Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Close Presidential Race? Don't Blame the Media, Blame the Voters

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

In civil tort law, it's not enough for a defendant to have done something wrong. The wrongful act has to be the "proximate cause" of a plaintiff's injuries. So, for example, if you leave an open bear trap in front of your house (happens all the time, I know), you clearly have done something negligent. But that doesn't mean that someone who trips and falls across the street can sue you for negligence, since you were not the proximate cause of the person's injuries.

I flashed back to my first year of law school and the concept of proximate cause when I read Adam McKay's great Huffingtonpost.com article yesterday. In a nutshell, Adam makes the argument that in the same way that the casinos always win at blackjack because the odds are stacked in their favor at 51 percent to 49 percent, the Republicans win presidential elections because they, too, have a 51-49 advantage, thanks to the lack of meaningful mainstream media to vet the lies told by the GOP.

While I agree with virtually everything Adam wrote regarding the sorry state of the U.S. press, I disagree with his conclusion that it is the media that gives the Republicans an odds advantage. Put another way, I'd argue that the media is the homeowner with the bear trap, in that they are clearly not doing their jobs, but they are not the proximate cause of this particular injury (GOP presidential wins with seemingly less qualified candidates).

So if it's not the media that are to blame, who do I point the finger at as being the proximate cause? Easy. The voters themselves.

I agree with the premise that the media, which is controlled by a handful of major corporations, is far more interested in making money and consolidating power than fulfilling its responsibility to inform the electorate. Where I break from the liberal orthodoxy on this issue is on the effect of the media's failings. The argument often goes that, "If only the people had the information to make an informed choice, they would choose the Democrat, but because those bastards in the mainstream media won't do their jobs, the voters don't have the tools to make the correct choice, and thus vote differently than they would if they had the benefit of a functioning media to vet the GOP lies."

You could make a strong argument that this was true in 1988 (the shameful Willie Horton ad and Michael Dukakis's ill-fated ride in a tank), and maybe -- maybe -- you can make that argument for 2000 and 2004. But in 2008? I think the argument no longer holds water. Voters have (or could have) all the information they need to make a choice this year. They're just making a choice that we on the left would consider a bad one.

Let me take a step back. Republicans have won the presidency since 2000 by combining three constituencies:

- Economic conservatives,
- Religious conservatives, and
- Voters who describe themselves as "moderate," "independent" and/or "undecided."

Even with a perfect media system in place with every piece of information available, you have to believe that the first two categories of voters are going to vote overwhelmingly Republican anyway. Those who narrow-mindedly vote based solely on macroeconomics under the belief that the free market will cure all lean naturally to the GOP (no matter how many studies show that Barack Obama's economic plan means less taxes for most Americans than John McCain's proposal). And religious wackadoodles have been trained to believe that the Republicans are the party of the Lord (even though there are numerous references in the bible to poverty but only one to homosexuality, but that's a completely different article topic for a different day). So Democrats will always have trouble with the religious right.

Really, when we talk about the importance of the media, we're talking about the ability to reach the third category of moderates, independents and undecided voters. Those are the citizens, the argument goes, who would vote for Obama (or would have voted for John Kerry or Al Gore) if they knew all the facts.

Specifically, in 2008, the argument goes: If the media would point out McCain's strictly GOP voting record of the last eight years in the Senate, and how he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time, plus how McCain has claimed not to no much about economics and how his economic policy was crafted by the former senator behind both the subprime mortgage crash and the increase in gas prices, and how he favors the same tax cuts for the rich instituted by Bush; and how he was an early advocate of the war in Iraq and was disastrously wrong about all of his predictions, and how the surge has failed when measured against President Bush's January 10, 2007 address to the American people announcing the reason for the plan (since the Iraqi government has not taken the painful but necessary steps toward self-governance), then these undecided voters would flock to Obama.

The argument follows that if only the media would report that Sarah Palin and other GOP convention speakers lied over and over again, that Palin lobbied hard for the so-called "bridge to nowhere," that she wanted to fire the librarian of Wasilla for not banning a huge list of classic literature from the shelves, that she is in favor of teaching creationism in schools, that she is against abortion even in the case of rape, that she has had no foreign policy experience as the titular head of the Alaska National Guard, that she had connections to Ted Stevens and his activities that led to his indictment, that her husband belongs to a party that advocates for secession and whose leader professed hatred of the U.S. government, and that she is patently unqualified to be president by any objective standard and represents a cynical grab for votes by McCain, then independent and moderate voters would wake up and vote for Obama.

I don't buy it.

The U.S. electorate has already demonstrated that it does understand that there are problems, and it is ready to take action. Even as measured by the right-wing Fox News, Bush currently enjoys an approval rating of only 28 percent. An August 3 CBS News/New York Times poll revealed that 81 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and only 14 percent believe we are headed in the right direction. And in November 2006, Americans were angry enough about the war in Iraq to boot the Republicans out of control of both houses of Congress, and that anger continued into 2007 and 2008 as they replaced Republicans with Democrats in three special House elections in traditionally GOP districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Illinois. And according to RealClearPolitics, a generic Democrat still enjoys a lead over a generic Republican in Congressional elections.

In other words, Americans know they are pissed off, and they have demonstrated the ability to effectuate "change" with their voting power. So if they wanted to do it for the presidency, they could.

With all the media coverage of this campaign (even if it's been lousy), and all of the information available for people on the Internet, there not only is no excuse for not knowing the facts the mainstream media isn't reporting about McCain, Palin and the Republicans, I would argue that most voters do, in fact, get the gist of what's going on. In an August 29 USA Today/Gallup poll, only 39 percent of respondents thought Palin was qualified to be president. Most independent voters know that she was involved in some less-than-nice stuff in Alaska and holds extreme right-wing positions. I even think the electorate has a strong sense that McCain has sided with Bush most of the time and would operate as president much like the current administration does. A USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed that while McCain got a bounce from the GOP convention, 63 percent of respondents were concerned that he would continue Bush's policies if elected (virtually unchanged from 64 percent and 66 percent in earlier polls).

What I'm getting is, voters essentially know what's going on. They just don't care. I believe that "undecided" voters that go to McCain aren't doing so because of any lack of information, they are doing it despite that information. I think there are two explanations for this phenomenon.

The first one is easier and more obvious: race. I do believe that there are people in this country who, for whatever reason, can't bring themselves to pull the lever for an African-American presidential contender. I often go back to Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes interview before the Ohio primary with an undecided voter who was leaning towards Obama, but had concerns because he "heard" Obama was a Muslim who wouldn't salute the flag during the pledge of allegiance. Some voters are open about it, a lot more aren't (maybe even trying to convince themselves that it's not about race). These folks are just looking for an excuse not to vote for Obama, something to justify their "discomfort," claiming it has nothing to do with race.

Nothing the media could do would make Obama a more palatable option for the group of ignorant Americans who won't vote for a black presidential candidate.

The second reason some voters seem not to care about the facts in selecting a candidate is more subtle, but may be more powerful: They don't want to be asked to sacrifice. As a nation, we have become a what's-in-it-for-me, sacrifice-free culture. During World War II, Americans were asked to make all kinds of sacrifices, including rationing, and they did so to support the war effort. Sixty years later, it would be hard to imagine any leader having the guts to make the same requests of the American people, since they would correctly fear being turned out of office in the next election. Any politician who advocated raising taxes, instituting the draft or rationing the use of oil to support the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan would be roundly smacked down by the voters. The culture has changed.

So it's not surprising that Obama's message is not resonating as well as McCain's with a certain group of undecided voters. Obama is telling Americans, in essence, "Things are bad. We're in a bad war. We're in a bad economy. And our energy policy is killing us. We can fix it, but you will have to make some changes. You have to accept that there may not be a traditional victory in Iraq. And you have to change the way you use energy, or else the country and the planet will be in bad shape." That puts a lot of pressure on Americans to actually have to take responsibility for their actions and their country, something they are no longer ever asked to do. Obama is saying Americans have to sacrifice. That's brave. And it's the right course of action. But it's dangerous when you're looking for votes.

Meanwhile, what is McCain saying? His message is: "We're going to win in Iraq. The economy is basically fine. And if we drill offshore, we can produce our own oil, and you can keep using as much energy as you want ... and it will be cheaper. You don't have to change a thing." Clearly, if you stick to the facts, McCain is lying to Americans. We can't drill ourselves out of our much larger energy crisis, and the offshore drilling won't produce any oil for ten years and will have virtually no effect on gas prices, even in the estimation of Bush's own Energy Information Administration. McCain knows that under Bush's economic policies, the gap between rich and poor has widened to a historically high level, that Americans are in debt like never before, and that the subprime mortgage crisis has weakened the economy. And McCain has been front and center as a supporter of the war in Iraq, one of the costliest and most ill-conceived foreign policy blunders in modern U.S. history.

But it doesn't matter. When faced with a choice between the guy that's telling them that nothing has to change and everything is okay, and the guy who is telling them that everything has to change and nothing is all right, many self-interested voters are opting for the guy telling them that they can keep living their lives as they have been. No facts are going to disrupt this line of thinking. Fixing the incompetence and abdication of the mainstream media would have no effect on these people.

It's important to remember that democracy works, but not always the way you might think. The government reflects the will of the people. If the electorate wants to check out and vote for a fantasy rather than addressing the real problems facing the country, then that country's citizens will get exactly what they deserve. If they know that the last eight years have not gone well, and then they return to office the people who got us into this mess in the first place, they deserve to live in four more years of the same mess. If Americans want to delude themselves to believe the lies and distortions pumped out by the GOP attack machine, then they deserve to be governed by the Republicans. It's really that simple.

The media might be derelict in their duties, but they are not the cause of the current tight race for the presidency. And for once, we can't blame the candidate, since Obama has done an immeasurably better job so far than Kerry did in 2004 or Gore did in 2000. No, this time, the blame has to go to the voters themselves. One consolation: No matter who wins in November, Americans will get exactly what we deserve.