Monday, November 26, 2007

May The Best Megalomaniac Win

Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

To me, this Douglas Adams quote is an axiom; it's almost self-evident. And yet it would appear that many of those who are capable of getting themselves paid to write about politics not only do not read Douglas Adams, they actively believe the opposite:
For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.
This particular specimen has changed his mind after a mere 4 presidential elections. Heroic!

Halperin is certainly not the first to lament that the media disproportionately covers "who is going to win, rather than who should win." I've long attributed this to cowardice and laziness. Suppose you are a political pundit for CNN, and Hillary just made a speech on her health care plan. You could attempt to cover whether this speech indicates that Hillary should win, but to do that you'd have to come up with an opinion on whether her health care plan is a good idea. It's possible to opine on that without being lambasted for bias, but difficult. One would have to do research, and studiously avoid value judgments; saying Hillary's plan is better than Obama's plan because of X Y and Z would be a big no-no, to say nothing of appearing even slightly hostile to a Republican candidate. So rather than do that, the easy and safe path is to talk about what the speech means for her campaign's likelihood of success. Hillary might win because this speech appeals to this demographic. Gore might lose because he sighed a lot. Bush might win because he has a casual demeanor. And so on.

But that theory proposes that journalists are aware that they should be covering policy and just can't do it, but this article confounds that; it implies that journalists actually believe that they're Doing The Right Thing when their coverage treats politics like sports, and boils everything down to victory and defeat, red team versus blue team.

The easy explanation is that it's a rationalization; journalists (non-depressive ones) can't handle the idea that they're harming the political process, so when someone cooks up a theory telling them that what they're doing out of expedience is actually good for the country, their confirmation bias neurons kick into high gear and they smile, nod and put in an extra hour at the office the next day.

But I suspect that the rationalization goes deeper than that, and goes beyond journalism. After all, suppose that it's inappropriate to cover presidential elections as horse races, because being able to win a presidential election isn't the same as being an effective president. Doesn't that imply something about whether it's appropriate to pick our president via an election? Or, since no one has a better idea*, shouldn't we question whether it's appropriate to grant any significant power at all, let alone the near-dictatorial powers of the 21st century Commander In Chief, to the winner of our ridiculous national circus?

*I think it should be a 64-candidate single elimination tournament


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