Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Andrew Gelman and John Sides have composed a dog-that-didn’t-bark tale that is smart and entertaining and imparts a useful lesson: sometimes the most helpful way to explain an event is to observe that nothing much happened. Which led me to reflect on how and why the people responsible for explaining the world to Americans—the media—so insistently and melodramatically say the opposite, not just barking, but braying and howling that this election was the most epochal election ever. I can reasonably conclude that three years from now, and four years after that, and four years after that, they will do the same thing all over again. In fact, I know this because that is just what they did in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 (when we learned that the evil genius Rove had shifted America’s tectonics by conjuring up at will a permanent Republican realignment). Not to mention 1964 (the end of the Republican Party for a generation); 1976 (the end of the Republican Party for a generation); and 1994 (an epochal collapse of the Democrats).
Wisely, Gelman and Sides recognize that there is something ineluctably human and irrevocable about all this: always and everywhere, “people debate the future by arguing about what just happened.” (And also something politically strategic: a good way to move people tomorrow is to get them to accept your story about yesterday.) Just as wisely, they insist this absolves no one of the responsibility to please, please handle the problem better in the future: since “once the votes are counted, these stories solidify into conventional wisdom and supply convenient ways to judge what the election was about,” the media can and must do better.
Much better, because right now their analysis is little better than barroom bullshitting, melodramatic scenario-spinning, a commentator’s pre-existing prejudice in analytical drag. A down-and-out Republican field was rescued and redeemed by the Great Savior Fred Thompson. Hillary Clinton artfully mastered the loyalties of the beer-and-a-shot crowd and once again proved the power of the white working class. John McCain showed that the electorate needed a strong, stern Republican daddy to answer the phone at 2 a.m. to tell them the fundamentals of the economy are sound. Barack Obama was ruined by terrorist pals and black liberation theology: that was what really mattered. Or not. For lo! Now the Children’s Crusade bodies forth, the Kansan Kenyan “redraws the map,” and a magic new mandate ends Nixonland and Republican obstruction and gives us all health insurance and the Greenest Economy Ever. Until the political novice lost his magic and mandate at the Gates manse on Ware Street.
Just how dysfunctional has this media tail-chasing become? Let me offer you an indelible example. I have a friend who slaved away through 2006 at an investigative biography of John Sidney McCain. Until his book contract was cancelled. In 2007. Because Rudy Giuliani’s early lead in the polls had just killed McCain’s chances—once and for all.
The real story of 2008 was “more equivocal than popular discourse currently allows.” Amen. It always is. So what did happen in 2006, 2007, 2008? What story can we usefully and responsibly reveal to ourselves about the future by thinking about this recent past? I think that for the proverbial historian of the future, it just may end up being how—in a country with remarkably durable institutions, stable ideological alignments, and persistent political styles—an apparatus of political commentary arose that had to—in order to justify its existence, sustain itself, and grow, lest it die—glibly invent new “crisp and usable” stories, and glibly discard “old” ones, every new week, every new day, even every “new” news cycle.
I warn of the baleful 24-hour media ecology, and its attendant pundit-industrial complex, set of interlocking professional incentives where if you don’t come up with some man-bites-dog “insight” in every last segment in which you are to appear, you may not appear at all. The producers shout: just give me something, anything, slightly less boring than the observation that the real world is sometimes boring, or—God save us!—complicated.
Here is a media ecology that will not—cannot—explain that it is the slow, steady work of structure-building and structure-understanding that produces presidential nominations and election victories. Which commentator, around the time the political media were inspiring publishing companies to cancel biographies of that also-ran Republican candidate John McCain, was making the responsibly mature point that Republican nominations always tend to go to the most establishment figure? That the winner is generally the one who finished second in the previous nomination fight? In a responsible, mature political commentary, such observations would be routine. But our media ecology is irresponsible and immature, to a fare-thee-well.
This point is hardly original, even wrapped as a sanctimonious, chest-beating jeremiad. Here is a suggestion, though, that might squeak the conversation forward a bit. Much of what passes for analytical discussion about politics on American TV resembles celebrity gossip—the celebrities just happen to be politicians. Reality principle: it is too much to expect this to change any time soon. But what about the way so much of what passes for scholarly discussion about politics on American TV is also celebrity gossip? It is just that the celebrities happen to be dead and are almost exclusively presidents (hence the meaningless sobriquet “presidential historian”). The actual enterprise historians and political scientists are engaged in—understanding structural change over time (and also structural continuity over time)—is nearly nowhere to be found. Plenty of great scholars know how to make this stuff interesting, even for easily distracted audiences; they do it in their classrooms all the time. Hey, TV news producers! People like Andrew Gelman and John Sides have interesting things to say (and important, too). They do so with maturity and wisdom. There is a place for better, serious, historically oriented scholars on the airwaves.