Huffpost Media
Jason Linkins Headshot

Are Voters Stupid, Or Are They Just Routinely Subjected To Terrible Political Reporting?

Posted: Updated:

Last night, I stumbled upon Mother Jones' Kevin Drum and Steve Benen of The Maddow Blog having something of a congenial colloquy on "The Weird Politics of Simpson-Bowles."

Benen, having reacted to "renewed conservative love for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan" with some mild bemusement, prompted Drum to delve into some of the deep details of that support as time has passed. Drum helpfully unpacked a litany of information that probably hasn't previously received a lot of specific attention.

The way the Senate Republicans voted on Simpson-Bowles differed from how their House colleagues did, for instance. That gets lost. Obama responded to the failure of that body by releasing a plan that "was actually more right-wing friendly than Simpson-Bowles was," Drum said. That gets lost as well. And so ordinary Americans haven't been properly informed on a variety of important details.

But we needn't stop there. While the various grand debates over the deficit that went down during 2011 received a massive quantity of coverage, the quality of that coverage was, at all times, pretty lacking. When the Senate's own attempt to form a deficit commission founders, David Broder posited that it was the fault of Democratic "committee chairmen."

This was comically wrong -- 10 of those committee chairs voted for it, versus six against, which was not enough to decide the matter. The measure failed because seven Republican cosponsors of the bill bailed on it. This stuff isn't that hard to figure out.

Once the Simpson-Bowles commission started foundering, readers of news began hearing of a "Simpson-Bowles commission plan" and a "Simpson-Bowles commission chairman's mark." The former plan was the shooting match -- the set of recommendations that failed to win the support of a supermajority. The latter idea was a concept kicked together by Bowles and Simpson themselves, who wanted their suggestions on the record. If you tried to follow along the coverage, it was hard to keep the two ideas disassociated from one another.

And once the ball really got rolling downhill into the uncertainty of the debt ceiling negotiations, President Barack Obama came to House Speaker John Boehner with a deficit reduction plan of his own, as Huff Post reported:

Obama had proposed to Republicans a "grand bargain" that accomplished a host of individual things that are unpopular on their own, but that just might pass as a huge package jammed through Congress with default looming. Obama offered to put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts on the table in exchange for a tax hike of roughly $100 billion per year over 10 years. Meanwhile, government spending would be cut by roughly three times that amount. It's no small irony that the party's dogmatic opposition to tax increases is costing the GOP its best opportunity to roll back social programs it has long targeted.

The GOP rejected the plan, and it was well within its rights to do so. But what's amazing is that the media has just about blanked out the existence of this proposal from the memory banks. Obama's opponents have routinely been allowed to claim that the president had not shown "leadership" on the deficit -- the implication being that he sat on his hands, instead of delivering a plan that a Ronald Reagan would have traveled the country waving around like the Stanley Cup.

And The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has aided this delusion by blundering around in a fog of his own thought-flatulence, wondering where the "grand bargain" was. (The "grand bargain" was always available via download.)

Again, in 2011, the deficit debate was a major story. These wranglings took us to the brink of default. And the coverage throughout was often severely lacking -- so much so that you could hardly hold ordinary Americans responsible for being confused.

But in Politico this week, that's precisely what happened! In a incredibly long and unbearably daft piece, Alexander Burns argues that the the electorate is "not entirely sophisticated about the choices it's facing in 2012" is because it is made up of a big shambling pack of helpless dumbasses, who would obviously be utterly adrift in their hopeless lives without Politico being around to occasionally mansplain things to them.

And we shall apparently begin with a mansplanation of how mentally infirm you, the people, are:

[I]rrationality on policy issues transcends party lines and cuts across groups that feel differently about the president. Taken all together, the issue polling compiled so far in the 2012 cycle presents a sharp corrective to the candidates' description of the race as a great debate placing two starkly different philosophies of government before an informed electorate.

In reality, the contest has been more like a game of Marco Polo, as a hapless gang of Republican candidates and a damaged, frantic incumbent try to connect with a historically fickle and frustrated electorate.

And "fickle" is a nice way of describing the voters of 2012, who appear to be wandering, confused and Forrest Gump-like through the experience of a presidential campaign. It isn't just unclear which party's vision they'd rather embrace; it's entirely questionable whether the great mass of voters has even the most basic grasp of the details -- or for that matter, the most elementary factual components -- of the national political debate.

Now, from what I know about Politico's culture is that you can never really tell if this is something that Burns actually believes and wanted to write or if this was foisted on him from above. And while Burns has offered a defense of this mess on Twitter, I still lean toward favoring the "foisted from above" scenario.

At any rate, as the Washington Post's Erik Wemple underscores in his understandably perturbed reaction to all of this, it sure seems like Politco's editor-in-chief John Harris is the guy who is really proud of this turgid pile of condescension -- right down to bannering the whole thing with an image of the aforementioned Forrest Gump:

Harris congratulated himself on the story's use of the photo of Gump, a character who he says "represents the sort of ignorant voters out there who are saying these wacky things in the polls." Stroke of pop culture genius right there.

I take this to mean that Harris thinks that ordinary voters are essentially a group of mentally infirm people, bumbling through life, occasionally succeeding by accident and without any real awareness of the deeper implications of the lives around them and the events they witness. But they are so adorable and plucky, so Politico has not given up on them yet. They're rooting for you! Now go get them some shrimp!

Shall I break this down further? Why not! Here is the Politco piece's lede, in which the rich tapestry of your essential stupidity is woven:

Voters are appalled at President Barack Obama's handling of gas prices, even though virtually every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market.

Americans are disgusted at Washington's bailout culture, and especially the 2008 rescue of the financial services industry. They're so fed up with bailouts, in fact, that a majority of them now think federal intervention in the auto industry was a good idea that helped the country.

They're aghast at the trajectory of the war in Afghanistan, which Obama helped escalate and extend, and they don't think the war was worth it in the first place. And many also think Obama is handling the conflict acceptably well.

There's a lot to unpack here. Why is America so "disgusted with bailout culture" yet nevertheless maintains that "federal intervention in the auto industry was a good idea that helped the country?" It's hard to say, right? But it's almost as if the expert take is that the auto industry intervention worked. Perhaps the "disgust" over "bailout culture" has more to do with the many trillions of dollars sunk into Wall Street banks, compared with the fact that everyone else is suffering through a prolonged period of unemployment, predatory foreclosures and income disparity. That does not exactly sound stupid, to me.

And if ordinary Americans seem confused over how well the war is going, they learned this from the media, too. Let's recall the way the media responded with yawns over the July 2010 WikiLeaks "war diaries."

"Oh, ho-hum," they reacted. "We've always been very privately pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan. WikiLeaks isn't telling us anything new."

A day later, the pessimism that the media made a big show of having was very quickly pushed aside in favor of more war cheerleading.

Media narratives that seed confusion reap the same. That's the lesson I would extract.

But I really like Politico's first example -- gas prices. And not just because it's the issue of the week. Politico here maintains, "Voters are appalled at President Barack Obama's handling of gas prices, even though virtually every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market." I take this to mean that the president definitely has little to do with the price of gas at the pumps. I further take this to mean that this truth is so self-evident -- so obvious on its face -- that to be in conflict with it means that you are stupid.

Well, here is another piece on Politico about how the "blogosphere is hitting on all cylinders over a new poll that shows President Barack Obama getting blamed for rising gas prices, with both left and right pointing out that the issue could represent a critical weakness for the president come Election Day." Nowhere is it mentioned that "every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market."

Here is yet another piece on Politico describing the way Bobby Jindal "scorched" Obama on gas prices. Nowhere is it mentioned that "every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market."

And again, on Politico, Democrats "scramble for cover" over gas prices. Nowhere is it mentioned that "every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market."

Then, a Politico piece about how Obama does his very best to make the very case that Politico describes as the "non-stupid" one. A perfect time to maybe mention that "every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market," right?

Well, Politico passes, in lieu of this:

For close to a month, Obama has been making at least one speech a week on his energy policy, visiting colleges and manufacturing plants in battlegrounds including Florida, Virginia and North Carolina as gas prices have risen steadily, to $3.82 per gallon on Thursday, up 30 cents from mid-February.

But public opinion hasn't turned in his favor.

In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released earlier this week, just 26 percent of those surveyed said they approve of how Obama is handling rising gas prices, while 65 percent said they disapprove. The president did a bit better -- but still not well -- on his overall energy policy, with 38 percent saying they approve while 48 percent said they disapprove.

Oh, look at that! Suddenly what Forrest Gump thinks about all of this is really important to Politico!

Did it not occur to any of the authors or editors of this piece that terrible, stupid news coverage leads to confusion, which in turn impacts public opinion? All Politico has done, on the issue of gas prices, is again and again fail to note that "every policy expert in both parties says there's little a president can do to affect the day-to-day price of fuel in a global market." And now, it has shown up, holding you responsible for not knowing that all along!

Who's the stupid one, here? I'm going to go with the website that's routinely asserted that the incorrect point of view on gas prices was perfectly valid, until it became necessary to insult its readership.

Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?