Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Up And Down With Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is not a useful metric for measuring the opinions, stances or engagement of American voters slowly waking to the reality of a presidential election next month. The Daily Beast blogger and Newsweek essayist is, by any rational assessment, a demographic of one—a conservative liberal gay Republican Obama loyalist and Irish-English Oxford man who sought and secured permanent U.S. residency. But when I returned to the media world last week, after a six-month sabbatical, it was immediately evident that the best way to "catch up" with half a year's political media freakouts was by studying Sullivan's blog and Twitter output, backwards. Seared in my brain was an airport-newsstand glance at that Newsweek cover of Barack Obama looking like Augustus Caesar, with the words "The Democrat's Reagan" followed by the only byline that could possibly go with such a sweeping, over-the-top pronouncement.

Just two weeks later, Sullivan watched the same dull debate I saw, but to him it wasn't just a lackluster performance from a president who sat out the primaries. It was the worst disaster of the Obama presidency. There are no small moments in Andrew Sullivan's online world.

Everything means Everything, all the time, and the only respite is the "Mental Health Break" viral videos and the weirdly depressing snapshots from his readers' windows. Like some CGI action movie, Sullivan's Daily Dish blog is all explosions and implosions and dazed weeping survivors seeking only a catchphrase that will keep the wounds and memories fresh until the next apocalypse, tomorrow.

Sullivan's blog and Twitter feed can be a car wreck–a car wreck witnessed from a window, close enough to be tearfully blogged but too far away to actually walk outside and help–but his online persona is unique for its lack of cynicism and irony. Peggy Noonan's grand pronouncements read like they've been fished from a shoebox of 30-year-old cocktail napkins, and the only believable emotion at National Review's "The Corner" is Kathryn Jean Lopez's unrequited love for Joseph Ratzinger. As Obama's re-election by electoral college votes has been fairly certain all year long, pundits on the right have been transparently trying to wring a daily outrage from a dried-up sponge. For a self-described conservative writer in America, Andrew Sullivan is the only one who seems to believe what he's writing … which is problematic, for a paid political thinker, when that belief also makes you a supporter of the liberal Democrat president.

The cable-news hacks and professional political surrogates drip with insincerity. It was an amusement at my last job to collect screen captures of the pundit panelists reading sports sites or shopping online before and after commercial breaks. Sullivan approaches this tired game with the enthusiasm of a TV recap blogger, one of those ultra-fans who can quickly create a deep timestamp philosophy from the shoddiest episode of "Doctor Who."

What I've learned from reading Sullivan backwards is that Obama's re-election was inevitable, that he would remake the nation in ways unseen since FDR or Eisenhower or Lincoln or whoever, that Obama was "moving in for the kill" with a probable landslide victory as recently as two weeks ago, that Obama intentionally destroyed this safe re-election, and that even Sully's dogs are suffering wild mood swings.

Studying the very recent past through the Andrew Sullivan lens is important because his very human up-and-down reactions to the White House horse race are a favorite of the Washington and New York press corps. National media figures lost their real emotions around the time they realized it would take constant brutality to get to the top of the heap, and my suspicion is that Sullivan is read carefully to see what "humans are supposed to feel." His outbursts of sincerity are processed and regurgitated by the cynical people who create each news cycle's National Narrative … and that's why the top story on Google News is still the debate from a week ago.

Ken Layne was editor of the political disaster site Wonkette from 2006 to 2012, and invented blogging along with Andrew Sullivan.

24 Comments / Post A Comment

Vulpes (#946)

Andrew Sullivan's problem is that he thinks Andrew Sullivan's thoughts are very Deep, Profound Thoughts. He really thinks he's a Thinker, whereas he's really just a fickle ninny with the mood swings of a particularly broad menopausal woman caricature.

hockeymom (#143)

@Vulpes I'm not sure if I should be offended by this comment or not. I'll check my mood in another hour.

Mr. B (#10,093)

I have no opinion about Sullivan's opinions (since I outgrew Newsweek in, like, 11th grade?), but I did see him on stage at Cooper Union this past spring and in his defense I can say that, if nothing else, he is a rather magnificent reader of poetry.

Cwick (#134,258)

"When I returned to the media world last week, after a six-month sabbatical…"–a sentence that sends a thrill up my leg.

flossy (#1,402)

I'll admit to reading Andrew Sullivan regularly, because for all of his (many, and not to be glossed-over) flaws he is an intelligent and prolific writer, and I appreciate that, in general, he sees and appreciates the President for what he is–a moderate political liberal with a classically conservative disposition who wants to improve the country in many small ways without seriously rocking the boat–rather than worshiping him as some imaginary Leftist savior or vilifying him as a Kenyan Bolshevik. To the extent that his blog allows him to ride his favorite hobby-horses or indulge in the odd mood swing, I cut him some slack. It is his blog, after all. It's not his fault or problem that roughly a bazillion readers–and among them, media people–take cues from him and let his histrionics color their impressions or even their coverage of the new.

That being said, yeah, oh my god. Sometimes he is the biggest fucking drama queen I have ever read and his epic pants-wetting over one lousy debate is making his blog unreadable at the moment. You'd think Obama had brought out a puppy and then drop-kicked it, rather than just looking kind of bored and tired and taken aback by the avalanche of horse shit being shoveled by the used car salesman opposite him. Anyone supposedly steeped in the details of politics and policy who could be so disheartened by one debate needs to take a look in the mirror and ask why he put the President up on such a pedestal in the first place, or at the very least, give all the sky-is-falling bullshit a rest. When you have the biggest megaphone on the internet, eventually that kind of rhetoric becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anyway… Ken Layne! <3 <3 <3

mmmark (#4,458)

"I remembered getting hooked on them on a dial-up modem in Eastern Europe when I was working for the Baltic Times in Latvia. I was hitting refresh obsessively."

BoHan (#29)

His Pew post yesterday afternoon made me unsubscribe. So hoozah to you for reading my mind.

Matt (#26)

You forgot Iraq war apologist but okay.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

This April, in the course of naming Sullivan the second runner-up for the fiercely contested title "Wanker of the Decade," Duncan Black (Atrios) remarked, "One could waste a lifetime writing about the wanking of Andrew Sullivan. I'm starting to worry I have." (http://bit.ly/HL3uOW) Beware lest you come to have that worry for yourself, Ken.

chrissth (#250)

But if it weren't for Andrew Sullivan, I would never have learned that Anderson Cooper was a gay.

ImThraxx (#6,661)

I'm so glad you wrote this! Sullivan's overreaction is the weirdest overreaction!

I was confused by the absence of the We're All Gonna Die slug.

Multiphasic (#411)

… and invented blogging along with Andrew Sullivan.

The news that Ken Layne invented Andrew Sullivan comes as absolutely no surprise.

joeks (#5,805)

I used to live in DC and pay a lot of attention to politics, and it made me sad and angry all the time. (Typical story, really.) One of the main blogs I read was Sullivan's.

I guess that could have been the source of so much of my agita, but just to be safe I moved to the other side of the country and pretty much stopped paying attention to politics at all. Recommended.

Peter Feld (#79)

The reactions to Sullivan's piece have everything to do with attitudes toward Sullivan and Washington pundits as well as reflexive anti-alarmism, and nothing whatsoever to do with informed political analysis.

Without a doubt, Sullivan is correct for panicking. (A flood of new polls today confirms what Pew found yesterday.) It wasn't just "one lousy debate a whole week ago," it was the most sustained exposure to the candidates 67 million voters have gotten or may ever get. It can't be fixed with a sharper Obama stump speech, better ads or improved performance in the next debates (or by a boffo Biden performance on Thursday).

Obama may well have thrown away the election in last week's debate by a) allowing Romney's disingenuous reinvention to go unchallenged, leaving disengaged voters to believe Romney is the reasonable, upbeat moderate he claims – thereby ruining all the money spent on six months of attack ads on Bain and other subjects and b) raising serious questions about whether he even still wants the job.

Whatever you think of Sullivan's past – e.g., his over-the-top Obama worship, his backing the Iraq war – if you think his reaction is out of line, you should rebut it with something substantive instead of mocking him. The vitriolic reaction to what he said yesterday has a very "la-la-la-la-la-I-can't-HEAR-you" quality to it.

Aatom (#74)

@Peter Feld I find most anti-Sullivan kvetching to be as reflexive and devoid of wit or analysis as the anti-Hitchens strain in comments sections.

@Peter Feld I am trying to imagine under what circumstances the sentence "Without a doubt, ______ is correct for panicking" might reasonably be applied, and I am coming up blank. Panic might be understandable or predictable, but correct?

Realistically though, the tone of your comment doesn't exactly indicate that nuance is your strong suit. I don't see the point of a serious rebuttal to hysterical hyperbole. I mean, what are we supposed to say: "Actually, Sully's hair wasn't literally on fire; at most it was smoldering a bit"?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Peter Feld Here let me just link you to all the evidence from political science research/election history that debate performance has a major effect on voter behavior:

chascates (#470)

I'm surprised Sullivan isn't taking some sort of medicine. It would seem he ran out of his SSRI (been there!) and simply flipped out. I have no excuse for the people on the right, though, who are truthers/birthers/whatevers.

conklin (#364)

Sully is new to (weird-kinda-sorta) liberalism. He is unaccustomed to the doubt and self-loathing that come along with it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

… a demographic of one—a conservative liberal gay Republican Obama loyalist and Irish-English Oxford man who sought and secured permanent U.S. residency.

That's just why I love him (well that, and that he is an awesome prose stylist and really well read): "Of No Party or Clique," and he really puts his money where is mouth is, there. I grant that Sullivan is a bit highly strung. But what a writer, what a passionate and great man (who else among the 101st Fighting Keyboardists has recanted in public?) Also I say this every chance I get, his book Virtually Normal is the real deal. Beautiful.

To me any conservative who can speak in reasonably comprehensible English is a walking miracle, in any case. How much more valuable is one with such a broad range of interests and ideas, and best of all, who is willing to take the risk of saying what he really believes and changing his mind in public?

skahammer (#587)

@barnhouse You're absolutely right about all of this.

A thoroughly substantive comment rebutting an aggressively superficial (though nevertheless entertaining) article. This is the kind of thing that was probably vanishingly rare in the pre-internet era.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh do I ever agree about quality of original post and thank you, also, @skahammer. Ken Layne!! AWE. So good.

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