Fifty years ago, when I was getting started in national politics, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, a friend and mentor, offered words of wisdom I never forgot. Although he read the New York Times every day, he cautioned me not to be fooled or swayed by the ebb and flow of events as they are covered in the Press. Instead, he insisted that it was important to keep focused on the long view – the deep currents that pointed in the direction we were heading.
I recalled his sage advice this week as I followed the reporting and what passed for analysis of tomorrow’s Democratic primary elections. According to the national media, in these contests, the party’s progressive wing “hit a wall,” “suffered a series of setbacks,” or was just plain “defeated.” This was in marked contrast to the assessment made a little over one month ago in the aftermath of the stunning victories of Alexandria Ocazio-Cortez and Ben Jealous – both of whom defeated establishment-favoured candidates. Back then, we were told that there was an “insurgent upsurge”, while just two weeks earlier the same media outlets were describing the progressive movement as being on life-support.
This jumping back and forth struggling to find a single theme with which to describe the 2018 election could be dismissed as simply a series of mistaken judgments. I suspect, however, that the problem runs deeper. Here are a few possible explanations:
In the first place, hype beats being thoughtful. Despite its self-serving claims, the mainstream media, in its print and electronic forms, isn’t always balanced, objective, or in-depth. Whether the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, the job of major media outlets, as they see it, is to grow their audience and sell products. Apparently believing that straight news and thoughtful analysis are boring and have no market value, news marketers have opted for hype to boost viewership.
This is especially true in the case of television, where, for example, the “Breaking News” banner screams across the screen in regular intervals announcing stories that are often neither “breaking” nor “news.”
Looking back at coverage of George W Bush’s infamous Iraq War “Mission Accomplished” speech, it is striking to see how many liberal and conservative pundits waxed poetic about his performance, describing it as a “presidential” display of “strong leadership”. Equally striking, is how once it became clear that the speech was premature, the very same pundits turned on a dime into critics.
Finally, there’s the issue of laziness and shallowness leading to snap judgments and hype. This frequently occurs in reporting on political polling. A network will announce as “Breaking News” that a new poll shows Trump’s rating has hit a new low. Discussing this topic will consume endless hours of punditry without anyone questioning whether this particular poll is in fact an accurate reading of the public’s mood.
There is a story to be told about this year’s primaries and not the dizzying “they’re down, no they’re up, no wait, they’re really down” story we’ve been given.
In some instances, progressives have been able to out-organise ossified, out-of-touch establishment candidates. While in other cases the experience, funding institutional advantages of the establishment have created hurdles too high for less experienced insurgents to overcome. Nevertheless, what is clear is that whether they are winning or losing, on any particular Tuesday, progressives are putting their stamp on this election cycle. And truly progressive candidates are winning races up and down the ballot, creating a new dynamic in American politics.
Thirty years ago, Democrats were running away from the “liberal” label, now polls are showing that the most popular politician among Democrats is a socialist Senator. Issues like Medicare for all, investment in green energy, $15 minimum wage, and free college for all – are now front and centre in political campaigns. This may not be as sexy as the “sky is falling” coverage we’ve been getting, but its closer to the truth of what’s happening in this year’s elections.