Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Kevin Drum Misses the Forest for the Trees

Most of the time I really appreciate Kevin Drum's commitment to charts and data. But a few months ago, he published a couple of pieces aimed at making the point that "[s]ince 1994, Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right." As the title of his second piece suggests, he uses that data to blame the so-called "culture wars" on liberals. I'm a little late in addressing all of that, but it's because I've been stewing about it for a while now.

There were a lot of problems with the data Drum shared. For the most part, his charts show that over the years, more Democrats have aligned themselves with party positions. That is very different than the notion that the party has moved left. To demonstrate the latter, he would need to examine how Democratic policies have changed on issues like immigration, abortion, marriage equality, or guns. That is not what his data shows.

If we go back to 1994, we can see that there has been a lot of movement on the issue of marriage equality. But the chart Drum uses for that one actually tells the real story. 

It's not just Democrats who have embraced marriage equality - even 55% of Republicans and 73% of independents are on board. There has been a sea change in this country on that issue. Republicans are fighting that movement, while Democrats have embraced it.

One of the follies of Drum's analysis has to do with the dates he chose for his data. He posits that Democrats started moving left in 1994, but the charts he uses to defend that position have starting dates ranging from 1997 to 2003. The excludes the reality that this was the discussion about immigration in 1980 between two men who went on to be Republican presidents.

Let's also remember that the immigration reform bill drafted by a bipartisan "gang of eight" passed the Senate in 2013 by a vote of 68-32, with 14 Republicans signing on. It was House Republicans who eventually scuttled the deal and, with Trump, mounted an anti-immigrant campaign. 

The party defending the status quo on abortion is Democrats. That has consistently been their position. But after stacking the Supreme Court, Republicans are the ones who have mounted an escalating attack on Roe vs. Wade.

As with marriage equality, the majority of the country came to embrace common sense gun control, especially after the horrifying shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in late 2012. As Drum's chart shows, that wasn't just true for Democrats, Republicans also got on board - at least until Trump came on the scene.

But there's an even bigger problem with Drum's analysis. He posted those pieces about 6 months after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. To suggest that Democrats have moved farther outside the mainstream following those events is to completely miss the forest for the trees. As Robert Kagan recently documented in his article titled "Our Constitution Crisis Is Already Here," things have only gotten worse since then.
[T]he amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers.

All of that is in addition to the eighteen states that have enacted 30 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote." Most of that was made possible by the attack on the Voting Rights Act that was brought to the Supreme Court by Republicans. 

So excuse me if I reject the notion that it is Democrats who have moved farther to the left. Kagan wrote his piece as a warning for what is in the process of coming - an all-out assault on the foundation of our democracy by Republicans. My one beef with his piece is that he focuses all of his attention on Donald Trump. The former guy is, in fact, leading a cult. The so-called "culture wars" are his battle cry.

Trump is different, which is one reason the political system has struggled to understand, much less contain, him. The American liberal worldview tends to search for material and economic explanations for everything, and no doubt a good number of Trump supporters have grounds to complain about their lot in life. But their bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns. They believe the U.S. government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants. They see the Republican Party establishment as corrupt and weak — “losers,” to use Trump’s word, unable to challenge the reigning liberal hegemony. They view Trump as strong and defiant, willing to take on the establishment, Democrats, RINOs, liberal media, antifa, the Squad, Big Tech and the “Mitch McConnell Republicans.” His charismatic leadership has given millions of Americans a feeling of purpose and empowerment, a new sense of identity. While Trump’s critics see him as too narcissistic to be any kind of leader, his supporters admire his unapologetic, militant selfishness.

But Trump alone couldn't have created or sustained that cult. His position as cult leader is rooted in the lies that are funded by right wing money and spouted daily by right wing media, which is why I write about them so often. 

While Kagan is warning of a movement in the Republican Party that presents a constitutional crisis, Drum is suggesting that it is Democrats who have moved too far out of the mainstream. The latter is total hogwash. Right now it is the Democratic Party and a few NeverTrumpers that are holding the line to protect our democracy. There is nothing more mainstream than that.


  1. Kevin Drum has been consistently disappointing, moving further to the right and to the mainstream media consensus over time. Earlier this week, he bought totally that the left in Congress and the Senate were breaking with a consensus to kill any deal. I'm grateful to Nancy and Josh Marshall for telling the real story again and again. The latter has been particularly valuable in addressing the New York Times, as did a former colleague of Nancy's, David Atkins. His knee-jerk reactions can tire me, but he did his homework for sure this time.

    1. I read Drum on the Afghanistan pullout and he was very right about that, in contrast to the mainstream reporting at the time. I read him on politics (blame for the culture wars, or passing the Biden agenda) and he couldn't be more wrong.

      It's not just that I disagree about some of his stances. I think he has blinders on that prevent him from seeing the reality of politics that is staring us in the face. He cannot be trusted on any matter relating to politics. He's all mixed up.

      I agree the David A. is often solid. I had my disagreements in past years, esp. the 2016 primaries. But I think he is sincerely working to effect change and willing to work within the system, unlike some others on the left more interested in performative politicking.

  2. Drum deserves all the blowback. He was always a hit-or-miss guy, making good points often enough to be worth reading. But he has gone around the bend. At least that's where he's heading.

    It boggles the mind that he -- or anyone -- could seriously conclude that Democrats have lost touch with the mainstream while Republicans have remained steadfast. And blaming Democrats for the culture wars is a parody you would expect to read in the Onion. If that is the output of your analysis, then you need to throw your work in the trash bin and start all over again.

    Of course, Drum is not trying to make an even-handed study of the facts. He is torturing the data to push the notion that Democrats are getting far too radical. His theory of political change is "don't do anything Republicans will object to," which is nonsensical for a host of reasons, as recent history proves. The underlying assumption he seems to be making is that society is static and whoever promotes change deserves the blame. I see society as relatively stable but always changing, and it is the duty of politics to adapt so that the evolving needs of society are met.

    As your charts show, there's data to refute Drum's conclusions. Which is useful. There is in fact lots of data showing how Republicans have moved far from the center over recent decades. Or, you can watch five minutes of the news and see the grotesque and dangerous beast that the party has become.

    1. I have to agree that he's gone around the bend. His love of graphs that often have totally different data than in the Times as well as his own interpretations has me a little suspicious. It's as if the graphing becomes an end in itself.

      But also he just doesn't seem the voice of reason he once was. In a post insisting on the inheritance of intelligence, he quotes a past post of his from some years back in support. In reality, it said quite the opposite. But also, the contrast in quality was blatant, whatever one thinks of the issue. (I hesitate to venture an argument or opinion one way or the other.) It had more than half a dozen bullet points, each well argued and with its own evidence. The new post just quoted what amounted to someone's opinion column, with a ta-da! (You see what scientists have finally proven!) It was shameful.


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