Democracy’s Fair-Weather Friends in the Mainstream Media

Democracy’s Fair-Weather Friends in the Mainstream Media

Democracy’s Fair-Weather Friends in the Mainstream Media

Their churlish response to President Biden’s Labor Day speech shows how the reflexive centrism of mainstream press overrides any concern for the truth.


Joe Biden will never be celebrated for Lincolnian eloquence, but on occasion he can rise to the gravitas, if not the lapidary grace, of the Great Emancipator. The speech Biden delivered in Philadelphia on the cusp of Labor Day earnestly and soberly warned of the danger of a radicalized faction, whom the president described as “MAGA Republicans,” who reject the fundamental democratic principle of acknowledging election results. “Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: Either they win or they were cheated,” he said.

As if intent on providing evidence to back up Biden’s argument, former president Donald Trump, just a day before Biden spoke, promised pardons and apologies for many of those convicted of storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. A few days earlier, Trump had posted his preferred remedy for the allegedly fraudulent election on the Truth Social network: “Declare the rightful winner or—and this would be the minimal solution—declare the 2020 Election irreparably compromised and have a new Election, immediately!” This nonsensical proposal is a prime example of how Trump’s sinister buffoonery subverts democracy.

Given that Trump continues to spout antidemocratic bilge—and remains the overwhelming favorite of Republicans to be their presidential nominee in 2024—Biden’s warning was eminently rational, indeed perhaps even too cautious. Biden was careful to distinguish the extremism of MAGA Republicans from what he considered to be the mainstream of the party. “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” he insisted. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.” This proviso is arguably too generous, since, as Biden went on with greater accuracy to note, “The Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”

Biden’s magnanimous gesture won him no reciprocal respect from Republicans, who lashed out against the speech. More tellingly, the mainstream media also reacted with hostility toward Biden’s message. As Michael Hobbes of the Maintenance Phase podcast observed, “We had a presidential address about rising fascism in the United States, and instead of debunking any of its actual claims, conservatives and reactionary centrists have spent days complaining about the tone and optics.”

The people Hobbes calls “reactionary centrists” are the editorial and news voices of outlets like CNN, the major TV networks, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. These are not, in general, pro-Trump people. They see themselves, rather, as upholders of elite comity. And as such, they were scandalized by Biden’s speech, seeing it as an affront to the sacred code of bipartisanship.

The mainstream media reaction was strikingly churlish and petty, focusing on Biden’s alleged violation of the norms of civility and ignoring the facts and arguments he presented.

On ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, host Martha Raddatz seemed to suggest that Biden was spreading “hate speech” that would only further alienate Republicans. According to Raddatz, “The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which tracks hate speech, said [that] after the Biden speech there was a surge online in conversations that said Biden’s remarks singling out MAGA Republicans were interpreted as a declaration of war against conservatives and all the Trump voters.” The editors of The Washington Post lamented that Biden gave vent to “partisanship” rather than “patriotism” and too often sounded “more like a Democrat than a democrat. You don’t persuade people by scolding or demeaning them, but that’s how the president’s speech landed for many conservatives of goodwill.” CNN’s Brianna Keilar grumbled that by having two Marines flanking Biden onstage, Democrats were politicizing the military.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Alsop astutely noted that much of the media coverage “ended up muddying [the speech]—stenographically stacking he-said/she-said reaction quotes, wringing it through the deadening mangle of the midterms horserace, even insinuating a cynical ploy on Biden’s part.” The three major TV networks didn’t even carry Biden’s speech, deeming it “political” and not of national concern.

Complaining that Biden’s speech is “political” or “partisan” is a symptom of a centrist myopia that sees threats to the national interest as only external and outside the political realm (ideally in the form of a foreign foe). But noxious political movements can in fact endanger the republic. Historically, the prime example was the outsize power in antebellum America of the slaveocracy, which twisted national politics to the breaking point in order to maintain and expand the peculiar institution of chattel slavery. The proper response to the slaveocracy was necessarily a partisan one: the creation and election of an antislavery political party.

In the same way, what Biden calls “MAGA Republicans”— which would more accurately be termed “the authoritarian right”—is an existential threat to American democracy. Since the authoritarian right has a stranglehold on one political party (the Republicans), the only solution is necessarily political and partisan. Democrats have to keep winning elections until the GOP, realizing it is being shut out of power, conducts an internal purge of its authoritarian wing.

To be sure, Democrats don’t deserve a blank check. Aspects of their antiauthoritarian strategy are open to criticism—in particular, the habit of Democratic consultants to elevate far-right candidates in the GOP (on the theory they are easier to beat) is a dangerous Machiavellian ploy. But the core fact remains that Democrats need to win elections for the good of democracy.

The mainstream media is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging this truth, because they remain, for business reasons, committed to faux objectivity, both-sides-ism, and reflexive centrism. The fight for American democracy will therefore have to include challenging and debunking the ingrained conservatism of the mainstream media.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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