Over the last couple of years, we have been treated to an endless barrage of Cletus safaris. What’s a Cletus safari?
It’s one of those innumerable, insufferable, “Let’s go to Rust Bucket, Ohio and interview the old racist white people who voted for Trump and see what they have to say now” pieces that every major news outlet feels obligated to churn out once per month. “Safari” is an appropriate term because it has every bit of the feel of a journalist venturing into the jungle looking for wild animals or naked Savages. The White Working Class (because editors insisted that some kind of tactful synonym for “Midwestern white trash” would make it sound professional and palatable) is fascinating to Beltway and NYC journalists in a sense that goes far beyond the political and lands firmly in the anthropological.
The allure of these pieces, I admit, is strong. They are click magnets. We all want to point and shout “Look!” when presented with the latest batch of stupid, racist quotes from people whose worldview is a sad amalgam of forwarded emails, Facebook comment sections, Fox News, Breitbart, and increasingly severe delirium tremens. We marvel and laugh – for what else do we have for joy these days except a good schadenfreude laugh? – at the rotund, mustachioed morons as they swear coal is coming back and assert that Trump works real hard while Obama spent all his time golfing and, most recently, think they’re going to get a tax cut next year. We read these for the same reason that we watch shows about addiction, hoarding, or bed-bound 1000 pound people – because some part of all of us wants to gawk at freaks, and an even bigger part of us needs to remind itself “At least I’m not THAT fucked up!” when we’re feeling down.
But the Cletus Safari is, if I can use an extremely polarizing but appropriate adjective, a deeply problematic piece of journalism. Scratch the surface and you see that while this certainly is an acceptable form of Nelson Muntzing dumb poor people (Since the subjects are inevitably white, white readers don’t have to feel guilty for mocking them) it is also a severe distortion of reality that – surprise! – reinforces the perception that what is Real, what counts, and what is truly important is what White Country Folk think. They are, even to doubtlessly left-leaning journalists who write these pieces, the Real America.
What I’ve noticed since the 2016 election is a distinct lack of empathy by Democrats towards other Democrats. Note I wrote empathy, not sympathy. I’m not asking people to sing kumbaya, but simply to acknowledge other Democrats’ perspectives (some of which might be really fucking stupid). Were the Twitterz to be believed, the typical Sanders supporter (BERNIEBROS! BERNIEBOTZ!) is a 21 year old college kid with a rose in his Twitter name, even though the median Sanders supporter was over 40 and was not college educated. This lack of empathy–in all directions (former Clinton supporters are not all corporate shills, etc.)–is really hurting Democrats.
Worse, people are assuming that the high support for Biden is largely due to name recognition, but I haven’t actually seen any data regarding that. Maybe around thirty percent of Democrats like Biden for particular reasons? (it’s worth reminding people that a sizable fraction of the Democratic vote overall consists of white racists who vote Democratic in opposition to and in spite of their bigotry). Yet I haven’t seen very much in the way of interviews with representative Biden voters. Not Biden voters who advance a particular narrative (which might make them atypical of his supporters as a whole), but more typical supporters.
While I’m focusing on Biden, this argument applies to all the candidates. Hopefully, some news organizations will pull reporters off the Cletus safari beat, and instead, put them to talking to Democratic primary voters. If we are able to empathize with each other, even if we disagree, we are more likely to unite in the general.
Update: While not a bigly news organization, here’s a good report on some ‘Gillistans.’