Throw out the pudding: the media distortion of US Politics
In 1605, Englishman William Camden wrote, “All the proof of a pudding, is in the eating.” Later – perhaps because ten words was too long – this truism’s American cousin has devolved into the logically unconstrained, “The proof is in the pudding.”
US media, covering both this week’s debate between Democratic Party candidates and the leadership crisis in the Republican’s house coalition, have vigorously jabbed their hands into both puddings in the quest for answers. Seasoned connoisseurs of the Washington’s nuanced flavours and textures, pundits have fingered the pudding and pronounced judgment.
The problem, of course, with the pundit’s coverage of American politics is that, really, the proof isn’t in the pudding, but its sales. And the American public, on these two issues at least, are purchasing a product distinct from the one the media is advertising.
First: the Democratic debate. In the media coverage immediately following that Las Vegas Showdown, nearly every pundit declared Hillary the clear victor.
Commentators universally argued that her charisma, stage presence, and confidence made her the most persuasive—and, shockingly, entertaining—speaker. More important, her performance hampered the potential success of Biden campaign by reassuring party elite, major donors, and centrist voters. Knock out—she wins.
The inconvenient problem with these media pronouncements, however, is that voters just can’t seem to agree with them. Of all major polls conducted following the debate of Democratic voters, only one declared Hillary the victor. Indeed, Mr. Sanders won nearly every measure of party response by a margin of at least 18 points.
Meanwhile, writers about the current leadership crisis in the House of Representatives likewise continue to massage the pudding without actually tasting it. They label the Tea Party caucus as “extremist,” “fringe,” and “dangerous,” often pointing to structural (gerrymandering that creates extremely conservative districts) or cultural (white, uneducated, rural—read: backwards—voters) explanations for its meteoric birth and cosmic dysfunction.
But, here again, most pundits fail to explain the facts that don’t fit their narrative, notably the sustained popularity of Donald Trump (as well the slightly more likely, and likeable, Ben Carson), as well as, again, those pesky polls. Republican voters from all districts and all demographic strata report overwhelming dissatisfaction with business as usual in the House of Representatives.
In truth, both parties are caught in the same dilemma: though you can only win elections from the wings, but you can only rule successfully from the center. For years, Republican politicians have made repeated promises to their activist base—Christian conservatives, anti-immigration agitators, and small-government zealots—and then bargained away those promises in order to keep the government functioning.
Likewise, Democratic candidates pay lip service to the progressive movements within their parties but fail to deliver meaningful change on climate-change, women’s rights, and Wall Street regulation.
In short, fueled by years of frustration at government that is either centrist or dysfunctional—from Clinton through to the present day—the extreme wings of both parties have rebelled, giving us in the same presidential contest both the nation’s most popular ever Socialist (a formerly naughty word) as well as its most revered jerk.
The massive changes currently rocking the American political climate, as well as the media’s failure to accurately portray them, are not aberrations. They are hints at a larger trend, fueled by the breakdown of traditional structures of political power and political reporting—a trend toward extremism, iconoclasm, and regional separatism. There may be two puddings, not one.
Not long ago, America’s National Public Radio correctly pointed out that the proof cannot be in the pudding—it would be a messy, if not completely silly place to keep it. US political pundits would do well to remember that, in fact, we know very little about the pudding from feeling about inside it. This ridiculous truism is useless in understanding political reality, and those who depend on it are part of system that fails to inform. There’s no proof in the pudding. It’s in the polls.