Bret Stephens Sucks, Or, When Punditry Goes Awry
Despite President Donald Trump’s umpteen comments in reference to the “failing” New York Times, the “Fake News Washington Post,” and other notable publications critical of his leadership, there has been a lot of good reporting during his tenure in the White House and in the campaign leading up to the election.
It is good reporting borne out of necessity, prompted by an administration in disarray built on a complete disregard for transparency and truth. Alas, there has also been some less-than-good reporting and/or questionable editorial oversight in recent times. Frequently, media outlets will report Trump’s public comments at face value, devoid of meaningful context. “President Trump accuses Democrats of election fraud.” Right, but what about the idea he is doing so without citing any credible evidence? For the love of journalistic integrity, call a spade a spade, won’t you?
If reporting on Trump’s failed stewardship of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City or the utter fraud behind Trump University or his repeated aggressive sexual behavior in and out of marriage or his stance on the Central Park Five and advocacy for their execution is the good, and reporting on, say, Stephen Miller eating glue as a child is the bad, the ugly may be the out-of-touch views promulgated by today’s television pundits and columnists, many of them white males who refuse to check their privilege at the door.
Case in point, Bret Stephens, whose work, according to many familiar with it, is a repository for bad takes. In a recent column for the New York Times, Stephens opined that the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the first round of presidential debates, is off to a “wretched start” in advance of 2020 and “seems interested in helping everyone except the voters it needs.”
Let’s put aside our puzzlement over why Stephens, a conservative notorious for being a climate change “agnostic” (as he terms it), feels he needs to criticize the Dems declared for presidential runs in this way even noting his frequent criticism of President Trump. The startlingly crude viewpoints in his piece speak for themselves. In particular, this passage drew jeers and censure from the blogosphere/Twitterverse:
In this week’s Democratic debates, it wasn’t just individual candidates who presented themselves to the public. It was also the party itself. What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?
Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.
They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.
As numerous critics have pointed out, for Stephens, who spent his childhood in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, to lump himself in with the “this is America, we speak English” crowd is woefully disingenuous. You know, unless he suffered a head injury that has caused him to forget the Spanish he learned as well as the very fact he speaks it, which in that case, my condolences.
More than that, though, the dehumanizing “them-versus-us” rhetoric at a time when migrant families are being indefinitely detained en masse in substandard facilities (the term “facilities,” in many cases, is a generous one) without legal representation or even being charged with a crime is chilling. Not to mention it’s riddled with inaccuracies as a function of being grounded in nativism and trickle-down hogwash.
They broke the rules, even though seeking asylum is supposed to be legal. They don’t pay taxes, even though they do. They got themselves into debt. Who? Are we talking about undocumented immigrants here or college students/young adults born in the States, whose issues with repaying their student loans are nothing at which to scoff? And spare me the “job-creators, taxed to the hilt” line. If we’re talking about multinational corporations, some of them have gotten exceedingly proficient in paying little to no taxes while forgoing investment in their employees and the surrounding communities for the sake of relentlessly seeking profit. In this respect, creating jobs (which may not even be that rewarding for the job-holders in the first place) is the least they could do.
Stephens isn’t the only one at the Times trafficking in self-centered moderate conservative whining. In his own reaction column to the Democratic debates, David Brooks, another Never-Trumper, pleads with Democrats not to “drive him away,” taking it upon himself to speak for the 35% of American voters who identify as “moderates.”
In doing so, he decries how “the party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable.” Americans like their health plans. The economy is doing well (yay, capitalism!). These candidates sound like they want open borders, which has lost progressives elections elsewhere around the world. There’s too much raging against the top 1% and not against the top 20% (the upper-middle class).
There’s that concept again: “electability.” It’s a concept everyone seems to profess knowing a lot about without being able to clearly define it. Will advocating for Medicare for All (which, by the by, has broad support from Americans across the political spectrum) make a candidate unelectable in the general election? How would we even know? The economy is doing well now. What happens if we suffer another economic crisis (and yes, there are warning signs to be had)?
On immigration, are we to ignore the ethical and moral concerns for-profit imprisonment of asylum-seekers and immigrants presents, not to mention the real economic benefits these people bring to the table, because of moderate whites’ vague worries about a loss of “cultural identity?” On the Democrats trying to engage with Trump in a battle of “populist v. populist,” why not mention how Trump’s supposed “populism” is really just a concession to wealthy white males like himself?
Ultimately and in all, Brooks is critical of progressives who reject calls for civility and, in laying out their vision of the future, ensure the party can’t win next November. What good is “civility,” however, when today’s Republican Party is premised on bad-faith, deceptive arguments for holding up the status quo? And rather than appealing to a shrinking, elusive voting bloc, why not try to generate actual enthusiasm among those who haven’t voted or previously couldn’t vote? Why not try to win rather than playing not to lose? Have we learned nothing from 2016?
Evidently not. Instead, we get moderates who lauded Hillary Clinton and assured us voters would tire of Trump once again propping up an establishment candidate in Joe Biden because he supposedly “can stand up to” the orange-faced incumbent. Never mind Biden’s checkered past as a senator or that he seems to lack original policy ideas. Let the gaslighting continue and ignore the sound of progressives banging their heads against the wall.
I’ve highlighted Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s questionable outlooks on the 2020 presidential race, but this kind of analysis is by no means limited to conservatives. On the Democratic/liberal end of things, there are examples of punditry gone awry a-plenty.
Rebecca Traister, columnist at The Cut, an offshoot of New York magazine skewed toward women’s interests, describes this as the “Donny Deutsch problem in media.” As she explains, while the Democratic Party field is indicative of the country’s growing diversity—both ethnic and ideological—the face of today’s talking heads in political media hasn’t kept pace. Traister writes:
Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.
Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.
Traister acknowledges Stephens amid the elaboration of her column, but adds some more names as examples of individuals who are supposed to be experts in their field but seem out of touch with what’s happening in the world more than anything.
Following the debates, Joe Scarborough railed against the Democrats’ stances in favor of undocumented immigrants being entitled to health care and that their crossing the border should be decriminalized. Chris Matthews, like Stephens, framed Kamala Harris’s taking of Joe Biden to task on the subject of busing during the debate as making white people feel as if they are “on trial” or that she is speaking out of some racially-based resentment. As for Mr. Deutsch, he panned Elizabeth Warren’s prospects in the general election next to Biden’s, touting his experience as an advertising and branding executive as an affirmation of the validity of his viewpoint. He, like Donald Trump, evidently gets people. Well, I’m sold, I don’t know about you.
As Traister finds and as others would agree, the “safe center” on which these men think the Democrats can rely may no longer be the source of salvation they or other mainstream liberals imagine it to be. This much becomes evident when looking at the substantial appeal of signature policy ideals such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and taxing the wealthy at a higher marginal rate. The contention of Deutsch et al. is that promoting these positions will hand Trump the election in 2020. Maybe it’s through embracing a bold vision of the future (a vision furthered by strong female candidates, no less) that the excitement needed to turn out the necessary voters to prevent his re-election will be achieved, though.
In fairness, Traister admits the likes of Stephens and Scarborough may be right, at least in the short term. Maybe the Democrats will win with Biden as their chosen candidate. Over the long term, however, the party strategy will almost certainly have to change in deference to a “different, faster, smarter, lefter turn toward the future.” To this end, the hegemonic hold white males have over political punditry will need to be addressed at some point too.
Unfortunately, this won’t be realized nearly fast enough, meaning newspaper subscribers and TV viewers will be forced to see the 2020 campaign through the prism of these privileged, moneyed men’s worldviews. Meaning we’re liable to get defenses of Biden and his condescending attitude toward people unlike him ad nauseum until the election or until his bid for the White House goes down in flames.
There’s a #MeToo dimension to this disproportionate representation as well. Matthews caught heat last year for an unearthed “hot mic” incident of sorts from 2016 where he jokingly asked where he put “that Bill Cosby pill” he brought with him in advance of an interview with Hillary Clinton. Deutsch, by his own admission, is a shameless flirt who has fantasized about women he was worked with and waxed poetic on Sarah Palin’s hotness when she first came to political prominence.
When Traister speaks to how problematic it is that potential voters and prospective candidates for public office are having their opinions shaped by these men, she has a firm grasp of what she’s talking about. Their professionalism (or lack thereof) is certainly not above reproach. Might we not submit the same of their political insights?
The male-dominated world of political media reacting with pearl-clutching bewilderment at up-and-comers in the Democratic Party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading by example. Joe Biden’s place atop the polls despite his apparent unpreparedness in that first debate. These phenomena are related. These men are unused to a world in which their place atop the hierarchy is no longer guaranteed, where a twenty-something who previously worked as a bartender—gasp!—is beating them in the open exchange of ideas. As the very title of Rebecca Traister’s article asks, politics is changing; why aren’t the pundits who cover it?