There are roughly 332 million people in America and roughly 209 million adults. In the last two Presidential Elections, we saw record turnout of 139 million in 2016 and 158 million in 2020. Meanwhile in prime time viewership, FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN combine for about 6.76 million viewers during the first quarter of 2021. In total, less than 5% of the 2020 electorate is watching cable news. Viewership is certainly declining in the Biden era, but even in the Trump era, well north of 8 in 10 voters weren’t consuming daily news cycles. This is true across demographics, and ideologies. Most Americans aren’t sitting by the TV to see political news. While more and more people are voting, how they are engaging their political system is not how we think they engage it.
Even as there isn’t a lot of debate about what I wrote above, American politics still tends to cater to and center the folks in the 2-3% of America who are internalizing the “Beltway” debates on television. The Republican Party has fully embraced some hybrid of the FOX audience and people in the red hats at the Trump rallies as their true base. The Democratic Party largely chose to center online “ActBlue” small donors last cycle when they made raw donor numbers a criteria for getting on the debate stage in the Presidential Primaries. They may not be numerous within the electorate, but the political parties seem to want to embrace the people most stuck on the podcasts, cable news shows, and Twitter. Does it make any sense though?
Of course it doesn’t, and one must not look any further than the man sitting in the Oval Office right now, Joe Biden. Did he lead in online donors in the primaries? No. Was he super popular in Twitter in the primaries? No. Did he have the coolest memes? No. Was he ever seemingly the most popular candidate with MSNBC’s primetime hosts? Definitely not. President Biden was elected as a basic rejection of all of that, of all the coverage that said the party was moving left, or that he was too old fashioned, or that he was not what the electorate wanted. President Biden won the nomination by the widest contested margin since at least 2004, and did so faster than anyone since that same 2004 race went to John Kerry. His coalition was largely working class, cutting across demographic lines of all kinds. It wasn’t close, and it’s meaning should have been clear. Joe Biden was nominated by a broad coalition of Democratic voters, despite a press that wanted to declare him dead, a bunch of opponents who thought they knew better where voter sentiment was moving, and a community of activists and leaders who were pretty sure that his politics weren’t all that appealing to the public, and would ultimately lose again. To be fair, Biden was hardly the first recent rejection of party orthodoxy in either party. One can fairly assume though that without change, he also won’t be the last.
The vast majority of voters aren’t really looking for what the cable news shows are selling as party orthodoxy. The story of the last 15 years in American political life is the voters selecting something and someone very different than what is expected. The truth is that the most partisan, most activist bases of the parties are very tiny groups, and they aren’t all that representative of the vast majority of primary voters, let alone general election voters. This has created a big industry, both politically and within the media, that is representing a tiny slice of American life. That ever shrinking pie is scaring the folks that make their money off of the conflict and chaos that drives “Beltway” conversations. As that dynamic continues to unfold in the era of President Biden, expect even more ridiculous stories about the President’s dogs shitting in the White House hallways, faux controversies about Dr. Seuss, and even ridiculous stories about the rantings of the former guy hanging out in Florida. There’s a need to create some kind of news, otherwise there’s a possibility that for some, the grift is up.