Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Is The "Resistance" the Most Under-Covered Political Story of 2018?

Last week, candidates for Congress submitted their campaign fundraising and spending reports for the second quarter of 2018, as required by federal law—and a clear pattern emerged from the thousands of individual filings. In more than 70 Republican-held or competitive open House seats, at least one Democratic candidate out-raised the leading Republican over the preceding three months; 56 of these Republicans are incumbent members of Congress. Democratic fundraising success extended from the perennial battleground districts of CO-06, IA-01, and TX-23 to seats that were widely considered to be deeply red-hued even in this year's electoral climate (for example, Democrats Ken Harbaugh and Liz Watson raised more than $500,000 apiece in OH-07 and IN-09, respectively—two districts that are currently classified as "solid Republican" by the Cook Political Report).

The campaign money flowing on the Democratic side this year is just one sign of a larger mobilization of Americans moved to political action in response to current events; as David Wasserman of the Cook Report quipped, "Donald Trump is the best fundraiser Dem candidates have ever had." Reports from journalists and academics describe grassroots organizational activity by left-of-center citizens and groups that is unequalled since Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, and disproportionate political engagement among women that may have been last matched during the push for the Equal Rights Amendment four decades ago. Yet even as the conventional wisdom continues to tilt toward the expectation of major Democratic electoral gains this year, some important micro-foundations underlying this national shift—the changing behavior of citizen activists in local communities—are receiving a small fraction of the media coverage that was directed to the Tea Party movement in advance of the Republican victories of 2010.

One obvious potential explanation for this relative inattention is that Trump himself dominates the daily news to an unparalleled degree, crowding out other stories about other topics. Indeed, the latest fundraising reports might have made a bigger public splash if the president hadn't had a particularly newsworthy few days last week. But that alone isn't enough to explain why the "resistance" in general isn't getting more press. Under the right circumstances, it's actually quite easy for the media to become fascinated with Democratic Party politics, even in the age of an uniquely attention-grabbing Republican chief executive.

For example, when a previously unknown challenger won an upset primary election victory over a mid-ranking member of the House leadership last month, she immediately became a media phenomenon, even sparking serious suggestions by multiple members of the commentariat that the Democratic Party in general was turning toward socialism. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained so much attention precisely because she seems like a dramatic exception to the usual pattern. Preoccupation with novelty is an understandable human response—but when translated into journalistic practice, it results in a hurricane of national coverage descending on a single, decidedly atypical congressional candidate.

As I have recently argued, the Democratic Party is indeed evolving in important ways, and the class of candidates running this year is visibly different from those of the past. But these changes have produced little of the internal party conflict and factionalism that tends to interest the media. (Ocasio-Cortez's relatively confrontational approach toward other Democrats is one of the main reasons why she's received so much attention—though here, too, she is unrepresentative of broader trends.) The Tea Party movement's aggressive challenge to existing Republican leaders' hold on power helped to earn significant publicity during the Obama years, but the current activist backlash against Trump lacks the Tea Party's ideologically purist and anti-Washington character.

We are left, instead, with a picture of millions of Americans arrayed from the political left to the center, disproportionately well-educated, suburban, and professional, who are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the day-to-day behavior of Donald Trump. Perhaps the real reason that reporters and editors don't find this story more interesting is that they feel like they already know plenty of people like that. (In fact, many of them are people like that.) Yet if the balance of partisan power shifts after November, it won't just be because of Trump himself, but will also reflect the actions of citizens who responded to his presidency by making room in their own lives for heightened engagement in the political arena.