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Election 2012 and the Media: A Vast Rightwing Conspiracy of Stupid
Wednesday night, the GOP's nominee for vice-president, Paul Ryan, delivered a speech loaded with pure, fundamental deceit on its core claims. The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn has the clearest and most concise explanation of those falsehoods.
"So there he is, the Republican vice-presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there. This is exactly what this crowd of Republicans here, certainly Republicans all across the country, were hoping for. He delivered a powerful speech, Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked seven or eight points, I'm sure the fact-checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward; I'm sure they will. As far as Mitt Romney's campaign is concerned, Paul Ryan on this night delivered."
Blitzer's co-anchor, Erin Burnett – who, the night before, described how she "had a tear in [her] eye" as she listened to Ann Romney's convention speech – added this journalistic wisdom:
"That's right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He's a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate."
As Gawker's Louis Peitzman wrote:
"'A powerful speech' with only 'seven or eight' facts to dispute? Sounds like a winner … [I]n the end, isn't 'precise, clear, and passionate' more important than truthful?"
As perfect an exhibit as that is of the empty, rotted wasteland known as "CNN", when it comes to conveying the self-parodying inanity of The Most Trusted Name in News, nothing will ever top this tweet, from Blitzer last week:
What could ever be better than that? The tagline for Blitzer's show, including on the Sea of Galilee story, boasts that he "delivers the most important news and political stories of the day".
But mocking CNN is to pick low-hanging fruit. The real issue is that CNN's vapid fixation on the dreaminess of our political leaders and "their beautiful families" dominates political discourse generally, especially during the nation's presidential election cycle, which drags on for a seemingly interminable 18 months – more than one third of the president's term – and drowns out virtually all other political issues.
The reason I write so little about the presidential election is that it's the ultimate expression of the CNN-ization of American politics: a tawdry, uber-contrived reality show that has less to do with political reality than the average rant one hears at any randomly chosen corner bar or family dinner. That does not mean the outcome is irrelevant, only that the process is suffocatingly dumb and deceitful, generating the desire to turn away and hope that it's over as quickly as possible.
I happened to be traveling last month and was involuntarily subjected to a television showing President Obama speaking in Maumee, Ohio as part of his "Betting on America" campaign bus tour. He was wearing a regular-guy plaid short-sleeved shirt, and speaking (literally) in front of a house draped with a huge American flag and framed by a white picket fence. The "Betting on America" sign was printed in a font of vintage 1950s Americana. I recall marveling at the level of sheer cynicism one must wield in order to be a successful American campaign consultant.
It was with good reason that the advertising industry chose the 2008 Obama campaign as the recipient of its most prestigious awards, including Marketer of the Year and various advertising honors. The brand – Obama – was expertly crafted and packaged.
Strong and rational though it may be, the temptation to ignore entirely the election year spectacle should be resisted. Despite its shallow and manipulative qualities – or, more accurately, because of them – this process has some serious repercussions for American political life.
The election process is where American politicians go to be venerated and glorified, all based on trivial personality attributes that have zero relationship to what they do with their power, but which, by design, convinces Americans that they're blessed to be led by people with such noble and sterling character, no matter how much those political figures shaft them. (Wednesday, President Obama, during his highly-touted "Ask Me Anything" appearance on Reddit, predictably ignored the question from Mother Jones's Nick Baumann about Obama's killing of the American teenager Abdulrahman Awlaki, in favor of answering questions about the White House beer recipe and his favorite basketball player.)
The election process is where each political party spends hundreds of millions of dollars exploiting the same trivial personality attributes to demonize the other party's politicians as culturally foreign, all to keep their followers in a high state of fear and thus lock-step loyalty.
It's the supreme propaganda orgy, devoted to aggressively reinforcing the claim to American exceptionalism: the belief that even when things look grim, America will forever be that special God-favored land of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity, and all citizens should therefore be deeply grateful – quietly and passively so – for the privilege of residing in such a land, no matter how wretched are their circumstances and how pervasive is the corruption.
It's what inculcates many Americans to believe that they enjoy vibrant political debate and stark democratic choice, even as so many of the policies that are most consequential and destructive for their lives – the "war on drugs", the supremacy of the covert national security and surveillance states, vast inequalities in the justice system, crony capitalism that rapidly bolsters the oligarchy that owns the political process – are steadfastly ignored because both parties on those matters have exactly the same position and serve the same interests. (Watch how often Obama supporters will defend their leader from conservative attacks by proudly arguing that Obama's policies are actually the same as that which conservatives advocate: he's severely cut government spending even more than Bush and Reagan! Wall Street and corporate profits are at an all-time high! He's killed and killed and killed some more! His healthcare plan comes from a rightwing thinktank! Nobody has been more faithful to Israel than Obama! He's severely harmed Iran with sanctions and isolation! etc.)
It's where the candidates pretend to believe in a whole litany of base-pleasing and populist policies that enable their loyalists to claim there are vast differences between them, even though such campaign pronouncements have virtually no predictive value in determining what they will do in office – as the New York Times's Peter Baker, writing about foreign policy campaign platforms, put it today with great understatement: "the relationship between what presidential candidates say on the campaign trail and what they do once elected can be tenuous."
It's where the handful of important issues on which there are genuinely sharp and clear differences – social issues, reproductive rights, jurisprudence philosophy, a few social program and tax policies – are endlessly exploited to heighten cultural divisions and, more importantly, to obscure the similarities on everything else.
The election year process could and should be a meaningful opportunity for real political debate: the one time every four years when the majority of the population that is too busy or uninterested to pay much attention becomes engaged and thus informed. Instead, the process is the ultimate deceit. And the ultimate distraction.
It somehow manages simultaneously to be relentlessly insipid, yet genuinely destructive. As Blitzer and Burnett put it Wednesday night:
"So there he is, the Republican vice-presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there … He's a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job."