There’s No Quick Fix For Healing Democracy
Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.Fourteen billion. That’s how much the 2020 election cost, all in all. For perspective, that’s twice as much as the 2016 election and heading toward three times as much as 2008. If those dollars were seconds, they’d last 443 years.
How much our elections cost is ridiculous for many reasons, but one that we don’t talk about enough is how much of this money is focused on short-term wins instead of long-term change. That problem is also what keeps me awake at night these days, and so, as I wrestled with my year-end column about the state of media, and Mother Jones’ place in it, I figured I’d try to connect the dots.
(Let’s get the year-end part out of the way quickly: This is our biggest fundraising time of the year, and the goal we need to hit online this month is $350,000 (just 0.00025 percent of $14 billion, if you’re counting). We have to get there for MoJo to stay on track, and I hope you’ll support the fearless reporting you find here with a donation.)
Back to that record election spending: It came about because of a clear and present danger—the possibility of another four years of an authoritarian president, and, with it, an immediate threat to American democracy. Lots of people opened their wallets in ways they hadn’t before. Maybe you were among them.
Where did that money go? A lot of it was spent on advertising. Take the Lincoln Project, a super-PAC run by a group of never-Trump Republican operatives. The Lincoln Project brought in $82 million this election cycle (enough to fund all of Mother Jones’ work for 5 years!) and spent much of that on clever TV commercials and social media videos promising to peel off Republicans in “deep MAGA country.” Their pitch was urgent and entirely focused on now, now, now. And many people, desperate for results now, now, now, embraced it.
Yet on Election Day, Trump appears to have expanded his share of the Republican vote by as much as 6 percentage points. “Deep MAGA country” actually grew deeper. So did the pocketbooks of Lincoln’s principals—co-founder Reed Galen’s firm Summit Strategies alone was paid $24 million.
Contrast that with a different kind of investment: The group Stacey Abrams founded to battle voter suppression, Fair Fight, raised $67 million, and used around 10 percent of its money for media. But Fair Fight and other groups, many led by women of color, invested in the long, unglamorous game of organizing—and flipped their state.
As MoJo’s Jamilah King reported, back in 2014 some 800,000 Georgians, three-quarters of them Black, were not registered to vote. With a $7 million investment, Abrams and another group she launched, the New Georgia Project, reduced that number by 200,000 in just two years; by this past October, another 600,000 were registered. Biden won the state by 12,000, and strong turnout sent Georgia’s two Senate races into the January runoff on which the balance of power in Washington now depends.
This contrast encapsulates the danger—and the opportunity—that lies ahead. In 2021, the short-term urgency to remove Trump from the White House will be gone. Will the energy (and money) that went into resisting him evaporate? That would almost certainly mean that we’ll soon get another Trump (or even Season II of the original), because nothing will have changed about the conditions that got us here in the first place.
But there’s a hopeful flip side: We understand now what it takes to change some of those underlying conditions. We’ve seen that the longer arc of organizing has a greater return on investment—literally, dollar for dollar—than viral flashiness. We’ve seen that ordinary people will step up for the common good even if, especially if, our leaders won’t. The coming year has got to be the year we commit to the longer-term work of rebuilding (or building for real) our democratic infrastructure.
That includes journalism. We’ve seen shining moments of speaking truth to power, but also accelerating crisis. Every year America loses more journalism muscle as newsrooms shrink and shut down, and the pandemic has intensified that trend. In Georgia, it was a laid-off local reporter who kept the world up to date as key results came into focus.
David Orr, the pioneering sustainability thinker, told me that democracy looks “like a house with a ton of deferred maintenance.” There are leaks in the roof and the foundation—built on the toxic legacy of slavery and land theft—is shaky. A fresh coat of paint isn’t going to do the trick, he points out. We need to get into the walls.
That metaphor really resonated with me, because investigative reporting is a bit like the plumbing of democracy (or waste management—in any case, things get smelly when it’s missing). Digging up the truth and getting it out there, day in and day out, is not as glamorous as a viral TV spot. It can feel like drudgery, and it can take a long time to see an impact. But over time, it can really flush out the rot.
What I worry about is whether we’ll be able to keep doing that in 2021. Will local journalism continue to wither? (Yes, but we can all help rebuild it.) Will our national media colleagues retreat from their resistance-minded moves toward treating truth and democracy as worth fighting for—not just covering dispassionately—once Trump is out of the White House?
That would be a shame, because, to stretch that home-improvement metaphor, journalism has some of the key tools that can help with the democracy-building project. Here are five that we can wield in 2021.
Tool #1: Truth
Duh, you might say, but we forget sometimes how powerful the facts are, as evidenced by how hard corrupt and authoritarian leaders work to bury them. Think back to January, when 2020 wore out its welcome in just a month with locusts, fires, Kobe Bryant, and the impeachment hearings. Remember how Mitch McConnell and all of his Republican colleagues (except one) decided the American people did not deserve to hear evidence on the president blackmailing a foreign head of state for his own gain? Yeah, me neither. But it was such a perfect encapsulation of the past four years: Suppress the truth, because you cannot allow it to change minds. Hide the science on climate and COVID. Bully the whistleblowers. Stonewall the courts.
Corrupt leaders fear the truth because it is their Kryptonite. Americans are polarized about many things, but a bipartisan majority ranks corruption as one of the greatest threats we confront, and exposing it is a powerful tool. Just one recent example: For more than two years, Mother Jones reporter Russ Choma has been digging into the mysterious $50 million loan that Trump claims to have made to an especially worthy recipient—himself. What Russ ultimately discovered walks, talks, and quacks a lot like tax fraud.
Now that loan is part of the New York attorney general’s investigation into Trump’s finances—an investigation that can’t be stopped with a pardon or other White House maneuver. (Here, Russ explains some of the other ways prosecutors are likely to catch up with Trump and his crew.) The truths unearthed in 2020 will continue to be major stories into 2021 and beyond—in Congress, in the courts, and absolutely in journalism.
But the process won’t be quick. In the movies (and in journalists’ dreams), the intrepid reporter publishes a damning investigation, and boom! Crooks are arrested, virtue triumphs, awkward office parties ensue. Reality is so much more pedestrian. You file story after story on a dry but crucial beat such as voting rights and election security (which MoJo’s Ari Berman, Pema Levy, and AJ Vicens have been focused on for years now). And it can feel like nothing ever happens.
Until it does. Armed with the facts about voter suppression, organizers in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and so many other places worked, also for years, so that more people could cast a ballot and have it counted. And as Ari has documented, learning about suppression may have made voters more determined to exercise their rights—poetic justice!
Exposing abuses of power isn’t enough to fix them. But it’s a vital ingredient in a formula for progress that has worked again and again: Truth + organizing + time = change. We can thank 2020 for showing us that this equation still works, and your support helps Mother Jones keep providing the “truth” part of it.
Tool #2: Collective action
“We in the news media have thought for years that this gravy train is coming to an end,” an unnamed news anchor told Vanity Fair a couple of months ago, for a story about the end of the “Trump bump.” I’ve heard more genteel versions at many gatherings of journalists, and they drive me nuts.
Yes, the chaos of this administration brought more readers, viewers, and subscribers to many news outlets. But that’s no gravy train. It’s a collective effort, powered by millions of individual actions, to understand and confront the existential danger of authoritarianism and propaganda. We journalists, and you the public, are not just buyers and sellers in some marketplace of facts. We’re working together on a common project: a democracy where truth and justice matter.
Treating the audience—you!—as just eyeballs to be monetized also just doesn’t work financially, if what you’re trying to pay for is quality reporting. We’ve done the math before, but in short, the ads you see on a typical article at MotherJones.com bring in about half a penny per page view. Those ads account for less than 5 percent of our annual budget. By contrast, two-thirds of it comes from readers like you. (You can see our financials here.)
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, colleagues in traditional media would sometimes ask things like, “Does Mother Jones need to exist anymore?” Fools. There was plenty to challenge, question, and dig into during the Obama administration, as there will be with Joe Biden’s. (See our cover story from a year ago on Biden’s relationship with the big banks.) MoJo’s reporters go after abuses of power wherever they happen, from statehouses to Congress to the C-suite. And you get that—which is why, in 2008 and ever since, you told us that Mother Jones does still need to exist, and grow.
We ask for your feedback a lot, and one thing we’ve heard over and over again is that you see Donald Trump is a symptom of deeper problems: of democratic decay, growing inequality, corruption at every level, the obscene amount of money in politics. You are working and voting to combat those problems, and you rely on journalism like ours to help you do that. Finishing the year strong will make sure we’re here for you in 2021.
Tool #3: Take systemic change seriously
After the death of George Floyd, journalists everywhere, led by journalists of color, grappled with how our work can show up for equity and justice, and how often it has not. This was not a new conversation; the federal government’s Kerner Commission made much the same diagnosis more than 50 years ago. But 2020 was the year when many newsrooms looked hard at their participation in systems that perpetuate inequality.
Mother Jones’ chief operating officer, Jahna Berry, recently wrote about the role journalism played in her community when she was growing up in Detroit.
At its worst, coverage of African Americans and other people of color could be racist and one-dimensional. That’s because structural racism is deeply embedded within traditional, majority-white newsrooms. It’s shaped everything from who’s hired to report the news to what has been considered ‘objective.’
But there was also great investigative reporting, which helped empower us. That’s how we found out about redlining and learned about communities that racially profile Black and Brown motorists. Without journalists, my mom often said, ‘we just would not know.’
These two faces of journalism still persist, and this year has brought a reckoning with them. That has meant reexamining longstanding habits, like how the notion of “objectivity” often results in the opposite (including Black reporters being told they could not fairly cover Black communities). It’s meant looking at day-to-day practices, from hiring and promotion to how we use language (such “riots” or “unarmed black man“).
And here’s a way journalism can help build a democracy that works for everyone: by shining light on systems, not just individuals and incidents, and seriously reporting on demands for systemic change, even if conventional wisdom dismisses it as impractical. As my colleague Nathalie Baptiste wrote last week, abolition was once considered politically impossible even by those sympathetic to it. Same-sex marriage seemed improbable just a decade ago.
Truly rising to these challenges will take a while. But a first step is not abandoning the urgency that 2020 brought.
Tool #4: Listen
One way to read the this year’s election result is that 2016 was not a fluke: 74 million voters, up from 62 million four years ago, chose authoritarian leadership, even when that leadership was flagrantly corrupt and incompetent. Which means that the house of democracy is even shakier than we knew. And another swing of the wrecking ball is bound to come.
That doesn’t mean we should despair. Trump, despite some gains, was crushed among those who will dominate America’s future electorate—voters of color and the young. Organizers in those communities have gained strength even under the extraordinary conditions of a pandemic and economic crisis. As MoJo’s Kara Voght has documented, many who took up activism during the Trump era won’t be going back to brunch. They are starting to do what Republicans have done to great effect for decades—burrow in and work on everything from school-board elections on up.
The other day I spoke with Chloe Maxmin, a 26-year-old climate activist who in November won a Maine Senate seat in the conservative rural district where she grew up. When I asked how, she laughed: “Everyone asks that, and I tell them, I just listened!” She told of knocking on the door of a trailer at the end of a long dirt road. The shades were drawn and when the door opened, smoke poured out like fog. A man named Philip came out. No one from a campaign, he told her, had ever knocked on his door or listened to what he had to say. (The subjects of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who wrote a powerful piece for Mother Jones in 2016 about her five years listening to Trump’s biggest fans, consistently tell her they feel Trump listens to them, even when he delivers nothing tangible for their communities.)
A chunk of Maxmin’s district was among the “pivot counties” that went from Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016. “People vote for Trump for racist, hateful reasons sometimes,” she said. “But some also do it just because they feel he talks to them. I am talking to them, I’m listening to them, I tell them I’m going to stand up for them.” And the results—Maxmin also defeated a Republican when she first won election to the Maine House in 2018—show that people believe her.
Listening is what journalists do, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve seen how doing that, and reporting on issues that affect communities directly, can draw in readers across partisan and cultural lines. I’ll never forget the reader email that reporter Julia Lurie shared with me a while back in response to her reporting on how the opioid epidemic was straining foster care systems: “I am a Christian conservative republican,” the letter said. “I live in Ohio…I cannot thank you enough for your work on the opioid crisis. I cried after reading about the children in your story. It has really stuck with me all evening. I have never emailed the writer of anything I have read online. But your story has really touched me.”
Listening is hard when what you hear is challenging, but it’s a tool for change, too, as civil rights leader Reverend William Barber pointed out after Black communities made their voices heard this summer:
If we take time to listen to this nation’s wounds, they tell us where to look for hope. The hope is in the mourning and the screams, which make us want to rush from this place. There is a sense in which right now we must refuse to be comforted too quickly. Only if these screams and tears and protests shake the very conscience of this nation—and until there is real political and judicial repentance—can we hope for a better society on the other side of this.
Tool #5: Confront the disinformation platforms
We thought we’d seen it all, but the past four weeks have taken political disinformation to a new level. Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and other Republican leaders allowed the head of their party to spread deranged conspiracy theories. The president himself harassed election officials and inspired his followers to do the same. Prime-time viewership for the far-right network Newsmax rose nearly twentyfold because it was willing to keep deluding its audience that a second Trump term is ahead—its CEO, Christopher Ruddy, acknowledged that he doesn’t really believe that, but hey, “Donald Trump has been great for the new business.” (Gravy train anyone?)
Even more potent are the lies circulating on social media that are visible to no one but those targeted by the algorithms. I recently talked with Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father, a healthy, gregarious 65-year-old in Arizona, to COVID-19 in June. When she logged into his Facebook account to set up a memorial page, she saw for the first time what he had been exposed to—a torrent of virus denialism. “It was all these memes and [false] news articles that were questioning the efficacy of mask wearing, questioning the need for social distancing—just very basic public health guidelines. An incredible reservoir of just blatant misinformation around those hard, true facts. It really caused me to take a step back and think about the environment that he was living in.” Facebook didn’t kill her father, Urquiza says, but it created the conditions for him to dismiss her pleas for caution.
We’ve all had experiences like those, and it’s incredibly difficult to remain hopeful when friends and loved ones get sucked into wormholes of disinformation. Research has shown that once someone’s beliefs have hardened, persuasion becomes very difficult.
Persuasion is also not in the journalism toolkit—our job is to give you information, not to tell you what to think. But there may be a better remedy: prevention. The RAND Corporation noted back in 2015 that one of the more effective ways to combat disinformation is to get out in front of it (rather than fact-checking later) and to expose who’s peddling the lies. That’s something reporters—like MoJo’s Ali Breland, whose beat readers made possible two years ago—know how to do.
And there’s one more piece to it: Facebook and the other social media companies are spending a ton of money on lobbying right now because they know there’s a growing movement to rein in their power—they’ve even started tossing some crumbs to journalism. (Not to Mother Jones, though, I wonder why?) More than ever, we need tough-minded reporting on what they are really doing so that activists and policymakers can take action.
So what does this mean for Mother Jones? I won’t sugarcoat it, it’s not an easy road ahead. Like you (I bet), our team is pretty exhausted from the pace of the past four years and the grimness of the news they often cover. (That’s one reason we launched our Recharge section, which chronicles stories of justice achieved and change accomplished.)
The work ahead is daunting, and our budget is tight, which is why we really need your support to hit our $350,000 goal this month to stay on track. Mother Jones has grown these last few years as readers have rallied to us, and for that we are incredibly grateful. But that means we need to raise more money to keep the wheels on, and the pandemic has made a tough environment for advertising (not a big part of our revenue, but it does help!) and fundraising. Some people have told us that they put all their money into the election and journalism had to take a backseat. Others simply have to cut back because they’re being hard hit themselves. And don’t even start me on Big Philanthropy, whose response to the intertwined crises we face has often (with a few notable exceptions) been “more of the same.”
Meanwhile, the forces arrayed against unrelenting journalism—Facebook, the “fake news” crowd, and near-constant legal and political attacks—have been energized by the election and its aftermath. But so, too, have you all in the Mother Jones community. You’ve done so much to step up for each other, for democracy, and for Mother Jones, this year. If you can, I hope you will do the same right now, one last time, with a donation to help us start 2021 strong. It’s not flashy, but independent journalism that doesn’t follow the pack, and that has the guts and resources to dig into powerful systems, is key to long-term change.
And Mother Jones is all about the long term. In 44 years, we’ve seen plenty of slumps, bumps, and Trumps (sorry!) come and go, but the work of digging up the truth remains. We’re looking forward to doing that in 2021—I won’t make this column any longer by listing all the big issues we’re focused on, but just a couple of bullet points so you know what your year-end donation will help make possible:
This is a year to cover climate as the emergency that it is. MoJo is ready—with Rebecca Leber’s deep policy background, Tom Philpott’s killer reporting on food systems, and our Climate Desk collaboration that reaches more than 100 million people.
Some in the media may take their eyes off authoritarian and extremist forces as their champion leaves the White House. We won’t.
Disinformation and propaganda are not receding, but ramping up, because they serve lots of powerful interests. (As Naomi Klein writes this week, “if you want to keep waging war on the Earth’s life-supporting ecology, a great way to do it is to deliberately pollute its democracy-supporting information ecology.”) But there may also be a window for reform, especially when it comes to social media, and we’ll be all over that.
Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have already signaled that they’re not inclined to investigate the past four years. But societies that sweep past abuses under the rug often pay for it later. If Washington won’t do it, reporters should.
There have been times when focus on racial justice rose after an uprising, and then waned again—in the 70s, in the 90s, after Ferguson. We can’t let that happen this time—especially not when there is momentum for real change.
Corruption and voter suppression are not just Washington stories—they play out everywhere. Our reporters can’t be everywhere, but we can ferret out some of the most important local stories and connect them to the bigger picture.
Trump’s presidency, like his real estate career, was about gilt and glitz (and greed). It was patient work on the foundations and plumbing of democracy that saved the day (when I feel my energy and outrage flagging, I watch this video, of the outburst by a Republican elections administrator in Georgia).
If you’ve ever seen a communal roof-raising, you know that people working together can do amazing things with amazing speed. Let’s grab our tools and go.