As those who follow me on Twitter know, I’ve been keeping a public notebook on “the church of the savvy,” which is my name for the belief system that binds together our political press corps in Washington. Though they see themselves as the opposite of ideological, the people in the national press actually share an ideology: the religion of savviness. Since it differs from both liberal ideology and conservative ideology and from political thought itself, savviness often eludes description, or even recognition as a set of beliefs. That’s why I keep my running notebook. I’m trying to teach readers how to “see” the savvy.
In a PressThink post a few years ago, I defined it this way:
Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.
Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.
To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or “belief system.” It’s not really an object fit for contemplation at all. But they would say that political journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or in some cases extreme. They get run over: easily. They get disappointed: needlessly. They get angry–fruitlessly–because they don’t know how things work in practical terms.
The savvy do know how things work inside the game of politics, and it is this knowledge they try to wield in argument…. instead of argument. In this sense savviness as the church practices it is the exemption from the political that believers think will come to them because they are journalists striving only to report on politics or conduct analysis, not to “win” within the contest as it stands.
Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you… They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.”
Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sghted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.
For example, Peter Baker of the New York Times is an excellent represenative of the church and its teachings. This weekend he published a “news analysis” of Obama’s ambiguous accomplishments on climate change at Copenhagen and health care reform in the Congress. Wherein we find this:
Neither deal represented a final victory, and in fact some on the left in his own party argued that both of them amounted to sellouts on principle in favor of expediency. But both agreements served the purpose of keeping the process moving forward, inching ever closer toward Mr. Obama’s goals and providing a jolt of adrenaline for a White House eager to validate its first year in office.
Did you catch it? Opposition from the left isn’t presented as an argument about what will actually change the health care system, and Baker’s dismissal of it doesn’t reflect his disagreement with the left about what will actually change the health care system. The exemption from the poliitcal is operating. The left wanted Obama to “stick to principle,” but the realty is Obama is moving closer to his goals. The savvy see that; the people shouting “sell out” do not. Let’s watch that move again. Baker:
[Obama] may not get the health care plan he envisioned but, if the legislation passes, he will insure 30 million more people, stop insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and at least try to rein in costs. He will not end climate change in his presidency, and may not get the market-based emission caps he wants, but he may move the country, and the world, toward meaningful action.
Of course, to many on both sides of the aisle, there is a less sympathetic narrative. To the left, Mr. Obama seems increasingly to lack the fire to fight on matters of principle. To the right, he appears to be overreaching, saddling the country with debt and the weight of a bloated and overly intrusive government.
To the savvy, the center is a holy place: political grace resides there. The profane is the ideological extremes. The adults converse in the pragmatic middle ground where insiders cut their deals. On the wings are the playgrounds for children. But to argue directly for these propositions is out of the question: political reporters don’t conduct arguments, they tell us what’s happening! Instead an argument is made by positioning the players a certain way while reporting the news and doing “analysis.” Obama is getting things done; critics are scoring ideological points (big government!) or standing on principle. Peter Baker isn’t an Obama supporter. But he welcomes presidents to his church.