Michael Lind puts his finger on a major reason why I stopped watching MSNBC some time ago. In his latest Salon column, Lind condemns that network in particular and the "progressive media" in general for focusing too much on a handful of especially obnoxious or eccentric personalities on the Right, for spending too much time snarking over the latest outrageous utterance of Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. As Lind sees it, this approach only serves to make Republicans whose policies are just as dangerous but whose personalities are less flamboyant or abrasive look moderate or statesmanlike to the average viewer. It also reinforces the stereotype of progressives as self-consciously superior intellectuals who look down on populist protest and, in populist theory, the average American. Most importantly, this purely reactionary approach to news, in which progressives spend all their time critiquing the reactionary Republican version of the news, costs progressives their opportunity to play the populists' preferred role of "village explainer." Instead of constructing their own account of the economy and the global situation, instead of offering the "right" version of reality, progressives too often seem concerned simply with proving that the "Right" version is wrong.
Lind's protests are probably in vain. Taking MSNBC as our example, the "progressive" media is often the "progressive corporate" media. It exists to make money. As numerous best-selling books prove, there's more money to be made from hating Republicans and radio talkers than there is in making the case for progressive politics on its own terms. It's simpler and, for many people, more fun to talk as if all our problems would go away if only the Republicans were eliminated than to explain the responsibilities and sacrifices all Americans are likely to face in the future. In addition, it's in the interest in both major parties, and arguably more in the interest of Democrats and their sympathizers, to personalize politics as much as possible. While Republicans have the advantage of exploiting a generic hatred of politicians or bureaucrats as entire classes of people, Democrats have to focus on hateful personalities to energize their base. To the extent that both parties focus on hateful personalities, the strategy serves to emphasize the personal appeal of each party's own candidates. Bush's folksiness is contrasted to Gore's pedantry; Obama's calm is contrasted to McCain's rancor. The parties sell personalities because doing so perpetuates the illusion that this time voters are getting something different, not just another Democrat or Republican. Exploiting personality makes voters willing to try one of the same old party yet again, while emphasizing the most obnoxious personalities of the other party convinces voters that that party is somehow worse than ever. The politics of personalities obscures the continuity of Bipolarchy by turning electoral politics into a perpetually renewable struggle of good guys and bad guys. The good guys may seem to be the solution to the bad guys, but there's no real guarantee that good or bad guys have solutions to the problems that transcend partisan conflict. Don't look to partisan media for answers to those problems any more than you'd look to professional wrestling for excellence in martial arts.