American politics are a big mess.  Is this why?

American politics are a big mess. Is this why?

In a thought-provoking feature in this week’s New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai recounts in (surprisingly gripping) detail the collapse of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign and then pivots to make a larger point about the tabloidization of American politics.

Bai’s article, which is rightly getting a lot of attention, suggests that the push to expose personal character flaws in politicians has shoved substance to the margins, both for the media and for candidates. From there, the dominoes fall in ugly progression – capable people choose not to run for public office, mediocrities take their place and are never really challenged to demonstrate depth, campaigns devolve into nasty battles about trivialities, government grinds to a dysfunctional halt, and the public grows increasingly disenchanted with choices that all look bad. Here’s a key excerpt:

“As an industry, we [in the press] aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions . . . Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway.”

Much of Bai’s account is hard to dispute; anyone who thinks our political system is in good shape just isn’t paying attention. And part of the appeal of his argument is that it can serve as a sort of grand unified theory for everything that’s gone wrong.

But is the media’s excessive interest in personal scandal really at the root of the superficiality and viciousness of today’s politics? I’m not convinced. Yes, tabloid-style coverage is a problem, but I see much bigger factors at play:

Polarization Run Amok

People are psychologically primed to absorb information that confirms their pre-existing views and to filter out information that challenges those views – and if you think you’re immune, think again, because it’s a nearly universal human trait. So what’s changed?

First, these psychological tendencies are now reinforced by a fractured media landscape that offers up news sources finely tailored to affirm what we already believe. Liberals watching MSNBC or conservatives watching Fox News barely need to engage their personal confirmation filters, because the cable channels have already done the filtering for them. It doesn’t take much of this to push people into alternative, mutually antagonistic realities. And when you can’t even agree on basic facts, it’s awfully hard to find your way to a constructive political dialogue of any kind. Ezra Klein had a great write-up on this a few months ago.

Second, our political parties, which used to encompass a broader range of views, have lately evolved into European-style ideological camps. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it never made much sense for reactionary segregationists to be under the same party banner as ardent New Dealers – but it adds a pungent third ingredient, along with psychology and the media, to a witch’s brew of polarization.

A tribal political culture poses a special challenge in the United States, because unlike, say, Britain’s parliamentary system, our government institutions require collaboration to get things done. When legislators are oriented toward compromise, then the American system of checks and balances works quite well. By contrast, when fiercely ideological parties are required to share power, this same system becomes hopelessly obstructed. There’s a reason the current Congress is the least productive in history – our institutions simply aren’t designed to handle political divisions of such intensity.

(And at the risk of being partisan in my analysis of partisanship, there is objective evidence that these trends are more pronounced on the Republican side.)

The Chronic Illness of Money

The corrupt exchange of dollars for official action, although shameful (or criminal) is actually pretty rare – think of a quid pro quo as the “acute” form of the money-in-politics disease. The “chronic” form of this illness, which is far more widespread and debilitating to our political system as a whole, is the shocking amount of time, energy, and attention that must be spent raising campaign funds.  Asking strangers for a check is uncomfortable, and asking friends can be soul-crushing.  Then imagine doing this for hours at a time, day after day after day.  I’d wager this is the single biggest factor deterring good people from running for office.

This is all made much worse by a senseless patchwork of campaign finance rules that perversely impose the tightest restrictions and disclosure requirements on candidates (who are ultimately held accountable for their campaigns) and the loosest restrictions and disclosure requirements on interest groups (which can secretly raise and spend unlimited amounts with little or no oversight.) This semi-regulated middle-ground is the worst of all worlds. We’d be better off going to one of the extremes, by either: (1) publicly-financing campaigns to level the playing field and get private contributions out of the equation; or (2) deregulating campaign finance entirely by lifting contribution and spending limits for everyone, with universal full disclosure as the only requirement (if some billionaire is going to effectively own a candidate anyway, then at least make this relationship apparent, so that voters can decide if they care about it.)

Campaigns Have Gotten Too Good

Imagine Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful campaign operation of 2012 going up against Harry Truman’s victorious campaign operation of 1948. Who do you think would come out on top?

My bet is on Romney, because the Romney camp would benefit from decades of accumulated experience and technology, all of which have given political operatives a far better understanding of voter psychology, coupled with an amazing array of communication styles and targeting tools to exploit that psychology.

And what does all that know-how say about effective political messages, especially when it comes to reaching swing voters who are least engaged in the political process? Go with simplicity, imagery, repetition, and emotion. Don’t waste resources on boring content, confusing nuance, and hard-to-remember complexity. Ignore big chunks of the electorate whose votes are either assured or unattainable, while hitting targeted voters over the head with the messaging equivalent of a baseball bat.

Candidates and operatives have always responded to the incentives created by voters. Now they do it much more efficiently than ever before; campaigns have gotten really good at doing what it takes to win.

You can see the problem: the messages and methods that are most effective in a particular campaign are often also the most harmful to the long-term health of our political system as a whole. And in a business where success is measured by the outcome of the next election, as opposed to the condition of our democracy in the next decade, you get punished for taking the long view.


There aren’t any obvious villains in all this.

I don’t buy the argument that the tabloid culture has transformed most politicians into self-serving, unprincipled, empty suits, who conceal their beliefs, or don’t have any beliefs in the first place. I’ve personally witnessed too many counter-examples.

I don’t buy the argument that most members of the media are obsessed by scandal and bored by substance. Again, I have seen too many counter-examples, Matt Bai being one of them.

Most of all, I don’t but the argument that voters are lazy, stupid, or indifferent to politics. In my experience, people usually care about their community and country, are fair-minded in their judgments, do their best to make sensible decisions at the ballot box, and really want to be inspired by their leaders.

Reducing the media’s appetite for personal scandals would help a little, but when good politicians, good journalists, and good citizens are trapped together in an awful feedback loop that encourages the worst in all of them, then our problems are much bigger and our solutions need to be bigger, too.