“Heads They Win, Tails We Lose:” Media Narrative Ensures that Progressives Fail

by Paul Hogarth on February 23, 2011

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney wrote how Republican Governors across the country are overreaching their 2010 mandate – much like, he argues, President Obama and the Democrats “overreached” their mandate after 2008.

Really? A federal stimulus that was one-third tax cuts to appease a few Republicans was “overreaching” a liberal mandate? Health care reform that failed to have a public option (even though polls showed it was popular), because we had to cave to Joe Lieberman’s extortion? Failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, no climate change reform and not even a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act was more “change” than the voters wanted? Nagourney’s analysis would be laughable, if the press didn’t take hold of it as conventional wisdom. But we’ve seen this happen before. Whether or not Democrats win, the media constantly re-invents the reasons to justify a conservative world view – regardless of the facts. With an Orwellian twist, progressives are always doomed to fail – if we allow the mainstream “news analysis” to re-write political history.

The 2006 elections – where Democrats re-gained control of both houses of Congress – was an historic moment that signaled a new progressive era. Far from just a reaction to the excesses of the Bush-Cheney Administration, the election was also a demographic break-through. Young people upset at the Iraq War turned out in record numbers, Latinos and Asians upset at immigrant-bashing began to vote in droves and – for the first time in 50 years, the “non-Southern” Party controlled Congress. By that last point, I mean it was the first time in half a century where the party that did not hold a majority of seats from the Old Confederacy cobbled enough seats (via a center-left coalition) to run Congress.

But that’s not how the media – eager to spin a right-wing counter-narrative – chose to paint the election results. Democrats won, they explained, because DCCC head Rahm Emanuel recruited conservative “Blue Dogs” like Heath Shuler who intentionally ran away from their Party as much as possible. Never mind that Heath Shuler was more the exception than the rule. Out of 30 Freshman House Democrats in 2006, only five or six could truly be called “conservative” – while we saw blue-state Republicans lose to liberal Democrats more in line with their district, and new Senators like Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown.

Perception, however, becomes reality – and once the conservative narrative took hold, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Democrats from swing districts, nervous about being re-elected, quickly joined the Blue Dog caucus. Even if they had first been elected due to public anger at George Bush, being a Blue Dog in Washington gave you far more access to corporate donations than otherwise. What the public had sent to Washington as part of a “center-left” coalition was soon forgotten – as even netroots favorites like Chris Carney and Jerry McEnerney became enamored with the Beltway fetish with “bi-partisanship.”

But 2008 came along, and a young charismatic politician named Barack Obama was inspiring a new generation of political activists. He challenged the Clinton dynasty, spoke about “change” and “hope,” and the demographic change we saw in 2006 was moving faster. Obama did not win Indiana because voters expected him to govern like Evan Bayh – he had run for President on a progressive platform, and voters knew what to expect. As Bill Clinton would mention months later: “2008 was the first election [of my lifetime] in which the country was self-consciously communitarian.”

Oh my God, thought the media power elites. Something had to be done to stop this narrative as quickly as possible. In October 2008, as Obama was headed towards a landslide victory over John McCain, Newsweek came out with a cover story called “America the Conservative,” which argued that Obama would have to govern a “center-right country.” By Election Night, the media talking heads were all besides themselves – proclaiming, with no evidence whatsoever, that we are still a “center-right country.”

Of course, the Newsweek article in question argued that we are a “center-right country” – simply because over the last 30 years, we have more often than not been governed by Republican Presidents. There was no acknowledgement that, perhaps, the 2006 and 2008 elections had signaled a demographic shift. But buried deep inside the article was probably the most important acknowledgement: “As far as public opinion goes, the American public is generally not center-right. The younger generation is more progressive than the last one. What we do have is a center-right political system.

So why was there never a critical analysis about the disconnect between our politicians and the public? When we were told in 2007 that we “don’t have the votes” in Congress to end the Iraq War, or when in 2009 we were told that we “don’t have the votes” in Congress to pass a public option – or, more recently, when Obama said the problem with repealing the Bush tax cuts was not the public (but instead the unyielding Republican minority in the Senate), there was one inescapable conclusion: elected officials in Washington are out of touch with an American public that is far more progressive. That was the real outrage.

But when Obama became President, all the media wanted to talk about was the “new” Tea Party movement – who after all, are the same people who were lauding Sarah Palin in 2008 and shouting “terrorist!” and “kill him!” at McCain rallies. Early on, we saw comedians like Jon Stewart point out that their numbers were inflated. But with Fox News beating the drum, and other networks like CNN following their lead, that got drowned by the media narrative that said Americans are fed up with “high taxes” – even though taxes are as low as ever.

By November 2010, the Democratic base that had elected Obama in 2008 was dispirited and de-energized. We had failed to pass climate change reform, no immigration reform, a health care bill stripped down to appease Joe Lieberman, and no Employee Free Choice Act. Meanwhile, the right-wing narrative of an ascendant “Tea Party” movement had become a self-fulfilling prophecy – and now the New York Times says it’s because President Obama “overreached.”

All because the media elites want progressives to fail.

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