When George W. Bush won the popular vote in both 2000 and 2004, the “R” with his opponent’s name beside it meant just as much to the press as the “D” did in 2012 and that person didn’t win by a landslide.
Yet the election media was despondent in 2004. That would be the year the Huffington Post compared the history of press coverage of a losing candidate — from 1950 to 2004 — and it came to the same conclusion about the usual way the press treated losers: “Welcome to the era of shared national unease and fear.”
In the 24 hours after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, it was all doom and gloom. Right-wing author Michelle Malkin penned the headline “They put a bullseye on the back of a donkey.” After the CBS anchorman Scott Pelley said that Trump’s presidency “looks like the unraveling of a gigantic conspiracy” the crowd shouted “shame on you.”
When I surveyed a small group of journalists, I found they couldn’t wait to work for a publisher whose website featured a new kind of news: “Calexit,” you can now buy. The Guardian describes what the founder of the site set out to do in 1997: “For this project it’s going to be important that we do not let our best efforts to cut through the political noise affect our judgments. At the same time it will be crucial that our news should be informed by our politics as a whole rather than just a tiny, fraction of it.”
Democracy has been a good place. But not for as long as I can remember. The great and lamentable thing about democracy is that it takes a while for a party to rule or to come to power, for the press to produce proclamations of a “demolished democracy” and for the public to stick with it. The supermajority need is a great responsibility that needs to be respected. Democracy thrives when the majority stakes out a position — and takes the responsibility that goes with that. Those who dissent must submit to that view too.
It’s true that, historically, our press has been there for the underdog, waiting until there’s no longer much of a safety valve. After a fight is won, it’s quite natural to celebrate that by strutting around. (I mean, just take a look at the speeches that my employees at my former employer made over the years, all eager to buy, which is why we are not proud to have done so.) When a progressive takes the reins, this kind of hero-worship generally begins in earnest. And we recognize it. But when a Republican wins, journalists seem to go from claiming that something is a done deal, to wrapping themselves in the flag and proclaiming that the nation has been taken to the precipice. That seems odd.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the public is really something of a lemmings. We fall for it. And what’s worse is to think that we’re not quite as good at pretending as we are. Why? Because most of us haven’t been exposed to anything other than a liberal point of view. It really doesn’t occur to us that there could be anything other than total certainty on the left. It’s true that liberals are stronger on nuance than conservatives, but it is even truer that their cultural and political upbringing is far from right wing. If that were the case, one would expect liberals to be more nuanced than conservatives. Why isn’t it?
The problem is that the big, bellicose partisanship that we saw in Republican-controlled Washington was developed by conservative pundits and politicians over decades, especially by those such as Ronald Reagan who stood at the center of the GOP and handed it to Bush 41 and Newt Gingrich in his absence. We didn’t have to do much to upend it. We were ready to go.
Maybe right now the stakes are too high to worry that America is on the verge of collapse. But it does strike me as plausible that Trump has given voters a reason to renew their skepticism about the need for virtue and to take the job of voter seriously.
Martin Regg Cohn is a freelance journalist. Read more from him at his blog and at his website.