The price of gasoline is pretty high in the United States right now. Not in international comparison, where it's still ludicrously cheap, but in comparison to what Americans -- who've let a completely car-dependent culture arise around them despite repeated oil shocks -- think they should be paying.
This fact, unfortunately, could have world-historical importance. American voters, ignorant and fickle creatures that they are, might well vote for any Republican to punish Obama for 'not doing enough' about U.S. gasoline prices, which of course are largely beyond his control. As Dave Weigel puts it:
Speaker of the House John Boehner made a prediction Monday about Barack Obama's re-election bid. "If gas prices are $5 or $6, he certainly isn't going to win." It might be the least disputable thing a politician has ever said. Well, yes: If people have to keep paying more and more to fill their cars up, the president could lose re-election—even to one of the current batch of Republicans. There's evidence, circumstantial but graphically compelling, that the president's current poll numbers are a function of the price of gas.
Now, most mainstream American journalists, like most Americans, have grown up in a political culture where the smarts of the 'common man' are universally assumed. The 22nd-tiredest political cliche in the United States is 'my opponent is underestimating the intelligence of the American people, who will see right through his craven pandering/blatant scare-mongering...' So Weigel calmly assesses the chance that gasoline prices alone will drive the next American election without ever once stopping to say to himself, or his readers: "Many of my countrymen are such fools that they will change control of the White House to a party with a different foreign policy and different spending priorities and different social values based solely on the price of one consumer good whose price the President cannot even control. God, how depressing. I should drop whatever I'm doing right now and dedicate my life to trying to improve the political judgment of my fellow Americans."
But that's clearly not the mission the American press corps has given itself. Here's a remarkable press statement from Obama yesterday (h/t Ed Philp) , in which he expains his decision to release his own birth certificate to defuse the moronic, years-long non-controversy over whether he was born in the United States:
Even Obama, who never flies off the handle, can't resist several digs at the press corps for giving 'birthers', as the morons are known, two long, pointless, wasted years of attention.
The truth is that the American journalistic lanscape -- especially when it comes to TV, the only source of news for most Americans -- is dominated by carnival barkers. Most of the news providers are for-profit companies, competing against one another for ratings. They will broadcast whatever attracts eyeballs, not whatever edifies -- yes, edifies* -- viewers. And that means stories that feature exciting controversies about emotionally-laden themes. As a result, the political judgment of those lost souls who get their news from TV becomes ever more adolescent. They're trained to focus on meaningless personality traits, ginned-up pseudo-conflicts, or vacuous horse-race bullshitting about who's got the better 'ground game'. Whatever ability they may have had to carefully balance competing policy priorities shrivels up and blows away.
And so, for the past few years, there have been thousands of U.S. television hours spent on the question of whether Obama was born in the U.S., usually in the form of idiots pontificating about the issue in ignorance, or 'debates' in which people yell at each other. These hours could have been devoted to America's two, ongoing, pointless, expensive wars, or strategies for containing health care costs, or analyses of the Arab uprisings, or even a good old-fashioned doughty, earnest documentary about water rights. But all those things would have cost a lot more money than inviting a couple of blowhards into the television studio and/or would have required finding people who actually knew what they were talking about. So they weren't done. Instead, the completely irrelevant non-controversy of Obama's 'real' place of birth was kept alive.
Since the press wouldn't police itself, Obama finally had to take action, and his frustration is visible. But even if this pointless distractions is largely put to rest, another one will surely follow, and the press corps will surely give it attention as long as it boosts ratings. As James Fallows said, "This is not a great day for the press."
* Sure, edify has all sorts of tea-cozy, church-basement-lecture overtones of stuffy didactic earnestness, but we elitists need to proudly reclaim it. I'm so old that I remember when there were some American intellectuals and officials who, quaintly enough, actually thought television might actually one day help improve people's judgment, and were disgusted at what it was doing instead:
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
That was back in 1961.