(On Screen): There's always been a degree of pretension in the press. They think of themselves as the "fourth estate", a de-facto branch of government to balance the three recognized in the Constitution. Indeed, some of them think of themselves as being the people's representatives.
On one level there's some truth to that. The point of our system is to give power to the government without losing accountability. There's a tradeoff involved between giving the leaders the flexibility to work efficiently without crossing the line to tyranny, and we deal with that by forcing our leaders to submit themselves to the people periodically for reaffirmation via election. The press serves the practical function of watching the government and letting the people know what they're up to, so that voters can decide whether to replace some or all of them at the next election.
But many in the media think they are, or should actually be, our true leaders. They see their job not merely to serve as the eyes and ears of the public, but also as its brain. This isn't new, of course, and when it's managed well it's valuable. When news reporting is isolated from editorializing then it works quite well.
But when the two are no longer segregated, and when there's a concerted attempt to deceive the public through deliberate selection of what to report and by deliberate distortion in how it's reported, then it actually threatens our system.
Many in the press deny that anything like this happens. Some are naive, others are disingenuous. But it's beyond dispute that it happens.
When it happens in peace, it's a problem. But when it happens in war, it can threaten the existence of the nation. Ralph Peters thinks that with respect to the war, the press as a whole has crossed the line and as become an active force attempting to aid those who oppose us.
One of the whopping lies of our time is that journalists are simply innocent bystanders with no responsibility for the outcome of events. In fact, our own media may turn out to be the crucial variable in Iraq. They've already made a success of post-modern terrorism as surely as Colonel Tom Parker made Elvis a star.
The truth is that today's media shape reality - often for the worse. The media form a powerful strategic factor. They're actors, not merely observers.
The media are not detached from all responsibility for the events they cover. A journalist will tell you - sometimes sincerely - that he or she only reports the facts. That's never quite the truth. And it's often an outright lie. ...
Recently, I visited Germany to speak with our soldiers, many just back from Iraq. The situation depicted in the media was unrecognizable to them. They'd just left a country where every indicator of success was turning positive. Yet the media insist we are incompetent and failing.
The Kurds are prospering. The Shi'ites no longer live in fear. Even most Sunni Arabs feel relieved that Saddam's gone. The mullahs are behaving. Local markets are busy and full of goods. The electricity's back on - more reliably than before the war. Schools are open. Oil's flowing. The Iraqi media is booming, boisterous and free. The Governing Council has convinced previously hostile factions to cooperate. Iraqis provide more and more of their own local security. And the torture chambers are closed.
What do we hear from Iraq? Another soldier killed. The rest is silence. ...
Far too many journalists refuse to acknowledge the truth about their role in this age of endless news cycles and global access to reportage. Even when reporters don't make up the news, they make the news by selecting what they report. And the public's perception of reality, delivered by journalists, becomes the new reality.
The media is a key strategic factor today. And it is profoundly dishonest for so powerful a player to pretend it bears no responsibility for strategic outcomes.
By ceaselessly focusing on the negative, the media wear down the judgment of the American people. Recent declines in support for our policy have far more to do with the way events are reported than with the reality in Iraq.
We're on the way to talking ourselves into defeat in the face of victory. Much of the media has already called the game's outcome as a loss before we've reached half-time. Even though the scoreboard shows we're winning.
What should the rest of the world believe when our own media declare failure?
The media must face up to their responsibility for strategic outcomes. This will be tough, since they've had a free ride for so long. Indeed, the media's all-purpose motto seems to be "Not our fault."
Which makes an interesting juxtaposition with this article from Newsweek by Gersh Kuntzman. He, too, recognizes that the press has the power to influence events by the way in which it covers those events.
But he thinks they're not doing enough of it. He wrote before yesterday's election in California, but anticipated a Davis recall and a Schwarzenegger victory, and says that ultimately it's the press's fault. Schwarzenegger's victory demonstrates a failure by the press. If they'd actually done their job properly, Arnold would not now be the governor-elect of the State of California.
Instead, we in the media let this recall train leave the station. We blamed Davis for California’s energy “crisis” two years ago (which, would you believe it?, was actually a result of Enron and other energy traders cooking the books). As apt as Davis’s first name actually is, he is not the kind of elected official for whom the recall law was written. He has not violated the public trust. He has not committed treason. He has not exhibited immoral or criminal behavior. You may think he’s doing a bad job as governor, but the standard for firing an elected official should be much higher than merely disagreeing with his approach to governing and having a right-wing Congressman in your state who has several million dollars with which to pay the so-called “volunteers” to man the recall barricades. Where was the coverage that should have called the effort what it is: a coup?
I think it's arguable that standard for firing an elected official should be whatever the voters decided it is. The foundation of our system is that acts of Congress or regulations issued by the Executive branch are subject to court test, but the results of elections cannot be challenged. Not, mind, that it hasn't been tried, but the courts in general are extremely unsympathetic to attempts by candidates to nullify the results of elections (though there are notable exceptions, especially amongst those currently sitting in the 9th Circuit Court). The foundation of our system is the primacy of the will of the voters, and the voters are not required to justify their decisions to anyone.
In the aftermath of this election, there will probably be scrutiny of the recall mechanism. It is certainly clear that the threshold for becoming a candidate – $3500 and 65 signatures – is preposterously low, considering the burlesque menagerie of candidates that eventually ended up on the ballot. (And it even included the two elements which were invariably present in all classic burlesque shows: a stripper and a comedian.) Some will try to claim that the recall mechanism itself should be eliminated, but that's not going to happen, especially after a successful recall. Some argue that it should require more signatures than the current requirement of 12% of the number of votes cast in the most recent previous election. All those are valid concerns, but miss the real point.
In yesterday's election the people of this state voiced their opinion about how their government was being run. And from Kuntzman's point of view, they said the wrong thing. It appears that he thinks this is much too important an issue to be left to the people to decide. He feels that the press failed because it didn't work hard enough on supporting Davis by trying to prevent recall, or in trying to defeat Schwarzenegger.
I confess that there's a certain schadenfreude involved in watching the leftist "wailing and gnashing of teeth" going on today in California, the rest of the US, and around the world. David Carr collects some choice comments from Democratic Underground, whose active participants are unquestionably not representative of "mainstream leftists" (if that's not an oxymoron).
And everyone seems to have their own explanation of why it happened, or their own take one what it might mean for California, or the rest of the US, or for the world.
Why do I think Davis was recalled yesterday? Because 55 percent of the voters wanted Davis out, and 48% of them wanted Schwarzenegger to be his replacement. That's why.
I know that sounds prosaic, but I think it's really the most important message of all. Yesterday we demonstrated that the government of the State of California works for its citizens and is controlled by them, and if the people become sufficiently dissatisfied with what the government does, they'll replace it. And if they think the entire system is rotten, they'll choose an outsider to become their new leader. If they're contemptuous of career politicians or decide that all the "insiders" have become corrupted, they'll send someone with no experience in government.
And they have no problem with the idea of sending someone who is a naturalized citizen. He's an immigrant, and speaks with an accent, but that doesn't matter. He's an American, just as much as I am. And in some ways he may be more of a true American than many who were born here.
Kids who are adopted go through a period of doubt and fear in their new homes. Are they really members of the family, the way other kids are who live with their biological parents? Many adoptive parents try to assuage that fear by pointing out that biological parents get whatever kid is born, but we chose you, dear. And it's a valid point. Of course, many biological parents are very good parents, and some adoptive parents are not, but the fact that adopting is harder, and requires more sustained work and sacrifice, suggests that there's a difference. When someone spends years and thousands of dollars to get a kid, that alone shows a level of dedication and commitment that may not be present in non-adoptive families.
That kind of thing applies to citizens, too. Immigrants are usually much more fervently patriotic than the average citizen born here. They don't take the virtues of our system for granted, especially since many of them came from places which were far different, and far worse, and may have made great sacrifices to come here. They don't think America is perfect, but they don't obsess on our faults. Their American glass is 90% full, not 10% empty, and it's usually a damned sight more full than the one they left.
Schwarzenegger certainly chose to come here and chose to naturalize in 1984. Turning my analogy upside down, he's sort of like an adoptive child deliberately choosing new parents. I think that the fact that he is a naturalized citizen may actually have increased his credibility with some voters. He came here and embraced the American dream.
Acts speak louder than words. His history shows that he likes what America stands for, and he doesn't take it for granted.
Kuntzman grouses that the press didn't try to pin Schwarzenegger down on what his actual policies would be. In The Guardian, Simon Jeffery goes further than that and claims that Schwarzenegger didn't and doesn't actually have a program. (In fact, Jeffery's dismissal of Schwarzenegger sounds suspiciously like the "brainless bumpkin" portrayal of President Bush we've all come to know and love in that journal.) Both of them miss the point that we don't really elect leaders on the basis of specific programs, though that often comes up as part of the campaign process. We select our leaders primarily on the basis of their philosophy and political attitudes, and then provide them with a significant degree of autonomy in working out the details.
Government is a process of "muddling through". It's never really possible to fully anticipate the course of events, and the more specific the plans announced before an election, the more likely it is that they'll become irrelevant afterwards. (Certainly in the 2000 election, no one expected that we'd be at war within two years.) We don't select candidates based on specific programs; we select them based on their attitudes and judgment, and then we rely on them to muddle through.
When viewed on that basis, I think it's clear that what made Schwarzenegger the most popular candidate was his clear embrace of the American Dream. His is the fairy-tale story of the American Dream; the penniless immigrant (well, sort of) who came here wanting only the opportunity to do his best. Like so many immigrants, he didn't blame others for whatever problems he might face and demand that others make his life better. Rather, he got off his butt and he worked.
He started his own successful business and became wealthy, and then decided he wanted to pursue a career in show business, where he became even more successful. (And even more wealthy, recently earning $25 million per film.) He married a beautiful wife who was part of a powerful family.
He's smart, he's witty, he's hard working. Yeah, he's overmuscled, but even in that he demonstrated his character. He is still regarded as having had the most perfect body-building body of all time, and that isn't something which just happens (even if one uses steroids, which he did).
He's confident. He's positive. He sees opportunities and doesn't obsess on barriers; he works to achieve instead of sulking in self-pity. He's also totally assimilated. (It's arguable that as with many such immigrants, cause and effect are backwards and assimilation takes place before immigration, and inspires immigration.) And he's been known to grope a woman now and then; he's politically incorrect.
I don't care where he was born. He's one of us, in all the ways that matter most. (Even, perhaps, in the groping.)
Maybe he won't be able to solve the problems of this state. The problems are huge, and the barriers defending those problems are very tall. But at least he's going to try, and based on his history he will work to preserve those things which made his own earlier success possible. He can be expected to try to reduce government regulation, to reduce social spending, and to reduce punitive taxation. I prefer someone who tries and fails to someone who doesn't try at all. And I don't insist on saints.
The replacement of Davis by Schwarzenegger is obvious result of this election, but the deeper lesson is more important. In August I talked about how the French were being badly hurt economically by a major reduction in American tourism, even though there's been no high-profile active program here by the government, political leaders or the press to inspire a boycott. In that post, I wrote:
Americans are holding an ongoing plebiscite on the question of French friendship, and they are voting with dollars. Individual Americans are deciding for themselves who they'll give their money to, and France is no longer a favored choice. This is true democracy, a collective display of public opinion, and it is Jacksonian to the core. Democracy is more than just holding elections; it's a commitment by the people and a belief that they're part of something larger, something important, something worth working to save and protect and defend, something that matters. True citizenship in a democracy is active and continuous.
There was little in the way of attempts to formally organize a boycott of France. There were a few web sites, a bit of activism that 99% of Americans probably never heard of. The US government never talked about such a thing, nor did either political party. No "leader" tried to make this happen.
But millions of Americans care about their nation, and won't reward its enemies, especially those who hypocritically claim to be friends so they can get close enough for a back-stab.
The people of the United States are many and are powerful. We lend some of that power to our government, but we retain even more. Our government serves us, but does not rule us.
Most of the time we let our government speak for us, but we can speak for ourselves. Each individual voice is very small, but if enough of us commit to something, it is impossible to ignore. We can directly reward friends and directly punish enemies. We don't need our government's permission and our government can't stop us, because though the US government is the most powerful in history and more powerful than any other in the world, we are even more powerful yet and will replace the US government if it tries to do so. That is part of the power we retained, and every two years the government submits itself to us for reapproval.
There has been much concern by some in Europe and elsewhere about the unprecedented power of the US government, and how since the end of the Cold War there was no longer any other power on the planet capable of truly opposing the US government and balancing it, to help control it. Efforts by the Europeans to try to impose limits on the US, via treaties or claims about "international law" or by presuming an obligation to "allies" or through claims about the UN have largely failed.
And it's true that internationally there is no power which can coercively control US policy. The US walked away from the UN and fought a war in Iraq over vocal objections from many of the governments of the world. The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto accord or to submit itself to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. It has steadfastly refused to yield power over the reconstruction of Iraq. And no amount of scowling aimed at it, or expressions of disapproval from elsewhere, has helped. Every attempt to force the US government to yield to the will of others elsewhere has been as effective as BB's fired at a tank. It's easy to see why that worries them.
But they're wrong about one thing. There is a power on this planet greater than the hyperpuissance, one that it respects and obeys. The government which can ignore any foreign power on the planet, and sometimes even dismisses them contemptuously, submits itself regularly to the only force on the planet which is even more powerful: the American people.
Few overseas whose comments I've seen have picked up on this. One notable exception is the French Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is quoted as having said, "Someone who's a foreigner in his country, who has an unpronounceable name and can become governor of the biggest American state -- that's not nothing." On one level he is commenting about how stupid and strange those Californians are, but I think he also understands the implications. He ought to; his nation is in the same boat as Gray Davis.
The American people have made a collective decision to punish France, and France is being deeply hurt by it. It is no symbolic gesture or empty rhetorical display. It involves no demonstrations, no marches, no banners, no riots, no public speeches, no UNSC resolutions. It is a quiet display of true power and it is causing significant harm to the French economy. And we can do exactly the same thing domestically, if we become sufficiently motivated.
Were California an independent nation, it would have the fifth largest economy on the planet. Its economy is larger than that of France, and its population is comparable to Canada (a member of the G7). Yesterday its citizens ousted their leader, and he meekly accepted the result. They selected a political outsider to become their new leader, and he will become their new leader. Almost anywhere else in the world a change like that would have required bloody revolution, if the citizens could rouse themselves enough from cynical apathy and resignation to even make the attempt. In France, about the only way this kind of voter unrest manifests is in things like the first-round protest votes which put Le Pen into the runoff for President against Chirac. Ultimately that made no difference, nor did French voters really expect that it would.
Yesterday the citizens of the State of California performed a coup without firing a shot, and equally important, the government didn't resist it. On the contrary, the government ran the election by which that coup was implemented, and counted the votes honestly, and its leader accepted the result.
The fact of the recall itself is far more important than the details of why it took place. It could just as easily have been a recall of a conservative governor to be replaced by a liberal. If, two years from now, the citizens of California decide to recall Schwarzenegger so as to replace him with Barbara Streisand, then she'll become our governor.
My apparently prosaic explanation of why Gray Davis was recalled is not prosaic at all. The reason Gray Davis is no longer governor of California is because 55% of the voters wanted to remove him, and were able to do so.
Yesterday's recall demonstrated that the citizens are more powerful than the governments of this nation, and that in the final reckoning our government serves us, but does not rule us. It is our government; it belongs to us. We do not belong to it.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
That's just as true today as it was in 1776.
The lesson for the world from yesterday: Do not underestimate the power of the American people.
Update: Adam Sullivan comments.