Let's Talk About How We Talk About Politics

More political reality, less political fiction. Please.

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Two rules of thumb have served me well in trying to understand American politics. One: that most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. Two: that there’s a difference between the thing of politics and how we talk about the thing of politics, which often shapes and molds the thing of politics itself.

Politics is, of course, abstract. That’s what makes it none too easy to understand from the get-go. Add layers of meta and you have something even more theoretical. For this reason, it’s good to step back and talk about how we talk about politics, especially given that how we talk about politics is often as real as Santa Claus and unicorns.


Talking about momentum in the absence of momentum can create real momentum.


Case in point is “lanes.” The campaign press corps has for some reason landed on the use of this image as means of talking about the Democratic candidates and the various voter groups and party factions they are courting. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg reside in the middle lane while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have the left lane and (I guess) Michael Bloomberg and Tulsi Gabbard are in the right lane.

While concrete images are helpful to understanding something as abstract as politics, they can be unhelpful when treated as something that actually exists. The press corps often talks about “lanes” being “too crowded,” as if that explains why Amy Klobuchar, for instance, has struggled for donors and attention. (It doesn't.) These “lanes,” moreover, can be racialized, as when Gabbard, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Kamala Harris are lumped as if they were in the “candidate of color” lane and nothing else.

“Lanes” are a variation of the old “left,” “right” and “center” designations. Biden is a centrist. Sanders is a leftist. And so on. But such labels are meaningful only when applied to something real, like policy. Biden favors a kind of public option vis-a-vis health care. That’s a centrist position (for a Democrat). Sanders favors Medicare for all. That’s leftist (even for Democrats). But when divorced from real things, these labels become meaningless. Biden favors taxing the ultra wealthy. Always has. Yet he’s the moderate. Sanders favors preserving the Senate filibuster. Yet he’s the revolutionary.

Meaningless but also dangerous. Fact is, no one knows whether America would elect a self-identified socialist. (Sanders calls himself one, but he isn’t really.) Yet cable news and op-ed pages are full of people saying Sanders is “too extreme,” as if that were fact. Fact is Sanders’ “socialism” is in the service of real problems. If reporters and pundits talk about his “socialism” without talking about problems his “socialism” is meant to address, they are depriving voters of information necessary to self-determination. Worse, depriving voters of information necessary to combating the rise of fascism.

“Momentum” is another common motif in campaign reporting. Whoever wins Iowa has momentum going into New Hampshire, and whoever wins New Hampshire has momentum going into South Carolina, and so on. “Momentum,” like “lanes,” can be helpful to understanding the influence of state-level victories on voter behavior. (Consider the adage, “Iowa picks corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents.”) But treating momentum as if it were political nonfiction actually warps political reality.

Consider all talk about Democratic elites panicking at the sight of Sanders winning in New Hampshire after virtually tying Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. “Bernie Sanders Prevails. Cue the Party Panic” was Frank Bruni’s entirely predictable headline. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s legendary advisor, literally freaked out. Carville ought to know better.

Iowa split 33 delegates five ways (Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Klobuchar*). New Hampshire’s 24 went three ways (Sanders, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar*). A candidate needs nearly 2,000 delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the convention. Buttigieg now has 22. Sanders has 21. The others are in single digits. When seen in this light, I think you’ll agree momentum has nothing to do with it.

Talking about momentum in the absence of momentum can create real momentum, however. That might otherwise be benign, but it can be destructive. Consider that some pundits, evidently in good faith, are calling on the former vice president to drop out of the race. After all, they say, he came in third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire.

Biden is not going to drop, nor should he. But he does feel the effect of all the talk of Sanders’ imaginary momentum. His numbers are sliding, even in South Carolina. This is in spite of the fact that South Carolina and other diverse states would, if they came earlier, virtually guarantee Biden’s bid to be Donald Trump’s Democratic challenger.

So, my friends, remember:

Most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. And there’s a difference between the thing of politics and how we talk about the thing of politics, which often shapes and molds the thing of politics itself.

—John Stoehr

CORRECTION
*An earlier version of this paragraph had the numbers and names wrong. I regret the errors.