Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco

On January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative branch, declared himself president of Venezuela. Within minutes, the US and several Latin American countries recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president and simultaneously rejected the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s sitting president who had been sworn into office for his second term earlier in the month. Since then, tensions have escalated as the US has imposed harsh new sanctions on Caracas and has boasted that military intervention is on the table.

As with all news related to Venezuela in the West, there’s a ton of glib analysis out there tainted by a reflex to treat the country as a battleground for narratives on socialism or foreign intervention, and there’s a scarcity of specific engagement with the Venezuelan experience. To cut through the noise last week I called up Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian of Latin America at NYU, to get his perspective on what’s driving this extraordinary turn of events, how the US left should be positioning itself on the issue, and why he feels overwhelmed by pessimism about his home country.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

ZA: How does someone who hasn’t been a presidential candidate simply declare himself president?

Alejandro Velasco: That has to do with a particular reading of the Venezuelan constitution that says when there’s a vacuum in the executive power, then it falls upon the president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch, to assume those duties.

The legitimacy at the international level is being claimed upon by appealing to Article 233 of the constitution. They claim, not without reason, that the elections that brought Maduro last year into office were highly irregular, were fraudulent, and so therefore he is not a legitimate president as of January 10th, when he swore himself into a new term of office.

It’s a legal argument that Guaidó’s banking on to assert legitimacy. The problem is that same Article 233 of the constitution also says new elections need to be held within 30 days. Even though Guaidó has said the plan is to hold elections, it’s been very vague. In fact it’s the third of 3 plans that he’s announced. (The first one is seizing the usurpation, the second one is establishing an interim governments.) The argument makes sense insofar as you won’t be able to call new elections with the existing institutional apparatus, which is controlled by chavistas. But the second you say that then you get into all sorts of legal confusion as to why are you calling upon this article in order to assert the legitimacy of rule.

Which is why it’s important to understand that what’s happening in Venezuela isn’t actually a matter of legality, it’s a matter of who can claim legitimacy of rule.

What are the US and the other countries that instantly recognized Guaidó trying to accomplish?

What they’re trying to accomplish is a very quick resolution to what they see as a power struggle. I personally was extremely surprised; this was kind of the nuclear option. By announcing this, there’s really no way back, there’s only escalation that’s possible. You can’t imagine someone like Mike Pompeo or John Bolton or Marco Rubio or Elliott Abrams suddenly saying, “What we really need to do now is negotiate with the government.”

So, this really sets up only one outcome of increased escalation in order to try to break the stalemate — which ultimately benefits Maduro. Maduro is basically seeing things like this: all he has to do is win this day. He’s not seeing things in terms of six months, a year, two years. All he has to do is win this day, because each day he wakes up in the presidential palace is a day that Guaidó and his international supporters need to force an outcome in short order, and that increasingly becomes something that’s more outside of any kind of constitutional framework.

What does seem to be clear is that [Guaidó/the international coalition] expected that the military would turn on Maduro much more quickly — that there would be a lot more fracturing and splintering within the upper echelons of the military, and that would lead to a kind of rapid cascade. I think to some extent they’ve been kind of caught off guard by how little of that we’ve seen. If that continues to be the case, if the military continues to be behind Maduro, then we’re in this upward spiral of escalation.

The military took a little bit of time before announcing that it was backing Maduro. What are the odds that the military turns on him, and what factors are most likely to cause it?

I think everybody in the government was caught off guard — that was part of the orchestration behind the scenes. What does that mean in terms of the military? Why did they take hours, as opposed to immediately announcing their support for Maduro?

There are fissures within the military, but those fissures aren’t actually on the part of the higher ranks. The middle layers are the ones we usually see lead small scale insurrections. If there’s going to be any fracturing, it’s going to be from there. What I’m looking for is not at the upper echelons — they’re so tied to the fortunes of Maduro that they have much more to lose without him than with him.

[It’s worth noting that after this interview was conducted early last week there was at least one major military defection.]

The Trump administration’s stated rationale for its support — to restore democracy in Venezuela — rings hollow, given the way it’s dealt with authoritarians like MBS, Erdogan, Putin, Duterte, Putin etc. What’s really driving this?

You don’t have even to go to MBS, just go to Honduras and Guatemala. Certainly Honduras is another illegitimate government that stages fraudulent elections. We know that democracy and human rights is not what’s driving this. I don’t think you have to be a leftist to recognize that. So what is driving it?

I think it’s a little bit silly for folks on the left to say that it’s about oil — it’s a much larger thing. It’s about reasserting control over the agenda in Latin America, which had been lost in the context of the left turn and the pink tide. Now the US sees the regional geopolitical landscape shifting in its favor. They’re saying, “We’re reclaiming hegemony over Latin America, this is in fact our backyard.” In that sense it’s a much bigger play than Venezuela itself.  

A lot of people on the US left feel struck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand Maduro’s mismanagement of the economy is causing tremendous suffering and he’s undermined Venezuela’s democratic institutions in many ways, on the other hand, the US is trying to trigger a coup has a long history of interfering with Venezuela and other Latin American countries as part of a broader imperialistic project. How do you think people on the left should be thinking about this?

I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to be able to say Maduro’s government has been authoritarian and disastrous for Venezuela on its own — as well as aided by US sanctions and other factors — and, at the same time, resist vocally US imperialism and interventions for all the reasons that we know.  There’s no US intervention that leads to anything that is in any way positive.

It’s been a little bit surprising to me how difficult that has been for some people, to be able to say Maduro is an illegitimate president and what we really need to be calling for are free and fair elections, which are not what brought him into his six year term of office last year.

Mexico and Uruguay have positioned themselves as parties to be able to broker that kind of agreement. They’ve said is what Venezuela needs is negotiated solutions to this crisis, and they do not recognize Guaidó, but they also do not recognize Maduro. They basically state the neutral position to try to be able to bring both sides to the negotiating table, to try and broker an electoral solution: that we pass through renovating the electoral council and to make sure there are free and fair elections that happen in short order.

There are some who say that the [international pressure campaign] that Guaidó is enjoying gives him the leverage to be able to bring Maduro to the negotiating table and say, “elections or nothing.” But that does not seem to be the play on part of the US. For them, the play is, “We now know who the president is, and we don’t need to have elections, we just know that this is the president.”

The people I’ve been talking to on the ground in Caracas are saying that so far the protests against Maduro aren’t as intense as they were in 2017. I was surprised by that, given that the economic crisis has continues to worsen since then, and it seems the perennially divided opposition in Venezuela finally has a leader to unite behind. Why are the protests not enormous?

I was just in Caracas for a couple weeks. The level of discontent with Maduro is widespread and cross-cutting. But in terms of the actual economic crisis, it’s not at the levels of where it was in 2017 — meaning, you go into markets, and you don’t see the kinds of shortages you saw in 2017, when you’d walk into a store and there was just nothing. What you have now is effective shortages, meaning that because hyperinflation is so pronounced, prices are astronomical. If you don’t have access to money, then it’s a double kind of frustration — you see things that are available, but you just can’t afford them. Even though there’s discontent, it’s not at the level that we had been seeing in 2017, is partly my sense.

To your question that one would think that the opposition seems united around Guaidó — I think there is some trepidation surrounding the protagonismo, or the center staging, that the US has played for some of the opposition.

To the extent that the US takes on a greater role in and has greater stakes in what’s going on, it very easily feeds into the narrative that the government has long been playing, which is that the opposition is controlled from abroad. It might account for a little bit of the hesitation, certainly on the part of the military, which is now a major player, in terms of why they’re not rebelling.

To end on a more personal note, I wanted to ask you: as somebody who grew up in Venezuela, as a scholar of Venezuela, as somebody who is of the left but also critical of Maduro, as somebody who sees foreign intervention developing, how do you feel right now?

It’s heartbreaking. My father is in Venezuela, he and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, and so when I go back we get into these pitched arguments. This time there was a real sense of hopelessness. This is to some extent the worst possible outcome — the US is leading this charge so dramatically, and not just any US, it’s the worst elements of the US foreign policy establishment, especially because of people like Elliot Abrams being appointed as US special envoy to Venezuela. [During the Reagan era, Abrams helped subvert democratic governments and attempted to whitewash massacres committed by death squads in Latin America; he also was a prominent player in the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.]

It’s heartbreaking and it’s also extremely scary, because I just don’t see how somebody like Abrams, like Pompeo, like Bolton, like Rubio tone it down. I think they’re committed to this escalating strategy, and the last that they care about is what actually happens to people like my father in Venezuela who would otherwise be very supportive of regime change, but not under these terms.

Many of my closest friends and contacts are people who are in barrios in Caracas. These are the people who regardless will bear the brunt, and bear the brunt in a way that is not publicized, that is just used as cannon fodder. 

All of that gives me tremendous anxiety and hesitation, you can imagine I’ve been sleeping very restlessly over the last few days when I’ve had the chance to sleep at all. Hope is the last thing that I have right now.

Jim Acosta revisited

In last week’s newsletter I found myself in the unusual position of arguing that a reporter should be less adversarial toward Trump.

The crux of my argument was not that Jim Acosta’s violations of White House decorum were unseemly, but that that they were ineffective. I argued that his stunts would hand a victory to Trump’s agenda to paint the media as treating him unfairly without obtaining anything meaningful in return.

Upon reflection, fueled in part by some pushback online, I suppose I don’t care that much about how Acosta chooses to comport himself.

It could be argued that even if Acosta abided by the rules, Trumpland would still be convinced that CNN is fake news, and so the costs of his activism is marginal. And then there’s also a case to be made that while Acosta is not going to win a concession from the administration, he could, theoretically, inspire other White House reporters to be fiercer. That’s a good cause — the White House Correspondents’ Association is such a spineless institution that it has decided this year to break from its tradition of inviting a comedian to its annual dinner. Let that sink in: In the Trump era, the organization has chosen to try to avoid controversy and make the president feel less worried about being roasted.

So let me get to the big unspoken impulse that drove my initial post: I’m angry about inconsistency.

I’m angry that Acosta’s behavior in all likelihood would never have happened had Ted Cruz won the presidency and pursued an extremely similar policy agenda and quested to sate the toxic impulses of the same reactionary constituents because he knows how to do it with a veneer of civility. And I’m angry because White House reporters like Acosta have declined to act this way in the past as presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have run circles around credulous, flat-footed reporters.

A lot of liberals like to cry out that this Trump’s lying is “not business as usual” or that “this is not normal.” This kind of rhetoric often obscures continuity. Yes, Trump has led us to new frontiers in untruth, but let’s be clear: lying is business as usual for politicians. Yes, Trump’s white nationalism has broken some new ground, but the Southern Strategy has prevailed for decades.

In recent years before Trump took office journalists have failed to aggressively push back against falsehoods used to justify atrocities like the Iraq War, gutting protections for the poor, protecting bankers from prosecution, preventing universal healthcare and inaction on climate change. Where were the Acostas then? The flagrancy of a Trump lie deserves an adversarial press; the sophistication of a Bush or Obama or Paul Ryan lie deserves one just as much.

So my more considered response to Acosta’s behavior is: either get in the face of every lying politician you see — even the ones who veil their deception and their misdeeds with great skill — or do what you usually do.

A lot of journalists seem to be taking the wrong lesson from the Trump era. As I argued in an essay about Ben Smith’s widely lauded piece on the supposed decline of insider journalism, the Trump era shouldn’t be making journalists nostalgic for coziness between the press and the political class in older times — it should be making them realize that the old model was bad.

Newsletter: What’s Jim Acosta doing?

Credit: Gage Skidmore

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Jim Acosta is on a crusade, but it’s unclear what it’s about.

The vaguely George Clooney-esque White House reporter for CNN has been causing a huge ruckus in Washington with his clashes with the Trump administration. After refusing to give up his microphone during a Trump press conference in which he badgered the president, Acosta’s permanent press credentials were revoked — and now he and CNN are suing the White House.

The White House’s argument for revoking his credentials was nonsense. It claimed that Acosta lost his pass for “placing his hands” on the intern who tried to grab his mic, and to make the case it released a video doctored by an unhinged British conspiracy theorist. Acosta did lightly touch the intern, but it wasn’t any kind of assault, as the White House has implied. Fortunately CNN, which is suing both on First and Fifth amendment (due process) grounds, has a strong legal case for getting Acosta’s credentials back.

It should go without saying that if Trump can’t stand Acosta, he’d be better off calling on him less frequently instead of trying to kick him out of the White House press corps based on a lie. But, assuming Acosta gets his credentials back, he should really take this moment to reflect on what he’s been doing lately and if he wants to keep doing it. Because I don’t get it.

For years, Acosta has has locked horns with Trump and his press secretaries over their mendacity and their attacks on the press. But Acosta doesn’t just ask his questions. He explicitly frames them as a “challenge.” He speaks theatrically about the spirit of American democracy. He talks over and cuts off his interlocutors. He refuses to ask one question, taking away time from other reporters with follow-ups that yield no meaningful answers. He demands that the administration take back its criticism of the press. Once, in a move that made him resemble a member of Code Pink more than a reporter, he shouted at the president from the back of the crowdat a tax anniversary event, causing audience members to shush him! In short, Acosta has sought to be a nuisance.

I struggle to understand his endgame here. Is he hoping that his stunts will get the administration to finally acknowledge that it lies? To apologize for lying? To even stop lying? Because nobody with a shred common sense would think that’s possible. Deception is a key political strategy of the Trump administration, and it’s carried out with pride, not regret.

Of course Acosta and all reporters should use questions and follow-up questions to point out falsehoods and place pressure on the Trump administration in a bid for accountability. But Acosta is trying to go one step further than that, seemingly believing that if he vexes the administration enough they might break down and make a concession.

That tactic is not only failing — it is clearly backfiring. It neatly plays into Trump’s narrative that the media harbors a grudge against him and is uninterested in treating him fairly. Trump has license to say that CNN reporters never spoke to Obama the way they speak to him. And the optics are terrible. If I think Acosta looks kind of annoying during press briefings, then there’s no doubt that Trump’s supporters, who are already primed to believe anything the president says, will see his antics as evidence of unforgivable anti-Trump bias in the press. There’s a reason that Trump press staffers give each other high fives after they walk away from the podium after sparring with Acosta.

I share Acosta’s rage. But if he’s decided that Trump’s propaganda operation deserves more than questioning he’s better off pursuing that goal outside of the White House press corps. He’s chosen to work in a sector of media that relies on politesse and deference to acquire information, and he’s running into the limits of that. I wouldn’t want to deal with that either, which is why I wouldn’t want to work as a White House correspondent. Acosta should take on a position that involves more overt analysis and opinion, or investigative work, or leave the media and become an activist. Right now he he’s hurting his own cause, and the story has moved away from Trump’s falsehoods and toward the melodrama of Trump vs CNN.

And maybe that’s the point. A Politico Magazine article reports that the higher-ups at CNN seem to love the skirmishes, which is why Acosta has gotten the green light to keep doing it. “There is also a view inside the network’s newsroom that Acosta has been given the latitude, perhaps even the implicit assignment, to turn the briefing room into a personal editorial page because it is good television and reaffirms CNN’s integral role in the ongoing drama,” the article says. That’s shocking, but not surprising, for an outlet that confessed to giving Trump massively disproportionate airtime in the run-up to the 2016 election because it was so watchable.

In this reading, CNN is in some ways of the same ilk as Trump: prioritizing ratings over pursuit of truth.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Newsletter: How’d the Dems do?

Credit: Austin Schmid

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

What did we learn from the midterms?

There’s a big debate going on about the true scope and meaning of Tuesday’s elections. Specifically, over whether the Democrats did well as they “should have” given Trump’s historically abysmal ratings, and what it says about whether the Democratic Party needs to tack to the left or stay closer to the center for 2020.

In a sentence I’d summarize the results like this: the Democratic Party, which is growing more diverse and moving to the left, did fairly well, but the results offer no clear prescription for the future.

The Democrats did best in the House. They picked up more seats than in any other midterm election since 1974. In that case, the surge was driven by Richard Nixon’s resignation just three months prior. In this case, exit polling data suggests it’s Trump and the GOP’s attacks on healthcare that drove well-educated suburbanites to flip from red to blue. The results were especially striking given the health of the economy and a very low unemployment rate.

Thanks to the Democrats, a record number of women will be serving in Congress. Two will be the first Native American women elected. Another two will be the first Muslim women elected to Congress. One of them arrived in the US as a refugee. A self-avowed democratic socialist Latina who talks of creating a new kind of progressive voting bloc in the House is primed to become a political superstar. There are lively things going on in the House Democratic caucus.

In the Senate, the Democrats did … okay. Given how tough the map was for them — they were defending three times as many seats as Republicans — things didn’t go terribly. But there were hopes that Democrats — especially Beto O’Rourke — would outperform their polls based on the Trump effect, and that didn’t happen. Instead, Republicans have maintained their majority, and depending on how a few more races conclude, will likely extend their majority. Perhaps most strikingly, three incumbent Democratic senators lost on Tuesday, marking the first time an opposition party incumbent senator has lost an election since 2002.

The margin of Republicans’ victory in the Senate doesn’t necessarily matter much for the next two years, given the Democrats’ control of the House, but it could matter a hell of a lot for 2020. Vox’s Dylan Matthews estimates that given how tricky the 2020 map is Democrats could very well remain a minority in the Senate until 2022.

The Dems picked up seven governorships — the best pickup either party has pulled off since 1994. That matters a lot for Democratic policy in those states and congressional redistricting. But it’s worth noting that they lost in the presidential battleground states of Florida, Iowa and Ohio. As for state legislatures, Dems did good not great.

In terms of what the races tell us about the right kind of candidates to run for Congress and the presidency in 2020, I’m with Eric Levitz: there’s evidence that both deeply progressive and centrist candidates can perform well in swing states. And the ouster of a number of centrist Democratic senators in red states suggests that being a moderate isn’t a surefire bet against the right.

As for the losses of Gillum, O’Rourke and Abrams in the South, I’m hesitant to call them failures (especially Abrams, since Georgia has shamelessly assaulted the democratic process in recent years) — they broke new ground in hostile territory, and it would be foolish to write off their attempts as an exhaustion of the kind of political styles they represented. I will say, though, that I have a hunch that Trump may have been able to mobilize a non-trivial number of Republicans against them in the final weeks before the race through his aggressive interventions at rallies and on social media. I remain convinced that Trump has killer instincts as a culture war campaigner.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Newsletter: What should Dems prioritize for 2020?

Credit: Molly Adams

This is the opening comment from my newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Priorities, priorities.

Last week Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote a piece arguing that 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls should prioritize climate policy, immigration reform, and pro-democracy reforms (end the filibuster, establish automatic voter registration, win statehood for DC/Puerto Rico, etc.) above all else.

He says that Medicare-for-all should not be a top 3 priority, mainly because the vicious fight required to pass it in 2021 would be too much of an opportunity cost for other legislation.

I don’t think I’m persuaded by that. I think Medicare-for-all should be a top 3 priority — here’s a quick run-down of why.

First of all, Medicare-for-all is hot right now, and Dems should capitalize on that.

Polling data shows that Medicare-for-all is clearly what the Democratic base wants: A recent poll by Data for Progress shows that among registered Democrats passing Medicare-for-all is a higher progressive policy priority than any other major issue.

Medicare-for-all also has cross-partisan appeal. A recent poll shows that 70% of voters support “providing Medicare to every American.” The poll found that 52% of Republicans support that proposition as well. Other polls have found similar levels of popularity. There are reasons to be skeptical that GOP support for it will endure — it’s unclear how many voters really understand that Medicare-for-all would ultimately seek to replace private health insurance, not supplement it. And once it enters the polarization vortex and Trump tags it as a threat to white people or private enterprise, then GOP interest in the policy will decline sharply. But there are good signs that Medicare-for-all appeals to the instincts of Americans across the political spectrum (which shouldn’t be too surprising given how immensely popularthe old system of Medicare is among all Americans) and that could weaken counter-mobilization efforts.

Medicare-for-all has got a significant amount of momentum already. A huge number of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have coalesced around it to prove their progressive credentials — it’s becoming a signaling mechanism for candidates to show they’ve got their finger on the pulse. The salience of the policy should make it easier to create a mandate for it within the party.

I’m not going to pretend that all of this means the fight for Medicare would be easy. It would be an ugly fight. Not only against the right, but also the private insurance industry, the hospital industry, and quite possibly many medical professionals afraid that their pay will be docked by cost-cutting pressures. But the movement that will be required to pass it — which would have to rise up across the nation — and the actual passage of the bill has the potential to transform political consciousness in America. Decommodifying health insurance and claiming health as a social right will be a paradigm-changer in terms of Americans’ relationship with the government. If it passed, it would change the very terrain upon which future political battles will be fought. While on one hand it would probably cost more time than a lot of other legislation, it also has disproportionate potential to ease the passage of subsequent left-leaning legislation. And even if Medicare-for-all proves to be out of reach, the emergence of a robust public option has the potential to be a transformative victory.

Lastly, Medicare-for-all is morally imperative. Obamcare was already struggling before Trump took office and it’s set to get worse, thanks to the GOP‘s nihilistic attacks on it. The US is the wealthiest country in the world, its healthcare system is atrocious and vulnerable to constant attacks, and the best and most sustainable solution that we know of is creating a government-backed health insurance system. How long can we procrastinate on what should be considered a prerequisite for calling ourselves a civilized society?

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Newsletter: Climate talk, the death of insider journalism, and incels

This is the opening comment from my newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

I recently wrote an article for VICE about how 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are blowing what may be our last opportunity to forestall catastrophic climate change, and it got me thinking about our struggles with climate change communication.

The perennial explanation for why the political class and the media avoid prioritizing climate change is that it’s unsexy. MSNBC host Chris Hayes — who probably pays more attention to the issue than any other major cable news host — called it a “palpable ratings killer” in July. And politicians are aware that most voters don’t consider climate change a top tier issue even if most of them are concerned about it.

This poses a major predicament: even if you’re a journalist or a politician with deep convictions about tackling climate change, it seems risky to home in on the issue too aggressively. If journalists give up too many viewers and politicians jeopardize too many votes by fixating on the issue, they may lose their ability to address the issue at all.

I’m sympathetic to this concern, but I don’t quite buy it. First and foremost because we have a moral imperative to figure out a solution to this challenge, and secondly because there are good reasons to think that climate change can be made into a highly compelling story.

The first point is simple: Politicians, journalists and any other sector involved in informing and mobilizing people to address climate change have to take risks in making it a top tier issue because there is no other option. We are currently on course to making the planet uninhabitable — if we don’t take risks now, civilization as we know it will end. And the longer we take to get around to dealing with the issue, the hard it will be to manage it.

Secondly, I am highly skeptical of the idea that climate change is inherently too boring or abstract to capture the interest of the public. In the 2000s journalist Ezra Klein rose to fame by illustrating that no policy issue — health care, social security, tax policy — is intrinsically beyond the comprehension or interest of the average citizen. By using a highly conversational, non-jargony, context-focused style of writing and analysis, he garnered the kind of readership for wonky policy reportage that was up until that point typically associated with gossipy White House coverage. That’s a lesson I absorbed while at Vox (which he co-founded): it’s incumbent on the writer to make any subject approachable.

I don’t know what exact hacks are needed to make climate change a more salient story in the national conversation, but there is a ton to work with. Climate change touches on every element of human survival — food, water, shelter, health, mobility. It threatens so many things people hold dear — the security of their children, their property, the outdoors, wildlife. It’s deeply political, posing a greater threat to the most vulnerable among us. And in American cultural life we’re already seeing that people do have a perverse kind of fascination with societal collapse: I suspect the superabundance of apocalyptic, zombie and dystopian films and shows we’re seeing these days reflects an ambient anxiety about our impending ecological catastrophe. There are so many ways to make the issue tangible and transform popular consciousness, we just need to experiment.

As for how politicians and policy players can mobilize voters — my article in VICE touches on a possible solution. Check out the article!

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Burying insider political journalism

Credit: White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith recently wrote a thoughtful, searching essay about what he sees as the decline of the insider style of political journalism that he helped popularize in the 2000s.

According to Smith, micro-scoop-driven politics coverage that frames politics as sport, focuses on politicians’ personalities and tactics, and lacks a clear moral sensibility is no longer in vogue. In fact, he argues, “Americans of all political stripes now actually hate it,” because the old style is “painfully inadequate for the movement politics of a new era, with higher stakes, higher passions, and far wider interest.”

Scores of reporters have been heaping praise on Smith for re-evaluating the value of the genre of journalism that he helped make dominant from his blogging perch at Politico during the Obama era. But I believe his analysis is off the mark in two major ways: I don’t think the insider style is on the brink of demise, and I think that there needs to be a deeper reckoning with its shortcomings.

The insider style is as big as ever

First, I am skeptical of Smith’s observation that insider journalism is widely disliked or even declining sharply in popularity.

Politico, the publication which typifies the insider style, is continuing to thrive as a publication and drive the conversation in political media. Its iconic morning newsletter is still called Playbook, it still strives to put the reader in the mindset of a campaign operator or a lawmaker’s communications director, and it’s still widely read.

And Politico’s model appears replicable in the Trump era. In January 2017 a few Politico alums founded Axios, which in many ways is simply Politico on speed. It delivers microscopic scoops at a breakneck pace, and its core speciality is palace intrigue. But it hasn’t been a flop — in fact it has swiftly become a major player in the media world. It’s audience growth exceeded its own expectations, it’s ramping up hiring dramatically, and it raised $20 million in venture capital last fall.

I agree with Smith that more overtly politicized publications on the left and right appear to have risen in prominence and popularity in the past two years, but I think the insider style is still far and away the most dominant mode of political journalism in the nation.

That’s because the insider style hasn’t faded as much as it has evolved: it’s no longer about the gamesmanship of Democrats against Republicans — it’s about the spectacle of Trump TV. Hyper-incremental reporting is still a common practice, but it’s about Trump’s psyche and what his aides are thinking and saying. Coverage of tactics and jockeying for power is still a common practice, but it’s about Trump’s dealings with lawmakers and foreign governments — and his own administration. The sports metaphor isn’t as apt anymore; we’re now gawking at reality TV. But fundamentally, there is still an implicit conceit of politics as a must-watch showAnd it should come as no surprise that many of the most talked-about articles are being written up at the New York Times and the Washington Post by the dozens of Politico alums that have joined them over the past several years.

Smith suggests that the decline of the insider style means a move away from brazen amorality in reportage. I think there’s truth to that. In the new insider style, there is typically a more pronounced sense of the reporter trying to hold the politician — that is, Trump — accountable. But then the question is, to what standards? I’d say the new accountability mostly comes down to: a) pointing out blatant falsehoods and b) pointing out how Trump departs from established norms through his rhetoric or policy choices. Those are useful practices, but I think they fall short of Smith’s ideal of journalism as “often telling stories with a clear right and wrong.”

The norm fixation among political journalists is no guarantor of more ethical behavior. Consider how the insider style media is aghast every time Trump says something mean about Justin Trudeau but grows giddy when Trump fires missiles at Syria. The former is a break from tradition but not particularly consequential, while the latter is considered perfectly presidential but could’ve been the opening salvo of another war.

It is true as Smith points out that political media is becoming more oriented toward movement politics — both on the right and the left — and that there’s been some fantastic coverage of policy. But the reality is that Trump TV is the main show. The New York Times will swarm any tale of Trump chaos but was caught completely off guard by the rise of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s still a lot of work to do.

The insider style isn’t old. It’s wrong.

My second point of disagreement with Smith is regarding the reason for the inadequacy of the insider style. At many points in his essay, Smith implies that it is obsolete because we’ve moved into a time of crisis with “higher stakes.” I think that the insider style was always misguided, and that the Trump era is laying bare its inherent problems.

Smith argues that the insider style was more suited for a time of broad bipartisan consensus on free markets, war, immigration and so on during the 90s and aughts. Now bigger divides in political life demands a kind of journalism that can properly chronicle those divides — and their concrete implications for society and the world.

Smith also suggests that the insider style isn’t the right fit for a political crisis. He argues that during a crisis everybody, not just political junkies, wants to know about what’s going on in government. In such urgent and unusual times, it’s important to write in a more accessible style and to broaden coverage beyond who’s up and who’s down. “In a normal country, nobody cares about politics,” Smith writes.

I … don’t think this goes deep enough. The insider style might feel less irresponsible during times of stability and bipartisan consensus, but that doesn’t mean it was a wise or ethical approach back then. As Smith himself briefly notes, both parties happily banded together for the moral catastrophes of the Iraq War and mass incarceration. And of course there are plenty of other huge misdeeds that both parties agreed on during what were considered good times — deregulation that produced the financial crisis, inaction to prevent ecological catastrophe, the evisceration of welfare, the abandonment of worker power as inequality skyrocketed to Gilded Age levels, the list could go on forever. The point is that journalists should be skeptics who buck the conventional wisdom of the political class, not traffic in it. They should do this on principle, because the good times are only good for select communities, and the stakes are never low for those who lack power. And they should also do it because that’s how you prevent a crisis. 

If you want to serve the public, you don’t wait until an issue threatens to destabilize the country. You tackle the crisis as it brews. But the insider style blinds us to that kind of anticipation. Its fixation on the psychodrama of politics obscures policy realities, moral reckoning, citizen experience, grassroots mobilization.  We should not have “nostalgia” for a time when the old insider style pervaded, but regret that it distracted us from some of the very issues that helped Trump take the White House.

Lastly, I am struck by Smith’s comment that in normal countries “nobody cares about politics.” I have to ask: what is a normal country? I certainly have never encountered one. Spend 10 minutes in a busy pub or a cafe anywhere in the world and it’s almost impossible to avoid overhearing some talk of politics. 

Sure, I have met people in the US and abroad who don’t read the news everyday and can’t name many people in government. But I have rarely come across people who don’t think or talk about their rent rising, the quality of their tap water, how hard it is to live comfortably on their paycheck, the fact that they can’t take time off to take care of their new-born child, what the new people in the neighborhood look like, whether they can get married, the new country their government is bombing. And how hard it is to have a say in any of itThat’s all politics. Only someone who still believes in the insider style would believe otherwise.