Right after the Democratic debate Ryan Lizza tweeted “Hillary Clinton won because all of her opponents are terrible.” Other pundits were every bit as hyperbolic as the New Yorker‘s snarky reporter. The Boston Globe declared “Hillary Clinton roars, Bernie Sanders stumbles“. Politico insisted “Clinton towers, Sanders glowers.”
Clinton reminded the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson of “Lebron James playing a pickup basketball game.” For the same newspaper, Dana Millbank called Clinton a “woman among boys“. Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote Clinton was not debating “first-rate competition”.
The encomiums for Clinton and disparagement of Sanders came as instant online surveys and focus groups were saying Bernie won big and before the release of reliable polls showing the opposite. In fact, most watchers emerged from the debate with an enhanced respect for Sanders and his poll numbers did rise in NBC’s post-debate poll just not as much as Clinton’s did. Yes debate watchers preferred Clinton but they did not scorn Sanders.
What accounts for the big disconnect between the professional media class and home viewers? Certainly, the fact that the Clintons have been reliably pro-big media since Bill approved significant media deregulation in the 90s plays a part. Likewise, Sanders’ call for much higher taxes on the wealthy cannot be welcome in the rarefied air breathed by billionaire libertarian Jeff Bezos who owns the Washington Post, Politico’s 40-something multi-millionaire owner Robert Allbritton, or the suits at Time Warner/CNN. Reporters and editors know the kind of coverage their bosses want and are eager to provide it.
But I think something more than servility to corporate masters explains the gloating tone Lizza, et al., employed against Sanders in the aftermath of the Silver State showdown. Yglesias mostly freelances and his boss at Vox, the relatively progressive Ezra Klein, certainly doesn’t fit the casino capitalist mold even if Bezos and Allbritton do. The real problem for Sanders is his core message – the “economy is rigged” – does not and, to a large degree, cannot appeal to media elites.
Men like Ryan Lizza, Eugene Robinson, Dana Millbank, Matthew Yglesias are achievers. They have climbed atop the incredibly steep and slippery journalistic mountain. Obviously, they have talent, smarts, and assertiveness but they also benefited, with the possible exception of Robinson, from growing up in upper middle-class or affluent homes. Lizza and Yglesias attended elite private high schools and then matriculated at the University of California and Harvard respectively. Milbank graduated from Yale and Robinson from the University of Michigan. Lizza and Yglesias are still in their 30s.
Attribution theory posits that people explain or attribute good things that happen to them to their sterling character and intellect. Likewise, they attribute bad results to external factors over which they have little control. Top dogs are congenitally disposed to believe that they lead the pack because of speed, strength, and toughness not because they began the race way ahead.
When Sanders says the game is “rigged”. He is telling poor and struggling folks what they already know or feel in their marrow. They and their children are very unlikely to escape their straitened circumstances no matter how hard they work. Only the remarkably skilled and fortunate are likely to escape poverty in America today. But he is also telling those at the top of the ladder that they have benefited from an absence of competition from those who were not born on or near the upper rungs.
In essence, Sanders is saying to the thought leaders, “you didn’t build that” wildly successful career you’re basking in on your own. You don’t write for the New Yorker (Lizza) or the Washington Post (Milbank and Robinson), you don’t have a wildly successful blog (Yglesias) just because you’re smart and shrewd and have a way with a phrase. You also benefited from some or all of the following: an affluent background, good genes, a great education, and a heaping measure of good luck. It should surprise nobody that the smartest guys in the room recoil from the man who delivers that cold wet douse of reality.