The de-politicisation of political media


US political ideologies are converging on the right, but the power of ideas doesn’t matter in this popularity contest
Ted Rall

The political pendulum of the US has swung so far to the right that ‘centre-left’ politicians such as Al Gore only appear sporadically in the media says writer [GALLO/GETTY]

“President Obama’s support is eroding among elements of his base,” began a front-page story in the September 16 New York Times. Experienced readers understood what was meant. The US Democratic Party “base” comprises liberals, progressives (to the left of liberals), and self-identified leftists (composed of socialists, communists and left-libertarians).
These and other groups that compose the Democratic coalition – feminists, gay people, labour unions etc – pursue separate agendas. For decades, US media consumers received granular, detailed analyses of each segment, their goals, accomplishments and failures to influence the party and the nation. No longer. These factions are increasingly being excluded and omitted from coverage in favour of something new: a formless, mushy whatever.
Call it “the base”.
Conventional wisdom – in other words, talking points repeated by columnists for big-city newspapers and cable-television news commentators – holds that the US electorate is roughly divided as follows: 40 per cent who consistently vote Democratic, and another 40 per cent who always vote Republican. These 80 per cent of party loyalists are their base: if they vote at all, they always vote for the same party.
Swing votes

The outcome of elections depends on the whims of the remaining 20 per cent – “swing voters” who may vote Democratic one election, Republican the next.

With a few exceptions, strategists and candidates for the two major parties direct most of their appeals to this “vital centre” of the ideological spectrum. “Where else are they going to go?” is the constant, cynical refrain of political operatives when asked about the bases of the parties. If you’re a liberal voter, in other words, you probably won’t vote Republican. If you’re a conservative voter, you won’t jump to the Democrats, no matter how disappointed you are with “your” party. Historically, however, the Republican Party tends to coddle its right-wing base – with rhetoric as well as policy shifts – more than the Democrats pay attention to the left.

The quest for swing voters relies on simple mathematics. Convince a “swing voter” to switch from their party to yours and you’re up two votes. Lose a “base” voter and you’re down one. Swing voters count double.

As James Taranto wrote recently for the Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial page: “All presidents have to compromise. Successful ones, like Reagan and [Bill] Clinton, manage to do so while assuaging the objections of their base.”

Next year, the jobless and the homeless may be the all-important swing voters.

Swing voters remain the big prize in the 2012 presidential race. As usual, both parties are targeting Hispanics. In addition, Reuters reports: “Elderly voters who turned against President Barack Obama’s Democrats last year for tampering with Medicare are now threatening to punish Republicans in 2012 elections over their plans to scale back the health care program for seniors.” Associated Press notes that key battleground states – in US presidential elections the winner is the candidate who carries not the majority of votes cast nationally but the one who gets a majority of points representing the various states, which themselves are awarded on a winner-take-all system – have been devastated by the post-2008 economic collapse. “Swing states Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Michigan all pulse red-hot on a foreclosure rate ‘heat map’,” notes the AP. “And by themselves those five add up to 80 of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency.” Next year, the jobless and the homeless may be the all-important swing voters.

Dick Morris, the former Bill Clinton pollster and political strategist who switched to the GOP under Bush, personifies the editorial drumbeat that pushes candidates to focus on the muddled middle. In a recent editorial for The Hill political newspaper in Washington, Morris predicted that Obama might “pull an LBJ” – drop out of the race at the start of the primaries, handing his party’s nomination to someone else. Among Morris’ complaints was Obama’s newfound combativeness: “Rather than compensating for his loss of liberals by reaching out to independents and traditional swing voters, he just doubles down on his appeal to the left, further alienating the middle.”

Still, there is something new and notable about this year’s political coverage. Ideology has been banished from politics.

If there are liberals in the Democratic Party, we no longer hear about them. We only hear about The Base.

The Times piece about Obama losing support among his “base” does not contain the words “liberal”, “progressive” or “leftist”. There’s only the “base” – undefined, formless and deleted from the public consciousness.

Ideological identifiers, which were standard and widespread in political analyses until recently, have been stripped out of most coverage of the 2012 campaign. Where there were once liberals versus conservatives, progressives versus neocons and left-wingers versus right-wingers, now there is only a Democratic base and a Republican base.

Whatever those mean.

Team politics

Is this linguistic shift a conscious effort to de-ideologise the contest for president into what I call “team politics”, reducing clashes of ideas into horse-race contests in which party affiliation has been rendered devoid of meaning? Or another example of a reductionist, 24-hour news cycle-driven corporate media whose incestuous nature has been magnified by consolidation, closures and layoffs of journalists and pundits? When in doubt, the prudent choose coincidence over conspiracy. Regardless of the motivation (or lack thereof), the phenomenon – though certainly not universal – is unmistakable. An increasing amount of political coverage in the US media is disturbingly devoid of, well, politics.

“The article never identified who or what this ‘base’ was.

“President Obama, mixing fundraising appeals with diplomacy while in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, is seeking to re-energise his Democratic Party base by melding the personal with the political and even including a bit of marital romance,” Business Week magazine reported on September 21. The article never identified who or what this “base” was. Since the writer mentioned Obama taking credit for allowing gay people to serve in the US military, and pushed his plan to raise taxes on the rich, one presumes that they are liberals.

Or blacks. After a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that the president’s “strongly favourable” rating among African-American voters plunged from 83 to 58 per cent in just five months, Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post opined: “Obama cannot afford to have his base, especially African-Americans, stay home on November 6, 2012.” Who, and more exactly what, is this base? Ideologically, most American blacks fall left of the centre of the political spectrum. From the standpoint of politics, then, African-American is a subcategory of liberal/left. But that’s not how they’re categorised by a media that seems eager to expunge liberalism and its relatives from the public vernacular. There are no “liberals”.

There is only The Base.

“I don’t think the White House thinks it has a particular problem with the base. That said, if you lose support with the base, it has a multiplier effect,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told Matt Lauer on NBC television’s “The Today Show” on September 21.

What base? Who are they? Viewers were left to guess.

“But the fact of the matter,” Lauer continued, “is you lose support among the base, what does that really mean in an election year? They have nowhere else to go.”

“They have nowhere else to go,” Maddow agreed. “But you need their enthusiasm.”

“They”? Who?

“Base” is a deadly vague word. As vague words tend to do, the meaning of “base” shifts as fast as another writer meets a deadline. Some writers have even de-defined the Democratic base – a better word would have been “core” – to what we in the politics biz used to call a “coalition” back in the pre-2008 Before Days. “Given what lies only 13 months ahead, [Obama] is off campaigning with a message designed to re-engage what remains of the once broad base that swept him and his party to victory three years ago,” Bill Plante wrote in The Daily News of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Of course, vocabulary matters. It’s easier to sell “enhanced interrogation techniques” to the public than “torture”.

Where are the leftists?

In the 1960s and 1970s, celebrity leftists such as Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rudd and Angela Davis were part of the public arena in the US, frequently interviewed on national television and sought out for magazine articles. The political pendulum has since swung so far to the right that establishment progressives (people who accept the basic nature of the US economic and political system but seek to reform its biggest injustices) such as Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky (also a celeb of, and since, the 1960s) are now wholly excluded from mention. Even centre-left liberal figures such as former Vice President Al Gore and the filmmaker Michael Moore make only sporadic appearances, usually as objects as prima facie derision and scorn.

A series of studies by the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have shown that even supposedly liberal-leaning media outlets such as National Public Radio have a strong conservative bias, inviting about two Republicans to comment in their stories for every one Democrat. However, FAIR doesn’t keep track of narrower ideological slices. Maybe they don’t need to. A radio listener in the US could hear thousands of hours of NPR without hearing from anyone to the left of Barack Obama.

Leftists, progressives and most traditional liberals have left the US stage, unpublished and unrepresented in the nation’s elected bodies and its media.

Left personalities have vanished.

Today what passes for the “far left” on the big cable networks and in newspapers are such liberals as the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, the leftish columnist at The New York Times, and Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. In the 1960s (and today in most other countries), both men would probably be considered centre-right Rockefeller Republicans. When Forbes magazine printed its 2009 list of the 25 Most Influential Liberals in Media, the names read less like a Who’s Who than a series of “who?”s: among the “superstars” were University of California professor Michael Pollan, NPR also-ran Kurt Andersen, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, Gerald Seib (who?) … you get the idea. Rush Limbaugh these are not.

Left personalities have vanished. Leftie ideas – including their vocabulary, even the words that mark their very existence – are going the way of the woolly mammoth.

I typed “Leftists are” into Google. The search engine’s autocomplete feature, which uses sophisticated algorithms that reflect the popularity of actual searches (your results may vary), suggests that one finish the sentence with the following: “Leftists are mentally ill”. Or “Leftists are stupid”. “Leftists are violent”. “Leftists are immature”. “Leftists are insane”. “Leftists are idiots”. “Leftists are destroying our country”. “Leftists are parasites”. And my favourite: “Leftists are Nazis”.

Though somewhat less extreme, the muting of ideological labels in favour of a nebulous “base” also applies to the US media’s coverage of the Republicans. The Republican base is traditionally composed of hard-core right-wingers, including a “big tent” coalition of Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, pro-business corporatists (also known as simply “the Wall Street types”), rightist libertarians opposed to “big government”, as well as nativists, racists, homophobes (in short, miscellaneous haters). These disparate interest groups used to receive specific attention and coverage. More and more, these political segments are being blended into the stew of the “base” as well.

Ideas don’t matter

It’s all part of the de-ideologising of mainstream discourse. You know who’s ahead three points in the polls, but you have no idea why you should care.

Salon online magazine, September 23: “The GOP base had strong, deep reservations about Mitt Romney, the only other heavy-hitter in the race, so if Perry could satisfy their thirst for purity while demonstrating competence as a candidate and campaigner, he’d be well-positioned to unify the party and run away with the nomination.”

No definition of “base” provided.

Headline of National Review right-wing magazine, September 23: “Gingrich Urges GOP to Expand Base”.

The word base doesn’t even appear in the article.

Ideological movements, including liberalism and libertarianism, exist in the real world. In the virtual world of the media, however, they are being sublimated. Downgraded.


It’s not Big Brother. It’s infotainment.

New York University journalism professor and media analyst Jay Rosen decries “election coverage that looks at the campaign as a kind of sporting event”. He argues that the de-politicisation of political media coverage stems from the endless quest to entertain. After all, entertainment pays more than information.

“From a TV programmer’s point of view, the advantage of politics-as-entertainment is that the main characters, the politicians themselves, work for free!” says Rosen. “The media doesn’t have to pay them because taxpayers do. The sets are provided by the government, the plots by the party leaders, back benchers and spin doctors. Politics as problem-solving or consensus-building would be more expensive to cover. Politics as entertainment is simply a low cost alternative.”

What will the winner of the next election do? Who cares? What matters is who wins.

Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His recent books include The Anti-American Manifesto, Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? and To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue. His website is

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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