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Democrats Can’t Fight Republicans’ Fear With Facts

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The bombings Democrats took on Tuesday are testament to the party’s difficulty crafting a persuasive message when competing with targeted disinformation campaigns by Republicans – at least when Republicans field halfway decent candidates.

You would expect that, as a journalism professor, I would defend the press, but I will not.

But that’s only a fraction of the story of what happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

For more than half a century, Republicans have effectively used direct communication channels (postal mail, then talk radio, then Fox News, then the Internet) to identify, amplify, and exploit Tory grievances – all real, in that sense. that the feelings behind them are actually felt – and mostly rooted in a tangle of overlapping racial, class and cultural resentments. (Former GOP strategist Stuart Stevens recounts his struggle to realize this truth in his memoir, “It was all a lie. ”)

Democrats, during that same 50-year period, have not failed to build this type of engine of mass persuasion. One of the reasons is that Democrats tacitly believe that the news media, ostensibly dedicated to communicating truths, will do it for them. The assumption is that Republicans always operate in bad faith and an aggressive media would always call them, and the collision of media against anti-media (and that’s what the GOP propaganda machine is, a machine anti-media) will weaken Republicans. structural advantages.

Because bad information spreads too quickly, and facts, policies, and the right information don’t hold up, it doesn’t happen. Democrats then conclude that the fundamental problem is that the press is not doing its job well.

Now you would expect, as a journalism professor, to defend the press, but I won’t. I will face the huge capacity deficits internal to the culture of journalism. But the Democratic narrative is inaccurate in a way that leads party billionaires to fund bad projects: cures worse than disease.

Many Democrats seem unaware that since 2016 the Republican anti-media machine has grown much more powerful, more apt to decide a narrative – what is “good”, what is “bad” – and then beat it like a drum, in perfect synchronicity, on dozens of platforms.

All Republican politicians. Any active Republican designer. Every Republican influencer. Every expert. They get all their bearings from a few hyperactive sources, then they grind the message relentlessly and with religious zeal.

The problem here is not that the average suburban voter instantly falls for it. It’s not like parents in Virginia wake up one morning, read a headline on Breitbart about Critical Race Theory, then decide, in droves, to back the candidate whose ads barely concealed racial appeals.

The Democratic narrative is inaccurate in a way that leads party billionaires to fund bad projects: cures worse than disease.

The process is more subtle. You are a parent who spent a year dealing with the trauma of school closures linked to the pandemic. You really, really want normalcy. It’s your emotional request to politicians.

For the purposes of this argument, let’s make you, this fictitious parent, a white person. You hear some noise about ‘the left’ teaching some fairly new concepts about race, and that may raise eyebrows, but you really want to feel good about sending your kids to school, possibly without masks, vaccinated, by security. You want an exit ramp.

But then you go to work and your coworker mentions the same weird and fuzzy thing. And then you check your Facebook feed, and there’s a link to Dan Bongino’s debate with a liberal on CRT. And there you are a little confused. Democrats – the party you voted for last time – tell you that nothing radical has passed; that Donald Trump (that you hate) spreading lies to keep the power and that, really, the schools are doing well and there is nothing to worry about.

then democrat Terry McAuliffe, trying to be even pissed off, says, “I don’t think parents should tell schools what to teach. A moment later, Glenn Youngkin said that “parents should be in charge of their children’s education.” And then McAuliffe says you can’t trust Youngkin because he’s Donald Trump.

Intuitively, you don’t trust Democrats here. You wish Trump would go away, but you know, in fact, that Youngkin is literally a different person than Trump. As in, they are two separate human beings. And you are not stupid. Youngkin is a Republican. You are independent. He has to take care of his base. He’s walking a tightrope, but he’s really not Trump. He doesn’t look like Trump. In fact, he looks a lot smarter and says sane things.

So you come back online. And you start to read real things that happened in schools. Some of them make you uncomfortable, as a white person, as a parent of a white child, if you’re honest with yourself. Either way, you are uncomfortable. (That’s the point.)

And yes, you will read a Washington post fact-check or two, but then you remember how horrible and angry you were when schools closed a year ago, and something seems wrong with Democrats, like Democrats can’t figure out what ‘they wanted to tell you, about your concerns about schools.

And it’s that ambiguity – a frontier region where you know some facts, but you also really need things from politicians that they don’t give you. And the primitive fears of rapid cultural change resurface, and you think you are being patronized by one of the two parties.

This is where Republicans thrive. It’s here that the network effects enabled by Facebook dominate the narratives, and this is where Democrats fail. This is also where Democrats want the media to step in, one way or another, or cover the airwaves of a million Democrat-funded fact checks, or persuade you that you are a rogue who fell into the trap of a disinformation campaign. Again: The hardest part for Democrats is that voters know the facts that Democrats want them to know.

From there, you, a white independent who is not a reliable Democrat, can go one of two ways. In Virginia, we saw where most went. Ja’han Jones of MSNBC calls it “white ignorance.” I would change it to “white mistrust”, permitted by democratic aggressiveness. Did the Democrats have a unifying message on race, on education, on the pandemic? Did the Democrats in Congress pass any wildly popular prescription drug reform bills, paid family leave, or a climate change plan, as Democrats promised?

The point here is not that the standing water we swim in is due to deep cleaning with chlorine. (Of course, they are.) Likewise, Republicans absolutely hyperalize and polarize cultural debates, and use the unique characteristics of the way we communicate today to capitalize on and add weight to deep anxieties. It is also true that the ramifications of this deliberate game fall on the shoulders of the less powerful and vulnerable in society. This is unfair and infuriating, but it is a harsh reality that will not go away.

Democrats operate in an asymmetric media and communication environment on a daily basis. It’s just not the simple asymmetrical environment most people imagine. And this is not really disinformation per se. It’s more primitive. Not always, but often enough, Democrats want to fight over facts; Republicans win over fears. Real fears. Often ugly fears. But fears Democrats are often reluctant to face anything other than a harsh recitation of the facts and a nebulous call to “not fall for” the other side’s tactics.


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