July 20, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Democrats’ progressives need a new story

The one they’re telling is hurting Biden, the party and themselves.

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Last week, I wrote about an aspect of the Washington press corps that does not get the attention it deserves, especially not from the Washington press corps. That aspect is what I called “teleological storytelling” – predicting the outcome of a future event, then reading everything happening now through the lens of that prediction. 

In this case, that future event is the coming congressional elections. Due to consistent patterns in political history, it’s widely believed among journalists and editors that the Democrats are heading for a wipe-out on account of the president’s approval rating being in the toilet. So everything happening now – and I mean everything – is being reported through the lens of that prediction of the future.

I would guess that the young people most invested in progressive politics don’t know about all the progress being made in this Congress on account of the progressives in the Congress not telling them about all the progress being made. These same young people, however, know all about centrist saboteurs like Joe Manchin. The Narrative about Do-Nothing Democrats – who are in fact doing a lot – generates its own gravity pulling Joe Biden’s ratings downward.

I don’t want to rehash so much as apply “teleological storytelling” to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The press corps isn’t alone in believing that it knows what the future holds without really knowing, thus – absent actual knowing – creating ideal conditions for that future without conceding their own role in creating them. 

The Washington press corps is hardly alone in its blind loyalty to The Narrative. The progressives are blindly loyal to their own. Journalists and editors are hardly alone in minimizing everything happening now that doesn’t fit The Narrative and maximizing everything that does. The progressives do the same thing for their own reasons.

The Narrative among the Democrats’ progressives goes something like this (I’m not being uncharitable here): The Democrats would win more elections, and therefore contain the fascism arising from the Republican Party, if the Democrats were more progressive. Again, things that fit are included in The Narrative. Things that don’t aren’t.

When conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin recently put the kibosh on the president’s climate change bill (he has a virtual veto due to the filibuster rule), the progressives said that once again the party’s centrist instincts undermine action on planetary apocalypse. 

But when Manchin greenlit a bill that would lower prescription drug costs, by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers directly, and extend Obamacare tax credits, thus stopping an anticipated spike in insurance premiums, The Narrative ran out of room. 

That progress sank out of sight.

I would guess that the young people most invested in progressive politics don’t know about all the progress being made in this Congress on account of the progressives in the Congress not telling them about all the progress being made. These same young people, however, know all about centrist saboteurs like Joe Manchin. The Narrative about Do-Nothing Democrats – who are in fact doing a lot – generates its own gravity pulling Joe Biden’s ratings downward.


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The Narrative can produce dangerous ironies. I’m thinking again of Manchin’s role in the intraparty debate over two massive spending bills in the early weeks of Biden’s term. One bill was for physical infrastructure – roads and bridges and so on. The other was for “human infrastructure” – child care and climate change and so on.

Progressives in the House did not trust Manchin. They believed that he would renege on a promise to support “human infrastructure,” which is what they really wanted, if they did not hold up passage of the physical infrastructure bill, which they believed Manchin really wanted.

They believe to this day that their suspicions were justified. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ushered passage of the physical infrastructure bill, Manchin indeed reneged on his promise. The Build Back Better Act has been stalled in the Senate ever since.

But, as I said, The Narrative runs into a dangerous irony. 

On the one hand, it says that Manchin can’t be trusted. On the other hand, it says that Manchin can be. Think about it for a moment.

The Narrative presumed Manchin would have caved to the progressives’ demands. It presumed – trusted – that Manchin wanted that bill so much that he’d have given them everything they wanted.

Apparently no one among the progressives thought that it was possible for Manchin to say no to everything. A West Virginia conservative could safely block his own party. He would probably have been rewarded. Instead of saying no to everything, however, Manchin said yes to half – a bipartisan infrastructure bill worth more than $1.2 trillion that’s only recently begun to be felt countrywide.

The House progressives believed that he wouldn’t say no to everything, because … well, there is no “because” as far as I can tell. 

They just hoped. They hoped they could trust him.


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They knew without really knowing.

So when he did what they said he’d do – renege on a promise – they seemed shocked, even humiliated, and in need of someone to blame.

But they only have themselves to blame. 

On the one hand, the progressives believed their own “teleological storytelling.” According to The Narrative, centrists like Joe Manchin are bad and when they do something bad, it proves they’re bad.

On the other hand, they didn’t believe in The Narrative enough. Centrists like Joe Manchin are bad so we’ll negotiate under the assumption that we can’t trust them at all, and if we end up getting something good out of them, it will be nothing short of a miracle. 

Now, instead of entering the midterms celebrating their substantial accomplishments, with more coming before campaign season really revs up, the Democrats find themselves explaining why they did not do what they have actually been doing while also appearing too willing to settle for good outcomes when perfection was expected.

I don’t expect much from the Washington press corps. In the end, the press corps’ interest is not democracy but the press corps itself. I do expect more from the progressives, however. They say they are trying to save democracy. They need to tell a different story then. As it is, The Narrative is more about them than it is about democracy.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

2 Comments

  1. Thornton Prayer on July 20, 2022 at 9:55 pm

    The narrative problem I see with progressives is pretty simple. They are so focused on the failings of the centrists that they forget to hammer the reactionaries who are the real threat. The want their cake and to eat it too without realizing they are leaving nothing but crumbs for themselves and the rest of America.

  2. Kathy on July 21, 2022 at 5:50 am

    This is a great piece as always John-thank you for sharing. Many progressives, particularly the Squad, vote against Biden’s agenda, yet their reasons for doing so are not given the same scrutiny as Manchin. To survive in a state that went 70% for Trump, he has to make appeals to his constituents to remain a Senator. It’s a different game than representing a deep blue district.

    You’re right is that their narrative is undermining the Democratic party, and is picked up by a sensationalist Beltway media who just love a ‘Dems in Disarray’ story. ‘Centrist’ is a label that these progressives use to tar anyone who questions the viability of their slogan du jour (M4A, GND, Defund the Police, etc) and is often used on Democratic congresspeople and Senators whose voting records are actually to the left of them. Unsurprisingly, many of the targets are members of the CBC. Because these progressives have a strong social media brand, it unduly influences young voters who, like you say, now parrot ‘Do-Nothing Dem’ talking points. They’re very good at self-marketing, so why are they consciously undermining the party? Who benefits from them continually throwing the Dems under the bus? Is there an ulterior motive?

    Unlike Manchin, who we know has the support of the coal industry, no one has every done an audit of which entities are funding the Justice Democrats or DSA candidates. Citizens United makes it impossible to investigate the PACs that support them. It’s already been shown that the far right funds the Green Party. It would be intereting to see if anyone picks up this story and runs with it, but then again, it doesn’t fit with the Beltway media narrative.

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