“Honey,” said my husband this morning, putting down his coffee cup and looking up from his laptop. It was in that tone of voice that presages a suggestion as to how I might occupy myself the rest of the day.
“I’m reading an article in the New York Times that is just calling out for one of your satirical treatments. It shouldn’t be too hard for you. Only remember you also have to do the laundry and the grocery shopping before the children come to visit tomorrow.”
“I know exactly which article you mean,” I replied, adopting an expression of Zen-like imperturbability and letting pass without judgment that which I didn’t want to hear.
“But that was written by two Harvard professors of government. They raise a serious question. They worry whether our democracy is threatened by Donald Trump. And I’m just one retired lawyer and sometime yoga instructor.”
“And a great homemaker!” he added helpfully. For more than thirty years I have been able to count on his confidence and support.
So here’s what the professors have to say.
First, they think that Trump displays three essential characteristics that are anti-democratic: a failure to unambiguously reject violence, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.
Excuse me, but I think the professors are confused. Hasn’t our president of the last eight years consistently failed to reject the recurring violent rioting, looting, and destruction of property, and the murder of police officers? Never once did I hear him instruct the thugs in the sanctity of the rule of law.
And didn’t Obama use the power of his presidency to denounce Fox News and people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity? And aren’t the Democrats even now conspiring to censor their critics, making their articles and tweets disappear from social media, even suggesting that their reporting be labeled as “false news” by partisan self-styled “fact checkers” funded by George Soros?
And at this very moment, aren’t the Times and the Washington Post questioning the legitimacy of our presidential election by blaming the Russians for Hillary’s dismal showing in the Electoral College vote? The Russians! The Democrats absolutely adored Russia when it was the godless and communist Soviet Union.
I really don’t get it. How is asking a small group of elite Electors to overturn the will of the people not an attempt to suppress democracy?
The professors believe that authoritarianism is on the rise in America, and they blame the failure of “institutional filters… like the party nomination system and the news media.” The news media? And they’re writing this in the New York Times?
Well. I think we can all agree that the institutional filter of the Democratic Party’s nomination system didn’t work for poor Bernie Sanders. He thought he had a fair shot at getting the Democratic nomination, given the crowds that showed up for his rallies and the fact that he kept winning the popular vote. He didn’t realize that he’d been filtered out ab initio. The Party’s elites won, their voters lost. And that’s democracy?
As for the news media, they pulled out all stops in trying to get Hillary elected. The Times even encouraged reporters to abandon all pretense of journalistic neutrality. The Post hired a whole passel of reporters to dig up dirt on Trump. Hillary’s faults and Trump’s virtues were consistently ignored. What could the media have done to construct a more distorting filter of the candidates?
I’m asking all these questions because, not being a Harvard professor of government, I’m having difficulty following the reasoning of Messrs. Levitsky and Ziblatt.
But wait. Three quarters of the way through this ponderous article I begin to discern a glimmer of light, of the real issue that is constitutive of their anxiety.
Trump is a “serial norm-breaker” say the two professors. As far as I can tell, a “norm” is a rule that the Democrats haven’t yet enacted as law, and the norm with which they are most concerned involve the media:
There are signs that Mr. Trump seeks to diminish the news media’s traditional role by using Twitter, video messages and public rallies to circumvent the White House press corps and communicate directly with voters. [Ital. added]
The great anxiety of the left — the reason for all the unreason you see displayed by them — is the possibility of disintermediation. That’s where the middleman is bypassed in a sales transaction and it’s usually a good thing for the consumer. Like when you buy a product on the Internet directly from the manufacturer at a cheaper price than you’d pay in a store. The price you pay is closer to the true value of the product because it’s not been distorted by the added costs of wholesalers and retailers.
For at least the last fifty years, the masses (that would be you and me, folks) have relied on the media for information about who our politicians are and what they think. As virtually the only source of political information, the media has been in a position to shape what the rest of us think about politicians and issues, and ultimately our institutions, such as the Supreme Court. After Mitt Romney secured the Republican nomination in 2012, Politico noted that the crucial importance of his acceptance speech lay in the fact that it enabled him to avoid the “media filter” and speak directly to millions of people:
But that doesn’t mean the media filter — that contingent of perhaps a couple hundred journalists, operatives and commentators — doesn’t matter. History shows that the consensus view of this community of insiders — no matter how fair or unfair the judgments — will powerfully shape the way in which Romney’s words echo in the days and weeks after the speech.
The White House press pool has put itself in a most unique position. I’m unaware of any other country that has anything like it. Politico describes it as a “rotating group of reporters” in what it calls a “protective pool” that trails the President “and provides an account of his day-to-day, minute-to-minute activities, which will be sent to all political media outlets and reporters.” In the same article, Politico complained that it only learned of a Romney/Murdoch meeting after the fact via a Murdoch tweet. Quel scandale! “How long does media let Mitt get away w/out pool coverage?” tweeted David Axelrod.
The media, especially the White House press pool, has arrogated to itself the right to contextualize and distort political reality. And now it worries about a new breed of President who might refuse to allow them to do this, who might have the audacity to speak directly to the American people. The very people whom they look down upon and despise might no longer need them to interpret the President. And the President will no longer need to depend on the media to get his message out.
Furthermore, this situation might be contagious. Other politicians might follow suit. After all, celebrities have been using social media to communicate directly with their fans for years. Why not the President who, after all, has become just another celebrity thanks to the media?
I may not be a Harvard professor of government, but I have a woman’s intuition that we are about to witness what professors like to call a “paradigm shift.” The way politics is practiced is about to change in a way that will rob the arrogant, pusillanimous, and dishonest media of its power. For without their monopoly on political information, they shall dwindle, peak, and pine.
And now, folks, I really must go. The laundry and the grocery shopping remain undone, and soon it will be time to prepare my sweetie’s dinner.