The media narrative of an enthusiasm gap among Hillary Clinton supporters is a figment of the imaginations of the people who promulgate it.
This is how media narratives work: Someone with a visible platform and some amount of credibility (often conferred by that platform, rather than by their work) says something that sounds about right, on some subject that needs an explanation. Failing any other explanation — especially if it would require talking to people whose choices needs explaining — other members of the media and commentariat repeat that explanation.
The explanation gets picked up by more media outlets, and repeated, and repeated, until no one even questions it anymore, because sheerly by virtue of its ubiquity, it is presumed to be true. It is regarded as “conventional wisdom,” or “common sense,” or even “fact,” even though its origins are often not wise nor sensical nor factual, but just some guy, somewhere, filling in a vacuum of easily digestible speculation for a subject that needed a reason.
Politics is rife with media narratives that sound about right to the people who drive the conversation. Many of them are deeply harmful: A classic recent example is the racist narrative which emerged after California’s Prop 8 passed in 2008, repealing same-sex marriage. Black voters, and their alleged higher rates of homophobia, were blamed, based largely on exit polling that turned out to be wrong. But the explanation that homophobia was uniquely terrible in the Black community was such a compelling explanation, the narrative persisted long after the misinformation on which it was based was debunked.
One of the most intractable media narratives of this election has been that Hillary Clinton lacks enthusiastic support. A Google search for “Hillary Clinton enthusiasm gap” yields 405,000 returns—including a Chicago Tribune piece headlined: “Could the urge to vote against Trump help bridge Clinton’s enthusiasm gap?”
That story was published on the same day a Gallup poll found that Clinton has the highest level of enthusiasm among her supporters on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Gallup did what (apparently) none of the people repeating ad nauseam the “enthusiasm gap” narrative could be bothered to do: They simply spoke to Clinton voters and asked them if they are enthusiastic about her. And, as it turns out, they are.
Which, really, should not be surprising, since Clinton is leading by a large margin in primary votes. The people who participate in primaries, which is a relatively small portion of the number of qualified voters, tend to be enthusiastic participants in the electoral process. Most people who are indifferent, or would have to hold their noses to vote, aren’t always motivated to vote in primaries.
It was always the more reasonable assumption that someone who is winning the primary has enthusiastic supporters.
So why is it, then, that this particular media narrative took hold? Why, in spite of the safe assumption that primary voters casting their votes for Hillary were enthusiastic for her, and in spite of the fact that it was easy enough to discern by asking, have the media continued to cling to this narrative about an “enthusiasm gap” haunting Hillary?
There is certainly a gendered aspect to it, as “enthusiasm” and “likeability” go hand-in-hand—and likeability is a frame designed explicitly to diminish and discredit women.
And there is certainly a racialized aspect to it, as it takes a special kind of diligent commitment to ignoring that, as examples, 93 percent of Black women in Alabama and 82 percent of Black men in North Carolina and 72 percent of Latina women and 69 percent of Latino men in Texas supported Hillary Clinton.
That is some solid enthusiasm.
It just so happens to be concentrated among populations who are not well represented among the media influencers primarily responsible for driving this narrative.
A recent Media Matters analysis found that the guest appearances on “five Sunday morning political talk shows that often set the media and political agenda for the week” continue to be “overwhelmingly white, conservative, and male in every category measured.”
Perhaps these white, conservative, male commentators are disposed to believe in the fantastical narrative of an enthusiasm gap for Hillary because their insular circle is comprised disproportionately of other white, conservative, male commentators who themselves don’t have much enthusiasm for Hillary and who don’t know anyone who has much enthusiasm for Hillary.
They see no evidence of any enthusiasm in their intimate sphere, and so it must not exist at all.
One might reasonably argue that there probably aren’t a significant number of Bernie Sanders supporters in their orbit, either—and yet they don’t seem to doubt there is enthusiasm for Bernie, despite his garnering fewer votes and his supporters signaling lower levels of enthusiasm in polling.
Which brings us to the question of what constitutes enthusiasm. Sanders supporters have been alternatingly praised and vilified for their highly visible passionate support—and defense—of their candidate. Enthusiasm is one way to describe it. Those of us who have been targeted by Bernie’s less ethical supporters for harassment, threats, and personal attacks might use different words.
But the point is that it’s visible. (Visible enough that Bernie himself was obliged to condemn it.) And it registers as enthusiasm, especially to commentators already inclined to subscribe to the narrative that no one could possibly be enthusiastic about this old lady, anyway.
The narrative is created and defined by what permeates the bubble. Enthusiasm for Hillary evidently hasn’t permeated the bubble—even though she has won nearly nine million primary votes to date.
This is a media narrative that needs to be tossed in the garbage for good, not only because it is factually, demonstrably incorrect, but because it is indecent. Every time another person chants this faulty incantation, they are being dismissive of the very voters who most struggle to be heard in our democracy.
This is not a neutral narrative. It is a destructive one. And it is provably wrong.
(AP Photo/David Goldman)