A new horse race begins: the scramble for a post-election narrative

The ballots had barely settled in Pennsylvania when various interest groups scrambled to establish their preferred narratives. Many of these projections adhered to predictable patterns of emphasis and omission.

For example, regardless that American majorities support progressive positions—from nationalizing healthcare to raising taxes for free public education—some media and political elites heralded a confirmation that the U.S. was inherently a centrist nation. With the Senate remaining in Republican hands (pending the Georgia run-offs in early January), even the stock market seemed to react positively to the prospect of gridlocked government hamstrung in its ability to implement serious regulatory reform.

Falling back on false equivalences that the electorate had rejected both right and left extremes, this centrist narrative aligned with the oft-repeated truism that most Americans occupy the middle of the ideological spectrum. According to this view, Americans didn’t want dramatic change, but rather a return to “normalcy” and to re-establishing old norms.

Relatedly, centrist Democrats pointed an accusatory finger at the party’s left flank, asserting that progressive activist slogans such as “defund the police” set up vulnerable moderates to be ruthlessly red-baited as socialists and consequently lose their races. For their part, many progressives convincingly pushed back against these storylines.

At the same time, early analyses suggest that a groundswell of “Biden Republicans” never materialized. While the so-called never-Trumpers behind the Lincoln Project and their slick, gut-punching ads made many liberals swoon, it was actually progressive groups, especially in states like Georgia and cities like Philadelphia, that arguably pushed Biden over the top.

Another major narrative assumes that, at least according to expectations set by pollsters, Democrats performed poorly in down-ballot races. Despite the lack of a “blue wave”, it’s noteworthy that the elections did see a wide range of progressive victories, including the resolution to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the Trump-backing state of Florida.

The role of media

The media’s role in all of these relationships was contradictory, as always. In one historic moment, the major networks cut away from Trump during a major address as he launched into a tirade of lies. Some observers wondered if media organizations had suddenly, at this late stage, realized how best to handle Trump. Others noted that such an abrupt about-face actually demonstrated that media outlets could have been more adversarial all along, but the perceived shift in power finally emboldened them to be less timid toward the president.

We shouldn’t be surprised. An abiding reliance on official sources and deference to power is historically a common cornerstone of professional journalism. This power relationship runs deep and is bound up with media firms’ core business model, driven by advertising revenue and the ultimate objective to actualize profits at any social cost. The fact that commercialism so often trumps democracy is also why scolding individual journalists and news outlets for being irresponsible often misses the systemic root of the problem.

While it’s refreshing that many media organizations have finally stopped deferring to Trump, we must look seriously at the role they have played in normalizing fascistic politics—as well as the structural factors that cause these institutions to predictably fail in advancing democratic aims.

The role of media scholars

Understanding these power relationships is necessary but insufficient. The point should be to change the current system. Low-quality information runs rampant through many of our news and communication systems—from Facebook to Fox News—while actual journalism is rapidly disappearing. Media and political communication scholars ideally would help assist reform efforts toward restructuring these systems and creating new institutions.

One potentially growing undercurrent in the field of communication research appears to be a new variant of the “limited effects” model, which assumes that, lacking clear causal relationships, media have relatively little influence over political behavior, and therefore, by implication, are unworthy of structural reform efforts.

Communication research needs a new normative framework that’s guided by social justice. Instead of accepting things as they are, I call upon my colleagues to seize this historical moment and help broaden our political imaginary as to what kind of media system is possible. We can dare hope for media institutions that serve democratic needs and not just corporate profits.

Ultimately, it’s likely that all of these forces—both major political parties, media institutions, and even academics in their own way—will seek to resurrect an Obama-era status quo. But if the U.S. is to tackle the daunting problems it faces—climate change, deep structural inequalities, monopoly power, mass incarceration and other forms of systemic racism—the status quo should not be preserved; it should be radically changed. Whether Biden and his administration are up to the task—and whether progressives and other social pressures from below can help steer them in the right direction—remains to be seen.