May 24, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Most pundits believe history repeats itself. It doesn’t
When it comes to the midterms, keep your own counsel.
Something normal people should bear in mind as we enter the summer months, during which campaigns for the coming midterms will gear up, is this: members of the Washington pundit corps, whose opinions about politics shape the opinions of normal people, are invested in their reputations as shrewd thinkers with access to secret knowledge.
Their influence is proportional to your faith in them.
Don’t have faith in them.
Truth is, members of the pundit corps aren’t special. Like voters, their opinions on current affairs are usually retrospective, not progressive.
If today’s conventional wisdom were applied to the 1982 midterms, Ronald Reagan and the Republicans would be doomed. Yet the outcome that year was virtually unchanged from the results of 1980.
By that, I mean everything reminds them of something that already happened. They do not, typically do not, use the old to see the new.
So the opinions of the pundit corps, which become the opinions of normal people, are oriented to a static understanding of history without awareness of the present being a product of the past.
Consider news from the J6 committee.
It’s planning to hold six public hearings next month during which members will present evidence collected over the course of their investigation into the J6 insurrection and Donald Trump’s role in it.
To be sure, six is not a lot compared to more than 50 public hearings, aired in primetime, during the congressional Watergate investigation.
But this is 2022, not 1972.
The media landscapes can’t be compared.
For one thing, most people most of the time do not get their political news solely, or even mostly, from TV anymore. They get it from a variety of sources, digital and analog, including this humble newsletter.
For another, the J6 committee has done what the Senate Watergate investigators could not have. It has provided the Washington press corps with a regular and reliable drip drip drip of detail, some of which has been so explosive as to dominate two or three daily news cycles.
You could say this drip drip drip means that voters do not have a clear and full understanding of what happened on that day. They are not seeing all the information all at once in one big coherent picture.
But you could also say that the drip drip drip means that voters do in fact have a clear and full understanding of the J6. Instead of getting all that information all at once, they are getting a little here, a little there, just enough to digest in order to make room for more detail to come.
If the medium was the message back in 1972, the media – plural – are the message in 2022. The drip drip drip of information from the J6 committee complements the way people now consume news, in drips.
I would suggest this pattern has primed us for the big finale.
Also consider inflation’s effect on the midterms.
The conventional wisdom is that inflation and high prices are hurting the president’s job approval rating, thus endangering the Democrats’ midterm prospects. Reporters and opinion writers are already talking about conditions as if they were similar to what Jimmy Carter faced.
“Forty-two years after inflation helped sweep [Republican Ronald Reagan] into the White House,” reported Businessweek, “surging prices threaten once again to upend a Democratic administration.”
“Inflation … dominates every conversation with swing voters,” Lanae Erickson, a senior VP at the think tank Third Way, told Businessweek. “When inflation is this high, whoever is in charge gets blamed.”
But history doesn’t repeat itself.
The present is a product of the past.
Carter is in fact better compared to Trump. Carter governed during a transition from the New Deal-Great Society era, which favored Democrats, to the era of neoliberalism, which favors the Republicans.
Trump governed during a transition from the era of neoliberalism to the era of We Can’t Know Just Yet. Both of them represented the end of their party’s respective policy regimes. Both served one term.
If anything, Biden is more like Ronald Reagan.
Reagan defeated the symbol of the old era. Biden did, too. Reagan faced high inflation and high prices, high unemployment and an international crisis (that is, Cold War). The Federal Reserve’s efforts to beat inflation caused a recession mere months into his first term.
Biden is facing similar conditions but with the addition of a global covid pandemic that has rearranged the labor market, strained supply chains and given cover to corporations to use their monopoly power to price-gouge consumers – all of which has culminated in high prices. (The US is also in a standoff with the Kremlin. That has crimped global oil supplies. Like Reagan, Biden is in the teeth of an energy shock.)
If today’s conventional wisdom had been applied to the 1982 midterms, Reagan and the GOP should have been doomed. Yet the outcome was virtually unchanged from the results of 1980. The Republicans held the Senate. The Democrats held the House. Indeed, that year’s midterms are entirely missing from today’s discourse. The pundit corps has convinced itself the Democrats are headed for a wipe out.
Will this year be a reprisal of 1982?
I don’t know.
I do know Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump were conclusions. Reagan was the beginning. Biden appears to be on course to follow suit.
No administration in my lifetime has taken such an active role in managing the economy. The Reagan administration enfeebled antitrust enforcement. The Biden administration is reviving it. Today’s baby formula shortage began in the 1980s. Let’s hope it ends in the 2020s.
History doesn’t repeat itself.
But the present is a product of the past.
I also know members of the pundit corps who came of age during one policy regime often struggle for political relevance in the next.
Third Way, whose spokesperson said Biden will be blamed for high inflation, is an offshoot of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was itself the group most responsible for Bill Clinton’s ascent.
Third Way and the DLC, like Clinton, did everything they could to achieve Democratic goals while also doing everything they could to prevent the public from knowing the Democrats were responsible.
That Biden has no such qualms is another indicator of our living in a period of transition. Another is that Third Way is now always wrong.
Reagan wasn’t blamed for high prices.
Not enough, anyway, to lose the midterms.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.