Let’s play a little game. We’re going to imagine three scenarios that could play out in American politics, and then we’re going to discuss which one of the three is best suited for a feature-length movie, staggering amounts of media attention, and particularly upset New York Times editorials. And then we’ll see if the world works the way we think it does.
Scenario 1: A prominent politician with a national reputation and presidential ambitions oversees a tax collection agency that uses the power of the federal government to target core supporters of the opposition in the run-up to an election, keeping them from organizing, fund-raising, and educating, violating their constitutional rights and potentially changing the outcome of an election that could bring propel him to the presidency for four more years. His response: he appoints a prominent campaign donor to investigate the scandal.
Scenario 2: A prominent politician with a national reputation and presidential ambitions oversees an agency that is found to have failed to provide sufficient security to diplomats overseas by a bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resulting in the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in decades. Her response: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Scenario 3: A prominent politician with a national reputation and presidential ambitions oversees an agency that shuts down several highway lanes to punish a political opponent, resulting in increased congestion. His response: he fires some of his closest aides, apologizes incessantly, and collaborates with aggressive inquiries of the traffic trouble.
First, the feature-length movie. Federal bureaucrats interpreting the tax code and possibly affecting election outcomes, while not actively stuffing ballot boxes, does not a blockbuster make. We could throw in some romance, but in the absence of whistleblowers there is really not much here in terms of drama. A terrorist attack that leaves four Americans dead, with personal heroism in the face of an enemy and an unresponsive bureaucracy -- yes, that is much better material. The screenplay basically writes itself. And it is certainly better movie material than the story of a traffic jam in a state without known zombie attacks.
Reassuringly, the powers that produce movies agree. HBO, the cable network, has started working on a movie about the attack in Benghazi, based on the New York Times bestseller Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi.
Where movies are concerned, the world works they way we think it will.
Next, the media frenzy. Again, federal bureaucracies are not sexy, and we are worried about ratings and attention spans here. Foreign policy, and foreign lands in general, are not something that many TV viewers obsess over. What do those of us who loyally watch the evening news obsess over? Well, that’s quite clear: the weather, local crime, and traffic conditions.
Traffic! Scenario 3 should win here, and well, it has. Governor Christie’s traffic jam may have attracted more attention over the past week or so than Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and the polar vortex combined. The highway’s jammed with broken heroes, trying to compete with Governor Christie for the attention of the news media.
So we got the media frenzy right, too. Along with movies, we’re two for two. Will our introspection about New York Times editorials also be correct?
The New York Times is a very serious newspaper for very serious people that editorializes about very serious matters of state. How has it dealt with the three scenarios discussed above when they became a part of the empirical reality surrounding us? One would imagine the following: traffic, not particularly important, though if the lane closings happened close enough to Manhattan they probably got some attention. The attack in Benghazi: quite serious, and probably the subject of serious inquiries that speak truth to power and expose those whose failures led to the tragic events that unfolded. The IRS’ targeting of the President’s opponents: a shocking scandal that harms the foundations of the democratic social contract that must have led to scathing editorials and op-eds filled with calls for resignation and potentially impeachment.
Did the world once again function the way we expected after introspecting a bit?
The IRS’ actions actually received support from the New York Times’ editorial board and opinion pages! They should have gone further!
The Times’ investigative reporting on Benghazi did happen. But not in the way one would expect. Instead the Times reached the conclusion that no international terrorists were involved in the terrorist attack, and any claims to the contrary describe a parallel universe.
How about those traffic jams? Well, those call for a full and conclusive investigation, the abuse of power has been horrid, and the politician in question has lost all credibility.
This is all very confusing. We were doing so well there. What’s the flaw in our system?
Ah. I see. When imagining our three scenarios, we forgot a crucial detail. The letters D and R.
Stan Veuger is a resident scholar at AEI. His academic research focuses on political economy and applied microeconomics.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Haxorjoe. CC BY-SA 3.0.