Virginia Tech®home

On Journalism, Empirical Reality and Ethical Claim

ID

Soundings

Authors as Published

On November 14, 2022, Dwayne Yancey, a respected journalist and former editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, now executive editor of Cardinal News in southwest Virginia, published a column entitled “Election 2022 highlights the continuing collapse of Democratic Party in rural Virginia.”[1] The apparent thesis of the piece appeared in its conclusion: that Democrats do not pay sufficient attention to rural voters and are therefore losing their support:

It’s a mystery to me why many Virginia Democrats ignore the math of rural Virginia. … The 2022 results should be a warning to them: How low can the party go in rural Virginia? Absent some special effort, lower than it has been. It’s not hard to imagine some counties in the 90% range for Republicans and in the single-digit range for Democrats.[2]

    So far as I have been able to ascertain, Yancey had his data right and the Democratic Party standard bearers in Virginia’s 6th and 9th congressional districts fared particularly poorly in this year’s election. He was also correct in suggesting that Representatives Morgan Griffith (9th) and Ben Cline (6th) — each a member of the House’s so-called far-right Freedom Caucus, and each of whom voted not to certify the results of the 2020 national election — seem safe in their seats due to abiding, and perhaps deepening, rural voter support. But these facts notwithstanding, it is not clear to me that this is the fault of Democratic Party inattention. More importantly, it is not evident that greater attention, whatever that might entail, to these districts by such officials would yield better results, or even that such is the most relevant criterion for understanding the situation.

    Yancey seemed content to suggest that Virginia’s Democratic Party should do more to appeal to rural voters who otherwise are supporting Republicans. His piece was fundamentally acontextual. It did not inquire into why rural voters might support officials who have appropriately been accused of persistent lying and of breaking their Constitutional oaths. Nor did it examine how many of those voters believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen that the former president, the GOP, and these two incumbents support. It did not ask how many of those citizens believe Democrats have taken no policy steps to assist them because they have persistently been told such is so by Republicans, when in fact the reverse has been the case.  Finally, one wonders how many of those rural Virginia voters have been persuaded by GOP propaganda that the Democrats are “radical communists” and are actively seeking to undermine their own country, based on no evidence whatsoever.

    These propositions are not hypothetical. They represent GOP talking points in the most recent election cycle. As a result, it  remains unclear to me that “greater attention” or efforts to convince the fear-filled voters who have seen their communities emptied by changes in coal technology and declining demand for that resource or by galloping globalization more generally, would somehow ensure greater support for Democrats, even as these Republican representatives and their party continue to contend that it is the Democratic Party alone that has created those costs via its alleged socialism. These GOP assertions are unrelated to reality, and not to grapple with how the Republican Party has wielded them to mobilize angst-filled voters is to misrepresent and trivialize reality.

    While Yancey’s piece stopped me short for its lack of nuanced analysis, I was more deeply concerned by a November 21, 2022 commentary by Ross Douthat for The New York Times, in which he reflected on the recent mid-term election and contended that two perilous extremisms had, in effect, balanced one another out this year, arguing as he did so that while Trump remains dangerous to democracy, the GOP has not “really” succumbed to his siren call to hate:

Then likewise, the non-alarmist might concede that such fascism-on-the-march alarmism, overblown as it may seem, may itself be one of the forces that tends to stabilize a democratic system, by mobilizing and balancing against excesses and paranoias on the other side … [and] may have been one reason among many why so many ‘Stop the Steal’ candidates got pasted in their races. And that such alarmism has arguably always played a version of this balancing, stabilizing role, all the way back to the early days of the Republic when the various factions reliably traded accusations of monarchism and Jacobinism. This last image, of extremisms and anxieties about extremism balancing one another out, also suggests a hopeful way for the alarmists and non-alarmists of the Trump era to think about our relationship to one another: not just as rival interpreters of our democracy’s discontents, but as partners, in some strange way, in its continuing stability.[3]

    This argument is both superficial and deeply unsettling. In the first instance, the scholars and analysts who called Trump and the GOP out for lying about the 2020 election and immigration, and for attempts to suppress the votes of those whom they feared would not support their candidates, cannot be compared to those who stormed the U.S. Capitol, killing innocent individuals, injuring many others, and causing terrible property damage in the name of a patent and deliberate lie. Nor, are scholars and analysts alarmists as they raise concerns about GOP support for such actions anything like Republican officials, including Griffith and Cline, who knowingly cast votes not to certify the 2020 presidential election to support that lie or who prevented Trump’s rightful impeachment on electoral grounds. It is perplexing that anyone, let alone a writer with an international audience, would cast these disparate groups as equivalents in any sense. Doing so gainsays the obvious fact that one was actively seeking to preserve democratic institutions and norms while the other was toiling assiduously to undermine them.                      

     More generally, rhetoric of the sort that Republican candidates have employed in this and previous election cycles to “other” Americans who did not agree with their lies and to mobilize those who do can never be equated to the attempts of those who seek to call them out for their often racist and anti-democratic behavior. These two journalists failed to contextualize their claims. They also failed to meet two additional profound ethical tests. Each of those standards has been summarized by the acclaimed author and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi.             

    In the first instance, Levi warned that political rhetoric of the sort that Yancey did not acknowledge as a motivator of those he was nominally analyzing, matters, and matters profoundly. As Levi observed by way of example, the rise of hate in Weimar Germany occurred amidst the same sort of moral equivocating that Douthat has recently offered:

Incredibly it [the overthrow of democracy and advent of Nazism], happened that an entire civilized people, just issued from the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar, followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. … It can happen, and it can happen everywhere. … Few countries can be considered immune to a future tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties, religious or political fanaticism, and racialist attritions. It is therefore necessary to sharpen our senses, distrust the prophets, the enchanters, those who speak and write … unsupported by intelligent reasons.[4]

    It is just such a tide of cruel disparagement that the GOP has sought to encourage and to surf in recent decades. To set that fact aside is to miss an elemental characteristic of current U.S. politics. To claim such hate mongering is equivalent to efforts to address its ugly results, as those have been revealed repeatedly in recent years, is pernicious and wrong-headed. Levi also warned of a companion moral concern that these two recent commentaries point up : that of the danger of standing silently or complacently by as some individuals press to undermine freedom. For it was, by analogy, the majority of Germans, in the case of Hitler’s reign of terror, who permitted and abetted history’s greatest ignominy by their quiescence. As he described the perpetrators of Nazism’s horrors, Levi observed,

they were [for the most part] average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked. … They were, for the greater part, diligent followers and functionaries. … Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind that responsibility stands that great majority of Germans, who accepted in the beginning, out of mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity and national pride the beautiful words of Corporal Hitler.[5]

    One need not imagine that America stands on the immediate precipice of its own version of Nazism to contend that history teaches that intolerance, racism and bigotry are innate elements of the human experience and that their self-conscious embrace and spread in the name of power constitute a trend and danger to which any advocate of democracy must pay very close attention. It cannot be enough and cannot be countenanced, following Douthat, to suggest that democracy and freedom are the equivalents of efforts to mobilize and employ such horrors in the quest for power. Freedom and racism and bigotry are not, nor will they ever be, equivalents. It is insufficient, too, to argue as Yancey did, that a political party that bears no such crude and cruel responsibility is somehow failing the polity because it alone has so far not successfully and everywhere addressed the consequential harms unleashed by the choices of its partisan foe.    

    In my view, these are not partisan claims, as many Republicans today contend. Democracy is not a partisan concern. Nor, are the arguments being offered by many scholars who continue to worry about the state of the GOP as a broad swathe of its officials have persisted in adopting viciously false and anti-democratic claims in the pursuit of power, easily to be dismissed. These should be understood instead as contentions offered by proponents of freedom, an always precious and fragile resource and solace and purpose of a democratic nation.     

    Our country recently observed the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, at which he dedicated the new battlefield cemetery there and concluded his brief address doing so with these now famous words:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[6]

    The United States must have a news media and politics that honor this nation’s founding principles, and as Lincoln declared, true proponents of freedom must ever be prepared to defend those premises from individuals seeking to despoil them on whatever grounds. Those who embrace anti-democratic stances and steps should be the subject of clarion calls to behave otherwise. Anti-democratic individuals and groups should on no account be treated as the moral or ethical equals of those seeking to preserve freedom’s possibility, whether by officials, citizens or perhaps especially, by journalists. I am heartened in these terms by the recent election but have seen little evidence of a moderating GOP less inclined to mine hatred for power and much instead of a Party casting aspersion rather than engaging in genuine soul searching. As the time-honored adage has it, “we shall see.”

Notes

[1] Yancey, Dwayne. “Election 2022 highlights the continuing collapse of Democratic Party in rural Virginia,” Cardinal News, November 14, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/11/14/election-2022-highlights-the-continuing-collapse-of-democratic-party-in-rural-virginia/, Accessed November 14, 2022. 

[2] Yancey, “Election highlights collapse.”

[3] Douthat, Ross. “Did the midterms save American democracy?” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 21, 2022, https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2022/11/21/ross-douthat-did-midterms-save/, Accessed November 21, 2022. 

[4] Levi, Primo. The Drowned and The Saved, London: Abacus Publishers (Little, Brown Group), 1989, pp. 230-231.

[5] Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, pp. 234-235.

[6] Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY, https://rmc.library.cornell.edu/gettysburg/good_cause/transcript.htm, Accessed November 24, 2022.  

Publication Date

November 28, 2022

Tags