Fake narrative in The Economist

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by Hans Dembowski

Fake narrative in The Economist

Fake news in the media is getting a lot of attention these days – for good reason. It is worth pointing out, however, that false narratives can distort coverage too. I found a recent example in The Economist so irritating that I wrote the author an email, which I think is worth sharing with you. The Economist does not indicate contributors' names, so I addressed the author by the name of his column.

Dear Lexington,

perhaps you really worry about how to overcome what you call “tribalism” in US politics. If so, I'd suggest that you consider who is driving it. Your column in the May 26th edition of The Economist failed to do so.

The chasm between Republicans and Democrats seems ever harder to bridge. Your basic presumption was one of symmetry, with resentment of the other party growing on both sides. Don't you think it matters that Republican leaders, not Democrats, have been busy burning bridges for decades?

Your column describes a kind of laboratory experiment in Philadelphia. A small group of Republicans interacted with a small group of Democrats. The idea was to understand one another. Even in this setting, the Democrats turned out to be more polite, admitting that there was a kernel of truth to the stereotype of Democrats being a bunch of, as you write, “smug, politically correct traitors to the constitution”. Republicans, in turn, rejected the stereotypes of being racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant and hateful, though they did appreciate that they were “gun loving”.

Your column suggests that the attitudes displayed on both sides are somehow symmetric. They are not. The Democrats obviously acknowledged not only that Republicans might consider them smug and politically correct, but even indicated they understood why. The Republicans on the other hand plainly denied that Democrats' perception of them had any substance - apart from their attitude to fire arms. Doesn't it matter at all that their president repeatedly makes racist, homophobic and anti-immigrant statements and that crowds of supporters cheer him on? Doesn't it matter that his policies reflect those statements?

Republicans have a long history of denying that their opponents are real Americans or have patriotic feelings. Their current leader, President Donald Trump, has an appalling habit of insulting anyone he dislikes. Republicans and supporters have never suffered anything close to this kind of systematic verbal abuse from leading Democrats.

Let's briefly consider Democrats’ sins in this respect. President Barack Obama once said in 2008 about some grass-roots conservatives: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Hillary Clinton, in 2016, said that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables”. Both soon apologised. How does that compare to Trump making rallies holler “lock her up” again and again. Or, more recently, making a crowd chant “animals”?

A truly independent observer should notice that the Republican base's obsession with Obama's and Clinton's smugness is indeed linked to questions of race and gender. It is quite obvious that many white men do not like the idea of a black man or a woman holding the highest office. Accordingly, they perceive Obama and Clinton to be “elitist”. The same people don’t mind Trump’s personal sense of entitlement. Nor does the Manhattan billionaire’s permanent and blatant untruthfulness bother them.

I have no clear idea why Democrats would accept being called traitors to the constitution in any other sense than insisting that the interpretation of legal principles must evolve as society evolves. Republican-leaning jurists want everyone to stick to the founding fathers' reading, whereas liberal jurists take social and historical change into account.

The latter stance is not treason; it makes sense. Slavery, for example, is obviously incompatible with the constitutional principle of all people being born free and equal. Nonetheless, the founding fathers accepted people of one colour owning people of another. If Democrats say Republicans have a point in calling them traitors that indicates that they have an idea of the other side's legal reasoning. But Democrats are not abandoning the constitutional order as practiced in recent decades.

In many ways, it is not Republicans, but Democrats who are defending constitutional norms these days. Republicans are not doing anything to enforce the emoluments clause, according to which the president is not allowed to accept money or favours from foreign governments. Only very few Republican lawmakers speak out against the president when he puts in question the independence of the courts. Nor do they seem irritated by Trump's constant slandering of free media. Freedom of speech, co-equal branches of government and the emoluments clause are important constitutional principles.

Yes, the deep divide that marks US politics today is deeply disturbing. Yes, it endangers democracy in the long run. If you are really looking for solutions, however, laboratory experiments in Philadelphia are not helpful. You must assess the root causes of the problem. The narrative of animosity growing spontaneously on both sides is not only wrong. It is part of the problem. It distracts from who is actively undermining democracy. It fails to distinguish righteous anger from the self-righteous variety.

Faithfully yours, Hans Dembowski




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