Most essays age quite badly. A few hardly age at all. The essay James Fallows wrote more than a decade and a half ago on American politics and the media belongs neither to those most nor to those few. It retains a sense of presence even as it echoes with the past. The witless, feckless, indulgent, aggrandizing media that he described are as they were, only more so. The politics, however, is different.
The press, Mr. Fallows wrote, “are interested mainly in pure politics,” which is to say with politics as a “cynical game” in which “ambitious politicians struggle for dominance” and “advantage” over “rivals.” For Mr. Fallows this is politics at its “meanest and narrowest.” The “real meaning” of politics, he insists, inheres not in these struggles between politicians and parties, but in “collective efforts to solve collective problems.”
I will not charge naivete. When the essay was written, one might still harbor an assumption of collectivity. That is no longer the case. Far from assuming collectivity, American politics now contests it. Rivalry is its crux and content. This does not mean that politics has truly become the cynical game for dominance and advantage that Mr. Fallows laments. It means that the cynical game is now neither a game nor cynical.
Though we frequently forget it, games are supposed to be inconsequential. And by cynical I assume Mr. Fallows means insincere. Contemporary politics is neither inconsequential nor insincere. Who determines the character of the American collective? Who counts in it? Who has power in it? Who decides? These are matters of intense consequence, and the rivals that contest them do so sincerely.
If American politics cannot pursue collective efforts to solve collective problems, this is only because that collective is itself the core political dispute. This is a union divided, and that division is the essence of its politics. This is why, in a curious way, today’s politics is what the political press still says it is: purely antagonistic competition.
The media was not prescient a decade and a half ago, because the pure rivalry they portrayed did not yet exist. And the media does not speak to the real substance of these times either. They fail not because they cover the rivalry as if it is all that matters; it is all that matters. They fail because they still believe the contest a mean and narrow cynical game. They fail because they cannot understand the real stakes. They fail because they mistake the trenchant for the frivolous.