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The 'manufactured cynicism' infecting our politics

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during the Senate Republicans news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during the Senate Republicans news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

This past Saturday, the New York Times printed a front-page story that exemplifies what I have come to think of as “manufactured cynicism.” The piece in question bore the following headline, “A State of the Union Both Bitter and Gloomy.”

The report begins with an everyman voter by the name of Michael Macey, who hoped Joe Biden’s presidency would usher in an era of optimism and change. Said hopes, we are told, have been dashed:

By the pain of an unending pandemic. By rising prices. By nationwide bickering that stretches from school board meetings to the United States Capitol.

“I don’t like the division,” Mr. Macey, 63, said. “I don’t like the standstill. We need something to get accomplished.”

Curiously, the piece goes on to enumerate just a few of the things that have been accomplished of late. For instance, “the stock market is hitting record highs, hiring is accelerating sharply with 531,000 jobs added in October, workers are earning more, and COVID hospitalizations and deaths are dropping from their autumn peaks.”

The piece does not bother to note that this economic rebound is the direct result of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Biden and congressional Democrats passed last March, which included aid to state and local governments, support for vaccination efforts, child tax credits and housing assistance. Not one Republican voted for the measure.

It would also have identified the obvious source of Washington’s division: the modern GOP, whose animating principal as a minority party is militant obstructionism. 

Nor does the piece bother to mention the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, which passed the night before the piece ran, with the support of only 13 Republicans, a tiny fraction of their caucus.

A more responsible news outlet might have noted these huge accomplishments, and puzzled over why folks such as Mr. Macey consider this “a standstill.” It would also have identified the obvious source of Washington’s division: the modern GOP, whose animating principal as a minority party is militant obstructionism.

Ah, but why confront the ignorance of your audience when you can amplify it instead?

There are, of course, many news outlets that indulge in this practice. I’m singling out the Times because they are one of the most respected and influential news operations in America. And yet, over and over, they have chosen to ignore the root cause of our nation’s political dysfunction: the monstrous and calculated cynicism of Republican intransigence.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) holds a news conference to talk about Republican victories in Tuesday's elections with members of the Virginia delegation, including (L-R) Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-VA), Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) and Rep. Julia Letlow (R-LA), in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on November 03, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) holds a news conference to talk about Republican victories in Tuesday's elections with members of the Virginia delegation, including (L-R) Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-VA), Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) and Rep. Julia Letlow (R-LA), in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on November 03, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As Steve Kornacki observed, in his 2018 book “The Red and the Blue,” the GOP settled on a strategy of confrontation over compromise back in the ‘90s, when Newt Gingrich realized that his party’s base was more interested in grinding axes than solving problems.

Gingrich exploited a bug in America’s media marketplace: journalists fed on stories of conflict, and rarely, if ever, held Republicans accountable for embracing this politics of unrelenting grievance. Instead, news outlets began to churn out pieces laden with passive reporting and false equivalencies, which essentially manufactured cynicism by suggesting that “gridlock” and “broken government” were inevitable.

The constant trumpeting of this dysfunction, and the endless parade of stories about “legislative battles,” has completely obscured coverage focused on policy. Which is why citizens such as Michael Macey can grouse about government inaction (on the Times’ front page, no less) on the same day Democrats pass the largest infrastructure bill in history.

The Democratic Party, while far from perfect, is at least trying to solve these crises. Republicans are openly fighting to make all three worse. 

Is it any wonder Americans continually tell pollsters that our country is on the wrong track? All they ever read is bad news. That and lazy opinions.

Witness Maureen Dowd’s sloppy column in the Sunday Times, where readers were treated to this astonishing spasm of false equivalency: “Many who were sick of Trump chaos and ineptitude are now sick of Biden chaos and ineptitude.”

Did you catch that? Biden is no better than sadistic demagogue who stoked a deadly pandemic, oversaw the most corrupt administration in history, and ignited a violent insurrectionist mob on Congress.

Pundits such as Dowd get paid to blame Biden and Democrats for losing a "messaging war” that they, in fact, control. Democrats are constantly trying to talk to reporters about the contents of the bills they’ve crafted — from universal pre-K to lower prescription drug prices to renewable energy — because these are massively popular proposals. The only folks who oppose them are lobbyists for huge corporations and conservatives.

And yet news outlets focus obsessively on everything but these investments: the scary-sounding “top-line price" of these bills, whatever legislative squabbling they can spotlight, and, of course, the inflammatory non-issues ginned up by right-wing media.

America faces a looming climate catastrophe, growing inequality and a creeping loss of faith in our democracy. The Democratic Party, while far from perfect, is at least trying to solve these crises. Republicans are openly fighting to make all three worse.

It’s time for our Fourth Estate to hold them accountable for their cynicism rather than helping them manufacture more.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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