By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
Democrats sometimes refer to Fox News and other conservative media with envy, presuming that the influence of right-leaning news outlets gives the GOP a large advantage in electoral politics. Even if Democrats have an easier time making their case in “neutral” media — something both Republican voters and party actors strongly believe but for which proof is hard to find — wouldn’t it be nice to be able to reach supporters easily, with hardly any filter?
Democrats should be careful what they wish for.
For one, ceding a central role to party-aligned media puts the preferences of Fox News, talk-radio hosts and their corporate bosses above those of other party actors.
Having such a powerful media megaphone in their corner also tends to make politicians and political parties lazy. Why sharpen one’s arguments when they are going to be adopted with little scrutiny by content-hungry outlets? That makes it challenging for Republicans to talk to the majority of the nation that isn’t tuned in to Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and other highly politicized media personalities.
Two examples of that laziness, one small and one big, emerged last week.
The small one was the decision by Republicans to ridicule Vice President Kamala Harris for introducing herself at a White House event by saying “I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit” and mentioning her preferred pronouns. Whether one feels that declaring one’s pronouns is an inclusive courtesy or a sign of overeager wokeness, the GOP mockery ignored that Harris was only following the suggestions of those who organized the meeting with disability rights leaders.
It was ridicule that played well on right-wing media but probably didn’t broaden the party’s appeal, something the GOP needs to do if it wants to win back the White House in 2024.
The larger moment was a decision by Senate Republicans to defeat what had been a bipartisan bill to help veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits while serving overseas. An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate earlier this year, but last week it failed to overcome a filibuster when 25 Republicans switched their votes. The reasons for the change had to do with overall budget policy. Or at least that’s what Republicans say; there also is some suspicion that the switch was prompted by GOP anger toward Democrats over the surprise agreement between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on a big health care, climate and tax package.
Whether or not their concerns were valid, Republicans have been taking almost all the blame from veteran’s groups and advocates, who say open-air trash incineration near military bases led to cancer and other health problems. Mainstream media is following the lead of those groups and dumping on Senate Republicans.
This was entirely predictable. The unaligned media isn’t actually neutral, but its biases aren’t based on partisanship; they are more often tied to norms that have been built up over the years. And one of those norms is that veterans are always good. So while many fights over spending are treated as disputes between two sides that are entitled to their positions, battles over legislation for veterans are generally covered as if there is an obvious good side and an obvious wrong one. And Republicans were putting themselves on the wrong side.
There are other reflexive biases in media. Budget deficits are invariably seen as bad. Oddly enough, high voter turnout is always seen as a good thing, while laws to make it easier to vote are subject to both-sides treatment, even though there is a good case to be made that the opposite should be true. But it’s hard to think of a media norm much stronger than the one that holds that veterans are good.
Senate Republicans should have known that opposing the burn pit bill would get them into trouble. But it appears they didn’t see it coming. And while it’s hard to prove any specific effects of this kind, the core problem likely is that Republicans are so used to just feeding their talking points to their willing partners in Republican-aligned media that their ability to make strong arguments to the rest of the media — and to the rest of the electorate — has atrophied.
This has been true for quite some time, and it has only become worse. The failure to speak to a broader audience won’t necessarily make the difference in elections, especially when Republicans don’t have the White House or majorities in Congress, because elections are fought over big-picture issues such as the economy and war and peace. But it probably does have an impact at the margins, and when elections are close even small effects can change the results. It also makes governing and healthy representation harder. Democrats shouldn’t envy that.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.