Journalists get it, partly

Friday’s “The Morning” e-mail from The New York Times is interesting for how it mixes up a flicker of “getting it” with plenty of the ordinary obtuse fare.

Much of the e-mail carries on the braindead political “analysis” which was a big inspiration for my book Nemesis. German Lopez writes an extensive e-mail about “why Biden is unpopular,” walking backward through the past year and a half of covid and covid policy, without ever considering

  • The obvious question of what, exactly, “unpopular” is being defined against; voters have rapidly turned against every president for decades, and more significantly they punish the president’s party consistently, even when presidential approval is much more favorable than Biden’s.
  • To the extent that presidential popularity is variable, at all, could disdain for Biden have anything to do with the fact that even mainstream journalism is so relentlessly affixed to narratives of scandal and (Democratic) failure that the result wildly misleads people about reality?
  • “Analysis” mostly just makes up its premises of what’s supposed to move public opinion and how. From month to month, “The Morning” tells us that Democrats are disappointing the public because of Afghanistan, no because of covid, actually it’s the economy, and they’re out of touch with public fears of “CRT,” etc. The claim, in Friday’s email, that the Biden administration committed itself to firm promises about freedom from covid also seems suspiciously unfamiliar to me as a fairly regular reader of “The Morning.” It feels like “truthiness.”

This nonsensical tripe from political journalists, and the many things which it obviously ignores, prompted me to Twitter rants and blog posts and eventually an entire book. However, as I spent time really thinking about this and what the hell is really going on, one of the things I came up with is the underestimated importance of distrust, and broken systems which sabotage hopes of rebuilding trust. In fairness to “The Morning,” its authors have provided some helpful insight in that regard, and this latest email even comes close to recognizing the larger issue.

Lopez is right as far as he goes that “Distrust in government can turn into a vicious cycle,” except of course he stops just short of really pulling together the big picture of how much this has already happened, and he elides entirely how a party of intentional sabotage contributes to this; instead, he disingenuously makes Biden the focus of this story. (And, of course, the role of journalists’ own bullshit in this story is never even approached.)

In this context, the morality play shaming of Biden for “overpromising on covid” is mostly a lot of crap. I challenge in particular the line that “he could have set more realistic expectations for how a notoriously unpredictable pandemic would unfold,” yeah maybe he could have tried, but it is hard to get that right even in theory, plus for practical purposes the larger “Biden failure” narrative and a disdainful public would have played out, no matter what.

But there is something worth mentioning, at least, in the “Biden overpromised” claim. Because he certainly did, and does, and has. Biden is a politician in the classic casual bullshitting tradition. (Not that mainstream journalism ever pressed him on that before the primary ended.)

But the particular overpromising which most deserves critical attention is Biden’s more general, endless promise that the political system is sound along with nearly everyone in it. Biden has maintained before during and since the campaign that the only thing rotten in the political system was Trump. Just replace Trump, Biden told America. Other Republicans are fine, Republicans are good people, Republicans are going to have an epiphany, I can work with Republicans. I have receipts for this shit and continue to collect more without even trying, because Biden won’t stop repeating this obviously false promise that underneath “friendly disagreements,” everyone in Washington is pretty much a decent American trying to do the right thing.

I really doubt that doing anything else could, at this point, really change the situation into which America has boxed itself over generations. “Bipartisanship” was a cultural mechanism which was very useful for a while, but which Americans became dependent upon without ever understanding it or having any real answer available once something broke the mechanism. I don’t think that America at this point is under any circumstance willing to believe “the Republican Party is so uniquely bad that we must sweep Republicans out of power and entrust Democrats to enact policy without bipartisan approval.” It was probably already too late for that by 2008 when voters did in fact sweep Republicans out of power and gave Democrats an opportunity to enact transformative policy, which they mostly pissed away while hoping for Republican buy-in and traditionally defined political cover. If it wasn’t too late, we’ll never know, and here we are now.

By 2020, I doubt that any presidential candidate had a real chance of persuading America out of the trap of sabotaged bipartisanship culture, and toward something different and unfamiliar.

But one of my themes in writing here, and in Nemesis, is that if you can’t fix some things you can at least be honest about them, or not. It won’t permit fixing every thing, some things can’t be fixed. But if honesty won’t fix them and dishonesty won’t fix them, which are you going to choose?

Being honest, I don’t believe that Biden’s choice of dishonesty about Republican sabotage has in any sense brought on his thwarted ambitions or public disdain. But if it is possible in any sense to deserve something which is ultimately beyond your control, I would say that in that sense, Biden would still deserve public disdain in some more just universe where choices have more meaning and therefore he could have made more of a difference by being honest.

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