When Spotlight, a movie honouring The Boston Globe’s expose of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, received the Oscar for best film on Sunday, it affirmed the value of investigative journalism holding power to account. That marked an unintended challenge to a Washington press corps whose relationship with political power is anything but adversarial. So intimate is their partnership, in fact, that the mainstream media has shared in the uncomprehending consternation of both the Republican and Democratic party establishments at the success of the insurgent presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
While Mr Trump looks set to become the GOP nominee in November, Mr Sanders remains a long shot. But both ran for president in defiance of the leadership of their own parties, breaking “the rules” for political success as defined by an unspoken consensus between party establishments and their media satraps. Both have succeeded by tapping into the anxieties of voters contemptuous of the hypocrisies of the party establishments, and whose voices have long been ignored by the establishment media.
Despite both having long been deemed “unelectable” (for different reasons), the steady growth of both campaigns has confounded the predictions of the insider media and exasperated its doyens.
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews didn’t even try to conceal his establishment leanings as he berated Mr Sanders in a recent interview, demanding that the socialist senator from Vermont explain how he would persuade the senate to enact his promise of free college tuition. The senate would never do it, Matthews patronisingly explained. Mr Sanders clearly didn’t understand the rules of the game.
Mr Sanders patiently explained that he understood the rules of the game all too well – he was, in fact, running against the game. That has been the whole point of his campaign. His opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, brands him an irresponsible dreamer, promising that she can “get things done”. He counters that the only things she could get done are things acceptable to the Republican-controlled Congress, and the corporate sponsors of both parties. His campaign and – in the unlikely event he’s elected – his presidency are a platform for protest against the political and economic status quo of which Mrs Clinton is an integral part.
Mr Sanders vows to get things done by mobilising millions of people in the streets – which, by the way, is how African Americans and women earned the right to vote and working people earned the right to a 40-hour week.
Justice in America has always been driven from below in often bitter battles before being codified by courts and legislatures. Mr Sanders is running as a radical challenge to the status quo rather than promising, as Mrs Clinton does, to be an agent of continuity and competent management.
And while a press corps finds Mr Sanders’s message incomprehensible, it has resonated with millions of voters whose living standards and economic prospects have steadily declined since 1980, regardless of which party has been in the White House.
The extent to which Mrs Clinton has been forced to echo many of his positions underscores the extent to which Mr Sanders has transformed the conversation. The influence of his ideas will far outlive his campaign.
And if Mrs Clinton has suffered setbacks from an obvious enthusiasm-deficit for her candidacy among Democrats, that’s nothing compared with the calamity that befell her GOP establishment-designated rival for the White House, Jeb Bush. Instead of falling into line after some ritual skirmishing, more than two-thirds of Republican primary voters consistently chose the Republican establishment’s nightmare candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
To be sure, Mr Trump has trafficked in vile racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia to an extent that has enabled some of the more violent elements on the American political margins are being emboldened by his campaign. A Trump presidency is certainly a fearful prospect – not least to the neoconservatives who championed the Iraq invasion, and whose leading lights are backing Mrs Clinton over a Republican fiercely opposed to foreign military adventures, and who excoriates the Iraq invasion as based on lies.
But while his Republican rivals and the media point out that Mr Trump has few clear policies and that much of his campaign rhetoric makes little sense, he’s trading on an ideology – and ideologies are not subject to a logic audit, they simply have to offer the illusions of comfort and salvation.
The epic failure of decades of Reaganomics to deliver anything but poverty and despair to so many working class and middle class white Americans has turned them against the Republicans’ corporate elite and made them vulnerable to Mr Trump’s demagoguery.
A press corps obsessed with access to those in power has had little interest in the stories, experience and views of ordinary Americans.
That’s an institutional failure that has left most of the media unable to comprehend the behaviour of the electorate – making it not only irrelevant to the lives of many millions of ordinary Americans, but also of diminishing value even to the elites trying to predict outcomes.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York