Democratic Panic: When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

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President Obama's disappointing debate performance has split Democrats into two camps: those who are openly panicking, and those who want the first group to just shut up. It's not so much that liberal panic is unfounded, but that they are being so open about it. It's a case of when keeping it real goes wrong. 

In the classic series of Dave Chapelle skits, men's lives are ruined by keeping it real—saying the one thing they really want to say—instead of censoring themselves in the way polite society demands. In one example, when a white coworker, extending his hand for a high five, makes an cringey "You the man" comment to Chapelle's character, the video freezes. "Though he could have ignored the simple comment his mentor made," the narrator says, "Vernon decided to keep it real." The video unfreezes: "Get your motherf--king hand out my face." Vernon loses his corporate job and is forced to work at a gas station. Liberals fear their too-honest allies might force them all to suffer negative consequences: a self-reinforcing media narrative in which Obama is the wimpy loser who maybe, as The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky suggested, doesn't even want to be president anymore.

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Andrew Sullivan is the top too-real commentator. (While Sullivan identifies as a conservative, his most recent Newsweek cover story is about Obama and titled "The Democrats' Reagan.") His apocalyptic post at The Daily Beast saying Obama's debate performance was "devastating" -- and could cost him the election -- was linked everywhere, including the Drudge Report. "Did no part of @sullydish recognize his piece was perfect Drudge bait?" the Center for American Progress's Neera Tanden tweeted. "Imagine if Obama had Romney's September: many liberal commentators would apparently have committed suicide. This freak out is embarrassing," Tanden followed up.

At The Awl, Ken Layne explains that Sullivan's real problem is his sincerity, unique among top pundits. Sullivan "is the only one who seems to believe what he's writing … which is problematic, for a paid political thinker, when that belief also makes you a supporter of the liberal Democrat president." And his sincerity makes him extra influential: 

"National media figures lost their real emotions around the time they realized it would take constant brutality to get to the top of the heap, and my suspicion is that Sullivan is read carefully to see what "humans are supposed to feel." His outbursts of sincerity are processed and regurgitated by the cynical people who create each news cycle's National Narrative … and that's why the top story on Google News is still the debate from a week ago."

But it's Mother Jones' Kevin Drum who makes this "too real" case most explicitly with a post titled, "The Hack Gap Rears Its Ugly Head Yet Again." The problem in America is not that there are too many hacks, but that there are too few. Too few liberal ones, that is:

The hack gap is a liberal problem of long standing. Put simply, we liberals don't have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

Can you blame the panickers, really? When is a better time to panic than when your team is confident it would be winning if it were only brave enough to be more dishonest?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.