The Media Today

Widening the lens on democracy

September 19, 2022
Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Yesterday, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran more or less the same story about the upcoming midterms. The Post asked the Democratic and Republican nominees in nineteen gubernatorial or US Senate races whether they will accept the result in November; all but one of the Democrats (the one did not respond) said yes, whereas only seven Republicans did likewise, with the other twelve either refusing to commit or not responding at all. Not to be one-upped, the Times asked both parties’ nominees in twenty gubernatorial or Senate races the same question; all the Democrats said yes, whereas six of the Republicans declined to commit and a further six either ignored or batted away the question. And several of the candidates who said they would accept the results have previously cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election—not least Adam Laxalt, the GOP Senate nominee in Nevada. “Of course he’ll accept Nevada’s certified election results,” a spokesperson for Laxalt told the Times, “even if your failing publication won’t.”

The Times story was paired on the paper’s homepage yesterday with a much bigger read: a six-thousand-word essay by David Leonhardt, who typically (and sometimes controversially) anchors the paper’s flagship morning newsletter, describing “twin threats” to US democracy. The first, which Leonhardt described as “acute,” essentially echoed his colleagues’ new reporting on GOP candidates: “a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties—the Republican Party—to refuse to accept defeat in an election.”

ICYMI: Obi Anyadike on East African drought and covering climate in the Global South

The second threat (or set of threats), which Leonhardt described as “chronic but also growing,” is subtler—the idea that “the power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion”—and Leonhardt devoted much of his essay to laying it out. The chronic threats “generally spring from enduring features of American government, some written into the Constitution,” Leonhardt wrote, but “did not conflict with majority opinion to the same degree in past decades.” More populous states, already representationally disadvantaged by the mechanics of the Senate and the Electoral College, have grown disproportionately, further diluting their per-capita political voice. At the same time, those states have become more liberal while less populous states have become more conservative—a process of “geographic sorting,” as Leonhardt put it, that has layered partisan correlation on top of a system that was already antidemocratic. The less populous states that enjoy outsize power are also disproportionately white. Whereas, before 2000, only three presidents won the Electoral College after losing the popular vote, two—both Republicans—have since done so. The same dynamics have helped bring about disproportionate Republican representation in the Senate, where minority power was already reinforced by the filibuster. Together, presidents and senators set the direction of the Supreme Court, whose recent influence need not be restated. Meanwhile, in the House, gerrymandering and geographic sorting have disproportionately hurt Democrats. Similar trends have been observed in many state legislatures, with Republicans then using their control to implement voting restrictions. In sum, the political scientist Steven Levitsky told Leonhardt, the US is “far and away the most countermajoritarian democracy in the world.”

Leonhardt ended his essay with a warning about the intersection of the twin threats. “If the only challenges to democracy involved these chronic, long-developing forces, many experts would be less concerned than they are. American democracy has always been flawed, after all,” he wrote. “But the slow-building ways in which majority rule is being undermined are happening at the same time that the country faces an immediate threat that has little precedent.” Add the two together, and “American democracy has never faced a threat quite like the current one.”

Like other critics, I found aspects of Leonhardt’s essay to indulge questionable historical framing or contemporary bothsidesism, especially in his analysis of the first, acute threat. “In some cases, [Republicans’ claims that they are merely trying to protect American values] rely on falsehoods—about election fraud, Mr. Biden’s supposed ‘socialism,’ Barack Obama’s birthplace, and more,” Leonhardt wrote, in the essay’s weakest passage. “In others, they are rooted in anxiety over real developments, including illegal immigration and ‘cancel culture.’” Other passages, though, were much more clear-eyed about the acute threat and who is responsible for it; I particularly appreciated the mention of Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and his “winking references” to Trump’s election lies, a departure from much credulous punditry that has cast Youngkin as a savvy, post-Trump moderate. In the end, the greatest value of Leonhardt’s essay came not in its line-by-line framing but in its core concept: its presentation of threats to democracy as a function not only of election subversion, but of unresponsiveness in America’s governing institutions, including those that, far from being subverted, are working as intended.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This sort of analysis is far from new, of course, and we should, as ever, be wary of acknowledging a strain of thought only after it has appeared on the front page of the Times (as Leonhardt’s essay did in print yesterday, above the fold and below a four-column illustration of a fraying US flag). A great many journalists, academics, and commentators have pointed out the unfitness of America’s institutional settlement, and the close links between that and what Leonhardt refers to as the acute crisis of American democracy. Some have done so in the pages of the Times; in one particularly impressive example, Jamelle Bouie, a columnist at the paper, has recently laid out provocative and imaginative suggestions for radical reforms of the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the House, starting a dialogue with his readers in the process.

Still, something struck me about Leonhardt’s essay, and it lies, I think, in my sense that major news organizations have not to this point done as much as they collectively could have to convene broad debates about routine institutional dysfunction and how it might be fixed, given how many big current stories are downstream of that dysfunction. Dissecting the basic failures of democratic institutions and imagining more representative alternatives should not just be a matter for the op-ed pages, or chin-strokey podcast discussions, or academic symposia, or Sunday-morning long reads (though it is good fodder for all of these). It should also inflect day-to-day coverage of American politics. Sometimes it does; coverage of the Supreme Court, for instance, often notes that big recent decisions do not reflect majority sentiment in the country. And yet so much day-to-day political journalism seems mired in either complacency or cynicism; the sense that everything is just fine or the sense that, even if it isn’t, nothing can be done about it anyway—at least not at an institutional level. (We don’t lack for behavioral calls for more bipartisanship.)

Reforming some institutions, of course, would require changing the Constitution, which is very hard to do. (Though not impossible: two Brennan Center staffers wrote for Politico last year that, if history is any guide, we’re due a rush of constitutional amendments right around now, and that prior rushes were themselves preceded by media pessimism about the impossibility of reform. The Post in 1904: “Our fundamental law is practically unamendable by peaceful and regular methods.”) Still, the press devoting more expansive space, more consistently, to the story of democratic dysfunction and reform has value whether or not prospects for reform are realistic. It should, simply, be the job of the media to facilitate big debates about things in society that don’t work. The institutional architecture underpinning everything else isn’t too big a thing to be debated.

At a time when basic election rules are at risk of collapse, devoting airtime and column inches to discussions around, say, radically changing the proportionality mechanics of those rules (as Bouie and others have suggested, and Alaska has recently done) might seem indulgent. But, as Leonhardt and others have shown, the two discussions are linked. As I’ve written before, saving democracy requires more of the press than guarding against the most explicit immediate threats to it; it requires scrutiny of how a whole political system is performing what should be its basic functions. And the latter, we should remember, is an evergreen demand. Sometimes, journalists and commentators frame explicit threats to overturn elections as a question of probability—the likelihood or not of the worst coming to pass, a legitimate yet limiting prism that can easily slide into either complacency or cynicism, depending on your assessment. Functionality offers a second, universal reason for the press to stay focused on democracy. To borrow the old saw about climate change, whatever the actual extent of the threat, a cleaner environment benefits everyone.

Again, this isn’t to say that the media should dilute its focus on the acute threat to coming elections—media critics, myself included, want the urgency around that ratcheted up, not down. It’s to say, rather, that while American democracy might die if a coming election gets overturned, avoiding such a fate won’t represent a clean bill of health and thus an excuse for the political press to move away from a democracy focus. The Times’ and Post’s weekend stories asking candidates whether they’ll accept their results were a useful starting point for democracy coverage—they got (at least some of) the candidates’ intentions on the record, and exposed a chasm between the Democrats and the GOP without any more effort than sending both parties the same very basic questionnaire. But this sort of exercise is also limited. That’s true in a narrow, methodological sense: respondents may have lied, of course; confusingly, J.D. Vance, the Republican Senate nominee in Ohio, is recorded as having committed to accept his result to the Post, but declined to do so to the Times. It’s also limited in a much broader sense.

Below, more on democracy:

  • Unconventional: Earlier this month, Carl Hulse, of the Times, reported on a push by some leading Republicans to have Congress call a fresh Constitutional Convention—a gambit that would rest on the successful application of an arcane constitutional provision suggesting that two-thirds of state legislatures can petition Congress to call one, and that would seek to amend the Constitution to place constraints on federal fiscal powers (and perhaps not stop there). Russ Feingold, a former Democratic senator and president of the American Constitution Society, told Hulse that the likelihood of this happening isn’t as far-fetched as skeptics might think, and warned that it could pose a huge threat to democracy. Still, Feingold and Peter Prindiville, a constitutional scholar, reckon that “the time has come to begin a serious national conversation regarding the future of the Constitution in American public life,” and for Americans to work toward “an amendment procedure fit for a modern, democratic society.”
  • At a Beschloss: Politico’s Michael Schaffer spoke with Michael Beschloss, the straitlaced presidential historian and pundit, about what Schaffer calls Beschloss’s “radicalization” in light of present threats to democracy. “Until roughly 2017, I was not inclined to take public positions on current events. And that is because I did not feel that democracy was under immediate and serious threat,” Beschloss told Schaffer. “But if you and I had talked earlier, and we had been told that in the near future, democracy was going to be in danger and a President might be eager to tear apart just about every major institution of democracy that you care about, including free and fair elections as well as the rule of law—would you speak out? I would have said yes, I certainly would.”
  • A poll: Last week, polling from The 19th* found that while a strong majority of Americans agree that the media is still a “critical component” of democracy, many feel that its coverage doesn’t represent people like them, with the latter finding much sharper among Republican respondents than Democrats. “An increasingly diverse country does not see itself reflected in the media,” Errin Haines wrote in an analysis of the numbers. “Communities of color, LGBTQ+ people and marginalized groups are still underrepresented in both who covers the news and what news is covered. Some White Americans view the country’s diversity and its reflection in the media as a threat to their representation. Audiences are skeptical that we can cover their concerns or communities fully. That concern was seized on, sometimes with violent language,” by Trump.
  • Queenly concern: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch argues that US networks’ over-the-top recent coverage of the queen’s death is a troubling sign at a time of rising autocracy. “This celebration of soft autocracy is offering cover for the steady rise of the more dangerous kind, here in America and around the globe,” he writes. “Great Britain is about to coronate a new king right as America is losing sight of the values that caused us to fight so valiantly to reject monarchical tyranny all those years ago. We really need to be talking about this, and not hypnotizing democracy to death by watching a royal hearse roll for hours on end.” (ICYMI, I wrote about OTT Queen Coverage on Friday.)

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Cancel culture, queues, and the queen

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.