One genre political reporters never tire of is your classic #demsindisarray story. You know the kind. One Democrat says A, another says Not A, and sometimes a third one says, well, actually, B, and suddenly the party is a mess and falling to pieces.
The genre dates back to the 1980s, when the Democratic Leadership Council was formed to take the party back from the liberals, and Democratic ideological feuds came out into the open. In the 2000s it was again at the forefront when George W. Bush was president and the Dems post-9/11 were intimidated into voting for a war they obviously didn’t believe in.
There’s always a little truth to these stories. But they always ignore the fuller context that explains why the Democrats are a cantankerous lot and the Republicans aren’t. And they always cherry-pick for the evidence that suits the thesis, ignoring the evidence that doesn’t.
And so it was that last weekend, on Saturday and Sunday respectively, The New York Times and The Washington Post gave us different variations on that theme. The general idea here was that a) the Democrats are weak because they can’t block President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and b) the primary election victory of one self-avowed socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, means that the left is taking over. Yes, those things happened—Democrats can’t block the nominee, and a socialist did win a congressional race.
But you know what else happened last week? The generic ballot widened in favor of the Democrats, according to FiveThirtyEight—from about six-and-a-half points to about eight. And over the past month or so, the change in the Democrats’ direction has been more substantial. On Memorial Day weekend, it was down to four points. So it’s doubled. And in case you’re wondering how the Republicans were doing on generic ballots at this point in 2010, the year they wiped out the Democrats, the answer is, less well.
Also in the past week, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed the ratings of half a dozen House races in the favor of the Democratic candidates. These include some key contests: David Brat, the Republican who beat Eric Cantor in Richmond, is now a toss-up race. Ditto with Mimi Walters, who is in one of those Orange County (California) districts that are up for grabs. And in northern Virginia, Barbara Comstock’s race now leans Democratic.
Now I’m not making any predictions here about November. I’m just saying the press is always looking for #demsindisarray stories, even when they could be cherry-picking different evidence that would lead to the opposite conclusion. Why?
In general, the political press does a terrible job, or no job at all, of explaining history throughout which our political parties have been ideologically inconsistent. The Whigs included Southern slave masters and Northern abolitionists united in their hatred for Andrew Jackson. The Democrats included Southern racists and Northern progressives. The Republicans included Wall Street lackeys for big capital and prairie populists.
The reasons for this were many but had a lot to do with the fact that this country, unlike the countries of Europe that had more or less fixed boundaries for centuries, was constantly growing. New states and new political interests were added every decade, meaning parties had to change and adapt. Through much of our history, in fact, the Republicans did a better job of this than the Democrats did, which is why they were so dominant from Lincoln to Wilson.
Nearer our time, both parties were still amalgams. The Democrats included Southern segregationists and Hubert Humphrey types; Republican ranks had prairie-state conservatives and New England liberals.
Starting in the 1960s both parties became more ideologically coherent, for the first time ever. But this happened a lot more intensively on the right side than the left side. This, too, happened for a ton of reasons; one is that the far right, which had never been an organized force before, became one and started spending millions of dollars a year enforcing orthodoxy.
So, in today’s political landscape imagine a Congressional Ideology Scale that goes from 0 on the left to 10 on the right. Barbara Lee of Berkeley is a 0. Steve King of Iowa is a 10.
What’s Joe Manchin on this scale? I’d say somewhat right of center; a 6. A few other Democrats are that, too; Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski, say, and some other red-state senators. So the Democrats cover the spectrum from 0 to 6. And Republicans? Let’s see. They run the gamut from 10 to…9. Okay, I kid, but only a little. There are some 8’s. I think you’d be hard-pressed to name many 7’s though. There may be a few.
But here’s another point: To the extent that any actual 7’s do exist in the congressional GOP, they’re mostly terrified of the 9’s and 10’s, who run the show. John Boehner may have been a 7, but he was afraid to bring that bipartisan immigration bill to a vote—which would have passed any time he allowed it—because he knew the 9’s and 10’s would give him the boot.
The Democrats don’t have nearly as many 0’s and 1’s as the Republicans have 9’s and 10’s, and, you may have noticed, are most definitely not terrified of their 0’s and 1’s. So yes, the Democrats are just a more ideologically diverse party because they represent the America that consists of all races, religions, sexual orientations, while Republicans represent white, heterosexual, Christian America.
And this is why the Democrats often appear to be in disarray. Republicans represent a homogeneous America, and Democrats represent a heterogeneous America.
Now, a note to those from the heterogeneous zones. “Diversity” includes ideological diversity, a fact many diversity celebrants seem to forget. The Democratic Party needs its Manchins and its Jon Testers. As I never tire of writing, you won’t get majorities without them. If the Democrats become a party of 0’s and 1’s as some people wish, they’ll lose every time, because there are more 9’s and 10’s in this country, and besides they have a bajillion times more money.
But that’s a secondary point for now. The main point is, #demsindisarray stories will never end. It’s an instant media reflex, and a #demsindisarray story, based on three random events pulled together in such a way as to appear to be ominous, can be written any day of any week. Meanwhile, in real life, the Democrats have gained points in every congressional special election in the Trump era. That’s some disarray.