Blogs > HNN > Making Elections Real Events not Pseudo Events

Jan 11, 2008 4:10 pm

Making Elections Real Events not Pseudo Events

Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative Iowa caucuses was that Senator Barack Obama defied all that media speculation about Senator Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability.” Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative New Hampshire primary was that Senator Hillary Clinton disproved all that media speculation about Senator Barack Obama’s momentum. The results for Republicans were similarly surprising, with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee supposedly coming from “nowhere” to win in Iowa, and Senator John McCain “coming back” to win after pundits pronounced his candidacy dead. The 350,000 citizens who caucused in Iowa and the half a million or so New Hampshirites who voted in their state’s Democratic and Republican primaries reminded the pundits that even in modern America’s “mediaocracy,” the power remains with the people.

The late historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe the modern media’s bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland distortions of reality. Pseudo-events are moments staged for the cameras and to shape the ensuing coverage, reducing the actual participants to props. The media gabfest about the campaign, which injects idle speculation about who’s hot and who’s not between the candidates and the citizens, is a massive sustained exercise in turning America’s most sacred democratic event into a tawdry pseudo-event.

Of course, rather than apologizing for their inaccurate predictions, reporters reward candidates for exceeding the false journalistic expectations. Thus Senators McCain and Clinton became “comeback” kids on Tuesday, having bounced back from reporters’ premature eulogizing – and pollsters’ seemingly authoritative predicting.
Thanks to the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic race is shaping up as a clash of the titans, led by but still not yet limited to Senators Obama and Clinton. Even though she lost in Iowa, Hillary Clinton remains the beneficiary of one of the greatest modern political machines. Clintonites not only know how to win – they know how to lose, nimbly turning setbacks into opportunities for comebacks. And even though he lost in New Hampshire, Barack Obama remains a dazzling political talent, a silver-tongued, honey-smooth, hope-generating political thoroughbred. Both his Iowa victory speech and his New Hampshire concession were rhetorical gems, while Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory speech had a lumpy, clunky quality that suggests that she has not yet learned from her husband or her chief rival how to sweet-talk the American people.

For all the obvious political talent displayed on the Democratic side, the foreign policy experience of Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards is perilously thin. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton went on foreign trips but she rarely made policy. Claiming she has considerable foreign experience is like a bleacher bum presuming he can master center field – watching, even from up close, is not the same thing as playing. Barack Obama’s foreign policy experience – having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – is even less impressive, akin to presuming that just because you love ice cream you know the recipe for making it taste so good.

It is disturbing how irrelevant a healthy recognition of the Islamist threat appears to be for Democrats. John Edwards, for one, went so far as to dismiss the “war on terror” as merely a slogan. Only a few short years ago, that kind of thinking would have been derided as so “September 10,” meaning buried in yesterday’s delusions. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, for all the Republican candidates’ flaws, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have at least pitched their campaigns on national security credentials and concerns.

Inevitably, the next few weeks will bring on even more idle speculation, journalistic oversimplification, and candidate confrontations. But amid all the cheesy spectacle of the American nominating campaign, the people’s input makes the whole carnival profound. Thanks to the ornery, swim-against-the-tide, expectation-defying citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, these campaigns have become very real. With luck, the process will not only be empowering democratically but will result in a quality leader capable of meeting America’s challenges. There are no guarantees, but as Obama has shown, hopes themselves can be not just inspiring, but transforming.

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/14/2008

The 3 leading Democrats, as usually when under pressure, betrayed their own anti-Iraq-war ideas and promises
to American public and showed one more time they are a part of Repugnant-Pseudocratic coalition.
The "war on terror" is the sinister plot designed by the US economic and political elite whose goal is to revive the US strife for absolute world hegemony (so far this country enjoys just hegemony) at the expense
of common American taxpayers and to enrichement of the US oil, military and construction multi-national corporations.

Maarja Krusten - 1/12/2008

In past cases where a winning candidate had little or no foreign policy experiences (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush), how things turned out in that area after he took office depended on whom he chose to implement his broad visions for foreign policy and national defense. And how, once in office, he made adjustments along the way.

Voters just have to guess at some of this. How they view issues depends on many factors, some of which change over time. I think it goes beyond whether or not Americans have "forgotten" 9/11. This time around, more so than in 2000 or 2004, candidates face a real challenge in understanding what seems like a very, very complicated mix of public concerns and pitching issues effectively this time around.

Did you see David Frum on the compelled-to-return-to-the-air Daily Show last week? He and Stewart discussed Frum's premise that conservatives need to retool their message because Frum doesn't believe they can run for office by trashing the governmental mechanisms which they turn around and then ask voters to entrust to them. Frum argues that Conservatives need a new approach. In the London Times, Daniel Finkelstein, a former adviser to John Major, looks at Frum's argument from an international perspective ("All Change, The Right Knows Its Wrong") at

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/11/2008

We were and are at war, but one of the great failures of the Bush Administration has been in not creating a coherent rationale for their actions.

This is one reason the "War on Terror" label has become worse than useless. It inhibits correcting that failure by clearly identifying who we need or do not need to fight and the approaches we need to take.

The invasion of Iraq took us far beyond a war against the groups that attacked us. Even if one took seriously the hopes some had that that the invasion would precipitate pro-western democracies in the Middle East and that this would protect us.

I don't think a majority of Americans believe that will work any more, and there are pretty good reasons to argue that they are right. So it is logical to reconsider how much effort we can and should put into supporting Iraq, particularly when the best it would seem we can hope for it is a fractious confederation, with the largest portion actively leaning toward Iran.

By the way, I do agree that Clinton seems the Democrat most aware of the challenges we face in this. Still I am glad that there are candidates who are arguing that a rapid withdrawal is the best available choice. I think it's incumbent on those who differ to say clearly what a continued large-scale involvement will gain us.

Alonzo Hamby - 1/11/2008

Remember September, 2001, when almost all Americans thought they were in a war?

Democracies have short attention spans--at their peril.

In effect, all the Democratic candidates are saying that we can walk away from the Middle East with no ill effect. Diplomacy, the UN, respect for the opinion of "others," and humility will solve the problems there.

Most seem to really mean that. Just perhaps Hillary sees the region as a complex problem. She seems the most likely of the Demcratic candidates to think her way through it.

None of this is to say that the decision to invade Iraq was, in retrospect, a good one, or that things were well-handled there. My point simply is that it would now be catastrophic to walk away.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/10/2008

It would be good for the Democratic frontrunners to have more foreign policy experience (though if McCain's long career as a senator counts, then Clinton's Edwards' admittedly shorter career in the Senate should not go unmentioned. Like or dislike her votes, they are decisions.)

Concerning Edwards, however, I respectfully disagree. If this Time article is at all accurate he was making a careful and I would argue useful distinction between a necessary conflict with agressively hostile groups and the Administration's use of the term as a catch-all to justify a range of actions, many of which are not necessary for this conflict.

Here is the key quote:

""It's been used to justify a whole series of things that are not justifiable, ranging from the war in Iraq, to torture, to violation of the civil liberties of Americans, to illegal spying on Americans. . . . I also think it suggests that there's a fixed enemy that we can defeat with just a military campaign. I just don't think that's true."