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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Metzgar: How Polarized Are We?

The following article by Jack Metzgar, is cross-posted from Working-class Perspectives:

When I talk with relatives who are not only Trump voters but Trump enthusiasts, I feel pretty damned polarized – especially when I lose my temper and find myself saying some of the things my tribe often hatefully says about theirs.  But as long as we don’t talk about abortion or gun control and tippy-toe carefully around immigration, we share a lot of common ground on a wide range of economic justice issues.  This broad agreement is reflected in survey research that almost never gets reported in the mainstream media.

Worse, that media seems completely unaware of any common ground.

One night during the impeachment trial coverage on MSNBC, for example, as the talking heads were marveling at polling results that showed more than 70% of people supported Democrats’ demands for new evidence and witnesses, Brian Williams quipped that this was astounding in a country that can’t agree that today is Thursday and tomorrow will be Friday.

The polarization around Trump is real, both intellectually and emotionally, but there are a whole bunch of people – not just the Russians and Trump – who have vested interests in keeping us ignorant of how much we agree with each other on economic justice.  It is, in fact, not at all unusual for some 70% of Americans to agree on:

  • Reducing inequality by creating a 2% wealth tax (70%)
  • Reducing poverty by “ensuring that all families have access to basic living standards such as health care, food, and housing if their wages are too low.” (72%)
  • Creating good jobs by “investing $1 trillion in our nation’s infrastructure, including . . . expanded production of clean energy.” (78%)
  • Capping prices on prescription drugs (81%), and
  • Allowing “people who don’t get health insurance through their employer to buy health insurance from a public plan.” (81%)

Numerous other economic policies gain support in the 60-per cent range, including increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit (60%), the Child Care Tax Credit (65%), “food assistance benefits (62%),” and the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (61%).  Even non-Hispanic whites without bachelor’s degrees —  the so-called white working class — support “higher taxes on the wealthy” (74%), “government provided health care” (83%), and “equal pay for men & women” (86%).

So why do our journalists not seem to know about these areas of broad agreement among us?  One answer might be that they, and especially cable news outlets, have a vested interest in reporting conflict rather than consensus.  Conflict “draws eyeballs,” after all.  Then, too, media owners don’t usually pressure journalists to focus more on tax fairness or on spending government money to intervene in failed markets.

Christopher Martin in No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class has another, more complex but complementary, analysis.

Martin documents how media (mostly newspapers then) began changing business models in the 1970s, moving away from attracting a mass audience and toward focusing more strictly on an upscale, more affluent audience.  Media managers thought advertisers would pay more to reach this narrower audience, and they were right.  Martin then analyzes the impact this had on content.  One of his most telling examples involves transit strikes. For a mass audience prior to the ‘70s, stories focused on the strikers, their issues, and their struggles to get by. A decade or two later, when papers were trying to attract a more upscale audience, stories focused on commuters, their difficulties, and how they felt about the transit strikers.  Martin argues that as working-class readers no longer saw themselves, their lives, and their problems reflected in the media, a vacuum was created that was filled by Fox News and other conservative media, which targeted working-class whites.

Martin’s analysis is compelling, but he pays insufficient attention to how this narrow class focus affects educated middle-class professionals, both in media and in their chosen audience.  For one thing, it encourages the educated middle class to think they are much larger and more “normal” than they are.  They tend to believe that most people have college educations, when only about a third  do. They think poor people are a fairly small group who do not work, when 44% of those who work qualify as “low-wage” with median annual wages of $18,000. They also assume that most people have decent working conditions and reasonably fair bosses like they do, when working conditions have been deteriorating for the majority of workers for decades now (see The Big Squeeze and On the Clock).  Journalists might know these facts, but as Martin suggests, they are also aware that their audience does not know them and that it might overly complicate a story to include such details.

The result is that our mainstream media orchestrates a process that allows the educated middle class to talk among themselves, punctuated by commercials for luxury cars and household goods that are beyond the reach of most Americans.  Though other forces are at work as well, this media environment nurtures what Sherry Linkon and John Russo have called a “politics of resentment” focused primarily on elites – a class resentment that, for many whites, reflects anger that the elites “coddle” racial minorities and immigrants.

Despite the media’s investment in the idea of polarization, the 2020 Democratic candidates for president seem well aware that voters actually agree on many issues around economic justice, even those candidates who distance themselves from the Party’s left wing.  But they are campaigning in a media environment that takes its educated middle-classness so for granted that it highlights how inappropriate it is for the President to say “bullshit” in public while failing to note that that same President gave himself an $11 million tax cut.  Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are identified as “far left” in this environment not only because they insist on framing their arguments in terms of class conflict – even though the classes tend to be the 99% versus the 1% — but also because they are articulating a broadly popular message and set of policies that media professionals cannot imagine being popular among the narrow class audience they envision as much bigger than it is.

There is a huge potential for political unity around pursuing economic justice.  A different study with a large enough sample to break out differences among the white, black, and Hispanic working-classes (as defined by education) found a surprising unity among them on eight “economic populist” issues similar to those above.  But that same study found that college-educated folks of all colors had views that were pretty similar. That should encourage the Democratic Party to listen to its left wing, no matter who wins the nomination. Hopefully, Sanders and Warren can convince the media to pay attention to a political universe that is not nearly as polarized on issues of economic justice as it is on who does and does not say bullshit.

One comment on “Metzgar: How Polarized Are We?

  1. Victor on

    So basically if Democrat moderates stopped validating Republican talking points in bad faith with the sole purpose of winning the nomination, maybe the party could present this as a unified message. Instead the polarization is now part of the Democrat primaries.


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