I’m spending this week experimenting with different possible forms of output for a new project I’m pursuing that involves a daily critique of American political journalism. Please share your thoughts in comments, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The news article leading the New York Times website Tuesday morning is an astonishingly dishonest take on the Democratic presidential race, rife with false dichotomies, and planting its thumb heavily on the scale in favor of Joe Biden.
Under the headline Ahead of Debates, Pennsylvania Democrats Lean More Pragmatic Than Progressive, 25-year Timesman Trip Gabriel describes his visit to Bucks County, Pa., “a swing town in a swing county in a swing state,” and casts Democrats there as “wrestling with the old tug of whether to follow their heart or their head in picking a candidate.”
He declares that “For the moment, the head seemed to be winning.”
But the progressive vs. pragmatic, head vs. heart dichotomy is an insidious one. You are presuming an awful lot when you call something “pragmatic”; you are presuming that it will be effective — indeed more effective than the alternative. It literally means “dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.”
That’s not a word to be bandied about casually.
Similarly, you are presuming an awful lot when you say the “head” wants one thing and the “heart” wants another. You are saying that the “head” is pursuing the logical answer, and the “heart” is just being emotional.
Further baked into this dichotomy is the view that the candidate calling for less radical change is the pragmatic one, and therefore a safer bet when it comes to electability. But that’s not necessarily pragmatism; that’s caution, or even timidity.
True, such a candidate is safer for the status quo, safer for corporate interests, and, most importantly, safer for political journalists who idolize a possibly mythical political center. But there’s no reason to believe – and in fact there are plenty of examples to the contrary – that such a candidate is more electable.
How dishonest is this story? When Gabriel says “the head is winning,” he clearly means Biden. Look at who he quotes. Five of the nine voters mentioned by name – including the all-important person in the first paragraph – support Biden.
- There’s Diane LeBas: “For pragmatism, I would choose Joe Biden.”
- Andrew Hayman: “He’s a known quantity.”
- Margo Davidson, “I’m Biden all the way. I’m with Uncle Joe.”
- Raeleen Keffer-Scharpf: “I think he can win the presidential.”
- And Steve Cickay, who “played down Democratic fretting over whether Mr. Biden was too old to motivate younger voters.”
- Elen Snyder supports Elizabeth Warren.
- Michelle Billups supports Andrew Yang.
- Julia Woldorf thinks Biden is a poor choice.
- Susan Turner objects to Bernie Sanders.
But in a straw poll at the very picnic Gabriel was attending, Biden actually came in third – after Warren and Kamala Harris!
At the gatherings in Bucks and Delaware Counties, outside Philadelphia, there was plenty of support for several candidates. In a straw poll at the Newtown picnic — held with Democratic-approved paper straws, not plastic — the results were: Elizabeth Warren, 15, Kamala Harris, 14, Mr. Biden, 8 and Pete Buttigieg, 7. Bernie Sanders earned just one vote.
I was scratching my head a lot as I read along. I don’t even understand what Gabriel was trying to say here. Do you?
Several Democratic volunteers acknowledged that they were more liberal than many Democratic voters, which helped explain the enduring appeal of Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“It’s almost like two different parties,” said Andrew Hayman, 28, a Democratic committee member in the town of Upper Darby. “I encounter it every day at the doors: people who are excited for Biden or they don’t have a candidate.”
Gabriel only briefly allowed that not everyone he talked to saw Biden as the electable one:
Julia Woldorf, a member of the Newtown Borough Council, argued that Mr. Biden was a poor choice if voters were trying to be practical about the candidates. She brought up Ms. Harris’s sharp-scalpeled attack on him in the first debate over his civil rights record, which caught Mr. Biden off guard.
“He showed me he couldn’t respond the way he should have,” Ms. Woldorf said. “If Trump throws something at him, how’s he going to respond?”
But Waldorf view is widely shared. As it happens, the Times itself, in an article by Katie Glueck and Jonathan Martin, also in the Tuesday paper, noted that “interviews recently with more than 50 Democratic voters and party officials across four states, as well as with political strategists and some of Mr. Biden’s own donors, showed significant unease about Mr. Biden’s ability to be a reliably crisp and effective messenger against Mr. Trump.”
The most poignant part of Gabriel’s story, to me, was this little pastiche of modern American life:
Elen Snyder, a 62-year-old full-time activist at the picnic, was an example of how passionate many Democrats have become in the drive to defeat the president. Ms. Snyder said she divorced her husband of 35 years in 2016 over his support of Mr. Trump.
“He’s always been a Republican, and I’ve always been a Democrat and that was fine,” she said. But with the rise of Mr. Trump, she said: “He became an angry man. It was like I was watching this white guy who I thought I knew all of a sudden become racist, become all of the things Trump represented which I abhorred.”
Here’s another confusing paragraph. I think it presumes that “head over heart” would mean siding with one’s financial portfolio. But I’m not sure.
[Snyder’s] favorite 2020 candidate, for now, is Ms. Warren — though the choice may indicate that head over heart isn’t universal. “My Merrill Lynch adviser told me that the only candidate he would be against is Liz Warren because she scares the financial community,’’ she said. “I delighted upon hearing that.”
Salon political writer Amanda Marcotte shared her critique of the piece on Twitter:
Ah yes, the NY Times is again pushing the idea that the “smart” primary vote is categorically different than the passionate vote. That’s the kind of sharp thinking that led to the nomination of John Kerry, which worked out great for Democrats in 2004. pic.twitter.com/FfbFYmjYMi
— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) July 30, 2019
Here’s Todd Gitlin, the author and Columbia Journalism School professor:
1/ (https://t.co/3fVCkSY20J Head? Heart? Is anybody editing over there at the NYT? The piece is not only lazy ("Raise your hand if you like your head! Raise your hand if you prefer your heart!") but self-contradictory.
— Todd Gitlin (@toddgitlin) July 30, 2019
“This is lazy crap,” Dean Baker wrote in an email. Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research also publishes withering, must-read commentary on economic reporting on his Beat the Press blog.
The implicit assumption in the head vs. heart dichotomy is that Biden is the surest winner against Trump. They have very little basis for this belief but help to reinforce it with this framing.
FWIW, if I really believed that Biden had a much better chance than other candidates against Trump, I would want him to win the nomination, as was the case with Clinton in 2016. But given what we have seen from the guy this year and throughout his career, I don’t think that is the case.
And Claire Potter, who teaches at the Schools of Public Engagement shared her excellent analysis in an email:
The head/heart dichotomy struck me as another lousy way of saying:
- “I would love to vote for a woman, but we have got to beat Trump.”
- “I think Elizabeth Warren is great, but we need her in the Senate.”
- “It just isn’t Kamala Harris’s time yet.”
- “We need [a white man] who can go toe to toe with Trump.”
In other words, gender and race are lurking there in the background, but have been linguistically stripped out of the equation.
Gabriel’s reliance on false dichotomies is hardly unique in political journalism – and is quite common at the New York Times.
Consider, for instance, the critique from American Prospect founder Robert Kuttner that I quoted at some length in a post on Monday.
Kuttner dinged one Times story, Pragmatism, not Ideology, Defines Harris, for “completely false framing” because “[t]here is no such thing as a politician without an ideology, though there are plenty of politicians who try to duck or fudge where they stand.”
And he dinged A Clash of Democratic Priorities: Change Presidents, or Change the Paradigm? For its inane nut graf:
Is beating Trump or enough? Or should Democrats, much like the man they hope to defeat, shake the political system like a snow globe and worry later about how things settle?
Heck there’s yet another one in Tuesday’s Times, where Reid J. Epstein and Maggie Haberman wrote that Democrats are torn between rebuking Trump for his racist tweets (sorry, “inflammatory language”) and making substantive policy proposals.
The New York Times Washington bureau may be constantly flummoxed about how to cover Trump, but it certainly seems to have a solid formula for covering Democrats: casting everything they do as false choices.