Friday, October 03, 2008

The revolt against the punditocracy

By Michael J.W. Stickings

What happened last night was very much like what happened last Friday. After the debate was over, many of the leading pundits on CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere proclaimed Palin if not the outright winner at least the winner of the expectations game. Biden may have been strong, but he was expected to do well, whereas Palin, who was supposed to collapse into a heap of failure right there on the stage, or so we were being told, held her own, or so we were told, and so beat the expectations, and so "won" the debate.

For many in the media, it's not about content, which is too challenging for them, but about their own expectations, their own shifting narrative. For them, the debate wasn't really about what Biden and Palin actually said but about how they said it, about how they performed relative to expectations. Similarly, the first presidential debate wasn't about content but about performance, and the immediate reaction from many pundits was that McCain won, or at the very least managed a draw.

The reaction of the pundits -- some of which I addressed in my long live-blogging post -- last night was nothing if not predictable. As I put it on Wednesday: "[W]hile Biden will need to prove himself worthy by reaching, if not surpassing, the media's lofty expectations of him (in order to 'win' or 'tie'), Palin will just need to show up, look good, and come across as somewhat plausible. If, on top of that, she is coherent and seemingly credible, as she was in her acceptance speech at the RNC, she'll be judged to have surpassed expectations and perhaps to have won the debate even if Biden does well and exceeds her in substance."

But then the people spoke -- or, rather, responded to the pollsters. And what they said amounted to a thorough rejection of the pundits, their expectations game, and the media's obsessive focus on style and performance. For the polls showed a decisive victory for Biden. CNN, for example, found that while Palin was the more "likable" of the two, and while both exceeded expectations, Biden won the debate 51-36. And CBS, polling uncommitted voters, found the Biden won 46-21.

As TNR's Jonathan Cohn notes, it was "deja vu all over again." Polls showed a similar victory for Obama in last Friday's debate. And what explains this? Why the markedly different reactions from the pundits and the people? Again, it may that the people are rejecting not just so much the pundits themselves -- because most people don't pay any attention to them -- as what the pundits are pushing on them, politics as media-driven entertainment. Or, it may just be that the people are actually paying more attention to substance than to style, that content matters -- and that the people ought to be taken more seriously than the self-serving, self-absorbed, over-paid pundits who populate the news media. For in the end, who cares what John King or Gloria Borger thinks? Sure, they've been around, but all they do is filter everything through their own preconceptions and expectations. Does anything they say actually pass for serious analysis? Rarely.

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Speaking of pundits, a few conservatives are in fine form today:

NYT's David Brooks: "The Palin Rebound."

WSJ's Peggy Noonan: "Palin and Populism."

Politico's Roger Simon: "You betcha Sarah Palin can debate."

Reading through these columns is like confronting the Matrix. It's like they inhabit an alternate reality that isn't real at all, or real only in the warped conservative mind.

-- "She killed," writes Noonan. "She was the star... Her syntax did not hold, but her magnetism did. At one point she literally winked at the nation."

-- "Sarah Palin was supposed to fall off the stage at her vice presidential debate Thursday evening," writes Simon. "Instead, she ended up dominating it.

-- "There she was, resplendent in black, striding out like a power-walker," writes Brooks. "The race has not been transformed, but few could have expected as vibrant and tactically clever a performance as the one Sarah Palin turned in Thursday night."

I don't have the will to do through the many inanities that litter these three columns. What sort of alternate reality do you have to inhabit to have some away from the debate thinking Palin had "killed" and "dominated"?

Brooks thinks that "[w]ith a bemused smile and a never-ending flow of words, she laid out her place on the ticket -- as the fearless neighbor for the heartland bemused by the idiocies of Washington." Really? It's like nothing that actually happened made its way into Brooks's brain. Her stringing together of talking points, her reading from cue cards or notes, her refusal (inability) to answer the questions, her smear-laced attacks, her smug arrogance even in the face of utter ignorance and incompetence -- what about all that?

What binds these three together is faux populism. There's nothing "mainstream" or "heartland" about them, but in all three columns there is an abundance of venom directed at Washington and the coasts. As if somehow none of them had anything ever to do with Washington or New York or L.A. As if the Times and the Journal were just Main Street papers from small-town Iowa. But this is what they love about Palin, that's she's an outsider, that she took it to Biden last night, that, in Brooks's words, "she made it abundantly, unstoppably and relentlessly clear that she was not of Washington, did not admire Washington and knew little about Washington. She ran not only against Washington, but the whole East Coast, just to be safe."

Of course, this is what the coastal conservative elite often does -- masking its elitism by playing up its own brand of resentment populism. The thing is, the people, including those who actually live in the Heartland, evidently don't agree and aren't playing along. Conservative populism, however phony, may have worked in the past, but it isn't working this year. And so where pundits like King and Borger and David Gergen often get it wrong because of an inability to see past their own preconceptions and expectations, these conservatives just get it plain wrong. In this case, Brooks even praises Palin on substance.

In 2008, the people are rising up against the punditocracy. They may not know that they are, and it may not be their intention to do so, but they are simply rejecting them -- or, more specifically, what they represent and push on the people: an entertainment-oriented understanding of politics that puts style before substance, that focuses on performance, and that emphasizes the horse race before all else.

In 2008, content matters, the issues matter. Which is why, once the people spoke, it was abundantly clear that Obama and Biden had won the debates.

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