22 May 2019

American culture, boring bombshells, and political success

This Monday, Electoral-Vote made an interesting point about the American public.  The context was the odd way Biden keeps talking about bipartisanship and getting along with the Republicans, something which anyone who has been paying attention to politics for the last ten years knows is impossible, and something Biden himself must know is impossible -- he was right there on the scene for eight years to see how the Republicans treated Obama.  Electoral-Vote then made this important observation:

Consider this: In 2016, 138 million people voted, but the combined primetime audience of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN is 5 million viewers.  Obviously, those channels aren't the only sources of political information; there are also newspapers, and websites (including this one!).  However, even if you add up the readership/viewership of all those various outlets, it adds up to something far short of 138 million people..... When Biden says he is the "unity candidate," he is pitching to the low-information group, not the high-information group who know that unity is a pipe dream.  Of course, Biden, who was a member of the Obama administration that McConnell completely stonewalled, knows very well that unity is never going to happen if he is elected.  But he also knows that a large chunk of the Democratic electorate wants to hear about unity and bipartisanship and unicorns gliding over rainbows, so this is what he tells them.

I was struck by the low figure for the combined audience of the big political news outlets, and wondered if some especially popular shows might be reaching more people.  Well, in February (for example) Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity each had an audience of only a little over three million.  So that "low-information group" and the "high-information group" are vastly unequal in size.  The latter is such a small share of the 138 million who actually voted in 2016 (and the even larger number who might vote under ideal conditions -- remember, this country has over 200 million adults) that it's practically a rounding error.

Biden must know better than anyone that if he becomes President, he'll no more be able to form a cooperative relationship with McConnell than with the Ebola virus -- but he also knows that a vast share of the voters he has to appeal to don't realize this, and want to hear some Kumbaya talk.

This also sheds light on the bafflement one finds on the net about the fact that Biden has such a crushing lead among Democratic voters, or about the fact that scandal after scandal about Trump doesn't seem to have much impact on his popularity with the Trumpanzees.  If people who follow political news at all regularly are such a small percentage of the voting population, just imagine how much smaller the whole ecosystem of political bloggers, activists, and internet news hounds and commentators is.  To be blunt, that ecosystem is tiny, insular, and out of touch; it probably can't relate to, address, or even understand the reasons (whatever they are) why the great masses of rank-and-file Democrats so incline toward Biden.  And many bloggers and activists are what I call "stuck in broadcast mode" on such issues, too fixated on lecturing everyone else about why they're wrong to spend any time listening to them.

As for the Trumpanzees, of course, even those who do follow the "news" (on Fox or Breitbart or whatever) are just having their alternate-reality bubble reinforced.  But there are reasons beyond that why most of the "bombshell" Trump scandals that keep coming out haven't moved the needle very much.  These "bombshells" have little impact because they're boring and not easy for the average non-media-junkie person to understand.  Take, for example, the story of Trump secretly paying $130,000 to a mistress to keep quiet about their affair.  Sleazy, yes, but it's not at all obvious to most people why this would be a violation of campaign finance law.  (Yes, I know the reason why it is, but just try getting any normal person to stay awake through an explanation of that reason.  I have a hard enough time staying awake through the phrase "campaign finance law".)  Money laundering?  Emoluments?  Trump Tower Moscow?  Murky, complex, dishwater-dull topics, all of them -- and they have absolutely no impact on ordinary people the way, say, the tariff wars do.  None of that stuff is ever going to move the needle of public opinion noticeably.  Nobody but the bloggers and activists and commenters cares about it.

Trump succeeded by talking to the right-wing masses about the things they cared about -- immigration and cultural change -- instead of the stuff like tax cuts and the free market that their "betters" in the right-wing punditocracy thought they should care about.  This has, to an extent, cleared the air.  We now know that nobody outside a few think tanks gives a crap about the free market, for example.  Everybody wants an economy designed to benefit particular groups.  The debate is about which groups and how.  It's a more honest argument.

As I've discussed before, the activist left makes a serious error in turning up its nose at mass culture.  Most of that mass culture, after all, is on our side.  Movies and pop music are light, colorful, and fun; following politics is a dreary, slogging chore undertaken out of grim necessity.  If three million Americans watch Rachel Maddow and a hundred and twelve million follow Taylor Swift on Instagram, that is not grounds for sneering at how vacuous most of the public is.  It's telling us something vitally important about the culture of our nation and the electorate we have to win elections with.  It's an invitation for us to learn.  It's an almost Darwinian situation -- those who are willing to learn and adapt to the cultural environment as it actually is will succeed.  Those who try to lecture it about how it "should be" will not.


Blogger Ami said...

And considering the number of people who 'follow' Taylor Swift or other stars/pop tarts/bubbleheads and how easy it is to influence those masses, it really is an invitation to learn, as you said. From my side of things (I try to read as much as I can understand, sometimes I can digest larger ideas, sometimes I have to keep pondering) the masses are just tired of getting crapped on. And willing to vote for people who speak in language they can understand. Although I'm proud to say that taking political things at face value is in my past. Hence the reading/discussion etc.
Thanks for your contributions to making at least some of us smarter.

22 May, 2019 18:55  
Anonymous Sixpence Notthewiser said...

"Movies and pop music are light, colorful, and fun; following politics is a dreary, slogging chore undertaken out of grim necessity."
I think Biden is doing something right. He seems ahead in the polls (ahead of even Bernie) and that makes Cheeto nervous. Anything that makes Cheeto and the turtle nervous makes me happy.


22 May, 2019 19:05  
Blogger jenny_o said...

Exactly right with your conclusions, in my opinion. All of them.

22 May, 2019 19:27  
Blogger Adam said...

Biden will have a tough time uniting his own party, rather than the country.

23 May, 2019 07:32  
Anonymous ming said...

I don't disagree with any of that, but I truly resent the chaos, stupidity, and human suffering that goes with having low-information voters make the choices for the rest of us.

F---ing Trump. Really America?

23 May, 2019 07:39  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Very thoughtful and spot on. I've never heard a Taylor Twift song, bearly know who she is, but because I'm on the internet, I do know that she supported Democrats in the last election, and Trump said he liked her 25% less because of her support of Democrats. So there's that.

Times change and people become more tolerant of their politicians' defects. I remember when it was unthinkable to have a divorced male run for the presidency. Then we had Reagan, and now thrice married Trump (and his many mistresses to boot.) The fact that the Evangelical Christians support him is still astounding to me, but I do get it. As long as their guy will push for policies they want -- end of Roe v. Wade, limiting immigration, and building walls -- they'll vote for anyone, even if he stands in the middle of the street and shoots someone.

We have to appeal to the people who want to see Trump defeated -- afterall, there are more of us than there are those who support and embrace the corrupt narcissistic maniac, Trump.

I don't get why Biden is leading, he's not my first choice. We need a woman on the ticket, No. 1 or No. 2; someone who'll be a stark contrast to the bumbling, inarticulate, unintelligent pant-load, know-nothing who is currently embarrassing this country.

23 May, 2019 13:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ami: the masses are just tired of getting crapped on

I think that's a big part of what's going on. Hence the substantial number of people who voted for Obama both times and then for Trump. If one assumes those people were thinking ideologically, that doesn't make much sense. It makes more sense if one assumes they were frustrated with the status quo and always voted for whichever candidate seemed more likely to shake things up.

Sixpence: Trump certainly does seem nervous about Biden. If McConnell does too, that's even more telling. McConnell must know Biden pretty well from his years in the Senate. He probably knows better than most what his potential is.

Jenny_o: Thanks! I feel like a bit of a voice in the wilderness sometimes.

Adam: Unifying Democrats always has elements of cat-herding. But I'm hoping Trump will unify our party (against himself) even if the nominee can't.

Ming: Your comment raises a point that really needs its own post. Which will appear in not too long.

Shaw: It was a bit of a shock because Swift has always been totally non-political and the neo-Nazi extreme right had sort of adopted her as a mascot. Since she never said anything about it, some people wondered if she really did have such views herself. Considering her influence, it was a relief to find that she's a pretty mainstream liberal.

The Evangelicals have good practical reasons for their hypocrisy, but we must never lose sight of the fact that it is hypocrisy.

I'm not really sure why Biden is leading either, though I suspect it's largely his association with Obama, for whom most non-wingnuts must be pretty nostalgic by now.

23 May, 2019 18:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.T. Barnum (and the Roman Emperors) had this all figured out a century (and longer) ago: most people are forever still on the bottom level of Maslow's "Pyramid of Needs", the very basic necessities of life. What they want is to be cheaply entertained, after they've eaten their bread & wine. the 40% are their descendants.

27 May, 2019 10:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: Evidently you misunderstand my point.

27 May, 2019 10:31  

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