October 18, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
When democracy is at stake, policies are secondary. The only question is this: Do you want the assholes to be in charge?
The press and pundit corps are not normal people.
There’s an interesting debate going on about public knowledge of the president’s policy agenda. On the one hand are those who say the Democrats have done a poor job of messaging. They have not conveyed why the infrastructure bills (one traditional, one innovative) would amount to what Magdi Semrau calls Joe Biden’s Great Society.
On the other hand are those who hold the press and pundit corps responsible. You can’t blame the Democrats for not getting their point across when the people charged with conveying that point are focusing on how the sausage is made more than how tasty it will be.
Policies are, moreover, abstract. They rarely break through the focus that normal people maintain on the important things in their lives. Danger, however, is different. Danger can break through.
A third part overlaps the above. It consists of people fearing for the fate of democracy. If Joe Biden and the Democrats do not succeed with their policy agenda, they risk losing the coming midterms. And if they lose, the Republican Party will have the means and opportunity to assimilate more of civil society into its authoritarian collective.
I tend to fall on the side of blaming the press and pundit corps and our fetish for heat over light, but the debate is missing something crucial.
The public does not fully understand the president’s policy proposals, because the public has not taken the time to fully understand them. Why? Because the public doesn’t care as much about policy when the fate of democracy seems to hang on every story about the former president and the Republican Party’s efforts to overrule majority rule. This is not to say Americans don’t have preferences. Many people want child care, for instance. But it’s a mistake these days to think the success or failure of policy means success or failure at the ballot box.
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Let me put it this way. Thanks to the support of the Editorial Board’s subscribers, I no longer need a legit day job. I can read about politics, think about politics and talk about politics. All. Day. Long. I take it as my responsibility to do this for the sake of subscribers who have things going on in their lives, or who have made decisions directing the course of their lives, that prevent them from spending their limited time reading, thinking and talking about politics. I’m keenly aware that most people don’t do what I do, because I used to do what most people do — something important that is not paying attention to politics.
This should make common sense. Yet the press and pundit corps, because we are so focused on winning and losing, tend to believe that policies being debated right now are going to have some kind of effect on normal people’s thinking in the next election. The midterms are more than a year from right now. Aside from a declaration of war, virtually no policy being debated right now is going to affect normal people’s thinking a year from now. Why? Because normal people don’t spend all their time reading, thinking and talking about politics.
Policies are, moreover, abstract. They rarely break through the focus that normal people maintain on the important things in their lives. Danger, however, is different. Danger can break through. Danger can even reshape how normal people understand their lives. The biggest coalition in the country’s history did not vote for Joe Biden because it wanted his party to enact its policies, however good those policies may be. It voted for him to save America from a leader of an authoritarian collective threatening to assimilate everyone into a police state predicated on preserving the superiority of white Christian men. When democracy itself is in danger, policies become secondary.
The danger has not let up. The midterms won’t have much to do with policy. A recent piece in the Times tried telling us that the biggest hurdle for candidate Terry McAuliffe in the race for Virginia’s governor was apathy. With Donald Trump out, would they show up? The piece then goes on to quote McAuliffe voters who showed no apathy whatsoever. “In interviews outside Fairfax’s early-voting site, every McAuliffe voter cited Mr. Trump as a reason for supporting the Democrat. Transportation, education and taxes — longtime core issues of Virginia governor’s races — were scarcely mentioned.”
Paul Erickson, an architect from Vienna, Va., summoned a reporter back after revealing his concerns about Mr. Trump and said in an urgent tone that he had more to share. “What I didn’t say is, for the first time in my adult life I fear for our nation,” Mr. Erickson said. “We’re tearing ourselves apart from within.”
Policies are interesting. Policies give the press and pundit corps a lot to perseverate under deadline. That might matter if normal people spent their days reading, thinking and talking about politics. As it is, normal people are more likely than not to have the fate of democracy in mind as they simplify their thinking to a single elemental question.
Do I want the assholes to be in charge?
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.