Dear Frank Bruni,
I’m a long-time reader writing to you for the first time. I have often loved your insightful coverage, and I thought your recent piece “No Way to Elect a President” was typically outstanding, an honest and bracing look at many of our election-cycle problems.
In the past, you’ve warned that citizens shouldn’t blame the media for the Trump phenomenon; in this piece, you apportion blame to the media, though mostly the televised kind: you wag a finger at “countdown clocks” and “ominous soundtracks.” There’s a different source that could use your remonstrations, and there’s a very simple fix you might recommend.
You could tell The New York Times to stop saying “both parties,” as in a recent “Editorial Board”-written article titled “What’s Next For Both Parties.” Many more examples are linked below.
Now, hear me out. I very well know that you do not run the paper that employs you. I also know that if you wrote a column that asked writers to stop writing “both genders,” we would be very unlikely to henceforth read those words in the Times.
I don’t believe we’ve read the words “both races” for some time, and I don’t see why “both parties” should be considered so differently, particularly in 2016. There are, as you know, members of many parties who are frustrated to be excluded in these sorts of phrasings, like the supporters of the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Constitution Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Reform Party, and others. For how many people will the Times encourage feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement? More than the amount of genderqueer people alienated by the phrase “both genders”?
As of this writing, there is a very strong possibility that either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump will run as a third-party candidate, perhaps as part of a party to be named. If the Times then changes custom, will it use the equally facetious “all three parties”? Why make it look as though only the Republican Party can create third parties?
The New York Times employs very, very, smart people, many of whom have done excellent reporting on the tremendous frustration in this country…but have stopped short of saying that people are uniquely frustrated with America’s two-party duopoly. This seems to me not only a categorical mistake, but one that increases the popular frustration of whence you write; people aren’t feeling heard. People are intensely hostile toward the Democrats and Republicans because of mistake after mistake since 9/11, and surely one of the reasons for the popularities of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are their willingness to castigate ineffective leaders of both major parties. See how easy that coinage is? Your colleague Thomas Friedman uses it; more power to him.
Your and Friedman’s colleagues are often very salient, right up until the “both parties” moment. For example, there’s the brilliant Nick Kristof, writing:
It’s a little bizarre this political season to see wealthy candidates in both parties denouncing our political system for representing mostly the interests of, well, wealthy people. Bizarre, perhaps, and sometimes a tad hypocritical, but also accurate. America’s political system is rigged. The deck is stacked against ordinary people.
And here Kristof says “both parties” casually, as though nothing else can be countenanced, writing:
Let’s tune out politicians’ rhetoric in both parties and look at the merits of the arguments. Supreme Court justices rarely die in office, and in recent decades they have mostly chosen to step down before election years….Both parties are open to expanding the earned-income tax credit, to early childhood programs, to better approaches to heroin addiction, to supporting women with obstetric fistula, to reducing violence against women worldwide.
It’s much more than Kristof. Charles Blow recently wrote:
If trends hold and the parties’ front-runners become the parties’ nominees, November is going to be an epic election: a hobbled titan (Hillary Clinton) versus a mortally wounded one (the real estate developer). The upcoming contests only buttress the possibility that those two will be the last man and woman standing.
And Paul Krugman writes:
At this point there are three candidates who have a serious chance of receiving their party’s presidential nomination. Barring the political equivalent of a meteor strike, Mrs. Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. Donald Trump is the clear front-runner on the G.O.P. side, but if he falls short of an outright majority on the first ballot, Ted Cruz might still pull it out.
On another recent occasion, Krugman said:
Moreover, when self-proclaimed centrist pundits get concrete about the policies they want, they have to tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting that what they’re describing are basically the positions of a guy named Barack Obama. Still, there are some currents in our political life that do run through both parties. And one of them is the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.
Some people accuse Blow and Krugman of being too “in the tank” for Hillary Clinton. I am not making that accusation, but their refusal to even countenance an America without its current, particular two-party system does not help their defenders, and in fact promotes the “tribalism” you bemoan.
Here David Brooks writes:
We’re going to have two parties in this country. One will be a Democratic Party that is moving left. The other will be a Republican Party. Nobody knows what it will be, but it’s exciting to be present at the re-creation.
It’s somewhat remarkable to see these otherwise adroit analyses get tripped over the difficulty of imagining a political world outside Democrats and Republicans, particularly considering the events of the last six months. It’s as though your colleagues have exhaustively considered the problems of McDonald’s and Burger King, but forgotten to tell people that there might be a third restaurant somewhere, somehow. It’s as though they’ve written smart pieces about North Carolina’s restrictive bathroom law, and then said, “both genders are fine with the policy…”
Emma Roller is a classic example. The other day, she wrote:
In conversations with both Sanders and Trump supporters, the same questions kept coming up: What do you do if you’re a middle-aged factory worker who has made a decent living for most of your life, only to see not only your job, but your entire industry, go up in smoke? Do you go to college? Take on a lower-paying job? Retire early? Or just hope that something better comes along, someday? Neither party seems to have a monopoly on the answers.
Neither party! And the piece was going so well. Not unlike Adam Nagourney’s piece here:
Of no less concern are the white male voters who favor Mr. Sanders and who might be a prime target for the Republicans. Unity is, of course, a problem for both parties.
Perhaps you are reading this and rolling your eyes at any sort of 1850s-like scramble of the current two-party dominance. Perhaps, despite recent events, that notion is indeed farfetched. The Times’ own Thomas Edsall explained here why people no longer trust either major party, but in a separate piece, Edsall utterly rejects a collaboration between Trump and Sanders supporters. However, his latter case is based entirely on the incompatibility of the personalities of those particular two men. And that’s fair. But he says absolutely nothing about the possibility of a third person, say, a Meryl Streep-level celebrity, who promoted workable budget solutions (unlike Trump or Sanders) and plucked some from Column Donald and some from Column Bernie. And, by the way, Edsall, as acute an observer as the Times employs, commits the same fallacy as so many others:
This election cycle is the first in recent memory in which both parties are giving serious consideration to candidates like Trump, Cruz and Sanders, who would bring striking liabilities into the general election.
This is the very definition of media bias.
Look, no one is blaming the Times for singlehandedly maintaining an elite duopoly. Perhaps The New York Times is only being realistic by excluding from its conversation anyone outside the two major parties. And of course, The New York Times is not going to solve America’s problems with a simple phrase change. But…this hasn’t stopped the Times from ceasing to write “both races.” There were two excellent reasons: it was the right thing to do, and it decreased the frustration of some readers. You pointed out that more and more Americans identify as independents, and it would be nice if the Times acknowledged that on this most basic of levels.
To conclude, during this election cycle, the media has frequently predicted the electoral demise of Donald Trump, only to be proven wrong. The media has over-estimated Americans’ fealty to the two-party system, only to be proven wrong. Do you know any members of the media who have lost their jobs after these mistakes? I don’t. On the other hand, many Sanders and Trump voters have had the experience of losing their jobs after far fewer mistakes (to outsourcing or robots). The Times, however unwittingly, increases the frustration of disenfranchised voters because of maintaining this contrast in elite failing-up versus non-elite succeeding-down. Can the Times defuse all of those feelings? No, but it can do more than it’s doing, by changing one simple policy. Thank you for reading.