Hey all. Let’s hop to it.
I wrote about political writing for the Columbia Journalism Review’s Politics issue. I think the piece can partially be read as a review of the five years I’ve spent in this industry so far, but I’ve been heartened to see it’s also resonated with people who’ve been at this longer than I have. An excerpt:
It’s true that the health of a democracy depends upon the state of its journalism. But the relationship also works the other way: the state of journalism depends upon the health of democracy, and not just in the sense that journalists depend on press freedom. Democracy gives journalism purpose; the journalist brings information and arguments to the public, and the informed public acts, or makes its preferences known to those in a position to act. But if our sclerotic political institutions are less responsive to broad public opinion than to the imperatives of major corporations and the wealthy—and if, as the political-science and social-psychology literature tells us, public opinion isn’t reliably responsive to argument and new information to begin with—what are the would-be shapers of public opinion to do? Even the act of making an argument becomes problematic. In implying, falsely, that the average reader’s opinion necessarily matters in the grand scheme of things, the journalist’s fundamental obligation to the truth is violated.
Of course, there was never a time when the world could be expected to move at the stroke of a hack’s pen. But we’re living in a moment at which the basic premises justifying conventional engagement with national politics no longer seem plausible, and our structural stasis has been belied by the unprecedented volume and intensity of our punditry. Certainly, the internet has had some positive effects on the industry and helped diversify it with more writers from under-represented backgrounds. But that only makes it all the more surprising that online conversations feel as homogeneous and repetitive as they do. The tonal and stylistic differences between writers and publications are eroding; the dynamics of the internet have driven competing outlets to make similar judgments about what’s worth writing about and how. The morsels of rage and misery we offer might not have much political effect, but they do feed an online writing economy that rewards speed, quantity, and deference to algorithms designed for the profit of three or four tech companies—an economy that offers few incentives to generate writing that lingers in the mind longer than half a day or half an hour. Exploratory writing—ruminative, tentative—is simply a riskier bet than tidy, punchy, reductive, and nut-graph-ready arguments destined to be skimmed by a predictable subset of a subset of the public before disappearing into the Web’s ever-decaying memory. The whole system is one of the bleakest forms of entertainment imaginable.
My long-gestating history of bipartisanship — based on this thread from January — is also in print and online for New Republic subscribers. It should be publicly available sometime this week and I’ll be sure to excerpt it in the next newsletter.
Speaking of which, the next letter will be our monthly Mail Time and it’ll be going out early this week as I’ll be tied up this weekend. Be sure to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got any. If there aren’t many or any, I’ll just riff on something, I guess.
The Senate parliamentarian’s immigration ruling and the news that Manchin’s been pushing a delay of Biden’s reconciliation package until 2022 are just news pegs for the very same analyses of Senate dynamics everyone’s been writing since January. I don’t know that they actually bear repeating; I personally can’t bear writing them anymore. Everyone paying attention already knows what’s what.
The good news on this general front is that the elimination of the legislative filibuster is essentially a litmus test issue for Democratic Senate candidates at this point, as The Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal wrote this week. Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman is probably the highest profile candidate to make a big deal about it, but there are plenty of others who are also running on reform:
The Wisconsin Senate Democratic primary also features multiple candidates who all want to scrap the filibuster. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who recently entered the race and leads in the latest polls, is a strong opponent of the filibuster, tweeting in August: “Meaningful legislation starts with ending the filibuster.” All of the other candidates in the race ― Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry and others ― have all stated their support for either ending the filibuster or changing it in some way.
The same is true in Florida, where Rep. Val Demings and former Rep. Alan Grayson both support changing the filibuster. So do all Democratic candidates in Senate races in Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio.
Obviously, those victories, if they come at all, will come too late to bear upon the current situation in Congress and this first half of Biden’s term, which, politically speaking, isn’t going very well right now. Biden’s approval rating has taken a significant dive over the last couple of months and now stands at an average of about 49 disapprove to 46 approve according to FiveThirtyEight. The blame isn’t all his — polarization’s placed both a hard ceiling and hard floor on public opinion, and the press worked overtime to drag his numbers downward over our withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But his current standing is still cause for concern — not only because Republicans stand to gain electorally, but also because it’s a serious challenge to one of the ideas at the center of progressive political strategy. Biden’s record thus far has been lacking in many respects and his biggest accomplishment — the American Rescue Plan — might have been more ambitious in some ways. Nevertheless, the Rescue Plan really was an extraordinary piece of social welfare legislation that clearly helped most Americans. Yet again, millions got checks from Uncle Sam, no questions asked. It would be hard to conceive a better test of the idea that delivering simple, direct, material benefits to voters reliably yields political dividends. But the Rescue Plan and Biden’s other policies simply haven’t — he’s doing worse at this point in the presidency than any modern administration save Trump.
Now, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. If politics were simply a matter of voters deciding to back whoever offered them the most, we’d be living in a different country with a different president to begin with. Narratives matter and nonsense matters. And economically speaking, nebulous perceptions of how the country’s doing often matter more than what’s actually in voters’ pocketbooks. A recent paper in the American Political Science Review tackled an important aspect of how those perceptions are formed. In “Whose News? Class-Biased Economic Reporting in the United States,” researchers analyzing economic coverage in more than 30 major newspapers over the last quarter century found that the tone of stories “strongly and disproportionately tracks the fortunes of the richest households, with little sensitivity to income changes among the non-rich.” This is thanks largely to a focus on aggregate and corporate economic indicators, which are covered positively when they suggest economic growth even though the benefits of economic growth have become much more unequally distributed over the last several decades:
Central to our account is the breakdown of the relationship between aggregate economic growth and the welfare of the average American. In the first few decades after World War II, aggregate growth and employment were strongly correlated with the incomes of lower- and middle-income Americans. Since the mid-1980s, however, aggregate economic expansion and contraction have been far more closely tied to the rise and fall of top incomes than to changes in the incomes of the non-rich, likely because of changes in the underlying drivers of growth itself. Moreover, topend inequality has become a procyclical phenomenon, rising when the economy as a whole is doing well and falling when aggregate performance flags.
This macroeconomic pattern has profound consequences for the informational context in which citizens operate. The fact that the distribution of growth is itself upwardly skewed means that economic reporting focused on economic aggregates yields a news environment that most powerfully reflects gains and losses for the most affluent members of society. Class-biased economic news, in short, emerges from journalistic efforts to track the ups and downs of the business cycle in the context of an economy that distributes income growth in powerfully class-biasedways.
Simply put, voters are told the economy’s doing well when the wealthy think it’s doing well. And they’re offered reasons for concern when the wealthy are concerned. We can see this in all the to-do about hiring and our already subsiding inflation this year. They might have gotten the checks, the expanded Child Tax Credit, and unemployment, but when voters turn on their televisions, they’re informed by authorities they trust that COVID relief is causing an acute labor shortage and overheating the economy.
Of course, nothing prevents politicians from trying to advance their own counternarratives. And while the Biden administration has pushed back against criticism from the right and worked hard to take credit for the Rescue Plan’s accomplishments, it’s also avoided framing them as real departures from Democratic policymaking past. It’s significant, for instance, that Biden has often described the expanded Child Tax Credit — functionally an unprecedented child allowance program — as a “middle-class tax cut.” The Democratic policy world and the progressive press might be atwitter about the end of the center-right policy consensus, but the changes we understand as novel and significant are being processed by voters — with the administration’s encouragement — as a ho-hum continuity.
Still, it’s not obvious Biden’s political situation would change that dramatically if he took a different tack. In a recent piece, New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz offered some historical context:
There is a third pole in this argument (besides “Democrats need better messaging” and “LOL, nothing matters”): Voters won’t reward Democrats for passing the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, even if they are made aware of its contents. The Democratic data scientist David Shor thinks his party should pass Biden’s agenda because it will make people’s lives better. But he argues that it won’t do much to help the party politically and might even hurt it, as swing voters are generally biased toward the status quo and hostile toward significant policy change. When Lyndon Johnson passed his “Great Society” agenda, which included the soon-to-be immensely popular Medicare and Medicaid programs, voters did not reward him in the ensuing midterms. Rather, the GOP gained 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate. And some political scientists believe that America’s perennial midterm backlashes are typically motivated by the median voter’s desire for “policy moderation.” The phenomenon of “thermostatic public opinion” — in which the electorate’s avowed policy views move left under Republican presidents and right under Democratic ones — is consistent with this hypothesis.
All of this has implications beyond presidential politics. If it’s hard to rouse and win over the broad public even after material policy victories, that only makes the project of building broad support for a movement with an aspirational material agenda more daunting.
We don’t have all the answers yet, but it’s remarkable how many the left has picked up in the decade since Occupy Wall Street, which, at this point, has to be regarded as one of the most successful and influential protest movements in modern American history. “Overnight, the protest forced a long-overdue national conversation about inequality, capitalism, and class,” Astra Taylor and Jonathan Smucker wrote in their 10th anniversary piece at New York Magazine, “one that political elites had studiously avoided despite overseeing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” And beyond its effects on national political discourse, Occupy’s impact on the landscape of progressive activism has been clear and concrete:
Occupy sprouted scores of offshoots. There was no clear guidebook, after all, for revitalizing a decimated and demoralized left. After the evictions, some people tried, and failed, to establish new camps (an ambition that mistook the tactic of occupation for a political goal). Less literal efforts to sustain the Occupy spirit were more successful. Occupiers went on to prevent foreclosures, ally with the homeless, agitate on campuses and in workplaces, and start cooperative businesses. They won enormous goodwill in New York — even praise from the Department of Homeland Security — for mobilizing an astonishing 60,000 volunteers to help with relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the city in 2012.
They also kept up the focus on finance. A group called Occupy the SEC garnered headlines and helped shape policy by penning a 325-page letter of criticisms and recommendations pertaining to arcane financial-sector regulations known as the Volcker Rule. Astra (recruited, once again, by David Graeber) joined a working group focused on debt that eventually developed into a lasting organization, the Debt Collective, that has moved the call for debt cancellation from the margins to the political mainstream. Through different tactics, including a student-debt strike, they pushed all the leading 2020 Democratic presidential-primary candidates to campaign on varying degrees of student-loan cancellation. As a result of their work, the Biden administration has eliminated nearly $10 billion of student debt in 2021 alone.
In the wake of Occupy, a social-movement revival swept the United States, with record-breaking numbers of people taking to the streets against racism and police violence, Trump’s Muslim ban, patriarchy, the gun lobby, and more. Nelini Stamp, a Zuccotti regular who now serves as director of strategy and partnerships for the Working Families Party, has been at the forefront of many of these uprisings, and she believes Occupy was pivotal. “The ruling class taught us that our democracy was broken so that we do not get involved and we do not try to fix it,” Stamp reflected. In Stamp’s view, Occupy challenged this complacency while also changing how people protested, connecting local actions to larger movements by normalizing the use of livestreams and social media.
That infrastructure has been invaluable and it’s still growing thanks to the work of activists across the country that Occupy inspired and even trained. If and when we finally win, however it happens, we’ll owe it largely to them.
Reasons to Be Cheerful