Political journalists in our top newsrooms are pursuing two dramatically different story lines — and refusing to do the critically important work of connecting them.
They file the occasional story illustrating how the modern Republican Party has become anti-democracy, race-baiting, violence-inciting, shameless, and untethered to reality. They report that its leaders defend the violent Jan. 6 coup attempt and are preparing to invalidate or dispute electoral defeats in the future. They observe the party’s appeals to white supremacy and grievance. They describe Donald Trump as a conspiracy theorist who would be unlikely to respect any limits if returned to office. They sometimes point out that the Republican agenda, such as it is, consists only of legislative hostage-taking, lies, denial, obstruction, and division.
The inescapable conclusion is that if this Republican Party wins back control of even one house of Congress, they will grind governing to a halt — and that, if they win the presidency again, democracy as we know it may well no longer exist.
Meanwhile, these same political journalists are also handicapping the 2022 and 2024 elections as if things were normal — as if it were still just a choice between two equally legitimate political parties, rather than a referendum on whether the government should be allowed to function, whether the people should be allowed to pick their leaders in the future, and whether white Christian nationalism formally replaces pluralism as the country’s organizing principle.
Indeed, they are calmly — even confidently — predicting Republican victories, certainly in 2022, based on polling and historical trends. They take as a given that there will be, as usual, an energetic backlash against the ruling party. They note all the causes for dissatisfaction with Democrats. And they consider it inconceivable that the public might somehow hold Republicans accountable for their transgressions and the threat they pose to traditional American values.
(They certainly don’t consider that the media itself contributes to that lack of accountability – first, by not aggressively pursuing it, then by assuming it will never happen.)
It’s not surprising that our top political reporters aren’t connecting those two story lines; they have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize and to forget their own work when it complicates things.
But here is the lead of the news story they should be writing:
Despite the dangerously anti-democratic extremism of the Donald Trump-led Republican Party, polls and historical trends at this point indicate that voters will return the GOP to power in the House in 2022 — and quite possibly the White House in 2024.
That, in turn, should lead to an urgent discussion of the many factors at play, including:
- The failure – on the part of the Democratic Party and the media – to properly stigmatize Trump and his enablers for their lies, corruption, rule-breaking and incitements to violence, culminating in a violent coup attempt.
- The country’s rigid two-party system not offering a palatable alternative for non-racist, pro-democracy conservatives.
- Republican tribalism, such that party affiliation and loyalty are defining and unquestioned.
- A significant subset of voters who would welcome an authoritarian, white Christian government.
- The united front presented by today’s Republican leaders and their lockstep refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing (unlike after Watergate)
- Genuine dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s inability to fulfill its promises.
- Public and media susceptibility to Republican scare stories.
- Negative media coverage of Biden and the Democrats.
- Cyclic bitterness toward the ruling party, whichever it is.
The prospect that some combination of these and other factors will lead to the cessation of legislating in 2022 and an emboldened strongman government in 2024 raises a number of questions journalists should be trying to find answers to. Among them:
- What will it take for the greater public to recognize the extremist, radical nature of the current Republican Party?
- How can we improve the public understanding of the practical implications of putting Republicans back in power?
- Is the public sufficiently aware of how much has changed since Biden and Democrats took office?
- Shouldn’t Trumpism break the voters’ historic pattern of alternating party control and favoring a divided government?
- How have the supporters of an attempted coup avoided stigmatization, and is it too late?
- Given the radicalism of the GOP, is antipathy for Biden and Democrats a rational reason to vote Republican?
- What are the alternatives for voters who hate Democrats but love democracy?
- Why are Republican voters more energized than Democratic voters and will they stay that way?
- How is possible that the party saying they’ll steal the 2024 election if they don’t win could actually win it without stealing it?
Seeking answers to these questions will not be easy. It will require open-ended and open-minded reporting. That means not looking for people to illustrate a predetermined thesis, but actually listening to people.
To expand on this, may I refer to you the Pope? I kid you not. I thought his recent description of the journalistic mission and how to achieve it was thoughtful, wise, and particularly appropriate to our moment.
The Pope, on journalism. Glorious.https://t.co/BK806X8qOt pic.twitter.com/TWQXZF7aEt
— Dan Froomkin/PressWatchers.org (@froomkin) November 15, 2021
So, for instance, that means not reflexively reporting that some regressive, deceitful, race-baiting strategy seems to have worked, but examining why it may have been effective, what that says about the people who employed it and the people who fell for it, what the truth of the matter is, and how to correct the record.
It means looking at polling not to vindicate your poor reporting in the past, but to help you understand what you’re doing wrong, and fix it.
So, for instance, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll showed generic Republican congressional candidates with the largest midterm lead (51 percent to 41 percent) over the Democrat in 40 years. It’s an outlier. But it also showed overwhelming support for Democratic legislative initiatives.
You can use that as evidence the Democrats have lost the messaging wars and are cooked. Or you can see that as cognitive dissonance worth doing some reporting on.
Let Me Rewrite That For You
Let me actually start with an article that didn’t need rewriting. It’s an example of the first story line I discussed above. It’s a straight-forward, fact-based, well-reported article about one of the many profound and disturbing ways in which the modern Republican Party has shattered norms and violated basic morality – how there is evidently no line they will not cross — apparently without having to pay a price
So yeah, go read Lisa Lerer and Astead W. Herndon‘s article in the New York Times about how “historians and those who study democracy” have concluded that “the Republican Party is mainstreaming menace as a political tool.” Their central point:
From congressional offices to community meeting rooms, threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party. Ten months after rioters attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and after four years of a president who often spoke in violent terms about his adversaries, right-wing Republicans are talking more openly and frequently about the use of force as justifiable in opposition to those who dislodged him from power.
They also observe that:
[A]mong the most fervent conservatives, who play an outsize role in primary contests and provide the party with its activist energy, the belief that the country is at a crossroads that could require armed confrontation is no longer limited to the fringe.
Yes, it’s true, you can write a story like this and get it past the editors of the New York Times.
Unfortunately, those editors also really like articles like this one, headlined “Why Democrats May Have a Long Wait if They Lose Their Grip on Washington“, by Nate Cohn. He wrote:
Democrats now have a Washington trifecta — command of the White House and both chambers of Congress. If the results of last week’s elections in Virginia and elsewhere are any indication, they may not retain it after next November’s midterm elections. And a decade or longer may pass before they win a trifecta again.
The unusual structure of American government, combined with the electorate’s reflexive instinct to check the party in power, makes it hard for any party to retain a hold on both the White House and Congress for long.
Cohn noted that Democrats “face a series of structural disadvantages in the House and the Senate that make it difficult to translate popular vote majorities into governing majorities,” then concluded that “The specter of divided government is a bitter one for Democrats,” yet appears unavoidable.
Let me rewrite that for you:
Capitalizing on a number of factors, including voters’ reflexive instinct to check the party in power, Republicans appear likely to take over the House in 2024. And due to extreme Republican gerrymandering and the structure of the Senate, Democrats are unlikely to control the White House and Congress again for at least a decade.
Unless the dynamics change dramatically, Republicans will be rewarded rather than punished in the first national election since they tried to overturn the last one.
And if the GOP is able to continue engaging in gerrymandering, voter suppression and attempts to overturn electoral defeats, it’s unclear if Democrats will return to power in the future even with the support of a sizeable majority of voters.
A few days later, under the headline Republicans Gain Heavy House Edge in 2022 as Gerrymandered Maps Emerge, fellow New York Times reporters Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti wrote:
Republicans’ upper hand in the redistricting process, combined with plunging approval ratings for President Biden and the Democratic Party, provides the party with what could be a nearly insurmountable advantage in the 2022 midterm elections and the next decade of House races…
The rapidly forming congressional map, a quarter of which has taken shape as districts are redrawn this year, represents an even more extreme warping of American political architecture, with state legislators in many places moving aggressively to cement their partisan dominance.
I have found over the years of reading news stories that the word choice that reporters make in subordinate clauses is often highly revealing of where they are really coming from. “By their subordinate clauses shall ye know them,” I always say. So I duly note this sentence from Epstein and Corasanti:
Democrats, without much to brag about, accuse Republicans of being afraid of competitive elections.
But let me rewrite that top for you.
If Democrats fail to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, extreme gerrymandering that makes Republican votes count more than Democratic ones will give the GOP a significant edge in taking control of the House in 2022.
And unless Democrats are able to get more credit for curbing the pandemic, investing in infrastructure, raising wages and lowering unemployment – or significantly more voters decide they shouldn’t reward Republican leaders for supporting a violent coup and engaging in race-baiting — the advantage will be effectively insurmountable.
Or you could just lead with that stuff about the “extreme warping of American political architecture.”
Here are Aaron Zitner and Natalie Andrews writing in the Wall Street Journal:
WASHINGTON—Alarm bells are ringing in the Democratic Party as it prepares to defend its narrow House majority in the 2022 midterm elections…
The party’s loss in the Virginia election for governor this month, and a surprisingly narrow win for governor of New Jersey, have added to the evidence of malaise among important groups of Democratic voters. Compounding the party’s challenge are sinking approval ratings for Mr. Biden, retirements by House incumbents and expected Republican gains from the post-census redrawing of House district lines.
Let me rewrite that for you.
WASHINGTON—Alarm is growing among Democrats, democracy activists, minority groups and even some Republicans as the GOP emerges in a strong position to take back the House in the 2022 midterm elections.
A House led by emboldened, extremist Republicans would effectively kill President Biden’s legislative agenda, along with any possibility of bolder action to address climate change, income inequality, or racial discrimination.
And such a victory would indicate that the American public is more eager to punish Democrats than Republicans, despite the GOP’s refusal to condemn a violent coup attempt, their race-baiting rhetoric, and their blatant moves to suppress votes and ignore electoral results when they don’t win.
In the Washington Post last week, Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis wrote a story headlined Republicans seek a U.S. Senate takeover in 2022 but struggle over candidates:
The national environment could hardly look more favorable to Republicans one year before the midterm elections, with declining approval for President Biden, growing pessimism in the country and spiking prices for essentials like gasoline and milk.
But Republican struggles to settle on candidates have left some wondering whether the party will blow its big chance to retake the U.S. Senate.
The party’s front-runner in Pennsylvania, Sean Parnell, is awaiting a judge’s ruling on accusations, which he denies, that he choked his estranged wife and hit one of his children. The top-polling Missouri GOP candidate, former governor Eric Greitens, is trying to downplay his resignation from office after allegedly tying up his mistress in the basement of his marital home. And in Georgia, the party’s likely nominee, Herschel Walker, is bracing for a Democratic advertising assault about his ex-wife’s claims that he threatened her with a gun.
There has been no spike in milk prices, so that should be corrected – even if it’s become part of the inflation scare-story liturgy.
The story also contains this impenetrable paragraph apparently positing the existence of Republican “general election strategists” who somehow aren’t comfortable with what their own party is all about these days.
Competitive primaries elsewhere have pushed the debate in the Republican Party far outside the comfort zone of general election strategists, as the candidates fall over each other to indulge former president Donald Trump’s election conspiracy theories.
So let me rewrite that for you, to the extent that I understand what point you were trying to make.
Republican strategists who hope the GOP will retake the Senate in 2022 tell us that they’re worried about a backlash against the emerging candidates. They’re not worried about a backlash against the party for its attempted coup and white nationalist rhetoric. The concern is over candidates who win the Trump endorsement and the nomination but are terrible human beings.
I would also move up the paragraph about how a Republican Senate would not only kill the Democratic legislative agenda, but would likely stop confirming Biden nominees including Supreme Court justices and abuse its subpoena power.
A Washington Post article by Tyler Page — “Biden has underestimated problems facing the country — and Democrats fear that has become a political problem” — asserted (without any named sources) that Democrats are worried that Biden’s loss of credibility will drag the party to defeat in 2022.
I wouldn’t even know how to start rewriting that one for you. Eric Boehlert lampooned it pretty good, though.
And I strongly recommend this New York Times podcast, in which author Nicole Hemmer interviews NYU journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen, who was particularly erudite and insightful about the consequences of continuing with both-sides journalism.
“You never get to say what the Republican Party is really doing,” Rosen explained. “You can’t describe the reality of the two parties today.”
I disagree that Democrats aren’t stigmatizing Trump and his minions. They do that all the time; it’s the media that normalizes Republicans’ extremism while portraying Democrats as equally extreme and as incompetent. The media portrays the kinds negotiations and compromises that are essential to a democracy as if that were weakness on the part of Democrats.
The media constantly frames stories in terms of right wing talking points. For example they are constantly reporting the concerns about the cost of the BBB proposals raising debt and inflation. When the Treasury estimated that the BBB’s pay-for proposals will more than cover the costs of the bill, i.e., it will reduce the deficit, the media chose to ignore that story. The only place I have seen it reported was in and article by Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman the WaPo’s Plum Line “Don’t look now but is the story becoming Democrats in array?”.
Today Larry Summers says that the Treasury underestimated just how much revenue will be raised by the increased funding for IRS in the BBB bill. I am betting the media will choose to ignore that, too.
Brilliant rewrites, and we can only wish that at least some journalists are reading your column and will adjust their practice.
One minor rewrite of my own:
“Cyclic bitterness toward the ruling party, whichever it is.”
When Democrats are in the majority in Congress, they are the governing party. When Republicans are in control, they are the ruling party.
Great work as always. I would only suggest the addition of one thing to your list of “factors at play.” You wrote: “The failure – on the part of the Democratic Party and the media – to properly stigmatize Trump and his enablers…” Moderate Republicans have failed as well, and they should be constantly confronted with this fact. Attempts by the Democratic Party and the media to stigmatize Trump and his enablers seems to only make them double-down. If “How Democracies Die” by Levitsky and Ziblatt is accurate, then moderates in the autocratic-leaning party need to step up to the plate to help pop this boil.
Great column but I take issue with this point:
Genuine dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s inability to fulfill its promises
Biden has been in office 10 months, and as you yourself say later in the column, much has changed. From jobs, to child poverty, the Dems are tackling big issues—or trying to. Legislation takes time, especially with such narrow margins in the House and Senate and one party doing everything they can to jam up the works, including trying to persuade the two most difficult Dems to jump ship.
Two massive bills have been passed, two more are in the pipeline. The 1/6 committee is working nonstop and yet you give credence to “genuine dissatisfaction” they aren’t able to “fulfill their promises.” The idea that change is instant and that Biden and the Dems haven’t fixed everything in a few months is another media fail and people need to be reminded a) negotiation is part of governing and takes time and 2) the Dems are a majority in just about name only, with the Veep as the deciding vote.