Getting the headline right is often the hardest part. Politico took several stabs at the inaugural entry of John F. Harris’s new column, “Altitude,” which aims to offer “weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.” There was “Why the Media Is Biased Against Elizabeth Warren,” which was certainly clickable but didn’t quite fit the column or, for that matter, press coverage of Warren, which has been kind. “Behind the Beltway’s Freakout Over Elizabeth Warren” came closer—the Beltway is freaking out about Warren, though not to the same extent that billionaires are. As I write this piece, the headline on my screen reads, “One Big Thing the Dems Get Wrong About Warren.”
But Harris isn’t really writing about Warren. Harris, the founding editor of Politico and the very epitome of establishment Beltway media, is writing about himself—specifically, what he and his confreres get wrong about politics. His conclusions are striking. “A quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike,” he writes. “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.”
It’s hard to think of an analogy that does this justice. Phil Jackson admitting the triangle offense has lost its potency in the space-and-pace NBA? Paul Ryan turning on trickle-down economics? This is not exactly a mea culpa. Instead, it’s a forthright description of the way that D.C. media works, all but acknowledging that liberal critics of mainstream news coverage have been right all along. Despite what the right might say, the problem with the news isn’t a liberal bias—it’s bias toward an arbitrary, made-up center that ends up tilting reality against liberal policies and politicians.
Harris chalks much of this bias up to institutionalism. Washington is a company town, and in this case the company is the U.S. government. “Here’s something I’ve long believed—more or less—that many in Washington media and operative classes in both parties also believe,” he writes. “For all the talk of ‘polarization,’ if you sent delegations of high-level Washington Democrats and Republicans to a secret retreat (say, to Andrews Air Force Base) and all sides were insulated from backlash from their party’s own activists, this group would not have an especially difficult time striking a comprehensive agreement on immigration reform, or modifying Obamacare, or a long-term budget accord. David Gergen would approve.”
Here one of the nation’s preeminent political journalists is admitting that he and other members of his class adhere to a rather cynical ideology—the ideology of finding the midway point between a normal party with normal policies and proposals and an intellectually bankrupt tribe of troglodytes that gets crazier and more morally repugnant by the day. The problem, in the view of Harris, is that pesky “activists” (which is really just another word for “voters”) get in the way. Candidates like Warren and Bernie Sanders suffer in this environment because their ideas are out of step with the D.C. consensus. They are automatically categorized as “extreme,” their ideas “unworkable,” all because they reject the midway-point mode of governance, which only ends up favoring the actual extremists on the right.
What’s striking about this ideology is that it has no significant constituency outside Washington. Third Way, the centrist think tank whose work most aligns with Harris’s thinking, has struggled to remain relevant. Michael Bloomberg, the politician who best embodies Harris’s ideal, is poised to enter the Democratic primary and almost everyone agrees he has no chance of winning—except, tellingly, the mandarins in elite Washington media.
What Harris appears to have realized in his great epiphany is that conflict plays a crucial role in politics and that bipartisanship is not an axiomatic good. “A fair appraisal of the past generation has to acknowledge that bipartisan assumptions in the Washington governing class and establishment media are at least partially complicit in some of the largest policy debacles of the past generation (bogus assumptions before the Iraq War, the 2008 financial meltdown),” Harris writes.
The stifling media paradigm Harris describes has implications not only for Warren and Sanders, but the entire Democratic Party and any liberal movement that wants a fair shot at convincing the public that its ideas are superior to those of its opponents. John Harris woke up. Will the rest of Washington?