Friday, September 9, 2016

The Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown

Wednesday night, Jonathan Chait kicked off one of my favorite election year traditions: the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown. The most famous version of this was Andrew Sullivan's hilarious Did Obama Just Throw The Entire Election Away? freakout in 2012, when he proclaimed that "Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion" after a relatively lethargic performance in his first debate against Romney. This time around, our pundits didn't even wait for a proper debate. Chait has declared Matt Lauer's back-to-back interviews with Clinton and Trump the Scariest Thing I've Seen in This Campaign, and elaborated:
The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer.
This, note, is a direct echo of an anxiety Sullivan hinted at four years ago:
I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.
In both cases, elite pundits are horrified by the prospect that a substantial number of Americans live outside the ideological bubble of elite media.

Sullivan's meltdown, of course, turned out to be premature, but at least it was grounded in something resembling reality: over 67 million Americans watched Obama-Romney I, accounting for more than 20% of eligible voters. What I find telling here is that while Chait is expressing identical concerns, his are almost entirely baseless. Only about 11 million Americans watched Lauer's forum - that's roughly what America's Got Talent pulled in on the same night, and only accounts for about 3% of eligible voters.

Here is my theory: every presidential election, elite media spends a good year building a grand partisan narrative in favor of one candidate and against the other. And every four years, these carefully constructed narratives crash head-first into reality the first time both candidates get live comparative exposure on national television. When that happens, candidates have their first major opportunity to circumvent the entire elite media apparatus and make a comparative case for themselves directly to the voters. For a moment, at least, our pundits are reminded that media control of the political narrative has significant limits - and this scares the hell out of them. Thus the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown.

This theory is actually pretty similar to Chait's premise that low-info voters aren't being adequately informed by our experts and politics-knowers; but there are two important differences.

First, as Chait proves in the very disproportion of his concern - he worries about "most Americans" and the "average undecided voter", when in fact only a tiny fraction of voters saw Lauer's show - our media elite isn't necessarily better informed than anyone else. They don't even have a very realistic conception of their own influence, and of where and how voters get their information. People like Chait think that we have an education problem here, which is why we're supposed to be "stunned and appalled" may not see things his way; but Chait is a guy who approves of invading Iraq and complains about Marx without actually reading him. There is, contra Chait, considerable reason to be grateful that most Americans live outside of the elite media bubble.

This brings us to our second point, which is that what our elite pundits are really worried about is control. This is, again, proven in the very disproportion of Chait's concern: the prospect that a mere 3% of voters could be beyond his ideological reach is enough to send him into an insane late-evening tailspin of anguish over The Fate Of Our Republic.

Like Sullivan, Chait views his absolute control of American political discourse to be a matter of existential, world-historical importance, when in fact their fairly inept contributions to the national debate are thankfully fairly irrelevant. That's why the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown is such a beautiful thing: it reminds us of how ridiculous and unimportant media discourse really is.