Laughing at American simple-mindedness is not one of our kinder national pastimes, but it does take a bit of the sting out of American supremacy. The US might own us culturally, strategically and materially more than any other state, but at least we get to call them idiots. Or, we did.
Look at their enormous wobbly guts we said, until we became more girt by girth. Look at their wasteful ways we said, until we claimed top spot as the OECD’s dirtiest emitter. Look at their guileless voters duped by media we said, until 2016’s presidential primaries and caucuses. After New Hampshire, they ain’t looking so easily led.
For a close look at a complex nation of US voters grown impatient with approved media narratives, there’s Guy Rundle on the trail. For a cranky look at our own electorate’s relatively special place in hell, today, there’s me. And I hate to say it but, geez, we’re not half so independent in our political choices as those Americans have lately become.
With little media support and even fewer analysts to competently explain their success, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were chosen last weekend by the people of New Hampshire. Sanders claimed an unexpectedly yooooge victory, and so did Trump, whose candidacy prompted a record Republican turnout that atypically exceeded Democratic votes. Forget that Trump is clearly a bright orange sign of the end times and that Sanders, should he ever make it to the White House without being shot by a private equity Mafioso, would feel a force of congressional pushback so great, even Noah would tell him to give up and drown. Forget about all that and think about the giddy, risk-taking optimism of the people who voted for these curios, against all the best advice.
The media establishment has taken the anti-establishment threat posed by these men very seriously. The Huffington Post famously and pompously vowed not to cover Trump’s campaign some months ago — just how the cartoonish bile of Ted Cruz is more printable is anybody’s guess. The influential Fox News cable network has made it very plain that Trump’s not their kind of GOP candidate. A few marginal progressive outlets like Democracy Now! are treating Sanders, one of the few candidates on either side who can plainly argue his economic policy, with some of the scrutiny he may be able to brook. But in New Hampshire, as in much of the nation, liberal news media had been spruiking Clinton.
It seems that all this snubbing by media might be doing the outsiders more good than harm.
US media keeps feeding its audience the mild idea of incremental change, but US voters keep veering to the guys who have vowed to smash things up. Real economic fears are almost certainly driving voters in the directions of Trump’s frank nativism or of Sanders’ updated New Deal. But I reckon the media disapproval is really helping these guys along. One way to convince voters you’re genuinely anti-establishment is sustained disapproval by the media establishment. No endorsement is the endorsement that money just can’t buy.
This is not the first election where media disdain has played its involuntary part in campaigning. Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has said that news coverage for Greece’s New Democracy party during the January 2015 elections was so plainly obsequious, voters stopped listening to broadcast spin and started engaging directly with Syriza policy. Of course, some of them also engaged directly with that other mob snubbed by media, Golden Dawn, an extreme nativist party now the third largest in the Hellenic parliament. But this is the grave risk when citizens become disenchanted with old political strategies and press remains oblivious to this disenchantment. Behind every fascist, said Walter Benjamin, there’s a failed revolution. Maybe a failed revolution and a lazy, oblivious press.
Like many of Earth’s deluded human creatures, we Australians have faith in the strength of our sovereign minds. But in the long and painful period that led to our last federal election, we tended, unlike the Greeks and the Americans of the present, to follow the strengths of our media conglomerates. Press adhered to its set of sanctioned bullshit topics — security and surplus, mostly — and so did we.
For all their past or future faults, Syriza and Sanders have demonstrated that there are voters in Western liberal democracies actually eager to learn much more than press is generally inclined to pass on. While we in Australia may remain currently untroubled by a news cycle set to spin, something is bound to upset that mechanism. Perhaps we’ll have to face an austerity or a subprime-sized crisis before politicians decide we are ready to engage with ideas more complex that “stop the boats” or “end the debt”. I’m personally holding out hope that some expensive US campaigner sells the ALP the hot advice that some people, apparently, would rather listen to entire speeches from a guy like Bernie Sanders about actual economic policy than pre-digested bites from a news media they no longer trust.
In the months leading up to the 2013 spill, Julia Gillard had an initial stab at this business of actually explaining difficult things. She was pretty good. Unfortunately, she appeared to be addressing a think tank rather than an interested electorate and even more unfortunately, she fucked it all up a few weeks later with the hauntingly dreadful Women for Gillard launch speech. I mean, go women, and all that, but this didn’t sound like a passionate policy declaration. It was a positioning statement for twits. Gillard, whose feminist record had been recently tarnished, said “women” a lot and made the dreadful mistake, so recently echoed in Clinton’s faltering campaign, of thinking that women voters were stupid enough to confuse her exceptional privilege for their everyday reality.
Goodness knows why some advisers remain convinced that this “empowerment” stuff wins votes. I mean, I like a little cultural feminist victory as much as the next girl, but I’ve never thought that feeling just great about being a lady was a government responsibility, or that the fact of a lady in government could produce a tangible benefit for me. Most women really don’t think that way. Especially those women who employed at Starbucks, where they work to sell Madeleine Albright’s inspiring feminist words about the “special place in hell”. (There is, surely, a “special place in hell” for women who tell women who vote for the guy promising to significantly increase their minimum wage that they deserve a special place in hell.)
Certain segments of the media and political class still believe that such rousing claims about identity will stir the electorate. But unless that affirmation of an identity is tied to a promise of better material conditions, no one gives much of a hoot. Let Trump hawk his empty promise of national identity politics. Restore to the liberal-left its old territory of the economy, stupid, and leave the identity politics to the racists.
As Rundle has noted, Sanders is the candidate offering “arguable, and arguable-with, ideas”. Let’s dream that this crazy new trend of explaining things catches on harder here, and we can get back to feeling sorry for those dumb, artless Americans.