An Unlikely Pair
This week’s Economist and Weekend FT both feature articles about the newest candidate to enter the Republican nomination contest, Michele Bachmann. As papers that regularly point to the celebrity reality show nature of Sarah Palin’s past (and potential future) candidacy, the papers treat Bachmann remarkably seriously. They refer to her polling numbers in Iowa, where she is only behind Mitt Romney by 1 percentage point in the Republican nominating contest. They refer to her religious convictions, and although it’s clear that they are not shared by the authors of the pieces, the tone is markedly different from those aimed at Palin, or even Newt Gingrich. ‘Authenticity’, ‘conviction’, ‘credentials’ seem to be the buzzwords surrounding Bachmann. She is genuinely passionate about her religious convictions, the papers argue. She’s the opposite of Romney’s transparent faux conservativeness, and therefore will appeal to real value voters, they say. She is ideologically pure, as well, ridiculing the Republican establishment with as much vigor as she ridicules Democratic opponents. But they also emphasize that she’s no lightweight. Although she has a limited political track record, they are keen to highlight that unlike Palin, she’s smart. Not just shrewd (though there’s that too: ‘And Mrs Bachmann certainly knows how to play Iowa;’ ‘She is a gifted public speaker, with a knack for rousing a crowd;’ ‘ her appetite for provocative stunts;’ etc), she is portrayed as genuinely smart, presidential material: The Economist says ‘ She replied, in a suitably dignified, presidential manner, that she deserved to be taken seriously.‘ The FT says that ‘In Republican circles she is seen as having the potential to outshine Palin by being a smarter and more disciplined candidate.’ Clearly the comparisons to Palin are easy for journalists: they are both ‘values’ candidates, they appeal to similar voters, and they are both women.
What is more intriguing about this coverage, though, is its potential for international comparisons. A regular feature of the Economist (and its only regular African coverage), South Africa’s political situation this week highlighted the differences and similarities between the coverage of America’s radical populists and other countries’. Julius Malema, that bogeyman of international investors in South Africa, was featured as a renewed, serious threat to the ANC and democratic, liberal development in ‘fragile’ South Africa. Malema represents a longstanding fear amongst the liberal British public. People who want Archbishop Desmund Tutu’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ to prove that racial harmony and progressive liberal development can survive in South Africa. People who see the economic potential of South Africa. People who want a case study of post-oppression racial harmony to serve as an example to other nations. None of the issues highlighted were particularly new, aside from Malema’s recent re-election. Malema still wants to seize white land and nationalize South Africa’s industries and resources. He still blames a combination of white and black elites in power, increasingly focusing his (and his followers’) anger at President Jacob Zuma.
Both Malema and Bachmann fall into a populist mold and although they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they share a common base. Bachmann is supported by people who feel alienated by the current government, who feel like their own party has not lived up to its promises, and who are suffering from the economic crisis and the high unemployment rate. Malema is supported by, as the Economist argues, those who are upset with the ANC’s undelivered promises, the rising unemployment rate, and the spiraling issues of poverty and AIDS.
Although Bachmann and Malema represent totally different classes and have completely different solutions to the problems facing their countries, they share a disdain for both politics and economics as usual. For the (Liberal) Economist, this represents a threat on both fronts: nationalization of South Africa’s economy and the potential for the US default on its debt are both dealt with as serious issues. And, the Economist doesn’t hold back from worrying that these issues might be too serious for these anti-intellectual candidates. Although Bachmann is portrayed as smarter than Sarah Palin, and both Bachmann and Malema are shown to be clever political operators, Bachmann’s history blunders are seen to be political blunders. This might be the most frightening kind of anti-intellectual, though: ‘Despite his famed “G”—a dismally low grade—for his woodwork exam in his school-leaving matriculation, Mr Malema is no fool.’ This is why the Economist and the FT fear this kind of candidate more than a Sarah Palin: they are smart enough to win elections, but not smart enough to know/care about finance and macroeconomics. As they Economist points out, Bachmann ‘voted not only for the fearsome spending cuts put forward by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, but also for the even more ruthless ones proposed by the Republican Study Committee. She voted against all the bills that have become red rags to the right, including TARP, the stimulus, cap-and-trade and health-care reform.’
In the coverage of both Malema and Bachmann, though, there’s a certain amount of ‘we won’t be fooled again’ in the media’s attitude. Although they clearly want to (at some level) dismiss these candidates as absurd populists, in Southern Africa and in the American ‘Heartland’ (hmm, I contest this term but have trouble thinking of an alternative), there is precedent for these kind of populist political choices. This is clearest in writing about Malema, where the Economist, but also Malema himself, invokes the specter of Robert Mugabe. For instance, the article opens with this statement:
‘HE USED to be dismissed as an ignorant buffoon, whose populist ranting and colourful racist tirades usefully filled newspaper column inches on a dull day. But now, following Julius Malema’s triumphant re-election unopposed as leader of the powerful Youth League of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), South Africans are beginning to wonder whether they have not spawned a “dictator-in-waiting”, as Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, has dubbed him.’
Compare this to the opening of the article on Bachmann:
‘“ARE you a flake?” a news anchor asked Michele Bachmann the day before she formally launched her campaign for the presidency, summing up the pundits’ slightly dismissive view of her chances. She replied, in a suitably dignified, presidential manner, that she deserved to be taken seriously. The best evidence of that had come the day before, when a poll of likely caucus-goers in Iowa put her neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, with 22% to his 23%.’
The problem with this approach is that the media does not purely observe phenomena; it helps to shape them. In both of these situations, the characters are lightweights and can certainly be portrayed that way. The papers take them seriously because they don’t want to be caught out; but in part, taking them seriously helps to make them into serious candidates. Malema should not be a threat. Bachmann should not be a threat. Both are minority candidates who represent a popular dissatisfaction with the status quo, and particularly with the status quo within their own parties. But as both articles conclude, hestitantly (as though by whispering it they won’t jinx that this hoped for outcome will come true):
Bachmann, ‘may still struggle to win the nomination. Republicans tend to plump for electable candidates over ideologically pure ones, and seasoned politicians over relative neophytes. Most polls show Mr Romney, for one, putting in a better showing against Barack Obama than Mrs Bachmann. Even in the party’s most conservative redoubts, after all, the ability to beat Mr Obama is the most cherished qualification of all’
and of Malema’s supporters, ‘They may be forgetting that the wily Mr Zuma can be ruthless too.’
Hopefully Zuma and Obama can both find a careful balance of being ruthless without taking these candidates seriously.