Until there is a Pulitzer for Most Depressing Paragraph In a News Story, we will have to collect nominees ourselves. From this morning’s report on the regular order on the federal budget:
The so-called regular order on the federal budget still holds little promise of resolving the long-term federal debt or partisan divide. But it will look more like a typical bit of Congressional business and less like a deadline-driven manufactured crisis. With the automatic cuts in the “sequestration” having begun to take effect—and the two parties unable to find an alternative that each can accept—no new immediate conflict looms.
No immediate conflict looms! Let freedom ring, you guys.
So the news of the day is that it is news when Congress discusses the budget without a “deadline-driven manufactured crisis.” You can see why Americans’ approval of that body hovers around 15%, and why it hit all-time lows in February and August of last year. There was that whole sequestration thing, for example, and sequestration has been horrible.
Except it kind of hasn’t. After weeks hearing about fiscal cliffs and returns to recession and other dire consequences stemming from our elected representatives’ failure to compromise with one another, nothing terrible has happened. If you work for the government—particularly if you are a smart, pretty biologist in the Forestry Department—sequestration is destabilizing and awful. If you are in the private sector, though, it’s easy to feel like the last few months of crises really are manufactured, more news than story. Sequestration was a deadline beyond which lay disaster. Now the deadline has passed, and daily life in the United States feels unsettlingly the same.
Here we encounter a peculiarly modern phenomenon: the sense that the news we encounter in the media is not a clear picture of events. Presumably, that feeling has been around since the penny press, but you didn’t read about it in the paper. A signature message of contemporary discourse, on the other hand, is that the instruments of discourse themselves are illegitimate.
The Mainstream Media is an epithet so commonly used as to have become an acronym. Clear your mind of what you know of Sarah Palin, for a moment, and consider the weirdness of the 2008 Republican nominee for Vice-President declaring that the Washington Post is not a reliable source of news. For bonus weird, remember that this critic of the mainstream media was until recently employed as a commentator by the nation’s most-watched cable news network.
One of the most consistently-repeated claims in contemporary media is that contemporary media is not trustworthy. Longtime readers of Combat! blog will recognize a reflection, here, of Heath and Potter’s argument that the central tenet of American culture is opposition to “mainstream” American culture. Meanwhile, congressional approval ratings have been below 50% for nearly ten years, which is weird, because individual congressional candidates keep winning with more than half the vote. And the one thing they agree on is that Congress is broken.
What emerges is a pattern of disdain for the institutions in which we ourselves participate. From Fox News to Ke$ha to the House of Representatives, the most popular position is opposition to popular positions. Surely there are people out there who love Train and CNN, and 15% of people responding to Gallup polls somehow believe that Congress is doing a great job. But the majority of us profess to hate and mistrust the institutions that a majority of us have installed.
Kombat! Kids, take note: that is how to be cool. At the abstract and possibly meaningless level of aggregate American culture, however, it is also intellectually dishonest, and maybe nihilistic to a dangerous degree.
After he lost his bid for the Senate, longtime Montana representative Denny Rehberg complained that that voters “bitch and moan” about Congress but send the same people back there year after year. Rehberg is a jerk, but he has a point: after angering pretty much everyone in America between 2010 and 2012, the legislative branch of 2013 looks almost exactly the same.
Our distaste for our elected representatives seems to be exceeded only by our distaste for meaningfully changing them. You can’t fix Washington, even though everyone there arrived more or less according to our collective will. By the same token, you can’t trust what you hear in the news, as anyone who follows the news will tell you. The world’s oldest democracy is a mess. We know because we put it to a vote.
I personally think it sucks that normal budget negotiations without the threat of disaster constitute a newsworthy event. I can’t decide why it sucks, though—whether it’s because of how the news works, how Congress works, or some combination of that and a bunch of ill-defined other stuff. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the way we work, though. For all its flaws, ours is still a representative democracy and a popular culture. We can hate it, but it’s a cop-out to pretend we don’t participate in it.