November 18, 2003
The Ghost of Democracy Speaks
Jay Rosen is running the smartest and most provocative blog around these days. His most recent post confirms it.
It’s an argument against political realism — the calculation that says only a handful of swing districts matter in elections — and the news industry’s tacit agreement with it. Rosen writes:
It cannot be the case that 95 percent of the country must be ignored so that campaign rationality can prevail. (In fact, though every step in that system is rational, the final result is crazy.)
It cannot be the case that the “savvy” style of journalism, which accepts this system under the law of realism, is the only style possible or practical. (Indeed, I would bet that most journalists are sick of it by now.)
And he takes on realism again in a comment posted to another blog that cites his original item (follow that?):
Now about this: “You can’t lead if you don’t win… Bucking the system, even one dumber than spam, is a sure route to loss of leadership — a form of political death. That’s dumb!”
There is one outstanding example in American politics that confounds this wisdom, which I would place in the “realism” category. That example is Barry Goldwater. He bucked the system. He lost. But with his insurgent campaign began the rise of the conservative Right based in the South and West; and that party is now triumphant. Those he inspired have won big in the 40 years following his candidacy. Goldwater led. He just didn’t head the government but in the longer term he won.
Political realism is a form of persuasion; and it does not have absolute validity.
I think this comment is connected, somehow, to an idea expressed in a recent e-mail from my favorite college professor:
No one doubts that the news is constructed, but few notice that it is constructed around a model of public action which makes D.C. the center of politics. … Turner’s great insight was to move the news to Atlanta, but in effect that has failed given that they feel they must cover what everyone else does.
So, here are the questions I’m asking myself now:
- If the national media choose not to follow the candidates’ swing-state schematics, then where do they focus their resources? The most populous states? The most interesting? The, er, warmest?
- Is Washington, D.C. just inevitably the center of political gravity in this country? How do we find people who are going to be a big deal in a few years, but have no legislative or executive power now?
- Is it far-sighted or foolish to talk about political trends that unfold over decades instead of years? Does our public discourse truly need a longer time-scale, or is the future too unpredictable to even bother with?