It Turns Out People Like It When You Do Popular Things

Biden is simply pursuing a well-liked policy agenda—and he’s being rewarded for it as a matter of public opinion.

For decades most American journalists have embraced what media critics like Jay Rosen call the “view from nowhere” and the “refuge seeking” of false objectivity. The default position has been that both parties are extremist centrifugal actors in politics veering away from a “common sense” center, and that both sides lie and dissemble to achieve their goals. Thus the role of journalists is supposed to be to treat the outside edges of both parties with skepticism and disdain, to lionize centrists who break with their partisan allies, and to treat all political conflict as game in which both sides use artifice to jockey for position.

This approach has been catastrophic for public discourse in an age of asymmetric polarization. The Republican Party and the conservative movement more broadly are far more dishonest in their rhetoric than their liberal opponents; their policy positions are largely flatly disproven and disregard clear scientific consensus; and their tactics are far more extremist, dangerous to democracy and morally indefensible. Continuing to maintain a sense of false “balance” in this context does a disservice to readers and viewers, abandoning what is actually true about public policy and the practice of politics in favor of a narrative that is comfortably convenient to journalists themselves. It is easier to write stories that take quotes from both sides as credible than to come down in favor of either position by referencing what is actually true, and it theoretically dodges accusations of bias (though conservatives constantly level the accusation regardless.)

But perhaps nowhere is it more damaging than in misconstruing popular opinion and the potential political effects of taking popular stances that fall outside of centrist elite consensus. In the standard “view from nowhere” model, the centrist position between the two parties is naturally both the most popular and the most responsible because it, by definition, falls the farthest from the “extremes.” In reality, however, the most popular positions fall well to the left of center–sometimes well to the left of the center of the Democratic Party, much less the actual political center. One of the most inconvenient realities for centrists is that “radical” left policies tend to be extremely popular. Put in the terms of personality politics, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ positions are far more popular than Joe Manchin’s or Kyrsten Sinema’s.

What disguises this reality is the ability of conservative media organs to distort and lie about any policy–be it center-left or leftist–by simply lying about it and portraying it in racialized or gendered terms that inflame the bigotries of the conservative base. Thus, both Obamacare and Medicare for All can equally be portrayed as a Communist attack on American freedom, an evil plot that will steal tax dollars and Medicare benefits from (largely white) older Americans outside of cities and deliver unearned goodies to the less worthy Others. Fox News audiences will buy into it–all the more so if the proponent of the policy is a woman or a person of color or both–and Fox News audiences will lap it up alongside their pastor’s sermons as if it were God’s Truth.

But that doesn’t make the reality of the left policy positions any less popular. Thus, Obamacare could be popular in Kentucky as long as the state government pretended it wasn’t [wink wink] ObamaCare. Because the actual provisions of the Affordable Care Act were always popular. And the provisions of Medicare for All are even more so. People want universal healthcare, and they want rich corporations to help pay for it.

Which brings us to the Biden Administration. Conservatives are flummoxed at how to attack Joe Biden, and genuinely confused as to how Biden could remain popular in spite of pursuing a policy platform that has largely surprised and pleased most of the left wing of the Democratic Party on most issues.

The reality is that Biden is simply pursuing a popular policy agenda–one far more popular than Trump ever pursued—and is being rewarded for it as a matter of public opinion:

As President Joe Biden nears his 100th day in office, slightly more than half of Americans say they approve of his job performance. Biden gets his highest marks on handling the Covid-19 pandemic and his lowest on the situation at the southern border.

Those are the results of a new national NBC News poll, which also found a public that’s largely supportive of Biden’s top legislative priorities; more optimistic about defeating the pandemic; and more bullish about the country’s direction than it was back in January.

“What we don’t know is if this is part of a 100-day honeymoon or something more durable and lasting for the Biden-Harris administration,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

“What we do know is that Joe Biden’s presidency is meeting the times,” Horwitt added.

Biden’s 14-point approval rating advantage is remarkable in an era of such dramatic polarization. Part of it is that it’s harder for conservative media charlatans to treat the familiar Biden as something “other” to make their base despise him–which says a lot about the conservative base and none of it good. But it’s due in large part to large public agreement with Biden’s left-leaning on most issues, including large-scale infrastructure and COVID relief:

The NBC News poll also found that Biden’s top legislative priorities are fairly popular with the American public.

Forty-six percent of Americans say the Covid-19 relief bill he signed into law in March is a good idea, versus 25 percent who call it a bad idea, with another 26 percent who don’t have an opinion.

And 59 percent say his infrastructure plan — which would upgrade roads and bridges, expand broadband access and pay to care for the elderly and disabled — is a good idea, while 21 percent disagree; 19 percent don’t have an opinion.

By party, 87 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans support Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Biden’s embrace of what Republicans call “extreme” left politics isn’t damaging his popularity because those positions are in fact very popular. This presents a serious challenge for the false objectivity of “both sides” American journalism. But perhaps it’s time that journalists simply reported what is true: left policies match current scientific consensus on everything from cannabis to climate change; left policies are very popular both in the abstract and in reality; and conservative objections usually fail to meet basic standards of objective truth.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.