Last May I launched a series of blog posts on “the Big Five,” the five domestic problems that Americans have to address if the next few decades are going to go well. I planned to go on and write about them all, but after writing a couple of essays about the job crisis and another about the demographic problem, I got sidetracked. The Middle East blew up, with the Egyptian coup and the Syria mess, and what with one thing and another, I never finished the series. As Mae West put it, “I used to be Snow White. But I drifted.”
So now that I’m back from the fall Eurotour and a summer visit to India, and my fall semester courses are moving along nicely at Bard, it’s time to come back to the Big Five. It’s more important than ever to focus on the big picture; the last few weeks saw the news media and the chattering classes obsessed with political theater. The budget standoff was more pageant than news story, but it dominated the front pages like an overblown celebrity murder trial.
This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all news is equal; there are some stories that really matter and then there is fluff. Lots of fluff. While some commentators like to rail against media bias (and I agree that most mainstream news outlets list well to port), the real problem is less the media’s instinctive, uncritical love for center-left pablum than the failure of the news business as a whole to highlight the stories that matter and skim over the ones that don’t. Ukraine’s drift toward the EU and away from Russia, for example, was a much more consequential story than anything that happened this month on Capitol Hill. From a purely domestic standpoint, the implosion of the Obamacare exchange website was a more consequential story than the budget standoff.
Some conservatives (and hard lefties) darkly mutter that the media’s biases reflect a deliberate agenda. There certainly are reporters and editors who see their job as a calling to “change the world” rather than report on it, and this often leads to fundamental distortions in the way news is reported. But the tendency of the MSM to concentrate on fluff rather than substance reflects the nature of the news business more than deliberate bias. The budget shutdown story that swallowed up all the oxygen in the room for the last three weeks was tailor-made for the press. It was cheap and easy to cover (no small consideration in this age of shrinking editorial budgets and staffs). It was easily scored: there were winners and losers. Like much of what the MSM reports, this wasn’t about an adversarial press discovering things the politicians don’t want us to see. The politicians wanted the story covered in depth and connived with journalists to keep the story sizzling; politicians and their aides fed the media a steady stream of tidbits and gossip.
Those who’ve read Mark Liebovich’s book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral Plus Plenty of Valet Parking know one of Washington’s dirty secrets. In America today we have an appearance of partisanship and polarization when the cameras are running; behind the scenes there’s a bipartisan commitment from all sectors of the political class to cash in. In most cases, today’s fierce Democratic liberals and swivel eyed Tea Party purists will be tomorrow’s partners in a bipartisan lobby group, working harmoniously together for their well heeled clients. To gain office and rise in the Washington hierarchy, politicians must grandstand for the cameras, highlighting their fidelity to conservative, liberal or moderate ideology as the case may be. But to cash in, at some point they have to leave all that stuff behind, and join the general back scratching and hand washing of the permanent political class.
An event like the Battle of the Budget is a heaven-sent opportunity for the whole political class to posture and grandstand, with the media eagerly following the spectacle. They thump their chests, they swear oaths of great might, they stand on high principle and they make blood curdling threats. Whether their side “wins” or “loses”, virtually every politician who plays a prominent role in these food fights builds his or her own personal brand. Ted Cruz might have “lost”, but more people know who he is and what his signature political take is about now than they did in August. Brand Cruz is hotter now than it was in August; so are Brand Pelosi and Brand Reid.
If you simply looked at the balance of forces in Washington before this mess started (the Dems control the White House and the Senate; the GOP has the House), you could have predicted pretty much what happened. After a lot of drama and noise, the Dems would get most but not all of what they wanted—and nobody was going to push the government over the cliff into default. To figure out where this was going, you needed only to follow this story at a distance—reading perhaps five or at most ten percent of the coverage. That would have been enough to tell you that this story was still moving along its predestined groove, and that nothing of significance was actually going on.
For fans of politics, like fans of professional wrestling, there was a lot of fun to be had by following the various twists in the plot line, but history was not being made in the Washington budget fight. If you follow the news for its entertainment value (plenty of people do this and there is nothing wrong with it—it’s an innocent distraction, like scrapbooking or playing video games), you had a great time for the last few weeks. And for the Journolisters on the left and their sparring partners on the right, the budget fight was a classic story of partisan combat. Everybody could jump in, score what points they could, fight the good fight for their side, and the traffic was good. For those who have a taste for it, it was fun to watch the bright young men of the left and the right try to score verbal points off one another as the slightly older men (and it was mostly men who played prominent roles in the political food fight) of the two parties wrestled in the mud.
Meanwhile, a media firestorm like the one around the budget battle feeds on its own energy. The bigger the story appears, the fewer publications, websites and pundits can afford to ignore it, and the more reporters compete to get the latest tidbit just a little faster than the competition. There is rarely much connection between the size of a firestorm and the importance of the underlying news event that serves as its base: the OJ Simpson trial is a kind of template for these events.
There are two kinds of people who are harmed by following this kind of story in such close detail. One group is made up of the naive outsiders who think that all this sound and fury in Washington is really a world-shaking clash of principle. Earnest, sincere and misguided, they are like the fans at a professional wrestling match who think they are watching a real contest between the Good wrestlers and the Bad ones. They don’t understand that both the Good and the Bad wrestlers will be cashing in after the show, and that winning or losing is less important than entertaining the rubes.
The other group who this kind of spectacle can hurt are young people trying to figure out how the world works and what matters. Instead of reading up on matters of actual substance and learning about the issues and the developments that will shape the future, lots of intelligent twenty-somethings spend inordinate amounts of time trying to follow news stories like this one. They are chasing the wind; there is nothing to catch, no wisdom to be gained by mastering the ins and outs of these events. As the Preacher put it in the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes:
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth again unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
This is not a bad description of the congressional budget fight that we just had. People who want to play a real role in the life of their time and do something meaningful with their lives in the political world need to minimize the time they waste learning about pseudo-events and focus hard on the things that really matter. And those on the outside looking in, people who want to change the way the game is played, need to see past the superficial histrionics of the political class and its media acolytes to grasp the dynamics of power in America today.
I’m not trying to argue that nothing happened in the budget fight or that all the effort that went into covering it was wasted. We learned something about the divisions in the Republican Party and gained further insight into the difficulties it must overcome to mount an effective challenge in 2016. For federal employees and contractors, it was important to monitor every twist and turn in the battle; they had to make real time decisions in their daily lives based on the melee on Capitol Hill. (Even they, however, would not have gone wrong in assuming that a deal would come a short time before the debt ceiling was breached and acting accordingly.) Financial market investors needed to sample the news to figure out what the dumb money was thinking and to make their bets appropriately. For political consultants and others trying to figure out which Republican hopeful to back in 2o16, it was a useful opportunity to see how different possible candidates behaved under stress. Watching the breathless reaction of gullible foreigners to the media storm was a helpful reminder that many intelligent foreign observers understand the United States as poorly as most Americans understand the politics of foreign countries.
But anybody whose goal is to understand the events shaping our world who really tried to follow the details of the news explosion around the budget battle ended up wasting a lot of irreplaceable time. Worse, the bad example of so many famous writers and commenters obsessing over this spectacle likely led many people to mistake a media firestorm for a serious moment in the life of the republic. Moments like this undermine our capacity to change things for the better because they confuse so many of us about what really matters.
Helping readers separate the wheat from the chaff is one of the core goals of Via Meadia and The American Interest. Watching the budget firestorm has renewed our belief that this goal matters. And that’s why, a busy summer out of the way and the fall well launched, that I’m returning to the Big Five. We’re going to double down on what we think really matters, and work harder than ever to speak up when we see public discourse getting sidetracked by the trivial. Expect a post soon that looks at another important aspect of the demographic issue: the crisis of family life and its implications for the future of the United States.