July 18, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

For 2020, It’s Democracy vs. Anti-Democracy

Chanting "send her back" means democracy is dead to you. 

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Editor’s note

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The anti-moral press was at it again Wednesday night. Lisa Mascaro, the Associated Press’s chief congressional correspondent, wrote a story claiming the president and the House Democrats have established a “fraught political frame” for 2020.

“Racists” vs. “socialists,” Mascaro wrote

This is anti-moral because it does not, indeed refuses to, weigh the moral difference between two things that cannot be moral equivalents. It’s also lazy and dangerous.

On the one hand, the president told four citizens of color (all freshman House Democrats) to go back to wherever they came from. These four citizens of color told the president in return that such statements are horribly racist. One side was wrong, the other right. These are not morally the same. But in equating right and wrong, everyone is just as good, or just as bad, as everyone else, and nothing really matters. 

The anti-moral press masks the evils taking shape.

On the other hand, the president really is a racist, as are legions of his followers, hundreds of whom chanted last night, during a rally in North Carolina, as if they were cheering on Der Führer. When Donald Trump raised the name of Ilhar Omar, one of the four women of color he besmirched, the crowd broke into chanting send her back! 

These four women of color, meanwhile, do not represent the Democratic Party, nor are they among the party’s leadership. They have improved the health of our discourse, in my view, by introducing new ideas, some of which are socialist in the most egalitarian sense. But no one in the party, not even these four women of color, represents socialism qua Stalinism as alleged in bad faith by the president and the Republicans. In elevating a clear falsehood to the level of a clear truth, Lisa Mascaro is laundering a smear. 

The president and the Republican Party prefers an anti-moral press, because an anti-moral press masks the evils taking shape. In targeting a black female Muslim Democrat, in permitting a crowd to chant send her back!, the president is laying the foundation for someone to take matters into his own hands, and that, historically, tends to mean murder. (Indeed, Roll Call reported Tuesday beefed up security measures at the Capitol after Trump’s racists tweets inspired a greater number of death threats.)

But that’s only the most obvious evil.

To understand why the GOP prefers an anti-moral press, to understand the evil masked by an anti-moral press, you have to understand what’s wrong with racism in a republic. Once you understand that, you understand the frame for 2020 isn’t as fraught as the anti-moral press claims. The real frame? Democracy vs. anti-democracy.

That’s an easy choice. 

What’s wrong with racism in a republic? Racism, like fascism, identifies an in-group and out-group. Within this social structure, nothing matters, not even morality, except who’s in and who’s out. The out-group can do the right thing, but the in-group may hate it, not because it’s wrong, or right, but because the out-group did it. This may sound abstract, but it should be familiar by now, because it has been mainstream since Sarah Palin talked, in 2008, about the need to represent “real Americans.”

Some have claimed the president is being hypocritical. Complaining about America is how he won. He vowed to make American great again. Critics ask how he can turn around and say to these four women of color, indeed anyone who complains about racism, that they should love America or leave it. Isn’t that, critics ask, hypocritical?

To us, yes. To them, no. Why?

Because all that matters is who’s in and who’s out. The in-group’s motives are always good. The out-group’s motives are always bad. Even if the out-group does the same thing as the in-group, it’s bad. Ergo, questions of hypocrisy are to them meaningless. 

Think about this.

Think about the impact such thinking has on a democracy. When you believe the out-group always has malign intent, no disagreement can be tolerated. If there is no room for disagreement, it’s a democracy in name only. So if you chant send her back!, you aren’t just being horribly racist. You’re saying democracy is dead to you. 

This is what the anti-moral press is missing. This is what the president and the Republicans want. They want to see 2020 framed as a choice between racists and socialists. But the real frame is between democracy and anti-democracy. 

—John Stoehr

My gratitude

In writing today’s edition, I owe a debt to Patricia Roberts-Miller.

She’s the author of Demagoguery and Democracy (2017) and most recently Rhetoric and Demagoguery. Her post last night inspired some of the thinking that went to today’s edition, especially the concept of in- and out-groups. Many thanks to Trish!

(Trish, by the way, is an enthusiastic subscriber. You should be too!)


  1. Geoff G on July 30, 2021 at 7:50 am

    I don’t think there’s ever been a time in history when the press was responsible along the lines you suggest. For one thing, there will be a counter-press with a counter-narrative. Or at least there almost certainly will be one for the rest of our lives. I don’t know if you’d have similar criticisms of the press of the 50’s through the cable/internet revolutions — I think you probably would — but that’s gone. And no matter how moral the press was in, say, the 40s through the 60s, segregationists thrived, until they didn’t. I’m sure the press played a role — heck just reporting stuff, even negatively, can help movements — but of course it was the lives, blood, sweat and tears of advocates, plus some masterful presidenting and legislating, that did most of the work. And of course there was a lot of other awful stuff going on too that the press didn’t stop.

    There’s something else I think about in these critiques. You know what’s happening, and are able to make clear moral judgments, despite the fact that everything you know comes from the press. (Obviously, the same is true for me.) A whole lot of people are able to make those judgments, which agree with our judgments. Trump got skunked in the midterms, and his approval rating is very low in a booming economy when Americans are not dying in wars (in significant numbers, anyway).

    How are those of us clued in to the current horror able to form these judgments? By critically analyzing the news. The first step of that, as your reading of Mascoro demonstrates, is separating BS from fact. Recognizing the tendency of some, but not all reporters, to stick to pre-existing narratives and frames, we don’t read Mascoro to tell us what to think, and probably wouldn’t use her as a source of information anyway. (We just read them to criticize them.) I don’t know about you, but I can say I never, ever watch cable news. That would rot my brain, and wouldn’t keep me nearly as informed as I am, since in the hour it would take me to watch Wolf palaver, I can read a whole lot of newsletters from folks like you (Bouie’s back! You need more recipes, Stoehr!) and other stuff in newspapers and various blogs.

    Critical thinking is hard! Colleges are full of very smart kids, but in disciplines where critical thinking is critical to success, kids taught the same material by the same teacher get different grades, because some are better at analysis than others. (Sometimes, I was one of the bright ones, sometimes not.) And many people don’t even try. Some folks are able to analyze baseball far better than I can, because that’s where their energies and passions are, whereas mine are politics. And of course a lot of people think an hour or two of cable news a few or most days of the week is keeping them informed, which mostly indicates that politics is not as important to them as other things.

    I guess the bottom line is that the press could certainly do a better job; there will always be room for improvement. But if we’re expecting that a better press will result in better politics, I think we’ll be disappointed. Except that there will endless examples for critics to criticize.

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