Every year, Salon‘s Alex Pareene publishes a hack list. The list is supposed to call attention to political commentators, newspaper columnists, political news show hosts and cable news pundits, who are constantly on television. They are listed and described rudely because there is no reason to respect people who are typically “wrong about literally everything” or who engage in “shameless sycophancy.” Yet, Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum thinks a problem for liberals is that they need hacks. In fact, they do not have enough hacks.
Liberals will spend hours upon hours chastising some of the people, who’ve appeared on the Salon lists (or in Pareene’s column on hacks). Drum has written over ten posts in the past couple of years, where he calls attention to the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg for being a “conservative partisan hack.” Drum has ridiculed Fox News contributor John Stossel for cheerleading austerity and saying people should welcome the pain. Drum has written tens of thousands of words about New York Times “moderate conservative” columnist David Brooks, who regularly disguises reactionary ideas in establishment speak.
These are just a few examples. Part of Drum’s regular blogging seems to be regularly posting glib remarks about hacks that are laced with some nuggets of value. So, isn’t Drum’s introspective post about liberal hacks obviously hypocritical?
Conservatives Have More in Media Who Are Willing to Say Whatever to Advance the Party Line
Drum lays out his reasoning:
The hack gap is a liberal problem of long standing. Put simply, we liberals don’t have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.
My conservative readers may scoff at this notion, but rarely has the hack gap been on such febrile display as it has since last Wednesday’s presidential debate. Ask yourself this: can you even imagine Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tearing their hair out over a weak debate performance by Mitt Romney the way that liberals have been over President Obama’s? I can’t. [emphasis added]
Ignoring the fact that Limbaugh actually has been critical of Romney, it is obvious what Drum desires: liberals who can be counted on to adhere to a party line. He wants more liberals, who know their place, and show fealty or loyalty toward Obama. If they have to be ridiculous or lie to get into the conversation in the press, so be it. The party line of the Democratic Party up against the conservative line that the Republican Party wants to get across to all Americans will lessen the impact of the conservative media echo chamber.
Drum presents his view on how things would have happened “if liberals had their fair share of hacks” after the presidential debate last Wednesday:
…When the debate was over that wouldn’t have mattered. Conservatives would have started crowing about how well Romney did. Liberals would have acknowledged that Obama should have confronted Romney’s deceptions more forcefully, but otherwise would have insisted that Obama was more collected and presidential sounding than the hyperactive Romney and clearly mopped the floor with him on a substantive basis. News reporters would then have simply reported the debate normally: Romney said X, Obama said Y, and both sides thought their guy did great. By the next day it would barely be a continuing topic of conversation, and by Friday the new jobs numbers would have buried it completely…
Essentially, in Drum’s dream scenario, liberals would not pay attention to substance. They would analyze and make comments that only pay attention to appearance, like whether Obama looked more engaged than Romney, whether Romney was more rude than Obama, whether Romney made more eye contact than Obama, whether Obama enunciated the syllables of his words more clearly, whether Romney wore a colored tie that he should not have, whether Obama wore a colored tie that made him instantly look better than Romney, whether Romney’s hair needed a comb, whether Obama was more relaxed than Romney, whether Romney had to strain to seem likable, whether Romney seemed like he could be president, whether Romney appeared to have been coached more than Obama, etc—Babble which political junkies like Drum are always ready to eat up and digest.
“Liberals Went Batshit Crazy”
Drum goes on to declare, “Instead, liberals went batshit crazy.” Why did they go batshit crazy? Because after he posted his initial response to the debate, he turned on MSNBC to hear liberal or Democratic Party commentators saying “Obama did poorly” and “had delivered the worst debate performance.” He had betrayed “everything they thought was great about Obama.” Obama’s “entire second term” had been put “in jeopardy” and Romney was now the “instant front runner.” And, Drum recognizes it was acceptable for them to react more strongly than he did to Obama’s performance except, “What’s amazing is that, as near as I can tell, hardly any liberal pundits held back.”
These are his actual words, which read like an excerpt of an apology letter on behalf of the “Professional Left” that he wrote to the director of Obama for America to make it clear he did not think this was how liberals should act after every debate:
…Aside from paid campaign workers, no more than a handful decided to pretend that Obama had done well because, hey, that’s how the game is played, folks. Those refs aren’t going to work themselves, after all. Instead it was a nearly universal feeding frenzy.
You don’t normally see the temperamental difference between liberals and conservatives so dramatically on display. Most conservatives simply wouldn’t have been willing to slag their guy so badly. Liberals, by contrast, almost seemed to enjoy wallowing in recriminations. It was practically an Olympic tournament to see who could act the most agonized. As a friend just emailed me a few minutes ago, “I can’t tell you how many liberals I’ve had to talk off the ledge today.”… [emphasis added]
This is similar to what Democratic Party’s answer to Frank Luntz, George Lakoff, argues: if Democrats could talk better, frame their hollow or weak ideas better, use “moral values” against Republicans, they would win more often.
To recap, this is some of what was said on MSNBC: host Chris Matthews said Romeny had said, “If you have a pre-existing condition, anybody with one gets coverage,” which he had not been saying and Obama did not challenge him; host Rachel Maddow argued, “Whether or not Mitt Romney is going to be in trouble for having gotten away with a lot of stuff that’s not true or whether it`s the president’s problem that he didn’t make him answer”; host Ed Schultz said to White House senior advisor David Plouffe, “The biggest story since the convention has been the 47 percent. None of this was mentioned tonight by the president. Clear openings to put Mitt Romney on the defensive. Why didn’t he do that?”; MSNBC contributor Howard Fineman stated the debate was “a classic case of a president kind of showing up and figuring that because he’s president, he gets extra points.”
Be a Cog in the Machine, Liberals
What should be a strength is a tremendous misdeed because Democratic Party loyalists and Obama supporters find warranted criticism to be toxic. It enters the echo chamber, meshes with reactionary Tea Party outrage toward the president and only further complicates Obama’s ability to campaign (or, prior to the election, govern). Rather than accept criticism might strengthen Obama’s campaign and show that his base is not just going to vote for him but also compel him to address some serious issues before going to vote on Election Day, criticism shows one is not a team player. Criticizing Obama is going off-script. Liberal pundits should not be confused and think elections are anything more than a public relations industry (as Noam Chomsky has suggested). They should be the cog in the machine of this industry, as they are expected to be.
Drum actually wrote a fine piece of journalism back in 2010 that addressed how Wall Street owns Washington “lock, stock and barrel.” But Drum would not challenge the president on his decision to load his staff up with people, who had ties to banks or financial institutions, and not prosecute any executives for crimes they committed that led to the 2008 economic collapse. He would rather engage in self-censorship during this election.
To end this craven piece of commentary, Drum turns it up to eleven:
In the end, I doubt this will make a big difference. The polls were always going to tighten up a bit after the huge post-convention, post-47% runup for Obama, so I don’t attribute as much of his recent poll decline to the debates as most people do. Obama has plenty of time to come back, and the fundamentals — his incumbency, the economy, and Romney’s stiffness as a candidate — still suggest a modest Obama win in November. But if I’m wrong, and this does make a big difference, it will be 100% attributable to the hack gap. Without that, Obama’s debate performance would barely have registered. This was a completely avoidable debacle.
Yes, an Obama loss in November will not be because he did not distinguish himself from Romney. It will not be because Obama ran a poor campaign and Romney ran a better campaign. It will not be because of voter suppression. It will not be because Obama took his base for granted. It will be because the Democratic Party does not have enough liberal hacks to go on television and behave like sycophants.
The commentary is remarkable, but it is not remarkable solely because he is arguing for commentators (like himself) to be more flattering in their coverage, something he has criticized “conservative partisan hacks” for doing. It is additionally remarkable because it shows how Drum sees himself as a person who understands the political game first and a frank and honest writer or journalist second.
For example, Drum commented on whether the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) should be broken up so that third party presidential candidates could participate in the debates. Now, the CPD is a symptom of the supremely corrupt system of politics in America controlled by the Democratic and Republican Parties, which wrested control of the debates out of the hands of the League of Women Voters after Walter Mondale ran against Ronald Reagan because they did not like eighty of the moderators proposed for debates during the ’84 election.
Drum writes the problem with the presidential debate on October 3 was not the CPD, which keeps third party candidates out, because, on the issues where he concedes Obama and Romney are similar, there would have been no discussion. Issues like “penal policy” were not topics chosen for the debate. Plus, the real problem was the moderator.
First, the moderator is chosen by the two political parties. If it was not controlled by a bipartisan organization, which acts as a partisan group toward third party or independent candidates, Jim Lehrer may not have been the moderator. Second, “penal policy” could be discussed in the context of the economy, if one is not solely focused on debt and markets when discussing economic issues. Mass incarceration is a factor in low-income or poor communities and part of why the communities are poor. Third, Drum’s belief that Obama and Romney have more differences than others who think they have less differences and many similarities is no justification for keeping a person out of a debate like Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who are both on enough ballots in the United States to win enough of the electoral vote to assume the presidency.
Drum concedes Johnson would be a valuable inclusion in the upcoming debate on foreign policy but, he adds, “I wouldn’t expect too much from this. Ron Paul participated in all of the Republican primary debates, and he didn’t noticeably move the public opinion needle on foreign policy issues. I’m not sure Gary Johnson would either.” Does anyone reasonably expect Romney or Obama to stand up on stage and “move the public opinion needle” on any issues? The whole point of surviving the debate is to come off the least controversial. Also, this cannot be a criteria for whether any candidate is included, as it would hinge upon arbitrary or prejudicial judgments.
But maybe Johnson or other third party candidates should get a shot, Drum writes. What does the “hivemind” think of this? Drum asks:
The current threshold is that candidates have to score at least 15% in selected polls to be invited to the debates, and this year no one has qualified. Gary Johnson is around 3% nationally. But maybe that’s the wrong threshold. I’m violently opposed to a really small threshold, like 1% or so, because it has the potential to turn the debates into a circus. (Well, more of a circus.) The public really does deserve to get a good close look at the two major-party candidates, since one of them is certain to win the election, and having half a dozen true-believing obsessives on stage doesn’t help that.
So here’s another idea: the debates should always feature three candidates. Two of them would be the major party candidates and the third would be whoever polls the best among all the minor party candidates. If there were literally no minor party candidates who even appeared on enough state ballots to be serious contenders, then maybe we’d be stuck with two debaters after all. Otherwise, though, we’d always make room for at least one more. Maybe the debate commission would commission its own polls, or maybe it would rely on existing polls. Either way, it would publish the ground rules, and a week before the first debate it would announce who the best performing third-party candidate was. [emphasis added]
This is political bigotry. Drum is advocating there be tiers in elections. Those who win the major party ticket would have clear access to the debates. Those who win on a minor party or independent ticket would, even if they pass certain thresholds necessary to make them viable, have to compete against other minor party candidates for the one spot given to a third party candidate to show up and represent what Drum deems the non-mainstream. He wants to entrench a policy of discrimination into elections that appears to be incredibly unconstitutional.
Drum makes this ridiculously insulting offer to those who champion democracy because he is part of the brain trust of liberals, who believes third party candidates are spoilers. If one votes for a third party candidate, they are complicit in an effort that could potentially cost one of the major party candidates the election and lead to a war of aggression or the rise of more right wing policies.
He recently published a rather glib blog post, “So How Did the Whole ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ Thing Work Out For You in 2000?”:
…if you’re an actual lefty agonizing over whether you can possibly support the lesser of two evils this year, I have nine words for you: How did that work out for you in 2000? Even if you assume that Al Gore would have passed the Patriot Act; and invaded Afghanistan; and given the NSA free rein to engage in wholesale amounts of warrantless surveillance; and approved the torture of enemy combatants — even if you assume all that, do you think we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been president? That didn’t just happen, after all. It’s not as if the public was baying for Saddam Hussein’s scalp. It happened only thanks to a very determined effort by Dick Cheney and his fellow neocon sympathizers, and it happened only after a very deliberate, months-long marketing campaign from the Bush White House….
Essentially, according to Drum and other liberals, Ralph Nader is responsible for the Iraq War, for the lives of innocent civilians and troops who died. He has this blood on his hands because he ran as a candidate and siphoned off votes, which Gore was entitled to receive. It completely ignores the fact that tens of thousands of voters were disenfranchised, voting systems and procedures failed (i.e. the butterfly ballot), the US Supreme Court declared Bush the winner and there were Democrats who voted for Bush or did not vote in the election at all. (Not to mention, it was Gore’s election to lose, but he did not win his home state of Tennessee.) Additionally, it suggests Nader had no right to be a candidate and attempt to challenge the two-party system in 2000 and shows a clear contempt for democracy.
As George Farah of OpenDebates.org has said, third party candidates face tremendous barriers in elections that include “discriminatory ballot access, scant media coverage, loyalties of the political class in the voting public, [and] enormous campaign finance disparities.” But, for someone like Drum, who thinks liberal pundits should know their place, these barriers make his life easier because he does not have to confront the transformation of the Democratic Party into a corporate party. He does not have to tend to issues that candidates like Barack Obama intentionally choose to be silent about, which his campaign ensures are off the table for discussion.
In conclusion, to tie this all into Drum’s piece on the “hack gap,” this all shows the gutlessness of liberals. Someone like Drum should be willing to engage in discussion on the responsibility one has to shaping political and social cultures and policies in a society. They should encourage any push for a future, where political elitism is replaced by more democracy, where the people at the bottom are not civic adolescents but have much more ability to be part of the decision-making process. These pushes would include the pursuit of meaningful reforms like or similar to majority elections, changes to ballot access laws or instant run-off voting, open debates, campaign finance reform, etc. Unfortunately, what Americans get with people like Drum is reflexive zeal based in a partisan reality.
Those who most care about this country devalue elections by letting pundits choose the issues that matter. And, to the extent that citizens do have choice or agency in US elections, hacks—especially the kind Drum thinks the media need to hire—cheapen elections by covering elections as elite managers of democracy and instead of fellow citizens of the United States.