Covering Policy in the Trump Era: A Conversation with Matthew Yglesias

Matthew Yglesias is a co-founder and executive editor at Vox and a cohost of The Weeds, a weekly podcast that provides in-depth discussions on a variety of policy issues. He previously wrote for The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Think Progress, and Slate. He is also the author of The Rent is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, and Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy And Foreign Policy Screws Up The Democrats.

Matthew Yglesias is a co-founder and executive editor at Vox and a cohost of The Weeds, a weekly podcast that provides in-depth discussions on a variety of policy issues. He previously wrote for The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Think Progress, and Slate. He is also the author of The Rent is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, and Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy And Foreign Policy Screws Up The Democrats.

NPR recently released a poll that found only half of respondents were aware that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) had led to a decrease in the number of individuals without health insurance — arguably the legislation’s chief accomplishment. Yet very few people — only 14 percent of those polled — support the law’s repeal absent a replacement. What level of policy knowledge can we reasonably expect from the public? Are people only able to recognize policy proposals with potentially catastrophic outcomes, such as “repeal and delay”?

Unfortunately, it is hard to get a clear sense of how much people really know about these things. The surveying tends to be so sporadic that it is difficult to compare across time and issues. I am always suspicious of poll questions like that.

But I think the main reason people exhibit so little policy knowledge is because the stakes seem so low. The act of voting does not exhibit a great deal of means-to-ends rationality. The odds that your vote is going to make the difference are infinitesimally small. But people vote anyway for a variety of reasons. You saw incredible turnout for Obama in the African-American neighborhood where I was living in 2008 because people wanted to be part of history. Whatever your theory of how democracy works, it cannot hinge on the idea that people are going to invest time and energy obtaining detailed policy knowledge and then base their votes on a rational assessment of the costs and benefits between the candidates. Nobody would participate in the political process.

We will see how this ACA thing works out. Places like Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee are pretty conservative, but have benefitted enormously from the ACA, not just in terms of reducing the number of uninsured people, but also in terms of the local healthcare delivery systems supported by additional coverage and the spillover effects to middle-class people who have additional disposable income that goes to local retailers. It is the job of the members of Congress to figure out that this law is beneficial to the communities they represent, and to find a way to square their desire to blot Obama’s name out of historical records with the objective reality that their constituents are benefiting from this program.

A representative government is not built from the lowest level up to elected officials. Members of Congress themselves play a critical representational role. There’s a reason why governors have tended to be more favorable to the ACA: because they understand that they are going to be held accountable for results in their states. So, now that Republicans are running the whole show in Washington, they are going to be held accountable too. It’s up to them to try to figure out a way to make people’s lives better.

You’ve written before that Republicans have a reasonable political critique of the ACA as well as a reasonable policy critique. Yet the party has painted itself into a corner since those two critiques are sharply at odds with one another.

Right, they have been out there saying that deductibles, premiums and copays are all too high. That is a reasonable complaint that a lot of people have. But then they also have these plans from conservative think tanks that would make deductibles, premiums and copays higher. They have to decide: Are they going to deliver on what it is they know their voters want, or do they want to deliver on the ideological premise that people should have skimpier health insurance?

The Trump administration has already faced a number of controversies and scandals, which creates obvious problems for those hoping to keep the focus on more substantive policy issues. How does the press square the circle of educating readers while maintaining an audience, particularly when other outlets are covering the latest whatever-gate?

This is a balance that is not new or unique to Trump. It is important to cover substantive stories and not just the lowest-hanging traffic fruit. But at the same time, there is no point covering stories if nobody reads them. To an extent, there can be less tension there than people sometimes think. The challenge is how to cover stuff that is really important, but also make it interesting and accessible. That is what we try to do at Vox, and what news organizations that are smart and sustainable do. That is an issue that has been with us as long as we have had the Internet. It is hard to do well, but that is just because it is hard to do good work in general.

I think the specific issue with Trump is that on the one hand you have this very dull, but consequential, policy agenda that the conservative movement is moving through Congress. On the other, you have this very wild Donald Trump show. It can feel like there is this incredible contrast between those two. But the thing that people need to understand is the linkage between the two. The reason that congressional Republicans are willing to back Trump is because they believe that he is going to collaborate with their policy agenda. Understanding the totality of the picture is critical if readers want to understand what is going on.

How is Vox trying to make those substantive stories interesting and accessible?

We try to take things back to the basics. Oftentimes beat reporters who have covered an issue for a long time shorthand things in their stories without thinking too hard about what it is that they really mean. We try to take a crack at not only keeping people informed about, say, what happened on the Hill in regards to the ACA today, but also what issue is at the root. We have the frame of “explainers,” which is not about dumbing things down, but leveling up in terms of the informational content included in a story.

The other thing we are trying to do is to take more of a pass on the Trump-tweet-of-the-day story. Not to say that we are not ever going to cover these things, what the President says and does is news. But if the President wakes up every morning and tweets four or five different ridiculous things, you cannot just let that set the news agenda. Obama tweeted all the time, and his tweets usually drove administration message points. Journalists understood that was the point of that feed and covered it accordingly. You do not just write up the official communications from the president as a story every day. Trump has done a good job making his tweets more interesting than Obama’s, but that does not change the fact that they are political communications. And people who are accustomed to the idea that you do not just rush to your keyboard after every press release need to recalibrate for the Trump era.

You were a vocal critic of a lot of the 2016 campaign coverage, such as the tendency to write off racist behavior among some Trump supporters as the result of “economic anxiety,” or the focus on Clinton’s email server. Can you reflect a bit more on what you saw?

Over the course of the coverage of Clinton’s emails and charitable foundation, you saw a lot of stories — some of them were just bad, many of them were fine — that, taken together as an overall editorial ensemble, did a very poor job of placing things in context. Essentially they took the frame, “Because the Republican party has decided to make a big deal out of this server question, the email server is a big deal.” That is not a good approach. Did we think that similar, though not identical, email usage by Colin Powell was a big deal? Do we believe that email server management is an important point of contrast between the two candidates in the campaign?

I do not think that the people writing the stories actually thought that — that is what was so bothersome to me. If you showed me a journalist who said, “I have a good faith belief that one of the big consequences in November pertains to how these candidates look at federal email usage,” I would have said, “That strikes me as a wrong judgement, but good for you. Go out and make that case.” That is what I think you never saw, despite the reams and reams of email coverage. There was not anyone saying, “Here is why when you get in the voting booth and make your decision, whether there was incidental discussion of classified material on Anthony Weiner’s laptop should be a really big deal.” Instead, journalists went into this reflexive mode, where each development in the email story is a really big deal because the email story is a big part of the campaign narrative. It was, but who put it there?

And you saw that as soon as the election was done, all these really good stories came out — by the same journalists in the same outlets — about the very big changes in American public policy that are going to happen because Donald Trump was elected president. Which is true! But the time to write those stories is before the election too, to help frame what the stakes are for people.

Do you think that this is symptomatic of a larger tendency among journalists to just take these media narratives — white people are anxious about their economic future, the email server is a big deal, etc. — as given?

The email story fell into the intersection of a bunch of different things. One is just siloing, where journalists are assigned to just one campaign or the other. Another is a tendency to downplay policy issues. It is a little boring to write your article and say, “Today, just like on every other day of the campaign, and just like in every campaign for a generation, there were important systematic differences between the parties’ attitudes towards the role of government.” But that is always an important story.

I think that the “economic anxiety” narrative comes from a good place. Journalists want to tell stories about communities that are struggling in America, and Donald Trump has often been a pretext for that. Journalists frequently went to economically struggling regions that voted for Trump to tell the stories of people there. Those are good and important stories. But you could also go to the affluent suburban communities, such as Suffolk County in New York, where there was also a large swing toward Trump. It wouldn’t feel like important social service journalism, and I see why people want to tell the story of people left behind, rather than the story of the reasonably well-off middle-class suburbs that liked Trump for whatever reason.

Yet every place in the North with a large number of white people without college degrees had a big swing toward Trump. It is true that some of those communities were struggling economically and suffered as a result of Chinese imports. But you also have the swing in communities where that is not true. So, if you want to understand what is going on in America, you have to see that a certain social and identity group has a great affinity for Trump not driven by the local circumstances. For instance, you had an enormous trend of cops and firefighters voting for Trump. Obviously, they are not worried we are going to outsource firefighting to China.

As the Democratic party goes about rebuilding itself, what are the policy issues that should constitute the center of its agenda?

I think that is tough. There is a lot of energy right now on the part of the people who think that Obama made the wrong choices in 2009. Matt Stoller has a piece in the Washington Post saying that to get back into power, Democrats need to recognize that Obama’s financial bailout policies were terrible. So that is a point of view.

I think the reality is that what Democrats are going to need to do in 2018 and 2020 is effectively address whatever the big problems are in 2018 and 2020. But professional political people are always going to be interested in rehashing yesterday’s battles. There is incredible lingering bitterness inside the ranks of professional Democratic party economists about the NAFTA debate of 1994. Among the people that wonk out for a living, this “should we have broken up the big banks” thing will be salient forever. We might have another financial crisis, in which case it will definitely be salient again, and in which case the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren school of thought will have gained a lot of credibility from the fact that,“Oh my God, here we are dealing with this again.”

But things change. I think it is less constructive than people think to try to forecast what’s going to matter in the future. It is good for people to make the case for their policy ideas. I just wish they would argue a little more straightforwardly on the merits, rather than turning everything into, “In order to win next time, we need to pass this or that.” Rather than just saying, “Look, this is a good idea for a party out of power because they might win next time and need a workable agenda.”

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Cameron Combs

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