It's Always Hippie-Punching Time for the Supposedly Liberal Media

by Neil H. Buchanan

Have the Democrats started to go too far to the left?  Anyone who follows the major newspapers or other mainstream news sources can be forgiven for thinking so, given how often that claim is being repeated these days.  And anyone who has read any of a half dozen or so of my recent columns here or on Verdict knows that I find that assertion utterly absurd.  (See., e.g., yesterday's Dorf on Law column.)  Even now, however, there is still surprisingly more to say about this dangerous meme.

The major problem is that far too many journalists continue to try to prove that they are not "the enemy of the American people."  Because they do not realize (or are afraid to admit) that the Republicans are simply continuing to "work the refs," high-profile journalists overcompensate for their supposed liberal bias by being especially hard on liberals.  This takes familiar forms such as false equivalence, whataboutism, and similar dodges that allow skittish journalists to say, "See, we're critical of Democrats, too!"  (And, on the other side, the press inexplicably refused to treat Paul Ryan as the fraud that he so clearly was -- and is.)

The worst form of this tendency, however, is hippie-punching, which the Urban Dictionary defines aptly: "The practice common among establishment centrists of ritualistically denigrating progressives in order to win over imaginary swing voters and David Brooks. Sometimes misinterpreted as a boneheaded political mistake, it's actually a sign of deep and unselfish commitment to pleasing owners and professionals even at the cost of losing elections."

The classic hippie-puncher was Bill Clinton (remember Sister Souljah?), although former Barack Obama political whisperer David Axelrod was also a practitioner.  The idea is to court respectability with conservatives by saying, "Yeah, those guys are too extreme.  We're not scary like them."  And journalists who insist on (what they wrongly think of as) balance love this strategy.  Punch a hippie to prove one's bona fides!

With everything that has happened in the past few years, one would think that this kind of mindlessness would have been banished from the press room, but here we are in 2019, and we still see it.  A lot.

Earlier this week, in my latest Verdict column, I noted in passing that the too-far-left accusation has not only become part of the conventional wisdom on the anti-Trump right -- where, at least, one can understand (without agreeing) why people who were still in the Republican Party in the 21st Century might be worried about even centrist and center-left policy proposals becoming popular.  As the conventional wisdom is wont to do, it has also wormed its way into the media's guardians of respectability.

Specifically, I wrote that the right-wing "pundits (as well as, I must emphasize, many supposedly neutral news reporters and headline writers, who have mindlessly adopted the 'too far left' trope) want to scold Democrats for being at fault for making it more likely that Trump could win next year."  The parenthetical seemed necessary, because it is not just the Max Boots and Jennifer Rubins who pull this move.  It is the nominally neutral reporters, too.

I then came across a New York Times item -- not labeled as an editorial or op-ed, with the authors identified on their Times bio pages as a "national political correspondent" and a "political reporter," respectively) from two days earlier that carried the headline, "Bernie Sanders-Style Politics Are Defining 2020 Race, Unnerving Moderates."  Proving the point that I had made in Verdict, the opening paragraph is a veritable study in journalistic editorializing in the guise of reporting:
"The sharp left turn in the Democratic Party and the rise of progressive presidential candidates are unnerving moderate Democrats who increasingly fear that the party could fritter away its chances of beating President Trump in 2020 by careening over a liberal cliff."
One of the many Washington Post entries in this concern-trolling style was by Aaron Blake, "Are Democrats risking a Rust Belt loss in 2020 by going too far left?"  Golly, I wonder what Blake thinks the answer to that question is.  Actually, I don't, because his Frank Bruni-style scolding of other liberals is simply too easy to predict.  (See, e.g., my critique here.)  I will, therefore, focus on the piece from the Times, because it is not written by people with a track record like Blake's (and Blake's piece was also clearly labeled as an opinion column).

The most interesting take-away from the article in The Times is not merely the hippie-punching (delivered by the writers via uncritical quoting from self-styled moderates).  It is that there is virtually no effort even to fill in the details of the "sharp left turn" or how Democrats might be "careening over a liberal cliff."  Mostly, the article is merely a brief for a candidate like Joe Biden, who is certainly more of a cautious Obama-style type but whose reactions to liberal policies are not typically "No, let's do something else instead" but merely "Aw jeez, guys, not so fast."

Seriously, though, the closest the Times reporters get to putting any substance into their conclusory descriptions is in saying that "Democrats in Washington are seeing the tensions within the party firsthand as they try to balance an agenda that their newly elected moderates can support while also mollifying more liberal newcomers who are eager to impeach Mr. Trump and pursue far-reaching goals, such as the Green New Deal."

Notice a couple of things there.  First, the party establishment in this story is merely identified as "Democrats in Washington," which is a particularly revealing framing by the writers.  After all, the newcomers (and the newly elected moderates) are Democrats in Washington, too, but somehow they have been demoted (or promoted, I supposed, depending on how one views the whole anti-Washington theme).  Second, the Green New Deal is precisely a set of far-reaching goals, and as we can tell from the fact that Republicans are reduced to responding to those goals by making jokes about cow farts (rather than, say, actually arguing on the merits), there is nothing in the GND that is, to coin a word, careenie.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we learn that the "more liberal newcomers" -- who, again, must be "mollified" by their betters -- "are eager to impeach Mr. Trump."  This is the "sharp left turn"?  This is the careenie part?  Let us examine this a bit more closely.

One absolutely does not have to be a liberal of any stripe to believe that Donald Trump must be impeached -- or certainly to believe that he must be investigated while keeping the option of impeachment very much open.  It should go without saying (but it obviously does not) that Trump's unfitness for office has nothing to do with his damaging views (shared with nearly all Republicans) on regressive tax cuts, gutting the EPA, attacking LGBT rights, abetting wage theft by employers, and on and on.  That is what elections sort out.

Above, I mentioned The Post's right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin, a foreign policy hawk who is relatively moderate on domestic issues.  Even so, she runs her own cottage industry cataloguing Trump's impeachable offenses.  True, she has said that it would be a bad idea for the House to impeach Trump if the Senate would (as is almost assured) acquit him at trial.  I have written as much myself, but that is based on a guess as to the political effects of such a move.  It is not liberal or conservative.

Rubin, however, is open-minded enough to say that she might be wrong.  Making a point that also showed up on Dorf on Law's comment board the other day, Rubin writes that "[t]he rub is if the evidence is truly compelling but Republicans remain [Trump's] obstinate defenders. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe argues that in such a case you also have to consider 'the danger of NOT impeaching a president whose guilt has become clear just because the Senate seems too beholden to the president to remove him.'"

Now, I know that Tribe is somehow thought in some precincts on the right as The Ultimate Liberal, but please.  If ever there were an establishment guy, he is it.  He might be right about this (and I am beginning to think that he is), but if he is not, it is not because he is a careenie newcomer liberal activist who fails to understand how Washington works.  He simply wants us to think about the downside of the "safe" strategy of not going for impeachment.

The larger point is that an effort by mainstream journalists to push the Dems-have-gone-all-lefty story line is so weak on its own terms that it has to resort to hippie-punching rhetoric that completely mangles what counts as liberal, too liberal, and non-ideological.  I am sure the remaining triangulators among the "Democrats in Washington" are pleased with the hit piece, but there is no power to the punch.