walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 2, 2012
America’s Obsessive Campaign

One of the advantages of extended overseas traveling in an election year is that you get to see just how pointless most of the daily election commentary and news reporting in the United States really is. The interminable US presidential election cycle (with people already beginning to speculate about 2016, heaven help us) has bequeathed an industrial press process of gotcha journalism, gaffe hunts and “scoops” that nobody will care much about 48 hours after they “break”.

Being away for three weeks in India gave me an excellent opportunity to break away from the daily round of excitable headlines and Big Brained punditry about insignificant events, and when I returned, acres had been covered in newsprint and cyberspace bulged with new comments, but little had changed. The dynamic that had been more or less visible from the middle of last winter was still with us. President Obama was still slightly ahead in the race, but Governor Romney was taking tiny nibbles at his lead. Slowly and irregularly, Romney was gaining ground as the GOP coalition rallied to its nominee — but there was nothing on which a serious prediction about November could be based. Either candidate could win the election; the incumbent remained a slight favorite but which candidate will win the election depends on things that haven’t happened yet and which cannot be predicted. None of the huffery and puffery in either the old or the new media can change that basic fact and we remain pretty much where we were six months ago. We had, however, all been very busy as all this nothingness took place.

In the last 18 months, the press corps spent enormous amounts of its own time and talent, the diminished resources of the legacy media companies and the time of its readers on something that was more of a cultural ritual than serious engagement with events — if your definition of events is restricted to happenings that have consequential effects on the future.

During most of the long American campaign cycle, almost nothing happens but a great deal is lived and 90 percent of what appears on the political page is infotainment rather than serious, meaningful news. We have been observing the political equivalent of the Rose Bowl parade: a meaningless but entertaining spectacle that helps set the stage for the Big Game and underline its importance, but whose outcome has nothing to do with the result of the main event.

During this long process, the front pages of allegedly serious newspapers are more like the covers of supermarket weeklies than serious chronicles of significant events. The MSM covers presidential elections like it covers major league professional sports or like People covers Hollywood: as a fascinating spectacle that consumers can’t get enough of but that is unlikely to change many lives. Election night, Oscar night, the Superbowl: these are the recurring high points in a series of ongoing narratives that help shape and define what the modern media is and how it works.

The presidential campaign cycle, from early speculation and the Iowa caucuses right through the glitzy computer wizardry of election night, is exactly what large news organizations with big budgets and high overhead need to survive. It’s a spectacle of proven consumer appeal that a news company can budget and plan for, and that will then generate a fairly predictable volume of general interest stories over time.

The ritualization of coverage is driven by the structure of the news business more than by the real importance of most of what happens on the campaign trail. After all, almost everything that happens during the two year cycle before October in an election year has little impact on who ultimately wins. There are the occasional points where something happens: when a candidate loses a key primary, when somebody makes a genuinely race-ending gaffe, when somebody gets an important endorsement or someone drops out of the race. But television networks need millions of eyeballs every night and they have to produce that “news” on a finite budget. Once you’ve committed a large staff and budget to a long running process, you need to generate something frequently enough to cover the cost. Faux stories work just as well as real stories if the public watches them, and since all the other news organizations need the same flow that you do, the media as a whole, while competing with each other, works together to hype the importance of campaign fluff.

Better yet from the MSM point of view, candidates need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on media ads. Our long presidential campaigns are a godsend to the MSM, helping the legacy media sustain its colossal overhead by bringing in money and providing a predictable and rationally budgetable long term source of consumer-friendly “news”. The media wants, even needs the campaign season to get longer and louder with every cycle.

This is all about the business model and has very little to do with a serious interest in news. An article by Sasha Issenberg in today’s New York Times drives the point home. As Issenberg points out, despite vast expenditures of money, inordinate allocations of staff and news space, the legacy media don’t actually even cover the horse race with any serious depth or perspicacity. Writes Issenberg:

But the reality about horse-race journalism is far more embarrassing to the press and ought to be just as disappointing to the readers who consume our reporting. The truth is that we aren’t even that good at covering the horse race. If the 2012 campaign has been any indication, journalists remain unable to keep up with the machinations of modern campaigns, and things are likely only to get worse.

The specific point is that modern presidential campaigns today are driven by intensive and sophisticated forms of analysis and study of voter habits and preferences that the press doesn’t understand and can’t report. Again, from Issenberg:

Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”

What this means from the standpoint of readers is fascinating: we are spending hours and hours following the most exhaustively reported phenomenon in modern life, but we aren’t being told what is really going on. Not because incredibly sharp editors and reporters are scurrying like crazy to conceal the truth from the public, but because the mediocre bureaucrats who staff established news organizations aren’t smart enough to understand what is actually taking place. The legacy media is too stupid and too lazy to understand the event on which it expends more resources than any other — and as long as enough eyeballs are attracted by the show, it doesn’t really care.

This is not a conspiracy and it is not the result of bias; it’s not clear whether reporting the real plans and calculations of the strategist would make either or both sides look better or worse. But it should underline the point that what the “news” industry labors to produce during presidential campaigns is infotainment pure and simple. There is no competitive pressure to unearth the actual dynamics of the campaign strategies of either side, only a pressure to score with gotcha and gaffe scoops or otherwise to present the reality of entertainment clothed in the appearance of actual news.

But if the needs of the press for a long gravy train of “news” from a story that can be covered in a planned if not particularly enlightening or substantive way are one side of why we’ve turned our electoral cycle into the world’s longest pageant, we have to look at the demand side as well. The press wouldn’t produce this kind of coverage if people didn’t consume it and so the key question about our ritualistic campaign/media cycle is why do consumers find this long spectacle so fascinating?

To begin with, it’s a contest — it is the ultimate reality show. Candidates get voted off the island, suffer emotional breakdowns in front of the camera, form temporary alliances and then stab each other in the back. The campaign is fun for the same reasons contest shows and reality shows are fun. We get to watch people competing with everything they’ve got for a prize they really want to win. Nobody expects the winner of American Idol to tell us anything about the state of the nation’s soul or to make much change in the world, but a lot of people like to watch contests… and like the feeling that they are in control even if that is mostly an illusion.

In democratic politics, campaigns serve another function. Elections are fundamentally a way of avoiding civil war when it comes time to decide who should rule. The long American campaign season helps the current ‘outs’ bear up under the strains of being governed by the other side: they can ease the pain of current defeat by cheering on their favorites in the contest to replace an administration they hate. They can cheer, they can hiss, they can mutter “wait until next time” and think hopefully about the future rather than curse the intolerable present. The more the outs hate the ins, they more attention they pay to the whole process of choosing a candidate to run against the incumbents.

Arguably, this kind of campaign ritual helps defuse the tensions that might otherwise make a large and deeply divided mass democracy like our own much harder to keep stable. Bush haters could focus on first the 2006 congressional elections and then the 2008 presidential ones, channeling their anger against the incumbents into a within-the-system effort to replace them. In 2010 and now again, President Obama’s opponents can grasp at the consolation prize of American politics: the insurgency against an incumbent. Public attention on the race channels dissatisfaction with the status quo into a deeper reaffirmation of the legitimacy of the political system. Not just in the US but throughout the world, this is one of the factors that helps stabilize democratic institutions.

When Aristotle said that man is a political animal, this is part of what he was talking about. As a species, we like political process. We like the competition, we like the noise, we like the drama, we like the emotional highs and lows, we like the chatter. Like a troop of monkeys chittering angrily in a tree, or a rookery of crows cawing away, we are happy when we get a chance to do this stuff. Democracy is a durable form of political organization partly because it satisfies our desire for politics more than other systems do.

Our weird and irrational campaign process legitimates the status quo in other ways. In early modern Europe, kings and other rulers made a habit of “progresses,” moving from town to town or castle to castle through the countryside, allowing ordinary people to see them and putting local officials and magnates directly in touch with the national authorities. Not only did this allow the rulers to get a little distance outside the bubble and see just how scrawny the peasants were getting in a given year, it made the state visible and palpable to ordinary people and stirred feelings of attachment and support. The admittedly ritualized and often phony process of candidates sitting in pancake houses and living rooms in Iowa and New Hampshire and moving on through various events reinforces the bond between governed and governors in our society, exposes candidates to the diversity of the American electorate, and reminds everybody where the ultimate authority lies. All this is good.

The campaign process serves another purpose: Trial by Ordeal. We watch these candidates scramble through a series of minefields, as they are hit by (mostly metaphorical but sometimes actual) pies in the face, ambushed by treacherous reporters hunting for blood, and generally perform the twelve labors of Hercules before throwing the ring into Mount Doom, waking the enchanted princess or finding the Holy Grail.

Besides being entertaining to watch and inculcating a healthy respect for public opinion among Those Who Rule, putting presidential candidates through a grinding, often humiliating multi-month ordeal is not such a terrible way of assessing those who want to lead us. Nothing is like the presidency, but a horrible, stressful campaign with press sharks trying to rip you to bits while strangers wave corn dogs in your face at ten thousand events is a way of letting us all see how you might react if faced with the kind of stressed multitasking a president must do.

The presidential process in our country, then, makes sense in a weird kind of way. And the press coverage of that process also makes sense — or at least it is the product of mostly rational calculations. But somebody who wants to understand world events and be a producer of history rather than a passive consumer of what others do needs to find a way to follow the process without being swallowed up in it and wasting time on fluff while never seeing the substance. Spending two hours a day in July reading speculation about a forthcoming Veep pick is a perfectly acceptable pastime, comparable to playing computer solitaire, participating in a rotisserie baseball league or filling out sudoku puzzles, but as a way of seriously engaging in the world of events it is a ghastly waste of spirit and time.

The legacy media, and those elements of new media that want simply to reproduce the structures of old-think media in cyberspace have their reasons for covering campaigns the way that they do. But people who care about providing serious news in a cost and time efficient manner have to think a little harder about how to cover the carnival.

I’ll be back soon with more thoughts on this. I can remember presidential campaigns dating back to the 1960 primaries, but the experience of watching a campaign while thinking about what a new generation of media should look like has given me some new perspectives on the Greatest Show on Earth.

Image courtesy of spirit of america /

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