Why our crisis of democracy is suddenly having its moment in the media spotlight

“Storm the Capitol” event at the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 6. Photo (cc) 2021 by Chad Davis.

Previously published at GBH News.

All of a sudden, our crisis of democracy has moved to center stage. Building since 2016, when Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the election if he lost, and boiling since the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rising specter of authoritarian rule is now a lead story in much of our media.

From The Washington Post to Politico, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Boston Globe, from CNN to public radio’s “On the Media,” the conversation for the past week has revolved around the likelihood that Trump will run for president in 2024 — and the very real possibility that Republican functionaries at the state level and in Congress will reinstall him in the White House regardless of how the election actually turns out.

Perhaps the most chilling assessment was offered in the Post by Robert Kagan, a “Never Trump” conservative who began his must-read 5,800-word essay like this: “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the author of the 2017 book “On Tyranny,” said it was long past time for the press to cover Trump and Trumpism as an existential threat to democracy.

“If we’re not prepared for the attempt for people to take power undemocratically in 2024, then we’re just at this point pathetically naive,” he said. “Preparing for that and getting the facts out so that people can prepare for that and prevent it is what … journalism should be doing.”

Kagan, Snyder and others are right to be alarmed. But what accounts for this moment of media synchronicity? Why have they suddenly gone DEFCON 1 after months and years of covering the Trump movement all too often as a bunch of economically anxious white men in Ohio diners? I think there are three precipitating factors.

• First, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril,” makes it clear that Trump was actively involved in trying to overturn the election in ways that we didn’t quite understand previously. Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing of their findings is that a discredited lawyer, John Eastman, concocted a scheme for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the election. If Pence had wavered, who knows what might have happened?

• Second, the results of the fraudulent Arizona “audit” actually gave President Joe Biden a bigger lead over Trump than he had previously — and it didn’t make a bit of difference. As Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, copycat attempts are now under way in Texas and Pennsylvania. It’s now obvious, if it wasn’t before (actually, it was), that the purpose of these ridiculous exercises is not to prove that Trump won but to keep his supporters stirred up and angry.

• Third, University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, who’s been ringing the democracy alarm for years, recently published a paper and helped run a conference that generated widespread attention. That, in turn, led to an interview with Hasen by Politico Magazine and an appearance on “On the Media.”

Hasen bluntly described the threat in his interview with Politico, saying that the widespread, false belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen could lead them to steal the 2024 election.

“The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier ‘stolen’ election,” Hasen said. “People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they’ve been cheated out of their just desserts. And if [you believe] Trump really won, then you might take whatever steps are necessary to assure that he is not cheated the next time — even if that means cheating yourself. That’s really the new danger that this wave of voter fraud claims presents.”

Politico media critic Jack Shafer, trying to be his usual contrarian self, argued that Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior and Republican attempts to rig the 2024 election through voter suppression and outright theft by state legislatures they control is actually a sign of weakness, not of strength.

“By signaling an attempt to regain power by any means necessary,” Shafer wrote, “Trump essentially confesses that Trumpism is not and is not likely to become a majoritarian movement.” He added that a fraudulent Trump victory would essentially amount to a coup, which “would only inspire a counter-coup by the majority, and maybe a counter-counter coup, and a counter-counter-counter coup. Trump is crazy enough to invite this fight, and narcissistic enough not to care what it does to the country. But is he shrewd enough to win it?”

Shafer is right that a Trump coup would lead to outrage on the part of the majority. But what would that look like? It could get incredibly ugly, as Kagan warned. The best way to deal with the Republicans’ assault on democracy is to make sure it fails. Sadly, the Democrat-controlled Congress can’t do much about it unless they abolish the filibuster, regardless of how Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe and his colleagues, writing in The Boston Globe, might wish otherwise. And Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema show no signs of yielding.

So what can and should the media do? Their current focus on the overriding crisis of our time is welcome and long overdue. From the false balance of focusing on lesser stories like Democratic bickering over the infrastructure bills to the situation at the border, the media have demonstrated a maddening impulse to return to business as usual following the chaos of the Trump years.

At the same time, though, the press’ influence is limited. Roughly speaking, 60% of the country is appalled by Trump and 40% is in thrall to him. But thanks to inequities in the Electoral College and the Senate, gerrymandering in the House and increasingly aggressive attempts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters, the 40% may well succeed in shoving aside the 60%.

The press needs to tell that story, fearlessly and fairly. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not going to penetrate Fox News, Breitbart or Facebook. In the end, there may be little that journalism can do to stop our slide into autocracy.

A better way of covering the Indiana discrimination story

It's all about the cake.
It’s all about the cake.

In a frustratingly inconclusive Washington Post column today on Indiana’s religious-freedom law, Kathleen Parker writes, “Without diving into the weeds, the law aims to protect religious freedom against government action that abridges deeply held convictions.”

Trouble is, the weeds are exactly where we need to be. The public perception is that the law would discriminate against the LGBT community. Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who supports the legislation (though he now wants to add clarifying language), has insisted that it would not discriminate. For instance, Tony Cook and Tim Evans quote Pence in today’s Indianapolis Star as saying that the law “does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

For someone trying to follow this story, the problem appears to be two-fold. First, the law itself is vaguely worded and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Second, the media for the most part have covered this as a political story, more interested in traditional narratives about winners and losers than in what effect the law might actually have on people.

Bits of background emerge here and there. For instance, we’re regularly told that the Indiana law is similar (though not identical) to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and that 19 other states already have such laws on the books. We know that Arkansas is on the brink of joining those states. For the most part, though, coverage is framed in terms of pure politics.

My frustration spilled over this morning in reading the latest from The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t mean to single them out. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about this in recent days, and today’s coverage crystallized my sense that the public is not being as well-served by journalism as it could be.

The Times story, by Campbell Robertson and Richard Pérez-Peña, and the Post story, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, are mainly about politics. You learn a lot from both of them. The Post strikes me as particularly insightful, as Rucker and Costa observe in their lede that the controversy over the Indiana law “has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.” The Post also notes that Pence may harbor presidential ambitions of his own.

But if you want to know what, exactly, the law would do, you’re out of luck, unless you want to latch onto Gov. Pence’s assurances that it won’t do much of anything (then why pass it?) or the warnings of civil-rights groups that it would legalize discrimination against sexual minorities.

Here is how I’d define what we need to know.

Does the Indiana law merely (for instance) prohibit the government from requiring a member of the clergy to perform same-sex marriages? No; the wording of the law makes it pretty clear that the door is open to actions that would go well beyond that. In any case, the clergy is already protected by the First Amendment.

So where does the law draw the line? What it comes down to, as Kathleen Parker and others have pointed out, is cake. Would the law allow a bakery to refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple? And here is where the coverage has tended to devolve into a one-side-says-this/the-other-side-says-that morass.

Maybe the Indiana law is just too vague to provide a clear answer to that question. Nevertheless, I think German Lopez of Vox deserves a lot of credit for trying. In a lengthy article published on Tuesday, Lopez pulls together all known facts — the background, the threatened boycotts — and points out that, historically, laws such as Indiana’s have not been used to engage in the sort of discrimination LGBT advocates are worried about. (My favorite example involves the Amish, who were exempted from a law requiring them to put fluorescent lights on their buggies.)

Nevertheless, Lopez notes that supporters of the Indiana law have celebrated the idea that “Christian bakers, florists and photographers” would not have to “participate in a homosexual marriage!” So the intent to discriminate is clearly there. Countering that, though, is University of Illinois law professor Robin Wilson, who tells Lopez that it is unlikely the courts would uphold such discrimination. And yet, as Lopez observes, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision raises the specter that Wilson’s sanguinity might prove unwarranted.

Of course, Vox’s self-styled mission is to explain. But I would argue that even a daily update in a developing story like this ought to explain as clearly as possible what the law is about, or at least link to such an explanation.

In his book “Informing the News,” Thomas E. Patterson writes that journalists need to add a third tool — knowledge — to their traditional tools of direct observation and interviews. In the case of Indiana, telling us what the religious-freedom law would actually do is at least as important as telling us what people are saying about it.

Note: If you find any particularly good explainers about the Indiana law, let me know and I’ll post links to them here. And here we go:

• This article, by Stephanie Wang of the Indianapolis Star, is quite good. (Thanks to Mike Stucka.)

• Here’s an explainer in Q&A form that’s in today’s Times. (Thanks to Kris Olson.)

• In the comments, Steve Stein flags this article by Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans of the Indy Star that explains the differences between federal and state law.

On Twitter, I got recommendations for several worthwhile pieces — one from the liberal website ThinkProgress and two from more conservative sources, The Weekly Standard and Commonweal:

This commentary was also published at WGBHNews.org.

Photo (cc) by D&K and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

How the Post explained Cantor’s defeat before it happened

Robert Costa (left) and Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times at the CPAC 2013 conference.
Robert Costa (left) and Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times at the CPAC 2013 conference.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

The political press today is engorged with analysis that attempts to explain why House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary in his Virginia district to a Tea Party challenger on Tuesday. But given that the pundits were as surprised as everyone else, there is no particular reason to think they are capable of telling us why it happened.

Nearly a month ago, though, Jenna Portnoy and Robert Costa of The Washington Post saw it coming. In an article headlined “Eric Cantor’s tea party opponent in Va. primary may be picking up momentum,” the two wrote that Cantor’s opponent, David Brat, had energized the right-wing base of the party. Cantor, Brat’s supporters believed, had been insufficiently hardline on issues such as immigration reform, the debt ceiling and the Affordable Care Act.

Weeks before the voting, Portnoy and Costa also put their finger on a Cantor tactic that seems to have backfired: going after Brat so hard that he improved his unknown opponent’s name recognition and gave him legitimacy. They quote Brat as saying, “I’m a rookie, he’s never gone negative, and he’s putting my face and name on Fox News, which is unheard of. If they’re doing that, that means their internal polling shows that I’m not at zero. I’m a risk of some sort.”

Portnoy is a local reporter for the Post, having previously covered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for The Star-Ledger of Newark. I’m sure she’s a fine reporter. What the Cantor story tells me, though, is that the Post’s move to poach Costa from National Review last November is paying off. As Joe Coscarelli wrote in New York magazine, Costa — who is not yet 30, and who rose to prominence during last year’s debt-ceiling debacle — is rare among conservative journalists in that he sees himself as a reporter first, trusted by and well-plugged-in among all factions.

If you want to know why Cantor lost, don’t bother with the Wednesday morning quarterbacking taking place elsewhere. Instead, go back and read what Portnoy and Costa wrote weeks ago.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.