Paul Waldman wrote a useful little article over at The Week, How to Stay Abreast of 2016 Campaign Coverage Without Becoming an Idiot. It is presented as a list of ten rules that we all ought to follow, but there is cross over. It’s worth thinking about.
His first rule is, “It’s OK to care about the horse race, but it should be consumed in moderation.” It’s good advice, but a practical impossibility. Even I get dragged into it, and I really don’t much care about the horse race. The problem from my perspective is that horse race coverage focuses on the day to day race. And this is usually meaningless. Thinking back to the 1988 presidential election, most people think of a couple of bad Dukakis moments: his horrible response to the “What if Kitty were raped and murdered?” question, and the “tank ride” photo op. Also, there was the Willie Horton ad. But neither of these had anything to do with Dukakis’ defeat; the economic fundamentals were overwhelmingly in Bush’s favor. So Bush won. The rest was interesting, but irrelevant.
Waldman’s next two rules deal with exactly these issues: “Ignore all ‘gaffe’ coverage” and “Remember that not everything is consequential.” I’ve already seen this during the election so far. I understand that Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email while Secretary of State drives conservatives crazy. They think it plays into a wider narrative about her trustworthiness — or lack thereof. But no one cares. Unless it turns out that she confessed to killing Vince Foster in one of the emails, it won’t mean a thing. Similarly, Jeb Bush’s behavior regarding Terri Schiavo makes him unfit for elected office, if you ask me. But no one cares.
The fourth rule is really important apart from the campaign, “Pay close attention to the candidates’ promises.” This goes along with his sixth rule, “Believe that candidates can be sincere.” This is something that constantly annoys me. I think of myself as a fairly cynical person. But my cynicism is not automatic and most definitely not casual. Too many people use cynicism to justify supporting people and policies they can’t otherwise justify. I run into this in arguments with conservatives all the time: when their arguments become untenable, they throw up their hands and announce, “Well, they’re all crooks!” No they aren’t. And I know that conservatives who say this will not then choose not to vote; they will continue to vote with their “guts” — and that means they will vote for the conservative. But I also see a lot of casual cynicism among liberals. This bothers me even more, because it does cause liberals to just not vote. It was the whole Tweedledum and Tweedledee narrative that brought us President George W Bush.
In addition to this, it is well established that presidents really do follow through on their campaign promises. People have a tendency to listen closely to campaigns but then tune out after the new president starts to work. So they assume the candidates didn’t even try to follow through. But they do. What’s more, they usually succeed with regard to many of their promises. So believe candidates when they make promises.
Four of Waldman’s rules are really just about paying attention what’s really going on in campaigns instead of the grand narratives that the media so love to create. He noted that changing positions are important in what they say about the changing parties — not anything about the candidates being unstable or “flip-floppers.” Judge the candidates’ private lives on how they would affect their presidencies. Pay attention to how candidates plan to affect their goals. With regard to this, Waldman noted, “If they’re saying they’ll amend the Constitution for some reason, don’t forget that actually, they won’t.” And above all, “Keep asking, ‘What does this mean for the next presidency?'”
But it is Waldman’s last rule that is the most important, “If your usual news sources suck, look around for some others.” I would put it differently, “Your usual news sources do suck!” That’s true of 99% of Americans. I recommend Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera America. The latter of these is especially good in being a network — but one that has a much greater focus on political substance than just about any other news network. Check our Reed Richardson’s article on the network, Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?
I think that Paul Waldman’s rules are very good. They can be boiled down to a single rule: stay focused on reality. But that makes the rules fundamentally liberal — in a modern American context. Because I really believe that all the Republican Party has to offer the people is an outlet for their fear and resentment. When a conservative tells me they take politics seriously, I know that the next thing out of their mouths will be some arcane subject only discussed deep in the bowels of conservative media: Solyndra or Benghazi or Jade Helm. On the right, being serious about politics means being a gnostic: having special knowledge that “they don’t want you to know about.” So obviously, Waldman is part of the liberal media conspiracy to get you to think about reality instead of the far more interesting “hidden reality.”
But just imagine if instead of new consumers following Waldman’s rules, the news providers did so. They won’t. That’s because news is a business. In a capitalism, businesses do whatever maximizes profits. So journalists live with great cognitive dissonance: they want to inform, but they know that they are paid to construct narratives and produce content to justify them. Doing better work would end with them working for less money, not more. So we can depend upon more coverage like we’ve gotten before: Al Gore exaggerates and George W Bush is a regular guy and Obama is an elitist and John McCain is a maverick. On a personal level, it really will help to follow Waldman’s rules. On a national level, it is business as usual. Yes: we are doomed.