In a November 2003 Believer magazine interview, late author David Foster Wallace (who once profiled John McCain’s 2000 Republican primary campaign for Rolling Stone) was asked his opinion was on the state of U.S. political writing around the turn of the century.
“As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked,” he said to interviewer Dave Eggers, before anxiously clarifying his point. “Ninety-five percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about… Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying.“
A disheartening analysis, sure, but sadly not incorrect. If you’re anything like me, you find American political writing to be one of the most frustratingly oblique genres, perhaps second only to instruction manuals translated directly from Cantonese without a single proofread.
In this age of infinite coverage, light speed updates, and a revolving door of iron-fisted Spin from all across the ideological spectrum, it takes immense effort to simply keep our heads attached properly. And when this frenzied genre gets its hands on something as wild as a presidential election, the divide between truth and fiction is nearly always lost inside the mayhem.
But in spite of all the ambiguity, I hope that we can at least get one thing factually straightened out. Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is not running a sexist campaign. Recent allegations to the contrary are simply incorrect and libelous, but not surprising when put into context with how the DNC and major media outlets have been carefully spinning the narrative of his campaign for the past eight months.
The necessary (and radically abridged) background:
Sanders announced his candidacy for President of the United States late last April. Though he’d been serving an Independent in Congress for 36 years, he announced that he would be running as a Democrat, thus challenging then-party favorite Hillary Clinton. Not one to waste its energy, the Democratic Spin Machine was at first relatively calm.
An old temperamental Socialist Jew from Brooklyn? scoffed the Spin meisters as they leaned back in cushioned chairs, wagging their heads and making finger pyramids atop bloated cashmere tummies. Who gives a shit?
However, as spring became summer, and Sanders began attracting crowds into the tens of thousands at his rallies all across the country, we started to see (not surprisingly) the Democratic establishment start to spin the narrative wheel back into its favor. Don’t believe in the dizzying power of bullshit journalism? Well then let’s walk through how exactly the Democratic Spin Machine drafted its anti-Sanders agenda through three separate – and equally unfounded – theses.
Spin Strategy #1: Bernie Sanders is Unelectable.
The first argument was the old school political favorite: “There is no way he can beat Clinton.” At first, this seemed possibly true (which is why Spin latched onto this argument first). Sanders accepts zero super-PAC money. He is a Democratic Socialist. He doesn’t kiss babies.
The entire Democratic establishment was and is already behind Clinton, an institution that includes most of the country’s major newspapers. The New York Times had a field day all summer with its tongue-in-cheek reporting on his campaign, calling him “sweepingly macro, if not entirely Marxist,” labeling his then-10 point lead in New Hampshire “narrow” and attributing his surging success in the polls solely to Hillary Clinton’s infamous email scandal. The Post published a story in August, 2015 with the actual title That New Hampshire poll showing Sanders close to Clinton is actually good for Clinton.
But despite all of the effort pushing that false message, nothing was working. Sanders was drawing monster crowds to his rallies (including a sold out 20,000+ speech in Boston, which I attended), and consistently narrowing the poll gap between him and Clinton. It was time for the Spin meisters to dial the speed up a few clicks and coalesce around their next work of fiction.
Spin Strategy #2: Bernie Sanders’ Message is Unrealistic.
By late 2015 into early 2016, when Sanders was polling alongside Clinton in states where he once trailed by 80 points, we stopped seeing stories about his unelectability. Somehow overnight the attack buzzword became “unrealistic.” Certainly a close step-cousin to “unelectable,” but if you look closely you will see find some important nuanced differences in the blueprint of Spin design.
On January 27, after it was reported that Bernie held a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, the Washington Post’s Editorial Board published a scrambling and incomprehensible article titled Bernie Sanders’s fiction-filled campaign, in which, in lieu of denying the Senator’s electability, the Post chose instead to highlight the fairyland-ness of his political dreams. Nine days prior, in a Post story called How Bernie Sanders’s ‘political revolution’ would change the nation, David Farenthold pointed out that, “Even if Sanders does win the White House, almost all of his big ideas are likely to be dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled Congress.” The story was a near literal repeat of his Oct. 2015 piece, How Bernie Sanders would transform the nation.
Now, I know what you are probably thinking. Why do you immediately assume that the Washington Post and the New York Times et al have it unfairly out for Sanders? What if their coverage isn’t biased and is just objectively correct? That is a valid counter-argument, but it falls to pieces when you take a look at how these media outlets are trying to write the political narrative themselves. Each time their attempts to re-define the reality of Sanders’ campaign are disproven, they jump to the next seemingly coherent argument. That is not journalism, it is instead a chickenshit attempt to sandbag the most successful and authentic grassroots political campaign in American history in order to maintain the status quo within the Democratic Party.
Which brings us to the third and most recent work of fictional Spin magic that the DNC has ginned up against Bernie Sanders – sexism.
Spin Strategy #3: Bernie Sanders’ Campaign is Sexist.
“Bernie Sanders is running a misogynistic campaign, and his supporters are sexist.” This one is the Hillary Clinton campaign’s ace of spades. It is the secret weapon against Sanders that they’ve been holding on to for the entire hand, slowplaying it as long as they could. But after the virtual and ethically questionable tie in the Iowa caucus, it was clear that both the “unelectable” and “unrealistic” narratives had proven useless. The voters were calling the bluff, and it finally became time to bet heavy and hope we would back down.
Yesterday, in an effort to both distract from the Sanders campaign’s unique appeal to the middle class and patronize an entire generation of voters, the Washington Post ran an article called The sexist double standard behind why millennials love Bernie Sanders. Writer Catherine Rampell – after she was done grocery-listing all of the hip female celebrity endorsements Clinton has received – went on to explain the real reason that young people support Sanders. And no, she didn’t talk about the fact that our student loan interest rates are through the roof while the economic elite on Wall Street are receiving tax breaks. No, she somehow forgot to mention how Sanders’ authentic political message is unbeholden to massive campaign donor interests. Never a word on Sanders’ lifelong commitment to women’s healthcare rights and eliminating the wage gap. Rampell conveniently omitted how much of Clinton’s campaign is funded by the same banks whose sloppy greed in the early-mid 2000s directly resulted in the 2008 market collapse that forced thousands from their homes and jobs, erased decades worth of hard earned retirement, and nearly wiped clean the college savings accounts for the children of many middle-class families, including my own.
Nope. None of that. Instead, Rampell side-stepped all of it in favor of reducing Sanders’ appeal to the simple fact that he has a penis. That dimwitted analysis is not only grossly false, but insulting to both his campaign and the millions of Americans who support it.
Let’s talk about some actual sexism for a moment. A few days ago, while on the panel of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, Gloria Steinem had the audacity to claim that young women support Bernie Sanders simply because they want attention from boys. “And, when you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys?” Said Steinem to a stunned Maher. “The boys are with Bernie.”
Much like Rampell, Steinem simplified the appeal of Sanders to a question of gender. That sort of insulting misogyny is unacceptable in 2016, and very surprising from Steinem, who is a well-respected and reputable figure in the feminist movement. Her words went even further than Rampell’s, essentially labeling all young, politically active women as sex-crazed imbeciles. I find that hard to believe, seeing how female Iowan voters under 29 supported Sanders over Clinton at a rate of 6:1.
To be called a sexist for supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton is outrageous and frustrating, and Steinem/Rampell are not alone in that sort of rhetoric. In October, the Atlantic ran a story called Here Comes the Berniebro, which snidely pigeonholed all Sanders supporters who happen to be male as sexist, ignorant, and privileged. The last part was particularly frustrating for me (see the aforementioned comment re: my college savings account). Clearly the Spin Machine is getting desperate.
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine, just imagine the cultural backlash if a major U.S. media company or celebrity claimed that women who are voting for Hillary Clinton are doing so out of ignorance and naivete. That person’s or newspaper’s head would be served up on a platter in minutes, and rightfully so.
Now, I certainly disagree that the above thought experiment is even remotely true when it comes to women who support Hillary. I label myself as a feminist (as anybody who loves their mother should), and I have incredibly smart, well-read, and un-naive male and female friends who avidly support her. The fact is, Hillary Clinton is a feminist icon, and a symbol of national pride with regards to how far America (not a century removed from an era in which women couldn’t even vote) has come. But to desperately simplify the very, very competitive and serious Democratic candidacy race as a Man versus Woman thing – and by extension to categorize Bernie supporters as misogynist – is reductive, divisive, and, most importantly, blatantly untrue.
So far, the Spin Machine has failed to make a dent in the genuine support and passion behind Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and we’ll see if he can withstand this latest dizzying barrage of inflammatory nonsense. For the sake of both politics and the (admittedly questionable) integrity of American journalism going forward, I sincerely hope that he can.
You can read my other NUPR columns here if you want. Also, if you’d like to subject yourself to future bullshit about whatever’s going on, you can follow me on Twitter @ArenLeBrun (I do not recommend it).