Jonah Goldberg's pseudo-intellectual discussion on "what kind of socialist is Barack Obama" reminded me of an idea I have been kicking around this week. I call it the "ubiquitous political junkie fantasy" of political punditry--the assumption that political issues which could only ever resonate with hard-core consumers of news and politics are actually issues that the general public cares about.
The ubiquitous political junkie fantasy is affects political commenters of all partisan and ideological inclinations. Here are some recent examples of the fantasy in action:
There are more examples too, but I will start with those three.
- The assumption that the public actually cares about Congressional procedure. Democrats and Republicans alike often accuse each other of abusing congressional procedure, and engaging in obstructionist or totalitarian tactics. However, only 26% of the country even knows that 60 votes are required to break a filibuster in the Senate, and only 3% of the people opposed to the health reform bill that passed Congress last month cited a procedural issue as the main reason for their objection.
The truth is that congressional procedure is obscure to the vast majority of the country, and even people who know about it don't place its proper usage very high on their list of priorities. Thinking that the abuse of congressional procedure can ever be a successful political attack is an excellent example of political junkies assuming the entire country is full of political junkies.
- The assumption that irregular voters actually legislative wonks. This is one that you see mainly on the left these days, but which was rife on the right when Republicans were in charge. Even though irregular voters are, of all portions of the electorate, the lowest consumers of news, and the least knowledgeable about legislative details, many political activists and junkies will claim that "unless the Governing Party does X, then turnout among irregular voters who are ideologically aligned with the Governing Party will drop." For example, Representative Luis Gutierrez made this claim earlier in the week about need to pass strong immigration reform in order to increase turnout among irregular Latino voters.
This is another excellent example of the ubiquitous political junkie fantasy. Irregular voters are not legislative wonks. Their turnout is not dependant upon the details of what legislation is, or is not, passed. This is the sort of politics that is important to transactional, advocacy group organizations, but very few members of those organizations are irregular voters. If you join an issue advocacy group, odds are you are not an irregular voter.
In order to avoid the ubiquitous political junkie fantasy, claims of this sort should be restricted to activists. It is a lot more credible to claim that activists won't donate, or volunteer, for a governing party unless that party passes specific legislation.
- The assumption that the public actually cares about academic "-isms" This example returns us to the Jonah Goldberg discussion mentioned at the start of this piece. There is a not insignificant section of the political junkie world that seems to think it matters if a leading politician credibly fits the definition of "socialism," "neoliberalism," "fascism," "corporatism," or other "-isms" that are rarely used in our national political discourse.
This might be the most gratuitous example of the ubiquitous political junkie fantasy of all. Not only do these terms mean little to nothing to the vast majority of the country, but the excessive application of these terms is itself an example of sloppy thinking. Terms like "capitalism" and "socialism" can, in the abstract, present a picture of two diametrically opposed, individually discrete ideologies. However, the reality is that these terms are ideal points on either end of a continuum, and that everyone falls at some point along that continuum in between those two ideal points. Just labeling someone a "capitalist" or a "socialism" (or a "fascist," or a "libertarian," or whatever) can often amount to an intentional suppression of detail and exactitude--a bit of lazy thinking to avoid precision.
So, not only do most people not care about these terms, but the terms themselves are often used poorly.
It is a good rule of thumb, when developing new talking points or ideas for electoral campaigns, to test those ideas against the "ubiquitous political junkie fantasy." If the idea fails the test, and is likely to only appeal to activists, then it should probably only be targeted at activists. Attacks, campaigns, and talking points of the sort listed above simply will never have mass appeal, primarily because they all assume we inhabit an entire country of political junkies.