This week on CounterSpin: The midterm tidal wave. As it stands, and as you’ve no doubt heard by now, Republicans have retaken the House and picked up seats in the Senate. The corporate media consensus is pretty clear: Voters wanted to send a message to Barack Obama and the Democrats, and that message is something along the lines of, “You went too far, you tried to do too much.” Which fits perfectly with the standard media line on the Democrats needing to move to the right. Does the actual vote match up to the post-election media spin? We’ll talk it over with FAIR’s Jim Naureckas.
Also on CounterSpin today: Widespread warnings from conservative groups that vote fraud might blight Tuesday’s election turned out to be unwarranted as reports of actual vote fraud were, as usual, extremely rare. But do the right’s vote fraud campaigns have another motive? And what is the history of such campaigns? We’ll talk to Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies.
All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.
—Voters unsurprisingly named the economy as their top issue in this election. So it was funny to see how some media outlets covered it in the run-up to the elections. Fareed Zakaria’s October 30 primetime CNN special was called Restoring the American Dream. He kicked things off with a statement that rang true enough, that a large number of Americans are worried about what looks like a “new world that squeezes the middle class family, pressures the American wage, and endangers the American dream.” OK. Then Zakaria declared that in discussing such issues, “Many complain we don’t hear enough from businessmen.” And that presumably was Zakaria’s rationale for a discussion of what’s best for U.S. workers that consisted of four CEOs.
Not that the conversation wasn’t revealing in its own way. The business leaders frankly acknowledged that they would be essentially hiring as few U.S. workers as possible—”we will not give up the productivity we have gained through this period” was how one put it—and they shared an actual chuckle about how “low cost labor” among other things contributes to that “leanness.” As for that American dream business, the solution for workers appeared to be upgrading your skills and a “can-do” attitude. In a closing note, Zakaria added that it’s “never too late to learn another language.” And also, he said, math is important. So Zakaria gave us the views of what the bosses think workers should be doing—hopefully American workers were taking notes. How about next week Zakaria try talking to some… I don’t know… actual workers?
—Some election coverage sought to ask questions that seemed relatively easy to answer. In the New York Times on October 29, Adam Nagourney focused on the political fortunes of California Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who were struggling in their respective races. Nagourney asked some big questions: the fact that they couldn’t win was “raising questions about money, gender and Americans’ views of candidates who come out of the corporate boardrooms.” Nagourney seemed surprised that both of these Republicans were losing to Democrats who are “symbols of liberal policies and nearly as old as talking pictures.” Nagourney noted that this “all this flows into the question of gender. California, of all states, has shown little reluctance to vote for women.” So maybe, Naogurney wrote, it’s the female candidate who happens to be a former CEO that voters have trouble embracing. It isn’t until the final paragraph of the article that Nagourney finally points to what would seem to be the obvious answer: Women tend to vote for Democrats, and women in a Democratic state maybe even more so. In other words, these candidates—who happen to be women, one of whom, Carly Fiorina, is running against another woman, Barbara Boxer—don’t support the kinds of policies most women support. So it’s no mystery at all that they’d be losing.
—Baffling election coverage could be found elsewhere in the New York Times. On October 31 Matt Bai had a piece arguing that far-right Tea Partiers are really the right-wing version of Bush-era MoveOn activists and “netroots” bloggers. Bai pointed to “the larger forces that unify many self-styled activists on both the left and the right,” and he suggested that “the recent uprisings on both ends of the ideological spectrum shouldn’t be viewed as opposing trends, but rather points on the same cultural continuum.”
The only way to pull this off with a straight face is to decide that the political beliefs that motivate both groups are not worth inspecting or critiquing. Thus activists who coalesced around opposing the war in Iraq are no different than Tea Party activists who believe Barack Obama is a socialist. (As the Tea Party activist Bai profiles put it: “He’s a socialist…. There’s no question. He’s a statist.”)
Now, in a more rational media system, one would point out that one group was motivated by an actual policy decision—one that killed hundreds of thousands of people and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The other group believes Barack Obama adheres to a political philosophy that he most certainly does not. But reporters like Matt Bai have the ability to see these two political movements as being roughly comparable. At one point he wrote: “Ideology, of course, presents an unbridgeable chasm between the progressives and Tea Partiers.” Well, yeah. And so does reality. Journalism that muddies up this does a great disservice to voters in an election year, and any other time, for that matter.
—The conventional wisdom among corporate pundits has long been that Democrats have to move to the right in order to win. Even before the Democrats’ midterm defeat, there was plenty of that advice floating around. Right before the election, Time magazine’s Joe Klein urged Obama to think big—and to think nuclear:
Klein went on to deride the anti-nuclear positions of “some environmentalists” as “wilting over time”—in the same breath as his call for more government support for the nuclear power industry, which critics have long pointed out can’t make it without government handouts. And it’s worth recalling that Obama has already made one substantial step in the pro-nuclear direction this year, providing billions in loan guarantees for a new nuclear power plant in Georgia—a move some in the media embraced.
So what’s the point of calling for Obama to do something he’s already done, but only with more corporate welfare? It’s probably this: the progressive base of the Democratic party is where you’re most likely to find opposition to nuclear power. And that’s what makes calling for Obama to embrace nuclear power so appealing to bash-your-base pundits like Joe Klein.
—And finally, calling for more nuclear power might sound mild in comparison to what Washington Post columnist David Broder suggested in his October 31 column. Searching around for ways that Barack Obama might demonstrate leadership after the midterms, Broder—who is often called the Dean of the Washington Press Corps—suggested an odd form of economic stimulus: war with Iran:
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
Now, David Broder’s not suggesting war—he’s merely pointing out that launching such a war would rescue the economy, bring the country together and make Obama one of the great presidents of all time. There’s almost nothing to say about this, but one of the best reactions came from Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, who noted that “someone who suggests bombing a Muslim country for the purpose of reversing a president’s political and economic fortunes can still be considered a ‘moderate.'”
CounterSpin: For the last few months we’ve been hearing predictions that the 2010 midterms would be very bad for the Democrats. And election day offered very few surprises—Democrats lost, and in some cases, they lost big. How to interpret the midterm results is another matter. Corporate media have long had a kind of template for explaining Democratic setbacks, which starts from the premise that the party is too far to the left, busily fawning over its base without reaching out to those all-important voters in the middle.
Do the midterm election results actually confirm that analysis, or are the pundits simply reading from the same script as always? Joining us now to talk about it is Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR’s magazine Extra!
Welcome back to the show, Jim.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks for having me on.
CS: Now, the advice to the Democrats didn’t start on election night—as we noted a few minutes ago, Joe Klein at Time was counseling Obama to embrace nuclear power to impress Republicans. David Broder says bomb Iran. The big picture issue in this election, though, was the economy, according to the surveys of voters. It seemed like a lot of coverage leading up to the election focused on the budget deficit, pushing this kind of belt-tightening austerity message that drove the narrative basically where Republicans would want it to be. Is that the sense you got from looking at the election coverage?
JN: Well, there’s one sentence that I saw this morning that really leapt out at me as summing up the themes of this election, as far as corporate media are concerned. It was Peter Baker’s analysis in the New York Times, and he wrote, “Was this the natural and unavoidable backlash in a time of historic economic distress or was it a repudiation of big-spending activist government?” And those are the two poles of debate that are allowed in the corporate media. You’ve got the idea that it was the economy and it just happened to Barack Obama, and there was nothing he could do. Or else it was about the government spending too much. So either there’s nothing to do about the economy or you should cut federal spending. Those are basically the choices that were offered you by the media. And given the choice between a plan and no plan, it’s not surprising that a plan, no matter how incoherent, won.
CS: There is little room to the left of Obama on the economy in the media. Paul Krugman on the op-ed page, ironically, of the New York Times is probably one of the few people who has tried to argue for something like that.
JN: Paul Krugman was really doing, I think, the job that the media in general should have been doing. He was laying out what he saw as the source of our economic problems and putting forward a plan for what you would do to correct those problems. And he’s not a fringe in the economics profession—he won a Nobel Prize—but there are people who disagree with him, you know, it’s not like everyone says let’s do what Paul Krugman says. But given that we have the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, is going on right now, you’d think that you’d want the media to take a serious look at what caused it and what we can do about it. And that could be what the election coverage would revolve around. And really you got the sense that the media did not want to talk about the economy per se, what they wanted to talk about was big government, federal spending—over and over again we heard that that was the issue on voters’ minds.
CS: The related issue to big government, of course, was overreach—the Democrats tried to do too much, misread their mandate. You saw reporters talking about the vote as if it were a rebuke of cap and trade or the healthcare plan. Democrats went too far to the left—Evan Bayh got a spot on the New York Times op-ed page to make this argument. You did see in the news articles—the Washington Post‘s Karen Tumulty has this line that Obama’s days of “muscling through an ambitious legislative agenda on strength of Democratic votes is over.” The New York Times: “The verdict delivered by voters on Tuesday effectively put an end to [Obama’s] transformational ambitions.” It seems like we’re asked to believe two things at the same time. There’s this what they call an enthusiasm gap—Democrats aren’t going to show up to vote because they’re unhappy with the policies of the White House, and the Democrats have wildly overreached and gone too far to the left. Can both possibly be true at the same time?
JN: Well, it is hard to figure that out. I think the enthusiasm gap is a very important point in this election. You can liken the way that the midterms were covered to a sports corps where you only give the score for one team. You heard a tremendous amount about the Tea Party and how this brand of right-wing activism was energizing the Republican Party and bringing people out to vote. And that is an important part of the story of the 2010 elections. But the turnout is always in relationship to how much the other side turns out.
JN: And the fact that the Democratic base did not come out in strength on election day is as much a part of the story as the Tea Party people coming out. The electorate was much younger in 2008 than it was in 2010. It was whiter, it was more Republican, more conservative electorate. And there are reasons why that happened. When you see these overreach stories, you really get the impression that Barack Obama shouldn’t have done anything. The idea is that he should have focused on the economy not by actually spending more to stimulate the economy because these people are against that as well, he really should have just fretted about the economy more and said I’m thinking about jobs, and not done any of the things he said he was going to do, like repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or pass a planet bill—he shouldn’t have done any of those things. And then having ignored all the promises that he made during the campaign that got him into office, presumably his base would have rushed in and voted for Democrats.
CS: It’s implausible. You see headlines that say, you know, ‘Voters Have Rebuked Obama’s Agenda,’ and I guess your point is that it’s not necessarily the same voters as 2008 that turned out to vote for him in the first place. Those of us who remember some of these policy debates—healthcare debate, Afghan war policy, even something like education policy, which probably doesn’t drive a lot of voters—remember them as being areas where the White House gave significant ground to the Republicans, if not entirely embraced Republican ideas: Afghan war policy….
JN: The Afghan war was hardly mentioned in the election coverage because it was an issue where Obama had basically adopted the Republican point of view. He was really much more playing to the Republican base then the Democratic base. And because he had essentially conceded to the Republicans, it was off the table, and therefore didn’t count as an area where Obama had made an outreach to the Republicans.
CS: Well, you do see these stories and commentary that suggest if Obama had lunch with some of the Republicans more often and talked to them and was friendly with them, that something would have been different. And again, you get back to something like healthcare where we spent a year where Democrats on the Hill were trying to convince Republicans to go with them, dropping provisions that Republicans didn’t like, and they still didn’t get many—if any—Republican votes. It’s hard to recall that and then at the same time buy the idea that Barack Obama didn’t reach out to the Republicans. One of the interesting things was this Project for Excellence in Journalism study of campaign coverage, and they were doing it by candidate. And they showed that Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate in Delaware, got the most coverage of any of the candidates. Meg Whitman, a Republican in California—these people had little chance of winning—Carl Paladino, the gubernatorial candidate in New York, made the list. What story does that tell when you find that the media spent so much time talking about Republicans who had no chance of winning?
JN: Yeah, looking at the list of candidates that—the top ten candidates for media coverage—six of them were given a three percent or less chance of winning by the FiveThirtyEight website that was kind of the go-to place for political handicapping. And a couple of others were shoo-ins to win, with near a hundred percent chance of winning. So the races where there was actually a lot of struggle going on about which side was going to win or lose, did not get very much attention at all. Some of the people who defeated long-standing Democratic senators are people that you’d barely hear of even if you followed news coverage religiously. And I think that they don’t really see their role—the media—as helping people make decisions about government policy, about choosing the direction of the nation. They are first and foremost providing an entertaining version of reality TV, where you focus on the oddballs and the most colorful personalities—the witches and the Aqua Buddhas. And that is entertaining, but it’s really not very helpful in terms of helping people make choices about what we’re going to do about the many problems that we face.
CS: Dean Baker, who’s no stranger to CounterSpin listeners, put it this way: “Until we get better media, we will not get better politics.” It’s really as simple as that, isn’t it?
JN: I believe that’s the case.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Jim Naureckas; he’s the editor of FAIR’s magazine Extra! Follow Jim every single day on Twitter and on the FAIR Blog at fair.org.
Jim, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JN: Great to be here.
CounterSpin: Before Tuesday’s election, Tea Party and GOP groups were actively spreading fears that vote fraud could taint the polling, perhaps even steal the election from conservatives expecting a favorable outcome. These “vote fraud” scare campaigns are nothing new, and there is scant evidence to show that vote fraud is a problem at all, so why have GOP supporters been waiving this not-so-bloody shirt so energetically for so long?
Joining us now is Chris Kromm, the executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies; he’s been writing about “vote fraud” campaigns for his group’s website and for the Huffington Post.
Welcome to CounterSpin Chris Kromm!
Chris Kromm: Thank you for having me.
CS: First, about Tuesday’s election: has any part of the conservative “vote fraud” scenario been realized? Do we have an epidemic of vote fraud?
CK: Well what’s really striking is that over the last few days and even weeks, we’ve been monitoring closely all of the claims that were being made about supposed widespread voter fraud and how this was going to dramatically have a big impact on the elections. Tea Party groups, Republican groups, conservative groups had really brought this to a fever pitch, especially led by groups like Fox News, which promised to do 24/7 coverage of the voter fraud problem. What’s striking is that today as I monitor the twitter feeds and the websites, you hear almost nothing, and even as we’re monitoring over the last couple of days, what was striking is that there were very few actual instances that were being raised. You would see people claiming that they’d seen something kind of fishy, but you saw just one or two stories, which happen to be ones that were features on the Fox News website, repeated endlessly about a couple of people in Minnesota who may have improperly worked with some mentally handicapped people who were going to the polls, some fishy business in Missouri. But what’s striking is that it really bared out what a lot of critics of the voter fraud issue have said, which is that there wasn’t any real hard evidence. And I think especially today after the striking Republican victories, you’ve heard almost nothing, which suggests that a lot of people even on that side, may not think that it’s as big a problem as they claim.
CS: I found it funny to see on Fox New’s website the picture of the lone New Black Panther. And he’s sitting there placidly…
CK: Right and that was one of the handful of stories. There were really about three to four stories that were endlessly circulated on these websites, and one of them happened to be this one New Black Panther in north Philadelphia standing outside of a poll site, and of course every report had to acknowledge that he wasn’t really doing anything; there was no problem. But what it really got to was that there really weren’t any substantiated cases where you could really say yeah, that looks like voter fraud to me. One that did get circulated a lot was that Kentucky, like a lot of other states, created a voter fraud hotline, and there were reports that they’d received over a hundred calls, and this was widely circulated proof that there was widespread voter fraud. Well, if you actually dug into what those reports were, it turned out that 20 percent of them were just administrative questions people had about where to go to the polls, some were concerned about electioneering—people coming too close to the polls, wearing their signs. But again, not very many, if any, cases of voter fraud.
CS: Now, there are ongoing and historic problems with voter intimidation and suppression. I wonder if you could distinguish between that and vote fraud for us, and tell us what the early reports are so far on voter intimidation and suppression.
CK: There aren’t very many documented cases. You know, when the Department of Justice did a five-year crusade against this under the Bush Administration, looking at millions and millions of voter registration records, they only came up with 86 prosecutable cases of fraud—120 that were charged, and 86 that were prosecuted, which is .000007 percent of the electorate, clearly not enough to influence any elections. So we know that it’s not a real issue, so then why, like you said in the beginning, is this being raised? Well, it has served some important functions throughout history. The modern anti-voter fraud movement started in the 1960s; it really started with anxieties about growing political power amongst African Americans, many of which were nearly enfranchised. And so you saw campaigns like the one during the 1964 campaign, associated with Barry Goldwater’s campaign, which was called Operation Eagle, and what’s striking, if you look at the historical record, is that the tactics are so similar—about using law enforcement, stern warnings in terms of posters and radio announcements about the severe legal consequences if your voter registration records aren’t right and you show up at the polls, tactics like photographing people coming into and out of the polls, even while they’re voting. That one really struck me because here in North Carolina, we had that exact same case coming up this election—about a kind of zealous Tea Party election watchers who were doing that at poll sites, some of them had to be removed from poll sites. So the technology’s changed: then they used cameras, today they use iphones and video cameras, but it’s the same tactic and the same goal, which is really to intimidate and harass voters.
CS: It’s also important to note that today, as in the ’60s when these tactics were first invented, that the campaigns often target non-white voters, right?
CK: And that’s really the key, like in the ’60s where it came out of the Civil Rights Movement and fears about black voters, you see the same messages today, both African American and a new constituency—new Latino voters. And the Texas Observer did a great piece about one of the new big anti-voter fraud groups—a Tea Party-connected group called True the Vote based in Houston, Texas—and they could not find a single case where these Tea Party election monitors actually went into majority white neighborhoods and precincts. All of them were stationed in black neighborhoods and Latino neighborhoods, the obvious implication being that people with darker hues of skin are the only ones who would commit voter fraud. Also it means that a lot of these groups are associating with very extreme, often racist anti-immigrant groups to make their case about Latinos and illegals “stealing the elections.” So it really does get to growing anxieties about the changing make up of the country, the changing make up of the South demographically and really trying to find a way, I think in most cases, political tactic to try and intimidate and suppress the turnout of those groups.
CS: It’s frustrating to us to see mainstream media cover this issue of vote fraud every time sort of deferentially as if it’s a serious issue, without often explaining that there’s very little instance of vote fraud in the country or providing the historical context which you’ve just given to us. Tell us what your thoughts are about the media—do you see media coverage in the same way, or do you see it differently?
CK: Well, I think it’s a case of the media being very much influenced by very powerful constituency because not only does the anti-voter fraud crusade serve to depress turnout of the opposition, it also serves to rile up the base, fears about other people who are going to be stealing your elections, you should get out to the polls. It also distracts people from some of the real issues that can really influence elections, for example, we just had one of the most expensive elections in history: 455 million dollars—shattering all records on mid-term elections, spent on influencing Congressional races. We know the problems with voter registration in our country, a study came out last year showing that three million registered voters weren’t allowed to vote because of problems with voter registration. So these are the real issues that affect our voting system, and it depressed turnout, and denied democracy to a lot of the people. And I think this coverage, what it does is it takes an issue that is not an issue, and it diverts all of the attention from the real things that are influencing elections. And I think that’s the real damage of the voter fraud myth.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Chris Kromm, Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies. You can read his writing on this and other subjects at the group’s website at SouthernStudies.org.
Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Chris Kromm!
CK: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.