Today came news that Cokie Roberts, was a major player at NPR and ABC as a political commentator, has died. I do not celebrate her death but found her to be utterly tiresome and am dreading the deluge of appreciations of her as some kind of wise and sagacious analyst. As far as I could see, her analyses consisted almost invariably of conventional wisdom or quoting poll results. I cannot recall a single original idea or compelling insight to come from her. Eric Alterman described her best: “With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue . . . a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality.”
She was not alone in this kind of shallowness. Back in 2007, I wrote about the members of what were called ‘the Villagers’, a small but influential group of people like Roberts who echoed each other and set the conventional wisdom. With apologies for quoting myself, I reproduce key passages below.
This core group’s agenda is transmitted and implemented by a secondary group which consist of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Tim Russert, Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people socialize amongst themselves and thus informally arrive at a rough consensus of who they feel are “worthy” of being elected to high office.
It is hard to give a collective name for this group but one that has been floated recently is the “Villagers”. (I think the name was invented by Atrios who has a flair for this kind of thing, having already coined the term the ‘Friedman Unit‘.) Although this group consists of wealthy elites, not the types one normally associates with actual village people, this is an apt name nonetheless because it captures accurately the key mentality of this group: they are tightly knit, clannish, want to keep all resources to themselves, view everyone outside their charmed circle as inferior, and are determined to keep the status quo intact. You can get a good idea of who belongs in the Village by those who are asked to comment on important issues so that they can frame the debate, and the people who appear on the political talk shows and get invited to contribute op-eds.
It is important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily exposed. The secret of the Villagers’ success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared interests and business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles and thus able to pick up the subtle cues that help them decide who should be in and who should be out. If you look at the network of marriages and other personal relationships alone, you will immediately see how such consensus views could seemingly arise “spontaneously.” For example, key Democratic political strategist James Carville and key Republican strategist Mary Matalin are married, as are Alan Greenspan and journalist Andrea Mitchell. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. You and I might wonder how they can keep their political differences out of their personal relationships but that is because we are naïve. They have no real differences. They all serve the same Village interests.
To be considered a “serious” candidate for things like the presidency or any other major elected office, you must get the approval of the Villagers and the way you do that is by giving them the cues that tell them that you know and will abide by the rules that they set. Otherwise you will be marginalized and ridiculed and driven out of the race.
When it comes to elections, the Villagers will only give their stamp of approval to someone who they can definitely rely on to play by the rules that they have created. This means that any serious populist challenge to the interests of big business or the war machine faces huge obstacles to success. The weeding out process to get rid of unsuitable people takes place fairly early in the election process. People who are subordinate to the Villagers, like local newspapers and politicians around the country, take their cues from the Villagers and drum the message of who is worthy of consideration repeatedly into us so that we non-Villagers end up feeling that a vote for an unapproved candidate, even if it is someone we strongly support, is a wasted vote. By the time ordinary citizens like us actually go to the polls to vote in a primary or general election, we have been beaten down to think that we are faced with effectively just one or two “reasonable” candidates. The rest have been deemed “unelectable” or “fringe” by the Village.
That was the role that Roberts played enthusiastically. She was faithful to her class to the end.