Last night was a good night for Republican election deniers. In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, State Senator Doug Mastriano swept the field, winning by a margin of well over 20 percent. Mastriano doesn’t just support the “Big Lie”; he spent thousands of campaign dollars on charter buses to take supporters to Washington, D.C., ahead of Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally ( the event that immediately preceded the January 6 insurrection). Mastriano, according to Politico, “was arguably the main promoter and certainly a leading force in trying to overturn the election results by any means necessary.” Representative Ted Budd, of North Carolina, is another Trump-endorsed candidate who dominated his Senate primary last night. On November 7, 2020, according to CNN, Budd texted Trump’s then chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to suggest that Dominion Voting Systems was somehow connected to George Soros, a long-running (and debunked) conspiracy theory. Budd still says he has “constitutional concerns” about what happened in 2020.
Lying about the 2020 election is a litmus test for any candidate hoping for Trump’s endorsement. As Margaret Sullivan recently wrote in The Washington Post, “The midterm elections may be the most consequential ones in American history. They are less than six months away, and many Americans don’t understand how high the stakes really are.”
There is not a lot of precedent for how to operate a free press in a country sliding toward autocracy, and no manual for writing about the decline of democracy when one of the two main political parties no longer believes in it. How do reporters protect journalistic norms while trying to cover a moment in history that is anything but normal?
One thing we should all agree on: Media coverage makes a difference. For better—and sometimes for worse. Treating anti-democracy candidates like they’re regular politicians merely seeking office, rather than wannabe autocrats seeking to overturn democracy itself, is an oft-cited example of the latter. But one bad media tic that gets less attention is the assumption that voters simply don’t care that one party aims to massively restrict our freedoms, from voting to abortion to the books we’re able to check out of the library.
Ever since Trump retained Republican support after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, many journalists have been operating under the assumption that GOP voters are so enamored with Trump and his ilk that nothing they can do would turn them off. In September 2021, when the bill that Texas Governor Greg Abbott had signed earlier that year banned abortions after six weeks, a lot of major media outlets wondered, Will voters care? One day after the Texas law went into effect, Politico ran an op-ed with the title “Don’t Be So Sure a Supreme Court Backlash Will Boost Democrats.” More recently, The New York Times published an article called “If Biden’s Plan Is Like a ‘New Deal,’ Why Don’t Voters Care?” (Local governments are still figuring out how to spend the influx of cash.) The Dallas Morning News’s contribution? “Texas AG Ken Paxton’s Legal Issues Don’t Concern GOP Primary Voters.” (Paxton was indicted on criminal securities-fraud charges in 2015; he has denied any wrongdoing.) The assumption that voters don’t care about things that they have yet to even feel the impact of is twisted.
Conventional political wisdom dictates that Democrats struggling with inflation and COVID will get shellacked in the midterms. And if, for example, Doug Mastriano becomes governor of Pennsylvania, can we be sure that its 19 electoral votes will go to whoever wins that state in the 2024 presidential race? Or will they go to the Republican candidate, regardless of the actual outcome?
No one knows how any of this will play out. The election of Donald Trump proved once and for all that political journalists aren't psychic. Even presidential-election polling seems less accurate than it once was. In September, Texas paved the way for overturning Roe v. Wade. Only these past two weekends, nine months later, after Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that would officially end Roe leaked, did we see protests across the country. Voters do care about the right to abortion. It just took them some time to realize that their rights were being taken away.
The media have a responsibility to sound the alarm about Mastriano and his ilk, and the threat they pose to democracy in this country. The media also have a responsibility to not create a narrative that says voters do not, or will not, care about this threat. Voters, politicians, and leaders of all kinds take their cues from what TV news and the papers tell them. If they come to believe no one cares, why should they?