“Paradigm shift” is a concept coined by Thomas Kuhn in his landmark 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Every so often, Kuhn argues, science moves from the “normal science” of accumulated empirical advances to “revolutionary science”—whole new ways of looking at things.
The same is true of political science—if studying something as inexact and messy as politics can properly be called a science. From time to time, a fresh frame is required—a new lens to allow us to see our world more clearly. Never in my lifetime have we needed this more than now.
Today’s democracy crisis threatens to push us back to the oldest social paradigm of all, the one from the jungle: Might makes right.
Until the last 40 years, when dozens of nations moved toward freedom, republics with the rule of law were anomalies in human history. Historians could reference ancient Athens and Rome; elections (of a sort) for pope and leader of the caliphate; and the stirrings of parliamentary systems in otherwise autocratic 17th Century European monarchies. That was about it for representative government until the United States came along.
Even when our democracy fell short, as it often did, its centerpiece—the peaceful transfer of power—held.
Now, for the first time since slaveholding states rejected the outcome of the 1860 election, we are in danger of reverting to the norm.
If you think I’m sounding alarmist, please read three important articles published within the last few days. In The Atlantic, Barton Gellman pulls together all of the strands to explain why “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” In The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie argues persuasively that “The Trump Conspiracy is Hiding in Plain Sight.” And at CNN, a team of reporters called out Big Lie Republicans in Michigan, Arizona and Georgia, though they didn’t call them that.
The CNN piece—while not comprehensive like Gellman’s or pointed like Bouie’s—was arguably more important because it exemplifies the kind of straight news coverage we need more of in this fraught national moment.
To understand why a new press paradigm is so necessary, check out a fourth piece, “The Media Treats Biden as Badly as - or Worse Than - Trump.” I’m not so sure about the precision of the data analytics Dana Milbank cites in The Washington Post. But his larger argument is spot on:
We need a skeptical, independent press. But how about being partisans for democracy? The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.
Not surprisingly, the piece generated some blowback, including this from Ryan Lizza, Chief Washington Correspondent for Politico:
Dana Milbank @MilbankBiden is attempting to salvage democratic norms. The people opposing him are using fascist tools of deception and voter disenfranchisement. Neutrality in this struggle is not a virtue. https://t.co/EwmkbbxUlX
In his trivializing argument, Ryan Lizza claims that Dana Milbank and others like me with our hair on fire want “only positive stories” about Biden. That’s bullshit. What we want is for the press corps to pull its collective head out of the sand and recognize that we’re in a genuine crisis.
Ross Douthat entered the fray with similar cartoonish arguments, suggesting that those on our side want to bury legitimate corruption stories about less-bad candidates and "hide self-evident realities for the sake of some higher cause." Nope. As Dan Froomkin put it on PressWatchers, "We just want context, which in this case is the profound threat to democracy.”
Unfortunately, the order of media battle between light and darkness is now tilting toward the latter. Much of the mainstream media remains trapped in a 20th century paradigm, where truth is often subordinated to phony balance and an evasion of critical issues in favor of chasing ratings. Meanwhile, rightwing media is no longer a scrappy insurgent fighting The Powers That Be (the title of a 1979 book by the late David Halberstam about CBS News, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times) but the dominant source of “news” and poisonous lies for nearly half the country.
For what’s left of the mainstream media, the paradigm is the problem.
Various old conventions of the news business—like the one defining even demagogic lies as “news”—allowed Joe McCarthy and later Donald Trump to manipulate the press. Day to day, the enduring structure of Washington reporting is built on the adversarial relationship between the White House and the press.
In the 120 years since reporters first covered the White House as a beat, this dynamic has been a healthy thing for American democracy. It was—and remains—extremely important that the press hold presidents of both parties accountable for their performance in office.
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But this can no longer be the principal paradigm of Washington coverage. As the big story of American politics moves from the polarization of two parties (old news) to the radicalization of one (true news), the press corps must adjust. The adversarial axle on which political journalism should now turn is confronting authoritarians in the capital and in the states—not once in a while, but every day.
We have precedents for a media bias in favor of democracy. There was nothing “fair” about the coverage of fascists in the early 1940s or segregationists in the 1960s. Reporters hardly gave FDR or LBJ a free ride, but almost all of them incorporated the moral imperatives of World War II and the civil rights movement into their coverage.
Yes, it’s harder now. It’s not as if on the the eve of war the Bund (American Nazis) was the size of today’s GOP; Southern racists didn’t dominate the Democratic Party in the sixties the way authoritarian Trumpers dominate the Republican Party today.
But the challenge is the same: The defense of democracy must become the new master narratives of political journalism, pushing aside the reams of “reporting” that amount to little more than mimicking the president’s bad polls.
In his 2008 book, The Partisan Press: A History of Media Bias in the United States, Si Sheppard writes that the media has “oscillated throughout history between its duty to tell the truth versus its responsibility to describe the facts.”
We must do both, of course, but oscillate now toward the former, with a new paradigm that puts democracy first.