The Lesson of 2016: Rabid Congressional Investigations Work

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So what did we learn this year? That America is more susceptible to authoritarian populism than we thought? Not really. Trump’s victory was a fluke, driven by Russian hacking, James Comey, and some bad polls in a few states.

That racism is on the rise? There’s really no evidence of that.

That Democrats need to pay more attention to the white working class? Maybe, but no matter how many times people say otherwise, that really wasn’t a root cause of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

I could go on, but instead I want to suggest something the 2016 election does teach us: persistent, obsessive investigations pay off. In the 90s, Republicans started investigating Whitewater. Even Ken Starr knew there was nothing to this after a couple of years, but he was put under pressure to keep at it, and eventually he hit some fluke paydirt: Monica Lewinsky. This had nothing to do with Whitewater, but who cares? Scandal is scandal, and it rubbed off enough on Al Gore that Republicans took back the presidency in 2000.

Fast forward to 2012. Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong related to Benghazi. That was clear pretty quickly, but Republicans kept at it. I laughed at them at the time, but they had the last laugh when they once again hit a fluke bit of paydirt: Clinton’s private email server. Clinton didn’t really do anything seriously wrong here either, but it didn’t matter. Republicans kept at it for the next year and a half, and that was enough to convince a lot of people that Clinton was, somehow, corrupt and untrustworthy. That allowed Republicans to retake the presidency.

There was lots of other stuff going on too, but this is now twice that maniacal dedication to an investigation has paid off for Republicans. It’s basically a way of hacking the media, which feels like it has no choice but to cover congressional investigations on a daily basis. It’s news, after all, no matter how you define news.

So that’s a lesson for sure. I’m just not sure what the solution is.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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