It's a great question, and yet no one in the know seems to be willing or able to even approach it, much less answer it. Instead, they have Billy Kristol on their little show, give a good-natured poke, and then let him rattle on about the next thing he decides to be fucking wrong about. Hell, one of the other panel members on Maher's show was Cheney hagiographer Stephen Hayes, who shamelessly continued propounding his lies of Saddam and al Qaeda being in cahoots. See, no penalty -- even the opposition will have you on to spout your nonsense and pimp your books.
There are (at least) two major factors at work here, and it comes down to the symbiotic, incestuous nature of this insidious pundit claque, and the people who give them a soapbox. Chat shows attempt to various degrees to be "serious" about issues, and some of them, such as Maher or Olbermann, even manage to succeed on their own terms in many respects. But functionally they are all variations on pro wrestling, where reality (not to mention intellectual honesty, probity, and coherent logic) must take a back seat to entertainment. Olbermann makes an honest effort, but at some point he has to set up his network so that they can sell hemorrhoid cremes and penis-mobiles, and pimp their endless collection of prison shows. Maher tries as well, but just as often gets caught up in the urge to trump someone with a bon mot, which may or may not derail the dialogue.
Even -- perhaps especially -- on the Sunday morning "serious" shows, the pro wrestling dynamic is there, if sublimated in the arcane clauses and gestures of elites talking to one another, rather than to you, Joe Blow. Yet Monsieur Blow must still be kept at least nominally in the dialogue, because the 1% who own 45% of everything still need some rhetorical leverage to keep the burgeoning underclass voting against their own rational self-interest.
So the Serious Commentary frequently devolves to something to distract you from things like the conga line of scumbag contractors grifting taxpayers and soldiers in Iraq. It may be Tweety Matthews wistfully daydreaming about
And these politicians and "experts" have all positioned themselves knowingly in just another huge spectator sport. For example, in the NFL, everything is carefully managed and sponsored -- every sideline has tables filled with cups of Gatorade, labeled as such. Players have to wear certain shoes; the jerseys are made and sponsored by certain companies. Logos cannot be obscured or altered. If you're supposed to wear Reebok jerseys and you wear a Nike one, you get fined, by the league. And if your personal life hits the news, like a certain quarterback whose last name rhymes with "prick", then you lose tens of millions of dollars in endorsement contracts.
Michael Vick's crime was not dogfighting per se; the league appears to be more pissed about his gambling, as that would encroach on the league's corporate credibility. But NFL players are caught up in violent domestic disputes all the damned time, and nothing happens. Vick could have dragged his girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair -- as Lawrence Phillips had done right before he was drafted in the first round some years back -- and no one would have said shit. But Vick got caught, and the feds got involved, which made it impossible to keep quiet. It was a breach of etiquette, which is much worse than hosing down a battered animal, hooking alligator clips to its ears, and plugging the cord into a wall socket.
Politicians have their own sets of endorsements as well, obviously, and they are expected -- no, required -- to maintain certain expectations to keep those endorsements. It would be more honest if politicians and commentators, like athletes, had to wear the logos of their endorsement companies somewhere on their uniforms. The most important thing about a hump like, say, David Vitter is not that he's a sanctimonious fambly-valyews hypocrite who worked his creepy diaper fetish on prostitutes, it's that he rides out the bad pub, keeps his endorsements, and counts on his constitutents' forgetfulness to get re-elected.
And the referees of this spectator sport are the smug, self-important assholes like Tweety and Russert and Dean
On the off-chance an actual populist breaks through, the way Howard Dean did, the vipers of civility lie in wait for them to fuck up, as people inevitably do. In Dean's case, it was unacceptable that the messy nutroots and loopy bloggerses were taking it upon themselves to rewrite the rules. We had the nerve to demand accountability and responsibility, and Dean had the nerve to listen to us. Something had to be done, and the next thing you know, Dean is portrayed as a rabble-rousing loon. That's how the high priests of civility take care of bidness.
In the NFL, there are vast amounts of money to be made, most of it outside the actual games. Swag is where it's at, plus the enormous cottage industries of broadcasting, commentating, prognosticating, bookmaking, etc. Advertisers pay enormous sums of money to grab eyeballs, who are tuned in to watch ex-players swap harmless gobs of putatively inside dirt on the pre- and post-game shows.
The political broadcast industry is hardly different in its operational structure, though at least NFL refs have to be in shape. But politics is indeed show business for ugly people, and the results show in the contrivances and blandishments that ultimately corrupt honest debate. Tempted perhaps by money, pussy, the ability to rub elbows with powerful people, or even the niche fame of political junkies, the participants accrue every possible disincentive to change the debate or even its terms.
The strongest of these disincentives may be the one of reputation, which is slippery in definition to begin with. Because all of these people are really talking to each other rather than to the audience, the notion of "reputation" has a different sort of normative quality, more one of networking and perceived gravitas than anything truly substantial. It's tautological -- all these people act like they regard one another as sensible and serious, like their opinions have any intrinsic value, and it becomes self-perpetuating.
I have no idea why anyone would take someone like David Broder or Tweety Matthews seriously about anything really, since they appear to know absolutely nothing useful. I don't mean this pejoratively, I swear -- I honestly cannot detect even the semblance of expertise in an actual discipline. They simply understand how to move the ball forward in a narrative-driven format, and if three yards and a cloud of dust is your game, then they're your guys. But the reality of it is that they're not moving the ball in any real direction, just back and forth, a few feet at a time. The debate -- or more precisely, the appearance thereof -- is the goal, not the ontological resolution of concrete issues, as based on the knowledge of sourceable facts.
What's most peculiar about this game is how much leverage it appears to exert over what we consider the overall discourse. I mean, I don't know anyone who watches fuckin' Tweety or Russert, or maybe they're just embarrassed to admit it. Political junkies watch this shit, document the predictable atrocities, and bounce it among themselves in the feedback loop. The information is consistently disseminating in a much more organic fashion than it did pre-intartubes, but that also means that it's atomized by the process; instead of a million people watching the same thing, they're getting slight variations on a theme from a thousand or ten thousand sources, each of which may have a slightly different point of emphasis. This allows the Esteemed Commentators to continue their sinecures, pooh-poohing the virtual peons, and congratulating one another at their little appletini parties in the Hamptons over how very Serious and Competent they are.
And the repudiation of this should be crystal clear by now -- what sort of Serious and Competent opinion-monger still gives a rabid moron like Billy Kristol or Stephen Hayes the fucking time of day, even to smack him around a little? Once again, the simple act of giving these malicious idiots face time legitimizes them, in the eyes of the people who consume their bullshit. They are not there to convince or refute anyone of anything; they are there to obfuscate the truth, to propagate baldfaced lies and stupidity with the veneer of politesse, as if anything could be more vulgar or less civil than insinuating that, after wrecking literally millions of lives for no discernible reason, the most responsible thing we can do right now is to start another goddamned war.
Even the people we try to count on to Do The Right Thing, to bravely Speak Truth To Power, find themselves compromised and constrained by these pitiful attempts at comity. Here's Saint Gore, hero of the planet, on a recent
Well, yeah. Not only would it be bad form to call out Holy Joe on his mealy-mouthed bullshit, but Al might need a solid from him down the road. Shit happens.
But all this year we have been getting piously lectured by Gore and various minions, besought with entreaties to reason in a game played by unreasonable people, or exhorted by pampered rock stars to behave and consume properly before they themselves pick which house to take the Gulfstream and limo back to. It's a shell game, played by people who cannot tell us the truth, because that would require divesting themselves of their own luxuries.
It's also sadly easy to forget, as we rail about waste and overconsumption and SUVs and such, that it was the Clinton administration, with Gore's imprimatur, which lowered the CAFE standards. And there are plenty of excuses -- the Republican Congress made them do it; the auto industry made them do it, with the threat of thousands of jobs in the balance, blah blah blah. There are always excuses, just as there are always excuse-makers. It would be better if these champions of High Principle would just shrug their shoulders, mumble something about politics being the art of the possible or some such, and went on about their business of pimping and collecting. At least we know then where we stand.
Telling the truth, though, would also be incivil. Can't have that.
The name-dropping, whether or not it was timed and planned to give the illusion of cultural relevance, is immaterial, off-putting as some may find it. The point is that these are the rules as circumscribed by the refs, one of which is Time magazine. This is the kind of niche-specific product placement you rarely see outside of some interchangeable popcorn movie: he barbecues! he wears cowboy boots! he likes dogs and hangs with past-their-prime
The most asinine rule of the narrative, as relayed by its practitioners, is the idea that voters should feel some close kinship with the person they vote for. This is yet another example of something that should have been openly and forcefully repudiated a long time ago. You are not voting for a BFF or a fucking bartender, people; this is not your new neighbor. I really couldn't care less if Al Gore is a tubthumping vegan who grills tofurkey in his Birkenstocks every Thanksgiving, or a Skoal-dipping hick who thinks corn is part of the "salad" food group; all I give two shits about is what he will do to at least slow down the pace at which actual reg'lar Americans, the people who work and live paycheck-to-paycheck, find their very lives in thrall to the greed of predatory capitalists.
Because I've had enough of bullshit DINOs like Daschle and Biden, who sold their constituents out to the credit card companies the first chance they got; sick of people who have their own primo health-care system renting themselves out to the insurance and pharma companies to make sure the rest of the country stays screwed; tired of people like Lieberman who have no principle or party loyalty whatsoever; tired of finger-to-the-wind Third Wayers like the Clintons, who never stood tall for a goddamned thing that mattered without finding a way to sell it out under the banner of triangulation.
But more than them, I'm beyond sick of a commentariat that doesn't confuse, but deliberately conflates politeness with respectability, professional courtesy with knowledge and expertise, comity with competence. It's their game; it's been their game the whole time. We're just spectators. Time for some new rules, and new refs.