Michael Bloomberg looks on before delivering his speech to delegates on the last day of the Conservative party conference, in the International Convention Centre on October 10, 2012
( Oli Scarff
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. After almost
a year of prognostications that Donald Trump could never, ever win the GOP nomination – well, you know. But now a funny thing is happening. Rather than shame, fear or chagrin, the columnists and talking heads are feeling a frisson, titillation in the form of speculation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Voters in this country right now are rejecting a two-party system.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: But we could have a third-party independent Republican candidacy this fall, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But not just any third-party candidacy. As former Politico CEO Jim VandeHei wrote in an op-ed last month, the ideal candidate would be an innovator, someone who would embrace Silicon Valley and disrupt the establishment, someone like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg or, as journalist Mike Allen said in 2012, someone who understands that we live in a time when –
MIKE ALLEN: - the American people want a sort of more muted politics, this more centrist politics…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like who?
MIKE ALLEN: That’s exactly where Michael Bloomberg is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted in 2011, what we really need is someone who gets that –
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: We need a shock to the system. The country, in my view, is in a radical move.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like who?
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: If Michael Bloomberg wants to run, I’m very happy to vote for him.
BRENDAN NYHAN: It basically seems to be a search for Michael Bloomberg or someone like him –
- recurring over and over and over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist who teaches government at Dartmouth.
BRENDAN NYHAN: If you have a feeling like this is Groundhog Day, the movie, that’s how it feels, at least to me, because pundits have been having the same fantasy about a third-party centrist candidate winning by acclamation for most of my adult lifetime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you say Michael Bloomberg-like, what are you talking about?
BRENDAN NYHAN: Socially moderate, economically moderate, a technocrat who’s above petty partisan politics, who will solve problems that the squabbling partisans won’t.
What’s so interesting about this pundit demand for a candidate like Bloomberg is that they are his base.
They like his views far more than everyday Americans do. Even if Americans, on average, have a relatively moderate issue position, it doesn't mean that on every single issue they have a moderate issue position. As research in political science has shown, the people who come out as moderates actually look more like a kind of Ross Perot- or Trump-like candidate. They might be hostile to free trade and hostile to immigration, for instance, which are positions that neither party embraced, at least until recently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal along these lines that’s generated a lot of attention and a, a certain amount of mockery. [LAUGHS] It’s by the former CEO of Politico, Jim VandeHei. It was called, “Bring on a Third Party” which he dubbed the “Innovation Party,” led by the likes of say, Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg, with Michael Bloomberg [LAUGHS] as treasury secretary. He said it would be basically driven by innovation and apps.
BRENDAN NYHAN: I'm trying to restrain my laughter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] He asserts that his proposal is derived from his experience of, quote, “normal America.” Is it what America wants?
BRENDAN NYHAN: No. [LAUGHS] One misunderstanding is that the fact that many Americans don't identify with one of the two major parties means they want a centrist. That's false. We’re in an election cycle where the energy has been generated by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. No one sits around thinking, boy, I wish Mark Zuckerberg could be president or, I want to support a party that's based on innovation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is it that these pundits see in American politics that makes them long for a third way?
BRENDAN NYHAN: We have a set of civic ideals that are based around the mid-20th century version of America, when we had a large group of centrist Southern Democrats who almost functioned as a kind of third party. There was much more room for compromise. The parties were much less ideologically distinct. But that's not how our political system works anymore, and the deep disagreement that our parties’ polarization reflects can't be easily solved. We have had independents elected as governors, for instance. Many of them had a – had a tough time because neither party is fully supportive of them. I mean, ask Jesse "The Body" Ventura, former governor of Minnesota, who had a terrible time facing Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature there.
The third-party fantasy highlights the tendency of the media to exaggerate unlikely prospects for the sake of generating controversial opinions. It also highlights just how vulnerable pundits are, as we all are, I think, to project our views onto everybody else. It’s very revealing of how insular their perspective is that they think there’s widespread demand for this kind of candidate, when the polling is staring them in the face saying it's not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brendan, thank you very much.
BRENDAN NYHAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist and assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
So if the pundits assume that a winning third-party candidate should be and would be above partisan politics, above ideology, The New Republic's Brian Beutler says that’s a profoundly misguided notion, one that stems from the media's reluctance to address fundamental political beliefs. Journalistic neutrality, so to speak, is easier to maintain when focused on process rather than principles. Thus, writes Beutler, ideological blinders are a key part of the industry's work attire.
BRIAN BEUTLER: So if you see conflict between President Obama, on the one hand, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the other hand, and you can't trace the conflict that they have back to fights about the nature of the scope and scale of government and what government should do that go back decades and you instead attribute it to their personal failures as leaders, then it's tempting to imagine that somebody from outside the system who has better leadership qualities can just heal what ails the political system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if it isn't just a political problem because the parties can't get along but deep ideological problems, then these pundits that come up annually with these proposals, all of which look pretty much alike, they're not only irrelevant but they're far more reflective of the weaknesses that are baked into the media business generally. Is that fair?
BRIAN BEUTLER: I think that's right. The reason the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Donald Trump campaign were successful is because they spoke to unmet needs among the voting public. And, in fact, part of the reason why this kind of centrist idea has escaped politics or, or –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Failed. [LAUGHS]
BRIAN BEUTLER: - yeah, failed in politics is that politicians that had those beliefs weren't able to keep their jobs because the suite of ideas that they proposed and that they pursued in office weren’t particularly popular.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do you think the third-party enthusiasts reconcile the understanding that Sanders and Trump have tapped into something with their own conviction that we can discount what it is that they’ve tapped into?
BRIAN BEUTLER: My guess would be that, on the one hand, they see that if candidates like Trump and Sanders prove that there are millions and millions of voters who feel disaffected by more conventional politics, that Sanders and Trump’s appeal is in the rhetoric that they use about the system being corrupt and rigged against normal people but that the solutions that both Sanders and Trump propose have nothing to do with why they're popular with their voters, and that if you could just take the different kinds of rhetorical flourish that both of those candidates use and apply them to a more, I guess you could call it, a more like Beltway [LAUGHS] of appropriate mix of policies, that the people who are responding to Sanders and Trump would respond just as well to Beltway centrism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggested that the media ought to start thinking about whether the professional malaise, neutrality dressed up as objectivity, is hindering it.
BRIAN BEUTLER: If we’re getting this really silly species of journalism on a regular basis and the reason is because people who have spent careers in journalism have so blinded themselves to the substantive underpinnings of political conflict that they can't understand why calling for this kind of a third-party candidacy could never take hold and could never disrupt the system, they are not getting at the core of what's really causing the vitriol that we see every election cycle, because they're blind to the real forces driving those things and are concocting new ones to be able to tell a story that isn't biased.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the most common one they concoct is?
BRIAN BEUTLER: That there is a leadership void in Washington, that all the country really needs is a leader of rare talent backed by ideologically neutral financiers and we could solve all the nation's problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: About five years ago, former CEO of Politico Jim VandeHei and his political colleague Mike Allen made an online poll, asking, quote, “readers on Politico, Yahoo!, Facebook and Twitter to nominate people in politics, business or entertainment who could harness the public's hunger for something new and inspiring” - not a scientific poll, obviously.
BRIAN BEUTLER: Not scientific at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were hoping, however, to see who, at least among this technological elite, would choose as their ideal candidate for innovative change. Do you remember who won that poll?
BRIAN BEUTLER: I believe it was none other than [LAUGHS], than innovator, outsider, Hillary Clinton.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN BEUTLER: Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Beutler is a senior editor at the New Republic and the host of Primary Concerns, a podcast about the 2016 presidential primaries.