Matt Taibbi warns us that campaign conventional wisdom is dead but that no matter how wrong the pundits have been in the past, they always come back with renewed confidence and certainty that this time they have got it right, though often they never even acknowledge that they were ever wrong. This is because their function is not to analyze dispassionately what the candidates’ polices are and compare them, which would be a genuinely useful service, but to promote the establishment candidates and disparage all the rest. They are particularly vicious towards any candidate that challenges the pro-war, pro-business agenda of the two main parties, immediately declaring them to be unelectable or too extreme.
Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein just published a new piece called, “Is Bernie Finished?” Citing Iowa poll numbers that show poor Sanders “essentially in a three person race for second” (he actually is in second, but whatever), its premise is that Bernie now rests “at the fringes of plausibility.” Worse, he could “fail to reach the delegate threshold” in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.
This is absurd, and the absurdity isn’t confined to coverage of Bernie Sanders. It’s early, and stupid, to be making pronouncements about any candidate’s viability.
It was silly back in December when a spate of pundits suddenly decided to run “worries abound” stories about Elizabeth Warren whose campaign months later is doing, surprise surprise, just fine.
And it was ridiculous for the Washington Post to run four different stories in the span of a few winter days earlier this year about Sanders being a “one-hit wonder” whose moment had “come… and gone” and who was “no big deal the second time around.”
These stories are not based on anything. They’re space-filling guesses usually grounded in some grumbling personal complaint the outlet or pundit in question has about whatever politician they’re trashing.
It’s an annoying and condescending kind of campaign reportage. What makes it particularly ridiculous is that a lot of the people doing it were part of an epic face plant on the horse race front four years ago.
Bernstein should know. Four summers ago, when Trump was surging, he penned a piece under a headline, “No, Trump can’t win.” He meant the nomination, insisting (emphasis mine):
Everything we know about presidential nominations screams that Donald Trump has no chance of winning the Republicans’ nod.
Taibbi says that rather than sobering up after the last election debacle and re-thinking what was wrong with what they do, pundits dismissed their failure as due to a ‘black swan’ event, the label given an extremely unlikely event that is not expected to recur. He says that news consumers have wised up much more than the pundits.
Not only are news audiences sensitive to the fact that we suck even at our own degraded horse race form of guessing-game politics coverage, they see us as a conflicted part of the power structure whose opinions about candidate viability should probably be ignored on principle.
They realize we can make numbers say pretty much anything. They know if we wanted to, for instance, we could argue that centrist candidates are less electable, while the Bernies and Warrens of the world might be more so, as political economist Thomas Piketty recently did in a new study.
It is not that polls are not useful at all. But at best they provide a fuzzy snapshot at one point in time and we should be aware that there are many factors in the way the polls are conducted that introduce a great deal of variability. At this stage of the process, the most useful function of the press should be to tell us what the candidates’ polices and voting records and general stands on principles and issues are. But that takes too much, you know, work because you have to read and analyze their position papers, their speeches, and their history. It is so much easier to cherry pick some poll and then interpret it favorably towards your candidate or political stance and then pontificate away. That way you get invited on radio and TV and internet talk shows to ‘debate’ another pundit who uses the same technique to argue in favor of an opposing candidate or position. Then you rinse and repeat.