You could almost hear the great sigh of relief heaving across cable TV’s green rooms and the news-curating portals of our media nation: sure, the Republican side of Campaign ’16 continues to resemble a dumpster fire on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, but the Democrats, bless their managerial hearts, had begun to show signs of what passes in these circles for political maturity. After a distressing series of primary contests falling to Bernie Sanders, the wild-eyed socialist insurgent, New York state—the very seat of media power—has heroically elevated the most experienced, the best-connected, the savviest, most lavishly moneyed Democratic aspirant to the presidency, one Hillary Rodham Clinton. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?
John McCain joked in advance of the 2008 election about the political press being his “base”—and the line was funny because it was true. But this cycle, events conspired to have Hillary Clinton’s candidacy serve as the press’s talismanic Linus blanket—a totem that has come to symbolize all the chin-stroking virtues that our political press most ardently covets: the crisp and efficient reward of meritocratic endeavor; the triumph of insider strategizing and deal-making; and, most of all, the centrality of their very own profession in the serious business of duly credentialed presidential campaigning.
All these themes were on fulsome display in press accounts weeks ahead of Clinton’s big night of vindication. To kick things off, there was an interview that Sanders gave to the editorial board of the New York Daily News indicating that he was fuzzy on the specifics of his plan to break up the too-big-to-fail financial cartel. Never mind that the Clinton-endorsing New York Times looked over the exchange and determined that Sanders had given an entirely credible account of how the downsizing of Wall Street would proceed on his presidential watch. No, the word had gone forth in the punditsphere that the spittle-flecked socialist just wasn’t all that policy-wise, and so came the pile-on with gusto. There were folksy listicles: “9 things Bernie Sanders should’ve known about but didn’t in that Daily News interview” went one typically smug refrain from Washington Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart. And, ingeniously self-elevating piffle: “Sanders feeling media heat after new interview,” one dispatch from soulless CNN hack Dylan Byers professed to announce, as it applied such heat with a full battery of weasely locutions such as this breathless pronouncement: “For some political observers, the [sic] Sanders’ difficulty in providing direct answers to some questions reinforced their belief that he lacks a concrete plan to implement his domestic agenda and is ill-prepared to handle the global challenges he would face as president.” Then, in a perfect ritual summoning of the Great Social Media Ouroboros, Byers cited as Exhibit A this tweet from the infinitely-more-soulless Bloomberg hack Mark Halperin: “if Hillary gave answers like this to an ed board, she would be crucified.” Never mind that Mark Halperin qualifies as an impartial “political observer” in exactly the same way that, say, Al Capone is qualified as a reliable accountant. No, the Beltway punditocracy had its consensus nicely humming, and would proceed to joyously reference its own credential-discerning genius over the next several news cycles.
And that, in turn, would launch the next phase of this meritocratic opéra bouffe: The Sanders campaign was provoked by Clinton’s appropriation of this pundit talking point on (where else?) “Morning Joe,” where she gleefully suggested that the doddering, detail-challenged revolutionary lacked the policy chops to bark out commands in the Oval Office. Sanders then answered in kind, suggesting that a bought-and-sold mouthpiece of Wall Street and the foreign policy establishment such as Clinton was not ideally cut out to do the people’s business, and presto: a new blizzard of headlines announcing that this policy lummox from Vermont had the temerity to suggest that Hillary Clinton—of all people!—wasn’t qualified for the nation’s highest office.
Mark Halperin is an impartial “political observer” in exactly the same way that Al Capone is qualified as a reliable accountant.
The rapt attention to this insipid campaign feuding was more than another instance of let’s-you-and-him-fight campaign coverage. One of the signal frustrations for our pundit class, after all, has been the countless ways in which Donald Trump’s insurgent run at the GOP nomination has defied their airy declamations about the fundamental unseriousness and ephemeral appeal of the Trump candidacy. Trump has been not just a long and painful ideological rebuke to the Republican political establishment; he’s been a crassly confrontational affront to the punditocracy’s civil religion of meritocracy. So once the leading lights of our commentariat were at last granted the opportunity to stage a bona fide battle royale about commander-in-chief credentialism on the Democratic side of the aisle, they were going to brandish their own gate-keeping claims like a coat of arms at Agincourt.
There’s a crippling irony at the heart of all this: The term “meritocracy” was actually coined by a card-carrying British socialist, Michael Young, to lambaste the rise of a degree-laden knowledge class at the expense of a disenfranchised working class in a dystopian future. Meritocracy was never intended to characterize the placid upward ascent of striving achievers via impartially administered intelligence tests and elite advanced degrees—or the vacuous posturing over who is or isn’t qualified for maximum presidential leadership—that our political press finds so endlessly delectable. No, as Young made clear, the rise of the meritocracy was but the prelude to a violent and cataclysmic uprising of the meritocrats’ dismally exploited servant class.
In other words, the leading lights of the American punditocracy, by doing their meritocratic best to dispel the last vestiges of a socialist uprising in the party of the meritocratic power elite, have unwittingly re-enacted the plot of Young’s satirical dystopian prophecy, The Rise of the Meritocracy. And the most grimly fitting irony of all is that they’re completely unaware that they’ve done so. All that’s really left to do now, of course, is to order up the inevitable postmortems on the misguided Sanders insurgency—and as they start to trickle in, our energetic media reporters are likewise blissfully unaware that they are writing this sad tale as a series of mismanaged media opportunities on the part of Team Sanders. It is, after all, the telltale sign of a successful epistemic ideological closure that its champions can expand its reach unburdened by any residual awareness that they’re propagating it.