There’s still no evidence of a direct link between any mainstream political discourse and the shooting in Tucson over the weekend. But the media’s reaction to the shooting tells us an awful lot about the state of political punditry.
It’s not just the cheap point scoring and the rush to politicize the shootings, either—though that’s certainly a big part of it. Indeed, that’s partially just a symptom of a larger failing: the determination of so much of the political class to fit Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged killer, and his heinous act into some handy and easily identifiable political framework, despite knowing better.
Andrew Sullivan captured the conflicted, dual impulse rather well when he wrote early on, that “this is so awful that political grandstanding seems both inappropriate right now, and yet also very appropriate. An attempted political assassination is a political act and deserves a political response.”
But the political responses inevitably turn into recitations of all-too-familiar talking points. Loughner was influenced by anti-government extremists, according to the extremist-trackers at the Southern Poverty Law Center. His “beliefs are the liberal of liberals,” declared a Republican member of Congress. He’s backed by a touchy-feely Democratic party, said Rush Limbaugh. Conservative-scolding columnist E.J. Dionne ominously noted that “since President Obama's election, it is incontestable that significant parts of the American far right have adopted a language of revolutionary violence in the name of overthrowing ‘tyranny.’” The folks at No Labels decided that the shooting was an “opportunity” to talk about, well, what No Labels exists to talk about. Time’s Mark Halperin, one of the nation’s chief purveyors of glib Beltway groupthink, congratulated “the media and the politicians” for having “behaved pretty well so far” and argued that conservatives should take the opportunity to “turn the other cheek.” At least he didn’t call it a game-changer.
The job of political pundits and advocacy groups is to talk about their issues, always and forever, rain or shine, good news or bad. Plenty of pundits do this reflexively, at home or at work, at cocktail parties or baseball games. Being perpetually on message is a skill. It’s also hard to turn off.
But the usual responses don’t provide much insight or comfort when confronted with an event like this, which revolves around an individual whose politics, to the extent they exist at all, certainly cannot be captured by any familiar political framework, and are probably confused enough that they will remain mostly inscrutable forever.
That presents a challenge for punditry, which is dominated almost exclusively by individuals who are versed in a certain set of facts and who think in a certain way, using accepted shorthand and well-established categories to describe pretty much everything that goes on in their world. And although most pundits and analysts understand this at a certain level, it’s hard to truly grasp how removed from pundit-land many individuals and their lives are, how vast the gulf is between the political world and their world.
One form of that distance was captured well in “Decision Makers,” a memorable piece on undecided voters by journalist Christ Hayes. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Hayes spoke to a number of late-breaking undecided voters, and found them not only unaware of the specifics of many issues, but unfamiliar with “the very concept of the political issue.” More broadly, wrote Hayes, such voters frequently displayed “a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the ‘political.’ The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances.”
Obviously there are huge differences between someone like Loughner, who seems to have been mentally unstable, and a typical undecided voter. But what Hayes captures so well in the piece is not just how mystifying standard political thinking is to some voters, but how foreign the lack of proficiency with political thinking and political jargon can seem to those in the political class.
In a loose way, it’s possible to observe a similar disconnect here. Loughner’s milieu—a middle-class suburban upbringing marked by failed attempts at community college, UFO message boards, online game playing, and handgun proficiency, among other things—is (understandably) alien to most of the political class. And as we’re increasingly seeing, Loughner was an outcast, a loner, and a confusing—sometimes frightening—character even within those worlds.
Washington’s usual narratives and talking points aren’t well-suited to dealing with someone so unfamiliar, and so removed from the Beltway's daily back-and-forth—especially when that person also appears to be mentally unbalanced. But many in the political class cling to the comfort of those easy narratives anyway. After all, as the last few days have proven, that's all they’ve got.
Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.