I have no interest in trying to explain the Democratic defeat yesterday in Massachusetts. The handwringing and recriminations occurring at this moment in Washington and Massachusetts will supply enough of that. But the one-year anniversary of Obama’s inauguration and yesterday’s Democratic defeat does perhaps offer the opportunity to look back across the last year and wonder how we moved so quickly from giddiness to gloom when considering the polity’s mood.
Obviously the terrible shape of the economy is on almost everyone’s mind. And it should come as no surprise that anger about our current condition would find its way to the ballot box. The political right has exploited that anger because, well, it makes for good politics (they have little else to sell) and attacking Obama also makes for profitable media. The political left, on the other hand, calls this “Obama’s inheritance”—that these are conditions that Obama did not create but inherited from eight years of Republican corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence (as the most recent conversation between Bill Moyers and Thomas Frank demonstrates).
The left, of course, has a point. The polity’s mood is directly related to the fact that Americans are notoriously ahistorical, not to mention ill-informed and contemptuous of politics. Given current conditions, it is simply easy to blame Obama and the Democrats for not turning things around more quickly—never mind that guy who was in charge 365 days ago.
What interests me more is what we see in the middle. What has grabbed my attention is how presentist our media is in their reporting. By presentist I mean the way in which news media are generally focused on explaining the now with little regard to what happened last month or last year (although I do enjoy the double entendre of the dictionary definition of presentist–“a person who maintains that the prophecies in the Apocalypse are now being fulfilled”). Even NPR is breathless in its “reporting” on how the public feels right this minute and connecting those feelings to Obama, with little attempt to frame its stories in the broader context of the slow processes of governance and economic change.
Political scientists say that the modern presidency is dominated by the “continuous campaign,” whereby campaigning for public office continues every day that one is in office. They bemoan the fact that the dynamics of campaigning destroys one’s ability to engage in the politics of governance. What political scientists often fail to recognize is the continuous campaign’s connection to our entertainment culture, and celebrity politics in particular.
Celebrity politics isn’t just about the selling of politicians such as Obama and Palin on the campaign trail (and the public’s affective relationship therewith). It is also the way in which news media treat governance in the same fashion that they treat celebrity culture. Who is up or down on any given day, as determined by the gods of popularity? Is the celebrity being worshiped or vilified by the public right now? News media, like celebrity itself, must sell its meaningfulness or relevance to the public every day, and aligning with popular sentiment becomes the basis for how reporting gets done. Looking backwards is only helpful in end-of-year specials. And describing the intricacies of how power works simply doesn’t sell like the red carpet spectacles featured in OK! magazine.
If the public is ahistorical and the press is damningly superficial in its role in framing or reporting reality (much less helping the public understand governance), then Obama best return to campaign mode soon, for the road ahead looks to be a particularly bumpy ride.