The Greek word axios is an adjective implying worthiness (or alternatively desert). For the founders of the eponymous media company, it was thus the perfect stamp for a style of reporting they hoped to popularize and profit from: concise, instantly digestible, and easy on the eyes for political junkies and insiders alike trying to get their daily information fix. No adornment and nothing extraneous, or so went the pitch.
Axios’s house style, in fact, is so paternal and hand-holdy it even extends to visual cues so that your brain can undergo the bare minimum number of rotations required to start and finish an article. Stories come in bite-size pieces complete with bullet points, bolded text, and even Voice of God–esque context tags — “The big picture” or “Why it matters” — intended to connote impartiality.
Ahead of the site’s launch, cofounder Jim VandeHei said he aimed for “a mix between the Economist and Twitter,” which is an accidentally eloquent description of its basic MO. (Rank ideology wrapped in an objective foil? Meet the fragmented modern attention span…) VandeHei’s partner in the venture, meanwhile (former Politico playbook author Mike Allen) insists he has no ideology — a spurious premise absolutely ripe for the shameless repackaging of trite Beltway dogma as disinterested political wisdom.
This epistemological sleight of hand was on full display last week as Allen published a blog under the transparently loaded headline “Squad politics backfire.” Coming in at just over five hundred words (that’s practically War and Peace in Axios terms), Allen’s article is the umpteenth iteration of the standard Beltway insider explanation for falling Democratic fortunes. Even for the genre, in fact, it’s unbelievably paint-by-numbers — running through a standard script about how the “hard left” policies of a few fringe electeds are hurting the party’s prospects ahead of the midterms.
While he does quote Matt Bennett of the “center-left” think tank Third Way (a somewhat fallacious descriptor given the organization’s cavalcade of corporate funders), Allen’s top-line effort at sourcing comes courtesy of the cartoonishly nebulous (and inadvertently Trumpian) phrase “top Democrats tell us.” It’s the self-serving hearsay, in other words, of party Brahmins and corporate apparatchiks, laundered as “news” and bearing the imprint of disinterested political reporting.
If nothing else, it’s an unsubtle hint that elite Democrats have resigned themselves to defeat in November and are already shifting gears in an attempt to blame their own small and disempowered left for the coming wipeout. But it’s also an especially instructive case study of Beltway Brain in operation: unthinking fealty to a dogmatically centrist and neoliberal view of electoral politics, delivered with all the drab matter-of-factness of a furniture assembly manual or technical brief.
Truth be told, it’s hard to believe that grown adults who’ve chosen to spend their lives writing about politics are comfortable with thinking this reductively — and can remain so willfully incurious that they see it as a parlor game with hard and fast rules rather than the complicated site of deliberation and struggle it so obviously is. To call Allen’s piece “phoned-in” would thus be an insult to lazy absentees everywhere. It’s less devoid of substance than it is an actual void rendered in prose form.
Insider political journalism has long suffered from the obvious limitations imposed by needing access to people at the very top of powerful institutions (it’s pretty hard to maintain a skeptical orientation toward power if you’re so utterly dependent on it). Still, with the advent of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the twenty-four-second attention span, the worst tendencies of Beltway reporting have somehow gotten even more exaggerated and obtusely self-parodying.
Ours, it would seem, is a political era so sclerotic that even the hacks have finally given up.