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The 2024 Election Is About Real Things
It's early still, but public perception of the candidates has lost touch with reality
At this point in the 2016 election cycle, most national politics reporters (present company excluded) were still incredulous that Donald Trump could win the Republican presidential nomination. Some of them scoffed at the idea; others projected elaborate scenarios in which Trump imploded, or his Republican rivals organized to stop him. All of them were drawn to this assumption at least in part by the belief that he couldn’t possibly win the general election, and the GOP wouldn’t idly submit to a death sentence.
Once he became the nominee, the same media elites adopted a failed model of election coverage that left the public with an inaccurate depiction of the two candidates and what the consequences for the country would be depending upon who won. Most Republicans were always going to vote for Trump and most Democrats were always going to vote for Hillary Clinton, but the journalism profession did a collectively terrible job conveying basic empirical realities—that Trump was by far the more unethical candidate, that Clinton was by far the more experienced and knowledgeable, that the practical differences between their policy agendas were large and would be relevant to people’s lives.
This isn’t just hindsight talking. Peer writers and I observed it in real time, before voters went to the polls, and faulted the press for its apparent indifference to the stakes of the election. We did this even as we all believed Clinton would win despite the institutional failure.
It’s arguably a bit early in the current cycle to worry about how faithfully the mainstream press has conveyed the stakes of the 2024 election, and it’s arguably less important overall. Eight years later, the American right is more cocooned in a propaganda bubble than it was, and the American youth gets more of its news (or what it thinks of as news) from the TikTok algorithm.
But for at least four reasons, it’s worth applying scrutiny to election coverage much earlier this time, before narratives set in and public opinion hardens. First, we obviously waited too long last time. Second, there’s never a good reason for journalists to be complacent about widespread misperceptions overtaking the public. Third, public perception of the candidates on issues as varied as economic stewardship and basic mental fitness are already badly out of whack with empirical reality. Fourth, this time around, bleak as the polling looks at the moment, nobody in the media is under the mistaken impression that Trump can’t become president, and everyone knows that his presidency poses an existential threat to democracy and rule of law.
There are a few ways to think about what it means to convey the stakes of an election, but it’s ultimately very hard to come up with a test we might apply to news outlets to determine whether they’re doing a good or bad job.
Their most basic obligation is to publish or air plenty of stories about what’s likely to happen to the country under different scenarios. News outlets plainly failed that test in 2016—studies conducted in the aftermath showed that legacy media produced more overall and more highly placed coverage of Clinton’s emails than all policy stories combined, by many multiples.
By this metric, and at this early date, I think they may be doing a bit better, though only to a degree. Reporters certainly haven’t found a defensible balance between, say, coverage of Trump family corruption (which they know to be rampant) and Biden family corruption (which they know to be almost entirely a figment of Republican propaganda). They are fixated on Biden’s age (and public opinion about Biden’s age) though Trump is only a couple years younger, and (unlike Biden) frequently unhinged and confused.
On the other hand, the New York Times has produced a series of valuable reports about Trump’s plans to obliterate the rule of law and the career federal bureaucracy. The Washington Post has published similar high-profile stories, including an important one just this week about how the people sounding the alarm most loudly were all once Trump’s most senior advisers and officials.
Sum it all up, though, and it hasn’t yielded an informed citizenry.
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Americans continue to tell pollsters they believe Trump is more mentally fit for the presidency than Biden, yet if you were to conduct a secret ballot of the campaign press corps—or of the reporters who’ve interacted with both men—the results would be nearly unanimous in the other direction.
I’m tempted to say that’s evidence of a mainstream press failure, and I think it must be to some extent, but in this day and age, if the public remains misinformed about basic election facts, it’s hard to know where the buck stops. In 2016, this infamous Gallup word cloud illustrated an obvious media failure.
Today, because media is more fractured, it feels a bit unfair to lay every public misperception at the feet of the mainstream news. But mainstream news remains extremely relevant in the culture, and it’s an obvious copout to say it bears no responsibility for mass incomprehension—if political journalists can do nothing to make citizens better informed, what’s the point of it? Why not just throw everything in the archives and let historians sort out the truth in hindsight?
Perhaps in the modern media environment, assignment editors should scour public opinion for indications that the public is misinformed on important factual issues and use that data to help determine what reporters should cover and how aggressively.
A year out from the election, my sense is that the public is horribly underinformed about the election, even having lived through a one-term Trump presidency and almost three years of the Biden administration. And as I see it, the stakes this time around are broadly comparable directionally to the stakes of the 2016 election, but somewhat higher overall.
In 2016 the judiciary was up for grabs, but by now it’s already lost to the GOP. Trump would obviously make the bench even more corrupt and right-wing in a second term, but much of that damage has already been done.
And as a result of that damage, Republican victory in 2024 could easily result in a national ban on abortion. If Biden’s re-elected, by contrast, the status quo will hold; if his party reconsolidates control of Congress, Democrats could even codify the protections of Roe v. Wade across the country.
Unlike in 2016, Republicans probably won’t be running on a defining policy grievance. Biden doesn’t have a signature structural reform under his belt that significantly expands the social safety net or regulatory state. There’s no “Bidencare” for Republicans to say they want to “repeal and replace.”
But there’s a bunch of smaller-bore stuff that’s nevertheless incredibly important, and Republicans are gunning for much of it.
Republicans say they want to repeal an Inflation Reduction Act initiative that’s already making prescription drugs cheaper for seniors, and they’d almost certainly rescind the legislation’s IRS enforcement funds. Cronies would take over regulatory agencies again. Junk fees would be so back.
Just this week, a Trump-appointed appellate judge wrote a lawless opinion, which, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would essentially give the president sole jurisdiction to decide whether anyone has a valid claim of discrimination under the Voting Rights Act, making it a dead letter under Trump. Despite failing to repeal the ACA, Trump managed to temporarily reverse the decrease in the uninsured rate, effectively pushing millions of Americans off of their health plans. He’d do that again.has been at pains to convey a simple idea: Whatever voters say about whom they trust more to improve “the economy,” the empirical fact is that both candidates have economic agendas, and Trump’s agenda of tariffs and large, regressive tax cuts would cause inflation—now low and falling—to rise again. But for now at least political reporters seem much more interested in what economic-approval polls say than in providing voters the information they need to better align public opinion with reality.
We can’t possibly know what the state of the war between Israel and Hamas will be a year from now, or if there will even be one, but we do know that Trump is more solicitous of the Israeli right wing than Biden (who’s still plenty solicitous), totally indifferent to the plight of Palestine, and embroiled in a corrupt relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. And the Saudi royal family. And…
In a second Trump administration, the U.S. would probably abandon Ukraine and NATO, and Trump would rampage through the U.S. bureaucracy, driving expertise out of government, purging enemies, encouraging or ordering violence and judicial retribution against them, and generally laying waste to the rule of law.
Some of this stuff would only be possible if one party or another manages to consolidate control of Congress and the White House. But plenty of it is within the discretion of the president alone. And thanks to some of the most undemocratic aspects of our political system, Trump is more likely to enjoy a governing trifecta if he wins than Biden is.
STAKE THROUGH THE HEART
That only scratches the surface (I didn’t even mention climate change because I don’t know off hand exactly how Trump would make that worse in a second term, though he certainly would).
But quite apart from the policy stakes, a Trump victory would be a calamity for the idea of America in a way we can’t measure empirically. His first victory already did lasting damage, as we see every time Nazis march confidently and free from Republican condemnation, or a Trump inspired terrorist massacres some ethnic or religious minority, or Republican billionaires and their elected allies threaten to shutter unallied media and prosecute its journalists. But 2016 was at least a product of mass civic carelessness, such that most Americans rightly understood it as a fluke. Everyone from journalists to Jim Comey and Barack Obama thought Trump would lose, and thus did not conduct themselves with an ideal degree of circumspection. Trump cheated in the election, then lost the popular vote. His presidency proceeded for good reason under a cloud of illegitimacy, and fueled one of the biggest protest movements in the history of the United States.
If he wins again I worry he’ll meet with much less resistance. What will fuel and sustain resistance if Trump can be elected a second time, after he was driven out once and then engaged in insurrection? When the public and our elites have no excuse for underreacting to the threat? At some point a successful resistance movement needs to believe it speaks for the masses and the higher values we’d like to think they hold, or it will fizzle out.
The United States would probably not return to free and fair elections anytime soon after 2024, but even if it did, the Democratic Party opposition would likely grow even more timid than it was through what we might one day call the early Trump years. When Hillary Clinton lost, Democrats had many reasons to understand it as, again, a fluke. They could attribute her defeat to foreign interference, FBI corruption, campaigning errors, the media’s email fixation, the Electoral College, and 100 other factors.
It nevertheless has left the party and many of its activists lastingly fearful of nominating a woman for the presidency.
If Biden loses, particularly if he loses by a narrow margin, Democrats would again have a complicated story to tell about why: He was too old. The wokes got too woke. Inflation made the country sour. But Biden’s presidency has also been remarkable in many ways. He ended the war in Afghanistan and the media brutalized him for it; he aligned himself with unions, presided over the beginnings of a labor revival, and the political class responded with a collective shrug; he forgave tens of billions of dollars in student debt, but members of his own party tried to stop him; he passed the biggest climate bill in world history, but polls worse with the youth than even Donald Trump; he delivered full employment and falling inequality, but the entire right and much of the left nevertheless insist that the economy is hellish.
All of these things would likely become casualties of his defeat, too. What leading Democrat, after witnessing Biden’s experience, would prioritize the same progressive goals going forward?
That’s not a “stake” of the election that the mainstream news can really cover. It’s the reporter’s obligation to clarify for the public what the candidates and parties intend to do if elected. It isn’t the reporter’s obligation to forecast how parties will react in defeat or cape for a vision of America that might become a casualty of an election gone wrong.
But it’s kind of my job! The concrete stakes of this election are so stark they’re hard to fathom. The soft stakes are no less so. Imagine a pro-democracy majority disempowered and demoralized, “rooted out like vermin,” and left to seek protection from an opposition party that will offer them little hope for a brighter future.