The Rest Of The Story

Yesterday, I linked to this essay in the American Prospect, written by historian Rick Perlstein. It identified the three sides of an “Infernal triangle,” which it identified as “authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats and a clueless media.” The essay was pithy–and in my opinion, perceptive enough–to warrant additional citation.

I was especially struck by Perlstein’s analysis of media bias toward the GOP. That bias is not ideological, at least not in the political sense; it arises from deeply-seated notions of what constitutes “proper” political journalism. As he writes,

A political journalism adequate to this moment must throw so many of our received notions about how politics works into question. For one thing, it has to treat the dissemination of conventional but structurally distorting journalistic narratives as a crucial part of the story of how we got to this point.

 For instance, the way mainstream American political journalism has built in a structural bias toward Republicans. If one side in a two-sided fight is perfectly willing to lie, cheat, steal, and intimidate without remorse in order to win, and journalists, as a matter of genre convention, must “balance” the ledger between “both sides,” in the interest of “fairness,” that is systematically unfair to the side less willing to lie, cheat, steal, and intimidate. Journalism that feels compelled to adjudge both “sides” as equally vicious, when they are anything but, works like one of those booster seats you give a toddler in a restaurant so that they can sit eye to eye with the grown-ups. It is a systematic distortion of reality built into mainstream political journalism’s very operating system.

A recent example was one of NBC News’s articles in response to Donald Trump’s new turn of phrase in describing immigration. It was headlined: “Trump Sparks Republican Backlash After Saying Immigrants Are ‘Poisoning the Blood’ of the U.S.”

It took exceptional ingenuity for someone at NBC to figure out how to wrench one side’s embrace of race science into the consensus frame, where “both sides” “agree” that major presidential candidates should not imitate Nazis. That frame squeezes out any understanding of how Trump’s provocations rest along a continuum of Republican demonization of immigrants going back decades (“Build the dang fence,” as John McCain put it in 2010), and that most Republicans nonetheless support Trump (or candidates who say much the same things) down the line.

Pravda stuff, in its way. Imagine the headache for historians of the United States a hundred years from now, if there is a United States a hundred years from now, seeking to disentangle from journalism like that what the Republican Party of 2024 is actually like.

The inadequacy of the Democratic response adds to the cluelessness of our current media environment. In the face of a truly enormous threat to America’s constitutional democracy, Perlstein points to

Democratic “counterprogramming”: actions actively signaling contempt for the party’s core non-elite and anti-elitist base of support. That’s a term of art from the Clinton years, but it has its origins as far back as the early 1950s, when Adlai Stevenson Sister Souljah’ed a meeting with party liberals by announcing himself opposed to Truman’s goal of a national health care program, derided federal funding of public housing, and came out in favor of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.

Another Democratic tradition associates political surrender with moral nobility. Al Gore, for example, had wanted to concede on Election Night 2000, based merely on network projections that had Bush up by 4,600 votes in Florida—and not even wait for the actual initial count, which ending up having Bush ahead by only a few hundred.

This is the infernal triangle that structures American politics.

In one corner, a party consistently ratcheting toward authoritarianism, refusing as a matter of bedrock principle—otherwise they are “Republicans in Name Only”—to compromise with adversaries they frame as ineluctably evil and seek literally to destroy.

In the second corner, a party that says that, in a political culture where there is not enough compromise, the self-evident solution is to offer more compromise—because those guys’ extremist fever, surely, is soon to break …

And in the third corner, those agenda-setting elite political journalists, who frame the Democrats as one of the “sides” in a tragic folie à deux destroying a nation otherwise united and at peace with itself because both sides stubbornly … refuse to compromise.

And here we are.

I would frame the sides a bit differently. Today’s GOP is a fascist cult that must be defeated if American democracy is to survive. Democrats are feckless, true–but it’s hard to  message to a “big tent” that includes everyone from rational folks fleeing the GOP to voters to the left of Bernie Sanders.

It’s the journalism that normalizes the fascism and highlights the fecklessness that will destroy us.


  1. Amen! Talk all you want about feckless Democrats, it seems the mainstream media has a huge proportion of fecklessness built in. They see what the Republicans have become, but refuse to truly acknowledge it, except in in “elite” publications like “The Atlantic”. I long to hear local news say that the last election was fair and free. Label a lie a lie!

  2. Sheila, you buried your lede. Term of art from this “recovering journalist.” Your most important statement may well have been that last line.

  3. This American Prospect essay hits the nail on the head…and then some. However you, Sheila, do us no favor by issuing the excuse of “Gee, it’s so hard to get our message out when we have such a a big tent.” Hogwash!
    The voters aren’t waiting for a message from local and State Democrat elected officials and party leadership; they are waiting for an acknowledgement that they exist. They are waiting for the returned phone call, the email or text message they sent asking for help. And they want action. Those voters want their own problems addressed not a lot of pontification about problems that the local politician cannot affect.
    On the national scene the voters want strong leadership that uses the language of the people, not the language of Wall Street, or the Chamber of Commerce, or religion. They want the unvarnished truth even if it means sometimes having to admit that they got it wrong. Mostly, the voters would like to see Democrat leadership speak and act out the principles they claim to hold.

  4. Use of simple every day words would help too. Speak English. Say “but that is a lie” when quoting the latest bull shit from the Trumpsters. Call Bull Shit

  5. Actions speak louder than words. Demoratic Party messaging means nothing when the party will do things that belie their own message.

    Why get out the pom poms only to be relegated to background noise? We are not where we are today solely by Republicans.

    T Bowers is correct.

  6. I agree that a lie should be called a lie, but that in itself will not enlighten voters. Calling out the lies must be accompanied by immediate clear and convincing evidence of the truth. Otherwise the two sides are like children shouting “did not! did too” in the playground.

  7. I would note that it’s necessarily that the media is feckless. Their goal just isn’t what you think it might be. Is the goal to inform? Largely useless. Is the goal to bring eyes to their advertisers? Pretty successful.

    Didn’t CNN’s or MSNBC’s or some such corporate doofus let the cat out of the bag when he said something like “Trump’s terrible for America, but great for our bottom line”?

  8. We are at a fork in the path of the Homo Sapien story. Right leads to perhaps the end of the story as we descend into the chaos of “me first.”

    The left fork leads to what strikes me as the continuance of our story.

    “We, together,” are imperfect. Still, all we have, and that philosophy has taken us this far with the happy marriage of diversity and individualism, Regulated Capitalism and Socialism, and functional governance because who leads is determined by the majority of the people governed.

    Of course, none of those were my ideas, but I know them because I existed in my slice of spacetime and pursued knowledge from others to create myself.

    This exposure to during my morning routine is just an example.

  9. If it bleeds it leads!

    Who hasn’t heard that before? But it doesn’t necessarily have to be bloody to bleed. Bleeding lack of accountability, bleeding lack of compromise, bleeding lack of compassion, bleeding the rule of law, making unfounded proclamations of unity, all the while feigning outraged moral self-righteousness. They all envision themselves as a pseudo self-righteous Paul Revere! It doesn’t matter if it’s the D’s, the R’s, or the J’s! Sensationalism is the driving force of all three. There is no concerted effort to govern, just, promote hyperbole.

    This stuff has been going on since the beginning. It’s only more recognizable because of social media and the print that never can be erased. Embracing self-righteous dogma that has been done in this country for centuries, only exacerbates division! This country was always fascist, That’s why the fasces is displayed so prominently next to the speakers chair in Congress!

    They’re always has to be a next up to hate, it helps reinforce reprehensible and ignorant beliefs about those who are not like one’s self. This above mentioned symbol is a reminder to all of those who seek dominance over their fellow man, how they can eradicate basic human rights and evolve a slave state. The tipping point is here for a hegemonic authoritarian entity which will completely control it’s subordinates. It really is here already, but just like the moments after somebody’s head is lopped off, that head is still trying to figure out what’s happening before death of the brain. A majority of supposed civilized humanity is like that head, still trying to figure out what’s happening after it’s already dead!

  10. Theresa – amen, sister.

    If I may add, the DEMs “big tent” is, to steal words from The Duck, a “hoax”. If there were such a tent, the largest “party” in the US would not be the unaffiliated. It is a tent that, unbelievably houses “progressives” and Big Pharma, the MIC, the HCIC, Wall Street, etc. who “tangle” for press time while Main Street is in pain and abandoned.

  11. Theresa and Lester, on the other hand……

    Diverse people can’t be led any more than a herd of cats can.

    That is why we invest so much in education though nowadays maybe we invest as much in entertainment now that we have broadcast media to the people and Internet sharing media by the people.

    Liberal democracy depends on responsible people to vote for governance that allows them to live free and become and be who they are.

    If people choose irresponsibility they will get irresponsible government.

    It’s as simple as that.

  12. Pete,

    WADR the “majority minority” (40% or so) who could care less about parties and just want governance “of/for/by” the People (NOT THE PARTY) might just choose responsibly if they had a real choice other than fealty to a group….

  13. Pete, diverse people can be led. One has to appeal to their shared principles and frame ones policies around those principles. FDR did it. So did JFK. But our current batch of political leaders seems to have forgotten how.

  14. I think the party that houses AOC, Bernie, and remnants of a pre- and post- FDR Democrats can fairly define itself as a Big Tent party. The reader will note that today’s Democrats are open to varying opinions and policy initiatives but in the end are open to debate and compromise with fellow Democrats. The reader will also note that Republican cultists are not open to debate and compromise with fellow Republicans and call such members of their party RlNOs whereas Democrats do not label their dissident fellow Democrats DINOs. Trump, who falsely claims to be a Republican, insults members of his own party as well as anyone else who disagrees with his openly fascist views and plans to rule as a dictator. Big Tent? Try No Tent. Trump in true dictatorial fashion uses conventional language (RINOs) to advance his powers as an individual while engaging in the destruction of the undergirding institutions anchoring our democracy, and his distribution of Kool-Aid has millions of cultist imbibers.

    Our task, as usual, involves truth-telling whatever the press and its advertisers posing as journalists have to say on the passing scene of two-sided politics. Whenever fascism is openly offered as a governing principle, there are not two sides and no issue is presented. History has given us examples of such schemes in the person of Hitler, Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun, the Mongol Empire, and European colonialism, and all are uniformly bad ideas for those who were forced to live under such regimes except for God-appointed royalty and militant dictators.

    Not every issue has two sides, like fascism or democracy. The Greek invention sharpened by the Enlightenment and put into place by our Founders for us is the fairest and best scheme for governing available to human societies and today’s assault on it by Genghis Trump must be resisted at all costs. All costs. . .

  15. Gerald,

    WADR – do you really believe that the DEM party will take a strong, united stand for any of these?

    – Regulating Big Tech? Major DEM DEM donors….
    – Regulating Big Heath? Major DEM donors…
    – Regulating MIC? Major DEM donors…
    – Something as glaringly simple as a path to citizenship for “The Dreamers?” – No way will DEMs write a simple bill to do this. They are OBLIGATED by partisan ship to include other immigration reforms that GOPers won’t support. (More than 70% of registered Republicans support a path to citizenship.) THIS IS NOT “GOVERNING” FOR THE PEOPLE. (Unless you agree with SCOTUS that corporations are people…)

    Just sayin’

  16. Regarding the “twisted” facts and rhetoric from the “shadow” Republicans that the media reports on; The media should constantly broadcast the REAL facts when they report Republicans, clearly point out where they are going astray, and offer ways to fact check the lies and distortions. The media should be at war with political sources that propagate distortions to the electorate as a service to democracy and basic truth.

  17. Lester > Yes, I think it is possible that a party can regulate its donors’ businesses to the extent that such is required by the public interest, and even if such regulation is lightweight in its effect, it far outshines the alternative of fascist government and grifting by Trump and his braindead followers offered today by the authoritarian captors of the now defunct Republican Party, a “party” in name only.

  18. Gerald,

    Great – masses of people, fearful and angry about their everyday life are going to rush out to vote in a “fascism” or something else – least worse? You obviously have a great trust that the majority of the voting public, not adults who have lived anywhere near WWII and who have gone through our STEM-focused deteriorating public education system care about “fascism” – they don’t even know what it is!

  19. Lester. They may not know what the word fascism means but they notice when the MAGA crowd start taking away rights and freedoms like outlawing abortion. That isn’t working so well for them, is it?

  20. What people know is our common concern and responsibility.

    What people believe is none of our business.

    Schools are the means by which we pass on human knowledge to future generations so we can have a future.

    STEM education portrays the universe as it actually is. I’m pretty sure that enough of it can be taught to everyone in very interesting ways but those ways have to vary by learning style. All of those studies explain life and why we are who we are.

    On the other hand while they are necessary, they are not sufficient.

  21. Lester,
    I am a lifelong democrat and only voted for 1 non-democrat in my life I have enormous contempt for large numbers of my chosen party. In fact there are only a few I actually respect. I hope I can encourage more to earn my respect going forward. HOWEVER, we work in a awful system and only a blind, deaf and dumb person could believe that people like Hawley, Cruz, Johnson etc are better than the worst Democrat (except to be honest maybe Menendez). Tell me which democrat could be worse than Greene, Gates, Jordan, Stefanic or Gosart? I need not comment on TFG vs Biden.
    There are a few impressive Democrats however. None more than Joe Biden who has accomplished more over 3 years than any president in my 68 years, all against intractable foes who lie with impunity, use the power of the minority to block progress and when defeated claim credit for the policies they used scorched earth tactics to block

    Like it or not, every election is a competition between 2 parties at least for the foreseeable future? Who ya goin to vote for

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