In the grand cosmology of American liberalism there are, I contend, basically two ways of understanding politics. There is a minority view, typically held by leftists and thus considered disreputable, which holds that politics is a substantive contest of values and power and that any understanding of political dynamics has to be rooted in this basic fact. There is a second view which understands politics primarily as a kind of theatrical performance enacted for the benefit of a perspicacious few against the backdrop of “real life,” which is to say, whatever events take place outside of the notice of a narrow circle of hyperengaged media consumers. Unsurprisingly, that second view tends to predominate in political punditry (or what’s left of it) since the population of pundits is composed of exactly such consumers and producers.
If politics is theater then political punditry is just theater criticism. And since the audience for politics is just other people in and adjacent to politics, it follows that this is also the audience for punditry. Thus, we have a sealed, self-contained system, a take ouroboros consuming and excreting cycles of commentary. Consequently what matters in this ecosystem is not engaging with the substance of any particular position, but rather signaling to other theater critics that you understand it’s all a game, thereby elevating yourself one meta-level higher than the peasants and indicating to everyone that you are, indeed, Very Clever.
A case in point:
Yglesias’ tweet (like his entire career) perfectly encapsulates this attitude. Why, exactly, would you even start off by asking whether this proposal is offered “in good faith?” Whether you agree with it or not, it’s clearly intended in good faith, unless for some reason you think that the NYT Guild is trolling people. Of course, it’s a rhetorical flourish intended to signal to its target audience (the savvy and very clever politics knowers) that the demand is so facially absurd that no one could possibly mean it in earnest, and therefore there must be some sort of ulterior motive underlying the tweet.
But even after he magnanimously grants the assumption of good faith, Yglesias still can’t help but veer into theater criticism. What matters to him is not whether the NYT Guild is making a substantive claim about justice or equity, but rather that it has committed the grave sin of misunderstanding the Times audience and failing to make the appropriate meta-maneuver which, to be fair, would not accomplish its goal but would certainly make it look quite smart. One would think that given the straightforward nature of the quoted tweet, you could agree or disagree with it, but you could at least do the Guild the courtesy of taking their position at face value. But taking substantive political claims at face value is for rubes; the real heads know that all political discourse is just a signal to someone else in the same game that you know what the game is about. Judged by that criteria, the Guild comes off as a bunch of buffoonish simpletons because they did the worst thing you can do, which is to fail to play the meta-game of media self-regard appropriately. In the old days, we asked ourselves whether it would play in Peoria, but these days no one gives a fuck about Peoria and the only question that matters is “will it play in the mostly white and upper-class political media analysis bubble?”
This is the latter-day cult of the clever in full bloom. It’s the exact same mentality that gives us endless horse-race bullshit on cable news. It’s a faux sophistication that prizes the knowledge of a certain social milieu above substantive debate, and looks on anyone who earnestly engages with such questions as something akin to a country bumpkin. It’s the kind of politics you develop when you spend your life insulated from the downstream effects of political decisions while your elders pat you on the head and tell you how smart you are. It’s an insult to the Cynics to call this cynicism; what it is is pure, unadulterated smarm, and it fucking sucks.