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.”