The Smokescreen

Steve Benen asks the question that’s occurred to every progressive over the years — what if liberal politicians lied and smeared as shamelessly as conservative ones do? Or, to put it another way, why don’t liberal politicians lie and smear that shamelessly. There are a lot of answers to that question, but one thing worth observing is that the process of turning politics into a senseless screaming match about bullshit is not an ideologically neutral development.

The default state of things in the world is for the levers of state to be dominated by the people who already possess social and economic power in order to protect and expand their sphere of privilege. The contention of progressive political reform is that it’s possible to organize, educate, and mobilize sufficient quantities of people to overcome the power of the few and instead implement policies that benefit the many. Clearly, a well-timed or well-placed smear or deception can serve those ends effectively. But a politics that’s dominated by bullshit and bullshit artists is, ultimately, not going to be conducive to progressive ends even if some folks with progressive instincts get really really good at flinging the BS.


Which is to say that of course effective progressive political leaders need to be — and, historically, have been — good at “playing the game” but they’ve also been good at cutting through the smokescreen and refocusing attention. That’s how Bill Clinton managed to survive and even thrive during impeachment. But though I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, the quality of the media ecosphere has actually gotten radically worse in the interim, such that prominent media figures now openly brag about how uninterested they are informing the public and how exciting they find it to wield arbitrary power in capricious and senseless ways. Which, I suppose, is to be expected. On an optimistic view, there’s be a pendulum that swings back from “terrible” to “good.” But more likely it’s a cycle — only a sociopath would look at campaign reporting as done from 1998–2002 and say to themselves “that’s a line of work I’d like to get into!” And so you get what we have.