Senator Bernie Sanders is unhappy about the media’s coverage of American politics, and he has a point. As Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel put it:
Sanders, more than any other candidate for the Democratic nomination, dislikes the political press. It’s not personal for him; he does not, like Donald Trump, spend his time onstage prodding the audience to boo the dishonest media. The Sanders critique is the one advanced by left-wing media critics such as Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney, in which corporate control of the media leads it to cover scandal and gossip, which is not a threat to their power, instead of policy—which is.
Precisely. Although the “corporate media” (including the Post and The New York Times, as well as the non-Fox networks) have done admirable work exposing the many corruptions of the Trump administration, it is still too often the case that those press sources treat policy and politics as superficially as they can, with too-easy narratives that fit the conventional wisdom, reinforcing false equivalence and what is now called bothsidesism.
In my April 4 Verdict column (which I will refer to here as Part One, with today’s Part Two carrying the argument forward), I noted a particularly baseless set of attacks on Sanders by some of the comfortable denizens of the mainstream liberal media, in particular the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, whose attack on Sanders as a Trump-like figure was simply scurrilous.
I have subsequently written two Dorf on Law columns (here and here) exploring how the establishment left is attacking Sanders unfairly, focusing on superficiality and treating Trump’s outrages as somehow no worse than any policy differences that they might have with Sanders.
As I argued in Part One, there is no “left” in US politics in any substantive sense. Here, I want to expand on that point, describing lazy media treatment of Democratic politicians and then returning to the point highlighted in the title of this column: On substance, no matter what label you put on it, the agenda on which Bernie Sanders is running is utterly mainstream and popular with the American people.
The Media’s Problem With Bernie Sanders and His Supporters
As I have emphasized in my columns here on Verdict and on Dorf on Law, I am not writing out of any affection for Sanders. Indeed, I am the opposite of a fan, and I am sincerely hoping that he is not the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. Even so, I believe that any thinking person should have no problem rallying behind Sanders if he ends up winning the nomination in a fair contest. His not being my first, second, or tenth choice does not mean that I think he would be a bad nominee or president, just that there are many better choices.
But to follow the mainstream media is to think that Sanders and his allies are the second coming of Joseph Stalin—or at least an echo of the Radical Left of the 1960s. To some degree, of course, Sanders encourages this confusion, by proudly calling himself a democratic socialist, which not only provides a red-baiting opportunity for Republicans but also gives sloppy journalists a chance to lapse into simplistic labeling. Even so, that does not excuse inaccurate reporting.
This problem, moreover, is not merely on the editorial side of the newspapers. It sometimes seems that every issue of a major paper these days includes news articles that embed slanted or unfavorable treatment of Sanders and his allies into what sounds like fact-based reportage.
For example, a Post article last week regarding Democratic leaders’ response to Trump’s dangerous escalation of right-wing attacks on Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota begins with these words: “The far left’s frustration with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is on the rise.”
The far left. What in the world does that mean? More importantly, no matter what it means, why does The Post think that it is non-opinionated reporting to casually describe certain politicians with a phrase that carries a great deal of negative baggage for a lot of readers? (Not that it should be viewed as negative, but everyone knows that it will be seen that way.)
The deeper problem is that calling people like Sanders, Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “far left” (while probably a thrill to some of their followers) simply misrepresents reality. And relying on the defense that, by current standards, Sanders et al. are literally as far left as US politics goes simply misses the import of words. When the genuine left does not exist, pretending that the next-most-left politicians are far to the left misleads rather than informs.
The Movement to the Right, Beginning With Ronald Reagan
During the 1980 US presidential primary campaign, the Republican establishment was terrified that Ronald Reagan would become their nominee. When George H.W. Bush finally dropped out of the race, party grandees frantically tried to draft former President Gerald Ford to be nominated at the party’s convention (even though he had not run in any primaries that year), so worried were they about Reagan as nominee.
And this was hardly unjustified. Reagan was accurately viewed as an intellectual lightweight and a right-wing extremist. President Jimmy Carter’s staff could not believe their good fortune when the draft-Ford effort failed and Republicans actually nominated Reagan. It looked like Carter would win reelection easily.
Why? Reagan represented a lurch to the right, embracing race-baiting strategies and relying on true-believing “free market” activists wearing Adam Smith neckties (who thus showed that they actually knew nothing about Smith, but never mind).
The Federal Reserve then engineered a deep recession (to fight inflation), which combined with a foreign policy crisis to allow Reagan to pull off a surprise win. Well before Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, the Fed eased off, the economy grew, and the myth of Reagan as savior (and the supposedly miraculous effects of tax cuts for upper-income people) was born.
In the decades since then, Newt Gingrich’s radical revolution moved the Republicans even further to the right, followed by the Tea Party movement in the early Obama years, and now they have all joined the cult of Trump. Many people acknowledge that Reagan would not be nearly conservative enough for today’s Republican Party, yet the press cannot resist labeling as “moderates” conservative extremists like Susan Collins (who actually believes, among other things, that tax cuts pay for themselves—and who claimed to believe that Brett Kavanaugh would not overturn Roe v. Wade).
Meanwhile, Democrats have moved further and further to the right, convincing themselves (especially when Bill Clinton was president) that being New Democrats was the path to political salvation. In the end, however, the entire party found itself having spent decades abandoning its principles (support for workers’ rights chief among them) in the vain hope of finding Republicans who would compromise with them.
Today, the Democratic Party is often described as having “moved left” since 2016. This, however, is not even a matter of having moved back to the left to retake the more aggressive positions that some Democrats endorsed in the 1980s and 1990s. The party is, instead, merely coalescing around the very centrist policies that are somewhat more liberal than departed “centrists” like Joe Lieberman and so-called Blue Dog Democrats were comfortable with and that the Democratic establishment still resists.
The Stakes: Telling People Who Is Credible and Who Is Not
When major newspapers now describe policies that are absolutely unthreatening (such as expanding the very popular Medicare program to cover all Americans) as far-left policies and Sanders and his allies as far-left politicians, that is descriptively incorrect. And more to the point, it damages the political narrative.
The anti-Sanders Democrats’ infatuation with former Vice President Joe Biden is, I think, in part a result of the fear that nominating Sanders will scare away the ever-important suburban swing voters (assuming that they even exist). Of course, responding to that fear by saying, “Oh my gosh, we can’t nominate a socialist!” does everything to reinforce the ignorance on which that fear is based. Simply as a matter of covering one’s political bases, I would think that Democratic leaders would want to destigmatize the word socialist rather than help Republicans and the press amp up the hysteria.
Again, casually referring to Ilhan Omar’s supporters as the far left, as if that were neutrally descriptive and no more controversial than calling them “recently elected” or “more diverse,” ignores reality. Labels are devices of inclusion and exclusion.
Noam Chomsky coined the term “thinkable thought” to capture the idea that there are some things people are not allowed to think lest they lose credibility. How do they know what those unthinkable thoughts are? In America, the dreaded “far left” label is always (albeit unfairly) a marker of who is not to be welcomed among polite company.
The Substance: Sanders et al. Continue to Give the People What They Want
In Part One, I quoted a description of Sanders’s platform, which includes both policy positions as well as statements of political principles:
[Sanders’s agenda] includes: reducing wage and income inequality; Medicare-for-all; free public college tuition; a national $15 an hour minimum wage; a trillion-dollar infrastructure program; overturning Citizens United and moving to public financing of campaigns; an aggressive climate change action program that includes going after the fossil fuels industry; comprehensive immigration reform; criminal justice reform; an end to private prisons; breaking up the big banks; taking on the pharmaceutical industry; universal affordable child care; expanded Social Security benefits; a federal jobs guarantee; rebuilding rural America; new gun control legislation.
Again, not all of these ideas are policy proposals per se, but they do differentiate Sanders (and, frankly, all Democrats) from Republicans. For example, there are many different ways to address inequality, but Republican politicians flatly reject all of them.
Interestingly, Sanders’s approach to reducing inequality involves changing the estate tax, but he would only do so by returning the estate tax to its levels from 2009. Again, this is not some super-lefty agenda. If anything, it is modest and even somewhat wimpy.
By contrast, at least Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed a proposal for a robust attack on inequality that would include a 70 percent top tax rate—a rate that used to be normal in the US (during some very prosperous times) and that is supported by the most rigorous economic analysis available. Is that some scary left-wing position? Not according to Americans, 59 percent of whom support her proposal. Even 45 percent of Republican voters support it.
I ended Part One with a quick rundown of some public opinion polling regarding the popularity of Sanders’s positions on inequality, Medicare-for-All, free college, and a $15 minimum wage. In each case, Sanders’s positions (like Ocasio-Cortez’s increased income tax rate for the wealthy) poll in the 60 percent range.
That might or might not last in the face of Republicans’ attacks on a specific proposal from a Democratic president, but I would much rather defend something with 60 percent popularity than have to convince people that they do not actually like it.
More to the point, as the economist Paul Krugman recently noted, the Democratic Party (including Sanders and his allies) “is, if anything, to the right of the general public on major policy issues.” Even Fox News was shocked to find its supporters strongly favor Medicare-for-All in a recent broadcast.
What about the other items on the list of Sanders’s campaign themes? My crack team of research assistants was able to gather opinion polling results from very recent years that tested most of Sanders’s views, and the results are uniformly positive. Here are some suggestive results for a number of the items on the list:
- Trillion-dollar infrastructure program: 64 percent support.
- A constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United: 75 percent support.
- Reducing the influence of big campaign donors: 88 percent support.
- Government should take more action regarding the environment generally: 57 to 69 percent, depending on the specific environmental concern (waters, wildlife, and so on).
- Major action to fight climate change: 70 percent support.
- Breaking up big banks: 57 percent support.
- Stricter gun laws: 57 percent (Pew Research) and 61 percent (Gallup) support, both in 2018.
There were a few positions that were middling or unclear, such as a federal jobs guarantee, which had polling results as low as 46 percent in a Rasmussen poll (which skews right in all of its polling) but 79 percent in a Center for American Progress poll. And some ideas, like “rebuilding rural America,” are so vague and feel-good as to be impossible to poll. (It would actually be possible to argue against that as a policy matter, but neither party would ever do so.)
Again, I do not support Sanders for president, and I do not even support all of these positions. But if his campaign platform, and the views of people like Ocasio-Cortez, are what constitutes the far left in America, then what does it even mean to use that label? Many of these views simply renew policies that we have used in the past, and in any event they are all quite popular.
Reporters, editors, headline writers, and pundits need to stop relying on stale and inaccurate shorthand labels to describe American politics today. The Trump/Republican view of the world is both historically radical and wholly unpopular, while the views of Democrats—all Democrats—are mainstream and reality based and quite popular with real voters. Labeling them “far left” distorts reality and makes Donald Trump’s life easier.