The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MSNBC’s Joy Reid on the fragile stage of our democracy: ‘We are already in decline’

Joy Reid is the host of "The ReidOut" on MSNBC. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Joy Reid, 53, is a political analyst at MSNBC and host of its prime time cable news show, “The ReidOut.” She is author of, most recently, “The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story.” Reid lives in Maryland with her husband and three children.

What are the issues that most animate you and that you feel the greatest mandate to share, to explain, on your show?

I think the thing that animates the show the most right now is our concern for our democracy. So that involves voting and getting people to register to vote and participate in the system. That’s the biggest thing. And I think I have a different perspective on it. I grew up with a father who was Congolese but worked in South Africa. So we were constantly having these conversations about South Africa. I mean, he was not a great father. So when he would call, kind of the only things we ever chatted about were about politics. He was a big Reaganite, a Reagan conservative. And my mother was a definite Carter liberal. So they had a clash, both as human beings and politically. So I grew up in a house where there was constant political debate. And they didn’t force kids to be silent; we could give our opinion if we had one.

My mother came from Guyana, and I remember [Forbes] Burnham, who was the president [and prime minister] of Guyana forever and ever and ever — decades — so this idea that one person would be the leader of a country for that long. So I am sensitive to the ideas of democracy because I definitely think it’s much more fragile than most Americans think it is.

How would you describe the current state of our democracy?

I think it’s incredibly fragile. And the challenge, as I understand it, is that Americans have a kind of conceit that American democracy is permanent when it’s really young. And countries much, much older than ours have had their democracies collapse. And so there’s a certain presumption among Americans that we can’t lose ours. But we’re in the process of losing it. I mean, we’ve officially been declared a declining democracy by this think tank who focuses on democracies. We are already in decline.

We, for the first time, had a president not accept the peaceful transfer of power. Literally attempt to dispute a lawful election and overturn it. We had an attempt to do everything from put forward false slates of electors to try to get the vice president of the United States to overturn the will of 160 million voters. This idea that a political party would not accept defeat — you know, we’ve come closer and closer and closer to the idea that the two political parties do not accept the legitimacy of the other.

But it’s only one party that does more than just stand up and object, right? Democrats stood up and objected to George W. Bush — his election in 2000 because of profound questions about whether the Supreme Court should be allowed in choosing our president. I think that was a real question. It was a question that bothered me about his election. About its legitimacy. But Democrats didn’t storm the Capitol as a result of that. People went on to have real questions about whether George W. Bush had the legitimacy to launch a war against a country that hadn’t attacked us — Iraq. And yet Democrats didn’t storm the Capitol and smash through the windows.

We have one political party that’s decided that it cannot, and must not, be defeated. That it doesn’t have to accept defeat. And that is the end of democracy. You know, democracy begins not when one party wins an election. It’s when the losing party accepts it. And we’re at the point now where, essentially, it is a Republican dogma that they do not have to accept defeat. That they can overturn electoral defeat. That they can undo electoral defeat. Then we don’t have a democracy. And we now have laws on the books that not only say we’re going to make the bar to vote so high that you cannot reach it. And then, if you somehow manage to leap up to the heights we forced you to jump, and you make it, you get through those hoops, we’re then going to maybe overturn the election anyway, if we don’t like the result. That’s not a democracy.

As you attempt to communicate what’s happening on this front, who are you most trying to convince?

When Trump refused to accept his defeat, he inspired an attempted coup — that is the end of democracy. And so I would say our audience is Americans who don’t believe it could happen to us. Americans who just assume that this is something that happens in, quote, unquote, so-called Third World countries. My parents came from so-called Third World countries. But every country is subject to the same risks in losing sort of the moral leadership of the people and ceding that to the autocratic leadership of a dictator. That can happen anywhere.

Because it’s MSNBC, and focused on a liberal audience, you’re saying it’s more of a wake-up call?

Yeah, it’s a wake-up call. Because before you can do anything about this, you have to convince the people who feel comfortable in the status quo that the status quo not only isn't what they think it is, it isn't as safe as they think it is, and that they have to fight it. And then to give people the heart to fight it, the will to fight it.

And in a sense, we really do communicate with the other side because they spend a lot of time paying attention to and using everything we say over here at 7:00 in their A blocks. [Laughs.] And so we wind up, weirdly enough, communicating with Fox News. And then social media does amplify your ability to communicate outside your bubble.

That’s interesting about using social media to then get outside the bubble.

Yeah. I started on Twitter back when I was at a digital outlet called TheGrio.com. It was a Black-audience-facing outlet. But even though we were an outlet that did news by and for Black readers, our audience was only 40 percent Black. So we were communicating outside of that circle because there were people who were interested in knowing, well, what do Black audiences talk about, right? What are Black folks talking about when they’re among themselves? People were watching that. And that was actually the majority of the people — so I think there are no bubbles anymore.

It’s the reason that Donald Trump is so angry that he’s off Twitter. Yes, he has his superfans who go to his rallies and who, you know, hang on his every word and who respond to his text messages and send him money. But Twitter is where he could talk to everybody. His political opponents could see what he was saying. When he lost that — jumping on a far-right-wing version of Twitter isn’t the same.

The state of popular discourse is pretty horrendous now. How do you think the conservative and the liberal media contribute to the polarization? And should there be some middle ground that reasonable people can trust and not feel like they’re being shown one slant or the other?

When I was teaching — I’ve taught a class at Syracuse and one at Howard University — I opened with my belief that the idea that we ever had an objective media has never been true. Human beings are not objective. Human beings have experiences. They have familial ties and what you learn from when you’re growing up, where you come from. There is no such thing as real, “objective” media. An “objective” media existed at a time when neither you nor I would have been allowed to be in the media; there were just white men.

But does it make sense as an ideal?

I don’t think so. Because when you say “objective,” the question then is: objective according to who?

But reporting facts versus reporting opinion as to why something happened is different.

We have to be accurate in the things we say, or we have to put a correction up. We can’t just get on television and say, “The feds did January 6th.” They can do that at Fox. [Laughs.] And they do. And there’s nothing done about that. They’re allowed to just literally say whatever they want.

You know, I object to it when people try to say that MSNBC and Fox are the same — they’re not the same. We are a part of NBC News. We’re part of a journalistic outfit. Yes, maybe some of the people who are on air in prime time may have liberal views. But none of us share our voting records with one another. You know. We are sharing facts. And what we are doing is we’re sharing facts that might be uncomfortable. That might be new to folks. They may not know some of the information that they’re hearing from Rachel Maddow. But it is factual.

But there’s a heavy dose of opinion in there as well. It’s opinion journalism, yes?

I think the key word in opinion journalism is “journalism.” If what you’re saying is factual, then your emotional attachment to it is the opinion piece, right? And it isn’t really opinion. I mean, we covered the George Floyd case, for instance. I had incredible emotion about it. I covered the Trayvon Martin case. I have intense emotion because those people could be my family. Trayvon Martin could have been my kid — was my kid’s age. But with all of my opinion about the moral case for holding someone accountable for killing an innocent unarmed person, my opinion about that does not detract from the factual nature of what I’m saying. And me saying it in a drier way would not change the facts.

So I think it’s better that we drop the pretense that you could just sort of coldly report. Ida B. Wells objected to the way that the mainstream objective media reported on lynchings. They reported, you know, “John Smith was hanged today. Those who hanged him said he raped Sara E. Lou.” There was no factual basis for saying he’d done a crime. But they had this sort of cold, objective, quote, unquote, way of speaking about the murder of human beings that, to them, was objective — but was objectionable. So I’m glad that’s gone. I don’t think we need that kind of journalism.

You know, Walter Cronkite got on the objective evening news as the most trusted man in America and said, The Vietnam War is over. There is no moral case to continue it. Was he not an objective journalist? Of course he was. Dan Rather gave you Southern quips from his Texas upbringing. And he gave you flavor. And he gave you emotion. But he was getting you the facts. So I think we can drop the pretense that the media needs to pretend that there is a standard sort of objectivity that I think refutes the fact that we have many, many different cultures and people in this country.

But what I’m worried about is now it is a choose-your-own-adventure world where people can decide: ‘I don’t like those facts so I’m going to go here where I can get facts that make me happy. I don’t want to take the vaccine, so I’m just going to listen to somebody who says I can take this horse dewormer instead. And that makes me happy. Therefore, those are my facts.’ That’s the problem.

And so what’s the answer?

[Laughs.] That is the million-dollar question. We try really hard — our morning meeting on “The ReidOut” is part therapy session, part idea-pitch session, part trying to get through figuring out how do we get out this information in a way that, number one, isn’t demoralizing. Because it’s hard to hear some of the things we have to say. That will allow people to process it in a way that’s not overwhelming. But that’s factual. And that’s always the goal. And I think it’s really important that, however you’re delivering information, whether it’s through a podcast, through a column, through a news story or a cable news segment, that with whatever passion you’re putting into it, that you really tried to be real. But people can just choose unreality. Because if unreality makes them happy, that’s where they’re going to go. So I do worry about that.

Do you feel pressure, then, to adhere to journalistic standards but also to make [your show] entertaining?

The way I would put it is, I try to do my show the way that I will talk to my friends and my family about the things that I feel they need to know. I’m sort of an old, goofy nerd, and my way of doing it is not to be grim. I’m a big “Lord of the Rings” fan, right? And I believe that you don’t get Frodo to go to Mordor and drop that ring in there by being grim. You have to do some parts inspiration, some parts motivation, but you got to let people know what’s happening. And so I just look at the people out there — I can’t see them, but through a camera — just as, How would I tell my friends this?

Sometimes you’ve used mocking, belittling names, like, “Wormy Kevin McCarthy” or “Reek Cruz” for Ted Cruz. Yes, that’s going to grab somebody, but does that risk having people turn it off and say, “She’s not being fair; she’s taking a cheap shot instead of telling me what’s real”?

The reason that we do that, to be honest with you, is I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the ways that people deal with autocratic systems. And mockery is one way to combat autocracy. It just is. And so I’m not not deliberate about it, right? Mockery is a tool. And when you’re creeping toward fascism — I hate to be alarmist, but I don’t think it is alarmist. We are edging closer and closer and closer to a system that would be unrecognizable to most Americans. And we’re sliding toward it so casually that you have to kind of wake people up to it, right? You have to force people to confront it. And the question is, how do you combat it? Fascistic systems hate to be mocked.

So I’m using it on the kinds of people [like] Tucker Carlson; we call him Tuckums on the show. His is the most-watched show in cable news. And he’s telling people, essentially, that January 6th either didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way we all saw it happen. I mean, incredibly dangerous, the game that’s being played on the other side. And so we’re trying to fight back with every tool we have. We’ll fight back with comedy. We’ll fight back with music. We’ll fight back with art. Because at the end of the day, my parents came to this country because they believed in a system that they found to be incredibly flawed as Black people when they got here and experienced being Black in America in the ’60s. But they believed in the concept. They believed in the idea. And I kind of see America from their point of view. They’re gone now, but I see it the way they saw it — the way they wanted it to be. And so I’m using everything I’ve got. And if mockery is what I’ve got, and a little comedy is what I’ve got, I’m going to fight with that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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