Don’t reduce Democratic primaries to ‘skirt or negro’

Political scientist Gregg Bucken-Knapp takes issue with an Aftonbladet writer's assertion that “it doesn’t matter so much who becomes president – skirt or negro – it’s still the market that rules.”

Don't reduce Democratic primaries to 'skirt or negro'

On February 5th, voters in twenty-two states will participate in Democratic primaries and caucuses. On that day alone, more than half of the delegates to this summer’s Democratic convention will be chosen. With the exit of John Edwards, this is now essentially a two-person contest, with pundits and pollsters feverishly wondering whether either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can emerge from this mega-contest with enough delegates or momentum to claim the title of frontrunner.

Yet for Aftonbladet columnist Åsa Linderborg, this doesn’t seem to be of much importance. As she put it prior to the Iowa caucuses, “it doesn’t matter so much who becomes president – skirt or negro – it’s still the market that rules.” For Americans seeking to transform their society, her voice is the counsel of despair: so long as there is capitalism, choosing between these two Democrats is a waste of time. Indeed, Linderborg’s analysis of American politics implies that campaigns are nothing more than a thinly-veiled puppet show, in which candidates are marionettes, where big corporations dictate campaign promises, and where special interest groups determine the foreign policy stances held by candidates. The only saving grace in Linderborg’s eyes is that class struggle drives how “yanks” actually vote.

It’s catchy rhetoric, but not everyone would share Linderborg’s view that which Democratic candidate may eventually become president is essentially meaningless. Many activists on the American left – who share her disregard for capitalism – view the Democratic primaries as an important opportunity for limiting the influence of market forces. Nor do Swedes necessarily benefit from her sweeping claims about the role of money in American politics or the importance of class struggle as a factor shaping the vote. Asserting that big business controls the policy agenda isn’t the same as demonstrating it. And there, political scientists can present evidence pointing toward sharply different conclusions than Linderborg.

First things first.

In this year’s Democratic contest, organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) know that the stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines. The 6,000 member sister-organization to the Swedish Social Democratic Party, DSA has played an active part in supporting the election campaigns of progressive politicians fighting against American capitalism. Their most visible success story is Bernie Sanders, the only openly-socialist member of the U.S. Senate, who rose to national prominence as the first Congressperson to organize “prescription drug bus tours” to Canada, allowing Americans to buy medicine at much lower prices than in the US.

While DSA has not yet endorsed a candidate, many in the organization feel they have little in common with Clinton. At its recent national convention, delegates hotly debated a proposed electoral resolution stating “DSA believes that progressives must cooperate to do everything possible to prevent Hillary Clinton — the epitome of neoliberal cynical opportunism – from being the Democratic nominee.” Indeed, blocking a neoliberal from winning the Democratic nomination is central to DSA. As national director Frank Llwellyn put it, “It would be a shame if the voters who championed the message we find so attractive went to the candidate most representative of neoliberalism in the U.S.” For these activists, the struggle against capitalism makes the Democratic contest an event of crucial importance, not something to shrug off as a sham.

However, if Linderborg understates the importance of the Democratic primaries in continuing the fight for a more equitable America, she also overstates the role of big business and class struggle. At first glance, it’s easy to agree with her broad claims. After all, if big corporations are financing the campaigns of the major candidates, doesn’t it only make sense that they would be calling the shots? Isn’t that just the conventional wisdom in Sweden of how America’s so-called democracy really works?

Perhaps there’s a flaw in the conventional wisdom. For while Linderborg says that understanding American society requires reading key critics of capitalism, such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, a sharply more nuanced picture could be had if we consulted the political science research literature.

Two examples should suffice.

Those arguing that big business pulls the strings in American politics frequently claim that interest groups buy legislative outcomes through campaign donations. Yet, John Wright, a professor at Ohio State University, has repeatedly shown that this is simply not the case. In one of his most recent articles, he demonstrates that while the tobacco industry is able to get what it wants from Washington policymakers, it’s not because of campaign contributions. Rather, big tobacco is generally successful because targeted legislators hold specifically pro-business and anti-regulatory ideologies.

Linderborg also claims “pocket book issues – that is, the class struggle” are decisive for Americans when they enter the ballot box. Here too, the evidence from the political science research literature speaks to the contrary. Nearly thirty years ago, Morris Fiorina demonstrated that Americans cast their vote on the basis of whether they believe the nation’s economy as a whole (and not their personal financial situation) had gone well during the previous administration. If it has, voters are likely to support the incumbent party. If not, they consider voting for the challengers, assuming voters can be persuaded that they are reliable. Fiorina’s findings not only shaped an entire generation of voting behavior specialists, they were central to the internal rallying cry of the 1992 Clinton campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

On February 5th, millions of Americans will go to the polls in the Democratic primaries, casting their votes largely in favor of either Clinton or Obama. Linderborg would like us to believe that the power of big business means this is nothing more than a choice between “skirt or negro”. But that’s both simplistic and insulting. For on Tuesday, millions of Democratic voters – left-wing, centrist and conservative – will flock to the polls and choose between competing visions for how America can be taken back from the hands of the Republican Party. To suggest that the power of the marketplace makes the hopes and hard work of politically-active Americans a waste of time is not only cynical, it’s wrong.

Dr. Gregg Bucken-Knapp

Senior Lecturer in Political Science

International Program for Politics and Economics

University West / Högskolan Väst


ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned

How did a would-be "Swedish New York Times" rise and fall only months after its launch – and what lessons can the media world learn from the story of Bulletin, asks journalism professor Christian Christensen in this opinion piece.

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned
Bulletin was marketed as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I imagine a Swedish newspaper inspired by the UK’s quality press or their American counterparts – such as the Times of London, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Which makes a distinction between news and views, between news and opinion, and which strives to make its readers more enlightened, rather than to pursue an agenda.

These words were published in late December 2020 by Paulina Neuding, editor-in-chief of the newly launched online newspaper, Bulletin. Four months later, Neuding and almost the entire editorial staff, had left Bulletin after a series of embarrassing mistakes, organisational shake-ups and a brutal public conflict with ownership. Taking over as the new editor? A former senior staffer from the New York Times who cannot read or speak Swedish, knows little about Sweden and who will edit the paper from his home in New Jersey.

How did we get here?

Marketing itself as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home, Bulletin was created, Neuding wrote last year, to provide “liberal conservative” opinion combined with “evidence-based and neutral” reporting. These comments were made within a very specific context: conservatives in Sweden consider mainstream Swedish media outlets to be predominantly leftist or centre-leftist in ideology. The national public service television (SVT) and radio (SR) channels are particular targets of the right, with steady accusations of leftist bias. Research, however, shows that claims of leftist bias in Swedish news media, including public service broadcasting, are without merit.

So, Bulletin was born. Investors put down around 8 million Swedish kronor (around €800,000); well-known media columnists and personalities signed on to give the site name recognition; and, Swedish media (mainstream and social) gave Bulletin a great deal of coverage and free advertising. If the hype was to be believed, Bulletin could be an interesting case of a new, “high quality” right-wing news outlet entering the Swedish media market.

Despite the PR and hype, however, Bulletin imploded in what can only be described as the most spectacular of fashions.

For all of the lofty talk of inspiration from highbrow Anglo-American publications, Bulletin was always more likely to resemble the anti-immigration Daily Mail Online, or a slightly more serious version of Fox News, than the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Multiple commentators in Sweden noted that the purpose of Bulletin, rooted largely in the ideology of the primary financiers of the project, was to serve as a messenger for the anti-immigration conservative right.

The content during the early weeks of the publication only confirmed this. Heavy on re-hashed wire service stories and opinion pieces, and thin on actual journalism, Bulletin marked itself with stories and articles centering around immigrants and immigration, and particularly those related to crime and cultural clashes. Evidence of “evidence-based” reporting in the vein of the New York Times was almost non-existent.

But, as it would turn out, low-quality anti-immigrant content was the least of Bulletin’s problems. The outlet was marked from the outset by deep and fundamental structural problems, as well as the presence of owners who saw Bulletin as their own, personal messaging system.

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After just two months on the job, Paulina Neuding inexplicably stepped down as editor-in-chief, handing the reins to former columnist Ivar Arpi. As would be revealed later, after discovering that a Bulletin co-owner had published an article on the site without her knowledge, Neuding had the piece removed. The resulting conflict led to her stepping down.

Only a few weeks later, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a piece showing that Bulletin had plagiarised over 20 news articles, with material taken verbatim from press releases, wire service articles and even other media outlets. Adding to the crisis, free speech expert Nils Funcke argued in a separate article that Bulletin did not have the proper legal structure in place to offer their sources protection and anonymity; and, in addition, the lack of proper legal structure made those who wrote the stories legally responsible for the content, rather than the publisher (the standard for Swedish news outlets). In short, Bulletin was nothing like an actual news outlet.

At the start of March, the wheels had come off, and open warfare broke out between Bulletin owners and editorial staff. Senior editors accused owners of undermining editorial integrity by using the platform to publish personal pieces without oversight. Owners, on the other hand, accused editors of being both dishonest and incompetent. Publicly. On Facebook. An audio recording was even leaked to the media trade newspaper Journalisten documenting a heated meeting between Bulletin staff and owners. The situation became untenable, and by the end of March editor-in-chief Arpi and several other senior staff announced their resignations.

What are the lessons of Bulletin?

First, the story exposed the fallacy of the idea that if you combine well-known media “personalities” with some money and hype, you can overcome an almost total absence of editorial experience and organisational structure. Bulletin put all of its eggs into the celebrity basket by recruiting famous conservative columnists who had little or no experience either editing a daily newspaper or starting a news organisation from the ground up. The results became immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at the website.

Second, Bulletin is a classic case study of media owners who think that their investment gives them the automatic right to dictate the content of their outlets. This is nothing new, of course, and owners influencing content – either directly or indirectly – is a feature of many privately controlled outlets around the world. What is unusual in the case of Bulletin, however, is how explicit and how public was the exposure of that tension.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bulletin is a particularly brutal case study in reaping what you sow. The investors, and many of the media personalities they recruited, made their names by attacking the ideological biases and political agendas of mainstream outlets in general, and public broadcasting in particular, as well as advocating for increased freedom (often in form of the free market) from what they see as an oppressive state apparatus. And what happened? The media personalities ended up working for an outlet that displayed the bluntest forms of corporate bias and owner interference. Those who resigned from Bulletin were not simply victims of aggressive owners. They were, first and foremost, early and willing participants in a media venture that reflected a worldview they had themselves pushed and defended.

That this conservative outlet, which published multiple opinion pieces lamenting the decline of Swedish culture, is now edited by someone sitting in a foreign country who is literally unable to read the stories he publishes is perhaps the perfect conclusion to a tale of media failure.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.