The Media Will Not Be Kind to Joe Biden

Biden’s campaign underscores the dissonance between the media’s portrayal of Democratic voters and an actual electorate less interested in identity and ideological politics.

One of the things that will be different about this Democratic primary is its coverage in a national news environment that is more fragmented, more polarized, more driven by identity politics, more to blame than the president for the nation’s division — and ultimately less reflective of the public than it was three years ago. There’s no candidacy that may better highlight the rift between the media’s portrayal of the electorate and the actual electorate than that of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.

Last week, the former vice president’s announcement to unseat Donald Trump squarely focused on American values, quoting that “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence, and that Donald Trump’s desecration of those words including in his equivocated response to Charlottesville represents a “battle for the soul of America”.

Biden’s candidacy renews questions over his race, age, sex, conduct and ideology within a party whose “energy” (whatever that actually means) lies elsewhere and during a moment in journalism where race and sex-based narratives are thoroughly ubiquitous yet often fail to reflect reality.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted how Biden’s media coverage will “probably be unfriendly”. Editorially, where identity and ideology appear to be top of mind among a more activist media class that sees Biden as a white, moderate, male relic of the old guard, they are of considerably lesser concern to the public including Democrats, women, and people of color.

If one spends enough time on Twitter — a platform wildly unrepresentative of the public — one could be forgiven for thinking that Democrats primarily value the race or sex of the nominee. A March Quinnipiac poll revealed that 84 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters do not believe race or gender are important factors, including 75 percent of blacks and 84 percent of women. 70 percent say age is not an important factor. Instead, respondents name defeating Donald Trump, “sharing their views” and “electability” among the most important factors.

Cable news coverage of Biden’s entry also included discussion of his recent handsy conduct with women and his direction of the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. At the time, Biden permitted senators to interrogate Dr. Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment, without allowing witnesses to testify in Hill’s defense. Biden didn’t support Thomas’ nomination and says he believed Hill’s claims from the start. It’s unclear whether a 28-year-old hearing will erode his support. But if a recent Hill-HarrisX poll on Biden’s recent physical conduct is any indication, Democratic women lean toward giving him the benefit of the doubt. 22 percent of women, including about the same percentage of millennial women, say his behavior is disqualifying, while 54 percent do not.

The April Morning Consult tracking poll found similar results. Interestingly, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans — the former of whom are considered a key part of Biden’s base — were three times more likely than whites to say Biden’s behavior made them view him “much” or “somewhat” more favorably, a sign that minority sensibilities are underrepresented by a mostly white media. While the pitchforks aren’t out for Biden and women’s perspective on this vary, Biden will still need to provide more tactful responses that until now have been opaquely verbose.

Arguably the most frequently made case is that he’s not liberal enough but that doesn’t appear to be a terribly popular view in reality. In the same poll, 58 percent of liberals — not moderates or conservative Democrats — disagreed and 24 percent agreed with the statement that “Joe Biden is not liberal enough”. A Third Way poll from March that for what it’s worth oversampled women, people of color and “strong Democrats” found that respondents overwhelmingly prefer a candidate who can “appeal to a broad range of voters” (+48), who “offers ideas that address urgent problems affecting people today” over grandiose plans that would take years to fulfill (+65), and who “works across party lines to bring the country together (+72).

The small minority of liberals who believe Biden to be insufficiently liberal isn’t the sweeping majority driven by millennial fervor one might expect. Biden splits or pulls ahead of Sanders in millennial support; and his popularity with voters of color suggests his appeal aligns with trends that indicate people of color hold more moderate views on racial ideology than white liberals who are more likely to view race and economics as inseparable and who are widely represented in digital publishing. Liberals overall appear more willing to support Biden than conservative and moderates are supporting someone more liberal because they trust him, want Trump defeated, and because whatever calculated tradeoffs that exists is worth it.

Why, then, are radical ideas like Medicare-for-all so popular with almost all Democrats? They must not be that radical. Public opinion is frequently full of contradictions that require long-term analysis and further inquiry. For example, in addition to large liberal majorities supporting costly policies, the same Morning Consult poll found 79 percent of liberals consider deficit reduction a “top” or “important” priority. Medicare-for-all, particularly in its current form, practically has little chance of passage even with a unified Democratic government. These policies are aspirational. The loudest Medicare-for-all activists might shake their fist at anything short of the abolition of insurance companies, but most of them are not going to torch a President Biden for signing a public option into law.

Another way to look at the Democratic primary is the angry and the outraged. Sanders, Warren, and to some extent, Booker aren’t just outraged over Donald Trump’s character and leadership; they are angry about what they see as rampant economic and social injustice that predates Trump. Every other candidate is playing to outraged crowds. To them, the urgency of tending to socio-economic issues is self-evident, but the president’s incompetence is an obsessively covered, beyond-the-pale, daily disgrace. Racism and classism rightfully induce anger, but are obscured by how debatably identifiable they are because of how definitionally expansionistic they’ve become. Almost all Americans can share a sense of outrage over the assault on less ambiguous foundational ideals and norms.

Biden’s candidacy is one of outrage, but is an ultimately optimistic endeavor to which many Democrats are receptive, particularly women and people of color. Left and right media outlets have perverse incentives to fabricate a narrative that tell its audience that their neighbors subscribe to the fatalism of identity politics in the era of hashtag activism.

A popular left media narrative is nihilistic. It’s not shared by all outlets or writers but it says, sure, Trumpism has broken institutional norms, separated immigrant families, emboldened white supremacists and exacerbated economic inequality, but really these are symptoms of a deeper illness: America itself. Liberal ideals sound nice, but they have only served the interests of white men, and when they haven’t served only white men, it’s merely an anomaly within a still oppressive nation. The solution is not normalcy or even the dismantlement of Trumpism, but capitalizing on the ethos Trump created and pulpit into which he turned the presidency and use it to pursue a more tactful form of politically profitable societal antagonism.

The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart responded to Biden’s announcement in which the candidate says “We have not always lived up to” ideals including equality “but we have never walked away from them.” Most might hear such anodyne rhetoric and consider it sobering. Beinart sees it as grounds for a semantic gripe writing that America “walked away from the ideals of human equality when it enforced slavery” and a range of other horrific injustices he lists that he is privileged to condemn with modernity’s hindsight.

Unlike Sanders and Warren, Beinart writes, “it’s not surprising Biden…would come closest to a Democratic version of “Make America great again.” Beinart’s assertion is curious considering Sanders and Warren, not Biden, are the inexperienced, unaccomplished, bellicose populists selling a dark portrait of America and promising the world to their base. That sounds a lot more like Trumpism. As for the “bygone era” Biden restore, I suspect most Americans would gladly favor setting the clock way back a whole three years.

Conservative media have a different narrative. Not only will Biden be maligned for being a do-nothing Obama Democrat, but the most polemically-inclined conservatives who lament the toxicity of identity politics characteristically will embrace them if it means stoking divisions among Democrats. Ben Shapiro said on Real Time with Bill Maher that he’d consider voting for a Democrat if the party’s nominee resembled something like moderation. That might sound like an amicable bread-breaker, but Shapiro is on the Trump train. If he and other conservatives perceive any editorial advantage to buttressing leftist dogma against Biden that they otherwise despise with the chance that doing so may elevate a more progressive candidate Trump could defeat, then they’ll do it.

So what could cripple Biden? His support of the Iraq War and NAFTA, his 1994 crime bill, or his proximity to his home state’s credit card lobby. Perhaps any or all of these if a contrast is drawn and an echo reverberates. Biden can make humble admissions while reintroducing his resolute edge from the 2012 vice presidential debate. One way would be arguing that Sanders’ health care and Warren’s college tuition plans, respectively, would be net-losses for many middle-class households amounting to massive tax hikes, and that targeted plans that help the working class are the most effective approach. All told, these are legitimate issues he’ll need to address.

Considering the priorities of voters, what’s more likely to hurt Biden is less his own record than another candidate’s breakout performance. If someone with a first-in-history attribute can capture Biden’s best qualities, that could cause a sea change.

Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith argued that the “new movements” of the Trump era, not media gatekeepers, are driving politics. “The power that we used to wield has been handed over to the fandoms” of social media, writes Smith. True, social media has supercharged the democratization of information through social networks where political figures can appeal directly to their supporters. The shift has also successfully lured hyper-connected journalists into these political and cultural fandoms, not to mention raised questions over this phenomenon’s impact on journalistic ethics. What “makes news” often depends on the sensibilities of a suspiciously vague minority of people (including anons and bots) and an even smaller number of journalists concentrated in a few metropolitan areas reacting to them. That sounds less like democratization and more like the erection of a newer, higher gate that ideologically will be unkind to Biden’s broad-based moderated campaign particularly because it contradicts the narrative that Democrats have lurched leftward.

Biden might not be “the future” but that’s immaterial to Democrats.

Right now, he has the ground-level reality of an energized Democratic electorate on his side but with nine months before the first primary the race is open. Time will tell what impact, if any, a more pessimistic, sheltered but influential media will have on Joe Biden’s hopeful campaign.

Writing about the States and the U.S. Senate, and sometimes the media industry.

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