An elite matter

The media’s coverage of the presidential campaign make it impossible to learn about any important issues.

John Sharkey

Sometimes, our national discourse seems hopeless. It may seem trite to complain about the mainstream coverage of the presidential campaign, but in reality we cannot afford to just accept the status quo. The stakes are too high, and we need to demand something better than what we’ve been getting. The reaction to Sen. Barack Obama’s recent comments about class serves as a reminder of how banal our collective conversation has become.

By now, you’ve no doubt seen Obama’s statement. Speaking about how the loss of jobs over the past 25 years has affected “small town” Americans, Obama mentioned that those voters turn to “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment” because they feel bitter. A standard political firestorm ensued and, like always, the focus of the debate was not the content of Obama’s remarks. Instead, all anyone in the mainstream media wants to talk about is how these comments “play politically.” Anything resembling an important issue takes a back seat to the disgraceful horse-race-style election coverage. A voter actually interested in things that matter has a hard time finding any worthwhile debate.

Obama was instantly branded an “elitist,” one of the classic vapid political smears. In one way, calling a presidential candidate is a rather self-evident statement; with the hundreds of millions of dollars required to make a serious run at the presidency, our system does a good job of eliminating all but the elite. Remember the 2000 and 2004 elections when Al Gore and John Kerry were labeled the candidates of the elite, while President George W. Bush was billed by the media as the common man. Nevermind that Bush is the Yale-educated grandson of a senator and son of a president. He talks kind of funny and seemed like a regular guy, so he got the coveted “common man” label. Now, both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton are throwing the “elitist” label at Obama. It’s not as if those two are exactly inspiring rags-to-riches stories themselves. Not that the truth actually matters when dealing with a faux-controversy like this – the only important factor is how many news cycles the story can fill.

The reactions of Clinton and McCain are startling. Both are trying to frame Obama as condescending and out of touch. For McCain to say this is particularly laughable. He’s the candidate who supports tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and thinks the current credit crisis is an example of common Americans getting what they deserve. His platform ignores the basic needs of middle and lower class citizens, but he has the guts to call Obama out of touch.

The national media allow candidates like McCain to get away with this absurdity. McCain appeared on Hardball on Tuesday, where host Chris Matthews asked the candidate point-blank, “Is Barack Obama an elitist?” Every talking-head news show is wasting hours on end arguing that question. The entire controversy is now being called “Bitter-gate,” a term that would be laughable if it wasn’t so depressing.

On one level, one wonders: How do we define condescension? The national media has shown just how low their opinion of the American public is through their coverage of this story. Obama, by making a socio-economic statement about the struggles of lower income citizens in a globalizing economy, is called condescending. On the other side, Clinton makes a public show out of drinking a shot of whisky at an Indiana bar, and the press swoons. What seems more condescending: Commenting on difficult economic times, or hamming it up with a shot of Crown Royal? Apparently, a steel worker in Pennsylvania is supposed to see Clinton with a shot glass and think, “Hey, she’s just like me!” Both Clinton and the press think so little of the common American that a ridiculous display in a bar is supposed to make us relate to a millionaire senator. Nobody thinks that Clinton spends her evenings in a seedy dive swilling cheap hooch. Still, we expect our candidates to go through the motions. (Of course, if Obama had been downing Canadian whiskey, it probably would have just been another chance to question his patriotism.)

We apparently expect our candidates to lie to us. They have to show up at state fairs to eat greasy food, they have to act like they love hanging out at the VFW, they have to tell us about their humble heritage. Nobody actually believes this stuff, but candidates are just supposed to do it.

The response to Obama’s remarks raises another, deeper question as well. We assume that an “elite” will have trouble politically, but we never consider who would actually make the best president. Given the choice between someone who spends the weekend reading foreign policy journals and someone who downs a case of Natty Ice on Friday afternoons, one would hope we would go for the policy nerd. Being president is, believe it or not, a really hard job. If nothing else, the last seven years have shown what can happen when we vote someone into office because they seem “relatable.” Now more than ever, America needs elite leadership.

We end up confronted with inane discussions of elitism because our national discourse is so deeply shaped by the mainstream media. To create a story, many (not all, but many) journalists fall back on the standard narrative of the campaign and view the entire process as a sporting event. Regular voters see things differently. Watching a televised debate that includes questions from the audience is an instructive experience. The moderator will ask questions about the politics of the campaign – how event X will affect campaign strategy Y, or whatever. Then an audience member will stand up and ask a substantive question about an actual issue. This pattern never fails. When given the chance, real voters want to hear where the candidates actually stand on issues that matter.

In that sense, Obama’s remarks are truly anti-elitist. Instead of pandering to voters as if they were children, he spoke of real issues; if only the media would do the same. Obama still has plenty to answer to: his substandard health care plan, his lackluster stance on GLBT issues, his maddeningly cautious approach to Cuba. But if we ever want to learn anything of substance, we’ll have to wish for a better press corps first.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]