As the aftermath of the presidential election continues to unfold, many citizens both in the United States and abroad are nervous about the fate of the American democracy. Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the election results counteracts centuries of norms in US politics. The norm of mutual toleration, observed in almost all democracies, dictates that we accept our rivals as legitimate opposition . However, Trump’s actions since the election have indicated that he does not view Biden as a valid rival or the vote count as a legitimate measure of electoral success. What does this mean for our democracy? I argue that despite doubts about its integrity, the media serves as a strong safeguard against democratic erosion.
The media can be operationalized as platforms that disseminate various kinds of information. Media has held prominence in political processes for centuries; they serve powerful roles as gate-keepers of information. For instance, by selectively granting coverage to certain candidates, media platforms like broadcast media can boost candidates to national recognition, making it easier for politicians to quickly generate mass support . In fact, this largely helped Trump rise to fame . Furthermore, the widespread use of media today means that these platforms have the potential to influence millions of people across America. The media has the power to influence the voters’ political views and determine the public agenda by choosing what to report and what information to disseminate. Clearly, the media holds a powerful sway over political processes, and as such can act as a powerful tool for supporting democracy.
Recently, there have been doubts about the accuracy of the media in the United States, eroding trust in the institution. Part of this is driven by the president’s own denouncement of ‘fake news’ by the media and the polarization of partisan beliefs. However, the media still plays a prominent role in the political process. Despite the worries about media partisanship, millions of viewers still choose to watch and listen to the news. Media platforms continue to be a major source of political news, thereby exerting heavy influence citizen’s thoughts and beliefs.
To fully convey the scope of the media’s influence on the public, however, we should briefly review the role of the media in other countries for comparison. Given the vast power over information that the media holds, autocrats often use the media to spread disinformation and state propaganda . Under Putin, the Russian government obtained control over the three major television networks, retaining looser control over other smaller media sources . By deliberately mixing in true information with false information, Putin was able to keep the networks’ large audiences and subsequently control the information they learned . In Peru, under Fujimori, a similar method of using the media actually contributed to Fujimori’s downfall; here, the media played an integral role in the leadership of the government . The media can have far-reaching impacts on the structure of a democracy, and its absence or monopolization can heavily influence the nature of a country’s regime. Given the widespread use of media in America today, it’s safe to say that the media has a strong impact on the views of the American people.
When considering the recent presidential election, we can evaluate the role of the media on democracy by examining the ways in which the media has dealt with the election process. For instance, popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have fact-checked Trump’s posts claiming victory and electoral fraud, angering Trump. By adding labels to his posts and tweets such as “Multiple sources called this election differently”, these new media platforms have taken definitive stances against misinformation. As they immediately inform Trump’s millions of followers about the veracity of his statements, these media sources weaken Trump’s arguments and undermine his points.
Older media platforms have also worked against Trump’s unfounded claims of victory. Various television news programs like CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox – an organization renowned for its fervent support of Trump – announced Biden’s victory. Given that Fox has spent the past four years portraying Trump in a positive light, Trump even pulling from Fox to fill positions at the White House, Fox’s acknowledgement of Biden’s victory lends to the legitimacy of the election results. Furthermore, major news networks either cut away from Trump’s speech at the White House News Conference (where he espoused false claims) or clarified after the speech that Trump’s accusations were baseless. The news networks’ refusal to accept Trump’s dishonesty about the election subsequently conveyed to their audiences that they should not be listening to Trump’s statements.
Some may say that given the existing idea of partisanship bias in the media among users, Fox’s announcement of the Biden victory will further alienate their conservative audience, especially as Trump himself now disavows their reporting. However, there is reason to believe that Fox will continue to be a strong source of far-right political news for Trump supporters. Despite current sentiments, no other conservative news organization is as well-established and far-reaching as Fox, and though only time will tell, it’s likely that viewers will continue to turn to Fox for their political updates.
Multiple media sources have clearly signaled their stance on the election; namely, they have discredited Trump’s fraudulent claims about the electoral process. By discrediting Trump’s election claims, the media has conveyed to American citizens what information they should believe, and serves to buffer against Trump’s autocratic-like claims. All of this is not to discount other checks on democracy. The salience of institutionalized governmental checks and balances, like the separation of powers, as well as informal checks, like public opinion, hold great sway over democracy and need to be evaluated as well. However, one should also consider the power the media holds when evaluating the possibility of democratic erosion. Despite doubts, the media holds a powerful position in politics and works to preserve the presidency in America.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. Crown, 2018.
 Scott Gehlbach, “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs, 2010.