One benefit of elections is that every few years there’s a clear out of politicians and their staffs. It doesn’t matter whether they are Republican or Democrat, the regular electoral purge keeps the process from rotting too much on both sides of the aisle. Even those who start out with the purest principles and motives can stay too long and end up being infected with the corrupting power of power.
But there’s one class of people in the political process who never seem to get cleared out; the pundits and opinionators. No matter how long they stay, how corrupt they grow, how out of touch they become, how wrong they are, the electoral brush never sweeps them out the stable. But, if anything’s clear from the past year, large tracts of the commentariat are past their smell-by date. Multitudes of them have utterly failed in their duty to the public and yet none of them will lose their jobs.
I’m not speaking of ordinary journalists and reporters here — although it’s increasingly hard to separate them from the pundits these days. I’m referring to the talking heads, the op-ed columnists, the “experts.” The majority of them have failed dismally in their basic duties to us for a long time, but especially in the past year A.D. (After Donald).
Think about their basic responsibilities. They are paid to identify important events and trends in public opinion and interpret them. They are paid to invite, interact with, inform, and influence public opinion. How few have done this well in the past twelve months, or even the past ten years or so. Isolated from ordinary Americans and their everyday struggles, their world and their minds have shrunk to the tiny artificial world of their home offices and their regular commute to the TV studios in New York and Washington.
The only part of their job description they’ve worked at is “influence public opinion,” but even that has been ineffective because they are not doing the much harder work of getting out of their electronic bunkers and meeting public opinion in the flesh. As a result, they’ve failed to identify important events and trends, they’ve failed to interpret them, they’ve failed to interact with public opinion, and they’ve failed to accurately inform public opinion. That’s why their attempts to influence public opinion have so dismally failed.
They’ve laughed at Donald Trump. They’ve dismissed Donald Trump. They’ve lambasted Donald Trump. They’ve enjoyed 65,000 negative ads against Donald Trump. They’ve assured us of his demise and defeat. And now Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, having steamrolled over sixteen GOP candidates in four short months of primaries.
“How come no one listened to us?” they protest. Because you’re not living their lives and you’re not listening to their opinions.
Isolated and Insulated
I remember an amazing journalist I used to know quite well. He was an incredibly gifted writer who had won a number of awards early in his career. He used to be required reading. But he moved to an extremely isolated part of the country in order to get away from the distractions of city living and write more. However, although his words multiplied, his influence diminished. His writing lost touch with reality; it lacked authenticity; his commentary was like someone trying to understand the world through postcards. His columns were still interesting and even entertaining; but they were not influential. Cut off from the influence of public opinion, he had cut off his influence upon public opinion.
Though most of our punditocracy live in and around the bustling metropolises of Washington and New York, they are no less isolated and insulated from the ordinary daily lives of ordinary Americans. What they say and write is still interesting, and sometimes entertaining, but they’ve lost their power to influence because they’ve lost contact with reality. Their columns and opinions feel out of touch, artificial, unreal.
For years they’ve ignored mighty economic, social, moral, cultural, and spiritual events and trends impacting tens of millions of Americans. They’ve failed to interpret these events and trends. They’ve failed to identify massive shifts in public opinion. They’ve failed to invite and interact with public opinion. And they wonder why their golden words aren’t valued any more! If you don’t know what’s happening, how can you hope to tell us why it’s happening, or how to change it.
The Trump Train
I was watching CNN on Tuesday night when Donald Trump knocked out the last two men standing. The studio was subdued. The chattering class were still chattering but they were clearly flummoxed and discombobulated. The Donald Trump train had just rampaged through their universe leaving their prestigious opinions in a tangled mess. Alternating between holding their heads in their hands and wringing their hands, they wondered, “How did we not see this coming?”
You only need to spend regular time in McDonalds (not Starbucks, pastors!) to understand why this train has so many passengers on it. Look at the people serving there — and eating there. Listen to the conversations. Look at their faces and their postures. Instead of insulting them, listen to their stories. Or drive an hour from most major cities and take a look and listen around.
Too Little, Too Late
Now a few professional pundits, like David Brooks at the New York Times, admit they need to get out more and actually talk to at least some of the Americans that don’t inhabit news rooms and TV studios most of their lives. But it’s too late. We need a clear out. We need new blood and new brains. In no other profession would so many people make so many serious mistakes and suffer no serious consequences.
Pundits and commentators serve a useful public purpose in the democratic process. We need them to help us make sense of our world and our lives. However, they cannot do that unless they are living in our world and living our lives. We need intelligent commentators. But we also need real-life people, people who are a fair representation of the population in age, class, color, religion, background, region, education, etc. Otherwise we just end up with the current complacent and dangerous groupspeak and Donald Trump one step from the presidency. Or worse.
Pundits, do the honorable thing. Resign and relocate as a public service, as your contribution to homeland security. Live among us for ten years and you may be qualified for your posts again. You need to be influenced by us, if you are ever going to influence us. You cannot move public opinion unless you are moved by public opinion.