Yesterday, I wrote about a news article in the Washington Post which falsely claimed that one-fifth (11 out of 55) of Virginia House of Delegates Democratic incumbents were being primaried “from the left.” After examining the races one by one, it turns out that there’s a decent argument that just four Democratic delegates are being primaried “from the left,” with a few others debatable, but certainly nowhere near “one-fifth.” And yet…the Washington Post went with their preferred narrative, as opposed to the actual facts.
As I noted, the political media tends to love certain narratives, and will work to create them even if the narratives don’t really exist. For instance, the political media loves: “both sides,” false equivalence, treating substantive stories mostly or only in terms of “horse-race coverage,” “treat[ing] the right-wing media ecosystem as if it were their assignment editor, because it tends to produce exciting stories”…and of course the good ol’ “Democrats in Disarray!” (or its close relative, “the Democratic Party is at war with its ‘left wing’/progressives”) narrative, which they trot out even (especially) when Democrats are NOT in disarray. There’s also a willingness, even an enthusiasm, in the political media to bash/mock/minimize liberals, progressives, “the left,” etc, that you simply don’t see with regard to conservatives/right wingers. Why is that? For some great analysis of that question, as well as the other stuff mentioned above, see top-notch media critics like Jay Rosen, Eric Boehlert, and Press Watch.
Anyway, you’d think the media would eventually self correct, or maybe take some of these smart, informed critiques to heart. But sadly, it doesn’t really look like that. For instance, today’s NY Times has an atrociously bad article by Nate Cohn on “the rise of political sectarianism” in America.” As Erik Boehlert says, “it’s hard to describe how bad it is from beginning to end…it clings to every possible Beltway media cliche, including Cohn’s attack on Biden for not ‘unifying’ the country after election.” Ugh. And as Jay Rosen adds, “Not only does this article both sides the asymmetric threat to democracy, but it does so in a way that pointing this fact out becomes itself proof of the both-sides-do-it thesis. To its distortions it thus adds a sealant.” So, so bad.
Closer to home, in today’s Washington Post, we’ve got an opinion piece by GMU Professor Mark Rozell with the headline, “Did Virginia’s Democrats misread their mandate with a boldly progressive agenda?” This article is so badly flawed, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are a few of its many problems:
- The framing of the headline is clearly pushing the (false) narrative that pushing a “boldly progressive agenda” is dangerous, potentially disastrous even, politically. What isn’t pointed out, of course, is that this “boldly progressive agenda” – from clean energy to voting rights to gun violence prevention to criminal justice reforms to LGBT equality to legalization of marijuana to…you name it, really – is highly popular stuff among the public. For instance, check out this recent Wason Center poll, which finds that “More than two out of three voters support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana”; “Virginia voters show very strong support for requiring employers with at least 25 employees to provide paid sick leave (88%) and strong support for allowing public employees to unionize and bargain collectively (68%)”; “Majorities favor repealing the death penalty (56%) and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some offenses (55%)”; etc. Also check out this Wason Center poll, from September 2020, which found that “Strong majorities [of Virginians] support reforms related to police use of force, including training on de-escalation (96%), requiring body cameras (95%), requiring officers to intervene when a colleague uses unlawful force (94%), requiring public reports when force is used (76%), establishing a public database on police misconduct (76%) and creating civilian oversight boards (70%).” Or this January 2020 poll by VCU, which finds majorities (in some cases large majorities) of Virginians support a variety of gun policy proposals, as well as paying more in taxes to increase funding for education. And then there’s this Roanoke College poll from December 2019, which finds strong support for ratifying the ERA, raising the minimum wage to $15/hour, women’s reproductive freedom, etc.
- The bottom line is that Virginians *strongly support* the items listed by Professor Rozell in his WaPo column as supposedly part of “a leftward lurch unprecedented in more than 400 years of always cautious, predominantly conservative Virginia governance.” Wuuuut? “Leftward lurch?” When basically every single policy item on the Democrats’ agenda is supported by majorities or pluralities of Virginians (thus making the policies, by definition, “centrist,” and a move towards the center from the right, as opposed to a “leftward lurch”). Anyway, the wild, anti-progressive/anti-“left” bias of the author is clear, as soon as you read the phrase “a leftward lurch unprecedented in more than 400 years of always cautious, predominantly conservative Virginia governance.” And it’s even worse because IT IS NOT FACTUALLY ACCURATE. By the way, that’s where something called an “editor” should enter the picture, either demanding major revisions to the submitted opinion piece, or simply rejecting it because it doesn’t meet the paper’s standards for accuracy. Instead, it got published. Why?
- You’d think that editors would also want to delete flat-out false statements such as “Clearly, Virginia’s political complexion has changed from fire-engine red at the turn of the 21st century, when Republicans took control of every statewide office and institution of government in Virginia, to azure blue over the past few years.” In fact, at the “turn of the 21st century,” Virginia elected Democrat Mark Warner as governor and Democrat Tim Kaine as Lt. Governor, followed by the election of Kaine as governor in 2005. Also serving as one of Virginia’s U.S. Senators at the “turn of the 21st century” was none other than Democrat Chuck Robb, who was defeated by Republican George Allen in November 2020 by a narrow, 52%-48% margin. Not exactly “fire-engine red.” Also note that the Virginia House of Delegates was narrowly divided at the “turn of the 21st century,” going from a narrow 50-49 Democratic advantage in 1998-2000 to a narrow 52-47 Republican advantage in 2000-2002. Again, not “fire-engine red.” As for the Virginia State Senate, it went from 20-20 in 1996-2000 to a narrow 21-19 Republican majority in 2000-2004. Again, not even close to “fire-engine red.” So, the bottom line is that at the “turn of the 21st century,” Virginia was a competitive, “purple” state in many ways, with more “blue” victories to come in 2005 (Tim Kaine), 2006 (Jim Webb over George Allen), 2008 and 2012 (Barack Obama), etc.
- This line – “college-educated, affluent people who moved here for well-paying white-collar jobs, and they’ve consistently rejected strident social conservatism and particularly former president Donald Trump’s pugnacious nationalism” – jumps out at me, just because it’s so weird, particularly the phrase “Donald Trump’s pugnacious nationalism.” In fact, what “college-educated, affluent people” – as well as many NON-college-educated, NON-affluent, BLUE-collar people – rejected regarding Trump wasn’t his “nationalism,” whatever that’s even supposed to mean in this context, but his bigotry, extremism, corruption, hostility to democracy, contempt for rule of law, disregard of science, etc., etc.
- Then we have this laughable, yet also appalling, example of “both sidesism” and “false equivalency” taken go the max: “This key bloc of voters is clearly averse to extreme policy, in this case veering too far to the right for them. These are cautious voters who reward moderation and pragmatism. From the 2021 elections, we will learn whether this decisive suburban vote is as averse to undiluted liberalism as it has been to conservative legislation that came on too strong.” So basically, this is wrong on every level, and dangerously so, as it (falsely and irresponsibly) equates bigotry, corruption, extremism, an assault on our democracy, etc. with…highly popular progressive policies to make peoples’ lives better.
- One thing we do agree one is that “Democrats now hold power thanks to narrow legislative majorities won in 2019 and, for the first time in a generation, will have to defend what they’ve done to keep it.” Where we disagree is with the author’s strong implication that there’s anything unusual about a party facing voters, who get to decide whether they like the job that their legislators have been doing…or not. For my money, I’m thinking that as long as Democrats clearly communicate to voters about the tremendously productive 2020 and 2021 Virginia General Assembly sessions, thanks to Democrats being in charge and passing policies that are both good policy AND good politics, they will be fine in November. Meanwhile, Republicans will fearmonger, demagogue, and lie, including no doubt attempting to argue that Democrats’ policies constitute some sort of “unprecedented” “leftward lurch,” as Professor Rozell writes in his highly misleading WaPo op-ed.
P.S. Oh, by the way, Virginia isn’t really “azure blue” now, with Dems holding a very narrow, 21-19 majority in the State Senate, and a not-exactly-massive 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates. And that’s even WITH an anti-Trump “blue tsunami” in 2017-2019. So…yeah, this hyperbole (“fire-engine red”/”azure blue”) really isn’t helpful when describing Virginia’s political orientation over the past 20 years…