The Death Of Late 20th Century Politics?

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This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

It is worth pondering for a moment what the prospect of a presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain would say about the United States of America. I believe it would say something very nice.

Think about a McCain-Obama race, if you can, while trying to suspend your own current inclinations on the race, the parties, the candidates and the issues du jour. I know, that sounds impossible and ridiculous, but it is a worthwhile exercise.

Obama and McCain engage in MSP: mainstream politics. They procure public attention primarily through MSM: mainstream media. The definition of MSM also includes marketing, not just what MSP-ists call "free media" - news.

Public officials and aspirants who do not engage in MSP are almost never legitimized by MSM. And so they do not acquire political power.

I would argue that McCain and Obama are both rebelling against MSP to the degree possible that allows them to still be "credible" in the worlds of MSP and MSM as they now exist. I would further argue that many voters, especially independent voters, recognize these efforts. That recognition is powering the success of these two underdog campaigns, along with other factors, of course.

I am not arguing the following:

  • That McCain and Obama will be the nominees. I think Hillary is still the strong frontrunner.
  • That McCain and Obama are media innocents who do not know how to use MSM manipulatively. They both do.
  • That McCain and Obama are "above" politics or haughty about politics. They are, as I said, MSP-ists who are simply trying to practice different styles of campaigning and public rhetoric. They are not pretending to be purists or saints.
  • That the voters want "change" and McCain and Obama are the "change" guys. This is just a journalists' slogan.

    What voters want is complex; it includes wanting a candidate who is not George W. Bush, who has character, who speaks the English language well and who isn't a Stepford Candidate. Beyond that, they're all over the map.

    What many voters - especially independent and independent-minded voters - do not want is more late-20th century MSP.

    That is a style of politics marked by two factors: the triumph of marketing and the strategy of intentional polarization. Marketing became more important than conquering the party machine, developing clout in a legislature or being a representative of real community. Securing the support of your party's most motivated - but partisan - wing, and dividing the opposition's coalitions, became more important than running for the middle, which is what old-time politicians did.

    McCain and Obama are both, in different ways, trying to obtain real power without succumbing completely to MSP. Others have tried before them, but perhaps the times and their temperaments are more well-suited than their predecessors. Perhaps.

    This is a tricky path to power that poses political and ethical paradoxes and problems.

    For example, Obama condemns negative politics and hyper-partisanship, but when he defends himself from attacks, he looks, and may in fact be, negative and partisan. Similarly, John McCain has railed against the American mechanism for funding campaigns for decades, yet he raises campaign funds.

    McCain has picked fights with some leaders of the Religious Right who he found hubristic and wrong-headed, but has sought the support of voters who are conservative and religious. Obama hasn't courted self-appointed black and civil rights leaders in the traditional fashion, but wants votes from African-Americans.

    Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney are classic late 20th century practitioners of MSP. Romney does not lead or represent citizens, he commits marketing on them. Clinton is a pure partisan, a creature of interest group politicians and a tactician.

    Late 20th century MSP has crippled government. I doubt that the effectiveness and legitimacy of government will improve much until MSP withers further.

    If the 2008 presidential campaign is between Obama and McCain, it will be a sign that the withering has begun for real - that's a big "if". But it would say something nice about the country.

    E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
    By Dick Meyer