Saturday, January 02, 2016

Process and substance

We don't do the Banished Words thing around here, but if you're in the mood for a few concepts you can mock on sight during the onrushing year, come on in:

I have not seen a political cycle so confounding in my lifetime, and it could continue into a year of the most historic kind. If you love politics—the excitement, the unknowability, the to-and-fro—this is the year for you. If you take unhappy U.S. political trends seriously—the shallowness, the restiveness, the division of our polity—you will feel legitimate concern.  

This is a category error in journalism that's reflected in the sort of people we award pundit status to. People who say "I'm a politics junkie" usually mean something like "I'm a campaigns junkie," and campaigning is a small -- if admittedly loud and dramatic -- part of "politics." It accounts for the bulk of political coverage in part because campaigns are contests, and journalism writes about contests very well. That's why we have sports sections, and once you know that American debates are scored more or less the same way as professional wrestling, you too can be an expert on their carefully planned spontaneity.

We do less well with policy. That requires some knowledge at a level above scorekeeping: not just whether Eye-ran is an issue, but whether the gloves actually come off when two candidates are arguing about whether to bomb Eye-ran today or give it a fair trial and bomb it in two weeks. A year in which a moderate to large portion of the electorate -- and the commenting class -- can't tell the difference between "policy" and "deranged racism" is not one made for people who love politics.

Or even those who like politics, the slow-moving, unexciting and often bureaucratic process of figuring out what to do when there isn't enough stuff to go around. It is not a sport for the dashing. (Everyone wants to be the lead guitar player; nobody wants to file the contracts and change the oil in the van.) But it is important, and if we want it done well, we can make a small contribution by not getting it mixed up with the craft of campaigning.

While we're on the subject of Peggy Noonan, let's go ahead and get a little prescriptive: No more plays on "Trump" in heds. (This isn't actually a word ban, just a reminder of the existing rule against stupid name puns in heds. No "Cruz control," no "Cruz missile" and nothing Trumps nobody, period, forever, amen.) And if columnists must review their brilliance from the previous year:

I asserted his appeal was not limited to Republicans. My highly scientific reason is that in talking to Trump supporters it often emerged that they were Democrats or independents. 

... you may remind them that it's rarely a good idea to generalize from "people who talk to Peggy Noonan" to the public at large.

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