Two Political Stories, Hold the False Equivalence

How to begin chronicling a reality that historians will want to explain

Something truly remarkable is underway in party politics at the moment. One of our national parties has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, and its future on the national level looks worse than its past. It is losing badly among the largest bloc of voters, women (who went for Obama over Romney 56-44 last year). Among the fastest-growing blocs of voters -- Latinos, young voters, Asians, the tech elite, etc -- it is losing by even more. 


Yet all of the energy, pressure, and big personalities in this party -- and, you've guessed, I am talking about the Republicans -- are pushing it closer to its fervent but outnumbered base and away from more centrist positions and candidates who might give it a better national-election chance. That's the story behind the primary challenges that knocked off the likes of Dick Lugar and gave us the likes of Todd Akin. It's the story of the repeated debt-ceiling showdowns and filibuster abuse, plus the vote to eliminate Food Stamps. It's the story behind the intra-mural GOP struggle over the immigration bill. The party's Super-ego, in the approximate form of the Bush family (plus business allies, some evangelicals, etc; and technically maybe all these amounting to the party's Freud-parlance Ego) is pushing for approval. The party's Id is doing everything it can to resist.

This contest will be chronicled in our histories -- but, as I've pointed out once or twice, it poses surprising challenges for mainstream journalism of the moment, given reporters' strong instinct to remain "fair" by keeping equal distance from the main parties' views. 

Here are two illustrations of what you can do if you work free of that impulse. One is from Thomas Edsall, on the NYT's Opinionator blog, who examines the struggle between Republicans concerned about the party's national ambitions and those appealing to, or fearful of, the hard-line local base. Sample:
"Their rigidity is killing them. It's either holy purity, or you are anathema," Tom Korologos, a premier Republican lobbyist and the ambassador to Belgium under George W. Bush, said in a phone interview. "Too many ideologues have come in. You don't win by what they are doing."

A number of prominent figures in the Republican Party share this harsh view. Jeb Bush warned last year that both Ronald Reagan and his own father would have a "hard time" fitting into the contemporary Republican Party, which he described as dominated by "an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement."
The other is from Rich Yeselson, who argues today in Politico that while freshman Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has essentially no chance of carrying the Electoral College and becoming president in 2016, he nonetheless has a plausible chance of becoming the party's nominee. Sample:
So it's best to think of Cruz as the perfect expression of what Perry and Rubio were mere beta versions: the exemplification, brilliantly articulated, of the fringe pathologies trapped in the body of a major party that is today's GOP. Cruz is the real deal. He is deeply grounded in his worldview, and skilled in his presentation of it. He's the man that rightwing activists must wish had started his national political career just a few years earlier: Is there any doubt that Ted Cruz would have been a more daunting challenger for Mitt Romney than the charlatans and bozos Romney defeated for the 2012 nomination?

It doesn't take much imagination to envision a titanic faceoff in 2016 between Cruz and the round mound of Trenton town, Chris Christie, his only peer in sheer political talent and chutzpah among the other GOP presidential contenders.

My point in highlighting these articles, apart from their respective merits, is not to ask for more attitude or partisan bias in reporting. Rather it is to illustrate the adjustments "responsible" journalism is having to make to reflect the actual reality of our politics now. We know for certain that people looking back on our era, a generation from now, will be asking "What happened to the Republicans in the post-Lehman Bros, post-GWBush age?" Journalism might as well begin grappling with that question now. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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