Are the Democrats Screwed?

That seems to be a growing consensus among some political journalists. Usually known for mincing words when it comes to the Democrat Party, the talk was a lot more direct at a recent panel hosted by the Midwest Political Science Association:

A session chaired by Jennifer Lawless of American University and Danny Hayes of George Washington University included a panel with journalists Molly Ball (The Atlantic), Steve Peoples (The Associated Press) and Nia-Malika Henderson (CNN).

“I think the Democrats are kind of screwed at this point,” said Henderson, underscoring what’s clearly the current consensus. “They thought Hillary Clinton would win and their bench is really, really thin.”

Ball was especially interesting in part since she’s among a younger generation of journalists that, as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan would note to me at another session, takes academic research seriously. That’s as opposed to many more senior counterparts who’d often scoff at academics as removed from the nitty-gritty reality the journalists prided themselves on covering.

“It will be fun to cover the Democratic civil war for a change,” she said. “It’s hard to underestimate how screwed the Democrats are.”

In other words, reporters (well, these reporters at least) are starting to get a sense of what’s been glaringly obvious to anyone who exists outside of the DC media bubble: Hillary was a horrible candidate. Bernie Sanders was well past his sell-by date. And the rest of the Democrat leadership is old, tired and should have left the stage long ago. Now all they’re left with are septuagenarian socialists, who sharp-elbow anybody younger, more moderate and with broader appeal.

That is the very definition of screwed.

Before they congratulate themselves on being so clever, though, the panel should know that there are a couple of areas in which their analysis falls short. First off, any notion of a civil war within the Democrat Party got squashed even before the election of the new DNC chairman. When your choice is between Tom Perez (hard left) and Keith Ellison (even harder left), the battle for the soul of the party has already been lost to the extremists. Secondly, the news organizations that employ these journalists haven’t taken any steps to correct the systemic bias that led them to predict a Clinton blowout. In fact, in many cases the bias has actually gotten worse (I’m talking to you, CNN). So long as this is the case, it won’t matter how good their polling data is. The analysis will remain hopelessly flawed with that much confirmation bias baked in.

But there’s also this part, which is worth repeating:

Ball. . .takes academic research seriously. That’s as opposed to many more senior counterparts who’d often scoff at academics as removed from the nitty-gritty reality the journalists prided themselves on covering.

That’s research–as opposed to good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. This is probably the greatest weakness in modern journalism, the belief that databases, Google and a subscription to Lexis-Nexis can take the place of getting out in the world and observing events firsthand. Yes, it’s important to have the data to back up your conclusions, and to provide hard facts for your analysis–but data can also become subjective, especially when disconnected from the “nitty-gritty reality” that often challenges our preconceived views.

You know who got the 2016 election right when so many others got it wrong? Salena Zito. She actually went out into the country, into the kind of Rust Belt towns that are largely ignored by the media, and talked to people. They were the kind of people that Democrats used to care about: working class, largely white, most of them hit hard by the recession of 2008 and many still hurting. A lot of them had voted for Barack Obama, but told Zito they were receptive to Donald Trump’s message of restoring America’s greatness–and with it, their own lives and futures. In town after town, Zito heard similar stories, and because of that–and because she kept an open mind–she sensed the coming tsunami.

The journalists at the Midwest Political Science association would do well to follow that example.

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