The week before last, I chaired an APSA panel on Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, with responses from Paul Krugman, Nolan McCarty, Paul Pierson and Eric Rauchway. I can honestly say that this was the best APSA panel I’ve ever been at (and this isn’t self-promotion – my contributions were limited to the boring non-creative stuff like organizing questions from the audience); when I finish transcribing the audio of the panel and put it up on the WWW, you’ll be able to decide for yourself. Anyway, one of the key questions that panelists discussed was the extent to which it was true that Nixonland was still with us today, and if so, why? The last couple of days (and today’s nonsense from the McCain campaign about how Obama wants to give comprehensive sex education to kindergarten children, which maps almost perfectly onto similarly nonsensical political arguments that Rick documents in the 1960s) provide pretty good evidence that Nixonland is alive and well. But why?
At the panel Paul Krugman suggested that we might want to use the concept of path dependence to understand why Nixonland has persisted until today. I think that’s right – but I also think that recent political science work (by Kathleen Thelen; by the other Paul on the panel; by Jacob Hacker) has a better grip on what path dependence actually involves than the original work by economists on Polya urn processes and the like. Political scientists argue that the basic idea of path dependence needs to be fleshed out by a more particular understanding of the specific mechanisms through which institutions and other phenomena reproduce themselves, and hence the mechanisms through which either stability or change can occur. This would suggest that in order to understand the persistence of Nixonland (which I take, as best as I understand Rick’s argument, to be a structuring of electoral politics around a perceived set of cultural controversies between a purportedly arrogant liberal elite, and a purportedly salt-of-the-earth culturally conservative ‘mainstream’) we need to look at the specific mechanisms through which this way of structuring politics has survived over the intervening thirty-odd years.
Rick suggests at least one possible cause in his book and later writings – the partly manufactured perception on the part of elite journalists that they were badly out of touch with mainstream America, after the race controversies of the late 1960s (school bussing and so on), which has led them to act with undue deference towards the self-appointed spokesmen of white middle America. I think that’s a very important part of the story – but we need to know more about why it has persisted so long over time. Cringing towards the right only becomes a long term equilibrium when it is reinforced by self-perpetuating and mutually reinforcing practices. If it were simply a learned reflex, without any outside forces to stabilize it and help it persist, we’d have expected it to decay a long time ago.
I think that one of the key mechanisms that helps explain the persistence of Nixonland over time is the way in which the media (political reporters and ‘neutral’ political commentators in the press and cable news in particular) handle political controversies. On the one hand, they perceive their role as entirely above the fray – they cover political controversies but aren’t supposed to be embroiled in these controversies themselves. On the other hand (and this is a point that both netroots types and bloggers like Ezra Klein have hammered home again and again), they themselves play a crucial and unacknowledged political role in deciding what is salient news and what isn’t – controversies don’t usually become controversies until they are described as such in the big newspapers and cable tv talkshows.
This disjuncture – between the fictitiously neutral role of political journalists in covering controversies and the actual, intensely political role that they play in actively helping to generate them – creates both opportunities for outside actors and feedback loops between these actors and journalists. Outside actors – flacks of one sort or another – find or manufacture controversies that they try to feed to the media through conference calls or other means. ‘Cultural’ controversies are especially enticing for the reasons that Rick discusses. Reporters – who doubtless have their own private opinions on whether or not these controversies are substantive or manufactured – report them because they are ‘controversies’ and hence ‘newsworthy.’ Reporters who try too strenuously to figure out whether or not these controversies have any actual basis get punished by being attacked both by the flacks and their own colleagues for not being neutral and being too political. They get denied future interviews, off the record briefings and so on. Reporters who play the game get rewarded with future information and opportunities.
This creates feedback loops between journalists and flacks, in which both have strong incentives to keep the system going the way that it does (both gain from their exchange relationship). However, the substantive result is that press neutrality ceases to have anything to do with trying to figure out the truth (which is what naive folks such as myself might once have thought journalism was supposed to do), and instead becomes a studious refusal on the part of journalists to engage their critical faculties in any meaningful way whatsoever. Being unduly critical is likely to disrupt a set of mutually congenial relations that the key actors have no incentive to disrupt.
This set of relationships obviously doesn’t bear up well under close examination. For me, the most telling moment of the last few weeks was the one occasion when political reporters seemed to be actively publicly outraged by dishonesty from the McCain campaign. This was when they discovered that some of the ‘TV ads’ that the McCain campaign had been releasing were nothing of the sort. Instead they were videos intended primarily to be consumed by political reporters who would then write up the ‘controversy.’ I reckon that’s because this revelation made it uncomfortably obvious that the man behind the curtain was the Political Reporter himself (gender specificity intended – most of the offenders are guys) in all his glory. The McCain campaign had decided that there wasn’t any need for the middleman (a mass public that was supposedly obsessed with the controversy of the day), and that it was cheaper to go directly to the journalists without even providing the excuse of a few midnight TV spots in Wichita, Arlington or wherever. The political economy of campaign ‘controversies’ doesn’t actually require public involvement; all it requires is the fiction of public involvement. But making that too obvious is a bad idea for all concerned.
Josh Marshall suggests that a number of key political reporters are beginning to figure out that this is a genuinely vicious and mendacious campaign and that McCain isn’t the honorable upstanding truthteller that they took him for. But Marshall is obviously uncertain that this dawning realization will be enough to actually change campaign coverage. I would be uncertain too – to the extent that my argument is right, the problem lies less with reporters’ individual beliefs than with a set of informal norms and institutions that are going to be difficult to overturn. Today’s nonsensical claim that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a ‘pig’ is a case in point. I imagine that most of the reporters covering this pseudo-story realize quite how ridiculous it is. But they’re still covering it.