early and often

The Media Did Not Trick Voters Into Disliking Inflation

Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

The Republican Party’s 2024 front-runner is an unabashed authoritarian who tried to nullify the results of America’s last presidential election by, among other things, egging on an insurrectionary mob that threatened to hang his own vice-president.

A majority of the GOP’s 2022 candidates for federal and state-level offices have affirmed that mob’s worldview by casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. These include the party’s nominees for secretary of state in the Electoral College battlegrounds of Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada. Should these candidates win, they would be in prime position to subvert Joe Biden’s reelection and throw the race to his opponent.

All this makes November’s midterm an extraordinary election. In a meaningful sense, democracy itself is on the ballot.

And yet, polls paint a picture of a largely ordinary race.

In a normal midterm, one would expect the party in power to lose seats in Congress. This has happened in nearly every midterm election in U.S. history, possibly because supporters of the in-power party get complacent, while swing voters favor divided government.

Meanwhile, in a context of rising prices and falling real wages, one would expect voters to punish the in-power party.

As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives Republicans an 81 percent chance of taking the House. Democrats’ prospects for keeping the Senate, meanwhile, are surprisingly favorable: Despite widespread disapproval of Joe Biden and the economy, Democrats are narrowly favored to retain a majority in the upper chamber.

This suggests that the GOP might be paying a penalty for its flirtations with authoritarian rule. But if so, the penalty is small. In polls, voters consistently name inflation as their top concern. And support for Democrats appears to rise and fall with the price of gasoline; when pain at the pump goes up, Democratic vote-share goes down.

The open conspiracy against democratic government in the U.S. troubles voters much less than the cost of living.  When Gallup asked voters to name America’s most important problem in September, only 4 percent mentioned threats to its democracy.

This has inspired an understandable yet ironic genre of commentary: The denunciation of the voting public, in the name of democracy.

As The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols tweeted over the weekend, “The United States is facing the greatest danger to its constitutional system since at least the 1950s, if not the *18*50s, and millions of people are like: Yeah, but gas, man.”

CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski had little sympathy for Nichols’ sentiment:

Photo: @KFILE/Twitter

Kaczynski’s tweet consists of statements of objective fact combined with an opinion so banal as to be almost inarguable: Telling people who are concerned about rising fuel costs that their priorities are myopic and dumb is not an effective way of persuading them to support your preferred party. One might deem these remarks a bit scoldy. After all, Tom Nichols is not a Democratic operative — and what is Twitter for if not slightly counterproductive expressions of political despair? But Kaczynski’s comment was hardly incendiary.

Nevertheless, it provoked considerable outrage, including from several eminent progressive thinkers whom I admire. The economist Dean Baker replied, “It really takes some gall for the media to tell us that an economy with 3.5 percent unemployment is a disaster.” The New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones called the tweet “highly problematic,” argued that the “very core of self governance has to be more important than inflation,” and suggested that Kaczynski’s comment exemplified a widespread failure among journalists to take the GOP’s threat to democracy seriously.

“People were excessively disagreeable on Twitter” isn’t a notable development. But I think the fracas over Kaczynski’s tweet reflects an analysis of the Democratic Party’s political challenges that is both flawed and influential. Specifically, some Democrats attribute the electorate’s (arguably) misplaced priorities to the failings of the mainstream media. In their view, widespread frustration with the economy is largely a byproduct of media coverage rather than objective conditions. And the electorate’s complacency about creeping authoritarianism is an artifact of the media’s normalization of the GOP.

There is something to this critique. All news media has a negativity bias. And mainstream outlets have not devoted much attention to the merits of the Biden economy. Two and a half years after the 2008 crash, unemployment remained well above 8 percent; two and a half years after the COVID crash, unemployment is at 3.5 percent. More basically, the press has done a poor job of contextualizing today’s inflation. The cause of contemporary economic dysfunction is not primarily Biden’s economic mismanagement, even if one stipulates, for the sake of argument, that the American Rescue Plan was excessively large. Rather, the cause of our economic difficulties is a prolonged pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans, disabled many others, forced factory closures, bankrupted many small businesses, and triggered a sudden shift in the structure of consumer demand. We could have been paid for those costs through high unemployment. Instead, we are paying them through elevated prices. One can debate whether the Biden administration struck the right balance between full employment and price stability. But they were dealt a difficult hand, and were likely to preside over economic discontent no matter how they chose to play it. At the same time, cable news has done far more to spotlight the Democrats’ failure to reduce inflation than to inform the public of the GOP’s (heinously unpopular) plans for restoring price stability.

Separately, mainstream news outlets aim to reach the broadest possible audience. And in a country closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, this often compels such outlets to elide the reality that only one of America’s major parties is committed to the basic tenets of liberal democracy.

But none of this means that CNN and the New York Times boast primary responsibility for the electorate’s frustration with the economy or its complacency about the threat to U.S. democracy.

When the prices of food and energy rise faster than wages, popular discontent is almost invariably the result. And for obvious reasons. People do not like it when their standard of living falls. Many ordinary Americans operate on tight budgets, which can be easily busted by an unexpected increase in costs. For them, inflation translates into immediate deprivation; it means canceled vacations, or smaller and less healthy meals, or falling behind on savings, or delayed retirement, or forgoing necessary medical treatments, or a million other cutbacks that degrade their quality of life. At the same time, rising interest rates have effectively locked many out of the housing market.

Voters do not need CNN to tell them that prices have gone up since Biden took office. They are reminded of that fact every time they drive past a gas station or check out at the grocery store. Alas, the fact that Biden’s policies have helped to avert high unemployment is less readily apparent to voters. There are probably millions of workers in the U.S. who would not have a job today if it weren’t for Democratic policies. But we do not know exactly who those workers are, and neither do they. People are generally more inclined to attribute their success in securing a job to their own personal efforts than to the government’s calibration of macroeconomic policy. By contrast, consumers experience rising prices as a phenomenon wholly external to themselves, and are thus more liable to attribute them to economic mismanagement.

Even if the government’s role in creating jobs were more readily apparent, inflation would remain more politically salient than unemployment due to sheer force of numbers: At the height of the COVID recession, only a small minority of the American public was involuntarily unemployed. By contrast, virtually every American is negatively impacted by rising prices.

Meanwhile, the public’s failure to recognize the GOP’s abnormality does not derive from the mainstream media alone. Rather, there is also the sociological reality that swing voters typically have many friends and family members who are committed Republicans. Their experience therefore tells them that reasonable people can support the GOP, and thus, that it’s a fairly ordinary conservative party. Many such voters also live in states where the GOP’s control of government has not impinged much on their daily lives. For politically inattentive, middle-class voters, it can seem like little of substance changes when Democrats and Republicans trade power. Certainly, for them, living under Republican governance does not feel analogous to life in an authoritarian country. Experience therefore tells them that the GOP poses no exceptional threat to their political freedom.

The mainstream media’s power to override these intuitions is limited. This was perhaps best demonstrated by the impeachment sagas of the Trump era. The mainstream press may undersell the pathologies of the GOP as a party. But its coverage of Donald Trump himself was overwhelmingly (and unprecedentedly) negative. The scandals for which Trump was impeached received wall-to-wall attention on CNN and MSNBC, and in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Yet among independent voters, support for removing Trump from office never exceeded 43 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. In 2019, the Democratic data firm Civis Analytics tested 120 different messages in a randomized control trial featuring 4 million respondents. It found that the single worst performing message — which is to say, the one that most reduced Democratic support among swing voters exposed to it — was a call for Donald Trump’s impeachment. This suggests that swing voters’ aversion to seeing Trump’s GOP as an anomalous party whose disempowerment requires a suspension of ordinary politics is rooted in factors deeper than mainstream news coverage.

Finally, and most concerning, more than one-third of the U.S. public evinces some sympathy for authoritarian rule. In the World Values Survey, 37 percent of U.S. respondents say that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections” would be “very good” or “fairly good.” And this attitude is more widespread among less educated and lower-income voters.

Put all this together — then add in the existence of a vast conservative media ecosystem that includes the nation’s most popular cable news network and talk-radio shows — and one would expect many swing voters to worry more about inflation than Republican authoritarianism, irrespective of the mainstream media’s coverage decisions.

There’s nothing wrong with Democrats trying to pressure the mainstream media into making coverage decisions more favorable for their party. After all, in many cases, such adjustments would also make mainstream coverage more accurate. And “working the refs” is a time-honored political tradition.

But the challenge that Nichols spotlighted — of swing voters’ relative indifference to the GOP’s authoritarianism — cannot be nullified by editorial decisions at CNN or the New York Times. It is not entirely rational for voters to protest inflation by supporting an authoritarian opposition party that wants to restore price stability by cutting social programs those voters revere. But it also isn’t altogether unreasonable for Americans desperate for a change in economic conditions to vote for a change in political leadership.

In any case, whatever one makes of the public’s priorities, parties flout them at their own peril. In practice, a key pillar of any agenda for preserving democracy in the U.S. must be delivering material conditions that will cause voters to support the pro-democracy party. In hindsight, the Biden administration probably should have done more to increase America’s energy supply and refinery capacity, whether through the American Rescue Plan or other measures. In an ideal world, Democrats might launch publicly owned oil refineries that could operate at cost, without having to worry about generating profits for shareholders. Putting more of America’s refining capacity into public hands would also theoretically make it easier for the government to rapidly scale back the sector when the electric vehicle revolution reaches maturity.

Biden probably will not have a nationalized refinery industry at his disposal in the coming years. But he will need to use whatever tools he does have to address the electorate’s material concerns. Democrats must satisfy voters’ priorities — rather than lamenting them — if they wish to save American democracy from itself.

The Media Did Not Trick Voters Into Disliking Inflation