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.
- Cyclical 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 answer. 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 it will steal the 2024 election if it doesn'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.
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 generic Democrats 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 that demands some real reporting.
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