From Newsweek to CNN: The Narrowing of American Politics

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Writers and magazines help establish the bounds of debate that reaches the masses -- sometimes for the worse.

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Why object so strenuously to the succession of articles from generally excellent writers who tell the story of President Obama's first term but ignore or marginalize his most objectionable transgressions? A perfect illustration of their malign effect on public discourse is now available for all to see.

On Wednesday evening, Anderson Cooper had Andrew Sullivan on CNN. They discussed Sullivan's Newsweek cover story on Barack Obama, a piece I criticized here and, after Sullivan responded, here too. In the clip, below, you'll see a writer who is adept at television appearances being afforded the opportunity to reach beyond his sizable audience of Web-savvy information junkies to the broader cable-news-watching public, a distinct demographic that tuned into a segment presented as a big-picture debate about Obama's record during his first term.

Here is the segment:



As cable news goes, an eight-minute segment dedicated to an Andrew Sullivan article is about as good an opportunity as arises for a substantive outsider critique. And at his best, Sullivan is a prescient truth-teller who challenges the establishment, as he has on torture and gay marriage. After the segment above, however, the casual CNN viewer could be forgiven for thinking that there is no serious civil-libertarian critique of Obama, that he hasn't doubled down on Bush policies that Sullivan and so many others strenuously criticized, and that all of Obama's critics just don't get his special genius.

Often enough, the broadcast media ignores these issues on their own, but in this case the bounds of the television debate were laid out in Sullivan's article, and what flowed from it was eight minutes of arguing about whether Obama bears a lot of blame or some credit for the economy. And Cooper, trying to press Sullivan on whether Obama is really as good as he says, was reduced to asking questions like, "Where is this long game? A lot of his critics will say, he handed too much over to Congress." Does anyone else find it depressing that a few weeks after an indefinite-detention bill was signed into law, as detainees languish in a still open Gitmo, as an undeclared drone war proceeds, as the drug war continues apace, as a nuclear Pakistan is gradually destabilized, as Obama asserts the power to wage wars of choice without a declaration and to assassinate Americans in secret and without charges or due process, the broadcast media is debating whether the president has given too much power to Congress?

It was fitting that Bay Buchanan, a Mitt Romney surrogate, came on to debate Sullivan, for their exchange summed up the narrow choice that voters will have if they meet in the general election. We'll have two centrists who supported the bank bailouts arguing as if their different attitudes toward the tax rate on the highest earners is the most pressing issue facing America. They'll both make promises about deficit reduction and entitlement reform that are sort of beside the point because that process depends on Congress much more than on the executive. And on national-security policy, aside from their mutual embrace of the post-9/11 executive-power grab, who can trust any particular thing they promise, given their mutual habit of presenting themselves as the morally upright champions of an issue only to flip-flop as soon as it's expedient?

When I complained that Jonathan Chait wasn't grappling with Obama's failure on these issues, he offered this reply: "I don't have opinions on everything!" A casual viewer of CNN could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Sullivan feels the same way, but it isn't so. He believes, earnestly and plausibly, that America will be better off if Obama wins reelection, but he also believes deeply in the rule of law, checks and balances, and basic norms of justice.

What I believe is that America will be better off if Sullivan spends his time as a critical outsider, rather than Team Obama's answer to Bay Buchanan, a job for which D.C. has plenty of ready applicants. The intellectual, if he is as talented as Sullivan, is given some influence in establishing the bounds of national debate. And speaking truth on behalf of power -- and it is true: Obama did not destroy the economy! -- is to squander that influence, for apologia is already permitted.

As Glenn Greenwald insists, it is ruinously unhealthy for a polity to stop everything, every three years, for a lengthy election season in which life and death issues are de-emphasized, and everyone does their best to extol the virtues of politicians who are deeply flawed at best. Whatever the "print" world's voices do, election season is going to proceed; surrogates are going to make the case for and against the incumbent, and the jobs picture is going to be debated. There is an additional opportunity, even for supporters of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, to influence the Anderson Coopers of the world such that when the political debate reaches the rest of the country, it isn't as narrow as the Karl Roves and Rahm Emanuels of the world would prefer. As I press Sullivan, let it be said that he's helped expand the conversation, in just this way, on more occasions and more significantly than I ever have -- and that even in this election, his insistence on taking Ron Paul seriously has helped broaden the discourse. Is it not equally urgent that the same broadening also occur in the Democratic Party, whose denizens are naturally inclined to uncritically rally around their incumbent?

These issues are bigger than any election.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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