Political Pundits Don’t Understand … Politics

Over the past few years, I’ve read any number of political pundits, across the ideological spectrum.  They can, and sometimes do, offer insights into the large-scale policy, and the nitpicking details of legislation or policy decision.  It’s educational in that aspect, but what has struck me over that same time frame is how often they get caught out by actions or statements by politicians that “don’t make sense” to them or when it turns out that the public doesn’t have the same opinion the pundits thought they’d have.   One has only to look at their incredulity that immigration reform is being blocked by members of the party that would most benefit from passing it, or that someone like Chris Christie, who appears to be a “prime candidate” is actually unlikely to win the nomination.  The reason they get caught out so often is that they are working from a fundamental misunderstanding of politics, and in particular political parties.

It has been called “inside the Beltway syndrome,” and that is a part of it.  When you’re based in Washington DC, or any of the major media centers, you tend to see the “big movers and shakers” as being the most important aspects.  It’s easy to get caught up in the gamesmanship at that level, as to whether Speaker Boehner is working with or against Minority Leader McConnell, or who has “influence” or is “on the outs” in Congress or the Administration.   It’s also where the party leaders are headquartered, so it’s easy to get statements and press releases from them about “where the party stands.”   Which is why the Republican Party’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” received so much press.  It was touted as a solid reassessment of what problems the Party had, and a plan to do better outreach and inclusion of groups they weren’t getting to vote for them.

As I pointed out back then, while one could pick apart the rhetoric, the real problem the Republican Party was going to face was … Republicans.   It’s not just the Right that has this issue, it’s also the Left.  Any number of times, one can point to some liberal commentator saying what is (to them) “conventional wisdom” and how “the Party should” make something happen only to have it not happen. The President – who is leader of the party – “should” have gotten this, because he’s … the leader of the party. It’s obviously a “lack of leadership” that causes various Democrats to go off in a different direction.  The “money people” or “the Republican leadership” want this, so obviously the Republicans will do that.  Yet, they don’t, and their behavior “doesn’t make sense” to them.

The reason it “doesn’t make sense” is that the pundits are all assuming one thing:  That political parties are “top down” organizations.   It’s inherent in everything they write.  It’s wrong, both organizationally and from the policy standpoint.  Parties are “bottom up” organizations.  Local parties are the ones who select candidates for office, and elect delegates to their regional, state, and national party committees.  They are the ones who “control the party,” and if you’re not aware of that, you’re going to assume – with all that means – that what the people “at the top” say will be what the people who are on the local level are going to do.  It’s the other way around.

That’s why someone like a Steve King or a Louie Gohmert can be complete idiots.  Yes, they’re “fringe” and from a national standpoint they’re embarrassments to the Republican Party, but the national party has little say or control over them.  They only have to worry about what the parties in their district think of them.  Which is also why I said that the problem the Republican Party is going to have is Republicans.  At the local level, the party has in many areas been taken over by the very extremists who are now demanding the “pure conservatism” that so often catches the pundits by surprise.  It’s why you so often see the national party leadership suddenly changing course or backing off of previous statements.  It’s not that they may not recognize that the party needs to reach out, or needs to accept something, it’s that the local parties – and in particular their delegates to the national committee – don’t agree with them.

The same misunderstanding works against the pundits when it comes to the Democratic Party, and in particular what the President can and can’t do.  Not just the constitutional limits and separation of powers (although they don’t get those, either), but what he can do with members of his own party.  While President Obama is the leader of the party, it’s necessary to remember that Democratic Senators and members of the House do not answer to him.   The President can persuade, he can use his fund-raising prowess – or not, he can direct various “goodies” to their districts to bolster them, but he can’t order them.  He is not the one who can determine whether they get a primary or the party line on the ballot when election time comes.  That’s up to the local party in their district or state, and they may or may not really care what the President wants.    The rending of clothing and weeping by liberal pundits over the loss of their “hero” Dennis Kucinich  missed the key aspect:  He lost a primary to another Democrat.  It didn’t matter what they thought, the leaders of the national party thought, and it didn’t even matter what the President thought.  It was what the Democratic voters of Ohio’s 9’th Congressional District thought that mattered.

That’s why the “expert” political pundits so often get caught being wrong or badly surprised.  It’s not just that they fall into “the bubble” where they only talk to and read each other.  It’s not because they don’t understand some policy or aren’t up on the latest polls and “inside information.”    It’s that they really don’t understand … politics.  Which is why they’ll keep getting “surprised.”

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Political Pundits Don’t Understand … Politics

  1. Churchlady

    Left or Right, our nation suffers from a complete blank when it comes to both policy making and politics. This is the most useful ‘corrective’ I’ve read in a very long time. Back to Civics 101 on policy. Take a shot at participating locally for understanding candidate selection and support. Then maybe you’ll understand why things happen as they do. In the meantime – re-read this article. It will make you wiser.

  2. Vic78

    You know you’re listening to a jerkoff when you hear a statement start out “The American people…” This country’s too large and diverse for that kind of generalization. Obama wins by a healthy margin, but 47% of the voters supported Mitt. You can’t say “The American people(Brokaw voice)…” when close to half of the voters rejected the winner.

    Pundits kill me with their wisdom. They’ve proven time and again that they don’t have a fucking clue about politics. I remember Bill Maher asking how the NRA gets their way in D.C.? For me a question like that is tee ball. None of the “experts” were able to answer. If you don’t get how interest groups work, you shouldn’t be paid to talk politics. I don’t want to get into what they were saying about Syria.

    • Exactly. If you don’t look at a map and realize that “rural areas” tend to be more “gun oriented” – lots of hunters, for example – and then overlay the political map, you can quickly get an idea of why the NRA has the influence it does. The law that sounds “really reasonable” in LA, NYC, or DC will sound “totally unacceptable” to them.

  3. To echo Churchlady’s point: I would love it if these pundits and bloggers who are such ‘political junkies’ would spend a day volunteering for their local political party. First thing they will find out: it’s hard work, second, much of it ain’t very glamorous, and canvassing would hopefully make them realize that the everyday public they seem to have ‘figured out’ thru their addictions to polls don’t fit their all too convenient assumptions

    • Vic78

      If they did that, they would have an idea of the contempt people have for them. It would be something to see them try to explain an issue to people that strongly disagree with them.

    • nathkatun7

      “To echo Churchlady’s point: I would love it if these pundits and bloggers who are such ‘political junkies’ would spend a day volunteering for their local political party.”

      Churchlady is absolutely right, Eric! To understand how politics works you have to interact with people on the grassroots level. Tip O’Neal, who famously said that “all politics is local,” truly understood politics.

  4. That’s the reason why other countries have established third, fourth, or fifth parties in their parliaments while the US has not. Green Parties, Pirate Parties, or what have you start at the local level. Their candidates run for school boards and city councils rather than for president. It takes literally decades before they run for the highest offices in the land.

    • There are plenty of local third parties, at least in this state. ;-) But the problem is not so much getting their people elected – although that is a problem – it’s getting to the next step for them. There’s also the difference in governmental structure, in that the way our legislatures are set up it really almost demands “two parties” instead of “many.” That said, in the past, major parties have imploded, only to be replaced by formerly third (or fourth) party which grows to fill the gap.

  5. Thank you! I was going batty during the first Obama administration with all the bully-pulpit fetishists who said “Well, he’s the HEAD OF THE PARTY!!!” without showing the least understanding of what “the party” was made up of. Of course, they would say in the next breath that they needed to be critical of Obama because Dems, unlike those dumb ole GOPers, “don’t march in lockstep” — while decrying the Blue Dogs for not following in the leftie lock-step. And the endless blithering about “but PUBLIC OPINION POLLS SHOW!!!” without drilling down to find out what the LIKELY VOTING CONSTITUENTS in a Congresscritter’s district think on an issue was — ugh.How do people this simple-minded ever handle any kind of on-the-job complexity or the caprices and contradictions of ordinary human nature?

    • You weren’t the only one! :lol: I’ve said “don’t show me the polls, show me the votes in Congress.” :roll:

    • nathkatun7

      I live in a blue state, California. However, not all of the areas in California are liberal/progressive. For quite sometime San Diego County, where I live, was just as right wing as any right wing areas in the so called Red State. In the 80s–Ronald Reagan’s era– 4 out 5 members of Congress from San Diego were Republicans. The ratio changed a bit during the 90s as Democrats gained 1 congressional seat- making the ratio 3:2 Republican/Democrat. In 2012, thanks to grassroots organizing, the ratio changed in our favor. Now San Diego’s Congressional Rep. in the U.S. House of Rep. is 3:2 Democrat/Republican. Obviously the change has a great deal to do with changing demographics. But even with the changing demographics, Democrats would not have been able to gain a third seat without grassroots organizing and mobilizing.

  6. nathkatun7

    Norbrook, I am coming to your post late as I was not aware that you were back posting. Thanks for always injecting a dose of reality and political pragmatism. I learn so much sane, realistic, politics on your blog.

    • Thank you! Actually, my posting is going to be “limited,” to put it mildly, for at least the next month or so. Professional obligations put a real crimp in my ability to write.