The New York Times’ opinion section has an institutional reflex to discipline Democrats in headlines over claims that the party is moving too far to the left. At the same time, the paper rarely does the same to Republicans. Instead, it will frequently either present GOP policies as curiosities that the Times’ readers should be informed about, or not even mention Republican agency in the headline at all.
On The New York Times opinion page, Democrats need to be told how widely popular policies will move the party “too far left” for voters to support; Republican policies just naturally exist as fait accompli.
Twitter user Litzz11 noted this pattern in a thread, which is worth reading in full.
Unsurprisingly, the trend holds true going back years.
In general, the Times’ opinion pieces about Democrats, which are a combination of articles written by regular columnists, the editorial board, or guest contributors, consistently fall into one of two categories: warning that the party will move too far left (or scolding it for already doing so), or disingenuous concern trolling from conservatives.
The Times’ opinion section often warns Democrats of the dangers of moving to the left, arguing, overtly or implicitly, that it will push away moderate voters. What “moving to the left” entails is sometimes unstated or caricatured as a strawman, but it usually means either advocating for economic, social, or racial justice. These headlines also frequently adopt a conservative framing, or suggest that Democrats should emulate that framing themselves as a way of moving the party to “the center.”
Another version of this argument is that Democrats need to stop their internal squabbling, which almost always means silencing left-wing criticisms and moving toward the center.
There’s also the “tough love”-style headline, which typically paints Democrats as out-of-touch coastal elites. Again, these pieces generally tell Democrats to discipline or ignore the left flank of the party under the pretext of appealing to moderates and swing voters. But the effect is reflexive left-punching.
Still another subgenre argues that the Democrats are too focused on appeasing the left (a dubious claim at best) and will only hurt themselves by standing up for a specific principle or policy, thereby giving Republicans ammunition in the next election cycle.
The opinion section also regularly paints the Democratic Party as suffering an existential crisis, either implicitly or explicitly triggered by leftist policies or rhetoric.
And when the Times needs to outsource that lecturing, it can dip into the mailbag.
In fairness, the opinion section does sometimes buck this trend, but these examples are the exception, not the norm.
Conservative concern trolling
The Times’ opinion section will often run pieces that appear to offer advice to Democrats written by conservatives suggesting they would support the party if only it adopted more right-wing stances. Sometimes these pieces have a concerned or pleading tone, and they always carry the implicit threat that if Democrats don’t tack to the right, the author will be forced to vote for a Republican candidate or abstain from voting entirely.
The New York Times opinion pieces about Democrats written by conservatives often decry “wokeness,” privilege, or other right-wing culture war grievances.
How The New York Times opinion headlines treat Republicans
The New York Times opinion page often runs pieces that are critical of Republicans, some of which are quite good, including a few of those listed below. But there is a clear tonal shift from lecturing its readers to informing them: Instead of warning Democrats not to move left, these headlines warn liberals about how effective or dangerous the GOP could be in moving to the right. When there is a piece that offers advice, it’s generally softer in tone – helpful rather than scolding.
The Times’ headline writers typically frame the increasingly racist Republican Party in a detached, observational tone. The five-alarm-fire headlines are usually reserved for Democrats.
When unpopular GOP policies don’t get named
As Litzz11 noted, the Times’ opinion coverage often declines to explicitly mention Republican policies or goals that could be named and criticized in the headline.
The GOP generally opposes anti-poverty programs like the child tax credit, but the program’s expiration at the hands of Republicans is treated by the Times’ opinion headlines as some natural phenomenon. (Among Senate Republicans, only Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) supports including non-working parents in the program. Among Senate Democrats, only Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) opposes it.) Instead of naming and blaming the party most responsible, these headlines depict a bipartisan failure of the American government as a whole.
Similarly, Republicans are single-handedly stopping COVID funding from passing in Congress – but you wouldn’t know it from many New York Times opinion headlines covering the issue, which fail to name the GOP’s obstruction even if that fact is addressed in the underlying piece.
The opinion section also frequently leaves Republicans out of headlines in pieces about the right-wing fearmongering over “critical race theory” in schools.
Roe v. Wade coverage
The Republican Party is rarely named by the Times in coverage of the leaked Supreme Court opinion likely overturning of Roe v. Wade, even in pieces that are very critical of Justice Samuel Alito’s decision or those that support abortion rights more broadly. Overturning Roe has been a core goal of the conservative movement, and therefore the Republican Party, for decades. The ruling is a deeply partisan act, and obscuring who is responsible is a profound disservice to the Times’ readers.
The opinion page of the Times is often referred to as the most important real estate in print media. And the headlines are the most important part of the page. They signal to readers what matters, and which party or movement is responsible for any given issue. The Times’ discrepancies in how its opinion page headlines treat each political party, and the movements within them, offer cues to their readers about which people, policies, and strategies to support or blame – and the recurring message is that Democrats must discipline the left and move to adopt centrist or even conservative positions if they hope to stand a chance, while Republicans will naturally be rewarded for pushing their party increasingly to the right’s extremist fringe.