Ira Katznelson serves up a satisfyingly multi-course definition of representative democracy. It requires, among other things, “ample and equal opportunities for participation,” electoral competition, and institutions for the “formation of public opinion”—including “opportunities for citizens to gain enlightened policy understanding and form the policy agenda.” And it requires “strong barriers between unequal income and wealth, on the one side, and equal citizenship, on the other.”
So how is representative democracy doing? Poorly.
Voluntary participation is down: 36.4 percent of eligible voters turned out in the 2014 off-year elections, the lowest total since World War II. Electoral competition is down: Cook Political Report lists only 31 of the 435 House races upcoming in 2016 as “competitive.” Incumbents won 96 percent of the time in 2014, despite Congress’s 11 percent approval rating overall.
The right-wing media play a distinct role in democracy's crisis.
A major reason is partisan gerrymandering, practiced with particular aggression by Republican-controlled legislatures. For example, in 2011 Barack Obama won Pennsylvania by 4.5 points, but the state’s congressional delegation includes four Democrats and thirteen Republicans, and not a single seat changed party occupancy in 2014. This was a deliberate project of the Republican right: as a Texas political operative close to Tom Delay boasted of their redistricting work following the 2000 census, “This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.”
Another deliberate project of the Republican right has been increasing what we might call involuntary nonparticipation: see Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2015) for an up-to-date account of a now-familiar story; conservatives’ guerrilla war to disenfranchise Democratic voting blocks.
Finally there is political economy—the role of money. Here I’d point to the careful studies of political influence conducted by political sciences Benjamin Paige and Marin Gilens, who conclude that since “policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans . . . America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
And so, a crisis. Each of its aspects has complex causes and competing explanations. The unique one I have to contribute involves political media.
Practically speaking, in America, there are two major kinds: a partisan right-wing media and a nonpartisan "mainstream" media. (There is also a partisan left-wing media, too weak to make much of a difference.) It should no longer be controversial—it is embpirically verifiable—that American politics is asymmetrically polarized to the right, i.e., Republicans have moved farther to the right than Democrats have to the left. Right-wing media—in distorting one of Katznelson's key components of healthy representative democracy, "oppportunities for citizens to gain enlightened plicy understanding and form the policy agenda"—plays a direct role. A new study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center argues convincingly that this relatively new media formation, more than the institutions of representative democracy, now sets the agenda for the Republican Party.
It is a story of incentives: media figures most adept at inducing panic get the highest ratings. This in turn encourages Republican politicians already inclined toward anti-democratic practices such as undercutting economic redistribution, disenfranchising politically threatening populations, and working to enervate the faith of the citizenry in government. The title of the study quotes a retired Republican congressman who explains the role of conservative media: “They Don’t Give a Damn About Governing.” That, it should go without saying, represents a profound challenge to the fragile project of legitimizing representative democracy. I would be fascinated to learn how Katznelson theorizes Fox News et al. as they relate to the sort of authoritarian nationalist project—or “ersatz” democracy—he identifies historically with Juan Perón and, more recently, the government of Hungary.
But here is the greater, and subtler, challenge. The author of the Shorenstein study, Jackie Calmes, has covered politics for the New York Times since 1984. Remarkably, in an interview she admits she hardly knew anything about the right wing before beginning her research as a Shorenstein fellow. This is shocking but not surprising. Success in mainstream journalism demands mastering styles of thought and writing that give equal weight to “both sides” in creating political reality. These styles are thus almost purpose-built to fail in analyzing asymmetrical polarization. Journalists must pretend that each side is equally abusive and equally responsible for the crisis of democracy.
If representative democracy demands what Katznelson, quoting Dahl, identifies as an “underlying consensus on policy . . . among a predominant portion of the politically active members,” then we need to understand not just how right-wing media has destroyed the possibility of that consensus. We also need to grasp how the fecklessness of a “balance”-obsessed mainstream media has abetted them.