Monday, September 12, 2016

The US Presidential Campaigns as Rope-Dancing

I'm back in the US.  But not completely up-to-date on the presidential elections or  the most incredible, the most frightening,  and the most hilarious debates about who might be the best person to run the still-most-powerful country on earth and which characteristics in that person matter and which do not.

Had someone written a book with a plot based on the 2016 US presidential elections before they began, the proposal would have been deemed far too unrealistic to be credible, though perhaps the way George Bush straddled the horse of freedom in 2000 should have lowered the bar.

And look what George Bush accomplished!  He isn't the only one responsible for the slaughter and chaos that is Middle East today, but he certainly opened the doors for it, strengthened the powers of the most frightening religious lunatics in the recent history, and left the hoof-marks of his apocalyptic freedom-and-know-nothing horse all over the ground there and even in Europe.

See what did lowering the bar buy us before?  I write "buy" because far too many, both among political journalists and the American public, see the election campaigns from the angle of a consumer or a sports critic or an art critic: 

Are we enjoying this reality show?  Are we entertained?   We won't buy if we are not entertained!

That political participation is not consumption goes unnoticed by too many.  We cannot refuse to buy if we believe the quality is too low or the price too high, some president will be stuffed into our shopping basket anyway.

Will it be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?  If one sees the presidential campaigning as a circus act, as many appear to do, then these two are dancing on ropes and we, the audience, are judging their performances.  Only, one rope, the one on which Trump cavorts, is stretched about two inches above the ground.  The other rope is stretched high enough for us to see Clinton's knickers should we wish to do so (and should she stop wearing pant suits). 

The New York Times' new ombudsman, Liz Spayd,  believes that the two ropes are stretched on the same height, and if they are not, it's not for the journalists to point that out or to judge the performances any different:

The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.
 A wobble is a wobble!  Journalists are not judges!

But of course journalists are judges, for how else could they decide when a wobble has taken place or when to report on one having been spotted?

A recent Politico article by Eli Stokols and Hadas Gold  sees the accusations of "false balance"  differently:

With fewer than 60 days left in this campaign, news organizations are still struggling to square their approach to covering two candidates who couldn’t be more different: Hillary Clinton, who adheres to the established rules of engagement, and Trump, a convention-busting, media-dominating nominee with an asymmetrical campaign. The result, Clinton’s advisers lament and news executives admit, is a wide gap in what the public expects — and accepts as credible — from the country’s top two presidential candidates. Trump’s bar is undeniably far lower than Clinton’s. 
But it's not just the news organizations which have trouble in judging the two rope dancers; it's also many voters:

Trump has seemingly withstood the onslaught because so many voters appear wiling to forgive his insulting rhetoric and policy ignorance. That’s certainly been borne out by public and private focus groups.
“We’d show voters stupid things he’s said, and they’d just shrug and say, ‘That’s just Trump being Trump,’” said one Democratic operative who has observed Clinton campaign focus groups. “It was a fairly common response, and it was horrifying.”
It's just Trump being Trump...  And politics is not about what happens after the elections, what happens during those four years, but it's about the show.  Trump is a good showman!  He will be forgiven all sorts of bad things, just as, in my experience, bullies and rude people are sometimes forgiven bad things on the premise that it's just how they are.  Even the "boys will be boys" phrase is similar, referring to something that might be negative, but just can't be changed, because it is How Things Are.

In practice that means Donald Trump, while dancing on his rope barely off the floor, is judged as not having wobbled that much, because he's a guy who always wobbles! 

So.  And the competition, just as a reminder, is about who is to govern the most powerful country on this earth.