Where's the middle ground between authoritarianism and democracy?

Media establishment's search for the mythical "moderate" endangers freedom

Where's the middle ground between authoritarianism and democracy?
A bad political metaphor tilts our political system toward Republican radicalism

There is no middle ground between authoritarianism and democracy. This is a lesson the press in the United States must grasp before it’s too late. With the stakes so high — as they are now — the concepts of journalistic objectivity and political neutrality require careful definition.

One major problem: The political journalism establishment tends to seek a nonexistent middle ground between “the left” and “the right.” This mythical “midpoint” is supposed to be a neutral place. But this erroneous framing can be easily hacked to reward extremism and enable authoritarianism. A flawed definition of “moderate” allows anti-democratic political actors to game the system.

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The reason why is simple. By moving so far to the right that it no longer believes in democracy, Trump’s Republican Party has shifted the journalism establishment’s mythical “middle” toward extremism. Today, a large portion of the Republican base now sees autocracy as a potential alternative to democracy, and the ramifications of this shift could be severe.

When any press organization works to normalize or validate this anti-democratic shift, it violates its basic duty to uphold democracy and truth. Yet by attempting to placate Trump supporters and election deniers in an effort at neutrality, that is exactly what some news organizations are doing.

We see this happening at CNN, where the news organization’s hunger to attract more Trump-supporting viewers has resulted in what appears to be a troubling shift. In short order, Trump critics like Brian Stelter and John J. Harwood have been pushed out, sending a clear message.

From the Washington Post:

Several current and former CNN employees who spoke with The Washington Post — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly — are interpreting the sudden exodus as evidence that Licht, who joined the network as chairman and CEO in May, is starting his tenure by casting out voices that had often been critical of former president Donald Trump and his allies, in an effort to present a new, more ideologically neutral CNN.

CNN’s new president, Chris Licht, claims the outlet won’t tolerate disinformation. Yet this quest for ideological “neutrality” means it will continue to allow election deniers — people who outright lie about the 2020 presidential election — to access its audience.

From CNBC:

CNN won’t ban guests who have supported the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, but the network will attempt to keep conversations with those people in safe zones of truth, said people familiar with Licht’s thinking.

As happened in the lead up to the 2020 election, some press outlets are once again falling into the same old traps. Amplifying outrageous lies. Platforming dangerous conspiracy theorists and anti-democracy insurrectionists. Allowing the reactionary propaganda machine to harden its message in the brains of tens of millions of Americans through constant repetition.

This approach tilts the table in favor of the most shameless and ruthless political actors. It ensures that they will receive attention and amplification, no matter how absurd, dangerous or untrue their claims. This perverse incentive has become an intrinsic threat to American democracy. Much of its success is due to a wrongheaded quest for a mythical “moderate” position.

As Brian Stelter put it when he left CNN: "It's not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue."

In reality, there is no such thing as a moderate ideology. There is no single worldview, no single set of beliefs that all moderates have in common. Instead, an individual we might describe as a moderate is a person who thinks progressively on some issues and conservatively on others. But the positions of moderates tend to vary by person. There’s no uniform slate of moderate beliefs, especially on politically-charged issues. Just look at Andrew Yang’s flailing attempt to form a moderate political party with no official positions on hot button issues like abortion rights.

So, if there’s no single set of positions that define a moderate or middle in politics, how can the press go about seeking a neutral position for itself?

The likely answer is that the journalism establishment is seeking the middle using the metaphor of a “left to right” spectrum in politics. Unfortunately, most of us have this metaphor in our brains. We see politics along a line with two extremes, left and right. This has given us a terribly flawed understanding of the political brain.

From “The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics”:

The left-to-right scale that political pundits love is an inaccurate metaphor – and a dangerous way one, for two reasons. First, it posits a political “mainstream,” a population with a unified political worldview, which does not exist now nor has it ever … The very acceptance of the left-to-right scale metaphor serves to empower radical conservatives and marginalize progressives.

Most of us have the left-to-right frame stuck in our brains. But we must reconsider this metaphor and the advantage it gives to authoritarians and radical conservatives. By going to unthinkable extremes, they can pull the mythical “middle” toward the far edge, normalizing and “mainstreaming” radical Republican positions that are anything but neutral.

Think of it this way:

What is the middle ground between the truth and a lie? What is the middle ground between democracy and dictatorship?

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