I have been following the debate on the Adirondack Almanack, NCPR’s web site and various commenters on both sites over the question of whether political reporters do their job these days and specifically whether the media should cover the Green Party and their presidential candidate Jill Stein.
Pardon me for saying so, but this debate exhibits two characteristics that all too often define our contemporary political discourse. One is an appalling lack of understanding of the American political system. The other is the dull, lowbrow, American celebration of winners and size: “Bigger is better…” …”Winning is the only thing…”, etc. Heaven help us.
The position published in the Almanack on this debate may be fairly described as activist: that’s how I see it. I don’t agree with all of it by any means. But I find the response, written from the perspective of a professional journalist, troubling.
A point was made in the NCPR article about the challenge and importance of deciding what is or is not newsworthy. This point would be well taken – certainly there are difficult choices to make about what to cover – if the argument wasn’t so terribly off target in his case. Here’s why it’s wrong: first, the American political system has never been about simple majorities winning, and second, what is historically important and newsworthy about third parties is not the candidates themselves but the parties, the people they represent, their ideas and their grass-roots power.
The commenters who continually dismiss the Green Party because they can’t win need to reread their de Tocqueville. The American political system is not a democracy, ladies and gentlemen. It is a representative republic, carefully crafted to magnify minority strength, to force the powers that be to deal with alternative views and challenges to authority. We often hear, usually from the right, the tired canard that “activist” judges are subverting the will of the people. These critics had better take down their portraits of the founding fathers because judicial challenges to majority power are exactly what those men intended. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.
In our political system minority views, even more obscure views that oh-so-easily get dismissed as “fringe” have operative power every single day, at every level of government. $200,000 for a study of grain elevators that support breeding populations of endangered swallows in Iowa (to make up an example) may not strike anyone as a mainstream agenda item for our Congress and would not stand a chance of winning a straight-up vote, but stuff like that sails through every day, added to bills as riders. Why? Because minority factions – even those as little as one congressperson with a small constituency – have tremendous clout. They’re designed to. That makes them eminently newsworthy depending upon the issue.
Our founding fathers were pretty smart people. They anticipated that the divide between majority public opinion and what is best for the nation, or even what is moral and just, would often be a chasm. The abolitionist movement was a “fringe” movement. So was the struggle for a five day work week. So was the fight for right-to-know ordinances. So was the activism of immigrant farm workers. So was the civil rights movement. Every one of those movements changed the nation.
All of this is true in political races as well. Third party candidates with no chance of winning have significant impacts all the time, pulling “mainstream” candidates to the right or left, bringing critical issues to the forefront and even influencing outcomes.
In other words, what is newsworthy and what ought to be newsworthy, even in a campaign where someone wins, needs to be decoupled from poll percentages or Twitter hits.
The power of third parties is about the movements themselves much more than the leaders. Leaders can win or lose… or be arrested. But the ideas matter, they have force. We like to laud our heroes and demonize our villains in America. But Martin Luther King would say – and did say – that the civil rights movement wasn’t about him, that it would carry forward as an inexorable force without him. And it did. Quite frankly whether Jill Stein can win or not is entirely irrelevant to the importance of her story in this campaign. Yet we, a nation busy watching football right now, score her a loser, and political reporters and others go right along with it. That kind of dismissive attitude is ignorant.
Do you think I‘m wrong? Look at the Tea Party, whose recent influence is unquestionable. Who is their leader? Who is their presidential candidate?
I suppose a reporter might say that the Tea Party is worth covering because they are not a “fringe” group – they are making a major impact and the Greens make almost none. Personally I find it incredibly discomforting to think that a reporter should be deciding what is or is not “fringe.” Boy oh boy, how many times in our history has the dismissal of “fringe” groups been a mistake? Isn’t it a better standard to try to make some qualitative judgments about the importance of what is being said and done?
On that score the Green Party – a worldwide phenomenon with millions of supporters, by the way – rates pretty well, unless one dismisses the critical importance of the modern environmental movement. Most of that was the very essence of “fringe.” With the exception of Gaylord Nelson most of the environmental evolution in this country was fomented by losers, by people who never held office: people who were defeated by Democrats and Republicans alike or who never ran at all. Yet “green” is a pervasive term in our corporate and commercial lexicon, recycling is a multi-billion-dollar industry and incandescent light bulbs are more scarce than victories by my Cleveland Browns. The Green Party is a central part of that environmental legacy.
Here’s an up-to-the-moment example of what I‘m talking about. Climate change is arguably the most important issue of our time. The fact that idiot deniers have the upper hand right now is heartbreaking, but it won’t last. Any decent reporter knows that climate change is critically important, maybe more important than anything else, if not as immediate. The Democrats and Republicans are silent on it in our Presidential campaign, this for the sake of winning an election. The Greens, a movement that has helped to change our entire approach to the environment, are the only ones talking about it in this election season.
Dismissing coverage of Jill Stein because her resume is unimpressive or because she can’t become president, when she represents one of the most important viewpoints of modern times and is backed by millions of people who agree with her on this issue, strikes me as profoundly indefensible.
Finally, coverage of third parties and “fringe” movements, especially those related to environment, ought to register as especially important to the Adirondack region, therefore making this particular debate more even more relevant. The Adirondack experiment is hardly mainstream. But it’s newsworthy.
Photo: another fringe group on the march. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons