But What Does It Mean?

The election of a Republican Senator in Massachusetts may well have seismatic effects on health care reform because the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority.  But why did it happen?  And what exactly does it mean?

Some pundits see it as the public’s repudiation of Obama’s activist agenda, some see it as an indictment of his leadership style, some as a conservative shift in the electorate.  On the other hand, some attribute it to Martha Coakley’s lackluster campaign or her gaffes, to over-confidence among Bay State Democrats, etc. etc.  (A few think it may have to do with Scott Brown’s naked centerfold in Cosmo, reprinted in their September issue. See The point is that it has to mean something, doesn’t it?

But Daniel Stone made an interesting point about that on his Newsweek blog:  “the GOP upset in the Bay State seems to have merely skimmed the surface of much of the nation’s consciousness. . . .  For the most part, people don’t spend their days thinking about election fights, upsets, and partisan victory laps.”   It’s the Washington press corps and the talking heads who make it their business to give meaning to political events. (See, “Does Most of America Even Care About the Massachusetts Election?”)

They are satisfying a basic human desire to make sense out of experience, especially complicated things that actually have too many meanings for us to absorb.  Their job is to boil reality down to a few memorable sound bites, to reassure us that the world is not too complicated for us to understand.  The fact that meaning is given is more important than any specific meaning itself.

Financial pundits will intone at the end of the day, for example, that markets were down on “fears of inflation,” or went up in response to “better than expected earnings reports.”  Maybe.  But, essentially, they are guessing, based on a few conversations with traders.  Serious analysts have a hard time with such simplicities.  But then serious analysts don’t often volunteer to be quoted on the six o’clock news.  Most are too busy figuring out how to make money from the markets they know are extremely difficult to understand.

The process begins to become dangerous when pundits use their pulpits to proclaim, with conviction, what they believe and what they want us to believe.  They project their own hopes and fears onto others, and think it’s real.

But if Daniel Stone is correct it doesn’t actually matter.  The public doesn’t really care.  The chattering classes go on chattering to each other, and the media’s voracious appetite for news is satisfied.  And we can all enjoy the reassuring thought that somewhere all the confusion if being understood by somebody.


My book was published this week.  Check it out:

What You Don’t Know You Know: Our Hidden Motives in Life, Business, and Everything Else  (New York: Other Press)