Journalists Must Understand Nihilism and Democracy are Not Morally Equivalent
One facet of our nation’s ongoing governance crisis that has become both critical and clear during the last few years is the vital role that responsible news media organizations must play in informing the American people of the realities of U.S. policy and politics. This function is especially important amidst a barrage of relentless lies and propagandizing on the part of the major share of the Republican Party and its social and broadcast media allies as its members seek to secure and maintain power by any means.
I want to be plain here: it is not partisan to note that the GOP’s actions in recent years are not a question of lawmakers debating the details of policy possibilities, as just occurred among Democrats and a few Republicans during the months of wrangling prior to passage of the infrastructure act. I am simply stating a fact: Republicans, united behind former President Donald Trump, now virtually uniformly assert falsely that he “won” the 2020 presidential election without a shred of evidence to support their assertion. The Party routinely now also suggests that all Democrats are socialists and communists who are intent on leading the nation to ruin, on no evidence whatsoever. More, and chillingly, the GOP has lately embraced violence against those who call out or disagree with its lies. These stands are not partisan distinctions concerning how much or what sort of efforts or policies government should undertake. Instead, they are complete fabrications with no relationship to reality. They are developed and designed to mislead and enrage citizens and they attack both democratic institutions and the civility that underpins them. Such positions are in no sense morally equivalent to those taken by leaders arguing in good faith concerning what character policies aimed at furthering the nation should take nor, again, is it partisan so to contend.
Republicans have also worked assiduously this year in states they control to gerrymander legislative districts to ensure their majorities and to suppress voting by groups they believe will not support their continued rule. These actions have been accompanied by a relentless bombast regarding fictitious “immigrant caravans,” other supposedly menacing minorities and wildly misleading contentions concerning school curricula, among other topics. In the light of increasing GOP willingness to lie repeatedly to Americans to whip up hysteria and rancor and thereby political support, it is essential that the nation’s news media report carefully and transparently what is occurring. The responsible journalists who work for print and electronic outlets must address with probity and truth that Party’s ridiculous and dangerous claims that communism is imminent because of the Democratic Party and that violence against the United States and other citizens is now both reasonable and appropriate. The press must also call out Trump’s continuous lies and his and his Party’s incessant efforts to turn the murderous January 6 mob that attacked the United States Capitol into “heroes.”
In short, it is necessary that responsible news entities provide Americans a frank and full account of the continuing GOP slide into authoritarianism, not because members of the press are partisans of the Democratic Party, but because they are a vital redoubt and buttress of freedom, which is now in peril in the United States as Republicans and their party attack truth, voting rights and the rule of law. I profile three recent specific examples of GOP willingness to assault the sinews of democratic society in its quest to stir animosity and hatred to gain votes.
As a first example, President Joseph Biden signed the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act into law on November 15, 2021, following final congressional passage on November 6.[i] The statute invests broadly in the nation’s infrastructure needs for the first time since at least the 1970s and will begin to address the deteriorating roads, water systems, bridges, broadband and aviation infrastructure that have become increasingly evident across America and to which the American Society of Civil Engineers has pointed in its major assessment reports for decades.[ii] Notably, the Act takes steps that Trump promised repeatedly during his term in office. Far from hailing the bi-partisan effort as the singular accomplishment it represents, however, Trump and his GOP allies argued that its passage was “Un-American” and presaged a fall into communism. Here is how historian Heather Cox Richardson reported on the Republican Party’s reaction to the bill becoming law:
It is a historic bill, not least because it recalled times when the government just … functioned, with members of both parties backing the passage of a popular bill that reflected a lot of hard work to hammer out a compromise. And yet, Trump loyalists have attacked the bill as ‘Joe Biden’s Communist takeover of America’ and have attacked any Republican who supported it as ‘a traitor to our party, a traitor to their voters and a traitor to our donors.’ Some of the Republicans voting for it have gotten death threats.[iii]
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported on November 15 that:
Several House Republicans who backed the legislation have been threatened and harassed. Last week, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) released the audio of an expletive-filled phone call in which a man in South Carolina called him a ‘traitor’ and said he hopes the congressman, his staff members and his entire family die.[iv]
These are absurd, inflammatory and violent responses to a genuine effort to address a chronic and growing infrastructure crisis in the United States. Upton and others said nothing about policy concerns or specific issues and instead attack those who supported the legislation as “enemies” and not fellow citizens and lawmakers. They called for blind hatred and in so doing evidenced a know-nothingism that bespeaks a Party with no moral center.
A second example of the GOP descent into a nihilistic authoritarian abyss is that Party’s recent choices concerning one of its members, Representative Paul Gosar, of Arizona. On November 17, 2021, the House of Representatives voted 223-207 to censure Gosar for posting an anime video on his official Twitter account that showed him attacking and killing an image of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez, of New York, and assaulting a representation of Biden.[v] Democratic House members called on their colleagues to censure Gosar on the principle that no lawmaker should advocate violence against other U.S. officials. But, with only two exceptions and four abstentions, Republicans uniformly refused to censure their colleague, who also has previously embraced white nationalist and Neo-Nazi positions. Gosar promptly reposted the video following his censure and has refused to apologize for its vile content since. In failing to repudiate their caucus member’s hate-filled behavior, the Republican Party is now on record as approving of violence against elected leaders with differing views.
Finally, as noted above, the GOP has increasingly adopted the stance that those who attacked the Capitol on January 6 were heroes, despite their illegal and murderous behavior. On October 31, 2021, The Washington Post released a careful investigation of that day’s events that concluded that they occurred at the direct behest of Donald Trump, that they were carefully planned by the former President and close allies and that their, “consequences … are still coming into focus, but what is already clear is that the insurrection was not a spontaneous act nor an isolated event. It was a battle in a broader war over the truth and over the future of American democracy. Since then, the forces behind the attack remain potent and growing.”[vi]
The Party’s embrace of a lie concerning the perpetrators of the January 6 insurrection matches its officials’ willingness to support Trump’s egregious Big Lie that he won the election in November 2020. In doing so, GOP leaders are countenancing a claim they know to be false, since no evidence supports it. They are apparently doing so since the former chief executive’s supporters constitute reliable voters and they have proven susceptible to the allegation. Republican officials have then sought to legitimate that stance on the view that only power matters, even when doing so implies rationalizing a violent attack on the nation’s lawmakers and Vice President. Even to highlight this fact is to underscore the moral and ethical emptiness of the Party’s position as well as its danger for democracy.
These examples of recent and ongoing GOP leaders’ conduct suggest at least three implications. First, the Party is no longer interested in governance, as the largest share of its members simply refuse to engage in the people’s business and instead are content to mobilize voters on misleading and artificially created anger and rancor. Second, Republicans have now demonstrated their readiness to justify violence against any who dare disagree with their positions. This predilection is common among authoritarian partisans, but loathsome to democrats. Finally, GOP officials have repeatedly lied not only to their advocates, but also to all Americans about matters large and small, and especially about civil and human rights. Concerning the latter, the Party has scapegoated minorities for condemnation as a way implicitly to justify its attacks on civil and human rights, since the otherness of those individuals makes them easy prey for such action among those willing to believe that difference is innately threatening.
These conditions have created what a new report, “The Global State of Democracy,” by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Stockholm, Sweden, has called a situation of democracy at risk throughout the world. More particularly, the Institute singled the United States out for democratic “backsliding,” since it has “experienced gradual but significant weakening of Checks on Government and Civil Liberties, such as Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association and Assembly, over time.”[vii] It is important to emphasize that the Republican Party has alone chosen this course and has pressed the efforts that have resulted in this sad situation.
The current crisis of governance in the United States has arisen from the increasingly swift slide into authoritarianism of one of our nation’s political parties. This has created a situation in which the nation’s responsible news media simply MUST report the implications of Republican Party actions that undermine democracy for what they are and not suggest that the GOP is a political party like any other. The Party has demonstrated repeatedly in recent years that it is not and that those who fund and lead it will stop at nothing to secure their continuation in power, even the enervation of freedom itself for substantial portions of the population. There is no moral equivalence between those who in good faith are seeking to govern according to our nation’s Constitutional principles and those willing to jettison those for power and wealth.
This fact in turn implies two key conclusions regarding the news media’s role in reporting on Republican Party and supporting partisans’ claims going forward. First, responsible journalists should not hesitate to report when GOP officials are lying and to chart the cost of accepting such lies whenever they can. Failing to do so is likely only to hasten the collapse of American democracy. The Washington Post’s investigation into the January 6 insurrection was an example of reporting clearly and accurately after extensive research and fact-checking.
Second, those professionals, including columnists, should not exacerbate the difficulties of governance for those seeking in good faith to move the nation ahead by implying that those officials can or should short-circuit the hard work of negotiation and compromise among individuals with competing perspectives and positions by suggesting that somehow such efforts connote “weakness” or failure and should not be necessary in a pluralistic democracy. Such assertions are inaccurate and nonsense, and they feed into the authoritarian claims already strongly afoot in the GOP.
On this count, I was especially struck recently that Maureen Dowd, a long-time New York Times columnist, devoted an entire essay to criticizing President Biden and Democrats for not simply all agreeing in advance on what the major bills the President has pressed should contain and for negotiating hard from diverse perspectives concerning each instead.[viii] She appeared to call for a united phalanx, just as mythical as GOP claims exists concerning the purported aims of their rival party. This sort of commentary is nearly as damaging as the lies and fearmongering offered by the Republicans, because so unrealistic. Pluralism implies multiple points-of-view, and one may not (and need not) like them all, but when held by reasonable people who mean well for the Republic, they should be respected. Biden did just that, and in doing so has moved thus far from policy success to policy success, despite GOP lies and frequent carping from opinion-makers, including Dowd. Biden is one person, and he neither should, nor should he be expected alone to eliminate all discord in his Party (or the GOP) concerning policy. Indeed, the larger story of U.S. lawmaking, given almost no attention by Dowd and other Beltway Insider writers, has been the fact that nearly all Republican lawmakers have refused even to participate in efforts to craft meaningful legislation to address the nation’s needs during the Biden presidency.
Recent evidence suggests the Republican Party is prepared to stop at nothing to regain its majority in Congress and to obtain the presidency in 2024, resorting to widespread voter suppression, lying to its partisans and to Americans more generally and wholesale electoral gerrymandering. The news media must clearly bring these facts to light for the voting population’s consideration. Ultimately, only time will reveal whether the U.S. will continue to backslide into tyranny or whether its electorate will call a halt to the lies and fearmongering (now much more difficult due to Republican actions that prevent even super majorities from electoral victories in many GOP controlled states) that have brought the country to its present pass. A free and principled press willing to report the facts is essential to any prospect of realizing that possibility.
[i] Tankersley, Jim. “Biden signs Infrastructure bill, promoting benefits for Americans,” The New York Times, November 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/11/15/us/infrastructure-bill-signing#whats-in-the-infrastructure-bill, Accessed November 15, 2021.
[ii] American Society of Civil Engineers, “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure: America’s Infrastructure Scores a C-,” https://infrastructurereportcard.org/, Accessed November 22, 2021.
[iii] Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from an American, November 15, 2021, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/november-15-2021, Accessed November 20, 2021.
[iv] Kim, Seung Min, Felicia Sonmez and Amy B. Wang. “Biden Signs $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill fulfilling campaign promise and notching achievement that eluded Trump,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-poised-to-sign-12-trillion-infrastructure-bill-fulfilling-campaign-promise-and-notching-achievement-that-eluded-trump/2021/11/15/1b69f9a6-4638-11ec-b8d9-232f4afe4d9b_story.html, Accessed November 20, 2021.
[v] Blake, Aaron. “The GOP’s Bad Defense of Paul Gosar,” The Washington Post, November 17, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/11/17/gop-defense-paul-gosar/, Accessed November 22, 2021.
[vi] Buzbee, Sally. The Washington Post, October 31, 2021, “Letter from Washington Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee about The Post’s Jan. 6 investigation,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/31/about-jan-6-insurrection-investigation/, Accessed November 22, 2021.
[vii] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “The Global State of Democracy 2021: Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era,” https://www.idea.int/gsod/sites/default/files/2021-11/the-global-state-of-democracy-2021_0.pdf, Accessed November 22, 2021.
[viii] Dowd, Maureen. “Wokeness Derails the Democrats,” The New York Times, November 6, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/06/opinion/sunday/democrats-elections.html, Accessed November 20, 2021.
November 29, 2021