The media is biased, but not in the way most commentators think. By focusing on whether the media is harder on Republicans or Democrats, we’ve missed a more important bias: toward things that matter to the rich. This bias, by linking the state of the economy to how the rich are performing, ends up benefiting Republican candidates.
Media are subject to a deep availability bias: They write about the things they know and things that interest them and the people who surround them. This ends up giving coverage an upper-class tinge. To take a few examples, consider the long battle over reclining airplane seats, which garnered three full Upshot stories (with Uber getting at least six). Meanwhile, Upshot has done scant, if any, coverage on payday lending, employer credit checks, abusive scheduling, the desperate state of American pensions and the rise in abusive “rent to own” selling. It sounds almost impossible, but Upshot has published more stories on airplane seating than predatory payday lending. This isn’t entirely a critique of the Upshot; it’s delivering content that its readers are interested in. An editor might be hard-pressed to devote large amounts of space, even online, to stories that affect very few of its readers. The result is often stark, however, like the New York Times' cutting its race beat at a time of deep racial turmoil, while continuing to report on the housing whims of the rich (and the ideal way for them to reduce pesky arm fat).
More concretely, journalists will often use the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500 as shorthand for the state of the economy. This is misleading, however, since the richest 10 percent of Americans control 83 percent of financial assets. More than 50 percent of Americans don’t own any stock, and are therefore unaffected by the stock market.
Imagine an alternative universe in which the health of the economy was determined by wage growth for the middle class, rather than the stock portfolios of the wealthy. Further, reporters and wonks tend to rely on unemployment rate, while ignoring the fact that it excludes things like discouraged workers and the underemployed. In addition, the raw unemployment rate obscures deep class and racial divisions in unemployment. For instance, Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith write that “teenage black high-school dropouts from poor families” face an unemployment rate of 95 percent. The rate of unemployment for black Americans is regularly double what it is for whites. As Reniqua Allen writes, African-American men are “stuck in a permanent recession.”
Why does this matter for politics? It helps explain a persistent paradox in American politics: the fact that during the postwar period, the economy performs far better under Democrats, but Republicans have managed to hold the presidency more than half of the time. But growth isn’t just faster under Democrats, it’s far more equally distributed between class and race. Under Democrats, incomes for the low-income and middle-class Americans grew dramatically faster than under Republicans.
Political scientist Larry Bartels’ results (above) are striking and they raise a question: Why on earth would low-income and middle-income Americans ever vote for Republicans? Bartels presents three theories. First, what he calls myopia. Upon reexamining the data, Bartels discovered something odd: Most of the Republican income growth happens on the fourth year of a presidential term, while most of the Democratic income growth happens on the first year.
The result is that voters, who remember only their most recent economic experience, end up voting Republican. Second, Bartels finds that Republicans have a distinctive campaign finance advantage, which has helped them win in key elections. He finds that “Every Republican incumbent (or successor) has spent at least slightly more than his Democratic challenger, while every Democratic incumbent (or successor) has spent at least slightly less than his Republican challenger.” A recent study finds that this advantage continues: Citizen’s United boosted Republican chances in state House races by about 4 percentage points overall.
While these two factors are certainly important, the most surprising thing Bartels finds is that low-income and middle-income voters are more sensitive to the income growth of the rich. The effect he finds is impressive. A 1 percent increase in real income growth would increase the vote share of the incumbent party by 2.3 percent, while a similar increase in income for the richest 95 percent would boost the incumbent vote share by 10.2 percent. Together, these factors were powerful enough to swing four postwar elections (1956, 1968, 1980 and 2000) in favor of the Republican Party (see chart). The chart shows how much higher the Republican vote margin was because of the three factors Bartels observes. Over the full period, the three added, on average, 9.5 points to the Republican popular vote margin. The Republicans also benefit from structural factors, as I’ve noted elsewhere: Majoritarian systems favor right parties, low turnout (particularly in midterms) and some well-placed Supreme Court justices to deliver the closely contested 2000 election.
Republicans benefit from the fact that journalists are loath to seem biased. Even reporting basic facts, like the fact that while Republicans claim to be interested in cutting deficits, the deficits actually rise faster under Republicans, would seem partisan. The result is that the truth about the parties remains widely unknown: A 2014 poll found that Americans trust Republicans to deal with the federal deficit 42 percent to 36 percent. Indeed, despite having presided over higher unemployment, lower GDP growth and higher inflation, Americans consistently say they trust Republicans more with the economy. Pew reports that in 2015, 44 percent of Americans said the Republican Party would do a better job dealing with the economy compared with 41 percent for Democrats. This is striking given that Americans are living through the Obama recovery that directly followed a dramatic recession under Bush. At the same time, 60 percent of Americans say that Democrats care about the middle class, compared with 43 percent for the Republican Party. But research shows that middle-class economics is far superior to the Republican Party’s “trickle down” economic agenda. As Nixon realized long ago, facts do not matter, only opinions do. And Republicans have successfully goaded, cajoled and manipulated the press so deeply that their flawed economic agenda appears beneficial. But it is merely a facade: Recent research suggests Republicans boost the stock market (benefiting the 1 percent) while Democrats reduce unemployment (helping everyone).
What can be done? First, progressives desperately need to combat the trickle-down narrative. They need to give Americans plausible reasons for why their policies are better for the economy. Middle-class economics is certainly one part. The fact that progressives direct economic growth toward lower unemployment rather than a fatter stock market is another. I’ve outlined 11 reasons why progressive policies grow the economy faster. Progressives need to make an equitable growth narrative central to their campaigns, and deliver on promises to help low-income and middle-class Americans. The progressive agenda of a higher minimum wage, a more robust social safety net, universal paid sick leave and debt-free higher education would bring around many voters. Second, those who benefit from progressive policies are least likely to turn out to vote, while the wealthy whites who benefit from conservative policies overwhelmingly turn out. Boosting registration and turnout is thus key.
Finally, progressives shouldn’t be afraid of fighting for racial justice. We need an economy that works better for everyone. The progressive agenda can’t just be focused on the white middle class, but it would be absurd to pretend that a policy agenda for racial equity would sacrifice the interests of working-class whites. As I’ve shown, progressive presidents close income gaps between whites and people of color while also benefiting white people. Progressive policies offer a better world for everyone -- while conservative policies pit the poor against the rich. Instead of the zero-sum economy conservatives offer, progressives can offer broad-based economic growth that will benefit all Americans.