I’m writing this as I’m departing flyover country to go to Washington DC, where conservatives will gather in nearby National Harbor for the annual CPAC event, which will have political media scrutinizing the movement ahead of the next election. Attendees are not just accustomed to that scrutiny — they’re highly attuned to it. We learn quickly to be aware of the ground outside our zone and to adapt to the culture in which that reporting takes place. Those who do not learn that “situational awareness,” as it might be phrased, often end up skewered and ridiculed, not always as a result of their own folly.
The question now is whether the political media in the Acela corridor has learned to look outside its own bubble. A confluence of interactions the past few days indicates that, as my friend and political reporter Salena Zito told me on TEMS yesterday, that some of them have spent too much time talking with each other and not enough talking with people outside of the media culture in Washington DC and New York City. It’s not a deliberate, “Journolist”-style construct, but rather a perhaps even more insidious cultural bubble that leaves these media figures so far out of the mainstream that they have marginalized themselves with everyone who’s not in the bubble with them.
First, let’s look at the gotcha game going on with Scott Walker over Obama’s faith, initiated by Robert Costa and Dan Balz at the Washington Post, and seized upon by a large number of mainstream media reporters and commentators. Put aside the illegitimacy of this question for now; we’ve covered that angle of it enough. Does anyone actually care what Scott Walker thinks about Barack Obama, outside of the media elite that has been in a tizzy over it? Salena spent nearly a week with Walker on the campaign trail, and she told me during the show yesterday that Walker never once brought up Obama’s faith or patriotism; in fact, he barely talked about Obama at all with voters. Nor were voters much interested in Walker’s views about Obama personally, or even on policy; they wanted Walker to tell then what he would do after 2016 rather than what Obama was doing before 2015. It’s not just that the question from Costa and Balz came out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the 2016 campaign — it’s that they’re the only ones who care about it. So for whom are they writing? Each other, it appears from outside the bubble.
Nearly at the same time that this highly-celebrated non-sequitur was unfolding, another Walker story grabbed attention. Walker, an evangelical Christian, has spoken of his reliance on faith to make significant decisions, such as running for President. “I’m still trying to decipher if this is God’s calling,” Walker told the Wall Street Journal. “[Y]ou should only do it if you feel that God’s called you to get in there and make a difference.” To that end, Walker noted, he has been talking with God to see whether this is indeed his calling. For most Americans, this is nothing new; it’s called prayer, and the 56% of Americans who say that religion in their own life is “very important” would understand exactly what Walker meant. Another 22% say that religion is “fairly important,” and would likely also grasp this point easily. That’s almost 4 out of every 5 adults in the US.
And yet, Taegan Goddard of Political Wire, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, and others found this to be inexplicably strange. I know both of these reporters, and I respect their work, even when I disagree with them. Twitchy captured the gist of my conversation with Taegan, but it started off with this:
Taegan also responded to Lachlan Markay in a now-deleted tweet, “I don’t pretend I can talk with God. But perhaps Scott Walker can.” Greg chimed in as well:
I see conservatives will not allow us to poke gentle fun at fact that so many GOP prez hopefuls claim God told them to run
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) February 24, 2015
This is so fundamental to lives of faith that, for many, it seemed literally unbelievable that Taegan could have been sincere. I believe that he was, based on the conversation that followed, which is why this has stuck with me. Others have commented on that conversation too, such as Tom Tillotson and Sean Davis. Discernment, especially on vocation, takes prayer, meditation, and an openness in one’s spiritual life to the still, small voice of God (for Christians, through the Holy Spirit). It’s what “calling” means — not a calling of our own will but that of God for us to take a certain path, usually closely related to vocations. One can have skepticism over a claim to having a specific calling, of course, but not even knowing about prayerful discernment itself exposes a frightful disconnect between the media and the populace. Snickering over what is a common tenet of faith for the vast majority of Americans says nothing about Walker, but it speaks volumes about the disconnect that we see between the mainstream political press and the people that they are purporting to inform.
Once again: to whom are they speaking? Better yet, to whom are they relevant? Not long ago, the media spent time scolding conservatives for “epistemic closure,” but this parade of irrelevancies and lack of connection to the lives of Americans should have them doing a lot of soul-searching among themselves for the exact same problem.
Heck, I live in flyover country, but I get to the Beltway every once in a while. There are some reporters and commentators who could benefit from making the same trip, figuratively speaking at least, in reverse.
Note: Taegan’s invited me to come onto his podcast to continue the conversation, and I am looking forward to it.