Stop rewarding elite performances of identity threat

“In 2023, journalists can choose to relegate cynical elite displays of identity threat to mere footnotes.”

In the lead up to the 2022 midterms, news organizations anticipated that bad actors would attempt to push false narratives of voter fraud, vote rigging, and election denialism through news programming. To thwart these efforts, journalists preemptively engaged in democracy-centered reporting, highlighting the security of US elections, and appropriately pushing back against unfounded election-related conspiracy theories. The poor showing of election-denying GOP candidates in the 2022 midterms not only highlighted the public’s distaste for the destabilizing forces of authoritarianism, but also served as a testament to the hard work of journalism professionals who, for weeks, had sought to center democratic processes and sideline cynical political actors.

This is the kind of journalistic focus and vigilance we need — not just during election season, but every single day: Working deliberately to cover processes and institutions, without rewarding democratically harmful political performances with media coverage and attention.

Chief among these democratically harmful political displays? Dramatic performances of identity threat.

Take, for example, the March 2022 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for then–Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham voiced outrage over Judge Jackson’s defense of detainees held as enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay Cuba after the attacks on 9/11.  He raised his voice as he discussed the notion of the prisoners’ early release, exclaiming, “As long as they’re dangerous, I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back and kill Americans.” After his emotional display, Graham abruptly turned off his microphone and exited the hearing.

Or recall Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s questioning of then-Judge Jackson on the topic of Critical Race Theory. Gesturing to a blown-up replica of Ibram X. Kendi’s children’s book Anti-racist Baby propped up on an easel behind him, Cruz asked, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught to kids that babies are racist?”

These dramatic displays constitute what political communication scholars Daniel Kreiss, Regina Lawrence, and Shannon McGregor call performances of “identity ownership,” or “attempts to create the perception and remind voters that they, and their parties, best represent particular social groups.”

By emotionally identifying threats that resonate with the fears of the Republican party’s increasingly homogenous white, Christian, conservative, rural base (Islamic terrorists, African Americans, or the “woke” left) these performances offer “proof” that Graham and Cruz are a) the best representatives of their team and b) the leaders best equipped to protect their team members from the threat posed by dangerous outgroups.

While these emotional appeals are designed to mobilize their base and help the senators avoid “getting primaried,” they are also motivated by a keen understanding of the routines, biases, and incentives of news.

A Lexis-Nexis search for news stories about the hearings during that week in March showed that on CNN, of the 95 stories that covered the Supreme Court hearings, a third mentioned the identity performances by Senators Graham or Cruz. Of Fox News’s 6 stories about the SCOTUS hearings, 58% mentioned Graham and 40% mentioned Cruz. On left-leaning MSNBC, of the 37 SCOTUS stories, 68% mentioned Graham and 62% mentioned Cruz.

Public officials engage in these dramatic displays of identity threat because they know they will be rewarded with media attention and news coverage. After his rant about “critical race theory” and “racist baby books,” Senator Cruz was caught on camera by LA Times photographer Kent Nishimura searching for his own name on Twitter.

These spectacular performances capitalize on news routines and biases while also playing to and exacerbating a social and cultural rift between America’s political parties. And the consequences for American democracy are dire. The distillation of our social and cultural political identities along racial and religious lines (especially on the political right) fuels contempt for the other side, causes regular Americans to overestimate how polarized average party members really are, and increases our identity-driven attraction to mis and disinformation — all outcomes that are catastrophic for democratic health.

But just as journalists chose to center democracy and sideline conspiracy theories before the 2022 midterms, in 2023 they can choose to relegate cynical elite displays of identity threat to mere footnotes, focusing instead on democratic processes and institutions.

Dramatic identity performances by political elites don’t have to drive the news cycle. Journalists can choose another way.

Danna Young is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Demand for Misinformation.

In the lead up to the 2022 midterms, news organizations anticipated that bad actors would attempt to push false narratives of voter fraud, vote rigging, and election denialism through news programming. To thwart these efforts, journalists preemptively engaged in democracy-centered reporting, highlighting the security of US elections, and appropriately pushing back against unfounded election-related conspiracy theories. The poor showing of election-denying GOP candidates in the 2022 midterms not only highlighted the public’s distaste for the destabilizing forces of authoritarianism, but also served as a testament to the hard work of journalism professionals who, for weeks, had sought to center democratic processes and sideline cynical political actors.

This is the kind of journalistic focus and vigilance we need — not just during election season, but every single day: Working deliberately to cover processes and institutions, without rewarding democratically harmful political performances with media coverage and attention.

Chief among these democratically harmful political displays? Dramatic performances of identity threat.

Take, for example, the March 2022 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for then–Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham voiced outrage over Judge Jackson’s defense of detainees held as enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay Cuba after the attacks on 9/11.  He raised his voice as he discussed the notion of the prisoners’ early release, exclaiming, “As long as they’re dangerous, I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back and kill Americans.” After his emotional display, Graham abruptly turned off his microphone and exited the hearing.

Or recall Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s questioning of then-Judge Jackson on the topic of Critical Race Theory. Gesturing to a blown-up replica of Ibram X. Kendi’s children’s book Anti-racist Baby propped up on an easel behind him, Cruz asked, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught to kids that babies are racist?”

These dramatic displays constitute what political communication scholars Daniel Kreiss, Regina Lawrence, and Shannon McGregor call performances of “identity ownership,” or “attempts to create the perception and remind voters that they, and their parties, best represent particular social groups.”

By emotionally identifying threats that resonate with the fears of the Republican party’s increasingly homogenous white, Christian, conservative, rural base (Islamic terrorists, African Americans, or the “woke” left) these performances offer “proof” that Graham and Cruz are a) the best representatives of their team and b) the leaders best equipped to protect their team members from the threat posed by dangerous outgroups.

While these emotional appeals are designed to mobilize their base and help the senators avoid “getting primaried,” they are also motivated by a keen understanding of the routines, biases, and incentives of news.

A Lexis-Nexis search for news stories about the hearings during that week in March showed that on CNN, of the 95 stories that covered the Supreme Court hearings, a third mentioned the identity performances by Senators Graham or Cruz. Of Fox News’s 6 stories about the SCOTUS hearings, 58% mentioned Graham and 40% mentioned Cruz. On left-leaning MSNBC, of the 37 SCOTUS stories, 68% mentioned Graham and 62% mentioned Cruz.

Public officials engage in these dramatic displays of identity threat because they know they will be rewarded with media attention and news coverage. After his rant about “critical race theory” and “racist baby books,” Senator Cruz was caught on camera by LA Times photographer Kent Nishimura searching for his own name on Twitter.

These spectacular performances capitalize on news routines and biases while also playing to and exacerbating a social and cultural rift between America’s political parties. And the consequences for American democracy are dire. The distillation of our social and cultural political identities along racial and religious lines (especially on the political right) fuels contempt for the other side, causes regular Americans to overestimate how polarized average party members really are, and increases our identity-driven attraction to mis and disinformation — all outcomes that are catastrophic for democratic health.

But just as journalists chose to center democracy and sideline conspiracy theories before the 2022 midterms, in 2023 they can choose to relegate cynical elite displays of identity threat to mere footnotes, focusing instead on democratic processes and institutions.

Dramatic identity performances by political elites don’t have to drive the news cycle. Journalists can choose another way.

Danna Young is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Demand for Misinformation.

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