While many in the mainstream media are occasionally willing to take note of imperfections in America’s democratic practices, virtually none are willing to ask whether the system has simply ceased to function at all. No matter what may be odd or perhaps even unfair in this or that race, goes the argument, the central narrative remains unquestioned: Republican dominance of both houses of Congress represents a rightward turn on the part of the country as a whole—just look at the results.
But if you look more closely at some of the contradictions underlying those results, then you suddenly have what Ricky Ricardo used to call “some ‘splainin’ to do.” How is it that four states that gave victories to Republican Senate candidates also happened to approve ballot initiatives calling for an increase in the minimum wage? And how is it that this election ended in a GOP sweep, even as Americans, according to The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb, routinely told pollsters that they share the Democrats’ views not only on the minimum wage, but on virtually every issue across the board: raising taxes on the wealthy, addressing global warming, repairing (rather than repealing) Obamacare, supporting same-sex marriage, you name it?
One problem with the answers to the above is that they reside in phenomena that are complex and multifaceted, while our media insist on a narrative that is simple and straightforward. To be fair, some of the weaknesses of our system fall into the category of “It was ever thus.” Turnout is always anemic in midterms; the president’s party almost always loses in his sixth year. And while it’s true that Republican state legislatures have shamelessly gerrymandered their election maps to the party’s advantage, the distribution of the population would likely ensure a Republican House majority anyway, given the way that conservatives spread themselves across the rural areas and liberals crowd themselves into the cities.
What these same reports tend to ignore, however—or just as frequently wish away—are the deliberate efforts undertaken by Republicans and their supporters to undermine the democratic process. For instance, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, fully $127 million in dark money—funds spent by groups that do not disclose all of their funders—supported the winning candidates in ten competitive Senate races in 2014, eight of whom were Republicans.
Second, Republicans conducted a surprisingly successful campaign to undermine the right to vote in many states by adopting onerous registration rules designed to disenfranchise the young, minorities, recent citizens and hourly wage workers. While the mainstream media did cover these court cases, they often left out the crucial context necessary for readers to make sense of what was actually taking place.
Take, for instance, Trip Gabriel’s front-page New York Times report on October 8, in which he explains: “The legal fights are over laws that Republican-led state governments passed in recent years to more tightly regulate voting, in the name of preventing fraud. Critics argue that the restrictions are really efforts to discourage African-Americans, students and low-income voters, who tend to favor Democrats.”