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Why So Many Political Journalists Don’t Get Politics

The media's third-party delusion stems from an intentional refusal to grapple with the country's ideological traditions.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

If there’s a real third way in American politics—a genuinely viable means of mobilizing millions of voters into a new political party, rather than a cynical branding strategy for pro-business policies—we learned a lot about what it would look like over the past year.

The successes of the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns have revealed large cross-ideological constituencies that are hostile to existing free trade regimes and suspicious of American military adventurism. They have additionally served as reminders that universal benefit programs, like Medicare and Social Security, are overwhelmingly popular, even as they inspire controversy on Capitol Hill. Neither Trump nor Sanders, nor Hillary Clinton for that matter, wants to cut them. Sanders wants to expand them, and only conservative ideologues (who are losing badly this cycle) want to roll them back meaningfully.

More abstractly, a hypothetical third way would be premised on the notion that the Democratic and Republican parties are incapable of governing well, each corrupted in its own way by special interest money. Both Sanders and Trump have succeeded in large measure by touting the different ways they are immune from the temptation: Trump because he’s already rich, Sanders because his financial supporters are extremely diffuse and equally committed to the goal of cleansing American politics.

How is it, then, that so much political punditry of the “America needs a third party” bent—a genre that surges in popularity every four years—skips over all of this, or worse, inverts it? Why do experienced political journalists so often peer into the heart of whatever they think of as “real America” and come away with the sense that real America is clamoring for entitlement reform and new trade deals?

At a trivial level, the third-party obsession is little different than any other form of collective projection undertaken by people with a worldview. What makes it unique is that the worldview’s adherents, though steeped in politics, somehow imagine that resolving American ideological conflict would be easy if only the right person or small group of people stepped forward. Students of American ideological history, as well as committed conservatives and liberals, understand how facile this proposition is. What’s missing is a convincing hypothesis that explains why these otherwise-fluent experts gravitate to such silly nostrums. Their naiveté points to a corollary familiar to media critics of all persuasions: that the journalistic wisemen who yearn quadrennially for a third-party disrupter have thrived in a profession that considers indifference to the substantive underpinnings of partisan politics to be a virtue, not a vice.

The most recent variation on the theme, which ran in The Wall Street Journal one week ago, resembles its antecedents in many ways. Written by former Politico CEO Jim Vandehei, the article was widely criticized on the political internet, and for many reasons: Vandehei described two overwhelmingly white, rural towns as “Normal America,” when America is an ethnically diverse, urban, and suburban country that also happens to have a lot of empty and sparsely populated land in it. His forays into these outposts left him with a reasonable sense that both Trump and Sanders were on to something—“The best and perhaps only way to disrupt the establishment is by stealing a lot of Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s tricks.” But he also concluded that we should dismiss their popular appeals out of hand—“Trump’s vulgar approach to politics is a terrific middle finger to the establishment but a terrible political and governing paradigm. Same goes for Sanders-style socialism.”

What ails our political system can be cured, according to Vandehei, with a familiar mixture of rogue militarism, austerity, and genuflection to tech and finance titans. “Why not recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to head a third-party ‘Innovation’ movement? Maybe we can convince Michael Bloomberg to help fund the movement with the billions he planned to spend on his own campaign—and then recruit him to run Treasury and advise the president.”

These ideas don’t just lie outside the overlap of a Trump-Sanders Venn diagram, but outside the Trump and Sanders sets entirely. Trump and Sanders have arguably gained large constituencies in part by rejecting precisely this kind of thinking, and for embracing American political and ideological traditions that long predate modern political conflict.

Vandehei should know something about those traditions—New Deal social liberalism, white nativism, Lindberghian isolationism, along with newly embattled movement conservative fusionism. By his own account, he “spent the past two decades … covering politics and building a company, Politico, focused solely on politics.”

If you were familiar with American ideological currents in 2008, the polarization and partisan rancor of the Obama years came as at most a small surprise. Democrats and Republicans had sorted into liberal and conservative parties, the former of which had been handed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the social contracts of the New Deal and Great Society, the latter of which was committed to retrenching the liberal gains that took root in those eras. To the extent that Republicans alienated their own voters over the past decade by serving donor interests over those of their increasingly working class base, they weren’t inviting a schism so much as they were risking the possibility that dormant factions of the American right would arise and pull the party in a different direction. And, of course, if the Republican Party does fully crack up, the result won’t be a “third way” party, but two distinct parties of the white-bread American right.

Nevertheless, many, many established journalists have interpreted the vitriol both within the GOP and between the two parties as a harbinger of a third-party rebellion, specifically one that bears striking resemblance to Vandehei’s vision.

There are many things in the political waters of Washington, D.C. and New York that promote this kind of thinking. Affluence (with an attendant interest in fiscal consolidation) and cosmopolitanism (with its socially liberal cultural values) are two obvious sources. But the professional mores of political journalism seem to be a significant contributor as well.

There is a strong industry bias against considering grand ideological context when reporting on partisan dysfunction that is, at its core, an outgrowth of ideological conflict. To take heed of such context invites the risk that value judgments will seep into the journalistic output. It is much more common, for instance, to see President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan described as manifestations of their own carefully crafted political personas (cerebral; wonky) rather than as heirs of distinct political lineages. It isn’t wrong or biased to say Ryan is the latest in a series of conservative political leaders who espouse libertarian economic doctrines that would distribute income up the pay scale; or that Obama, like many liberals, believes that there should be more downward income distribution, and that it should be accomplished through existing economic institutions. Those two descriptions leave little doubt as to why Republicans have resisted Obama’s presidency so aggressively, but they also invite reporters and readers to render judgments and even empirical conclusions that can be dismissed as biased—such as, for another instance, the fact that supply side income tax cuts increase deficits and exacerbate inequality.

Ideological blinders are a key part of the industry’s work attire. They give rise to the fundamental attribution errors that Vandehei and others make when they ascribe political fractiousness entirely to partisan ossification and personal failure, rather than to two parties attempting, however imperfectly, to advance the interests of their supporters (and, yes, donors) in ways that align with their worldviews. It’s also the source of the presumption that their particular species of third-partyism isn’t, in and of itself, ideological, and that it would thus serve a huge unmet need among voters who are tired of gridlock. But this, too, is mistaken.

Almost five years ago, Vandehei and his Politico colleague Mike Allen used the same assumptions as the premise of an online poll. “The public has had it with Washington and conventional politics,” they wrote. “It has lost trust and respect in the conventional governing class. There is mounting evidence voters don’t see President Barack Obama or the current crop of GOP candidates as the clear and easy solution. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg argues, it seems likely if not inevitable an atmosphere this toxic and destabilized will produce an independent presidential candidate who could shake the political system.” They asked “readers on Politico, Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as viewers of MSNBC’s Morning Joe,” to nominate people “in politics, business, or entertainment who could harness the public’s hunger for something new, different, and inspiring,” and then to vote on them.

The sample bias was amusingly intentional, designed to ferret out an archetypal No Labels-style “Innovation Party” politician, untethered to predictable partisan shibboleths. Hillary Clinton won.