Perils of Presidential Parallels

Robert Schmuhl writes about how he tries to engage the public with nonpartisan analysis based on scholarship -- and manages to offend all sides.

October 18, 2010

My cyber-savvy son recently e-mailed a message board entry he’d spotted on Google, titled “Stupid UnAmerican Writers Like Robert Schmuhl,” along with a tender, filial sentiment: “Haha!”

The day before, an essay I’d written was posted on one website before quickly finding its way to several others. Some reprinted the entire article, while others offered selected quotations and pointed reactions focusing on the sanity, seriousness and style of the author.

Maybe it was the question AOL’s Politics Daily posed in its headline introducing the initial internet iteration: “Is Sarah Palin the Next Barack Obama?” Maybe it was the consideration of strange-yet-true similarities between the former governor and the current president? Maybe it was the yoking together of polar opposite political figures who provoke don’t-confront-me-with-the-facts convictions among devout supporters.

Whatever the case, the virility of today’s viral blogosphere robustly flexed its inflamed muscles. More quickly than a garrulous pedagogue can finish answering a student’s query, poison darts — composed in high dudgeon How-Dare-You? rage — started to clutter my inbox and to show up on the net. Defenders of both Palin and Obama attacked their keyboards to deride and denigrate any suggestion of parallels. Some responsorial eruptions matched or exceeded the word count of the original article.

For over three decades of teaching and writing about contemporary American politics, I’ve tried (however vainly) to make sense of the forces, patterns and trends animating our civic life. With Palin scheduled to deliver a major speech in Iowa, the first state in the 2012 presidential nominating process, it struck me that she might be following a path somewhat similar to Obama’s in 2008.

  • Both figures emerged with stunning rapidity on the national scene and possess media magnetism.
  • Both used major speeches at their parties’ national conventions as their national political launching pads.
  • Both produced well-publicized and best-selling books to flesh out their life histories and views.
  • Both have somewhat exotic backgrounds by nature of their upbringings in states distant from the continental U.S.
  • Both arrived at national prominence with limited experience in upper-level governmental service.
  • Both positioned themselves as outsiders as they became more widely known, with a willingness to take on their parties’ establishments and Washington’s traditional ways.
  • Both create intense followings that are connected by using social media.

I could continue — and did — taking note early on of “their continent-spanning differences on issues and ideology.” Though that point was repeated near the end, where I mentioned politicians often face now-or-never moments of decision in their careers, gentle readers seemed inclined to disregard or dismiss the basic, non-partisan facts. Palinites were aggrieved to see any comparisons to their hero, and Obamaniacs felt the same way — but from the opposite perspective.

In retrospect, I probably should have expected the charges of “intellectual laziness” and worse the essay evoked. Back in early 2007, even before Obama announced his presidential candidacy, I had composed a similar confection of comparative analysis that the Chicago Tribune in a Sunday feature headlined “Reagan and Obama: Not So Different?”

Well, as Ronald Reagan began so many sentences, that explanatory effort (again with appropriate flashing warning signs that the two figures were “distinctly different”) proved that in the 21st century the words flog and blog have become synonymous. One cyber spitball sticks in my memory like a wad of discarded gum on a shoe: “Good grief! Barack baby wouldn’t make a pimple on Ronald Reagan’s posterior.”

For someone who refuses to choose political sides (never even voting in races I write or talk about) and who just tries to interpret civic affairs fairly, I suppose the reactions to my acts of describing more than coincidental parallels reflect the partisan, polarized toxicity infecting American political culture today. Even if you assiduously avoid taking a stand, others at high volume will do so for you. A discourse of conflict is de rigueur now.

In classes and articles, I come across as a broken record — a retro expression suggesting advancing age — that the phrase “media bias” is considerably more than a knee-jerk epithet to be tossed around as an all-purpose, back-of-the-hand complaint of journalistic prejudice. The two words joined together in unholy cohabitation are rife with complexities that require inquisitive minds and individual judgments.

Bias of some kind is inherent in all human communication, but that doesn’t mean every source of information approaches a story with a preordained perspective or agenda-advancing opinion. Especially in coverage of government and politics, the emphasis in mainstream outlets tends to revolve around institutional criteria (conflict, novelty, consequences and the like) rather than ideological ones, with more concern for accountability than advocating a cause.

Saying this usually sends hidebound conservatives and liberals into paroxysms of disbelief — but that’s really the way it is in traditional newsrooms. Increasingly, though, in this take-no-prisoners political environment, the perception of bias can be self-generating, with an individual bringing personal, preconceived dispositions to whatever’s read, seen and heard.

A work of journalism can be as straight and as balanced as possible, but people in the audience impose their own slant, basing their reactions on firmly planted thoughts and emotions. In this process, neutrality rapidly morphs into partiality — and we’re off to the races of full-throated rejoinders to an ignominious outrage of, say, identifying similarities between two public figures of competing parties.

For an academic more accustomed to point-making than point-scoring, today’s ecosystem of information is both boon and bane. Outlets abound to disseminate arguments and analysis to audiences never before imagined, yet those messages can be misinterpreted by people more fixated on how they already think than on learning something new.

As the digital denunciations of the Palin-Obama disquisition piled up, I lamented to a friend that nobody seemed to be reading the article with any semblance of objectivity. He provided comfort by paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being read is not being read.” So it goes.

The story’s often told that H.L. Mencken’s mother once asked the 20th century’s most incendiary pundit-cum-provocateur: “What are you doing, Harry?”

With alacrity, the sage of Baltimore shot back: “I’m stirring up the animals.”

In today’s political and communications world, it’s possible to stir up the animals of every species, phylum and partisan orientation without even trying. Mencken probably would have reveled in our raucous and interactive age, but some of us might intrude a worry, now and then, about democracy and its discontents.


Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. His collection of essays, In So Many More Words: Arguments and Adventures, has just been published by University of Notre Dame Press.


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