Why Democrats Are Losing
    by Todd Badmitten

Ask most political observers, and they will maintain that the Republican victories in the November 2002 elections were surprising, stunning, stupendous – truly unexpected.  In what was by many thought to be a Democratic year, losses in the Congress and State Houses around the country have shocked Democratic leaders.  Off-year elections traditionally favor the party not in the White House, so what happened?  Liberal and conservative pundits alike have floated myriad reasons for the upset Republican victory.  Of course, there are also those who maintain that the outcome should not have been surprising at all.

In fact, what is truly amazing about this year’s election is not how well Republicans did, but that they did not do even better.  Certainly, the unprecedented campaign schedule of the sitting president helped his party’s cause.  The bogeyman of international terrorism and a looming war with Iraq may have influenced swing voters to stick with the party of the president more than other off-year elections.

However, the most oft-repeated explanation of Democratic defeat blames the Democrats themselves.  They had no message, they gave voters no reason to vote for them, they failed to stand up to the president on key issues.  While it may be true that Democrats could have run a more spirited campaign, the truth is that the deck was stacked against them from the very beginning, and has been for years.  The Democrats certainly had a message – but it was repeatedly tainted, diluted, and misrepresented to the voters by the most powerful influence in American politics today:  the media.

Over the past two decades, conservative ideologues have cemented their dominance of national media outlets.  Astoundingly, over the same period, the myth of the “liberal media” has been successfully implanted into the American psyche.  It has come to the point where an obviously politically biased news network can, with a straight face, call itself “fair and balanced.”  Meanwhile, angry AM radio listeners decry the liberal leanings of Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, ignoring the fact that the corporate conglomerates they work for have a significant interest in the pursuit of right wing policies.

Some cite the end of the Fairness Doctrine in the late 1980’s as sparking the rise of right wing media dominance.  Others point to the massive centralization of media groups over the past two decades into huge conglomerates like Time Warner, General Electric, Westinghouse and Disney.  Whatever the reason, the outcome is unmistakable:  television, radio and print media have become mildly to radically biased in favor of right wing viewpoints.

Aside from the O’Reillys, Hannitys and Humes of Fox News, viewers and listeners are deluged with commentators on all networks and talk radio outlets where conservative ideology is spoon-fed to the masses.  Even in the print media, for every Molly Ivins or Paul Krugman, there are dozens the likes of Ann Coulter, Cal Thomas, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will.  Given this atmosphere, it is truly amazing that Democrats have been able to maintain their base as well as they have.

The U.S. media has developed a double-standard when covering political news.  When Al Gore was accused of using a White House telephone to solicit campaign contributions, he was excoriated in the press for months, even years.  However, how many reporters asked President Bush the cost of using Air Force One as a campaign tool for a 30-day fundraising drive in every targeted Senate race before the 2002 election?  When a few dozen Republican staffers showed up to stop the Florida recount two years ago, it was billed as a grass-roots riot and got constant air time.  However, when over 100,000 people showed up in Washington a month ago to protest a war with Iraq, the media barely mentioned it.

When pundits explain the Democrats’ defeat in the 2002 elections as being due to a lack of message, they are missing the big picture.  Democrats certainly have a message.  They have always had a message.  The problem now is that, after being distorted and besmirched by American media outlets, what little gets through to the voters is confusing, vexing, and in many cases appalling.

Centrist voters (independents, swing voters, ticket splitters) have been for the past twenty-odd years systematically conditioned by U.S. media outlets to think of Democrats in very negative terms.  Even traditionally Democratic demographic sectors have been turned away on issues such as 2nd Amendment rights, taxation, and abortion.  Thanks to the NRA (which, by the way, should stand for the National Republican Association), gun owners have been convinced that Democrats will not rest until every firearm in the world is destroyed.  Even though some Democrats (and Republicans too – James Brady worked for Reagan, remember) do campaign for stricter gun laws, the vast majority of Democrats are content to enforce the laws currently on the books.

Similarly, Democrats have been demonized as the party of taxation.  Part of the problem is the valid fear any politician has of discussing tax increases.  However, although both parties raise and lower taxes, the stigma of “tax and spend” has been applied only to Democrats.  The only real difference is marketing.  Democratic initiatives to target tax cuts to lower income individuals are constantly portrayed as picking winners and losers.  However, Republican tax proposals that nearly always favor the extremely wealthy are accepted as “economic stimulus” or “trickle down” packages.

The effect of this media bias has been to slowly erode support for the Democratic Party.  The hugely charismatic Bill Clinton was able to overcome much of this bias, which ironically drove the creation of greater and greater levels of conservative media infrastructure.  With his departure, however, Democrats were deprived of their last strong voice in the wilderness.  The less magnetic Al Gore was quickly devoured by constant media attacks on his veracity and character.  At the same time, his Republican opponent’s history of drug use, corporate scandal and suspect military service never found a headline more widely circulated than the underground press.  Even though Gore withstood the brunt to eke out a victory, various faces in the media either encouraged or stood idly by as it was ripped from his grasp by a politicized Supreme Court.

The future is bleak not just for Democrats, but also for the majority of Americans who benefit more from Democratic policies.  Control of the media has allowed right wing ideologues to not only suppress political dissent, but to manipulate voters into supporting politicians who will vote directly against their best interests.  It is possible, now that Republicans control all three branches of the federal government, that the very implementation of their agenda will snap the voting public out of their media induced stupor.  Will abortion be banned?  Will religious schools receive public funding?  Will the right to organize into a labor union be taken away?  Probably not, though expect minor variations on all these, and many more.

It is also possible that the newest medium – the internet – will be able to withstand right wing dominance and offer equal doses of conservative and liberal rhetoric.  At this point, cyberspace is the only place where liberals and conservatives find themselves on equal footing.  The rest of American infotainment, both in the press and on the airwaves, is firmly in the hands of right wing ideologues.  If it continues, it will no longer matter whether Rush Limbaugh is making it up as he goes along – we will believe it.  We’ll have to.

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