Ask the ‘Coupologists’: Just What Was Jan. 6 Anyway?

Josh Zeitz: The relationship between the right-wing media and the Trump administration was deep and it was hard to tell in some cases where one began and the other ended. You can certainly point to examples of left-wing media partisanship, but Joe Biden does not enjoy the sort of unwavering loyalty that Donald Trump commands from outlets like Fox and Infowars. Are there good examples in other places of media outlets lining up against democratic norms and institutions?

Matthew Cleary: In early 1970s Chile, obviously, there was no social media or Twitter or anything like that. But newspapers were quite polarized and the right-wing newspapers painted a picture of the communist takeover, Soviet takeover, of Chile that would spread through Latin America and played up all kinds of negative economic news. And Christian Democratic politicians, representing a centrist party in Chile at the time, published op-eds asking for the military to step in to solve the crisis. So again, that goes back to other points I’ve been trying to make about how about how coups require a kind of broader buy-in than what we see here. But, yes, the media environment, even in early 1970s Chile, just print media, clearly contributed to the sense of crisis, the degree of polarization and eventually the support, the active support, not just of a couple of elites, but of a third of the country. When the coup happened in certain neighborhoods, there were parades and celebrations and political parties had supported it as well — they soon came to regret that, but they supported it at the time.

Josh Zeitz: I wonder if some of the reason that Americans are having such a hard time getting their minds around exactly what January 6 was, and how to define it, was that we tend to think of ourselves as being a politically innocent nation where this sort of thing doesn’t happen. We’re not Germany or Italy in the 20s and 30s. We are not Chile in the 1970s.

Yet, as an historian, I could make the case that political violence is actually deeply rooted in American politics, from “Bleeding Kansas” to Reconstruction to the Jim Crow South. I could also make the case that we’ve been a very fragile democracy up until very recently; you could argue that we weren’t a functional democracy until 1965. Does our reluctance to look at the underside of American history feed our inability to understand January 6 for what it was?

Ryan McMaken: I think you see that a lot in a lot of columns that people are writing, people who try to appeal to nostalgia about how this country used to be united, and now there’s all these factions and people aren’t getting along like they used to. I’m not sure that was ever true, this idea that everybody used to get along or even shared a common religion. This claim is made as if the whole history of anti-Catholicism just never existed in 19th century America or something like that.

And yeah, I would agree with you that a lot of these events, political violence, it’s downplayed and forgotten in a lot of cases. My grandparents came from Mexico, my mother’s side, so I look a lot into events like the Plan of San Diego, which occurred during the Mexican Revolution, where Mexicans were suspected of trying to start an uprising in southern Texas. And the locals totally freaked out and overreacted and just started slaughtering Mexicans in the borderlands in Texas, maybe 1,500 of them. Those sorts of things, they never get mentioned, right? The emphasis is on unity, that people generally get along, so I think people don’t have a language or a way to frame these sorts of events because they don’t know about these sorts of events in our past.

A perfect example is how after January 6 happened, you had a lot of people comparing it to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Now, I think you can not like what happened on January 6 while also recognizing that’s not really an appropriate comparison. But that seems to be the events that people know about.

Josh Zeitz: Scott, you noted that partisan media and media polarization have been growing since the 1970s. I could make the case that in antebellum America and Civil War era America, it was the same thing — Whigs and later Republicans read specific sets of news publications, Democrats read others. If you read the Democratic press in 1864 and their coverage of that election and the Republican press, you would think that Republicans were from Mars and Democrats were from Venus. Is it getting worse in your mind, or has it always been this way?

Scott Althaus: It’s not new. It’s unclear if it’s worse than in the past, because there has been very little systematic research that goes all the way back 240 years to assess levels of negativity. From the 1780s all the way through the mid-19th century, the dominant model of news coverage was a partisan model, an advocacy style of news coverage. The idea of an objective journalism wouldn’t come up really until after World War I and it wasn’t the dominant mode of reporting in the United States until probably after World War II. But what came after the partisan mode and was competing with it for a long, long time is this kind of marketplace model of give people whatever they want. If they want silly stuff, if they want funny stuff — whatever entertains. And that model, along with the partisan press model, were the dominant ways that news reporting was produced in the United States up until the middle of the 20th century.

So what we’re seeing today is in many ways a regression to the mean. We are going back to where we used to be, and the mystery then is why do we get this strange bubble that starts in the late 1940s and begins to decline very clearly in the 1980s where the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism — just the facts — becomes the thing that we expect. This is the outlier in our history, for sure.

Josh Zeitz: I’m going to ask for a lightning round in the end. POLITICO Magazine’s readers love to read history, political science and related fields. So I’d love it if you could each recommend one book or article that would help our readers inform their perspective on this topic. It can be a kind of micro-history or a case study or something more methodological, but something that, if they want to do a little more poking around, would help them.

Matthew Cleary: I’ll recommend a book called Institutions on the Edge by political scientist Gretchen Helmke. The book explains why competition and conflict between or among the three branches of government can produce these sorts of zero-sum dogfights in which actors can overreact and lead into a spiral that causes democratic crisis — not necessarily a coup, but democratic backsliding or erosion.

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