The Media's Addiction to Storytelling

Public opinion would be healthier with more analysis, less 'narrative.'

Thomas Edsall, in the Times, provides another opportunity for the Editorial Board to argue that politics in the US is simpler and more complex than most Americans realize, because our news media is addicted to the power of storytelling.

Nothing wrong with storytelling in and of itself. The problem arises when “narratives,” as they say in the editorial boardrooms of elite papers, take on a life of their own, when they distort political reality while pretending they do no such thing.

The premise of Edsall’s latest is that the Democratic Party is going through an identity crisis. This may seem reasonable given the party is out of power. If it can’t get its act together, the thinking goes, how can it possibly take the Congress in November?

But Edsall’s argument rests on the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s a self-identified democratic socialist who knocked off Joe Crowley, the No. 3 House Democrat, in a June primary. Ocasio-Cortez is clearly in line with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two economic populists. Given her surprise win, Edsall asks if a coalition can take shape against Donald Trump without one wing predominating?

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Before I answer that, let me explain why this narrative distorts reality.

First, because Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is more about Crowley’s defeat.

He’s a white man who inherited his seat from the previous white man decades ago. He never had to campaign hard, because Republicans rarely ever challenged him. Meanwhile, his district in Queens became almost 70 percent nonwhite. It was only a matter of time before a smart, determined, and idealistic Latina came along.

Second, because she’s one person.

She no more represents the Democratic Party than Charlie Dent, a retiring pragmatist, represents the GOP. Party regulars are the norm. They constitute a vast majority of Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez is not a regular (not yet). She’s a reformer. But because regulars aren’t newsworthy, Edsall and others (he’s not alone) pay attention to her, giving the impression that she, and Sanders and Warren, are equal to regulars.

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Third, Edsall and others focus on ideology.

The conventional wisdom holds that parties can’t be too much of this ideology or too much of that for fear of alienating the broad “centrist” middle. There’s something to that wisdom, but it isn’t all that meaningful until you understand whether the broad “centrist” middle wants to buy what ideological candidates are selling them.

In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, she’s selling Medicare for all, a jobs guarantee, ending the use of private prisons, an assault weapons ban, among others. That fact that she’s a democratic socialist really doesn’t matter when such positions are popular. It will be some time before the Sanders-Warren wing of the party (if you can call it a wing) predominates, but when it does, it can’t hurt that people like their policy ideas.

To Edsall’s question: can a coalition take shape?

Yes, and it can take shape despite a so-called identity crisis.

The thing about political parties is they are nearly always in some state of disarray. That’s not because they don’t know what they are doing or because they don’t have a strong leader or because they don’t have a clear message. Nothing like that.

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It’s because parties are amoeba-like organisms that move with and against prevailing conditions while dealing with their own internal conflicts. Put another way, it’s fair to say party identity, but especially the Democratic Party’s identity, is always in flux. Is that a “crisis”? Maybe, if it prevents it from winning. But it can win in spite of flux.

I say “especially,” because the Democratic Party is liberal, diverse (racially, economically, religiously, and geographically) and more or less flat hierarchically. It’s a Big Tent party, meaning there are lots of competing interests, ideologies, and even antithetical views. Yet the party makes it work somehow. That’s how parties are.

My point is that Edsall’s story pretends not to know how parties work. Furthermore, it infers to the reader that parties can’t win unless they stop being in disarray. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Republican Party was in total disarray before Donald Trump’s victory. The Democratic Party can do the same in November.

The fundamental flaw of this kind of story, however, is that it’s badly timed. A better, more enlightening time to discuss identity is after a party takes power. That’s when fissures visible only to insiders become public as factions try to influence policy.

As it stands, looking for fissures now, before the midterms, is more or less a fool’s errand. They aren’t meaningful. Factions within the Democratic Party won’t allow fissures to impede the goal of opposing the president, or at least giving voters an alternative to him. That’s a real story voters would benefit from hearing.


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