Beware: Huge Media Companies Are Selling Corporate Ideology as the 'New American Center'
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“IT’S OFFICIAL,” the box on my screen announced in capital letters. “YOU’RE ONE OF THE BLEEDING HEARTS.”
To examine the Esquire/NBC News “New American Center” is to enter a Beltway consultants’ dreamscape, a perceptual interspace where real Americans’ opinions dissolve and are replaced by a chimerical creature whose secret language is only understood by certain insider politicians, corporations and consultants.
That creature’s name is “The Center.”
The survey commissioned by these two news organizations tells us very little about American public opinion. But it tells us a great deal about the insular worlds in which certain journalists and consultants reside.
Although there were some interesting nuggets of data in the study, overall it was an ill-conceived venture whose main purpose seemed to be reinforcing a prevailing article of faith inside the Beltway: that there is an undiscovered “center” to American politics, and that finding it will spell success for savvy corporations, candidates and consultants.
I tried to review the poll’s methodology with an open mind. But we’re not told how the study identified the “American Center,” and its architects at the Benenson Strategy Group failed to respond to requests for information.
That organization’s founder, Joel Benenson, became something of a polling legend when he defied the hackneyed pseudo-wisdom of his former mentor Mark Penn and helped guide Barack Obama to an upset victory over Penn’s client in the 2008 primaries. It’s unfortunate, then, that this particular study is packed with the kind of zingy and vacant language for which Penn became notorious. It labels Americans on a left/right axis of Bleeding Hearts, Gospel Left, Minivan Mods, MBA Middle, Pickup Populists, #whateverman, Righteous Right, and Talk Radio Heads.
By comparison, Penn’s “soccer mom” lingo seems almost profound.
Reviewing the raw data only added to the confusion. Why, for example, did many of the raw-data entries list the leftmost category as “Young Libs” rather than “Bleeding Hearts”? We don’t know—and they’re not saying.
The Unhidden Persuaders
Esquire and NBC News don’t report this study so much as hype it. Disturbingly, these journalists use the same marketing language employed by the consultants who wrote the report. Esquire tells its readers that the “New American Center” is “passionate, persuadable, and very real.” NBC News informs visitors to its website that “the center is real, passionate and persuadable.” (The NBC News piece carries the byline of a “senior staff writer.” The Esquire piece is credited to “The Editors.”)
Meanwhile, over at the Benenson Strategy Group website, project leader Daniel Franklin is quoted as saying that “the Center is dynamic and persuadable”—there’s that word again—“creating an opportunity for politicians and businesses alike to reevaluate how they communicate and connect with the American public.” That sounds like a pitch for corporate clients. Benenson’s past and present clients include Toyota, major drug companies, Shell Oil, and Verizon.
Esquire, in particular, crosses the line into naked huckstering for both this survey and centrist ideology. All the “centrist” buzzwords and catchphrases are there: We're told we must get past the “meaningless labels,” transcend our obsolete “culture war,” conquer the “extreme partisanship of Washington” (no particular party’s held responsible for that), and reconnect with “the actual national mood and values.”
The editors sneer at what they call the “hoary conventional wisdom” that “we as a people are now hopelessly polarized in our culture, our values, and our politics”—an odd stance when promoting a study which slices the public into separate (and rather clichéd) social divisions.
That, too, comes straight from the corporate-centrism playbook: before idealizing your mythical “center,” you must first compartmentalize and trivialize people of both the left and the right. Esquire even offers a “Warren/Cruz scale,” as if popular Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose opinions on banking regulation and economic justice poll well with the general public, were somehow comparable to the far-right senator from Texas whose government shutdown crusade has caused a disastrous plunge in his party’s popularity. That isn’t social science or journalism, it’s propaganda.