America faces a crisis of democracy, as the intellectual soil of the Republican Party has eroded. Authoritarian sentiments have overtaken the country’s conservative movement, which has come to realize it lacks the numbers to succeed democratically. Long-held laissez-faire conservative policies have no answers for modern problems like the climate crisis, global pandemics, monopolization, or wealth inequality. Social conservative policies on race, gender, and religion have no answers for a diverse, increasingly secular society where two incomes are required to make ends meet. Conspiracy theories have replaced policy principles as the unifying elements of the GOP, and one load-bearing pillar of our two-party system is buckling under their weight. But this crisis of democracy is exacerbated by a crisis of information.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” But the converse is also true: When the public is woefully misinformed there can be terrible consequences for democracy.
A few recent polls illustrate some shocking discrepancies between public opinion and basic reality. The Harris poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe that unemployment is nearing a 50-year high, even though the actual unemployment rate is nearing a 50-year low.
An Associated Press poll showed that Donald Trump is perceived as more corrupt than Joe Biden by only 8 percent of voters, despite the former’s lifetime reputation for real estate corruptions and multiple concurrent indictments. Whatever the knocks on Biden may be, there have been virtually no history, current evidence, or even significant whispers of personal corruption.
It is consequently unsurprising that in the latest Quinnipiac poll 51 percent of voters thought that Trump would do a better job handling a national crisis compared to 44 percent for Biden—despite the reality that Trump badly mismanaged the COVID crisis, while Biden enacted a raft of beneficial legislation and steered the country to economic recovery. Of course, as my Washington Monthly colleague Bill Scher noted, there can be a significant lag time between good economic conditions and presidents receiving credit for them. Inflation, though now tapering, has colored voters’ perceptions of the economy, but those views may change by Election Day of next year. Also, real ongoing structural economic issues—especially, the worsening housing crisis—can make people feel that their material conditions are worse than macroeconomic indicators might suggest. Still, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that a broken media environment has led to degradation of public knowledge.
Media critics such as Jay Rosen, Dan Froomkin, and Will Stancil have long argued that imbalances in the fundamental constructs of both traditional and social media are responsible for the pervasive misinformation in American society and its deleterious impact on the health of our democracy. The conservative movement maintains a large and relentless propaganda machine with a massive audience, spanning every media platform. It is dominant in most traditional media channels. Fox News usually leads the ratings in cable news. Right-wing talk and Christian radio are often the only options on the AM band. Local TV news leads with sensationalist stories about crime and danger that activate conservative instincts, and the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast group owns stations reaching over 40 percent of American households. Conservative interest groups have been rapidly buying up local newspapers around the country.
The social media situation is even worse. As Max Fisher’s recent book The Chaos Machine persuasively argues, the algorithms that drive engagement (and profits) to social media companies tend to overemphasize far-right content. Conservative groups dominate the top Facebook pages, while YouTube relentlessly drives even viewers with left-leaning profiles to right-wing, conspiratorial content. And now Elon Musk is rapidly converting X, the former Twitter, into a far-right space while alternatives such as BlueSky, Post, and Mastodon struggle to gain traction.
There is no real left-wing counterpart to this. Cable news channel MSNBC caters to a center-left audience, but its reach is much smaller than Fox News. More importantly, much of MSNBC’s programming—particularly in the daytime hours—is not partisan or ideological but neutral journalism. Explicitly progressive content in traditional media outlets is virtually nonexistent. Progressive social media content is often eclipsed by the right, and what does exist tends to lack coordination or message discipline.
What conservatives bemoan as the “liberal media” is in reality a bevy of organizations like The New York Times, National Public Radio and CNN which have general editorial slants that may veer from center-right to center-left depending on the issue, but typically attempt above all to maintain an air of balance and neutrality between opposing partisan sides. Jay Rosen calls this posture the “View from Nowhere,” and describes it as a pretense at neutral objectivity that by its very existence imposes an artificial equality between partisan perspectives that the actual facts do not support.
Trump’s outrageous lies have precipitated a minor shift in which many traditional media organizations have become more comfortable with presenting a less artificially balanced perspective on political arguments, but this is mostly specific to Trump personally. Statements from other Republican leaders and conservative organizations are still typically treated at face value, despite often being obviously misleading or false.
As commentators Will Stancil and Oliver Willis frequently point out, the media imbalance often leads to strategic errors on the part of Democratic politicians. Democrats pass bills and put out press releases hoping that doing and saying popular and effective things will reap intrinsic rewards. But when conservative media is blatantly propagandistic and traditional media is doing its best to pursue artificial balance, those rewards fail to materialize. In turn, the public remains wildly misinformed about objective realities—such as which political actors are actually working to solve problems and do popular things.
Building a more effective and unabashedly liberal media apparatus has long been a challenge, as evidenced by the ‘00s-era failure of Air America Radio to compete with conservative talk radio. More educated and open-minded audiences are inherently resistant to one-sided claims and tend to consume a more sophisticated media diet. Yet a true liberal media would enrich that diet, correcting a destructively imbalanced information environment. It’s an expensive and difficult task, but as an old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”