Just four years after the Senate Republicans unprecedentedly blocked President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nomination on the grounds that voters should have a voice in selecting the next member of the court, they and President Donald Trump are ready to pretend none of that happened. But too much of the coverage hasn’t focused on the move as an attack on democracy or an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the court. Instead, the decision to move forward with another Trump nominee is being described as a “Machiavellian” “gambit” for the ultimate political “prize.” These are words used to describe protagonists. Meanwhile, threats of retaliation by Democrats have been called “total war.” The way this latest court vacancy has been talked about, you probably wouldn’t know that an overwhelming majority of Americans (including roughly half of Republicans) oppose the Republican plan to push through a nominee before the election.
MSNBC contributor Chuck Rosenberg scolded Democrats for the hypothetical expansion of the Supreme Court, saying that the move would “politicize” the courts as though that’s not what Senate Republicans have been doing all along. Also on MSNBC, host Andrea Mitchell asked whether it was wise for Democrats to threaten to change the “constitutional number” of Supreme Court justices (the number of justices is not actually mentioned anywhere in the constitution). The New York Times amplified Republican criticisms of court-packing being “radical and undemocratic.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said that any action to try to neutralize the Trump push to load courts with Republican loyalists would transform the Senate into the House, which he called “a bad thing.”
In the media’s telling, Republican power grabs are a demonstration of their “political savvy,” but if Democrats fight back, they risk being seen as “extreme.” If Republicans promote unpopular policies, they’re “shrewd,” but if Democrats line up behind comparatively popular policies, they might be “radical.” The gulf between how the two parties get discussed in the media has left the public wildly misinformed about which party is actually out of step with mainstream American views.
Policies supported by Democrats are often treated in the press as “extreme,” even if they’re supported by a majority of the country.
For instance, while it may not be apparent because of congressional inaction, but legislative measures to curb gun violence through things like bans on high-capacity magazines, extreme risk protection orders, and bans on the sale of semi-automatic weapons are actually pretty popular. A majority of Americans -- including more than half of Republicans -- support banning so-called “assault weapons,” with the specific number depending on how the particular question is framed.
Similarly, both Democrats and Republicans support legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment. Still, the Equality Act, a bill that would codify those protections into law, languishes in the Senate after passing the House of Representatives almost entirely along party lines (the bill has 237 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, but only three Republicans signed onto it). And despite the belief of 79% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats that it should be illegal for doctors to refuse to treat transgender people, the Trump administration has continued to try to implement rules that would allow doctors and insurance companies to do exactly that. While those efforts have thus far been stymied by the court system, pushback from Republican legislators has been virtually nonexistent.
A January Reuters/Ipsos poll found that nearly two thirds of Americans strongly or somewhat agreed with the idea that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.” This support for what’s become known as a “wealth tax,” was shared by 77% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans.
Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court will play a key role in determining the fate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But according to July polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “a majority (57%) of the public said they disapproved of the Trump Administration asking the Supreme Court to overturn the ACA, and a similar share (53%) said they did not want to see the law overturned.” By contrast, in January the group found overwhelming support to expand the government’s role in health care through either a public option (68% support) or a national single-payer plan (56% support).
Conversely, many of the policies Trump and congressional Republicans have promoted remain relatively unpopular. Trump’s 2017 move to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement was supported by just 28% of Americans. In 2019, as Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military was enacted, a Gallup poll found that just 26% of American adults thought trans people shouldn’t be allowed to serve. And as Trump and Republicans tried to work their tax plan through Congress in 2017, a Reuters/Ipsos poll based on the administration’s “framework” document found that just 15% of registered voters thought tax reform should take priority over other issues, and just 28% of those who were familiar with the plan supported it. Even so, the unpopular bill was pushed through Congress largely along party lines, and nearly a year later, was supported by only 39% of Americans.
Throughout the Democratic primary, so-called “Never Trump” conservatives and their media allies warned Democrats to avoid nominating someone extreme.
In January, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens worried that Democratic primary voters would embrace the “radicalism” of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and that they should instead nominate someone who “can eschew polarization for persuasion and ideology for pragmatism.” Similarly, Washington Post columnist Max Boot called Sanders “a risk we can’t run at this moment of national peril.” Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal told Democrats to beware their “lurch left” in a December column, and the Lincoln Project’s Rick Wilson tweeted in June 2019 that nominating someone like Sanders would be setting themselves up for losing 44 states in the name of “being woke.”
The plans put forward by Sanders, Warren, and others in the Democratic presidential primary that were frequently treated as being extreme and out of line with the mainstream included things like a wealth tax, single-payer health care or a public option, and a ban on assault weapons. It’s odd that the media treat policy ideas with more than 50% public support as fringe while Republicans in office regularly push an agenda that’s not only out of step with the American people in general, but even among their own voters.
Democrats’ popular policies often get labeled as “far-left,” while the press is much less likely to refer to less popular Republican policies as “far-right.”
A July 2019 Media Matters study found that cable news channels use “far-left” framing six times as often as “far-right” framing. Of the 547 mentions of extremism on either the left or the right on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News during a four-week period, 86% of those mentions treated the political left as being “extreme.”
As study authors Lis Power and Rob Savillo wrote, “This trend is in stark contrast to data showing that the Republican Party is further away from the political center than the Democratic Party, and it leaves viewers misinformed about each party’s position by lending undue credibility to the right-wing talking point that Democrats are extreme.”
Poole and Rosenthal’s Dynamic Weighted Nominal Three-step Estimation metric, which grades political parties on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative), illustrates the political drift over time. Between 1981 and 2019, Republicans have drifted from 0.30 to 0.51, a change of 0.21. During that same period, Democrats drifted from -0.32 to -0.40, a much smaller change of -0.08. Additionally, according to the Manifesto Project, which analyzes party platforms around the world line by line, the Democratic Party is much closer to the worldwide median party than Republicans, who find themselves plotted out on the project’s graph to the right of the conservative parties in Britain, France, and Canada, but a bit to the left of the far-right fringe Alternative for Germany party.
Writing at The Washington Post, Philip Bump dispelled with the idea that the U.S. is a “center-right country” quoting CNN’s John King pointing to the county-level electoral map following the 2016 election and saying, “See all that red? America is a center-right country. It is a lot more conservative -- especially out in the heartland -- than Democrats think.” King, Bump pointed out, made the common mistake of “conflating ‘land area’ with ‘political belief.’” Wyoming, he wrote as an example, is “a big red blob on most electoral maps, despite the fact [it] has only a little over half the total population of very-blue San Jose, Calif.” It’s only due to some of the more undemocratic idiosyncrasies of the U.S. electoral system that the right’s ideas and politicians seem more popular than they are.
Whether looking at political polarization through the lens of policy support, ideological drift over time, or even how the electorate actually votes, it’s Democrats who represent a more mainstream view of society. It shouldn’t be asking too much to want the press to acknowledge this reality, to dispense with the false idea that the U.S. is fundamentally “center-right” (which isn’t to say it’s necessarily “center-left,” either), and to stop holding Democrats to completely different standards than Republicans. As Republicans pursue fringe, unpopular policies like overturning the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, financially starving the Postal Service, and preventing people from suing negligent employers during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s imperative upon the press to realize which side has the “extreme” views.