Making the Republican Agenda Public

America’s political journalism needs an intervention. Dan Froomkin, formerly an editor for the Washington Post, has a site called Press Watch: An Intervention for political journalism. His latest:

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has decided that the best way for Republicans to win back Congress in the 2022 midterms is to not tell voters what they stand for.

He has made no secret of his plan to make the elections a referendum on President Biden and the Democrats — and not to complicate things with anything remotely like a Republican legislative agenda.

It’s a brilliant strategy, if he can get away with it. And so far, all the signs are good. Pretty much every prognosticator inside the Beltway is predicting significant GOP advances, certainly enough to take back the House, if not the Senate.

But I’m old-fashioned. I think voters should know what they’re voting for, not just what they’re voting against. And if Republicans themselves won’t tell the voters about their agenda, then it’s incumbent on political journalists to do it for them.

THREE SCENARIOS

First we have to ask: Is there a Republican agenda — and they just don’t want voters to know what it is? Or is there really no agenda at all? And where does Donald Trump fit into all of this?

Scenario 1: The Republican Party really has no agenda. It’s a post-policy party. Or maybe it’s not really a political party at all, it’s just a rage cult. Supporting that theory is the absence of any attempt to solve any actual problem for several years running now. The party’s MO has been pure obstruction. Its role: agents of chaos. It has no goal but to stay in power. If this is true, it is probably worth making that clear to the voters.

Scenario 2:  The only operative Republican agenda is whatever T____ says it is, whenever he says it, although that might change at any point. For now, the one and only agenda item is the Big Lie: refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election, making baseless accusations of fraud, purging anyone who doesn’t agree, and making sure it doesn’t happen again. If this is true, it is probably worth making that clear to the voters.

Scenario 3: Of course the Republican Party has an agenda! It is largely the same agenda it has had for decades, just a bit more extremist, considerably less keen on free trade,  and way less tethered to reality. The agenda’s goal is simple: to serve the party’s rich and corporate patrons. McConnell, the nearly-human embodiment of the party, has no principles other than raising enough money from those patrons to seize and maintain power, so keeping them happy is his top priority bar none. The problem here is that a pro-corporate, pro-billionaire agenda does not poll well with actual voters. This is the flip side of how Biden’s agenda is polling well but Biden himself is not. So the last thing Republicans want to do is advertise their agenda. Nevertheless, if this is true, it is probably worth making that clear to the voters.

ALL OF THE ABOVE?

All three of these scenarios have some truth to them.

All of them, I think it is reasonable for journalists to state with confidence, would lead to continued obstruction of any significant legislative attempt to address the existential threats facing the country. Any way you cut it, the Republican agenda is essentially a surrender to climate change, income inequality, and disparate access to healthcare.

And these agenda items probably don’t begin to encompass all the possible outcomes of a Republican takeover of the three branches. Without restraints, one can easily imagine they would embrace an even more nationalist, authoritarian, aggressively Christian and misogynistic agenda. These attempt to fill in the blanks left by Mitch McConnell are based on things we’ve already seen, or things they’ve already said.

In Scenario 1, although there is no agenda per se, one could reasonably assume that the party would put a great deal of effort into undermining pluralism in an effort to stoke and stroke White Christian grievance. For instance, by:

  • demonizing immigrants
  • reducing immigration
  • engaging in cruelty at the border
  • encouraging Islamophobia
  • institutionalizing evangelical Christian values
  • restricting reproductive rights
  • turning schools into conservative indoctrination centers
  • prosecuting teachers who resist

The political discourse would inevitably become even more degraded, political violence would become normalized; there would essentially no longer be any red line beyond which violent, inciteful and racist rhetoric is considered disqualifying from public life. Instead of legislating, the courts – increasingly dominated by right-wing extremists – would expand or rescind constitutional rights as needed.

In Scenario 2, since it seems unlikely that T____ will ever let go of the Big Lie, a top priority will likely be ensuring that Republicans remain in power even if that requires permanent minority rule. That means

  • more extreme gerrymandering
  • discriminatory limits on ballot access
  • voter intimidation
  • overturning election results that don’t’ go their way, either by having loyalist Republicans in place to do so, or through violence

Other things to expect:

  • military parades
  • government dysfunctionality
  • self-dealing
  • transactional and mercurial foreign policy
  • loyalty oaths required from political appointees and government workers
  • violent crackdown on antigovernment protests
  • militarization of police
  • politicization of law enforcement

Scenario 3, the “secret” agenda, can be reasonably extrapolated from historical observation. It would most assuredly involve:

  • lower taxes, especially on corporations and the rich
  • steep reductions in social safety-net programs, especially Social Security
  • ending Obamacare
  • significant deregulation, including the rolling back of key environmental and workplace protections
  • increased fossil fuel extraction
  • weaker gun laws

The debate that’s currently raging about whether corporate media coverage of Biden is overly negative takes on even greater significance when you consider how the entire Republican strategy in the coming years will be to throw brickbats at him from behind a tree.

Biden’s shortcomings are certainly newsworthy. But paying a little more attention to who’s behind the tree, and what their intentions really are, is essential journalism.

Voting Republican, in this day and age, is not a simple protest vote. It’s a vote that carries unprecedented consequences. Political reporters should be telling voters about those consequences, and then asking if that’s what they really want.

Three Voices on the Current Crisis

First, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post summarizes the danger we face. Then, what President Biden could be doing about it. Finally, a look at America from an outsider’s perspective:

Right now, much of the [Republican Party] has decided that an effort by its own leader, D____ T____, to overthrow U.S. democracy through corrupt pressure on many government actors, and then through mob violence, doesn’t require a national response.

Many Republicans are vying for positions of control over our election machinery for the all-but-openly declared purpose of subverting future losses. Republicans calling on the GOP to stand down from this madness, and who resisted the last coup effort, face primaries and censure.

And Republicans are entrenching voter suppression everywhere. They are justifying all this by feeding GOP voters lies about the integrity of our election system, inviting them to tell themselves antidemocratic tactics — or even subverting election losses — are their appropriate recourse.

We could be protecting the system from these threats. But we are not.

Next, Brett Edkins of Talking Points Memo on what President Biden needs to do:

If President Biden wants to lead on strengthening democracies around the world, and restore America’s credibility and soft power globally, he must do more to get our house in order. He can begin by leveraging his 36 years of Senate experience and the enormous influence he wields as the President of the United States to push for change here at home and deliver on his campaign promise to “defend democracy” and “guarantee that every American’s vote is protected.” 

President Biden must publicly call on the Senate to end the outdated filibuster that has allowed Senate Republicans to block legislation that the vast majority of Americans supportfrom establishing an independent January 6th Commission to passing critical voting rights legislation. The White House teased that the President would soon outline his stance on “fundamentally altering” the filibuster, but the issue has taken a backseat to other legislative pursuits. This is a missed opportunity.

The President of the United States has the largest soapbox on the planet, and President Biden has unique credibility to push recalcitrant Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster and restore the Senate to a genuinely deliberative body capable of passing legislation by majority vote (though it goes without saying, there are a couple of Democrats in particular who are hamstringing not just filibuster-nixing efforts but also much of his legislative agenda, too). Then, Senate Democrats would be able to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the D.C. Statehood Act to ensure that every eligible citizen can access the ballot box. 

President Biden should also rally Congress behind the Protecting Our Democracy Act (PODA), which includes provisions that have garnered bipartisan support in the past. This legislation would restore our constitutional checks and balances to ensure that no future president, regardless of party, is able to undermine our democracy by abusing the power of their office. PODA is expected to clear the House of Representatives this week, but its path through the Senate is uncertain. Surely, the endorsement of the President of the United States would highlight the critical importance of its passage into law. [Someone at the White House would like to hear from you.]

Finally, Fahrad Manjoo of The New York Times on “The Year America Lost Its Democracy”:

The foreign-policy journalist Joshua Keating used to write a series for Slate called “If It Happened There,” in which he reported on political and cultural developments in the United States in the tone of an American foreign correspondent sending dispatches from a nation on the other side of the globe.

Keating’s series was partly a joke about Western paternalism. But by illuminating the terrifying fragility of our own glass house, the trope also offered Americans the powerful gift of perspective. For instance, see how Keating’s headline on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — “Death of Hard-Line Jurist Throws Regime Into Chaos” — neatly underlined the quaint capriciousness of a political system in which one unelected judge’s sudden demise can call into question fundamental rights across the land.

As an immigrant to the United States from one of the world’s long-troubled regions, I’ve found myself thinking of Keating’s series quite a lot this year. Adopting an outsider’s point of view has helped to clarify the terrible stakes of the political game now playing out across the country — and has filled me with a sense of deep despair and foreboding.

Because if the assaults on democracy that occurred in America in 2021 had happened in another country, academics, diplomats and activists from around the world would be tearing their hair out over the nation’s apparent unraveling. If you were a reporter summing up this American moment for readers back home in Mumbai, Johannesburg or Jakarta, you’d have to ask whether the country is on the brink: A decade from now, will the world say that 2021 was the year the United States squandered its democracy?

If that sounds hyperbolic, consider the year’s many lowlights. Begin, of course, on Jan. 6: Followers of Ousted President Storm National Legislature.” Then, when Republicans in Congress turned against an independent inquiry into the Capitol attack and punished the few in their party who supported it: “Bowing to Former Strongman, Opposition Blocks Coup Investigation, Expels Dissenters.” Or when, despite turning up no evidence of significant electoral mischief in the 2020 presidential election, Republican-led legislatures in more than a dozen states began pushing new laws to restrict voting rights, including several that put partisan officials in charge of election administration: “Provincial Lawmakers Alter Election Rules to Favor Deposed Premier.”

And then last month, when more than 150 academic scholars of democracy put out a letter urging Congress to pass legislation to protect American elections from partisan takeover. Headline: “Experts Sound Alarm Over Democratic Backsliding in Nuclear-Armed Superpower.” Pull quote: “This is no ordinary moment in the course of our democracy,” the scholars wrote. “It is a moment of great peril and risk.”

Hoping for the Best & Getting the Worst

David Roberts is a writer for Vox who I don’t follow on Twitter anymore (he’s @drvox, but not a doctor). I don’t follow him because he’s so good at pointing out how bad things are. But somebody linked to what he posted today:

Untitled2

Among the many reasons this is horseshit, this whole genre of liberal-scolding rests on the premise that the offended heartlanders are responding to what Democrats actually say — the intramural debates in which people like (NY Times columnist Maureen) Dowd are involved. They’re not! 

By & large, Txxxx’s base has no idea what Dems actually say or do. They are responding to a ludicrous caricature they see on (Right Wing) media & RW social media. They are responding to lies & conspiracy theories. Dems changing how they talk *won’t change any of that*. 

It’s very weird how America’s elite journalists/pundits/etc. wring their hands over “post-truth politics” & the problem of misinformation, but then turn around & treat the things voters do as a direct response to Dem “messaging.” Voters rarely HEAR Dem messaging. Because — stop me if you’ve heard me say this a trillion times — the RW has a giant propaganda machine that carries their messages directly to the ears (& id) of their voters. Dems lob messages out into the (Main Stream Media) & hope for the best.

Unquote.

He could have added “& often get the worst”.

America Is Totally Screwed, Well, Maybe 90% Screwed

Margaret Sullivan, who writes an excellent column about the news media for The Washington Post, gave some stern advice to her fellow journalists this morning:

First, be bolder and more direct than ever in telling it like it is. No more pussyfooting or punch-pulling. No more of what’s been called “false equivalence” — giving equal weight to truth and lies in the name of fairness.

Can mainstream outlets, influential as they are, really go up against the counter-messaging on places like Fox News, or Steve Bannon’s podcast or fact-averse outlets like Newsmax?

This battle can’t be fought with facts alone, argues journalism scholar Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois.

The only hope, she wrote, is for mainstream journalism to appeal to passion as well as reason — “providing moral clarity along with truthful content.” Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen recently wrote, journalism must reposition itself in the media ecosystem, to seize this moment in history to take a clear stance, in everything it does, as “pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist, and aggressively pro-democracy.”

In other words, the reality-based press has to unapologetically stand for something. Otherwise, it’s just a pallid alternative to the excitement of burgeoning lies. . . .

Can journalists, mired in our “how we’ve always done it” mind-set, really change their stripes to fight the war on disinformation? Can we be more clear and direct, embrace a moral purpose, help to educate news consumers? And even if we do, will it make a significant difference?

I have serious doubts about the answers to those questions. But I do know that we have to try.

Soon thereafter, I saw the name “Chuck Todd” trending on Twitter. Todd is the host of Meet the Press, probably America’s best-known Sunday morning political talk show. He works for NBC, one of the networks Americans rely on for reality-based journalism. It was disturbing to see what he’d done this morning:

Untitled

Really? We are totally screwed if this is what passes for reality on NBC.

I couldn’t find a video where he actually expressed doubt about Biden winning, so I did a search for “Chuck Todd” and found a Meet the Press transcript for this morning’s show. Here’s that part. He’s interviewing a Republican senator from North Dakota:

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, are you really saying that the president is — you’re out there saying that the president’s not encouraging somehow any way of sort of being disorderly about this. How is that not encouraging disruption and disorderly — he’s accusing the entire system of being corrupt. Is that not undermining the democracy?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER:

Well, first of all, what they’re claiming is that there’s a lot of evidence and they’re presenting that evidence in cases. Now, it’s up to them to present that evidence, Chuck, obviously. And we’ve yet to see a real hearing where evidence was presented. And, and they’re not obligated to present it, you know, yesterday or tomorrow, although the sooner the better from my perspective. But I’m just speaking strictly now from this “attack on democracy,” as you call it. This is, these are legal systems. This is, these are processes that are in our Constitution, in our laws, and they’re not just appropriate, but they’re really an obligation, frankly, to the millions of Americans that President Trump is a reflection of. I know, you know, a lot of people like to think that we’re the reflection of him. He’s the reflection of millions of people that want to see him fight this to the end. Now, there has to be an end, Chuck. I agree there has to be an end. I, frankly, do think it’s time to — well, it was past time to start a transition, to at least cooperate with the transition. I’d rather have a president that has more than one day to prepare, should Joe Biden, you know, end up winning this. But in the meantime, again, he’s just exercising his legal options.

CHUCK TODD:

I just want to confirm. You believe that the head of GSA [the General Services Administration], tomorrow morning at this point, ought to say, “The transition needs to begin. It looks like Joe Biden’s going to be the apparent winner. Yes, there’s more to go through.” If this is what the head of GSA said, “Yes, there’s still more to go through, but it looks like Joe Biden’s the apparent winner. Let’s allow the transition process to begin,” should that be what happens tomorrow morning?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER:

Yes, it should happen tomorrow morning because it didn’t happen last Monday morning. I just think you have to begin that process, give the incoming administration all the time they need.

So it wasn’t as bad as people were saying. He was putting words in the mouth of the Republican jerk who runs the GSA and still hasn’t started the official transition to the new administration, two weeks after we knew who won. Maybe we aren’t totally screwed yet. 

Nevertheless, he did give a Republican politician several minutes on national TV to defend the indefensible. His audience got to hear a U.S. senator claim it’s reasonable that millions of voters want a sociopath to spread lies and undermine what’s left of our democracy. So maybe it’s only 90%.

Some good news, however: Biden now leads the maniac by more than six million votes. That margin will grow as laggard states, like New York, keep counting. He’ll end up with more than 80 million votes, the most ever for a presidential candidate. He’s won 306 electoral votes to the maniac’s 232, the same number the maniac got in 2016 (when he called it a “landslide”).

Most importantly, he made DDT (a more apt acronym than “DJT”) a one-term president. Since Franklin Roosevelt won his fourth term in 1944, only Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush have run for president as incumbents and lost (Truman and Johnson chose not to run). We know this election shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but, considering the alternative, having JRB in place of DDT counts for a lot.

A Conservative Confesses

Matthew Sheffield is a conservative journalist who admits there’s something radically wrong with most “conservative” media. He wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

As a former conservative activist and journalist, it has been so frustrating to see my former compatriots spreading wild and unchecked claims about “voter fraud.”

As the co-creator of NewsBusters, the most prominent anti-media website, I was part of a decades-long tradition of complaining about media elites being “unfair” to conservative views. There is still much to that argument, but eventually I saw that I was missing context.

What I did not realize until I began expanding my work into creating actual media and reporting institutions such as the Washington Examiner (I was the founding online editor) was that U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism.

This became evident to me as I saw that conservative-dominated media outlets were MUCH more biased than outlets run by liberals. The latter had flaws that arose from a lack of diversities (note plural) but they operated mostly in good faith. That’s not how the former operated.

I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would some how counteract perceived liberal bias.

While I was enmeshed in the conservative media tradition, I viewed lefty media thinkers like @jayrosen_nyu as arguing that journalism was supposed to be liberally biased. I was wrong. I realized later that I didn’t understand that journalism is supposed to portray reality.

This thought was phrased memorably by [Stephen Colbert] as “reality has a well-known liberal bias”, which is an oversimplification but is more accurate than the conservative journalist view which is that media should promote and serve conservative politicians.

I also discovered as I rose through the right-wing media ranks that most conservative media figures have no journalism training or desire to fact-check their own side. I also saw so many people think that reporting of information negative to [Republican] politicians was biased, even if it was true.

If you would like to get a great look at the tensions and origins of conservative journalism, there is a wonderful, fabulous book by my friend [Nicole Hemmer], Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, which I cannot commend enough. My career was an updated version of what she chronicled.

People ask sometimes if conservative media figures like Sean Hannity or anyone associated with the Federalist could actually be so credulous as to believe unfounded and non-specific allegations of “voter fraud.” But the reality is that they don’t actually even think that far.

Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms “the left.” It doesn’t even have to be a fact. Trump’s numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.

This assumption is behind all conservative media output. They never tell you what their actual motives are. Most center-left people don’t realize just how radical many conservative elites are, largely because they don’t wear it on their sleeves.

Just as a for-instance of this point, most people have no idea that the top two Trump White House figures, Mike Pence and Mark Meadows, think that biological evolution is a lie.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous viewpoint in light of the SARS2 coronavirus epidemic because the entirety of virology and epidemiology is based on evolution. If you think it’s “fake” then you’ll believe ludicrous nonsense like “herd immunity.”

The same thing is happening with right-wing media and specious claims of voter fraud. Conservatives are willing to believe them even if there is no evidence, simply because anything negative about liberals is true. This mentality extends to the very highest ranks.

Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, and a bevvy of GOP elected officials have no problem parroting unverified rumors as fact because conservative journalism is about supporting conservatives, not about finding facts.

I tried for over a decade to inculcate some standards of independence and professionalism among conservative writers but my efforts made me enemies, especially when I argued that the GOP should be neutral on religion, instead of biased toward Christians.

I began work on a manuscript in 2012 fearing that Mitt Romney would lose his election because conservatives had not learned how politics actually works and that we should adapt to serve public needs and make peace with secular people.

I showed my manuscript to several people who I thought were my friends because I wanted to get the perspective of religious conservatives. Instead of helping me, some of them began trying to expel me from the conservative movement.

I eventually realized that many conservative activists were committed to identity rather than ideas. One of my friends literally told me in 2016 that he would support Senator Ted Cruz because “that’s what the Christians are doing.”

We’re at a critical moment in U.S. politics right now because the Christian identity politics that is the edifice of Republican electioneering is teetering. Millions of Americans have for decades thought that their countrymen are evil.

You can watch this play out right now on a television stage when you tune into Fox News as they cover the election. Fact-based journalists have finally realized that the identity rage of the GOP is going into a raging crescendo.

On an hourly basis now outside of the rage-filled lie-fests of primetime, Fox reporters are gently trying to explain to guests that they need actual evidence before accusing people of crimes. The guests, such as Gingrich, have NEVER been challenged like this on Fox.

Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Martha MacCallum, and others are trying to save conservatism from itself. It’s like watching a modern-day adaptation of Aeschylus or Sophocles. Sadly, the rest of us are not just spectators in this tragedy.

How American conservatism dies is the most important story, by far, of this moment. Conventional media will never tell this story because their business is built on the lie that Trump is an aberration rather than apotheosis. . . .

At the same time, the tens of millions of people who vote Republican are not deplorable. They are misled. And the mocking and tribalistic coverage that lefty media often engage in only makes things worse. Only love can defeat hate.

And just to clarify my point about people who are “misled.” It’s the people that Trump referred to when he said “I love the poorly educated.” They are the people who work hard, go to church, and feel they have no future in a secular America.

Not the leaders, but the led.

Unquote. 

Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens choose to be misled because it makes them feel better. This is a comment I left after reading “Welcome the Txxxx Voters Back”, a piece by a philosophy professor calling on us to be nicer to the president’s supporters (in my comment, I quote the author of the article while making a few changes):

Speaking for the majority of American voters, I hereby welcome the minority to join us in “[cultivating] an information environment in which people [can] distinguish between truth and falsehood, in which expert claims are [not] treated with suspicion, and in which fringe figures and theories are [not] valued more highly than mainstream ones”.

Unless more of the “conservative” minority are willing to do that, it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference whether we in the majority “appreciate the bond of citizenship” [and welcome them back] more than we already do.