By Brigitte L. Nacos
Although it is not difficult to point to missed opportunities and mistakes in Senator Clinton’s campaign, New York Times columnist Gail Collins is right in concluding that “even the original Bill Clinton would have a hard time beating him [Senator Barack Obama].” Collins suggests that, “If things don’t go well for Hillary over the next few weeks…I hope she understands. She’s done fine. And she’d probably have won the nomination walking away if Barack hadn’t picked this moment to mutate into BARACK!”
Barack, the individual, has become BARACK, the ism of change. While most, if not all modern day candidates for high offices make populist appeals to enlist support, Senator Obama has been most successful in this respect in the current presidential campaign.
And here the mass media of communication play a crucial role. In the case of Senator Obama, the mainstream media have provided him with a hospitable stage to spread his message.
So, is Senator Obama a populist?
According to Merriam Webster, a populist is “a member of a
political party claiming to represent the common people.” That definition is
lacking in that most politicians make such claims. Populists attack the
entrenched political arrangements, political parties, political leaders and
their policies as contrary to the common good; they promise change, house
cleaning, and policies that the common people want and need.
As Gianpietro Mazzoleni and his colleagues point out in their edited volume The Media and Neo-Populism, more recent populist or new populist movements in liberal democracies have been of the conservative, reactionary variety. Think of Le Pen in France, Haider in Austria, or Hansen in Australia But populism—as the American populist movement of the late 19th century showed early on--, can promote fundamental changes along liberal, progressive lines as well.
Although part of the entrenched political institutions and arrangements for many years, Senator Obama has managed to sell his message of change and make it the center-piece of his populist appeal—although, ironically, his agenda and Senator Clinton’s programs are very similar. In his rhetoric of change, Obama takes populist approaches. He attacks politics as usual. Promises to end partisanship and divisiveness and instead unite across partisan and ideological lines. This is ironic considering that, as my colleague David Epstein concluded on this blog, Senator Obama’s record as U.S. and Illinois state senator “does little to bolster his image of a bipartisan bridge-builder.”
This is of little interest to the media because the trend
toward “tabloidization” and infotainment even in the once serious or elite news
organizations favors simple human interest “soft news” narratives featuring
excitement, confrontation, change, and personalities over substantive,
policy-oriented “hard” news.
Referring to Clinton’s difficult predicament, Gail Collins writes today that “fighting against the first possible African-American president can be as tricky as going after the first possible woman.” That may well be true for the way candidates—especially Senators Clinton and Obama now--deal with each other, especially in public. But this is certainly not true for mainstream media’s reporting, analyzing, and opining. Contrary to what the talking and writing heads claim, they are riding the wave of populism a la Obama that they have helped to create and now exploit.
From what one has observed in the last several months, the media are not prepared to give a woman the chance to emerge as a media populist. Not in the American setting.
“Ms. Dowd says Hillary Rodham Clinton is lame for accusing journalists of
treating her campaign differently than they treat Barack Obama’s, and applauds
the “open-mindedness of the press” in its treatment of Senator Clinton.
Here are the words she uses in association with Senator Clinton: “desperate,” “primal scream,” “clanging,” “churlish,” “discombobulated,” “gloomy,” “flipping,” “begrudging,” “whining,” “experience,” “pea green with envy,” “Sybil,” “cascading,” “dizzying,” “unsettling,” “struggling,” “tartly,” “peevishly,” “pointlessly,” “sarcasm.”
And here are the words she uses for Senator Obama: “golden child,” “sunny,” “consistency,” “bedazzling,” “confidence,” “excitement,” “exceptionally easy in his skin.”
If Ms. Dowd wants to make the point that she doesn’t like Senator Clinton, then she’s made it. If she wants to make the point that the press treats Mrs. Clinton fairly, contrary to what the senator may believe, then this column, alas, has made Senator Clinton’s point.”
If Senator Obama wins the nomination of his party, his campaign should prepare for the possibility that the media’s current stance does not last till Election Day in November. Such changes in the coverage patterns were observed abroad with respect to neo-populists and here in the case of Ross Perot and his 1992 campaign.