The age of the bad take: how the US liberal media plays to lose

The symbiosis between the media and the Democratic party establishment is a recipe for failure

The opening line in MSNBC host Brian Williams’s daily broadcasts has been exactly the same since January 20th, 2017: “Good evening once again, day 1,347 of this Trump administration, 37 days to go until our presidential election.” Like an inmate counting down each day of their imprisonment as well as the days until their liberation, the opening line serves to prime his audience into equating Trump’s four-year term in office into a prison sentence with no parole. Another one of MSNBC’s highly paid personalities, Rachel Maddow, spent the better part of 2017-19 offering the possibility of such a parole by her obsessive peddling of the Russian interference story that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment. Of course it was destined to fail, as by now it had become all but obvious that a Republican-held Senate would require Republicans to put their country’s interests ahead of that of their party and their president. Only one did so.

Fox News often gets the blame for exemplifying the kind of conservative media brainwashing that has proven so toxic in recent decades, leading to sycophantic levels of support for Trump as well as George W. Bush before him. But much less has been said about the role of the other two networks that form the US’s triumvirate of cable news: CNN and MSNBC. Just as Fox News is unabashedly conservative (notwithstanding its since removed “fair and balanced reporting” motto), CNN and MSNBC supposedly represent the “liberal” side of US politics. And just as the last four years has seen Fox News wage a campaign of apologism and denial over all of Trump’s misdeeds, CNN/MSNBC has basically turned into a 24-hour stream of Trump outrage. And by doing this, has largely turned a blind eye to the structural causes of why Trump won while blindly supporting a Democratic Party establishment that has no intention of addressing them.

Bending the knee

The most egregious fallacy committed by the US’s liberal media is the idea that the more one exposes Trump’s misdeeds, the more likely 1) his supporters will turn on him and 2) people sitting on the political fence will jump to the Democratic side. As such, the obsessive 24-hour litany of grievances against Trump and his cronies serves little purpose beyond virtue signaling within your own camp. It is certainly true that news outlets have a responsibility to reporting the news, and it’s hard to avoid discussing Trump on a daily basis. However, these outlets are also in the businesses of political analysis which is typically reduced to the same centrist Beltway insiders and think tank ghouls offering preciously little analytical value added. Recurring themes include the notion that things will go back to normal once Trump is booted out of office. That we need bipartisan agreements rather than polarization by ideological extremes. And the most dangerous: only middle-of-the-road candidates and policies are electable because the American voter “doesn’t like extremes”. As one 2014 Vox article (when it was still slightly edgy) succinctly put it:

The deeper point here is that the idea of the moderate middle is bullshit: it’s a rhetorical device meant to marginalize some policy positions at the expense of others. There’s no actual way to measure it, or consistent definition animating it, and it doesn’t spontaneously emerge in any of the data.

The combination of these three bad takes serves only one purpose: to disallow any alternative to a Democratic establishment that is only rhetorically socially liberal and in fact, strongly economically conservative. Let’s not fool ourselves, the US bipartisan system is not left and right. It’s right and far right, and it’s only because the Overton window in the US has shifted so much into conservative territory that the Democratic Party can display any pretense of being left-of-center (it would be considered a center-right party in any country in Europe). Since the Regan revolution, Democratic administrations have only party reversed some of the more extreme examples of tax cutting and deregulation that their Republican predecessors have undertaken, ensuring that the long-term trajectory remains more power to economic elites, and ever more pauperization for the country’s working population and minorities.

Of course, given that the working class and minorities have long been stalwart electoral supporters of the Democratic Party, it’s establishment can afford to take them for granted. Joe Biden recently chastised undecided black voters in a radio show, saying ‘If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black’. The arrogance of making a racist insult and expecting a vote in return is at the heart of Democratic complacency over its minority voters although it might come as a nasty surprise when many of these voters don’t head to the polls in droves. A recent Gallup poll, for example, showed that just 47% of young black voters planned to vote for Biden, a shockingly low number for one of the Democratic Party’s key demographics. Latino voters also flocked en masse to support Bernie Sanders during the primary, eschewing centrist Democratic candidates. Since then, the party has made little if no overtures towards them, as if expecting a 24-hour dose of CNN/MSNBC Trump fearmongering is enough to sway them to the Biden camp.

The idea that only traditional, centrist Democratic candidates are electable is also at the heart of cable news’ consistent sabotaging of the Bernie Sanders campaign, both in 2016 as well as in 2020. With Sanders on the cusp of obtaining a Super Tuesday victory, veteran MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews compared it to the Nazis rolling into France in 1940, a rather deplorable statement considering Sanders is Jewish. One photo of Sanders during a CNN broadcast was edited to show him older and sickly. And of course, there was the daily cabal of invited analysts warning that Sanders was unelectable despite every poll showing him to have at least as good if not greater favorability relative to Trump than any other Democratic candidate (as he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016). Nothing was also said about the fact that the policies that these analysts considered too radical and an electoral liability were also supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans, even Republicans. Unfortunately, this brainwashing was successful, as Biden sneaked in a Super Tuesday victory based solely on his supposed “electability”. Even today, over half of Democratic voters support Biden not on his policies but because he’s “not Trump”.

Enforcing Biden’s electability has also meant covering up his own, surprisingly extensive list of misdeeds. Trump’s business record has been on continuous highlight but not Biden’s coddling of the credit card industry (mostly headquartered in his senate seat of Delaware) which led to him getting the nickname “the Senator from MBNA”. Outrage over the Trump family’s nepotism has not been countered by similar exposes of the Biden family’s own corruption, particularly that of his son Hunter Biden. And there was the complete silence over the allegations of sexual assault against Tara Reade, a former staffer. CNN quietly deleted an episode of the Larry King Show where her mother called and described the assault. And when MSNBC’s Chris Hayes dared to air a segment on the allegations, he triggered fury from centrists and Biden supporters who immediately called for his firing. Cable news, like the Democratic establishment, expects voters to pretend none of this is real, expecting nothing short of unconditional support simply because Trump is worse.

Bow to your party overlords

Time’s up

As we head into the final stretch of the campaign, we see the product of this media narrative in full swing. Exasperation over the “irrationality” of Trump supporters, with no questioning over how after eight years of Democratic Party rule we came to this. Anger over police brutality on the George Floyds and Breonna Taylors but no recollection that all the Eric Garners, Michael Browns, and Philando Castiles were killed under a black president who promised to usher a new era of race relations. False hopes that ultimately Republicans will see the light and turn their backs on their fascist president while feigning ignorant bliss over the fact that money has irredeemably corrupted American politics and the Democrats are just as complicit in this state of affairs as the GOP.

This is why the Democratic party acts like it has already won the election. Because it did: beating Sanders was the real win, since the same class of billionaire donors, lobbyists, and consultant/think-tank operatives that are the party’s benefactors will continue to thrive under a second Trump presidency in ways that they wouldn’t under Sanders. This is why there is no grand plan to avoid Trump stealing the election which all the evidence shows he will at least attempt. This is also why there is no strategy to save the Supreme Court from a conservative takeover; because ideology doesn’t matter and all the plans that the Supreme Court could have possibly derailed (Medicare For All, a Green New Deal) won’t be on the agenda anyway. The US is a plutocracy because both parties are in on the rules of the real game that it is being played: the continued extraction of wealth from the middle- and working-class for the benefit of economic elites. That one party does it while putting #BLM and #MeToo hashtags on their Twitter profiles makes no difference on the outcome.

And of course, if Trump wins, we’ll have Brian Williams resetting his countdown, Rachel Maddow finding some other real or imagined scandal for a second impeachment, and another four years of 24-hour Trump cable news outrage porn. Not a minute will be invested in analyzing why Trump managed to win a second term despite an economic crisis and a mishandled pandemic. As for the Democratic establishment, the blame will fall squarely on the Bernie supporters, blacks, and Latinos who didn’t turn out to vote, even when the party spent the entire election reaching out to some imaginary centrist Republican constituency of Lincoln Project-loving Never Trumpers. Make no mistake, Trump needs to go. But if he manages to stay in power for another four years, the liberal centrist media, party establishment, and their enablers need to accept their share of the blame for decades of policy failures and electoral defeats. And whether Biden wins or loses, it’s high time for them to go too.

Photo credits: MSNBC (Top), CNN (Bottom)