Taibbi on “Shattered”: A Book Review Perhaps More Important than the Book

I’ve been told by friends I should read Shattered, the devastating takedown of the Clinton 2016 campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. I may, but it’s not high on my priority list. That’s not to say it’s uninteresting or poorly written. From all I’ve read, it’s a really good work, and a page turner.

I’m just not sure I should spend hours on gory details that do nothing more than confirm what I already believe.

I did spend the few minutes required to read Matt Taibbi’s review of the book, and am glad I did. Taibbi’s intellect is as keen as any journalist out there. In this case, his takeaways from the book, not about the Clinton campaign, but about the Democratic Party, the Democratic establishment, and American political campaigns, have more long-lasting relevance than Shattered itself. Taibbi:

What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton.

The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.

In fact, it shines through in the book that the voters’ need to understand why this or that person is running for office is viewed in Washington as little more than an annoying problem.

Taibbi’s observation is dead on. At first blush, it seems absurd that politicians should struggle with and find annoying the requirement that they have a reason for running for office. But consider how our system works. The clearest path to political office is planning. It’s doing things like laboriously maintaining contact lists from a very young age; engaging in the mind numbing, ice pick in the eye stabbing work of grass-roots party politics; and building a resume that will impress voters. Consider this reality: It is not uncommon for a young, aspiring politician to serve in the military solely for the purpose of being able to say he/she served our country.

When you view it through that lens, the “annoying problem” Taibbi identifies is easier to understand. The reason most politicians are running for office is that they’ve always wanted to hold public office. Worse, if it’s a down ballot race, the real reason a candidate is running for that office typically is because she’s decided it’s her best stepping stone to higher office, and not even a specific higher office, just any higher office.

So, yeah, concocting a reason for seeking office that the public will digest smoothly is annoying, because any betrayal of the puke-inducing cynicism upon which the campaign actually is based would be fatal. Hence the gallows humor banter regarding “It’s her turn” in the Clinton campaign.

Another takeaway, this one regarding the reports that Clinton supposedly reviewed all her top staffers’ internal campaign emails after her failed 2008 bid. Here again, Taibbi captures the larger importance of what’s reported in Shattered:

Reading your employees’ emails isn’t nearly the same as having an outsider leak them all over the world. Still, such a criticism would miss the point, which is that Hillary was looking in the wrong place for a reason for her 2008 loss. That she was convinced her staff was at fault makes sense, as Washington politicians tend to view everything through an insider lens.

Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of “whip-smart” organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way. If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.

Isn’t the reality Taibbi identifies simply a corollary to the development of campaigns as a high-dollar industry, to which many talented individuals dedicate their entire careers, some making fortunes along the way? When I ran for Congress ten years ago, the going rate for a Congressional campaign manager was low six figures on the Democratic side, and likely higher on the Republican side, where there are more dollars sloshing around. And those who work directly on campaigns are in politics what ratings company workers are in finance: the bottom rung. The highly paid “talent” is in the polling, data analysis, and media consulting firms.

So, if the reality is anything other than what Taibbi describes, how could the multi-billion dollar campaign industry possibly be justified?

Like any good writer, Taibbi saves the best, and most important, for last:

If the ending to this story were anything other than Donald Trump being elected president, Shattered would be an awesome comedy, like a Kafka novel – a lunatic bureaucracy devouring itself. But since the ending is the opposite of funny, it will likely be consumed as a cautionary tale.

Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters. Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis. Trump or no Trump, the Democrats need therapy – and soon.

I’d invite anyone who has even the slightest quibble with Taibbi here to read the posts and comment threads on this site over the past two years. Were you to reduce the blame thrown around here for Clinton’s loss to its bare essence it would be placed squarely on the voters who didn’t vote for her. Yes, therapy, and lots of it, clearly is in order.

13 Responses to Taibbi on “Shattered”: A Book Review Perhaps More Important than the Book

  1. Senator John Kavanagh

    Thanks for the clarification. There are so many variables that anyone can conclude whatever they want afterwards but ultimately it is the candidate who navigates the obstacle course..

  2. shattered is a book donna gatehouse should read though the older clinton lovers would find some other excuse like russia porno. as everyone here knows like michael moore I tried to warn whats was happening in the rust belt but as michael moore said you can’t tell them anything they know it all! the bernie candidate in kansas for congress did just as well with out national democratic party money as the clintonista did in georgia with millions of dollars from the establishment. who would show up for tom perez if bernie was not on stage with him. by the way I never here from my democratic district in years just candidates mailers at election time and even they don’t answer back when I call or e mail them. the establishment who runs this country wants corporate third way democrats to run the party to act as a punching bag and is no threat to them. question why do we democrats put up with this crap. I know why the education lobby puts up with it but that is not where the rest of us gets our paychecks.

  3. Rich Weinroth

    Ok, Taking a break from binge watching the second season of The Leftovers so I can finally get up to date for Season 3, and so I thought I’d check out a few websites to refresh my brain and so here I am on Saturday night. (Yes, I have way too much free time on my hands, and I’m becoming even more boring with older age.) So I have been reading Matt Taibbi for years in Rolling Stone. Great writer, especially on some the financial crisis stuff, but if it’s book reviews, I’ll stick with The New York Review of Books. Anyway, I don’t need to read a book about the Clinton campaign, or a review of such a book, to know that it was a cluster f***, and that she had no real theme apart from continuing Obama’s “third term” (and continuing it as our first woman President–no small thing if you really think about it). And that continuing the “third term” theme certainly worked for George H.W. Bush, should have worked for Al Gore (but who ran more as a populist in a strong economy, instead of saying, in effect, that I’ll govern like Bill Clinton, but I’ll sleep with my wife), and I think would have worked for Clinton despite her very weak political personality and campaign if it had not been for the FBI intervention 10 days before the election. If she had won, even in a close election, I’m sure we would have had the books about what a genius campaign her braintrust ran overcoming the difficultly of Democrats getting three straight terms for the first time since Roosevelt-Truman. I do agree she should have had a theme that focused on average Americans and should have campaigned hard in the so-called Blue Wall firewall states. I also believe if Trump had lost, we would have had numerous books about how his campaign was an absolute disaster, infighting, etc. and I suspect we would find it was even more screwed up than the Clinton campaign. But to his credit, he did have the theme about the “forgotten Americans”, even though he and the Republicans are going to give them just what they voted for “good and hard” as H. L. Mencken would say. Back to The Leftovers.

  4. I think, simply put, this author was saying that the public didn’t know what Clinton stood for, because she didn’t spend enough time explaining and/or showing the voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that she was aware of their needs and explaining how her plans would help them with their day-to-day struggles. Therefore, they voted for someone who seemed to understand their needs, because he put words to it. It wasn’t that she was an establishment politician that hurt her so much as it was that she forgot to talk directly to the single mother who barely made enough money to put nourishing food on the table for her kids; or to the father who had only been able to find part-time or temporary work since he lost his job in the recession. These people didn’t care so much what Wall Street was doing, or how many emails she sent from any particular server. They wanted to know what she would do to raise wages and bolster the job market.

  5. I fully expect that I will read “Shattered”, perhaps not right away but eventually.

    I don’t think there will be another presidential election like 2016 anytime soon. How could there be given the relative scarcity of “larger than life” celebrities who want to run the country and perhaps the world? Most presidential candidates in recent times are not the kind that evoke such emotional reactions in the electorate. Prior to their first election (or loss), how did you feel about George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, Robert Dole, Dubya, Al Gore, John McCain, or Mitt Romney? Barack Obama, of course, evoked a massive emotional reaction because he racially identifies himself as black.

    The 2016 election, however, is in a class by itself. And despite everything, Hillary managed to lose it by 106,000 votes in three blue states. No matter how much is written about this, or how much analysis is done, they will find that her campaign needed more money pumped into the ground game and more attention from the candidate herself in those three states. She didn’t need Florida, she didn’t need Ohio, she needed Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan (and New Hampshire or Nevada to get over the finish line). And the hell of it is, despite her inability to articulate her vision for the future of the country and why she was the best person to bring that vision to fruition, she lost by 106,000 votes spread over three blue states. That’s out of almost 129 million votes cast for her and Trump combined.

    What does that say?

  6. Sen. John Kavanagh

    I do not want to put words in your mouth or Taibbi’s but are you suggesting that Trump was closer to what the public wanted than Clinton? I was not sure where you were going.

    • You’re kidding, right? Six states had margins of victory under one percent for one candidate or the other. The variance between the electoral college outcome and the popular vote outcome was a statistical fluke. Obviously, the Trump campaign scored a huge strategic victory. But to stretch that into “he was closer to what the public wanted” is absurd. When Reagan beat Mondale, he was obviously closer to what the public wanted. Ditto when Obama beat McCain. But elections like 2016 or 2000? Those are about campaign execution and, to a large extent, luck.

      Remember, John, if you overstate the significance of Trump’s win as you have, you’re becoming dangerously similar to his leading cheerleader in Arizona — Paula Pennypacker.

      • Senator John Kavanagh

        So when you blame “the voters who did not vote for her,” you mean Hillary supporters who stayed home? For what reason? Or do you mean others?
        I am not playing games with you but you are not being your usually communicative self.

        • republicans did not beat hillary clinton. jill stein did(and I helped by voting for her) al gore was defeated in florid by ralph nader (I voted for him too! jill stein got more votes then hillary lost by in penn. wi. much. just as the libertarian votes do to you.

        • John, I’ve seen the blame thrown at Bernie supporters who stayed home, Stein voters, Johnson voters, and even Trump voters. I was just pointing out the absurdity of blaming the voters for an election loss. It’s the candidate’s burden to connect with the voters, not vice versa. When you reach the point where you’re blaming the voters, rather than looking in the mirror, the end is near.