Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Why does every strongman sound like Trump?
Israel’s now-former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the elections which ultimately brought him down the “greatest election fraud in the history of the country.”
2. Who’s to blame for hyperpartisanship?
Hyperpartisanship has been on the rise for decades and seems to only be getting worse. How much can we blame just one organization?
To listen to the audio version of this week's newsletter, please click the image below!
Narration: Executive Director Uriel Epshtein
American politics has evolved (or devolved depending on your point of view) into a duopoly with two parties dominating the space. The only thing they seem to have in common is mutual distrust and antipathy. Meanwhile, an exhausted majority of Americans feel like we have to swear allegiance to one side or the other while meaningful compromise and discourse seems more distant than at any point since the Civil War. So what can we do?
Katherine Gehl, a former CEO and current leader of the cross-partisan political innovation movement, believes the system fix -- and innovation, results, and accountability -- is found in what she calls Final-Five Voting. On June 29th at 6 pm EDT, join Katherine; Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, President of RDI; and Michael Steele, RDI Board member and former RNC Chairman as we discuss how the market model can produce a nonpartisan solution. Moderated by RDI Executive Director Uriel Epshtein, we’ll focus on the specific steps we can take to incentivize politicians to serve the greater public interest and productively work across the aisle.
General admission is free, but available spots are limited, so register now! In addition to the public event, we hope you can join us for a private conversation with the guests immediately afterwards! Please register here.
RDI is hiring! If you or someone you know is interested in applying for a role as our Communications Director, please follow this link to the application.
Why does every strongman sound like Trump?
Trump and Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Flash90/Yonaton Sindel
“We are all witnesses to the greatest election fraud in the history of the country,” asserted outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has also railed against “fake news,” dismissed his corruption trial as a “witch hunt,” and called himself a victim of the “deep state.”
For American observers, this might elicit a strong case of déjà vu, and Netanyahu’s not alone.
Left-wing Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro described his country as under attack by “fake news.” The Romanian government fired an official investigating corruption claims, alleging he was a member of “the deep state.” And in the Peruvian election covered by RDI last week, both candidates questioned the results within a 24-hour period.
All around the world, Trump’s style seems to be gaining momentum.
Has America exported antidemocratic tactics?
What happens in America tends to have a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world. So when our leaders criticize democracy, other wannabe authoritarians tend to mimic their tactics and language.
Since Trump popularized the term “fake news” to reference news unfavorable to him, it’s become a common rallying cry among antidemocratic leaders. The term was used by Bashar al-Assad in Syria to discredit a report on prison deaths and in Myanmar to silence coverage of the Rohingya genocide, but that’s just the beginning. Officials in the Philippines, Poland, Hungary, Libya, Russia, Turkey, and China have all referenced “fake news” to dismiss critical media. The phrase had picked up so much steam that Collins Dictionary named it their Word of the Year for 2017.
While in office, Trump used his platform to unite with authoritarians around the world. He said that he and Kim Jong Un “fell in love,” called himself a “big fan” of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and praised Xi Jingping as a “very good man.” There’s cause to think that this had real political effects. Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán described Trump’s praise as “permission” from “the highest position in the world,” and the Cambodian government brushed off criticism from the U.S. embassy for cracking down on media freedoms, stating “your policy has been changed” after a friendly exchange with Trump.
With Trump and his associates at the helm, America led a four-year global push against democracy.
But can Trump really be blamed for global authoritarianism?
Trump emboldened and supported authoritarians, but he didn’t create them.
It’s worth pointing out that all strongmen have similar aims––maintaining power––and similar enemies––any institution seeking to check their authority. Trump may have popularized “fake news,” but he certainly didn’t invent attacking the press. Illiberalism precedes Trump, and became a part of the European mainstream before the American. Even some terms like “deep state” have foreign origins, that one likely originating in Turkey in the ‘90s.
Americans are what has actually changed. When Americans used to hear about attacks on elections or the free press, it felt foreign. Now it’s so familiar to us that we can hear Trump’s style echoing in strongmen rhetoric around the world. Trump didn’t introduce the world to authoritarianism, but he did introduce authoritarianism to America.
Who’s to blame for hyperpartisanship?
American politics is increasingly becoming a hostile partisan battleground. Credit: Vox/Javier Zarracina
Two weeks ago, more than 100 nonpartisan “scholars of democracy” signed a “statement of concern” regarding several Republican-led state legislatures passing restrictive voting laws. The catalyst for this legislation were the baseless claims of election fraud which have been circulating in the right-wing media since before the election even happened. Then, this past Monday, former President Barack Obama stated “if you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read The New York Times.” Many Americans––on the right and the left––certainly agreed.
When it comes to political news, half of conservative Republicans don’t trust The New York Times and 77% of liberal Democrats don’t trust Fox News. More strikingly, Fox News is the only organization that a majority of Republicans trust.
It’s fair to say that the influence of Fox News on the Republican party is unique. In just two and a half decades, Fox went from a startup to the most-watched cable news channel in the country, revolutionizing American news––and American politics––in the process.
Just how influential is Fox?
It’s a complex question, but two impressive studies have attempted to quantify the effect of Fox News on American politics.
The first, published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015, took a closer look at the gradual spread of Fox News around the country from 1998 to 2002. Throughout this “patchy rollout,” congressional districts which were introduced to Fox News first weren’t politically distinct from those receiving it a few years later. Yet after Fox News came to a district, representatives' voting records became more conservative on divisive issues close to elections.
Researchers in the second study, published by Stanford University in 2017, looked at how elections were affected in places where Fox News was randomly featured more prominently in cable listings. They discovered that the particular channel airing Fox News is arbitrary, but when the channel number was lower, viewership increased. Using this as a natural experiment, they estimated Fox News single-handedly raised the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the vote by a substantial 3.59% in 2004 and 6.34% in 2008.
This type of partisan power is deeply concerning. Over the 25 years Fox News has existed, polarization has increased dramatically, and it’s creating different realities. Within just nine days after the presidential race was called for Joe Biden, the network aired election-related conspiracy theories at least 774 times. Six months after the 2020 election, some 70% of Republicans refuse to believe that Joe Biden legitimately beat Donald Trump.
How can we address media-driven political polarization?
If Fox News were to moderate its views, that would likely have some effect, but there is no clear path back to moderation in the cable news industry as a whole. Arguably, Fox News’ greatest legacy is opening Pandora’s box for hyperpartisan commentary on television 25 years ago.
Following the rise of Fox, MSNBC entered the fray as a reliably left-wing alternative, with scripts just as far to the left as Fox is to the right. More recently, Fox has been joined by One America News and Newsmax, both of which attempt to win over Fox viewers by leaning more heavily into personal attacks and conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the online media landscape has been even further chopped up by right and left-wing media outlets. Even local news stations have been bought up by partisans, with the right-wing Sinclair media empire operating 192 stations which reach 39% of Americans.
According to analysis by Reuters, the American media landscape is the most polarized in the world, and social media is only making matters worse. Hyperpartisanship isn’t just a right-wing problem; it’s affecting all of us.
Unfortunately, a simple fix is elusive. Trust in the media is highly partisan, as is fact checking and deplatforming extremists. One popular approach to partisanship––introducing individuals to commentary from the opposition––doesn’t seem to moderate Democrats’ or Republicans’ opinions. In fact, Republicans actually went further to the right during the largest study testing the effects of exposure to perspectives from the other side.
However America manages to solve its partisanship problem, improving the media environment will be essential. It’s encouraging at least that 88% of likely voters agree that “compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders.” American voters clearly desire a calmer political atmosphere, which may be America's only hope of achieving one.
The issue? That same poll asked if they agreed with the statement “I’m tired of leaders compromising my values and ideals. I want leaders who will stand up to the other side.” 87% did.