Members Only | April 17, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
All Politics Is National Now
Can Mayor Pete Buttigieg make the most of it?
The press has always been influential in American politics, but perhaps never as influential as it is now. While the big outlets are thriving in the digital age, small and mid-sized papers are, thanks to Facebook and Google, desiccated or going under.
This has created political conditions for all kind of things, but the one I’ll point out today is that all politics is now national. It used to be the reverse, all politics being local, but the state and local press is too weak to withstand the downward pressure coming from the national press. This trend won’t likely reverse itself for decades.
Take my new governor. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, was not supposed to win Connecticut’s highest office. His predecessor, Democrat Dan Malloy, was at one point the least popular governor in all the country. Only Jersey’s Chris Christie had worse ratings. Malloy won twice in slim victories, and was good at governance, which meant that by the end he had few friends left. The state GOP was on the rise. It nearly took the state Senate the last cycle. For Republicans, 2018 was going to be a change year.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg stands out from a crowded Democratic field because he hits all the bliss points beloved by the national press.
Then two things happened. One was Donald Trump’s winning the presidency. That generated a kind of siege mentality here. The other was that state Republicans lost their damn minds. Instead of going with a strong mayor who kept his distance from Trump, the state GOP nominated a millionaire with no political experience but enough cash to buy tons of ads on Fox TV stations. Instead of going with a moderate, Republicans, jacked up on Hannity, thought it a good idea to nominate an empty suit with nothing to say except that he stood by Trump 100 percent. The Republicans had been on the rise, but no more. Every major office in 2018 went to a Democrat.
Because all politics is national, candidates for president don’t need to do what they used to do to reach voters. It used to be that you’d go to real places like Iowa and New Hampshire, and talk to real people about real issues. You’d build a rapport with the local press and build up buzz with potential voters, all of which percolated to the state press, which percolated to the national press. That doesn’t work as well now that most people don’t get their information from the state and local press. Candidates don’t have to persuade real people when most are living virtual lives. Why do that when you can to straight to the top, and let your image and message cascade down from there?
Going straight to the top means the national press has even more influence on public opinion. A bottom-up infrastructure checked and balanced what the national press thought of candidates. But with fewer state and local press around to moderate the national press, the opinions, values and prejudices of national reporters are pretty much unchained. Hence, the gap between what’s true about America and what beltway elites think is true about America is wider than ever. I think this goes a long way toward explaining the sudden national press interest in Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
In the past, Buttigieg probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention. He’s a mayor of South Bend, Ind. Right way, he’s at a huge disadvantage. Governors and senators have statewide constituencies. They therefore have bigger bases of power and (theoretically) bigger donor pools. That’s not the case of a mayor of a city of about 400,000 people. In another time and in another place, when all politics was local, this kind of handicap would have doomed Buttigieg, because few reporters would have taken him seriously.
In this new era, Buttigieg stands out from a crowded Democratic field because he hits the bliss points beloved by the national press. He’s 37 and gay. That makes his unique. He’d be the youngest as well as the first homosexual president. He’s from the Midwest. That, to the national press, gives him authenticity Hillary Clinton couldn’t buy. He’s religious. That’s novel, because only Republicans are religious (that’s false, but that’s a result of right-wing propaganda). He’s a veteran. That’s a contradiction in that only Republicans speak in patriotic tones. (Again, false, but the world is what it is.)
He moreover holds a mirror up to many of the people covering 2020, which is to say white, young, educated, multi-lingual, and working in a world whose political poles were established by their parents four decades ago. In a very real sense, Buttigieg has something no other Democrat candidate has: the national press’s genuine curiosity.
He isn’t the first to have the press on his side. Republican Fred Thompson was a “media candidate” in 2008. His campaign collapsed in time. Democrat Edmund Muskie was a “media candidate” in 1972. His fell to pieces, too. The pressure to identity a front-runner is intense enough that reporters sometimes resort to inventing one. But that was when there was a disconnect between what was happening on the ground and what the national press said was happening. That’s when all politics was local. All politics is national now. We’ll see if Mayor Pete can make the most of it.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.