The veiled plutocracy of the Obama administration has given way to the open corruption, scientific illiteracy, and kakistocracy of the Trump regime. Trump’s neo-fascist followers, in keeping with the time-honored playbook for undermining liberalism, scribble daily screeds against mainstream media, purvey conspiracy theories, and try to undermine the distinction between truth and fiction, which underpins all non-authoritarian societies. Well-meaning liberals, correctly recognizing the danger lurking behind these efforts at delegitimizing the media, pen paeans to press freedom and tout outlets like MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times as champions of democracy. This ignores mainstream media outlets’ 2016 suppression of stories about the Bernie Sanders campaign and their unhinged 2020 portrayal of a racially and gender diverse movement as a mob of “Bernie bros” following a shrill, cult-like leader, despite evidence that Bernie’s movement represented a long-awaited reinvigoration of grassroots, working-class democracy.
And while no one would deny that we need good journalism now more than ever, the model of political reporting that such outlets subscribe to – even if we set aside the major biases in coverage and political perspectives springing from corporate ownership and editorial control; the overwhelmingly white, middle-class, male, demographic represented in major newsrooms; a profit-driven model that commodifies journalism; and the desire to cater to wealthy or middle-class audiences, not the working class – inherently favors reactionary reporting and obfuscation of the fundamental issues. Of course, not every news piece produced under such a model is intentionally or actively obfuscatory. My claim is simply this: the value-neutral commentary, often voiced by outlets that pride themselves on sober reportage and cool-headed neutrality–commentary which evaluates politicians, policies, and political behavior aesthetically, in terms of their optics and appearances—skews toward the status quo and leaves us intellectually ill-equipped to confront the roots of today’s crisis of democracy.
The aesthetic approach to political coverage is cosmetic. It traffics in semblances, spectacles, and surfaces. If the camera captures an arresting image or an apparently telling video, if a journalist catches wind of a minor but seemingly damning detail about a politician’s personal life, in an age of social media and viral videos, the story almost writes itself. To the political aesthete, the most powerful proof of truth is immediacy: immediacy is authenticity, and the semblance of authenticity sells in a world teeming with illusions. A painting pretends to be immediate. You see a portrait, and if it’s well-done, the person’s image practically jumps off the canvas at you, as vivid as it would be in real life. But the experience of immediacy is nothing more than a powerful illusion, one which obscures the countless choices the painter made. A portrait isn’t a photograph, even if it purports to be one. There’s a good reason René Magritte subtitled his famous image of a pipe “This is not a pipe” and titled the painting “The Treachery of Images.” In the same way, a well-choreographed political convention involves innumerable behind-the-scenes choices, and any law passed under our current system of government demands countless ugly machinations, most of which are hidden from view. Letting yourself be swept up in the spectacle of American politics means neglecting the substance – the subtle and unsubtle manipulations occurring behind the scenes.
The point-scoring, horse-racing approach to following politics is useful to politicos and TV’s talking heads. It allows them to engage in low-grade intimidation to defend their turf and supposed expertise: they can casually demonstrate their superiority to the average viewer by rattling off the names of arcane subcommittees, departmental undersecretaries, and bigwigs in government and business, dropping obscure statistics about the number of caucuses in tours de force of wonkery. It also makes their job easier. Liberated by the need to keep track of who’s jockeying for position inside the Beltway, they can focus on individuals with a clear conscience. They are freed to live in the eternal present, disregarding any historical episode more remote than the 1980s and 1990s. Even if history illuminates a social issue’s underlying causes, why the issue has persisted, and which attempted solutions hold the most promise, it just isn’t relevant to discussing which clique has gained the upper hand this news cycle. The structural factors which drive politics can’t be personalized: they aren’t sexy, they don’t have individual styles, and they can’t be summarized in a photo or brief video clip. Structural and historical factors have little “human interest,” and for America’s politicos, such a truth is the kiss of death.
Punditry’s decision to limit its criticism of politics to commentary on style forces commentators to discuss events in inane terms of triumph and failure – the horrific tax bill was a “win” for the administration and a “loss” for the Democrats, the repeal of net neutrality was judged a “defeat” for Internet freedom activists, and so on. When events are couched in these terms, and observers indulge in the chess master’s penchant to admire a well-played political gambit, it’s easy to slide from description to normativity. One goes from admiring the operator’s smoothness to admiring him, full stop. An amoral approach to politics becomes immoral almost by default; there is no such thing as neutrality in matters that so intimately affect people’s lives.
Audiences, assailed by volleys of trivia, become numb to the human impact of policies, the consequences that political decisions have on everyone’s lives. So much time is consumed by superficial questions, with panelists clamoring to weigh in on whether an action is savvy or expedient, that there’s no time left to discuss whether it’s the right thing to do. Who benefits from this policy? Is it for the common good? Is there evidence suggesting it would work? These questions suffocate in a room where the oxygen has been consumed by tactical evaluations. Commentators’ ahistorical focus on horse-trading leaves deeper questions about the validity of our political system unaddressed. It accepts the two-party system as inevitable (superdelegates, closed primaries, membership-less “parties,” and all), and it positions Democrats and Republicans as the only possibilities on the political spectrum. Almost never does one hear a mainstream political analyst or journalist ask: Could politics operate differently? What if the US instituted mandatory voting, banned gerrymandering and exclusionary voter ID laws, granted prisoners and ex-felons the right to vote, and genuinely encouraged third-party formation? What does it say about the US that close to two-thirds of the electorate regularly sits out congressional elections? Perhaps American politics is illegitimate. And perhaps it will only become legitimate once these fundamental problems are resolved.
The commentariat’s blindness manifests most clearly in its coverage of Trump and Sanders, both of whom are lumped into the same “populist” category based on superficial stylistic similarities despite being substantive opposites. Both men’s aesthetic failings are among the chief subjects of critique. Bernie’s tendency to eschew pleasing rhetorical flourishes in favor of statistics-dense, substance-heavy, repetitious speechifying, coupled with his rumpled suits, wild hair, and penchant for gesticulating and speaking loudly, frequently drew reporters’ snark. Likewise, Trump is regularly castigated by political commentators for not looking or acting “presidential,” for making America “look bad.” A great deal of supposedly hard-hitting anti-Trump criticism ultimately boils down to criticism of the Trump regime’s failure to play by the established rules and conform to the press’ aesthetic expectations.
But would any aspect of the Trump presidency improve if he refrained from swearing and spoke in finely modulated sentences? Obama was eloquent, genteel and measured, and Obama’s administration rescued Wall Street from itself and oversaw drone strikes, bombings, and deportations galore. The issue with Trumpism isn’t fundamentally Trump’s lack of civility or decorum. Such hand-wringing indictments are an opportunity for columnists to use high-flung elocutions, but they pluck low-hanging fruit and misidentify our problems, perhaps to deflect attention from the substantive causes of our national woes. The trouble with neofascism – and with neoliberalism before it – is its content, not its style, as we’re seeing all too clearly today. Hence, the actions of the Trump administration – its slashing of funding for science, healthcare, social welfare programs, and pandemic preparedness – have proven to be deadly.
Style does matter to some extent. Politics is partly about perception. One of the reasons for Trump’s rise was how strikingly his style clashes with Obama’s and with Clinton’s, just as part of Obama’s ability to elude criticism from liberals came from his mastery of the techniques of self-presentation.
But a purely aesthetic attitude towards politics does us all no good – and it’s been associated with powerlessness and meaninglessness for centuries. In one of the most beautiful and timeless passages of King Lear, an exhausted, defeated Lear tells his daughter Cordelia as they surrender to Edmund that they will go to prison together and “sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too – who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out – and take upon us the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out, in a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by th’ moon.” Lear imagines gossiping about the vicissitudes of palace politics as just another idle pastime, no more significant than singing or laughing at gilded butterflies; he recognizes the futility behind following individual political careers. Will the “poor rogues” in mainstream media today do the same and revive true public-interest reportage, or, imprisoned by the dictates of their medium, are they doomed to pursue news stories as fleeting as gilded butterflies in our second Gilded Age?