If television is the nation’s mirror, then no two TV characters reflect the intensifying “two Americas” gap better than Chris Matthews and Jimmy McNulty.
A recent New York Times Magazine profile of Matthews describes a name-dropping dilettante floating between television studios and cocktail parties. The article documents the MSNBC host’s $5 million salary, three Mercedes and house in lavish Chevy Chase, Md. Yet Matthews said, “Am I part of the winner’s circle in American life? I don’t think so.”
That stupefying comment sums up a pervasive worldview in Washington that is hostile to any discussion of class divides. Call it Matthews-ism – an ideology most recently seen in the brouhaha over Barack Obama’s statement about economic dislocation.
The Illinois senator said that when folks feel economically shafted, they get “bitter.” Matthews-ism spun the truism into a scandal.
The Washington Post labeled Obama’s statements “Bittergate.” Tim Russert invited affluent political consultants on “Meet the Press” to analyze the “controversy,” with millionaire James Carville saying, “I’m hardly bitter about things.” Hillary Clinton called Obama “elitist,” ignoring her mansions in Washington and Chappaqua, $109 million income, career as a Wal-Mart board member, and legacy pushing job-killing policies like NAFTA.
This sickening episode was topped off by ABC’s Charles Gibson, who only months ago humiliated himself by insinuating that typical middle-class families make $200,000 a year (95 percent make less). Last week, while moderating a debate, Gibson segued from the “bitter” comment into a tirade against rescinding capital gains tax breaks, implying the proposal would hurt most Americans. This, even though the tax cuts in question delivered the vast majority of their benefits to the richest 1 percent.
By downplaying inequality and couching royalism in middle-class arguments, the Beltway elite pretend there are not two Americas but only one: theirs.
Matthews routinely turns discussions of economic issues into debates about tactics, and then heads home to Chevy Chase telling himself he isn’t “part of the winner’s circle.” Tim Russert asks millionaires to explain working-class struggles, and then reminds viewers he roots for the Buffalo Bills – as if that proves he speaks for blue-collar America. Hillary Clinton makes a career out of speaking for powerful corporations, and then shows up at an Indiana bar to decry “elitism.” Gibson suggests six-figure salaries are common, and then says the masses should worry about rich people like him having to pay slightly higher taxes.
In sum, economic blindness, sports symbols, beery photo-ops and uninformed idiocy have become the iconography of working-class solidarity that disguises the ongoing class war.
How could this happen, you ask? How could it not?
Pop culture tells us “The Cosby Show’s” economically privileged family represents the ordinary black experience, politics tells us a money-controlled electoral system is “democratic,” and pundits tell us that aristocrat George Bush is a “regular guy.” Propaganda is ubiquitous – and it results in Jimmy McNulty.
He is the cop from HBO’s “The Wire” – the quintessential everyman. For a time, he tries to understand politics by watching vapid Matthews-style talk shows, but quickly becomes frustrated. “It doesn’t matter who you’ve got [running for office], none of them has a clue what’s really going on,” he says, lamenting that politics treats him “like a [expletive] doormat” – as if the day-to-day challenges he faces are “some stupid game with stupid penny ante stakes.”
McNulty may be fictional, but McNulty-ism is a very real reaction to Matthews-ism. When the media responsible for explaining our world deny the existence of the world most of us inhabit, they breed – yes – bitterness. And the more the Matthewses treat us McNultys like reality is just “stupid games with stupid penny ante stakes,” the wider the gulf between the two Americas will become.