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Virginia election postmortem: Democrats can't fight Republican fear with facts

Republicans have mastered the art of hypercharging and polarizing cultural debates to win votes.
Illustration of an elephant yelling into a megaphone
Republicans understand the power of fear when it comes to voters.MSNBC; Getty Images

The shellacking Democrats took Tuesday is testament to how tough it is for the party to craft any persuasive message when competing against targeted misinformation campaigns perpetrated by Republicans — at least when the Republicans field halfway decent candidates.

You’d expect me, as a journalism professor, to defend the press, but I won’t.

But that’s only a fraction of the story of what happened in the commonwealth of Virginia.

For more than half a century, Republicans have effectively used direct communication channels (snail mail, then talk radio, then Fox News, then the internet) to identify, amplify and exploit conservative grievances — all of them real, in that the feelings beneath them are actually felt — and mostly rooted in a tangle of overlapping racial, class and cultural resentments. (Ex-GOP strategist Stuart Stevens recounts his struggle to realize this truth in his memoir, “It Was All A Lie.”)

Democrats, during this same 50-year period, have not come close to building this type of mass persuasion engine. One reason is that Democrats tacitly believe the news media, ostensibly dedicated to communicating truths, will do this for them. The assumption is that Republicans always operate in bad faith and an aggressive media would always call them out, and the collision of media versus anti-media (and that’s what the GOP propaganda machine is, an anti-media machine) will weaken the Republicans' structural advantages.

Because bad information spreads too rapidly, and facts and policy and good information don’t stick, this doesn’t happen. The Democrats then conclude that the fundamental problem is the press not properly doing its job.

Now, you’d expect me, as a journalism professor, to defend the press, but I won’t. I’ll cop to massive capacity deficits internal to journalism’s culture. But the Democratic narrative is inaccurate in ways that lead the party’s billionaires to fund the wrong projects: remedies that are worse than the disease.

Many Democrats seem unaware that, since 2016, the Republican anti-media machine has grown significantly more powerful, more adept at deciding on a narrative — what’s “good,” what’s “bad,” — and then beating it like a drum, in perfect synchronicity, across dozens of platforms.

Every Republican politician. Every active Republican creator. Every Republican influencer. Every pundit. They all get their cues from a few hyperactive sources, and then they ground pound the message relentlessly and with religious zeal.

The problem here is not that the average suburban swing voter instantly falls for this. It’s not as if parents in Virginia woke up one morning, read a headline on Breitbart about critical race theory, and then decided, en masse, to support the candidate whose ads feature barely concealed racial appeals.

The Democratic narrative is inaccurate in ways that lead the party’s billionaires to fund the wrong projects: remedies that are worse than the disease.

The process is more subtle. You’re a parent who has spent a year dealing with the trauma of pandemic-related school closures. You really, really want normality. That’s your emotional ask of politicians.

For the purpose of this argument, let’s make you, this fictional parent, a white person. You hear some noise about “the left” teaching some fairly novel concepts about race, and it might raise an eyebrow, but really you just want to feel good about sending your kids to school, eventually without masks, vaccinated, safe. You want an off-ramp.

But then you go to work, and your colleague mentions that same weird fuzzy thing. And then, you check your Facebook feed, and there’s a link to Dan Bongino’s debate with a liberal about CRT. And here, you’re a little confused. Democrats — the party you voted for last time — are telling you that nothing radical is happening; that Donald Trump (whom you detest) is spreading lies to keep power and that, really, schools are fine and there’s nothing to worry about.

Then Democrat Terry McAuliffe, trying to be even keeled, says, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” A moment later, Glenn Youngkin says that “parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” And then McAuliffe says you can’t trust Youngkin because he’s Donald Trump.

Intuitively, you don’t trust the Democrats here. You wish Trump would go away, but you know, for a fact, that Youngkin is literally in fact a different person than Trump. As in, they are two distinct human beings. And you’re not stupid. Youngkin is a Republican. You’re an independent. He has to cater to his base. He’s walking a wire, but he’s really not Trump. He doesn’t sound like Trump. In fact, he sounds a lot smarter and says some sensible things.

So you go back online. And you start reading about actual things that have happened in schools. Some of them make you uncomfortable, as a white person, as a parent of a white kid, if you’re being honest with yourself. Either way, you’re uncomfortable. (This is the point.)

And yeah, you’ll read a Washington Post fact check or two, but then you remember how awful and angry you were when schools closed a year ago, and something seems off about the Democrats, as if the Democrats can’t figure out what they want to say to you, about your concerns about the schools.

And it’s this ambiguity — a liminal region where you do know some facts, but you also really need things from politicians that they aren’t giving you. And primal fears about rapid cultural change resurface, and you suspect you’re being condescended to by one of the two parties.

This is where Republicans thrive. This is where the network effects enabled by Facebook dominate narratives, and this is where Democrats fail. This is also where Democrats want the media to intervene, somehow, or to blanket the airwaves with a million fact checks funded by Democrats, or persuade you that you’re a rube who fell for a disinformation campaign. Again: The hard part for Democrats is that voters often do know the facts that Democrats want them to know.

From here, you, a white independent who is not a reliable Democrat, can go one of two ways. In Virginia, we saw where most went. MSNBC’s Ja’han Jones calls it “white ignorance.” I’d modify it to “white diffidence,” enabled by Democratic tetchiness. Did the Democrats have a unifying message on race, on education, on the pandemic? Did congressional Democrats pass wildly popular prescription drug reform bills or paid family leave or a climate change plan, as Democrats promised they would?

The point here is not that the information backwaters we swim in are due for a thorough chlorine cleansing. (Of course, they are.) Likewise, Republicans absolutely hypercharge and polarize cultural debates, and use the unique features of how we communicate today to take advantage of, and add weight to, deep anxieties. It is also true that the ramifications of this deliberate gaming fall onto the shoulders of society’s least powerful and most vulnerable. It is unfair and exasperating, but it’s a rough reality that won’t go away.

Democrats operate daily in an asymmetric media and communication environment. It’s just not the simple asymmetrical environment that most picture. And it’s not really about misinformation itself. It’s more primal. Not always, but often enough, Democrats want to fight on facts; Republicans win on fears. Real fears. Often, ugly fears. But fears that Democrats are often unwilling to confront with anything other than a dry recitation of the facts and a nebulous appeal to “not fall” for the other side’s tactics.