The New York Times’ daring innovation of endorsing two candidates in the Democratic presidential primary has provoked a flurry of comments in the media. The verdict on The NYT’s verdict has been resoundingly negative.
For many, it confirms that The New York Times has abandoned its presumed position of leadership. Some see it as a mockery of whatever values it was still pretending to uphold. And it wasn’t just the endorsement itself, but the way it was done. Presented as a self-promotional half-hour-long TV show in which spectators were invited to witness the seriously elaborate process of The Times’ decision-making before discovering the suspense-laden outcome, many viewers lost patience before the program could reach its monumentally important conclusion that would deliver the judgment of the gods.
In the Run-Up to the US Election, Storytelling Becomes Rather Less Innocent
In an impatient tweet, luminary journalist and inspired storyteller Dan Rather complained of having to watch a reality show and concluded: “I’m comfortable flipping around Netflix and waiting until tomorrow for their announcement.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A number that in US culture represents the shame of indecision, the failure to show that highest of moral virtues, resoluteness and, worse, signals the renunciation of the obligation to always focus on the only thing that counts: the uniqueness of being number one
Many have called The NYT’s double endorsement a copout. Such a critical judgment can be explained by the curious status the idea of the number two has in US culture. To be taken seriously, two must signify the staging of a competition or even a combat that can only be resolved through the victory of one of the competitors.
That’s why, unlike most other developed countries, there are only two political parties in the US. Like two teams in professional sports, they exist to be paired together in regularly programmed combat to provide the spectacle of seeing which one can vanquish the other. One of the reasons that football (which is known as soccer to Americans) can never reach the level of popularity of American sports in the US is that a game can end in a draw, with no cry of victory and no whimper of defeat. (The other even more obvious reason is that, as a game, it isn’t properly structured to permit the commercial breaks that are essential for American TV broadcasts.)
The number two lacks respectability. Marriage may be the one institution that is still permitted to celebrate the number two, but that seems to be a question of biological fatalism rather than comfort with the idea of a pair. And even so, the elevation of divorce to the level of the domestic norm means that people perceive the idea of two as fragile and temporary and is always in need of being overcome.
For poker players, a pair of deuces represents the lowest possible winning hand, which means that two stands as something of negligible value. Deuces are as low as you can go, but while having two deuces in your hand lends them some value, the only way to make them pay off is with bluffing. Poker players know that two of a kind, even of aces, designates the bottom of the barrel. Three of kind brings you into the shining realm of noble combinations, followed by the increasing glory of straights, flushes, full houses and four of a kind.
Although the $2 bill has existed since 1862, it remains to this day an extremely rare denomination. John Bennardo, the producer and director of a documentary on the $2 bill, offered several complementary explanations for the shameful status of the banknote.
The first derives from what most people perceive as the most disgraceful of professions: politics. “Politicians used to be known for bribing people for votes, and they would give them a $2 bill, so if you had one it meant that perhaps you’d been bribed by a politician,” he said. He then cited another professional activity, nearly (but not quite) as shameful: “Prostitution back in the day was $2 for a trick, so if you were spending $2 bills it might get you into trouble with your wife.” His final example is the horse races: “$2 is the standard bet at a race track, so if you were betting $2 and you won, you might get a bunch of $2 bills back and that would show that you were gambling.”
CBS News identified the two criteria that swayed The Times’ jury toward selecting two candidates. The first was the idea of being “open to new ideas,” which justified the selection of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The second was “seeking stability,” which attracted them to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Going in both of those directions represents The NYT’s effort to acknowledge and fail to take a position on an undeniable historical trend: the splitting of the Democratic Party into two distinct camps. It’s the Clintonite establishment, often called the center, and the progressives, often termed the radical left. Over recent decades (and perhaps longer), The New York Times, generally kind to Democrats, has demonstrated its discomfort with anything that challenged establishment values. But with its image as a “liberal” newspaper appealing to educated, “open-minded” Americans, it has always promoted a culture that embraces establishment values while seeking to show its indulgent curiosity for some of the themes that challenge those values.
Its choice of “two” for the endorsement sends a further message that applies to today’s historical situation. Thanks to the history of the 2016 presidential election and recent polling, the public appears to understand that, while there is a vast field of candidates to choose from, there is clearly one identified leader of each of the wings of the Democratic Party: Joe Biden, on the side of the establishment, and Bernie Sanders, on the progressive side. The others are competing with them for the leadership of their wings but, despite the advanced age of these two men, they have weathered the storms and proved their symbolic positioning.
Over the current election cycle, The Times has been indulgent with former Vice President Biden and critical of Senator Sanders throughout the duration of the campaign. Sanders’ capacity not only to maintain his symbolic leadership but also to generate exceptional enthusiasm among large swathes of the population appears to worry The Times. It truly fears that Sanders may generate enough enthusiasm to win the party nomination and possibly even the election in November, after which he might continue to promote policies that the business, financial and political oligarchy finds threatening. That would be the worst of all possible worlds for the oligarchs who count on The New York Times to define and constrain the realm of “sane politics.” (Among the topics of “sane politics” that The Times newsroom pushed for three years was Russiagate. Among the “sane” causes it promoted under George W. Bush was the invasion of Iraq in 2003)
As many of the commentators have remarked, the point of an endorsement is to identify exactly one preferred candidate, not to deliver the suspect message that “politics comes in two flavors so take your pick.” By selecting two candidates to endorse and appealing to the fact that both are women, The Times has found the most convenient way of marginalizing the one candidate who, because of his very real prospect of transforming the Democratic Party, clearly makes them ill at ease. (The NYT prefers to systematically smear another candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, who challenges the newspaper’s even more essential commitment to US exceptionalism and imperial reach.)
Sanders’ policies and personality contradict everything The Times has consistently stood for: the maintenance and extension of a superficially prosperous status quo that depends on what it considers to be the necessarily “benevolent” project of US economic, military and political imperialism. It’s a program the “liberal” newspaper supported even during Bush’s irresponsible adventurism in the Middle East in the name of ensuring international stability. It’s “benevolent” because Americans always play the role of the good guys, even if the stability they promise to enforce destabilizes an entire region and its neighboring continents.
As someone who appreciates the system as it is, Amy Klobuchar fulfills The Times’ criterion of “seeking stability.” Though Elizabeth Warren made her reputation as a left-wing radical on domestic issues, she has made a serious effort in recent months to show her support for a similar commitment to stability by affirming that, on the economic front, unlike the socialist Sanders, she is committed to the basic tenets of US ideology. She identified herself as “capitalist to my bones” and, though shaky on foreign policy, she has shown herself to be globally supportive of an aggressive attitude toward national movements that oppose Western domination.
Warren is not, however, quite as keen as The Times on invasion, war and occupation, but once elected, that can be remedied (as it was for the peace candidate, Barack Obama, in 2008). For The Times, her positions on the economic justice as a corrective to monopolistic capitalism indicates that she is “open to new ideas,” which the newspaper finds deeply reassuring because it knows that new ideas often have no impact on practical politics.
Though Klobuchar is polling at only around 4%, The Times considers her a pragmatist, which means that, if elected, she will never let any of the ideas to which she may or may not be open get in the way of carrying on politics as usual.
Many of the commentators have complained that The Times has demonstrated its incoherence by endorsing two women with different “policy agendas, and fundamentally different world views.” To the extent that Warren continues to be identified as the other progressive alongside Sanders, The Times’ position does appear potentially contradictory. Which wing of the party is The NYT supporting: the center or the left? But since the real goal of the endorsement was to use two sticks to beat down the one villain that The Times appears most worried about, Warren and Klobuchar are similar enough to get the job done on terms that the paper appreciates.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.