By Sarah McCarthy
Matt Taibbi holds the chief political writer position at Rolling Stone once held by Hunter S. Thompson. He also started two publications, works as a regular contributor to Real Time with Bill Maher, and penned three critically acclaimed books — all before turning 40. How does he do it? Bitingly honest and hilarious political and social commentary.
Taibbi came to Ithaca College to speak as a part of the Park Center for Independent Media speaker series. Buzzsaw staff writer Sarah McCarthy spoke with Taibbi about Barack Obama, political boxing matches, and Roseanne — with no reservations.
Buzzsaw: In “The scariest thing about Sarah Palin isn’t about how unqualified she is, but what her candidacy says about America”, you discuss the “imageering” of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. Why do you think voters were willing to look past the issues in favor of image in this election?
Matt Taibbi: Well, it’s not just this election. I think in general we’ve trained voters in this country to respond to certain things. It’s funny; I was just talking about this last night with Professor Cohen and Todd [Schack]. They were saying if you watch Hardball or something like that or listen to Chris Matthews or any of these reporters saying, “Barack Obama isn’t the kind of guy that America wants to watch a ballgame with,” or something like that. You’re constantly hearing this stuff from mainstream pundits where they’re telling you how you’re supposed to respond to the candidates.
You’re supposed to like the guys who are the kind of people you’d want to go bowling with, or have a beer with, or something like that. They never tell you to like the guy who represents your interests economically or against the guy who voted against the free trade policy that cost you your job. They put a lot less emphasis on stuff like that–who you would hang out with, or who reminds you of you.
It’s the same kind of dynamic we use with advertising. If you take a show like Roseanne or Married With Children, which is about middle-class people, then all the characters in the commercials for those shows are going to look like the characters in them. The same thing goes on with politics when we’re trying to attract middle class voters, where we produce candidates who look like those people. That’s how we sell their politics to those types of people: by producing an image, not by catering their politics to what actually represents these people.
B: Since 1968, the Republican Party has dominated on the executive branch. Do you think Obama’s win is a shift in the political thought of America?
MT: You first have to ask yourself why that shift happened in 1968. The big reason was that Nixon and his people created what they call the “Southern Strategy”. Democrats had dominated the South up until 1968.
They pursued a kind of politics where they heavily focused on law and order issues, they ran a lot of commercials of inner-city black people and chaos in the cities that were designed to scare southern middle class whites into fleeing the Democrat Party and going to the Republican Party. They captured the South through racial politics, and they continued to do it for the next couple of decades.
If you follow closely what happened in each successive election, they somehow found a way to make race an issue. Reagan campaigned against welfare queens, for instance. “Welfare queens” was basically code for black people living off your tax dollars.
Or there was the Willy Horton thing with George H.W. Bush, there was the immigration issue after that. They always found a way to scare middle class, poor, white people into voting against the Democratic Party using race.
What happened in this election was that the Democrats found a way to fight back. They elected a black candidate and McCain tried as hard as he could to interject race into this campaign, to use that as a technique to win white voters. Not only didn’t it work, it backfired spectacularly against him. I think what’s going to happen after that election is that it’s going to be really hard for the Republicans to use those kind of politics again.
I don’t know if there’s been a radical shift in the politics of those two parties, but there’s been a shift in the campaigning techniques. I think the Democrats took the key technique away from the Republicans, and I think they’ll continue to keep it away from them.
B: In your article “Obama’s Moment”, you admitted that you were starting to believe that Barack Obama was truly genuine. Do you still feel that way, a couple weeks into his presidency?
MT: I like Barack Obama personally. From what I’ve seen of him, I think he’s genuinely a thoughtful person. I think he’s about as sincere as a politician can be. He seems like a genuine intellectual, if you compare him to someone like Bill Clinton. Clinton was a brilliant guy, but it seemed to me that the bulk of his intellect was geared toward “How do I get and maintain power?” That took up the bulk of his mental energy.
Whereas Barack Obama, I think his intellect travels in different directions. I think he thinks about a lot of different things, not just that. In America, the politics is not just the president. There’s an entire apparatus, a whole system that we have that operates independently of the president. I’m not sure how much effect he’s going to have personally on the process. And also, how he is as a person might be very different than how he is as a politician.
It seems to me that he’s made some very curious and disappointing choices early on. His appointments have been real head-scratchers, serving notice that he is going to rely on the same kind of people that Bill Clinton relied on while he was in office, which is a little bit depressing to me. There are some good decisions that the president makes that he makes as an individual human being, and I trust him more than I would trust other people to make those decisions.
B: Do you think the government or the media is to blame for the hyper partisanship of the last three elections?
MT: Both, probably more the media. The media covers in that hyper partisan way for a very obvious reason, for the same reason they cover sports the way they cover sports because conflict sells.
The only way you can get people to pay attention to something naturally as boring as politics is to present it like a WWF match. If you actually listen to political pundits talking about primary battles, they’ll even use words like, “The upcoming slugfest in Indiana!” and they’ll have these crazy graphics where so and so is knocking out the other person.
They’re always using boxing metaphors, and sports metaphors. “So and so needs to throw the Hail Mary!” and “So and so needs to land a knockout punch to show that he has a chance!” They’re trying to sell conflict, so what they naturally do is they find controversial issues that are divisive and they find people who are extremists on one side of an issue, and they put those people on television, and they get them to scream at people on the other side of the issue.
Even people who want to remain neutral about the whole thing, for instance, me: if I watch Sarah Palin on television rambling about how Barack Obama is a socialist for whatever reason Barack Obama is very far from being a socialist, especially Sarah Palin saying that at a moment where the Republican Party was nationalizing the banking industry. I’m going to get upset about that, but they want you to get upset about that because they want you to watch the news. They create these artificially angry storylines to keep people focused on the TV.
In reality, politics is very, very bipartisan in this country. Most of what they do–the bankruptcy bill is a great example–there’s a lot of consensus between the two parties, but that goes mostly unreported. The media is much worse in selling the conflict in that aspect.
B: Do you think it’s better or worse that people are interested [in politics], but also [forced to choose a] side?
MT: What’s happened now with the partisanship is that it’s been pursued to a degree that’s absurd. Now people follow politics the way they follow sports.
For instance, someone who roots for the New England Patriots would never root for the Indianapolis Colts. No matter what happens they hate the Colts, the Colts are always wrong on the issue. And a Colts fan will always think that Bill Belichick was a cheater. It doesn’t matter what the facts are: they’re going to be against the Patriots and the Patriots fans are going to support their guy.
That’s the way politics are in this country. If a Republican politician comes up with something, the Republicans are going to be fine about it, and the Democrats are going to hate it. That’s the way it’s always pursued in the media, and vice versa. It’s just stupid!
In reality people should sit there, look at the issues, they should decide, “Maybe this has some merit, this doesn’t,” and if we were able to talk about things without screaming at each other we might actually come up with some better ideas about things. But they’ve conditioned us to scream before talking about it. I think it’s a terrible thing, it’s very destructive.
Incidentally, that’s one of the few tangible things that was good about the Obama campaign. They purposely didn’t go there. They were inclusive all the way through, which was new and a good thing.
B: What would you say has been the single most important thing you’ve done as a journalist?
MT: I don’t know about important–the really important reports are the investigative [ones] because they’re the ones who actually break news. People who do what I do, or people on The Daily Show or something like that, train people to be suspicious of the news when it comes out, to consider the politicians. They might be ridiculous instead of right about things. If you train people to have a sense of humor about what happens it leads people to question things on their own, and eventually that’s a good thing. I don’t know how much of an effect the stuff I do has on people, but I hope that people have a little bit more of a sense of humor about the news after they read what I do.