Democrats aren't toxic — the media is just downplaying Republicans' rot

The centrists' scapegoating has already begun

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 18, 2022 10:52AM (EST)

Lindsey Graham, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Lindsey Graham, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

You know it's campaign season when Democrats start wringing their hands and running around in circles worrying about how to get Real Americans to vote for them. You can expect to see Democratic candidates in camo trucker hats slinging hunting rifles over their shoulders professing their love for pork rinds and re-runs of "Mayberry RFD" within the next few months along with constant refrains about how all those darned city slickers just don't know how to talk to the folks. It is as predictable as Donald Trump leading "lock her up" chants at a political rally.

On Friday, Axios declared: "Squad politics backfire." Mike Allen went on to claim that "the push to defund the police, rename schools and tear down statues has created a significant obstacle to Democrats keeping control of the House, the Senate and the party's overall image." The column, of course, extensively quoted the co-founder of the centrist group Third Way. The New York Times on Friday identified progressive prosecutors as the source of Democratic discontent to claim that "a political backlash is brewing."

Earlier in the week, Politico reported that the party is already rending its garments over the fact that the GOP's culture war attacks on issues such as Critical Race Theory and immigration are "alarmingly potent" which is sending campaigns scurrying to find ways to express how much they agree with Republicans. (They call this "correcting the record" which adds up to the same thing.) The Associated Press made a foray into the wilds of rural Pennsylvania to find that not only are Democratic politicians persona non grata, but average voters are feeling besieged as well:

The party's brand is so toxic in the small towns 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh that some liberals have removed bumper stickers and yard signs and refuse to acknowledge publicly their party affiliation. These Democrats are used to being outnumbered by the local Republican majority, but as their numbers continue to dwindle, those who remain are feeling increasingly isolated and unwelcome in their own communities. "The hatred for Democrats is just unbelievable," said Tim Holohan, an accountant based in rural McKean County who recently encouraged his daughter to get rid of a pro-Joe Biden bumper sticker. "I feel like we're on the run."

The advice from Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp ,the former North Dakota Senator, is for Democratic candidates to stop talking about farmers and broadband internet (issues that personally affect rural voters) and instead decry the Fox News chimera of "defund the police" which is apparently hugely important to small town America for some reason.

Meanwhile, the centrist reporter Matt Bai published a piece in the Washington Post in which he acknowledged that the Republican Party is completely off the rails and would "if left to its own devices, destroy the foundation of the republic." Nonetheless, he may not be able to vote for the Democratic Party because of their allegedly far-left views that may lead to "the kind of social upheaval that occurred when foreign empires relinquished their colonies." I don't know which Democrats he's talking about but it certainly isn't anyone in elected office.

What he does appear to be advising is that Democratic politicians adopt the age-old tactic of denouncing and disavowing the same people the Republicans attack in the hopes of persuading the vast amorphous "middle" that they aren't extremists. Back in the day we used to call it hippie punching. President Bill Clinton famously demonstrated it when he ostentatiously criticized a rapper named Sistah Souljah in the 1990s. This tactic is not new. It was tried over and over again. And it resulted in a Republican Party that has become progressively authoritarian, racist and culturally retrograde.

This Democratic navel-gazing happens every time the Democrats face a tough election cycle. But there's something different happening this time that should shake up the tedious, perennial calculation that Democrats are becoming the party leftist extremists: the Republicans are batshit crazy right now.

Take, for example, that AP story above which reports that the Democrats in rural Pennsylvania are frightened of their neighbors. This is portrayed as a problem for these Democrats to solve when it's actually a serious problem for the country if Republicans have become so unhinged that people who live near them fear for their safety. I suspect that after the events of January 6th and the ongoing crisis of gun violence, vaccine and mask refusal, mass book banning and the intensity of the right's descent into delusional, anti-democratic authoritarianism, they aren't the only ones who feel that way.

And I'm not just speaking of Democrats. The GOP is turning on itself as well. Politico reported this week on the massive number of primaries being waged against GOP incumbents and it isn't pretty:

"Primaries are always fucked up to some degree, but it's different now," said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country. "There's more self-hate than there was before. Ten years ago, we'd argue about who was more pro-gun, who was more pro-life. Now, my clients are going RINO hunting, which is a level of disdain that was not there before in our party."

Another describes it as "a cocktail of people being really just mad, beyond the pale of what I would say is traditional political discourse." Many of these challengers are driven by fealty to Donald Trump who is seeking revenge against anyone he deems insufficiently loyal and all of them are extremists in the Trump mold. They are hostile to Democrats and moderate Republicans alike and filled with loathing for everyone who isn't onboard their crusade.

RELATED: Only 13 of 143 Texas GOP candidates will admit Trump's loss was "legitimate"

At the same time, money is rolling in from small donors is massive numbers, but the party doesn't know what to do about the fact that most of it is going to Trump who is unreliable, to say the least, when it comes to spending on anyone but himself. Axios reported that Trump's popularity with the most committed donors means that everyone else has to lean on his brand even more, making the party even more dependent on him.

As for The Big Lie? Well, it's more potent than ever. The Houston Chronicle asked congressional challengers in Texas whether Biden's victory was legitimate, and out of 143 only 13 said yes. They are either deluded or lying and neither of those things bodes well for the future of the country if they are elected.

Given the contrast between the two parties, with a Democratic establishment carefully trying to implement policies designed to help working families, deal with a global pandemic and prepare for the challenges of the future while juggling the various concerns of a fractious coalition and a Republican establishment that's on the verge of being decimated by a group of far right cultists, any self-described liberal or centrist who believes, as Matt Bai apparently does, that Biden's failure to full-throatedly disavow some campus radicals is a "deal-breaker" needs to get off Twitter and take a look at what's really going on in this country.

Progressives, liberals, leftists, centrists and even disaffected conservatives can argue policy all day long and fight for what they believe the Democratic Party should stand for. That's the restive coalition politics Democrats are famous for. But right now, there is nothing more important than maintaining a popular front against this toxic anti-democratic movement that's consuming the Republican Party and threatening to turn back any progress we've managed to painfully eke out over these past couple of centuries.  

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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Centrist Commentary Democrats Media Criticism Midterms 2022 Republicans