If you believe the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party, the Democrats are all about diversity. It’s a key selling point for the Blue Team as it tries to regain lost political ground from the Red Team a.k.a. the Republican Party. As the GOP continues to ally itself not only with the fiscal conservatism of the right, but the social conservatism that has seen its membership become—dare we say—dogmatic on issues like gun laws, “religious liberty,” and reproductive rights, the Dems wave their banner in the name of inclusion as a way of distancing and distinguishing themselves from Republicans. Indeed, Democratic leadership seems to be significantly more evolved on issues of gender, living with disabilities, race/ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, not to mention tending to give way more of a shit about the environment than their counterparts on the right, some of whom still try to deny that climate change, is, you know, a thing. It is no wonder that Democrats, by and large, tend to attract those people who are most underserved by the GOP. In the 2016 election, according to CNN exit polls, over three-quarters of LGBTQ voters went for Hillary Clinton as opposed to Donald Trump. Granted, some of that disparity may have been fueled by Trump’s overall repugnance, but when other members of the Republican Party seem more concerned about legislating who can and can’t pee in certain bathrooms than serving their constituents on matters of importance, the Democratic Party seems like an obvious choice by comparison.
Talking about diversity along the lines of clearly observable traits like skin color, however, potentially ignores other ways by which diversity can manifest. Namely diversity of opinion. While Democrats have done well to encourage diversity along demographic lines—even though besting the modern-day Republican Party is evidently not a high bar to clear—it is the diversity of opinion aspect which continues to plague the party more than a year since Bernie Sanders bowed out of a surprisingly contentious Democratic Party presidential primary. Establishment Democrats continue to try to keep a firm grasp on the reins guiding the party as the 2018 midterms fast approach, and as 2020 remains in everyone’s sights with a raving, Tweeting lunatic in the White House.
Meanwhile, liberal progressives who want to push the Dems further left find themselves between a rock and a hard place—they can insist on reform within the Democratic Party and get met with stern resistance, or they can lend their support to third parties and independents and essentially accede to electoral also-ran status in the short term. In the case of Sanders, who ran for President as a Democrat and caucuses with the Dems, but still identifies as an independent, he has been very vocal about the need for the Democrats to embrace a more progressive shift and to adopt a 50-state strategy which taps into authentic grass-roots energy rather than catering to big-money donors in a way that makes the party’s strategy look remarkably similar to that of the Republican Party’s. For his trouble, Bernie continues to be ostracized by the establishment wing of the party, especially by those who blame him personally for Clinton’s loss in the general election. As they would have you believe, Sanders was like some mad Pied Piper playing songs of discontent that planted bad seeds in the heads of young voters. He seduced our kids with promises of free college and health care! He’s not to be trusted!
In other words, rather than make the kind of party-wide reforms that they would seemingly need to counteract the losses they’ve experienced not only at the presidential and congressional levels, but in state houses across the country, the Democrats seem content to wait for Donald Trump and the Republican Party to cannibalize each other so they can waltz in and claim the lion’s share of the votes, aided by the American people’s frustration with (or downright embarrassment of) the GOP. This may not be an altogether poor strategy, I concede—at least in the short term. As discontentment grows within the voting population, though, and as income and wealth inequality further drive a wedge between the top earners and the rest of us plebeians, any gains enjoyed relative to the Republicans may eventually evaporate. While still a slender minority within the voting bloc, some of those who cast their ballots in the 2016 election went from a vote for Barack Obama in 2012 to a vote for Trump, likely fueled by concerns about socioeconomic status and the changing face of America among working-class individuals. Given the closeness of that race, and the concentration of this brand of voter in key battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, it’s not an entirely insignificant slender minority, either.
Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s discuss the recent decision of Chelsea Manning to announce her candidacy for U.S. Senate in the state of Maryland and oppose Benjamin Cardin in a Democratic primary. Manning should be a recognizable name to most, even those who follow politics and national/world news only casually. Prior to her gender transition, Chelsea Manning, as you probably know, was Bradley Manning, a serviceman in the United States Army. Manning, based on her circumstances and where she was stationed, was afforded access to potentially sensitive diplomatic and military communications between the United States and other nations. Secretly, she copied the contents of these cables and other information and went to the Washington Post and New York Times with what she downloaded, though representatives from both publications appeared uninterested in what Manning had to offer.
WikiLeaks, meanwhile, was not only interested in this material, but very willing to release it for all to see. What ensued over multiple releases, and eventually aided by the Post, the Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications, was the revelation of diplomatic cables, videos, and other salient media through WikiLeaks, helping in large part to put Julian Assange and Co. on the map, so to speak. This material painted quite a different picture of the Afghan War, Guantanamo Bay, and the Iraq War than the U.S. government was selling, not to mention it made public numerous views expressed by American diplomats, often unflattering ones about foreign countries and their leaders. For her service to the country as a whistleblower, Chelsea Manning was widely lauded across the United States. Kidding! Manning was charged with 22 offenses and was detained at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico in harsh conditions, including solitary confinement. She would be found guilty of 17 of the 22 charges, though being acquitted of aiding the enemy, a capital offense, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. After serving some six years of her sentence, though, and after appeals from human rights activists, petition signers, and on her own behalf, President Obama commuted all but four months of Manning’s remaining sentence. To this day, Manning remains a controversial figure, not merely because of her gender transition. On both sides of the political aisle, people regard her as a criminal and a traitor, and someone who should be jailed or worse for what she did.
Especially noting his status as an incumbent, it seems likely that Ben Cardin will retain his seat in the Senate, or at least capture the Democratic Party nomination. As famed journalist Glenn Greenwald tells in a piece for The Intercept, however, moderate Democrats are going out of their way to try to subvert Chelsea Manning’s bid for the Dems’ nod. In doing so, while Greenwald supposes that it’s the party’s prerogative to play favorites as it would—Bernie Sanders supporters, you don’t even have to say it—once more, Democratic leadership is missing a chance to inspire enthusiasm within its base (especially the trans community) in favor of keeping a centrist in power. The thrust of Greenwald’s article relies on an assessment of Cardin’s legacy as a U.S. Senator that is none too flattering:
Manning’s opponent in the Democratic Party primary is one of the most standard, banal, typical, privileged, and mediocre politicians in the U.S. Congress: Benjamin Cardin, a 74-year-old white, straight man who is seeking his third six-year Senate term. Cardin’s decades-long career as a politician from the start has been steeped in unearned privilege: He first won elective office back in 1966, when his uncle, Maurice Cardin, gave up his seat in order to bequeath it to his nephew Benjamin. With this dynastic privilege as his base, he has spent the last 50 years climbing the political ladder in Maryland.
Greenwald also notes that “Cardin has remarkably few achievements for being in Congress so many years.” Oof. So, why would the Democratic Party want someone like Cardin in office when he is apparently so ineffectual as a lawmaker? Dude’s a big supporter of Israel. Big supporter. In fact, he sponsored a bill in the summer of 2017 that would’ve made it a felony to support a boycott of Israel, a move that raised the ire of First Amendment defenders and even caused other Democratic senators to distance themselves from this legislation which targets the BDS Movement, a pro-Palestinian group devoted to divestment from, boycotting, and sanctions of Israeli interests as a protest against what it perceives as Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, and a controversial entity—if it can even be called that—in its own right. While the Republican Party is keen on its end to appeal to the pro-Israel crowd, particularly fervent Zionists with deep pockets, Democrats have their own rich Jewish donors to appease. It is perhaps no wonder that centrist members of the party favor the centrist Cardin, one of the most devoted backers of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in his bid for re-election.
Again, as Glenn Greenwald and others view these matters, Benjamin Cardin may be the more “reasonable” or safer pick compared to Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman who was convicted of numerous crimes related to the WikiLeaks releases, and someone who has struggled with her identity and mental health issues—at least as far as moderate Democrats are concerned. How they’re going about their character assassination of Manning now that she’s entered the political fray, however, is where things go off the rails. Those are my words, not Greenwald’s, but I’m sure he’d agree. So, what’s wrong with Ms. Manning? She’s apparently a Russian stooge, who is being used by the Kremlin to try take down Cardin, someone with a real ax to grind on the issue of Russian meddling in our elections and political affairs in general (Cardin introduced the legislation that would serve as the basis of the sanctions package levied against Russia, and just recently released a report as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff detailing Vladimir Putin’s long-standing assault on democracy and recommending policy changes to help safeguard the country from future outside attacks). No, seriously. Evidently, Manning is hailed as some sort of hero in Russia, and because of this, she must necessarily be a tool in the decline of American political institutions. Citing the views expressed/retweeted by Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that is no stranger to controversy thanks in large part to its list of donors which has been all but transparent, Greenwald reacts thusly:
This conspiracy theory mocks itself. The idea that Vladimir Putin sat in the Kremlin, steaming over Cardin’s report on Russia and thus, developed a dastardly plot to rid himself of his daunting Maryland nemesis — “I know how to get rid of Cardin: I’ll have a trans woman who was convicted of felony leaking run against him!” — is too inane to merit any additional ridicule. But this is the climate in Washington: No conspiracy theory is too moronic, too demented, too self-evidently laughable to disqualify its advocates from being taken seriously — as long as it involves accusations that someone is a covert tool of the Kremlin. That’s why the president of the leading Democratic think tank feels free to spread this slanderous trash.
Let me stress that I do not wish to make it seem as though Russian interference in American affairs is a trivial matter, or that it did not have an impact on the 2016 election. That said, I believe there are limits to how far we can take the “Russia as bogeyman” theory; even within the context of the election, there were a myriad number of contributing factors to Hillary’s loss, not the least of which were the ones that were in her and her campaign’s control. In this regard, the Chelsea Manning as Russian agent narrative strains the bounds of credulity. As Greenwald also suggests, that this specific type of anti-Chelsea Manning backlash was so immediate and widespread is troubling in just how committed (and coordinated) centrist Democrats are to undermining the chances of challengers to the status quo—however small these chances may be.
Glenn Greenwald’s outlining of a somewhat surprisingly well-oiled Chelsea Manning smear campaign is all well and entertaining (it would be more entertaining if it weren’t so disappointing about the Democrats, but that’s life, eh?), but the conspiracy theory and his rebuttals to the apparent backlash his article has received are ancillary to a larger point: that the Democrats like to play “identity politics” when it suits them until someone threatens the centrist order—and then all bets are off. Going back to the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders binary I briefly alluded to earlier, the Democratic Party establishment essentially did everything but formally state it was backing Hill-Dawg in the primary, including but not limited to giving her a decided head start in pledged delegates thanks to superdelegates—the likes of which are very unsuper, as far as liberal progressives are concerned—and the whole favoritism on the part of the Democratic National Committee that was made public by way of the DNC leaks, another WikiLeaks release. In this instance, mainline Democrats’ characterization of Sanders supporters is/was that they are a bunch of misogynists (see also “Bernie Bros.”) and/or that they are violent and disorderly (see also the “Nevada Democratic Convention”). Realistically, though, this speaks to a minority of “Bernie-crats.” It’s like saying James T. Hodgkinson, the man who shot at several Republican congressmen while they attended a baseball practice, is indicative of the progressive movement as a whole. These notions are as disingenuous as they are exaggerated.
In the case of Chelsea Manning, the attempts from those on the left to put her down are particularly egregious because she belongs to a minority that is no stranger to abuse and ridicule: the transgender community. As swift as censure of news Manning’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat was from centrist Dems, so too did admonishment erupt from naysayers on the right, alternatively pointing to Manning being a “criminal” or “traitor,” or simply lampooning the idea that a trans woman would identify as a Democrat and deriding the values and views of liberals as a whole. As I would contend, centrist Democrats don’t need to add fuel to the proverbial fire by joining in with the conservative outcry against Manning, and as Greenwald would contend, they are missing the opportunity to celebrate a candidate who would make history by being the first trans woman in the Senate, as well as to inspire other young trans Americans and to help erase the stigma that trans people face worldwide. Either way, it’s bad optics for a party that preaches the virtues of diversity, which I consider to be a major advantage it has over the GOP, an association which has made anyone who isn’t a white, straight male like Ben Cardin a lesser-than or potential target for hate and violence.
The most legitimate objection to Chelsea Manning’s candidacy for office, as I see it, is that she is young and inexperienced. After all, Donald Trump had never held a public office, and look at how that is turning out. Then again, Al Franken didn’t have experience in this regard, and if not for his resignation, he would still be serving as senator from the great state of Minnesota. Barack Obama was also relatively unproven prior to his inauguration, but if not a great president, he certainly wasn’t abysmal, and to this day is well respected by Americans and the international community alike. Manning, meanwhile, has used her high profile to raise awareness not only about issues facing the trans community and other whistleblowers, but other pertinent topics facing the American electorate, including the conditions of prisons in the United States, the plight of refugees worldwide, protecting civil liberties in the wake of acts of terrorism, and how marriage equality is not the be-all and end-all of the LGBT movement. Thus, while she is untested, she is by no means uninformed, and would likely make as good if not a better representative for her prospective constituents than Sen. Cardin.
According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, Americans’ faith in political institutions is decidedly low, with just 8% of Americans polled expressing a great deal of confidence in Congress, and the Republican Party next on the list at a scant 10%. But the media doesn’t fare much better (11%), nor does the Democratic Party (13%), and the only institution in the survey that inspires confidence from a majority of Americans is the military. The character assassination from both sides of the political aisle of Chelsea Manning and the all-too-likely scenario of Benjamin Cardin recapturing his Senate seat playing out don’t help these trends. It may be 2018, but at least to start the year, it’s politics as usual in Washington.