The Myth of a Civil War in the Democratic Party

For a while now I have been writing that the lens through which a lot of political commentators have been viewing the 2018 Democratic primaries is distorted. I was glad to see that Dana Milbank joined me in that conclusion.

To peruse the coverage of the Democratic primaries of 2018, you’d think there was a battle royale within the Democratic Party: insurgent vs. establishment, Bernie vs. Hillary, progressive vs. moderate, grass roots vs. party bosses.

There’s been mention of a “battle between progressives and moderates” (the Guardian), a Democratic “identity crisis” (The Post), a “full-blown Democratic war” (CNN), a “civil war” (Fox News) and a “fight for the future of the Democratic Party” (BuzzFeed).

But if a civil war has been declared, somebody forgot to tell Democratic voters. They are stubbornly refusing to view 2018 through the progressive/moderate, insurgent/establishment lens.

As an alternative lens, Milbank documents how this is actually what is going on:

Overriding all other considerations this year in Democratic voters’ minds (and candidates’ messages) is stopping President Trump and his congressional enablers. Related to that is the other major influence of this primary season: a huge rise in support for female candidates among men and women alike, likely driven by Trump’s misogyny, the #MeToo movement and Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.

It is worth taking a moment to consider why the myth of a Democratic civil war persists. One reason is the age-old media addiction to bothsiderism. In this case, if reporting suggests a civil war in the Republican Party, there must be one in the Democratic Party as well.

Another reason is that few national reporters (especially those on cable TV) have the ability to do in-depth reporting on local elections and the kinds of personalities that come into play. It is simply easier to grab a national framework from recent elections and assume it applies.

But perhaps the most significant contributor is the fact that media loves conflict. The 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders thrived on casting the ultimate battle between the establishment and the insurgency. That was its reason for being. It’s hard for political commentators to give up that conflict-driven narrative for one where local organizers are coming together to defeat Trump and elect women.

I actually find the stories of women candidates like Stacey Abrams and Amy McGrath to be pretty compelling, perhaps because they don’t fit the narrative of the last presidential primary, which has gotten stale and boring. That interest obviously extends to voters like Chelsea Abney, who I wrote about yesterday. But those stories also happen to be the ones that are driving this year’s Democratic primaries. Sooner or later perhaps the media will give up on the myth of a Democratic civil war and start writing about what’s really happening.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.