Same As It Ever Was: The Ilusion of American Political Discourse In Media


“It’s all the same, only the names will change
Every day, it seems we’re wastin’ away..”
-Wanted Dead or Alive, Bon Jovi

I never in my life thought I would quote the band Bon Jovi in any context for a political article, but here we are. It’s 2024, the electoral season is upon us. What were once thought to be boring presidential debates are now primetime entertainment that requires coverage that resembles the Super Bowl. The presentation is like a boxing title match. Which side will come out victorious? We’ll be treated with simplistic narratives of good versus evil that turn elections into individual consumer choice. Do you vote for Brand Democrat or Brand Republican? 

In 2020, the Democratic party strategy presented itself as fighting to protect American democracy from the neo-fascism of Donald Trump. They were able to then use this as a catalyst to get voters to the polls. It worked, using the urgency to remove Trump from office and “get back to normal” to promote a tough on crime warhawk like Joe Biden to the highest office in the land.  But what has really changed for America since the election of 2020?

The racial reckoning of the #Defund movement, which brought tens of thousands to the streets in protests against police violence and law enforcement overspending has devolved into calls for more police and larger budgets for municipal law enforcement and a return to 90s era tough on crime laws. The sanctuary cities, a  response to Donald Trump’s racist border and immigration policies, have transformed into racial fights for city resources as bus loads of migrants are being dropped off into cities that can’t house them. There is no longer a perceived bad guy in office, so I ask this question–with nothing to vote against, is the fear of a return to Donald Trump enough for people to get behind a 2nd term for Joe Biden? Or is this fertile political soil for the return of the tough on crime CEO? 

The overturning of Roe v. Wade enabled Democrats to fear monger against an encroaching far right Republican administration to get some political victories in historically red states like Kansas. Now, even those bipartisan gains are being threatened. Codifying abortion law isn’t on the federal election platform, so what does the Democratic party and Joe Biden have to energize their voting base? 

The GOP propaganda machine is turning the Dems’ 2020 wins into potential political defeats in 2024.  Mainstream right-wing news is littered with a non-stop barrage of tall tales of a socialist reckoning within the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The hammer-and-sickle Democrats populating these lurid fantasies want to undermine democracy and threaten public safety with an end to law enforcement as we know it and flood the cities with violent, terrorist migrants flooding the country by the thousands due to open border policies. 

2020 Democratic Wins Present 2024 Loses

Now, while these media talking points may seem nonsensical to people that follow left media, let us not forget that the Democratic party made an astute calculation and quite strategically captured the energy for the 2020 George Floyd protests on their way to a presidential victory against then-incumbent Donald Trump. Using their support for the #Black Lives Matter movement, the Dems allowed themselves to be the face of the #DefundThePolice movement while publicly advocating the opposite. They used the feel your pain language to address the tragedy of murderous law enforcement, but also signaled to their more conservative base that ending law enforcement was off the table. We’d have nicer police. Social workers with swords. As empty as the rhetoric always uses, in 2024 even the rhetoric has become unpopular.

Anyone who believed that a businessman should be president got their wish granted in spades with Donald Trump in office. Trump, a man with no real political ideology, was a clueless CEO that used White House Press conferences like shareholder calls, no matter the crisis that was being presented.

When proto fascist groups went to protest against the removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia they were met by a counter protest of people there to end the celebration of racist icons that permeate so many public spaces in the South of the United States. These protests culminated in the murder of counter protester Heather Heyer. While then president Trump was to give a talk on infrastructure, reporters pressed him to condemn white nationalist violence, Trump responded with his, “There were very fine people on both sides.” He also blamed the counter protesters for the violence that ended in one death and dozens of injuries. 

People were viewing countless images of police violence and they were disturbed by the inability of Trump to acknowledge the actions of rogue law enforcement and vigilante white nationalist hate groups. Groups like the Proud Boys were pro-Trump and viewed themselves as foot soldiers in his nativist law and order rhetoric. A day after a violent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas took the life of 21 people (19 school children and 2 teachers), Trump proposed arming teachers. The almost maniacal nature of his law and order posture, coupled with images of cops shooting and choking unarmed citizens to death, was perfect fodder for the 24-hour news cycle and fuel for the Democratic party to rally around. Trump was a hot take machine, perfect for primetime pundits in independent and mainstream media to build an industry around. He sent federal agents in an attempt to quell the uprisings in Portland in response to the George Floyd murder in 2020. Camouflaged federal agents snatched up protesters and stuffed them into unmarked vehicles. The Democratic Party couldn’t have asked for better political theater to outrage their own voters. Once again, the 24/7 indie and mainstream news got content that set Trump as the figurehead of what some on the left liberal end of the spectrum saw as encroaching fascism. The Democrats were able to latch onto this media narrative that Trump was a fascist in waiting and we the people had to go to the polls to defeat this threat, or relive the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Now that he’s gone, though, the narrative around law and order has changed. The media has traded their portrayal of overzealous law enforcement for stories of a rabid criminal element wreaking havoc in the urban core of Democratic-controlled cities. The culprit, according to right-leaning talking heads, is “leftist” city governments and a lack of funding for law enforcement due to the “#Defunding the police protests which is enabling criminals to run amok. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the 2 years following the George Floyd protests an ABC news study showed that over 10,000 times law enforcement, politicians and political pundits discussed what impact defunding the police would have. The hysteria around police killings of unarmed Black citizens was viewed as a public crisis, and with the ubiquitous nature of surveillance via camera phones and officer worn cameras, we could actually see these tragic displays of state-sponsored violence played out on the nightly news. Mainstream cable news outlets and left indie media as well replayed the images around the clock. These visible violations reached a tipping point with the televised murder of George Floyd during the peak of COVID and “shelter in place” orders throughout much of the United States. George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis law enforcement was viewed over a billion times on social media alone in the 2 months after it occurred. The gruesome scene prompted what some call a “racial reckoning” that led to calls to defund murderous and racist law enforcement. Protesters filled the streets nationwide demanding that municipalities cut what they saw as bloated police budgets. They wanted to reallocate the money used to militarize municipal law enforcement to use social workers to respond to non violent calls. While numerous city governments agreed in principle to decrease police budgets, the #Defund movement was always a neoliberal project. It was never a reimagining of policing, but simply moving a decimal point on a spreadsheet. Fewer traditional armed cops for social workers and more mental health professionals. Ultimately, a nicer police force to tell the unruly and the unhoused to move along, maybe provide a service, but these unarmed people would be able to remove the blight of poverty without all the noise of sirens, tasers, and in some cases guns.Here’s the thing, though. Whatever you think of this vision, the most important point is that, despite the right wing leitmotif around the Democratic defunding of police, it didn’t happen. In the same ABC study, researchers found that out of 100 police departments studied, only 2 actually decreased their budgets. Democratically Run cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago all saw an increase in police spending since the 2020 George Floyd protests. 

Even if they never did much of anything about it, though, Democrats positioned themselves as the ones who cared about police violence and racism. That added to the sense of righteousness that motivated the Democratic base to go to the polls and vote out Trump. But then what?The idea that municipal police budgets were defunded, or that law enforcement would be “held accountable” meant something when the media coverage consisted of endless George Floyd murder footage and stories of “bad cops”. The election of Joe Biden, sadly, has quelled much of the energy we saw in 2020 to protest law enforcement and imagine alternatives to mass incarceration. As the smoke of the protests settled, the media pivoted their watchdog coverage of abuses of power from law enforcement to lawlessness within the citizenry. With the furore over the protests gone, Blue cities are now associated with rising property crime and Democrats get the blame. The GOP demonization of Democratic leadership is soaked in irony as the Dems have never had an issue with increasing police budgets or being brutally tough on crime. Criminal punishment and increasing the carceral apparatus of the state has been the most bipartisan stance in politics since Clinton took office in 1992.  Let us not forget it was the Clinton administration that enabled mass incarceration with the 1994 Omnibus Crime bill that was sponsored by Joe Biden.

In the 2020 election, Biden and the Dems moved away from presenting themselves as being the staunch law and order party. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t move back, though, as the political winds shift. Will they make a return to their 90s platform of sentencing reform and roll out another crime bill to appease rising fears about public safety?   

Terroristic Fears of the Southern Border

During the heyday of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” and “Child Separation” policies, the news media was flooded with images of children being separated from their families and held in cages. Tearful children being covered in filth and being kept in sometimes inhumane conditions prompted Democratic leaders in Congress to go to the southern border with cameras in tow to show Trump administration atrocities.  While child separation was a rare but real occurrence during Obama’s time in office, the Trump administration decided to create a situation that was exponentially worse by separating all children from their adult guardians and denying asylum seekers refuge with his “Remain in Mexico” policy.It was Obama who deported millions and detained families to attempt to put a halt on a massive migration from Central America. There was never a Democratic policy of an “open border”. The border wall as we know it was started under Bush, Sr. and built out strategically under the Clinton administration. The horrors we saw during the heyday of Trump’s heavy handed policy of “zero tolerance child separation” was more newsworthy than the Clinton era immigration enforcement policies and wall construction, but Trump did not create draconian immigration policies out of thin air, he was just escalating what all U.S. presidents have done since Carter. 

While Trump was delivering his racist hot takes on immigrants from Central and South America and pumping up the cruelty of U.S border policy, Obama was already known to many immigration advocates as “the deporter in chief”. He was a masterful at political theater, rhetorically saying he was a friend to asylum seeking migrants, and signaling to the Right that his administration would still be tough on the immigration issue. These bipartisan games are best illustrated by his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA allowed people who were brought to the United States as minors a temporary stay that could be renewed every two years barring certain age and criminal restrictions. It did not, however, include a pathway to citizenship. DACA recipients can’t receive federal benefits, social security, or college financial aid. Some states would allow DACA recipients to have a Driver’s License, but there would be a designation on the I.D. to prevent them from voting. At the same time as he instituted this extraordinarily limited program, Obama was earning that “deporter in chief” moniker with a vengeance. He deported 2.5 million people. Like the idea that police were “defunded” around the country in 2020, the notion that Democrats gave us “open borders” was a fantastical form of historical revisionism. That didn’t stop it from playing well for national television audiences on the Right.

Trump would go on to declare DACA unlawful and attempt to end DACA protections for around 800,000 people. Democratic mayors publicly declared their cities “Sanctuary Cities” a safe haven from Trump’s rhetorical war on asylum seeking migrants. Some cities like San Francisco and Chicago would actually enact laws to not allow local law enforcement to work with state agencies like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), eliminating gang databases that might have the information of undocumented citizens, making them true sanctuary cities. This prompted an attempt at a bold political play from the Trump administration. Around 2018, Trump wanted to round up and drop off bus loads of asylum seeking migrants to Sanctuary Cities.

This never came to fruition during his time in office but more recently Republican governors in Arizona, Texas and Florida, decided to put this bus and dump program into practice. It’s having disastrous consequences for Democratically run municipalities. Dumping tens of thousands of people on a city that isn’t prepared to take on the population has seemingly been too much for some of these cities to handle.In Chicago, for example, the backlash over the newly arriving migrant population has been so bad that the president of the Illinois Chapter of the NAACP made a video espousing far right sentiments saying, “These immigrants who come over here, they’ve been raping people. They’ve been breaking into homes. They’re like savages as well..”

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was
-“Once in a Lifetime” The Talking Head

A 24 hour media ecosystem is hungry for narratives that prompt engagement that enrages their viewing audience. It is the rage that prompts the click, that get’s the eyeballs, that gets in the comments, that engages. Call it enragement. Donald Trump ran a campaign on enragement, and it benefited from algorithms of hate. It was that same rage that would be his downfall with the January 6, riot at the capitol. It was rage at the sight of crying small children being separated from their parents, and then kept in dog kennel cages that inspired city officials and activists to declare their municipalities safe havens for migrants and then harness that energy into Democratic Party votes for the presidential election in 2020. It was the rage of seeing the nonchalant officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd while he begged for his life that brought hundreds of thousands out to the streets in 2020. Rage is the storm, but like all storms it subsides and gives way to calm then leads to reflection and, in some cases, regret. 

Our righteous anger at unjust images can be a catalyst to fight for a better society, but if all we can do is shout a collective “no” at the establishment, the protest becomes a cathartic spectacle where the energy will be funneled into a political party that is either on the left or right flank of the capitalist system. In 2020, the Democratic Party turned the indignation of the nation into a presidential victory. In 2024, will the GOP capture the reflective apathy of a populace that is being bombarded with media images of property theft in lawless cities, the blight of homeless encampments, and newly arriving migrant caravans in Sanctuary Cities? It’s too early to be sure. But here’s what I do know:It’s all kayfabe. That’s an old Vaudeville term, mostly used in pro wrestling, meaning that you don’t let the audience know that it’s all a choreographed display. This political Kayfabe, much like with pro wrestling, creates good guys, bad guys, and in the case of the 2016 presidential election, anti heroes. These play well for enragement, but is disastrous for the way the viewing audience engages with politics. The depiction of a battle of good vs. evil can create an environment where people are stripped of the idea of their own agency. When people are left feeling as if their only weapon against political malfeasance is their vote, the vote itself can start to feel disconcertingly like a consumer choice. Is it Trump vs Biden, or Coke vs Pepsi? I can’t tell! 

I don’t possess the clairvoyance to know how the election will come out or what will come after it’s over, but I do harbor some hope. The uprising in organized labor and their victories is proof that people are understanding the one weapon we have against the capitalist duopoly is withholding our labor and demanding better wages and a better quality of life. Could 2024 be the year when we understand the power in the collective struggle to build a better world? Regardless of which presidential figurehead takes office in 2024, that power to make change together isn’t going away. Using it may be our only way out.