What the New York Times gets shockingly wrong about the future of the Democratic Party

A new essay in the NYT Magazine claims that Dems are in the grips of a disastrous identity crisis. Nope, sorry

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 14, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

I awoke on Wednesday feeling like it was Christmas morning. Finally, there in the New York Times was the first of what is sure to be many articles about the "Democrats in Disarray." I was beginning to think the day would never come. By now we usually have entire series -- and books in the works -- on this subject. But fear not. It appears we can relax. Sure the GOP presidential circus may be the most exciting clown show in town, but the Democrats still have their crazy hippies ruining everything and all is right with the world.

Or so they say. The article to which I refer is called "The Great Democratic Crack-up of 2016," not an especially original headline but one that's sure to get every Villager's blood pumping. What it argues is that the populist left and the party's business-oriented centrists are at odds, and nobody knows who exactly will win. And this is a big problem because the left-wing extremists are pulling the Party away from the center, which means Real Americans will not vote for them, hating hippies as they are wont to do.

The piece uses the Senate seat being vacated by the liberal Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as the example of the Party's awful turmoil, what with liberal congressman Chris Van Hollen running against liberal congresswoman Donna Edwards for the privilege of becoming the liberal senator from a liberal state.

Why this is considered a microcosm for the foul state of the Democratic Party nationwide is explained by making Van Hollen into a "practical" sort-of centrist, fighting for the integrity of his party against a left-wing firebrand, Edwards. Unfortunately, all of that is claptrap.

Both Van Hollen and Edwards come from the liberal wing of the party, the main difference between them being that Van Hollen has been very active in the leadership and therefore had to carry water for the administration from time to time, while Edwards has been a progressive movement candidate from the very beginning of her career and has earned the loyalty of members of that movement. It is hardly surprising that progressive groups would back her over Van Hollen --- she has been a model congresswoman.

In fact, it would be a betrayal if they didn't. And yes, many of these progressives would like to see an African-American woman replace the elder stateswoman Barbara Mikulski. Seeing as there are still only 20 out of 100 senators who are female, and only two African-Americans, given the choice between two qualified liberal candidates is anyone surprised that progressives would choose the woman who has been responsive to them her entire career? It's actually shocking that anyone would suggest they should do otherwise.

But to cast this race as one that represents a huge schism in the party between the business wing and the populist wing is a ridiculous stretch. It's a standard intra-party primary in a very blue state. I'm sure it will get feisty and likely even quite ugly. Primaries have a tendency to do that. They're like family fights --- those who are closest to each other know just how to throw the punch where it will hurt the most. But the day after the election, everyone will coalesce around the winner, guaranteed. Family fights are one thing. Fighting your political opposition is another thing altogether.

I had to chuckle at the idea that Robert Draper, the New York Times Magazine contributor who reported the piece, would look up Al Wynn, the thoroughly corrupt politician whom Edwards defeated in 2010, and get his opinion on the state of the Democratic Party. Draper evidently forgot to look up the record that got Wynn ousted --- a record of constantly voting with Republicans in favor of business interests, including big oil, coal, credit cards, banking and just about any other big money industry, over and over again. If there was ever someone out of step with his constituency, it was Wynn -- which should be obvious, since he lost his seat in a party primary which is not something that happens every day. Anyway, Draper dug around and found Wynn (probably ensconced in his lavish lobbyists office), who offered this observation about the defeat of the African American Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the 2014 midterm:

One reason for this may be that liberal African-Americans still need convincing that a progressive agenda benefits their pocketbook. “What you have to consider about Maryland,” says Albert Wynn, the man Donna Edwards defeated in 2008, “is that two out of the last four governors have been Republican. Maryland may be blue, but it’s not California. It’s very progressive on social issues, but there’s also uneasiness over the foreclosure situation, which has been devastating to the African-American community in particular. And there’s real concern over job creation. Raising the minimum wage is not an economic message. It’s an element of an economic message. No one’s saying, ‘I want my kids to have a minimum wage job.’ They want Maryland to attract businesses that are now going to other states. I think people are oversimplifying Maryland politics.”

I guess Wynn doesn't remember that two out of the last four California governors have also been Republicans. But be that as it may, the idea that a conservative agenda would benefit the pocketbooks of African-Americans is laughable. And they know it. Between Van Hollen and Edwards, that's not likely going to be a huge difference between them on those issues. (And no, I personally would not characterize Van Hollen as a "Wall St. Democrat." But I would imagine that's the kind of thing we'll hear in the campaign --- just as some people will characterize Edwards as a crazed socialist. Primaries like this always strain to find ways to differentiate the candidates.)

After allegedly establishing Maryland as the perfect illustration of the Democratic crackup, Draper goes on to make this larger case:

The problem is that neither wing [of the Democratic Party] can muster an entirely airtight case that theirs is the road map to electoral success. Sroka, of Democracy for America, says that last November’s election “was a good night for progressives,” pointing to the successful re-election campaigns waged by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who each employed anti-Wall Street rhetoric. But in purple states, House Democrats like Alan Grayson of Florida, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Tom Perriello of Virginia all ran on Obama’s progressive achievements in 2010 and lost, as did Shea-Porter again in 2014.

Moderate Democrats cite the Senate victories of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Joe Donnelly in Indiana in 2012 as models for how Democrats can expand the map in their favor by proffering candidates who are not to the left of their electorate. On the other hand, Mark Warner, the Virginia senator and popular centrist, was nearly defeated in 2014 by failing to motivate the Democratic base. And the moderate Senate Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana did all they could to distance themselves from Obama’s Affordable Care Act and were still routed. The election results are a jumble of counterindicators, from which anything and nothing can be concluded, allowing each side to blame the other after a loss.

I hate to point out the obvious but, first of all, Alan Grayson won back his seat in 2012 and is still in Congress after the bloodbath of 2014. Just saying. And mixing up the races of 2010, 2012 and 2014 like that is a very big mistake. Why? Because in presidential years the Democrats do a lot better and in midterms the Republicans do a lot better. Who survives in those circumstances has a lot less to do with ideology and a lot more to do with the makeup of the electorate.

Ed Kilgore, who literally wrote the book about why Republicans swept the 2014 midterms ("without once considering the argument that Democrats lost because they were in the grip of mad lefty hippies, or because they had sold their souls to Wall Street," as he himself describes it), actually consulted the experts and looked at the numbers and discovered that such things as "turnout patterns, the economy, the electoral landscape, and the long history of second-term midterm disasters for the party controlling the White House" were more salient than this stale narrative about Democrats searching aimlessly for their misbegotten souls.

Yes, there are tensions within the party. It's a very big party. But there have always been tensions within both of the parties. Why would anyone expect something different when there are only two of them in a country of more than 300 million people? And as polling has shown, that big country has become more polarized between the two main parties, which makes these internecine battles even more energized as the most active members of both seek to push their parties to represent their interests. The political establishment calls this "disarray" and characterizes it as some kind of tearing at the fabric of our civic life. In reality, it's just democracy.

If I were to put my money on a party being in disarray, I certainly wouldn't put it on the Democrats. Doesn't it occur to anyone that if there was a serious schism in the party that there would be a whole drill team's worth of candidates vying for the nomination? It's the Republicans who are putting on a three-ring presidential circus while the Democrats are on track to stage a rather stately campaign of ideas. I can't even imagine the "disarray" inside that very crowded GOP clown car. It's got to be a major mess in there.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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2014 Elections 2016 Elections Populism The Democratic Party The New York Times Wall Street