The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are drowning in denial

A lawn sign encouraging voting through a reference to the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade is seen in Atlanta on Monday. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Democrats appear to be heading toward painful losses on Tuesday, in one if not both houses of Congress. What went wrong will be debated for months, perhaps years.

Much of the problem can be summed up in one word: denial.

Many pundits will argue that some losses were inevitable; historically, the party that wins the White House often loses seats in the following midterms. Besides, gas prices are up, which voters blame incumbents for, even though politicians can do relatively little about it.

Others will blame traditional media for both-sides-ing things, or setting expectations too low for Republicans. Critics will also impugn social media platforms for letting misinformation flourish.

Yet others will blame Republicans for playing dirty, via racist dog-whistles and possible voter intimidation.

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None of these theories is wrong, exactly. But if Democrats do some soul-searching, as a growing chorus of loyal allies is urging, they might come upon another reason for their weakness this cycle.

For nearly two years, Democratic leadership has often pushed aside politically inconvenient developments rather than facing them head-on. They have often told themselves stories they want to believe instead of stories that are true — and that might motivate them to change their messaging or policy direction.

Inflation offers one illustrative example.

Early in 2021, there was reasonable disagreement about whether above-average price growth would linger or whether it was driven by “transitory” forces that would soon fade. As the year wore on, it became increasingly clear that inflation was persisting. Yet many Democrats continued to deny it was a major cause for concern.

First, they declared the problem was exaggerated, if not wholly invented, by the media — both mainstream and, especially, right-wing — despite some internal Democratic polling suggesting inflation was a growing worry among voters. Democrats also told themselves that lower-income households were benefiting from progressive decisions to keep stimulating an already-“hot” economy, and were therefore insulated from inflation. (This turned out not to be correct.) Some progressive commentators even mocked news stories about struggling families.

Political scientist Ruy Teixeira has described this sort of phenomenon as the “Fox News fallacy”: “the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.”

Meanwhile, any non-right-wing experts who warned early on that inflation could become a serious problem were accused of being cranks, attention-seeking contrarians or, sometimes, even traitors (if they happened to be former Democratic administration officials, anyway). Tough love was perceived as disloyalty.

Eventually, Democrats pivoted to accepting that inflation was persistent, and painful, but then they demagogued about its causes. Inflation was not primarily caused, they said, by red-hot demand outpacing still-constrained supply (an explanation that might partly implicate Democratic decisions on fiscal policy, such as distributing a third round of near-universal stimulus checks in 2021).

Rather, it was driven by a sudden surge in “corporate greed.” Apparently, we were to believe that, for decades, companies had been altruistic in their pricing strategies, and only recently realized they’re supposed to maximize profits.

Initially, this rhetoric seemed like a cynical way to deflect blame: cheap talk that polled well but that wouldn’t influence policy decisions. But denying the real causes of inflation distracted Democrats from adopting measures that might have reduced price pressures, if only modestly.

Worse, misdiagnosing the problem has boxed some Democrats into prescribing the wrong cure and advocating policies that might make inflation worse. See: progressive calls for price controls, as well as punitive measures that would discourage energy production; plus suggestions that the Federal Reserve is trying to tank the economy to hurt the poor and so must be reined in.

It’s not just inflation. Democrats have plugged their ears to bad news on other issues, too.

They’ve downplayed voters’ concerns on crime, violent protests, school closures and rising recession risks. These are vulnerabilities that Republicans have exploited during the campaign (while offering no solutions of their own, of course).

Democrats have also convinced themselves that pet policies beloved by left-wing Twitter activists will be broadly “popular” even when polls suggested public opinion is mixed at best. Such is the case with President Biden’s massive student debt forgiveness plan. The issue has been featured more often in Republican campaign ads this cycle than Democratic ones, according to AdImpact.

Even now, polling data — whether released by nonpartisan news sources or left-of-center, Democratic-aligned organizations — is often treated as suspect by the progressive peanut gallery, at least when the findings don’t flatter Democrats.

Maybe voters will ignore these missteps and be persuaded by Democrats’ dire warnings about the risks to reproductive rights and democracy if Republicans retake Congress. But if there is cause for Democrats to conduct a political autopsy, the Fox News fallacy and the bottomless well of denial each deserve their own chapters.

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