The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The L.A. journalist making Americans smarter about politics

Ronald Brownstein speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" on Nov. 18, 2007, in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
7 min

The man who is perhaps the sharpest observer of America’s political divides lives not in Washington but Los Angeles. He has never interviewed Donald Trump. His recent book was not a tell-all about the Trump or Biden White Houses but an account of how musicians, actors and other creative types who lived in the L.A. area in the early 1970s reshaped American culture.

Ronald Brownstein, who writes separate weekly columns for the Atlantic and CNN and appears regularly on the cable news network, isn’t in the mold of other top political journalists of this era. And that’s unfortunate. News organizations need to rethink how they cover elections and government — and Brownstein is an exemplar of a better way.

What’s so great about Brownstein? First and most important, he focuses on long-term patterns instead of daily gossip, and he understands that politics isn’t just what happens in Washington.

There is more to political reporting than ever before, with publications that didn’t exist a decade ago producing numerous articles daily. But so much of that coverage is limited to two subjects: what the president and Congress are doing that day or week and the next national election.

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Brownstein writes and comments on those subjects, too. But often he homes in on other kinds of political stories: the recent rightward shift in Democratic-leaning cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, driven by residents’ frustration with rampant homelessness and a broader sense of disorder; the moves by Republican-dominated states across the South, Midwest and Great Plains to adopt similar restrictions on abortion, transgender rights and teaching about racism in public schools; the campaign by red states to fight America’s transition from fossil fuels.

And when Brownstein is covering Washington or the campaign trail, he’s not fixated on the obvious. For example, in the wake of this November’s elections, political journalists quickly coalesced around the idea that voters punished Republicans for trying to limit abortion rights. Not quite, Brownstein pointed out in a postelection piece. There was such a backlash in some blue and purple states such as Michigan. But in Florida, Texas and other states, including purplish Georgia, Republican governors signed strict abortion limits into law and still won resoundingly.

In an interview over Zoom, Brownstein described his approach as “outside-in,” as he tries to show “how the parties’ agendas and messages are intersecting with the country around them.”

“In D.C., everything is very tactical. The coin of the realm is knowledge of the tactics. … But the way in which political actors intersect with the trajectory of change in the country is more important than which ad you put on,” Brownstein told me.

Brownstein has spent most of his career in Washington, but he moved to the Los Angeles area in 2014 and says that has helped his reporting.

“I'm not only trying to learn what the party's strategies are, I'm giving those strategies a stress test through my own understanding of how the country is changing,” he said. “It makes it less necessary to be in Washington.”

The second reason that Brownstein is a model political journalist is the depth and insight he brings to the work. Brownstein is not a data journalist, but his stories are full of polling and statistics that validate his arguments. He’s not known as a “whisperer” to any given politician, but his articles and television commentary often include references to his conversations with top officials in both parties. Many journalists are great at explaining the electoral part of politics but miss the policy part, or get the politics and policy but not the race and identity element. Brownstein captures it all.

Brownstein popularized many ideas that political observers, including myself, refer to regularly: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as part of a “blue wall” of states Democrats must carry in presidential elections; the division in Democratic primaries between “wine track” voters (those with college degrees) and the “beer track” (those without degrees); the notion that the electorate is divided into “a coalition of transformation” (people of color, college graduates and other groups who lean Democratic) versus a “coalition of restoration” (White Christians, older Americans and other groups who lean Republican).

Brownstein is prescient — strikingly so at times. In an interview in late 2018, when it wasn’t at all clear whom the Democrats would nominate to take on Trump in 2020, Brownstein predicted that a ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be a winning one. In the run-up to this year’s elections, Brownstein didn’t rule out a potential “red wave,” but he repeatedly explained why a Republican sweep might not happen, noting the large number of people in polls who were saying that they disapproved of Biden but were leaning toward Democratic candidates.

Finally, Brownstein is frank about the radical direction that the Republican Party is headed, without being overtly ideological or partisan. He writes columns, but his work is more analysis and explanation than opinion. Brownstein does not advocate positions on issues or back particular candidates or parties, as I do. At the same time, he has not made the mistake so many other non-opinion journalists have made in the Trump era: being so eager to portray themselves as nonpartisan that they downplay Republican extremism.

“The red states are moving social policy sharply to the right within their borders on issues from abortion to LGBTQ rights and classroom censorship, while simultaneously working to hobble the ability of either the federal government or their own largest metro areas to set a different course,” he wrote earlier this year. Such language is not flattering to Republicans, but it is more descriptive than judgmental.

Brownstein isn’t perfect. He acknowledges that in the years after Barack Obama’s election as president he understated how many Americans were resistant to the increasingly multicultural nation that Obama and his supporters embodied and therefore the potential of someone like Trump to be elected president.

And in some ways, Brownstein’s approach isn’t replicable by younger journalists. Brownstein is very knowledgeable about national politics in part because he has been on the beat since 1982, with long stints at National Journal and the Los Angeles Times before joining CNN and the Atlantic. Brownstein first met Biden in 1985.

When Brownstein was starting out, editors were largely hiring White men for prestigious political-writing jobs. So he is a bit of a unicorn, both having made race, identity and demographics a big theme of his work (unlike many of his older White male peers), and having so much experience (unlike many female political journalists and those of color, like myself, who emphasize the intersection between identity and politics but are in their 40s or younger.) And Brownstein’s ability to write critically about the Republican Party without being cast as too liberal by Republicans or fellow journalists is likely enhanced by the fact that he isn’t a person of color, a woman, young or gay.

So, we can’t create carbon copies of Ronald Brownstein. But covering politics beyond the campaign trail and Capitol Hill, using data, reporting on both policy and electoral considerations, and describing the Republican Party honestly are all things that both individual political journalists and news organizations can and should embrace.

“How would Ronald Brownstein cover this story?” is a question that political journalists should have at the top of their minds. He’s doing the job the way it should be done.