Extremism’s Threat to State and Local Government
This is Civic Way’s second commentary on the state of politics in America. How biased media are corrupting public discourse. How the insistence of some national leaders on relitigating the past hinders our ability to meet the future. How extremism is crippling our ability to govern, not just in DC, but in our states and localities. The first commentary introduced the threat of extremism. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- The national media is increasingly fragmented, sensational and biased
- Some national media have regressed from bias to distortions, misinformation and lies
- The extremism virus and resulting polarization are consuming our national politics
- Extremism and debilitating partisanship are spreading to states, communities and localities
- There are real opportunities for building a successful pro-democracy, pro-civility coalition
I believe in this country with all my heart and soul… I have an abiding faith in the generosity, the courage, the resolution, and the common sense of all my countrymen.
– Theodore Roosevelt
The Marriage of Media and Bias
Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Edward Murrow, as well as the Fairness Doctrine, are long gone. For those who seek objectivity, there is no one voice of reason to whom we can turn. No single balanced source of critical thought or unbiased information. No easy way to find and sort unvarnished facts.
What we do have is a frenzied, fragmented media more interested in constantly stirring controversy than solving problems. Controversy sells, compromise and progress not so much. When news and information are incomplete or unduly biased, it becomes that much harder to think for ourselves.
Media outlets—including cable TV and social media sites—quickly learned that, by catering to the basest impulses of target markets, they could bolster audiences and profits. As our politics became more nationalized, left-leaning and right-leaning media found it even easier to attract and manipulate followers. And to discredit competing outlets, fabricate threats, conjure demons and inspire allegiance.
It is no secret that left-leaning media outlets have their biases, and periodically blunder in service of those biases. Every evening, MSNBC offers unnuanced commentary about the right-wing war on truth, tolerance and democracy. And, on occasion, some MSNBC hosts go too far. Lawrence O’Donnell, for example, once had to retract a claim that Russian billionaires cosigned Trump loans. Rachel Maddow recently asserted that, while president, Trump “never encouraged Americans to get vaccinated.” [He did, but his advice was tepid.]
After Trump was elected in 2016, left-leaning news outlets like the Washington Post published some stories suggesting that Trump’s victory might not have happened but for an insidious Russian internet campaign. While the sources for such stories were later discredited, the lingering rumors about Trump’s relationship with Russia (often boosted by Trump’s own behavior) fostered the impression that Trump’s election was illegitimate.
Conservatives often complain that mainstream media coverage of ambitious liberal proposals like the Green New Deal has been less than rigorous. They aren’t wrong. Liberal media outlets have been known to subject conservative proposals (e.g., the most recent GOP tax cuts) to more scrutiny than liberal proposals. This can be especially true regarding the financing and organizational elements of liberal ideas.
Bias is not, in and of itself, the problem. Every media outlet, broadcaster and journalist have biases. The real problem arises when bias becomes dishonest. When an outlet blurs the distinction between news and commentary. [High-quality outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for example, maintain separate opinion pages.] Or when an outlet fails to quickly admit and correct reporting errors that, in all likelihood, resulted from the convergence of bias and time constraints.
We cannot expect media outlets to purge all bias from their presentation of news and opinion, but we can (and should) expect them to adhere to basic ethical standards, including honesty and fairness. And we must demand more of ourselves—not just to maintain a healthy skepticism about the news we digest, but also to aggressively challenge the opinions we read and hear, especially those we like most.
The Media’s Reckless Affair with Extremism
Former President Trump and his allies complained incessantly about the media, even popularizing the term fake newsto express their disdain. Initially, their favorite targets were a Who’s Who of centrist or liberal media outlets—ABC News, CNN, Newsweek, New York Times and Washington Post. In the aftermath of the 2020 election and nonstop sympathetic coverage from Fox News, Trump turned his tweets on his once-favorite network rebuking them for declaring the election for Biden.
To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable….
– Theodore Roosevelt
Right-wing media suffers from a far more serious affliction than political bias. Their frequent attacks on such terms as political correctness, wokeness, cancel culture and critical race theory certainly reflect their bias, but they represent more than that. They are part of a larger agenda to inflame their audience, discredit the opposition and boost ratings. They are calculated, misleading and relentless. Regrettably, their collateral damage includes making racism, sexism and intolerance respectable.
Cable TV outlets like Fox News and Newsmax have regressed from dogma to lies. Fox News has blurred the line between commentators like Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham and hard news, allowing news anchors to promote the January 6th Stop the Steal rally and echo false charges about the 2020 election. A former Fox News executive (and one of its initial architects) once said, “Fox News … [has] caused many millions of Americans … to believe things that simply are not true.”
The Wall Street Journal may occasionally publish op-eds that cull, shape and rearrange facts, but it doesn’t knowingly publish lies.
Extremism and conspiracy theories have been especially rampant on right-wing websites, social media platforms, forum boards and messaging apps like Gab, Rumble, Parler, TheDonald, MeWe, Epoch Times, Signal and Telegram. Initial reports indicate that such sites may have played a pivotal role in the planning of the Capitol Coup. Gab’s traffic, for example, leapt 40 percent on January 6th. Some right-wing forum boards and group chats circulated detailed plans and maps for breaching the US Capitol complex.
One way to understand what is happening with right-wing media is to take a closer look at one its most visible envoys, Tucker Carlson. With the benign appearance of an earnest, well-nourished (and middle-aged) altar boy, Carlson has used his top-rated perch at Fox News to become the right’s most prominent minister of propaganda. His ad hominin attacks have become as disingenuous and fluid as his facial expressions.
Carlson’s fact-free slurs seem to flow from a bottomless well. The FBI-organized Capitol Coup. Votes cast by the dead. Rigged elections. “Third World” voters. “Race hate” and the “poisonous” Black Lives Matter movement. Since 1999, when Carlson called Trump “the single most repulsive person on the planet,” he has inexorably burnished his own credentials for that very title. Bill Kristol, a prominent conservative and Carlson’s one-time mentor, now sees Carlson as a “very talented demagogue” and “dangerous.”
Carlson is indeed dangerous, the latest in a long line of disgraceful demagogues all too eager to exploit human vulnerabilities for their own ends. It is our great misfortune that he uses his gifts to fulfill his thirst for fame and hostility toward many fellow Americans. It is his shame that he continually betrays his sacred duty to his audience—that is, to respect them enough to tell them the truth.
One more thing. Carlson, and others like him, abuse public airwaves and rights for private ends. Spreading lies to inflate ratings. Callously abusing the right of free speech, shouting “fire” in a crowded arena. Inflaming and exploiting the fears of hard-working Americans. Convincing ordinary, good-hearted people to believe wild theories and lies, trash their values and betray their country.
The National Political Virus
We are witnessing a disturbing degradation in our national politics. A coarsening for sure. Recklessness in lieu of foresight. Personal insults in place of measured speech. Empty slogans instead of thoughtful ideas.
Politicians act like drivers screaming at each other from air-conditioned cars. Scorning compromise. Firing off nasty tweets before their adversaries can finish a speech. The opportunism and vulgarity are breathtaking.
Neither party has clean hands.
We’ve seen Democratic hypocrisy and vitriol. US House Speaker Pelosi retorted, “I don’t want to see him [Trump] impeached, I want to see him in prison.” US Representative Tlaib promised, “we’re gonna impeach the motherf—er [Trump!]” Democrats often accuse Republicans of racism, but not without their own secrets. Democrats decried the January 6th violence, but some downplayed the violence that occasionally accompanied the George Floyd protests.
Such vitriol and hypocrisy are probably not the best paths to an era of bipartisan action.
In 2021, Republican leaders have shown a particularly unnerving penchant for extreme partisanship:
- Once recognized as the law-and-order party, Republicans have become increasingly cavalier about the rule of law, refusing to certify (or trying to overturn) valid election results and reengineering electoral systems to suppress the votes of those they believe will oppose them
- After inciting (or failing to discourage) the Capitol assault (see Representative Mo Brooks’ outlandish appeal to January 6th protesters to “start taking down names and kicking ass”), GOP leaders have refused to assign (let alone assume) responsibility for the ensuing violence
- Shortly after Senator McConnell opined, “There’s no question—none—that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” Republican Senators (under McConnell’s direction) used the filibuster to kill a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol Coup
- More and more GOP leaders offer propaganda and slurs instead of robust conservative ideas (e.g., as Biden unveiled a new universal daycare proposal, Senator Blackburn tweeted an amusing but incendiary link to an irrelevant 1974 story about state-run Soviet nurseries)
Given the filibuster, which frequently discourages negotiation and compromise in the Senate, and the Senate Minority Leader’s well-known partisan zeal (“100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration”), bipartisanship seems unlikely at the federal level, at least for the foreseeable future. Even worse, the obsession of so many GOP leaders with relitigating the past could undermine our ability to shape the future.
The Contamination of State and Local Politics
The partisan pollution of federal politics is deeply troubling, but its impact on state and local politics may be more damaging. As extremism and partisan toxicity infect states and localities, they could undermine our faith in state and local government, arguably the last bastion of American democracy.
The kind of partisan hypocrisy that is so common in Washington DC has reared its head in some Democratic-controlled states and cities. Chicago Mayor Lightfoot leaving home to get her hair cut after issuing strict stay-at-home orders. California Governor Newsom attending a lobbyist’s birthday party at an indoor restaurant after urging citizens to stay at home. Some blue states enacting travel bans to states with anti-LGBT laws, but failing to ban state-funded travel to nations with more draconian policies.
Extreme partisanship is even more prevalent (and disciplined) in GOP-controlled states. In 2021, as The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein has written, “Republican legislators and governors have operated as if … programming a prime-time lineup at Fox News.” They have led a nationwide effort to grant dubious new rights to political allies (e.g., the right to refuse vaccines) and strip long-established rights from others (e.g., voting and teaching). They have challenged (or delayed) voter-approved ballot measures and intensified efforts to stack the electoral deck.
Most disturbingly, Republican leaders in several states have mounted a ruthless (and unprecedented) effort to discredit and overturn certified elections fairly won by Democrats. In Arizona, despite a clean February 2021 audit, Senate Republicans seized Maricopa County’s two million ballots and awarded a no-bid contract to a private firm—Cyber Ninjas—with no relevant experience to inspect those ballots. Republicans in at least four other states launched similar efforts to overturn certified elections.
According to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice, Partisan Election Review Efforts in Five States, thesepolitically-motivated examinations fail to meet even the most basic professional standards for election audits. The selected firms lack objectivity and competency. The review processes lack any semblance of rigor, transparency, documentation and security. The costs—short-term and long-term—remain unclear, but we have learned that pro-Trump donors have raised at least $1.5 million to support the process. These political hit jobs will mystify historians for years to come.
If every election continues to be … relitigated without end, even where … multiple audits have confirmed the results, there is a serious threat voters will lose faith in our democratic process and will refuse to accept results they do not like. The peaceful transfer of power, a hallmark of our democracy, could be at risk. – Brennan Center for Justice
The growing acrimony between GOP-led states and Democratic-led localities is especially worrisome. During the pandemic, fights between Republican governors and Democratic mayors over public health practices escalated. Fueled in part by anti-public health legislation, over 250 public health officials have resigned. Such skirmishes don’t just increase the divide between Republicans and Democrats, they damage the ability of state and local agencies to serve their citizens.
Ultimately, these partisan wars can erode public faith in government and, in turn, democracy. Public trust in the federal government is already low, falling from 77 percent in 1964 to 24 percent in 2021. If public trust in local government—now at 70 percent—drops appreciably, Americans could become even more discouraged than they already are. If state and local tensions continue, and public faith in state and local government plummets, the public’s loyalty to the American experiment could give way to the unpredictable brew of nihilism, anger, vengeance and violence we witnessed on January 6th, but on a much larger scale.
A New Political Force on the Horizon
It is easy to despair, but we should not overlook the possibilities for better politics. A new pro-democracy, pro-civility political movement may be forming in plain sight.
We may very well be on the precipice of a new political era, one that honors such values as mutual respect, civil discourse, constructive compromise and forward thinking. The current cycle, triggered by Reagan’s election and the end of Carter’s single term in 1980, has featured individualism, government skepticism and corporate adoration. Coupled with a looming GOP split, the end of Trump’s single term in 2020 could jumpstart a new political cycle, one far more collaborative, compassionate and progressive than the last.
Who will join this coalition?
The Republicans, Democrats and Independents who are genuine, fair-minded patriots, who believe in democracy, the rule of law, the acceptance of fair elections and accountability. Those who support science-based public health efforts, abhor the January 6th attack on the US Capitol and expect both political parties to work together. Those who once supported Trump, but care more about the nation than one man’s ego.
We should be passionate about our principles, but we shouldn’t try to win by tearing others down. – Spencer Cox, Governor (R-Utah)
How about the traditional conservatives who are alarmed by the GOP’s infatuation with extremism? Many Republicans are sickened by efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Even more are offended by the Capitol Coup and subsequent efforts to whitewash what happened. And, as GOP extremists continue their purge of moderates and independent thinkers, a strong coalition of pro-democracy Republicans like Liz Cheney, Susan Collins, Anthony Gonzalez, Adam Kinzinger, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney could emerge.
These opportunities, like most others, will come with an expiration date. Long before that day comes, we must urge our leaders to seize the moment and find the antidote to extremism—or do it ourselves. In the next essay, we will outline some promising strategies for exploiting these opportunities.