Diary

John Lanchester

The best moment of the 2004 US presidential election was the moment when John Kerry had won it. It was on the day itself, in the late evening, GMT. The first poll results data were coming through on the blogs: unedited poll data of the type which one now knows needs extensive interpretation, but never mind. Kerry was doing fabulously. In fact, he wasn’t just doing fabulously, he was sweeping the board. He was up in Ohio! He was up in Pennsylvania! He wasn’t just up in Virginia, he was up by a double-digit amount! (At this point, anyone with detailed knowledge of American politics might have been given pause for thought.) Let’s skip the next eight years and send a dynamiting crew to Mount Rushmore right now! Don’t forget to warn them they might need two goes to get the chin right!

At that point, I went to the pub. This was just as the BBC coverage was beginning. I enthusiastically reported the poll data to my fellow politics nerd. We planned a long night of celebration. By the time we got back from the pub, Kerry had lost. The politics nerd is showing signs that he may be going to stop teasing me quite soon.

I blame the blogs. Specifically, for getting my hopes up in the first place, I blame electoral-vote.com, which had an interactive map of poll results arranged state by state, and mysterypollster.com. (The mystery pollster, it turns out, is Mark Blumenthal, a pro in the polling business. His site is still the best thing I’ve ever read on the way polling works, and in particular why it is such an imprecise quasi-science.) For the misleading data on the night, I blame Wonkette, a lively political blog which in those days was written by Ana Marie Cox. These blogs are all, broadly speaking, aligned with the Democrats, even if they aren’t examples of the foamingly furious anti-Bush blogs which are the left equivalent of the right-wing talk-radio shows.

For non-Americans, blogs, and the internet in general, do a good job of making you feel more connected with and informed about what’s happening in American politics. For instance, you can glance at newseum.org and see the front pages of hundreds of American (and, now, foreign) newspapers – if you have the stomach for it. You do need to have the stomach for it, though, or to be in the mood for impotent rage, impotent gloom, or simple awareness of impotence. We, the global we, are in a strange position in relation to the president of the United States. He is one of the most powerful people in our lives, and yet there’s not a blind thing we can do to influence him or his policies. It almost seems as if being feared and hated by most of the planet were in some bizarre way a point in his favour among his supporters. So there’s nothing to be done. This argument is no different whether or not one has the means to make and shape public arguments. I can’t remember the last time a non-American journalist, writer or thinker or public figure had any shaping effect on American political debates, let alone decisions. Over here in Airstrip One, no one could mistake the impact of the Bush presidency; and there’s nothing we can do about it. Faced with that, lots of people choose to adopt the ostrich position. Instead I find myself keeping crossly in touch. I’m by no means certain it’s the better choice – but for those who make it, the internet and the blogs are indispensable.

Over the last few years, one of the panaceas for reality has been The West Wing, a welcome immersion in the fantasy world of the Bartlet White House, which is centrist with occasional aspirations to the left. The series began as a commentary on the Clinton administration, then after Bush ‘won’ in 2000, became an alternative reality, one in which a weekly dose of uplift was balanced by an unstated but powerful current of pessimism about the realities of American politics. It was entertaining, and – though it is slightly embarrassing to admit this – informative too, about the mechanics of government. There was only one plot line in The West Wing involving a blogger, and that was when Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff (the job Cheney had in the Ford administration), trying out a new SUV on impulse at a car salesroom, crashed into a brand new Prius. A blogger ran the story and a furious Lyman rang up to denounce her, adding at the end of his conversation: ‘This is off the record.’ Before he’d finished hanging up the phone, the blogger was posting details of his rant. The portentous moral, delivered by another character, was that Lyman had made a category mistake about the blogger: ‘she’s not a journalist.’

True. A blogger isn’t a journalist, not quite; more like a diarist with a megaphone. Blogs are more lively than accurate, and more responsive than responsible. But that is for the most part a good thing. There is a fundamental difference between the way the blogosphere talks about itself – heatedly, constantly, and with a never wavering belief in its own importance – and the way the MSM, or mainstream media, cover it: wearily, knowingly and knowing better. Each side falls on mistakes made by the other as if they were decisive proof of the other’s uselessness and irrelevance. The MSM point out that the blogs cocked up the election result, and don’t break much actual news. The blogs point out that the MSM ignored Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House, or treated it as an embarrassment, when it was in fact the most powerful piece of political comedy (and political theatre) since the Cheney administration came to power.

The most common MSM objection to the blogs is that they only talk about each other, and have a wildly exaggerated sense of their own importance. It would be hard to deny the partial truth of that; the bloggers are very revved up about blogging, and there is a technological factor at work too. Because blogs link to each other, and because the etiquette or blogiquette is that you link back to a blog that links to you, a great deal of traffic is passed from blog to blog. The unkind MSM way of regarding this would be to call it a circle-jerk; it might be more accurate to say that it has the effect of an echo-chamber or auditorium.

That doesn’t mean that what is being echoed isn’t worth listening to. For one thing, the narrowing of the American media and their mystifying timidity in relation to W. have driven people onto the net to get their opinions and perhaps also their news. Fair enough; if the right can have its talk radio, why can’t the left have its blogs? This might be one of the reasons the left blogosphere is so obsessed with Fox News and its outliers. Not Being Fox is certainly part of the point of the Huffington Post, which is simultaneously both a bit of a joke and a Good Thing. And Fox is so egregious that anything that takes it on is ‘objectively’ (as we Maoists used to say) on the right side. When the Mark Foley affair broke, Fox News ran pieces on him with his party identification and his state labelled at the bottom of the screen, as is the American way. They got his state right, Florida, but they said he was a Democrat. It’s hard to believe, given the context and the local importance of the story, that calling Foley a Democrat was incompetence; in which case it must have been what theologians call purposive evil. Either way, the MSM didn’t touch the story, but the blogs were all over it.

That goes for quite a few things: they cause a fuss in the blogosphere, but not outside it. The big exception was the story of Trent Lott, and the speech he made at the 100th birthday party of Senator Strom Thurmond. Bloggers noticed that Lott’s speech expressed a wish that Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election, which – since Thurmond stood on a segregationist platform – in turn implied that he regretted the entire course of the civil rights movement. After a few days, the news crossed over into the MSM, and not long after that Lott was toast. That is a significant scalp for bloggers to have taken; so far it remains the only one. Another real-world consequence of a blogosphere fuss came when bloggers noticed that the ABC series The Path to 9/11, allegedly based on the 9/11 Commission’s report, also contained made-up scenes and dialogue, much of it blaming the events on lapses on the part of the Clinton administration; in particular, Clinton was shown as so distracted by the Lewinsky affair that he failed to pay due attention to al-Qaida. A big blog campaign – a ‘blogswarm’ – spilled over to the MSM, some Clinton staffers added their complaints, and NBC cut 60 seconds from the film (whose writer, it turned out, is a buddy of Rush Limbaugh’s). Perhaps more significantly still, Clinton, the day after the broadcast, had a meeting with a group of Democrat and left bloggers. He praised the bloggers, in particular for their ability to ‘fact-check’ claims emanating from the right.

It is in the Democratic Party, and in the future, that the bloggers seem likely to have their biggest real-world effect. Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 was the product of a campaign by MoveOn, an internet-based campaigning movement which is close in spirit to the left blogs. Ned Lamont’s insurrectionary campaign against Joe Lieberman owed something to the anti-Bush fury of the blogs; and is being taken as an omen of what might happen to the Democratic Party in 2008. It’ll be interesting to see who comes forward as the bloggers’ candidate, to run against Hillary. There are already quite a few websites touting a Gore candidacy, and the bigger the disaster in Iraq, the stronger his position is likely to grow.

One of the most blatant pieces of wish-fulfilment in The West Wing concerned the identity of the man who won the Republican nomination in the aftermath of Bartlet’s presidency: Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda as socially liberal, fiscally conservative and overtly secular. It was an effective way of dramatising what the Republican Party has become – that’s to say, the opposite of all those things – and the least credible thing about Vinick was not his popularity with the electorate but the fact that he won the Republican nomination in the first place. In the real world, only someone who was himself a fundie, or willing to bow down and submit to the fundies, would have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. Except now there is, just perhaps, the very faintest glimmer of hope for the non-Christianist right, in the strange, sad, energetically wanking form of Congressman Mark Foley.

As a plot line, even The West Wing would have rejected it. A Republican sex scandal, fine. A gay Republican sex scandal in the run-up to the mid-terms, just maybe. A gay paedophile Republican sex scandal in the run up to the mid-terms, featuring internet grooming from a vociferous campaigner against same, plus cover-up, and the script would have gone in the bin.

It’s always depressing when it takes a wholly irrelevant furore to concentrate an electorate’s attention on the failings of a ruling party. However, anything which weakens the position of the Christianist right is, from a planetary point of view, a welcome development. It might well help John McCain, too, who is the nearest thing Republican politics has – I don’t say that’s very near – to honest Arnie Vinick.

At the time of writing the spread-betting indexes are predicting that the Republicans will lose control of the House of Representatives. (Spread-betting has become a remarkably accurate indicator of these things: it called the 2004 election for Bush while the polls were still calling it for Kerry.) That might nobble the fundies on the right, and encourage the antiwar left, with highly unpredictable consequences. Some commentators have even pointed out that a defeat could strengthen the Republicans in 2008, by making a McCain candidacy a lock for the nomination, while increasing the likelihood of a destructive primary battle between centrist and anti-war Democrats. All in all, it looks as if these mid-terms might be the most consequential congressional election since 1994, the heyday of Gingrich and the Contract with America. As for the rest of the planet, we wouldn’t mind someone making a contract with us, or thinking about it. We might have to settle for someone pretending to think about it, but even that would be a welcome change. Let’s just hope these weeks aren’t nothing but a longer drawn-out version of the moment when Kerry won the last election.

20 October