So, if the media is actually overlooking an entire population and sometimes misrepresenting them, what’s the big deal if it’s now correcting for this?
A few things can be true at once: Yes, the media overwhelmingly misconstrued the actual beliefs of minority voters, particularly in Latino and Asian American communities. Yes, those voters tend to have more moderate view on policing.
The problem isn’t one of description, but rather of translation. The media took a normal regression in polling numbers, mixed it with some common sense about how minority populations actually vote and created a new, diverse “silent majority.” This is a powerful tool. These unheard, moderate minorities carry an almost unassailable authority in liberal politics because of the very simple fact that liberals tend to frame their policies in terms of race. If those same objects of your concern turn around and tell you to please stop what you’re doing, what you’ve created is perhaps the most powerful rebuttal in liberal politics. Over the next few years, I imagine we will see an increasing number of moderate politicians and pundits hitch their own hobbyhorses to this diverse silent majority. The nice thing about a vaguely defined, still mysterious group is that you can turn it into anything you want it to be.
Some version of this opinion engineering, I believe, is happening with the police and public safety. There’s not a lot of evidence that Latino and Asian voters care all that much either way about systemic racism or funding or defunding the police. (Black voters, on the other hand, listed racism and policing as their top two priorities leading up to the 2020 election.) Polls of Asian American voters, for example, show that they prioritize health care, education and the economy. Latino voters listed the economy, health care and the pandemic as their top three priorities. (“Violent crime” ranked about as high as Supreme Court appointments.) If asked, a large number of people in both of these groups might respond that they support the police, but that’s very different from saying they base their political identity on the rejection of, say, police abolition. If they’re purposefully voting against the left wing of the Democratic Party, it’s more likely they are responding to economic or education policy rather than policing.
And so it may be correct to say that within the new, diverse “silent majority,” attitudes about the police and protest might be much less uniform than what many in the mass media led you to believe in the summer of 2020. It may also be worth pointing out that reporters, pundits and television networks should probably adjust their coverage to accurately assess these dynamics, just as I’m sure there were legitimate concerns with media bubbles in 1968. But it also seems worth separating that assessment from the conclusion that the media should now see the summer of 2020 as political kryptonite and cast the millions of people who protested in the streets as confused revolutionaries who had no real support.
After 1968, the mass media’s turn away from the counterculture of the ’60s and its indifference to the dismantling of Black radical groups narrowed the scope of political action. This constriction would be aided over the next decade by lurid, violent events that all got thrown at the feet of anyone who looked like a radical. When Joan Didion wrote of the Manson murders, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled,” she was saying that all the fears of the so-called silent majority had come to pass.
We are living through some version of that today. But what seems particularly telling about this moment is that the retreat no longer requires Charles Manson, the fearmongering over Watts or the police riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Those images hover above the public’s consciousness as evergreen cautionary tales; the paranoia they fulfilled will do just fine.