Over at Political Animal, Ed Kilgore wrote a very interesting article, Presuming Extremism Right Out of Existence. It’s about how the media ignores right-wing extremist beliefs of politicians like Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner. He quoted a couple of people about why the media does this, but his own theory sounds the closest to the truth. The vast majority of the journalists who cover politics simply don’t believe that people like Ernst and Gardner hold the kind of extreme positions they claim to. They think that support for “personhood” amendments are just pandering to the base.
This dismissal of extremism always reminds me of the journalistic reaction to the Nazis in Germany. Many journalists (including Jewish ones) dismissed Hitler’s rhetoric — claiming that it was just used for the purpose of firing up the base. Since many of the things that Hitler said were so beyond the pale, many respectable establishment types just couldn’t see that Hitler really meant it. I’m not suggesting that people pushing “personhood” amendments are the same as Nazis. I’m just noting that there is a history of dismissing truly radical policy ideas as “just politics.”
This is a very bad idea for a couple of reasons. Just on its face, politicians are not in complete control of their environments. A politician may not actually believe his own rhetoric. But once he whips up people’s emotions about the issue, he may have no power to stop it or even tone it down. So it is still extremely dangerous even if the reporters are right that Ernst was just, as Kilgore put it, “cynically shoveling out to the yahoos.” And this is the best case scenario.
In general, I think politicians believe what they claim. There is no doubt Hitler was actually antisemitic. And there is no doubt in my mind Joni Ernst is very much in favor of “personhood.” Republicans get into trouble because what they actually believe is incredibly unpopular. Consider one of the slimiest politicians ever: Mitt Romney. Like me, all he really cares about are economic issues. That’s why he was pro-choice when he needed to be and anti-choice when he needed to be. What he believed in was that people like him deserved a five trillion dollar tax cut. And even at that time, a lot of journalists apologized for this, claiming that the fiscal situation would have made him change that policy if he became president. Not true. The one thing you could absolutely depend upon in a Mitt Romney presidency was that he was going to get his tax cut.
More than just this, however, there is the incredibly lazy journalistic practice of simply taking the parties as the poles of the debate. I noted this during the Todd Akin dust-up. What he was arguing was a hair’s breadth away from Republican orthodoxy. The official (and uncontroversial) position is that there should be no abortion right except in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. The truth is that Akin’s “no exception” position is far more defensible. Either the fetus has rights or it doesn’t. The establishment position is basically, “Women who enjoyed the sex should have to pay for it.” From a policy standpoint, there really is no difference. But to mainstream journalists, there is every difference in the world.
What this means is that Republicans could come up with literally any policy position, and as long as they got to it gradually, the media would never counter them. This doesn’t work, by the way, with the left. Apparently because most reporters think of themselves as being on the left, they tend to treat any idea more liberal than their own as far outside the Overton Window.
All of this makes the media incredibly dangerous. It normalizes what is not normal and makes even more extreme policy acceptable. It also, of course, allows wackjobs like Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner to get elected.