Will There Ever Be Specifics in Political Journalism or Reverse Cletus Safaris?

One of the undercovered ‘results’ of the 2020 election is the victory celebration phenomenon: in many metro areas, people were ecstatic, as if we had just destroyed the Death Star or won a war. Despite that reaction, there are no calls for reporters to travel to the hinterlands of the Bronx to do the whole ‘Trump supporter in a Midwestern diner’ interview (aka Cletus safaris). One problem with these types of interviews is they don’t really deal in specifics:

While it would be ugly, maybe we should be much more upfront about what we mean when we say that a candidate can appeal to non-college educated white people in rural-ish areas (there are also gender and religion aspects here too). Because that statement implies that certain candidates do not appeal to non-college educated white people in rural-ish areas. For reasons. Instead of useless Cletus safaris, getting at why they don’t like a certain candidate–and some of that dislike will be ugly (racism and sexism)–would help. As I’ve been writing since November 2016, a significant fraction of the Democratic vote comes from white bigots, even as they are clearly voting in opposition to and in spite of their bigotry (to use the pollsters’ term, it’s comparable to the entire ‘Hispanic, non-white’ Democratic vote).

So, maybe being upfront–at least reporters, if not candidates, could do this–would help. If nothing else, we would be clearer about what the various components of the white working class are. At least, we would understand why many non-college educated white people in rural-ish areas don’t like certain Democrats.

Dan Froomkin makes a similar point regarding Trump supporters as a whole (boldface mine):

What upsets me most as a journalist is that even after a seemingly endless, four-year parade of articles about how Trump supporters still support Trump, we continue to lack anything like an accurate, widely agreed-upon consensus about what motivates them.

Those articles almost exclusively entail credulous stenography, passing along quotes from Trump supporters that – if you stop to think about them – don’t really explain their support at all.

Much of the time, these supporters say things that simply aren’t true – like Kathleen Skeins, the Michigan voter who told the New York Times that over the past four years, Trump had been “straightening out” government corruption. Or like the Ohio construction worker who told the Economist that Trump “got health care done, which the Democrats could never do. He built the wall.” (More examples here.)

Profiling Trump supporters like this Nebraska farmer, reporters at the Times engage in euphemisms: writing about a “sense of Trumpian kinship,” for instance, rather than openly addressing white nationalist feelings of victimization.

Journalists need to stop buying transparently bogus explanations for why people support Trump and figure out what’s really going on.

As I’ve written before, this requires a different – actually, more empathetic, and certainly more time-consuming – kind of interviewing style. It means taking a more sociological approach, asking about formative moments, about cultural background and value systems, about education, and, perhaps most importantly, about media diets. It means diving deep into the “comforting simplicity of tribe,” as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan put it.

Froomkin is correct, but there’s another issue as I alluded to earlier: there are very few, if any, stories going the other direction. That is, while coastal news outlets will send out reporters to Trumpist strongholds, the converse doesn’t seem to happen. Part of the reason is economic–these outlets might not have the money to do that. But it needs to happen as it’s pretty clear that people living in Trump strongholds also have no understanding of what motivates other people (though it’s not clear at all if they care to know). Remember how Portland and D.C. were supposedly on fire night after night?

This is important, because faced with a resounding defeat, conservatives also need to start the ‘healing’ work, and they won’t be able to do that without understanding Democratic areas.

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1 Response to Will There Ever Be Specifics in Political Journalism or Reverse Cletus Safaris?

  1. adameran says:

    Why 70 million votes for Trump? Says Thomas Greene (from Noteworthy): “Trump will not be defeated by educating voters, by exposing his many foibles and inadequacies. Highlighting what’s wrong with him is futile; his supporters didn’t elect him because they mistook him for a competent administrator or a decent man. They’re angry, not stupid. Trump is an agent of disruption — indeed, of revenge…..Workers now sense that economic justice — a condition in which labor and capital recognize and value each other — is permanently out of reach; the class war is over and it was an absolute rout: insatiable parasites control everything now, and even drain us gratuitously, as if exacting reparations for the money and effort they spent taming us. The economy itself, and the institutions protecting it, must be attacked, and actually crippled, to get the attention of the smug patricians in charge. Two decades of appealing to justice, proportion, and common decency have yielded nothing.”

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