National Narratives Leave Voters in Dark

It was the day after this year’s mid-term elections. I had my news-writing students scour the papers and news websites for post-election stories they wanted to discuss in class. The focus of the assignment was to review the basic structure of what I’ll call the overnight story — to review the lead paragraphs and overall structure of the stories and to see whether the stories served their readers well.

We looked at an array of stories — probably eight or 10. Some were good — the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest paper, ran an interview with Cory Booker, the Democrat who had just been re-elected to the Senate, to see if his priorities had changed given the results and to see what his thoughts were about being in the minority while also lacking seniority within his party. What might he realistically be able to accomplish and what kind of compromises might he have to make, they asked. It was a good, results-focused story that attempted to make sense of what had happened on Nov. 4 and to tell New Jersey readers what it might mean for them.

Most of the stories, however, engaged in the kind of reporting and analysis that contribute to – rather than explain — many of the problems we face in our elected politics.

The stories, especially those told by the national press, feed into a single, easy-to-tell, but often simplistic and not-necessarily accurate narrative — that all elections are national, are decided by national trends and have primarily national implications.

There is no doubt that there were national trends in play, but viewing races as diverse as the Massachusetts and Maryland gubernatorial races, the Iowa and Kentucky Senate races and the multiple races in Kansas through the same lens narrows our politics and elides circumstances that may have been specific to each state or race.

In Massachusetts, for instance, Democrat Ed Markey won re-election to the US Senate with more than 60% of the vote, while the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, lost her bid. But Markey’s win — along with wins by other Democrats — didn’t play into the wave narrative, it was not part of the larger conversation.

I’m not arguing that there wasn’t a wave or that many of the Republican wins weren’t connected to national issues. They were to a degree. But reducing the discussion to a national conversation about nothing more than the presidency does a disservice to voters by eliminating their more specific concerns and by turning all politics into a national personality contest.

There were a lot of reasons Democrats lost — demographic shifts in some states, so-called sixth-year fatigue with the president, bad candidates, weak campaigns — and the so-called anti-Obama wave was one of the many reasons.

But there also were local issues, especially in gubernatorial contests, and those too often are given short shrift in a Washington press environment that encourages reporters to talk to each other and that disdains originality. So every vote — whether on Capitol Hill, in the state houses or individual voting booths — becomes tied solely to presidential politics. While asking what Nov. 4’s results mean for the last two years of the Obama presidency makes some sense — if the questions focus on policy and not personality — the endless speculation about what the electorate might do in November 2016, about which potential but unannounced presidential contender was the big winner or big loser, does not.

Taking a low-turnout mid-term election that will have consequences for court and cabinet nominations, the safety net, education funding, immigration and the questions of war and peace and focusing instead on what the vote means for Hillary Clinton or Chris Christie, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul only perpetuates the public’s belief that nothing important is possible in Washington.

“Elections have consequences,” an aphorism Rachel Maddow is fond of repeating, has become a cliche for a reason. The consequences we should care about and focus on, however, should not be on our political celebrity class, but on the class of voters who struggle everyday to pay their bills and feed their families.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He writes for numerous outlets, including NJ Spotlight, and teaches at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014

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