By Richard Goldstein
When is a fact not the truth? When it’s incomplete.
Consider the coverage of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. She’s all over the progressive press, each story buzzing with excitement. For The Nation, she has “made her story America’s story.” The Guardian notes that “by offering a clear and detailed vision of what a Warren presidency might look like, she has forced her rivals to play catch-up.” Stirring sentiments — but the proof is shaky. As the less partisan Politico points out, Warren has strong support among white liberals, but her “relatively weak standing among black voters is one of the biggest questions hanging over her candidacy.” So, how widespread is her appeal?
Depends on which poll you troll. Several show her nipping at Joe Biden’s lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. One has her leading the field in California, edging out Kamela Harris. But national surveys reach another conclusion. In the latest Harris poll, Biden is still well ahead, though he’s slipped below 30 percent, followed by Bernie Sanders at 16, Harris at 11, and, rounding the bend, Warren in fourth place at 9 percent. But there’s a more important question: How would she fare against Trump? Current polls have her beating him by a hair, while Biden trounces him. Of course, it’s early in the race, but the margin of electability is crucial, because, as we have seen to our horror, winning the popular vote is insufficient if it comes from urban states where most liberals live.
These demographics point to an uphill battle for Warren in 2020. Yet, in the progressive press, her expanding base is the big story. It’s a journalistic trope that the loyalty of Trump’s base put him on top, and that racist animosity is a major part of their passion, but it’s also true that more than a million Obama voters crossed over to the Donald’s side. Like life itself, politics is contradictory, but for most left-leaning journalists the trend is clear. A big blue wave is breaking, with Warren riding its crest.
Maybe, or maybe not.
Most Democrats haven’t made up their minds yet. They’re looking for someone strong enough to stand against Trump, and when they watch the debates they picture another match in which he is the only opponent. After her dramatic attack on Biden in the first debate, Harris seemed fit for the fight, and she leapt past Warren. But her momentum stalled once she walked back her passionate defense of bussing and waffled on whether private health insurance should exist. As the race grows more fluid, there’s an opening. But that doesn’t mean Warren is telling America’s story.
She benefits from being consistent and quick on her feet, but her supporters think she’ll win because, as her slogan says, she’s “got a plan.” The belief that most people vote for programs and ideas is one of the more persistent progressive illusions. Most people vote because they identify with a candidate, hate the other side, or belong to a tribe that does both. Race, sex, geography and class all operate in a roiling dialectic, as do myth and presence. Vitality counts more than ideology in this mix. The question now is: Which Democrat can work the magic well enough to lure a chunk of Trump supporters while inspiring the party’s base? Obama managed this without a detailed agenda (“Yes We Can” is not a plan), but there’s no one like him this time around. Yet, to read about Warren in progressive journals, or to watch the wide-eyed hosts of MSNBC, is to witness a rise so dramatic that it’s a mark not just of her success, but of a victory march by the left.
What about the mainstream press? It’s supposed to offer informed analysis based on accurate reporting. Of the big reads I follow, The New Yorker has come closest to that standard, with profiles of the candidates that are tempered and complex. The Washington Post takes pains to distinguish between news and “Opinion,” as it labeled a recent essay which began, “Behold — the Elizabeth Warren surge has arrived.” But at The New York Times, subjective judgements are increasingly part of reporting, and the paper’s editorial positions are often reflected in its coverage. No one should be surprised that, when it comes to Warren, too much is not enough. Here she is, on the cover of the Sunday magazine. There she is, dominating the front page of the Sunday style section with her signature arms-akimbo stance. I hadn’t known that Warren was chic; now I do.
The latest installment in this saga was featured on the Times’s web site recently. It happily noted that Warren has raised $19 million in the past three months, sprinting past Biden’s haul. That’s a fact, but it’s not the whole story. Pete Buttigieg raised more money in that period than any Democratic candidate, yet he’s stuck in fifth or sixth place. This suggests that funding doesn’t necessarily signal mass appeal, but to the Times, Warren’s war chest is another auspicious sign. The thrust of its coverage is that, like June, she’s busting out all over.
What accounts for this spin? For one thing, it’s the product of writers and editors who really believe she is the best candidate. But these journalists are also members of the professional class, where Warren’s has her most ardent following. As Politico reports, her supporters are richer, older, and more likely to be white than Sanders fans are. Their second choice is not Bernie, the other progressive in the race, but Harris, the other woman with a shot, while Sanders voters would opt for Biden, not Warren. These differences are a big reason why she gets such lavish attention from the Times. Warren voters are its target audience. The paper is a definitive source of information about woke folks who are checking their privilege, learning to meditate on the subway, and wondering what to call weed at a fancy dinner party (cannabis). Their political awakening is a big improvement on their devotion to real estate, but it’s a long way from engaging them to convincing the rest of the nation. Can Warren make a leap from the mindful to the masses? There’s no way to know right now. But that’s not the story most people in prosperous circles want to hear. They are eager for affirmation; that’s what they seek from the media they patronize, and whenever possible, they get their wish.
With few exceptions, networks and publications are enterprises. They must profit or die, and as a result, they have a slant. That’s not exactly breaking news, so why does it matter? Because incomplete facts can be dangerous. When the Times reported that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, it suited the bellicose temper of the time, and it was widely believed. Then came the revelation that that the information had come from Dick Cheney’s office, provided to the reporter by an underling there, with whom she was intimate. By that point the news had spread, and it created a rationale for prominent liberals such as the editor of The New Yorker to support the war. This is a similar moment of crisis, and it requires skepticism toward feel-good spin.
Let’s look at the data. Only about a quarter of Americans call themselves liberal. Even among Democrats, half identify as moderates. This includes many elderly people, a major voting bloc. As for single-payer healthcare, a majority supports it, but fewer then a fifth think there should be no private insurance, which is Warren’s position (so far). And Biden continues to lead the pack among black voters despite his record on bussing. In the latest Real Clear Politics poll of polls, he beats Trump by about 10 points, while Warren wins by only one point. She does about as well as Mayor Pete, and not as well as Harris. The gap between what these figures say and what the progressive press proclaims is ominous. If we choose a nominee based on coverage that is myopic, we’re more likely to usher in a second term for Trump.
For the first time in my political life, I’m one of the undecided. I’m uneasy about Biden’s record and appalled by his halting tone and reflexive bonhomie. Harris seems formidable, but she’s slippery. I’m proud of Buttigieg, but I won’t jump off a cliff with him. I admire Sanders, but I think his moment has passed. He belongs on a postage stamp. Warren is vibrant, and I like her ideas a lot, but this election is about defeating a beast, and the odds that any hardcore prog can do that are daunting. To vote wisely requires a sober assessment of reality and a certain modesty about the power of one’s tribe. It doesn’t help when social media echo our beliefs and print media reflect our values. They both skirt the important question of how a left-wing minority can capture the center. They replace thinking with solidarity.
So, be suspicious of journalism that makes you feel empowered. Take the Times with a portion of kale and a pinch of sea salt. Read The Nation, but also The Drudge Report. Watch Rachel and, if you can bear it, Hannity. Know the terrain beyond your yard. The future depends on it.
Note: This piece originally appeared in “First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination”