I am delighted to be presenting at the New Agendas Series Conference, on April 19-21, 2018 at Moody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin. I will be presenting a paper co-authored with Prof. Robert Entman entitled ‘The Democratic Elite: Inequality and Communication Failure in 2016’, which we plan to publish as an upcoming book chapter. Thanks to Prof. Sharon Jarvis for organizing what looks to be a great conference! The abstract follows:
The Democratic Elite: Inequality and Communication Failure in 2016
Emma L Briant, University of Essex
Robert M Entman, George Washington University
The campaign of 2016 saw a distinct alignment of powerful elites shifting power on the right of US politics (Meyer, 2017). Wealthy elites like the Koch and Mercer families advanced parallel and complementary strategies and messages aligned to empower the far right and their ‘establishment’ apologists. Trump and the Republican Party identified a transformative moment and opportunistically sought to divert the resentment produced by growing inequality and economic pain toward migrant and minority scapegoats, using populist tactics. Events during election 2016 are complex; several official investigations are now probing: whether the Russian Government were involved in trying to influence the US Election Campaign (Holton & Faulconbridge, 2017); as well as the use of data by Cambridge Analytica, a Mercer-affiliated firm that worked on Trump’s campaign, their outreach to Julian Assange (Ballhaus and Bykowicz, 2017; Briant & Wanlass, forthcoming 2018); and possible connections also to Brexit (Cadwalladr, 2017). Yet, we argue a crucial factor was how elite Democrats had become complacent and isolated from tensions that their economic policies helped to create. They failed to develop a responsive strategy for what turned out to be a pivotal moment in history. Trump in 2016 was able to extend structural advantages available to Republicans to ensure stronger framing targeted at the right audiences. He maintained sufficient ideological coherence within key areas and over the dominant political-ideological culture to hold and extend the GOP base to the right. This allowed Trump ultimately to leverage public support or acquiescence on policies that actually violate majority public opinion even among those who voted for him. Yet, just as important, we argue Trump was able to exploit the disorganized messaging of the Clinton campaign, in many ways a culmination of the Democratic Party’s longstanding communication deficiencies.
Research shows that the best solutions for inequality involve taxes on the rich, strengthened regulatory oversight of an increasingly concentrated economic market, and government investment in safety net, infrastructure and human capital programs (Hacker and Pierson 2016). This approach once enjoyed bipartisan support, but the public debate has since shifted sharply to the right. Political classes and media took a free market turn, ushering in policies hostile to the “Mixed Economy” approach that made America wealthy from the 1940s to the 1970s. In its place came what many scholars (but not American politicians or media) call the neoliberal consensus on policies that emphasize small government and reliance on deregulated private enterprise (Crouch, 2008; Harvey, 2005; Thorsen, 2009). Neoliberalism gained traction in part through Democratic elites’ compromising with Republican free market fundamentalism in hopes of maximizing electability by deflecting any hint of the dreaded “big government.” Democrats, most prominently Bill Clinton, believed this the only strategy for electoral success. Yet not only do small government policies run counter to most public preferences for government operations (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2015). As Hacker and Pierson (2016) show, they also damage the economic interests and emotional well-being of most Americans.
This chapter presents early evidence from a larger book project ‘What’s Wrong with the Democrats? Media Bias, Inequality and the Rise of Donald Trump’ (forthcoming). In the book we show how with limited political debate, media contributed to the problem. They repeated and reinforced the small government, deregulation and ‘free trade’ economic narrative, failing to fully question growing economic inequality, job losses and miriad social impacts. Mainstream media’s biases play an important role in these political dynamics, not bias as commonly argued favoring liberal policies or Democrats against conservative or Republicans, but neoliberal biases: patterns of journalistic decision-making that promote policies and actors attacking the legitimacy of the mixed economy (aka “big government”). We illustrate this here by examining how the problem of inequality is discussed in media coverage. This bias combined with Democrats’ unwillingness or inability to disentangle themselves from Wall Street money has rendered them incapable of making inequality a top priority or forming – and communicating – a strategy that addresses the country’s frustration and desire for change.
This also leaves Democrats vulnerable. The media-savvy right in 2016 was well-prepared to channel Americans’ rising anxiety and anti-establishment feeling through new media echo chambers that propelled right-wing extremism to extraordinary gains. As in most campaigns since 1988, Democrats nominated highly educated strivers lacking the common touch (Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and in some respects, Obama), Republicans offered elite candidates in such a way that they appear in tune with the ordinary person— cynically building their non-elite brand by presenting them as people that “working folks” will “want to have a beer with”. Indeed as we will show, Republicans have co-opted the very concepts of “elite” and “elitist” which are now far more frequently associated in media discourse and the public mind with “liberal” than with “conservative” or “corporate”. Rather than appearing to challenge the corporate elites who have benefitted by far the most from neoliberalism, our data show, Democrats found themselves widely framed as the “elitist” party. We argue that the neoliberal compromise has hindered the Democrats’ capacity to press for policies that address economic inequality and demonstrate that 2016 provides an effective case study of how these conditions shape the language Democrats use and damage their communication with ordinary Americans. They were thus deeply culpable in the rise of the extreme right cabal that guided and funded Donald Trump’s campaign.
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