As usual, the media falls into facile forced narratives founded upon anecdotes, personal impressions, and its members own views and agendas without even attempting to include relevant data
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981; LinkedIn, Facebook), July 11, 2022 (**updated July 13 with an excellent exposure on the part of The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin on how the mainstream press distorts their narratives on Biden; *updated July 12 with new polling data proving my point)
SILVER SPRING—I’m a big Star Wars fan (spoilers for Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in this paragraph), and this past month was a big one for Star Wars fans with the (somewhat, but not entirely, disappointing) Obi-Wan Kenobi series, with key scenes bringing us back to Order 66, when clones with chips implanted in their brains were forced against their will by the chips to turn on their Jedi leaders.
I feel that the members of the “respectable” (as opposed to fascist propaganda/disinformation) media might even have some sort of chip in their brains when they cover Democrats: from the New York Times to the Washington Post, from CNN to MSNBC and many, many other outlets, it seems there is a near-constant need to push a “Democrats in DISARRAY!” narrative regardless of the facts. These hot takes or seemingly analytical pieces almost invariably take one of a few approaches:
- “I, Smarty McSmart-Pants, awesome journalist that I am, am going to call out Democrats/President Joe Biden for not accomplishing X, Y, and/or Z!”—but with little to no regard for the actual balance of power or even proper procedure, let alone historical precedent, how Congress or the presidency actually work and what each can and cannot do or what it would actually take to actually do said thing(s).
- Interviewing and quoting a selective selection of activists, voters, or party folks (“some” or “dozens” out of WAY, WAY MORE—literally out of hundreds, thousands or, when it comes to voters, millions), nearly all of whom are obscure and folks 99% of readers have never heard of before and who will all complain (“whispers”!?) about Democrats’ leadership/direction; this will be presented without noting that their collective complaining is not representative but while offering some token pushback from a couple of people who are far more representative without noting they are, in fact, more representative; aggregate polling data (as opposed to citing one or two polls, if any) showing how most relevant people feel is usually ignored because of either laziness or “the narrative.”
- This or that outlier or outliers within the Democratic Party or its caucus (usually the Squad, Bernie Sanders, or other far lefties—wonderful clickbait for click-hungry websites—but sometimes the defiant two-headed albatross of relatively conservative Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) complain/tweet and/or their criticisms of the Party as a whole are presented as major stories in and of themselves and as examples of overall Party “dysfunction.”
- Sensationalizing the clickbaity thoughts of anonymous staffers, usually in the White House (and the White House has a lot of staff) or a campaign but sometimes in Congress, griping about this or that, which upon review are usually just the result of banal office politics, generational conflict also typical in today’s newsrooms, devoted acolytes wanting “MORE” for their masters or stans wanting “MORE” for the object of their stanning, and personal egos blown way out of proportion; even if you read between the lines, it’s more about individual staff clashes/competition or their projected desires for this thing or that person than anything originating from the big-name figures with whom they are associated. Typical red-flag sentence emblematic of these articles: “This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials, lawmakers, congressional aides and other Democrats close to the White House who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the president’s private conversations.”
Sometimes, yes, these types of articles are on to something. Most of the time, it’s just hot air, unrepresentative whining, or simply “whispers,” as in, articles that resemble more tabloid gossip columns than news articles that should actually be written.
In Data We Trust: The Current Congress in Historical Context
The problem is, almost none of this—and I mean absolutely none except for the best-of-the-best of such takes—is based on any serious data-oriented research. The data is there, it just isn’t properly engaged with, but let’s set the record straight with some mind-blowing facts for those of you being inundated by the “Dems in Disarray” narrative:
- No party has ever been as unified in its Congressional voting (“party unity vote” average) in both the House and Senate as today’s Democratic Party, with the possible exception in the Senate of just one year of Federalist Party Senate voting in the first few years of the 1800s
- Specifically, the Democratic Party has never been more unified in terms of its Congressional voting records than it has in recent years, including a record high for all of-American history in 2021 in both the House (98% average) and Senate (97% average)
- In recent years (last decade), party unity has been close between the two parties in the House, but in the most recent years the Democrats have been more unified, while the parties have alternated in recent years in the Senate, Republicans beating Democrats for all of Trump’s term but Democrats winning for all of Obama’s two terms and with Democrats setting a new record for unity in 2021
Reread that if you need to, but let’s be clear: this current Democratic Party in recent years overall and especially in 2021 was the most unified major party in history where it counts the most: in its votes in Congress.
It’s even more impressive when you realize that the Democrats have only a narrow edge in the House and are essentially tied in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker.
I came across a telling, wonderfully-data-driven article by that guided me to this understanding by Niels Lesniewski and Ryan Kelly for Roll Call from March 1 of this year, covering the years of the half-century from 1972 to 2021, and have used its chart above and table below:
Being the data- and history-oriented researcher that I am, I wanted to know the full record, and while I plan to continue finding more presentations of this data, so far the below chart from this other study is the best (and only) full account I have come across thus far in chart, table, or graph form (plenty for recent decades but not going all the way back the Founding of our republic):
In that all-encompassing chart, “Democrats” and “Republicans” include their antecedent parties from early American history, thus, the Federalists would account for that “Republican” spike in the Senate that comes close to 100% in the very early 1800s; the graphs are small and it’s hard to tell the exact year or numerical value, so I laid that out as the only possible exception to the numbers the 2021 Democrats put up the in Senate and clearly no one has beaten them in the House (where average party unity has only increased since the end of the chart).
The other chart below the comprehensive one shows the level of majority strength in each Congress since Republicans were first seated there in 1855. As anyone can see, a tie “majority” in terms of party balance in the Senate is exceedingly rare, and since the Senate seated Alaska’s and Hawaii’s first senators in 1959, bringing the Senate’s total to 100 senators when fully seated, the only other time there was a 50-50 Senate at all was during the 107th Congress, from January 20, 2001, until May 24 of that year, when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to caucus as an independent with the Democrats, giving the Democrats an effective 51-49 majority for the remainder of that Congress until January, 2003. For those few months before Jeffords’ defection, the situation was the same as now just in reverse in that the Republicans had a 50-seat “majority” with a tie-breaker vote able to come from their Vice President, then Dick Cheney, as Democrats have with Harris today.
Other than that, there are the odd the exceptions during the 83rd Congress, from early 1953 to early 1955, when throughout its term the deaths of nine senators and resignation of one caused a number of leadership changes in a close Senate, some of which led to shorter-term ties but with one situation leaving a tie for more than two-thirds of a year.
Before that, you have to go all the way back to a crazy situation from the 47th Congress in 1881, which began with a tied Senate that lost its tie-breaking ability when President James Garfield was assassinated late that year and replaced by Vice President Chester Arthur, as there was no constitutional provision for replacing a vice president and, therefore, no person to cast a tie-breaking vote after Arthur was sworn in, a situation that thus lasted until the beginning of the next Congress in 1883; before that, a Senate balance-of-power tie had never happened in all the years of the Senate’s existence going back to 1789.
Biden’s and Democrats’ Accomplishments in Context: A Bipartisan Past vs. Our Partisan Present
In all these instances, like the situation today, there was only a small lead for the same party with the tie-breaking vice president in the other half of Congress, the House of Representatives. But as the graphics I have provided above show, partisanship was significantly less intense, bipartisanship significantly more common, in these other eras than today. This allowed some major accomplishments to actually happen easily even in 50-50 Senates.
In 1883, President Arthur was able to get the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, which formed the basis of the modern civil service. The next time there was a split Senate in the 1950s, there was also a spirit of bipartisanship on a broad variety of issues, leading to legislation passing that established both the Small Business Administration and what would eventually become the Department of Health and Human Services; President Dwight Eisenhower’s major legislation concerning tax reform, along with major bills regarding nuclear regulation and expansion of both unemployment and Social Seucrity benefits, were all enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support, among other bills passed in a similar spirit.
In the next period when there was an effective tie in the Senate, no major legislation was passed, but just days after Jeffords’ late May defection, President George W. Bush saw his massive tax cut bill’s final Senate passage by a significant bipartisan margin. Yet the massive reorganization of the government’s security apparatuses (including the Patriot Act and the bill creating of the Department of Homeland Security) and major reforms to education and prescription drug benefits for Medicare during the 107th Congress all occurred only after the 9/11 attacks of September 11, 2001, when there was a period of historic bipartisanship, if only temporarily (these big wins came from Republicans even when the Democrats had a 51-49 Senate majority with Jeffords).
Of course, today’s situation is quite different from these: not only are most congressional Republicans in a long–extremist and increasingly-fascist Republican Party openly shielding former president Trump and other plotters of his 2020-2021 attempted coup (a term I used at the time) and perpetuating the lies that the 2020 election was stolen by phantom “fraud” while preparing to be able to carry out another coup attempt if Republicans lose the 2024 presidential election, on legislative issues, they are engaging in extreme obstructionism and partisanship. Their primary method for this is in utilizing the 60-out-of-100-vote-threshold filibuster for just about everything they can to block about as much as they can of the Democrats’ agenda from passing. As both parties have 50 votes, in most cases, Democrats need 10 Republicans senators to advance legislation and overcome a filibuster, so even when there is bipartisan support, inaction can reign unless at least a full one-fifth of Republican senators are on board. In recent decades, filibuster use (and abuse) has become unprecedented, particularly so by the Republican Party and especially—even exponentially—so since Mitch McConnell became the leader of Senate Republicans in 2007, a role he still holds today.
In the face of these key differences, looking at all that Biden and Democrats in Congress have been able to accomplish so far—including numerous large votes through one of the only ways to circumvent a filibuster in what is known as budget reconciliation (among them a massive COVID relief bill) as well as a once-in-a-generation historic infrastructure bill, historic aid for Ukraine in the face of rampant Russian imperialism, and the first federal gun legislation in roughly three decades (the last being hammered out by Biden himself in 1994, when he was still a senator), and with time still left in this Congress for passing further major legislation—this much is clear: no majority has accomplished more with such low margins in the Senate in American history in the face of such extreme partisanship and organized obstructionism from the opposition party. The few major accomplishments of the Biden Administration and the Democratic-led Congress that were bipartisan were the exception, not the norm, a departure from the entire modern era and the last few times there was a Senate evenly divided as today’s is.
I am not suggesting there are not other factors or that this tells 100% of the picture: falling just short of enough votes on Biden’s would-be-signature Build Back Better legislation surely counts more than most typical legislation, and there are things that are sometimes not brought up for votes because of awareness of existing problems within a caucus or opposition from Republicans wielding a filibuster.
Yet the main point made above still stands: of all the different individual metrics out there, the average party unity not only counts a lot, but it is hard to think of a metric that counts more. In this current record heights of party unity on display from Democrats with Speaker Nancy Pelosi leading Democrats in the House, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer leading Democrats in the Senate, and Joe Biden leading the Party overall from the White House, the Democratic Party in 2021 and in recent years collectively, then, has been the most disciplined and unified major national political party in U.S. history when it comes to actual legislative votes.
Another Inexcusable Media Fail
Churchill once famously remarked: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” With Joe Biden, we can honestly say: “Never in the field of American presidential politics was so much expected by one man with a narrower political ‘majority’” (really a 50-50 tie with a tie-breaker in one-half of Congress and a very slim majority in the other. And despite major, entrenched opposition to most of the Democrats’ efforts, they have still accomplished much and improved the situation where they are actually capable of effective change quite dramatically compared to the situation they inherited: an America reeling from COVID and its accompanying economic meltdown as well as reeling from Trump’s treasonous coup attempt. Obviously, the elephant in the room today is inflation, which presidents and congresses generally have little ability to mitigate well in the short-term even if people don’t want to acknowledge this simple Economics-101 truth (with their record profits, why are we not questioning oil companies more??). And apart from inflation, the metrics for the economy for Biden for most of his presidency thus far have been strong (admittedly less so the past few months).
The relentlessly negative coverage of Biden and the Democrats—the media’s pursuit of the whole “Democrats in Disarray” narrative in the face of historic data that thoroughly discredits this narrative—is a big part of the reason for this. Just as was the case during the Democratic primaries, the media is also relentlessly portraying Biden as just-about-to-collapse in terms of his Democratic support, based on no serious larger empirical analysis, with near-mindless, pointless speculation about who might be the Democratic nominee in 2024 other than Biden more than two years out from that year’s presidential election (and even before this year’s midterms!) despite Biden’s and his vice president’s repeated, clear statements on running together again in 2024 as a ticket.
**Update July 13: Perhaps the most exemplary recent example of the mainstream press’s gross distortions has been adroitly addressed by Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, a Never Trump conservative who is one of the most incisive of the major newspaper columnists on the media’s failures in the current era. She notes that in a recent New York Times article trumpeting its latest poll with Siena College, the framing is almost entirely anti-Biden, beginning with the headline (and, again, this is just one poll): “Most Democrats Don’t Want Biden in 2024, New Poll Shows” and how key findings from the poll that Biden would still beat Trump and that 92% of Democrats would stick with Biden vs. Trump in 2024 are buried after 15 paragraphs of negativity and after multiple graphics. In this Biden hit-job, Times clearly chooses to emphasize what will damage Biden (CNN and others discussed the headline all day) while making the reader really put in effort to find the positives mentioned so deep into its story. Behold, the Times, exposed and noted. And this is the default tone most reporters and editors in the mainstream media resort to when it comes to Biden and Democrats in general, because… “narrative.” Their preferred narrative.**
But just as much to blame is the childishness of the American people, who clearly expected Biden to fix, well, pretty much everything within a year and now blame him for the country not being back to a total normal after a once-in-century pandemic, after four years of fascist-leaning insanity under Trump, and now during a twice-in-a-century large-scale European war. Americans currently clearly do not understand the unique gravity of historic problems faced—and well-mitigated—by Biden and that none have easy solutions, especially with a country and a Congress as divided as they are.
No president could have righted all the wrongs plaguing the U.S. on January 20, 2021 in one, let alone two, years—certainly not the criminal coup plotter Trump or his Republican Party focused more on overthrowing the constitutional order and preventing the legitimate peaceful transfer of power than on actually governing or dealing with real problems affecting actual Americans—so for the media and the public to hold Biden to such a standard is not just down-right myopic, but threatens to undo so much of the progress that has been made by returning incompetent would-be-fascist demagogues to power.
Yet even with one of the worst polls for Biden from a major, respectable pollster to date (the June 25-28, 2022 Economist/YouGov poll), he still has the approval of over three-quarters of Democrats (76%: 34% strong, 42% somewhat) while only 18% expressed disapproval (only 9% strongly). On top of that, the Democratic Party was still seen in that poll as more favorable (if just slightly and within the margin of error) than the Republican Party. And, again, I abhor highlighting single polls to discuss a president’s approval rating—all too common an article headline or framing in the press these days (a general weighted average should always be included in those, but rarely is)—but I did this just to show how high his approval rating is among Democrats in, again, one of his worst polls among respectable polls begun no earlier than June 22 up through the first respectable poll conducted and released in July (since I wrote most of this, polling from early July is not much different, but Democrats’ approval of Biden went slightly up in a newer Economist/YouGov poll [77%] poll while being significantly lower in a different pollster’s most recent data [69%, from Reuters/Ipsos from July 5–6, their lowest yet, down from 72% in their previous poll]; new polls are coming out even as I am about to post this, too, but, to quote the great Jedi Master Yoda: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future;” they may be up or down in a week or a month, and we will only see what happens in time; *update July 12: as if to make my point for me, the next Reuters/Ipsos poll, from July 11-12, has Biden’s overall approval up up 3 points, his overall approval down 4 points, and his approval among Democrats up 5 points, to 74%*).
Those numbers would still mean crushing defeats for anyone challenging Biden in a primary (although, again, that hypothetical would be happening a year-and-a-half from now, a different world). Still, the overall numbers with voters are not good, though it should be noted that, especially in today’s overcharged media cycles, the overcoverage both of such polling data and especially inflation (relative to other major aspects of the economy like low unemployment and growth in both jobs and wages) creates something of a negative feedback loop for Biden, helping to drag or keep those polling numbers down. In contrast, polling for Democrats has just improved in the wake of the radical judicial activism of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, with now just under four months to go before the midterm elections. And if Democrats surprise many and hold on to Congress or even gain seats in the midterms (and, at least in the Senate, polling is indicating they may very well increase their number of seats there), there is a good chance Biden’s approval will increase, too. And all of this in the context of the myopic coverage that inexcusably misses the data proving the Democrats’ historic discipline and organization, which will be key in they succeed in the midterms, even if the media does not acknowledge this reality.
Conclusion: A Need for Professional Journalism
So, to recap, 1.) not only is Biden’s job performance as president still eliciting approval from an overwhelming majority of Democrats, who are still overall united behind Biden—making all the “who will replace Biden?” news stories irresponsible, premature speculation—but 2.) Democrats’ performance in Congress is the empirically provably best of not only any major political party in the modern era, but in all of American history (with one possible exception of the Federalist Party in the early 1800s in just one half of Congress), higher now than the supposedly better organized Republicans 3.) and Biden and Democrats’ accomplishments are the greatest of any party with such a narrow “lead” (tie) in the Senate when facing such intense partisan opposition and obstruction.
These are not my opinions: these are simply the facts, fully supported by data, history, and context, as I have proven here. It’s far, far overdue for coverage in the media to reflect these empirical realities, for journalists, editors, and producers to stop ignoring this irrefutable empirical data in favor of their own biased, selective, and inaccurate “narratives.”
© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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