From the Judges Chambers

Politics as cliché

By William C. Whitbeck
One of the difficult things about writing is that, with the dumbing down of our culture, we conduct much of our public discourse through the handy vehicle of clichés. Red Smith said that, “Writing is easy. You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” But currently, when a writer sets fingers to keyboard, what is likely to flow out is not the thick, rich blood of human experience but the thin gruel of clichés, the bumper sticker language that frequently substitutes for thought. 

Nowhere is this truer than in writing about—or, more broadly, reporting on—politics. Increasingly, those who report upon politics see it simply as a game, a contest, a Darwinian world in which on the final day there are only winners and losers, and nothing more. Thus, on the cable news channels in particular, political “analysis” is almost exclusively about competing forces: Republicans versus Democrats, red versus blue, liberal versus conservative, business versus labor. What we see on cable TV is a Manichean contest, two conflicting forces struggling mightily, with us as passive onlookers.

When viewed in this light, several aspects of the whole spectacle become evident. First, although conflict has always been an important element of the news, seeing politics as dualism means that conflict becomes the central focus, indeed often the only focus. And it is simpler that way. Why dwell on the nuance of policy when you have the heavyweights in the ring, slugging it out, round by round? Thus, “the debates” have become the most important events in political campaigns. Never mind that the viewers tend to nod off after enduring the candidates’ canned responses to the panelists’ predictable questions. It is the conflict in the arena that counts, and the more of it the better.

Secondly, if politics is sport, then political reporting becomes simply sports reporting under another name. Thus, candidates are always “pulling ahead” or “falling behind,” as if the whole thing is a footrace. And Democrats continue “fighting” for the little guy while Republicans “hold firm” against the onslaught of big government and higher taxes, as if we are watching Michigan’s high-flying offense take on Ohio State’s stingy defense, to throw in some football-related (and over-used) phrases. Is it any wonder that Keith Olberman, MSNBC’s premier ranthead, started as a sports reporter?

And the examples illustrate my final point. Almost inevitably, reporting politics as sport degenerates into a limited number of variations on a series of clichés. If there are only two sides on the field, then how many ways are there to describe the resulting contest? It may be great theater, but it produces lousy narrative and almost no dialogue. And so the stale phrases, the overworked references, the meaningless slogans pile up until, literally, what is left on election day is mainly a mountain of nonsense.

So what, you might say. Let the politicians fight it out and let the news folks report it, blow by virtual blow and cliché by stilted cliché. Except that, on the day after the election, the sports metaphors no longer hold. Governing is not a game and the repetition of talking points will not substitute for substance. There is no false dualism; from the beginning, the issues come at the newly elected official from all sides and they are like spinning, reflecting, hard-edged crystals, with dozens of facets. If there is a contest, it is often about what you can do versus what you cannot do.

And, like it or not, it is deadly serious stuff, affecting real people and real lives. When the chill winds of reality begin to blow, the clichés are cold, cold comfort. Think about that when you see a TV reporter doing tricks with one of those dandy maps, all conveniently daubed in red and blue and representing an unreal universe. Shakespeare said it and he couldn’t write a cliché if he tried: it is an idiot’s tale, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

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