically good intentions he just wound up signing on with the media-wide Emergency Commission to Restore Political Reality.
First of all, as someone who has spent most of my journalism career in the arts section, I need to call Shea out for the philistine implication that cultural reporting and criticism is not “real news,” and is inherently inferior to the serious stuff the grownups read. Maybe that’s the way you guys roll over at HuffPo, Danny, but if you see me after class I can recommend some extracurricular reading that will set you straight. If anything, in contemporary consumer society the distinction is largely artificial: Electoral politics and show business have been inextricably intertwined since the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960. As Joan Didion observed many cycles ago, it would be more accurate to say that politics is a subset of culture than the other way around.
Secondly, to claim that Trump is not a serious candidate imposes a bizarre and highly dubious value judgment on the campaign. I’m sure Shea and the HuffPo team were surprised and chagrined to see Trump emerge as the Republican frontrunner, but that’s not even the central point. By what standard is Trump a more specious or ridiculous presidential candidate than Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee or Bobby Jindal, all of whom Shea is happy to cover with articles in the “politics” section, written by men with neckties? If anything, Trump reveals the true nature of the Republican electorate with none of the weasel words and artifice those guys employ, which may be the problem. (The other day I had a moment of missing Rick Santorum, a decent person who is deeply committed to his appalling, retrograde convictions. Then I realized that he’s actually running again this time, but no one cares.)
We don’t have enough time between now and the heat death of the universe to figure out all the reasons behind the media and political elite’s collective freakout of 2015. I think we can say a couple of things: Some of the reasons are obvious and some are less so, and no matter what happens in the short term, this shock to the system is a critically important moment for democracy. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Donald Trump is not entirely a bad thing. Liberals who get the vapors, Danny Shea style, about what a national embarrassment Trump is are missing the point. We need a national embarrassment right now, or at least we need politics that break free of the tepid safety zone of bipartisan paralysis, dysfunction and apathy. Of course I don’t actually want Trump to be president, but he serves a number of useful purposes and the forces trying to shut him down are the same ones seeking to shut Bernie Sanders down, the forces that long to ensure a boring, safe and utterly substance-free general election between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Through a confluence of material and ideological interests, the Western world’s financial powers and political parties and media organizations, along with the interlocking permanent governments sometimes called the “deep state,” have come together around a conception of political reality they describe as the only reality. This is the “Washington consensus,” a blend of postwar American foreign policy and Reagan-Thatcher economics: Globalized free trade and venture capitalism, government austerity, widespread privatization and “developing markets,” with the money flowing upward and cheap consumer goods for the so-called middle class. All of this enforced and policed, of course, by the behemoth blundering superpower that cannot understand why nobody loves it the way they used to.
Some of the people who constantly assure us that this reality is the only reality are just being cynical bastards and small-minded ideologues. (I don’t know why this surprised me, but R.J. Cutler’s 2013 documentary “The World According to Dick Cheney” revealed the former vice president, one of the most influential Americans of our time, as deeply incapable of introspection.) But there are plenty of other intelligent and reasonably well-meaning people who have been tube-fed the Kool-Aid of neoliberal economics and the Washington consensus since infancy, who are thoroughly convinced that center-right politics are the only viable politics, and who have effectively embraced a post-9/11 update of Francis Fukuyama’s famous pronouncement that history ended with the Cold War.
It is profoundly troubling and disorienting for the media and political elite to have its core conception of political reality challenged, especially by an emerging younger generation that is more energized and more activist than anyone expected, and that is too young to have been subjected to the ideological shock therapy of the Reagan and Thatcher years. As New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny wrote this weekend, “The ultimate triumph of the political right in the 1980s was that its actions eventually forced the left to sell its soul for power – but many of today’s young voters neither remember nor care quite why it did so.” She is specifically describing the forces that drove young British leftists by the thousands to Corbyn’s campaign, but she's well aware the same thing is happening on this side of the Atlantic.
Both in Europe and the United States, Penny continues, “professional politicians of the center left have one idea about what politics should look like and the people they claim to represent increasingly have another.” For a political class that chose power over principle “without once asking itself whether power without principles is worth having,” insurgents like Sanders or Corbyn (or Trump, after his own distorted-mirror fashion) are terrifying specters. Both the Labour centrists in Britain and the Clinton Democrats in America will soberly assure us that such dissident candidates are not “electable,” and can only doom their parties to irrelevance. One might respond by asking what is meant by “electable,” and what relevance those parties possess now. As Penny wryly puts it in the British context, the argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable has been put forward by the anointed Labour moderates, “three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn.”
Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away – by which I mean the 2004 presidential campaign – I remember a left-wing rebel saying something about electability that has stuck with me ever since. It was Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman who was basically Bernie Sanders before being Bernie Sanders was cool. During a candidate debate or forum before the Iowa caucuses, someone stood up and told Kucinich that many Democratic voters were sympathetic to his proposals to push for single-payer healthcare, abolish the death penalty, end the war on drugs and cut defense spending, but didn’t think he was electable. Kucinich shrugged. “I’m electable if you’ll vote for me,” he said drily.
Kucinich was not in fact electable, in the sense that hardly anyone voted for him. He was competitive in a few outlier states like Maine, Minnesota and Oregon, but the only county in the United States he actually won in his two presidential campaigns was the island of Maui in Hawaii. That’s a joke that writes its own punchline, and since Kucinich’s candidacy served to confirm the ingrained prejudices of the political class about what was realistic and who was electable, he was tolerated as a lovable but irrelevant Democratic mascot. But his one-sentence response was almost a Zen koan of politics, self-evident on its surface but full of radical possibility. What happens when people vote for the candidate who is “unelectable”? One of these days we may find out.