The Democratic Party Has an ‘MSNBC Problem’

Leaning away from red America.

“The Democrats need to stop obsessing about Trump and Russia, and start talking about the bread-and-butter issues that matter to ordinary people.” Since Donald Trump took office, that sentiment has been a refrain for the party’s leading critics on both the left and right. It is also fundamentally unfair.

In truth, the Democratic Party is quite focused on promoting a progressive critique of the GOP’s positions on taxes, health care, and social spending, because it knows that Republicans are deeply vulnerable on those issues. MSNBC, CNN, and the broader mainstream media, however, are obsessed with the White House’s myriad scandals – because they know that a federal investigation into the American president’s potential ties to the Kremlin (and/or porn stars and/or white-collar crime) is ratings gold — while daily broadcasts reiterating the regressive implications of the GOP’s tax law and health-care plans would be anything but.

If you get your news from Democratic Twitter accounts, then you might well think that the biggest “scandal” in American politics right now is the Republican Party’s war on the middle class.

But if you get your news from cable television — or secondhand from friends and family who watch cable news — then you will think that “Russia-gate” is the Democratic Party’s central concern; because that is just about the only thing that cable news channels invite Democratic officeholders to go on television to discuss. As the Daily Beast reports:

Eager to move a message that focuses on things like minimum wage hikes and health care premiums, [Democrats] have been overtaken by a steady stream of stories of Russian meddling, porn star payoffs, and shady Trump-world figures. Ultimately, many offices and aides have come to the conclusion that they should simply give up on trying to break through on cable news at all.

“It’s impossible,” said one Senate aide, “unless you want to talk about Russia.”

… [N]umerous other aides echoed this point, sharing stories of fruitless calls and emails to bookers and abrupt cancellations on pre-existing bookings. Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said she was bumped three times from a prime-time MSNBC show due to Trump scandals.

It is not MSNBC’s job to promote the Democratic Party’s economic message. And the Mueller investigation is an important and fascinating story that’s tailor-made for television news. It would not be realistic for Democrats to expect any for-profit media company to prioritize conveying its preferred political narratives over covering the most sensational events of the day.

And yet, Republicans do get that courtesy from the nation’s most-watched cable news channel. Fox News puts the GOP’s messaging needs ahead of maximizing eyeballs: When big breaking news about the Mueller investigation reflects poorly on the Republican president, Fox lets its competitors own the day’s top story.

This puts Democrats at a profound structural disadvantage — especially in the war for the hearts and minds of working-class white voters in the deindustrializing Midwest.

A significant percentage of such voters are cross-pressured: Their class identities — and often, family history of union membership — leave them receptive to Democratic messages that paint Republicans as the party of bosses and big business. But their regional and racial identities make them similarly receptive to the GOP’s charge that Democrats as the party of condescending coastal snobs and mooching (largely nonwhite) layabouts.

Fox News promotes the latter narrative on a near-constant basis. By contrast, Rachel Maddow devotes more air time to “Trump-Russia” developments than to all other issues — let alone to those most likely to raise the class-consciousness of Obama-to-Trump voters in Macomb County.

The benefits that this gives the GOP can be gleaned from both a recent focus group with Obama-to-Trump voters conducted by Democratic consultant Stan Greenberg, and a series of interviews with marginal Trump supporters in the Rust Belt published by the Washington Post last weekend. Both items demonstrate that a class-centered critique of the Republican agenda could help Democrats win a larger share of working-class whites (especially, female ones). But they also show that cable news is making it much harder for that message to get through. Fox News perpetually poisons the Democratic brand in the minds of many white working-class voters, while MSNBC’s persistent focus on Trump’s scandals — and personal unfitness for office — leaves other Obama-to-Trumpers feeling defensive, disrespected, or else, simply like they aren’t hearing a positive case for the Democratic Party.

As Greenberg observes in his writeup of the focus group:

A healthy diet of Fox News is feeding the white working class men fending off the challenges of Trump’s opponents, including those within their own families…They continue to appreciate how he speaks his mind, unlike a typical politician.

… Trump voters complain that there is no respect for President Trump or for people like them who voted for him. One older white working class woman from Macomb recalled when she first started voting “there was so much respect for the president. And I don’t care what he did, or what he said, there was always respect. It was always ‘Mr. President.’ And now, it disgusts me.”

But this anger at the media’s disrespect of Trump, as a president, is not matched by reverence for his signature legislative achievement, as a policy.

When it comes to the Trump voters, the tax cut is not the call to arms Trump and Republican congressional leaders hope it will be. The Trump voters are constantly looking for evidence that they cast the right vote, yet the tax cut barely came up when talking about good things about Trump.

… Voters do not start the conversation about the tax cut with passionate views, but they end in a very different place with just a little information. Simply introducing a list of negative facts about the tax cut produced a powerful reaction among the African American, college graduate and younger white working class women. Many requested to take their copy home so they could use it to inform their neighbors and organize against it … With this new information in hand, the anti-Trump voters were energized and ready for a fight and the white working class Obama-Trump women were demoralized, and several even peeled away from the president.

Similarly, multiple marginal Trump voters who spoke with the Post expressed a sense of alienation or grievance at the mainstream media’s incessant coverage of Trump’s gaffes and scandals — but also, a fondness for organized labor and a belief that the economy is not organized to benefit working people.

Alas, no cable news network will ever be able to promote a progressive, working-class identity among its viewers the way that Fox News cultivates a reactionary, white one among its audience. It is quite easy for a cable network to hire news anchors who belong to the same “race” as white working-class voters, and who can give authentic-sounding voice to their racial and cultural resentments. But it is definitionally impossible for a cable news channel to feature anchors who belong to the same economic class as such Americans — and financially inadvisable for such a network to cultivate their hatred of the “one percent.” Stoking populist rage at undocumented immigrants does not threaten the pecuniary interests of a major media company’s owners; stoking populist rage at the economic elite does.

To be sure, MSNBC does engage in a bit of the latter, on occasion. And when The Ed Show was still on air, the network actually had a program ostensibly designed to appeal to the class identities of Rust Belt whites. But the channel has never focused on left-wing populist themes with the intensity and frequency that Fox News does on right-wing populist ones — and, assuming some bizarro-world, socialist Rupert Murdoch doesn’t buy the network and turn it into the Pravda of Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution,” it never will.

Democrats recognize this reality. As the Daily Beast reports, the party has given up on trying to get its message to voters over cable news, and begun encouraging its members to reach out to local outlets — or to livestream their speeches and events over social media — instead. Between these efforts, paid advertising, and retail campaigning, Democrats should be able to get their message to many of the voters they’d like to reach.

But the best way for Democrats to counter the right’s cable news advantage — especially, as it relates to white, Rust Belt voters — may be to promote local organizations that provide working people with alternative, class-centric sources of information and political education, like, say, labor unions.

The Democratic Party Has an ‘MSNBC Problem’