The “Vibecession” Is A Storytelling Failure
GOP/Media Milking A Lie
The economy has objectively improved since President Joe Biden was sworn into office in January 2021. Unemployment is way down, especially from the highs it hit under Donald Trump’s failed COVID-era bumbling and stumbling. Inflation is easing, the stock market is hitting records, and wages are increasing.
Opinion polling shows that Biden is not getting the benefit – so far – of these improved economic conditions, even as his administration’s actions have increased economic stimulus, contributed to more construction spending, led openings of high-tech factories and lowered prescription drug prices. Certainly, people continue to experience individual economic headwinds, but the consensus doom and gloom about things is largely “vibes.”
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This is happening because of storytelling, both by an ill-intentioned political opposition but also storytelling from the mainstream media, which sees a market for doom. It is also, unfortunately, another instance of Democrats failing to seize the initiative.
Before Biden was even sworn into office, Republicans began to beat the drums for failure. They claimed that his intentions to undo Trump’s bigoted and harsh immigration policies were creating a “border crisis,” echoing the same language used by their allies in the white supremacist movement. They soon moved on to blaming Biden for much of the mess he inherited from Trump. It was Trump who screwed up the COVID response, but Biden was blamed for supply chain problems. The right claimed that empty store shelves, including a purported lack of Thanksgiving turkeys in 2021, was Biden’s fault even as the Rescue Plan he signed was being put to work to stimulate the economy.
Of course, the party’s communications arm, Fox News, was ahead of the curve in pushing the false narrative. It was Fox, after all, who repeatedly showed footage of protests from the summer of 2020 to their audiences, convincing millions of conservative watchers that cities like Portland had completely burned to the ground at Biden’s behest. Fox is going to do what it was built to do and has always done, which is why one of the dumbest notions is Democrats appearing on the network to deprogram the most diehard cultists.
But what soon happened is that the mainstream media picked up Fox’s ball and ran with it. That’s how we ended up with absurdities like CNN putting forth a family consuming an absurd volume of milk in a week (12 gallons!!!!) as typical of American families contending with inflation under Biden. The right led the way to a well of “bad economy under Biden” stories and the mainstream press marched along with it like they were talking about WMDs in Iraq.
These are problems that we have faced for years on issue after issue. The right paints a ridiculous picture and the mainstream press amplifies the distortions, either outright or at best as one “side” in an unbalanced debate. On one hand, hard data about economic improvement, on the other side Ted Cruz says there aren’t any turkeys at the supermarket, you decide.
This dynamic is why many liberals focus on media issues, and why I worked for thirteen years at Media Matters for America.
But the Democratic Party has an issue here as well. On policy, the party has improved from policy crafted and implemented under former President Obama that was too often designed to appeal to a mythical “sensible Republican” who ultimately still opposed it. But things are still more cautious than they need to be. The party still pays way too much lip service to issues that nobody actually cares about, like the size of the deficit, and receives little to no benefit for doing so. Even worse, conservative figures like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema have an oversized influence on what can pass, and their meddling has limited policy effectiveness, like the repeal of the child tax credit program.
If this were just policy, it is doubtful that vibes would have overrun facts. And yet it has because as the right and the media were banging the drums against Biden and Democrats, the party wasn’t doing enough to point out its successes.
One of the few things that Trump gets right about politics is embracing the role of being your own chief advocate. With Trump that means lying a lot about things and spreading racism and conspiracy theories, but nobody has ever said Trump doesn’t speak up for himself.
The same cannot be said for Democrats, who still hold on to the collective delusion that the work they do will speak for itself, and that the media will be compelled to cover that work because its so gosh darn great. It speaks to a collective naivete that this is still how so many Democrats, including those at the presidential level, see things.
While the right and the media were engaged in their orgy of mythmaking, Democrats should have been doing their all to indicate what a mess they had been left by Trump and what Biden was doing to fix it. This doesn’t just mean when new, concrete data comes in, a one-day celebration of a reduced unemployment rate or the announcement of a new factory taking advantage of incentives implemented by Democrats. It means being almost annoyingly positive about improvements and advances taking place on their watch, filling the vacuum of news so that the public is told a story in one form or another.
I am under no illusion that this sort of thing will lead to media coverage. There are institutional obstacles that stand in the way of the mainstream press acknowledging the proven successes of center-left to progressive policy. But that is not an excuse. Democrats should have been tooting their own horns anyway, instead of giving the right and the mainstream press a more or less free hand to push misinformation and straight-out lies.
There are no longer off days in politics and that hasn’t been the case for probably decades now. We live in the era of permanent campaign. We can acknowledge that the right is chock full of dishonest and deceitful propaganda and that far too much of the media is too lazy to do the bare minimum, but this still doesn’t get the party and wider liberalism off the hook.
If people feel that the economy isn’t great, even when it is far improved, that can affect their very real votes. That should be top of mind and counteracted, even if it feels obvious and the first compulsion is to debunk the right’s lies or get upset at the public for “not getting it.”
Everyone is telling a story, and the public is absorbing it all, trash or not. Democrats and liberals have to do the work too and do everything they can to make sure the “vibes” go their way.
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