Joe Biden began his acceptance speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention with a quote by Ella Baker, longtime civil rights and human rights activist: “Give people light and they will find a way.” For Biden, it was a call for his leadership as a contrast to the anger, divisiveness, and fear characteristic of the “darkness” of Donald Trump’s presidency.
That Biden even invoked Baker is seen by many as progress, and the Democratic Party presidential nominee has been widely lauded for the tone he struck in his remarks. Still, one wonders what Baker would’ve thought about the elevation of Biden to the top of the party ticket in 2020 amid ever-widening economic and wealth inequality, social unrest, and a health crisis disproportionately affecting blacks. While Biden’s words were a success by virtue of being devoid of sour notes, they, like the convention preceding them, were also largely devoid of substance.
In all, the Democratic National Convention felt like a four-day sales pitch on Biden himself. Old footage and photos of Joe punctuated segments on pressing issues such as gun control, immigration, and women’s rights. There was Joe with Barack Obama, talking about matters of great import. There was ol’ Amtrak Joe taking the train like a regular, well, Joe. Meanwhile, the laundry list of speakers at the event attested to his fundamental decency, save for Bob King, former president of the United Auto Workers union and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who nominated and seconded Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination as part of convention procedure, respectively.
Perhaps amid a global pandemic, it would be unrealistic to expect anything other than a somber mood from these proceedings. Still, what usually amounts to a celebration of the Democratic Party and its stated values felt heavy indeed. Furthermore, attempts at levity, when made, largely missed the mark. Not even the likes of Night Four emcee Julia Louis-Dreyfus could make the most of her material, much of it jabs at the Republican Party nominee. For all the inspiring profiles of everyday party supporters and the struggles they have fought to overcome, there were uninspired calls to arms from the various political figures gracing the broadcast and their own failed punchlines. Sen. Klobuchar, I implore you, do not quit your day job.
Biden’s acceptance speech, the keynote address of the whole event, put a cap on the convention’s theme of fighting for the heart and soul of America, replete with generalities and platitudes. Name-checking Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Barack Obama; Jill, his wife; his father and other members of the Biden Family; Kamala Harris; George Floyd; and John Lewis, Biden waxed political on the importance of delivering on America’s promise and framed this election in existential terms.
Discussion of policy specifics, as they have been since the start of his campaign, were sparing. Biden touched on and touted plans for America’s COVID-19 response, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, upholding the Affordable Care Act, lowering drug prices, reducing student debt, affording access to child and elder care, raising the minimum wage, addressing climate change, empowering labor unions, closing tax loopholes, and preventing cuts to our social safety net, among other things. On paper, it sounds fantastic. Then again, it always does.
Biden closed with these thoughts:
This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme with passion and purpose. Let us begin, you and I together, one nation under god, united in our love for America, united in our love for each other, for love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear, and light is more powerful than dark.
This is our moment. This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness begin here tonight as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation. And this is a battle we will win, and we’ll do it together. I promise you.
Thank you and may God bless you, and may God protect our troops.
Biden’s closing comments, borrowing from the sentiments of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, are not unlike those professed by Hillary Clinton four years ago in her own acceptance speech. Love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark. Yes, this is all well and good.
Again, though, how does it translate to a path forward? “Give people light and they will find a way.” Right, but once the metaphor ends, where does that leave us, the people? We need more than light-and-dark imagery to survive. After all, that’s why we’re presumably lining up to elect you to represent us.
Here’s the thing: I recognize that many Democrats want to take what Joe Biden is saying at face value. And I agree, at least superficially, with the message of positivity that Biden is selling. I want a United States of America that embraces a spirit of love and of hope and of spiritual enlightenment rather than an America which veers off into fascism under Donald Trump.
If we’re going to nitpick somewhat, we might take issue with framing things purely in a light-vs.-darkness paradigm. Much of the U.S.’s past and present has reflected the darkness of injustice for large swaths of its population. Like our shadows, the inequities of the American experiment are inextricably linked with its history. Seeking to move forward without a meaningful recognition of where we’ve been, where we are, and how far we have to go does us all a disservice. How else to explain getting President Trump after the “hope and change” espoused by President Obama?
I asked earlier what Ella Baker would think of Joe Biden’s presidency because Baker was a strong advocate of participatory democracy. As she was once quoted, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” With that, she and others of a like mind emphasized direct action, grassroots organizing, and the minimization of hierarchies (especially those dominated by males) that weight movements too strongly at the lead. It’s the kind of energy that informed Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, specifically the slogan “Not Me. Us.”
Accordingly, while Biden’s use of Baker’s words are seen widely as a win, and while the Democratic National Convention hammered home the idea of Joe Biden the legislator and vice president as a man of the people who always made time for others, Biden’s current profile as a candidate doesn’t match his rhetoric.
2020 Joe Biden, no longer middle-class, doesn’t exactly epitomize the spirit of participatory democracy. Unlike his former rival Bernie, who wore his low individual contribution dollar amount as a badge of honor, Biden’s fundraising model is way too indicative of the Democratic Party’s top-down, big-ticket preferred method.
Even the language of Biden’s acceptance speech is grounded in the me, not the we. My economic plan. I’ll stand up to these dictators. At one point, he says outright, “I’m not going to have to do it alone because I’ll have a great vice president at my side.” Oh, sure, Biden says in closing that “this is a battle we will win, and we’ll do it together.”
Barack Obama said that, too. When the dust settled and the votes were counted, however, energized progressives were instead shunned by the Obama administration and the man embraced the neoliberal trappings of his predecessors. For those of us who believed in the promise of “Yes, We Can!” it’s a lesson we’ve learned the hard way, but learned it we have.
As Joe Biden said in his speech, “This is our moment.” The moment, however, demands more than just the hollow words of yesteryear and the idea that we should take a backseat while a messianic leader solves all the world’s ills. Give us the light and we’ll find the way. The old way of doing things isn’t cutting it anymore.
The 2020 Democratic National Convention: Feel the excitement?
Not quite. The four-day celebration of the best the Democratic Party has to offer and John Kasich has its schedule set—and if you’re like me, you’re less than impressed.
Day 1 features Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama as their top-billed speakers. Other than that, though, the list doesn’t exactly overwhelm. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Catherine Cortez Masto, fresh off not earning vice presidential nominations, are evidently set to inspire conventioneers with their newfound status. Ditto for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Sen. Doug Jones is there because…he has an election to try to win? Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has seen his star rise despite his state’s dilatory early response to news of positive COVID-19 tests and allegations of corruption will…call Donald Trump names?
In all, the speakers here seem to evoke an air of temporary/contextual relevance because they were once considered candidates for president or vice president or for their handling of the coronavirus. Bernie’s and Michelle Obama’s legacies seem pretty secure, but the others? Aside from Reps. Jim Clyburn and Gwen Moore, their records and future party standing are questionable. Clyburn’s and Moore’s inclusion itself speaks to the Democratic Party’s preoccupation with identity politics but only to the extent it reinforces “old guard” politics.
Day 2 features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is headlined by Dr. Jill Biden. Lisa Blunt Rochester is…from Delaware (not to downplay her significance as both the first woman and first African-American to represent her state in Congress, but she’s definitely not a household name)? Sally Yates is presumably there because of her defiance to the Bad Orange Man?
After that, it’s a trio of white dudes who definitely represent establishment Democrats. Chuck Schumer and John Kerry, one might imagine, will be on hand to deliver plenty of bland generalities. And then there’s Bill Clinton. If his association with Jeffrey Epstein and the “Lolita Express” aren’t problematic enough, there’s a good chance he’ll say something cringe-worthy just the same.
Day 3 has, um, Billie Eilish for the young folks? Seriously, though, she’s slated to perform. Newly-minted vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Barack Obama are the top political stars of the evening. As a whole, this day belongs to the ladies—and that’s pretty cool. Unfortunately, two of those women are Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, of whom to say they are removed from the concerns of everyday Americans would be an understatement.
Other than that? Meh. Gabby Giffords will be bringing her party loyalty and her obvious standing to talk about gun control to the table. Elizabeth Warren, the picture of party unity that she is, also will be delivering remarks. Michelle Lujan Grisham has…grit? And I don’t know what business Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin has speaking at this convention. This man made a late bid to postpone his state’s primaries, was rebuffed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and didn’t intervene in the same way Republican governor Mike DeWine did in Ohio to push back elections due to concerns about coronavirus infections at polling places. Even if spikes following the Wisconsin primaries can’t be definitively linked to in-person voting, failing to act to reduce or eliminate this risk is to be decried, not celebrated with a speaking slot.
The final day of the convention belongs, of course, to Joseph Robinette Biden. Andrew Yang is speaking—or he isn’t—or maybe he is again? We’ve got not one, but two Tammies—Tammy Baldwin (surprisingly progressive for Biden) and Tammy Duckworth.
Aside from these speakers, I could take or leave the rest of the program. With no disrespect meant to The Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks), OK, were party supporters clamoring for you to be here? Chris Coons once more fulfills the obligatory Delawarean portion of the program and that’s about it. Sen. Cory Booker, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are present as not-too-old, not-too-young faces of the Democratic Party. Also, Pete Buttigieg is slated to gnaw on some cheese. Just saying—the guy looks like a rat.
This is what awaits viewers for the virtual Democratic National Convention, for the most part. As noted, John Kasich, who is still a member of the opposition party, should be speaking, though I didn’t see him listed on the official convention website schedule. All in all, with the Democratic Party speakers thus enumerated, there’s not a lot to excite prospective younger voters. A number of these political figures are either older, fairly obscure outside of political circles, or both, when not additionally owning problematic legacies (hello, Amy Klobuchar, Bill Clinton).
More critically, the attention to policy specifics, as it has been with Joe Biden the 2020 presidential candidate, will likely be sparing. In a political environment inextricably linked to the ongoing pandemic and impacted by the moment’s (overdue) push for economic, environmental, racial, and social justice, Americans hungry for substantive change want to know what the Democratic Party will do for them should the Democrats take the White House. The standard platitudes aren’t cutting it.
I refer to the “cold banality” of the Democratic National Convention in the title of this piece because, in addition to this event being a boring four-day celebration of Democrats not being Donald Trump, it largely freezes out progressives.
Bernie Sanders has been afforded a prominent role in the proceedings, though he has largely (and dubiously) tried to paint Joe Biden and his campaign as embracing a progressive platform. Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren will be also be delivering remarks, though on the latter count, it’s tough to know what exactly Warren’s commitment is to the progressive cause in the United States. She notably backed off her prior support for Medicare for All and took super PAC money during her own presidential campaign, trying to justify it by claiming everyone else was doing so and that she needed to follow suit. That doesn’t make you sound very principled, Ms. Warren.
And what about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? This is where it gets juicy, as they say. AOC’s entire involvement with the convention is reportedly limited to a one-minute prerecorded message. That’s it. Sixty seconds for one of the party’s rising stars and biggest fundraisers. If this sounds stupidly self-defeating, one has only to remember this is the Democrats we’re talking about here, masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
This goes beyond mere strategic miscues, however. The DNC knows what it’s doing, and Ocasio-Cortez’s effective snub is another potshot at progressives seeking authentic leadership from the Democratic Party. Furthermore, with 2024 chatter already underway, the party establishment is probably desperate to blunt any momentum she might have for a presidential bid. They don’t want her pulling a Barack Obama and using her speech at the convention as a springboard to a viable candidacy. If that were to happen, they might—gasp!—actually have to commit to policies that help everyday Americans.
The old guard of the Democratic Party knows its days are numbered. Progressives haven’t won a ton of primary challenges, but little by little, they’re scoring impressive victories and elevating recognition of outspoken leftists to the national consciousness. Policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are resonating with the general public. Heck, a significant percentage of Democratic voters say they have a positive view of socialism. Dreaded socialism. When people are finally beginning to sour on almighty capitalism, you know a real sea change is in our midst.
It is because of this percolating progressive energy within Democratic ranks that, while it’s still frustrating that the progressive movement isn’t further along by now, leftists in the U.S. and abroad can take heart knowing that there is strength in grassroots organizing and people-powered solutions to society’s ills. The Democratic National Convention, in all its pomp and circumstance, already felt somewhat irrelevant given the fragmentation of the global media landscape in the social media age. With a global pandemic and economic, political, and social unrest altering the political calculus in 2020 even more, it seems especially so now.
I will always feel indebted to Bernie Sanders for how he inspired me to become involved with politics. But damn if I’m not disappointed with the way the Democratic Party presidential primaries turned out—and super disappointed now that all progressives have to show for their efforts in 2020 at the highest level is the Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders task force.
At this writing, Biden has well surpassed the requisite tally to clinch the nomination, garnering 2,575 pledged delegates, 584 more than the minimum needed. Bernie stands at 1,047 after dropping out in April. All other candidates who won delegates amassed but 142 delegates. What’s the significance, beyond Joe running up the score?
By now, nothing. Had Bernie reached 1,200 delegates, there might’ve been a discussion to be had, albeit a relatively short one given that the nomination has long since been locked up. At this juncture, however, that is essentially impossible, if not mathematically certain to be so. Moreover, it comes on the heels of a drive by the Sanders campaign and supporting organizations that by most accounts would be described as tepid—at best.
In an article for The Intercept from April, Rachel M. Cohen detailed how while Bernie was staying on the ballot in an effort to earn more delegates, the investment to get him to 1,200 pledged delegates—the necessary number by which he and his campaign would be able to influence the Democratic National Convention/party platform—hasn’t been much of an investment.
As a function of exiting the presidential race, the Sanders campaign stopped advertising and the man himself got behind his onetime rival, endorsing Biden and vowing to campaign for him against the wishes of Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution. And while OR still prioritized getting out the vote for Bernie, other Bernie-sympathetic organizations shifted their focus to down-ballot races (which, to be fair, need(ed) their share of attention) or simply lack the bandwidth to make a dent in Biden grabbing the lion’s share of the delegate haul.
So, yes, we can forget about that drive, which leaves us now with the aforementioned join task force. In fairness, this “show of unity” between the two campaigns is not altogether discouraging when considering some of the dramatis personae, esp. on the Sanders side. Among the high-profile names representing Bernie’s faction are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Climate Change), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Health Care), and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed (Health Care).
As to what they’ve come up with a month and change before the convention, though? From a progressive perspective, it’s not all that and a bag of chips (note: please excuse my use of ultra-modern sayings).
To be clear, and as with the roster for the task force itself, the recommendations for the party platform are not completely devoid of encouragement, as reports Ella Nilsen for Vox, citing a 100+-page report on the Biden campaign official website.
Elements of the set of recommended directives include the creation of a postal banking system to expand banking access for low-income families; a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions national goal for all new buildings in 2030; universal pre-K for three- and four-year olds; a ban on for-profit charter schools; decriminalization of marijuana at the state level and legalization at the federal; ending the use of private prisons and detention centers; and terminating the Trump administration travel ban.
What these recommendations don’t do, meanwhile, is advocate for Medicare for All (instead, the bid is for a “public option” administered by Medicare), nor do they even mention the Green New Deal. There is no appeal for a cancellation of all student debt. These progressive priorities are largely side-stepped for the sake of this nebulous concept of party “unity.”
On the subject of Medicare, too, the task force calls for a lowering of the enrollment age from 65 to 60. For younger voters in particular, that’s small potatoes, especially when Hillary Clinton, on several counts a better candidate than Biden, was offering enrollment at the age of 55. On such a critical issue as healthcare in a time of political upheaval and amid a global health crisis, that we’re moving backwards, not forwards is frustrating—and that may be putting it mildly.
Similarly, there’s no mandate to defund the police. Sure, this is a “charged” issue, with some fearful voters equating defunding police forces with abolishing them outright and not even Bernie supporting the defunding movement; if anything he wants to give police departments more money, albeit with strings attached (still not a great take, by the by). That said, for young adults from communities of color that have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by increasingly militaristic policing, to not take a firmer stand on defunding is less likely to draw their attention and generate excitement for the Biden campaign.
In all, Biden and Co. appear to be banking on the suburban “swing mom” vote, all but ignoring the youth vote, the Latinx vote, Black Lives Matter’s larger aims, and every intersection betwixt and between. Generally speaking, and with a nod to the “insurgent” wing of the Democratic Party desperately hungry for substantive change, it’s a rather disheartening collection of platform priorities, notably because it is yet one more instance of establishment Democrats playing it safe with a critical election on the line.
Did Bernie Sanders betray progressives by dropping out so early with few to no concessions from Joe Biden and his camp re the party platform? It depends on who you ask, but as far as I’m concerned, no, Bernie hasn’t betrayed progressives. As a member of the Senate, Sanders has continued and will continue to champion progressive causes like M4A and the GND. Concerning the former, lest we forget and as Bernie growled in a memorable debate exchange, he wrote the damn bill. Thus, while he may have laid it down to Biden, he didn’t abandon his principles like other so-called progressives in the race (cough, Elizabeth Warren, cough).
Nevertheless, lay it down Bernie did, and this notion is still something I wrestle with as one of his supporters. I get that Bernie pledged he would support the eventual winner of the Democratic Party nomination as he did in 2016. He may be a rabble-rouser, but he’s not a complete asshole and he understands the threat that a second(!) term of President Donald Trump presents.
This aside, when it came to the lone heads-up debate with Joe Biden, where was the killer instinct his supporters were looking for? I know, I know, Bernie—Joe is your “friend.” He’s not my friend, though, not with his litany of bad policy positions and votes. With that, I don’t know if he rescued you from a burning building or what, but the way you threw in the towel, it felt less like a strategic maneuver and more like something done out of obligation or duress. Watching Bernie’s endorsement of Biden, I felt like shouting at the screen for him to tug on his right ear if he were being held hostage. Three months removed from that moment, that this theory remains among my top explanations for what happened is vaguely alarming.
We may never know what was discussed behind closed doors between Biden and Sanders, or for that matter, Sanders and Barack Obama. Maybe Bernie is just too nice or too much of an optimist. (By proxy, I might be a cold-hearted cynic and a jerk.) In terms of leverage, however, any pull Bernie and his backers had died when his bid for at least a quarter of the delegate share did. If nothing else, it’s aggravating to have Biden backers and dyed-in-the-wool Democrats popping off and telling progressives to “kiss the ring” or “bend the knee.” This is supposed to be American democracy, not a g-d Game of Thrones situation.
Even the act of withholding one’s vote or not committing to Biden until the general election nears has been undermined in part by—you guessed it—Bernie Sanders, taking a more scolding tone this election cycle and suggesting it would be “irresponsible” for his adherents to sit this election out. As is always the case with vote shaming, however, the directionality is warped. In all but a handful of “swing” states, “rogue” Bernie supporters are unlikely to make a significant impact on the outcome. Either way, it’s ultimately Joe Biden’s job to make the case for Joe Biden, not Bernie or Briahna Joy Gray or David Sirota or anyone else affiliated with the Sanders campaign. As I feel it should be stressed, Bernie backers are not a cult. They have real concerns about real issues and should be talked to, not talked at accordingly.
As Bernie himself recently put forward, Joe Biden has a chance to be “the most progressive president since FDR” if he commits to the recommendations outlined by the joint task force. Meanwhile, these are purely recommendations and from what we know of Biden and his profile as a lawmaker, a more centrist and less inspiring outcome is more probable. I hope the Biden campaign ultimately surprises progressives en route to a decisive victory over Donald Trump, I really do. At the same time, I’m not exactly holding my breath either.
Following Bernie Sanders’s all-but-inevitable departure from the Democratic Party presidential primary race, the endorsements have been coming fast and furious for Joe Biden, the Dems’ presumptive nominee, including from Bernie himself.
Soon after Bernie’s surprisingly-early public backing of his friend and former senatorial colleague during a recent Biden livestream, Barack Obama, the yin to Biden’s yang during his tenure in the Oval Office, threw his weight behind Joe’s candidacy. Not long after that, Elizabeth Warren, who notably abstained from endorsements when it came down to just Bernie and Biden, also got behind the latter with a proud endorsement video for the man who loves Amtrak, aviators, and ice cream.
Echoing the positions of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, however, I don’t endorse Joe Biden. I wouldn’t necessarily counsel against voting for him, mind you, especially for those who live in swing states, and I also believe even probable nonvoters should contribute to the discussion by trying to influence the party platform in a progressive direction. Either way, though, I am patently against trying to shame those who are undecided or have indicated they won’t vote for Biden into doing so.
First things first, if you’ve read my writing for any length of time, you know I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter through and through. How could I advocate not endorsing or not voting for Biden when my main man Bernie suggested it would be “irresponsible” for me not to?
Well, despite what some of you may have heard or might believe, we Bernie faithful are not members of a cult or bots. We can think independently of our inspirational leader. In fact, there are many who donated to the Sanders campaign and who otherwise supported Bernie’s run for the White House who wanted to see him go harder after Biden and his record when they became the final two candidates for the nomination. We believe Bernie’s a great man, but he’s not infallible. We can openly disagree with him.
This is besides the notion that, after years of being labeled as “toxic” and being dismissed as “Bernie Bros” who are predominantly young and white and hate women and want everything handed on a silver platter to them, all of a sudden, our votes are highly desirable and our endorsements are expected to mean something. Well, which one is it? Are we toxic, to be avoided at all costs? Or are we highly-valued members of the voting bloc/Democratic Party supporters? You can’t have it both ways.
(At this point, it might behoove me to mention that the concept of “Bernie Bros” being more liable to attack people online than supporters of other candidates is a myth perpetuated in large part by media outlets, more correctly attributable to his popularity. But please don’t allow me to let observable data get in the way of a good narrative.)
Plus, there’s the matter of the logical trap surrounding the “a vote for anyone but Biden is a vote for Trump” line. By extension, by one not voting for Trump, isn’t that the same as voting for Biden? If not, how so?
This is where, before I get ahead of myself, I openly concede Joe Biden and Donald Trump aren’t the same—and it’s not even close. Trump is a bigot, a cheat, a con man, a fraud, and a liar. Worse yet, he’s not remotely good at his job.
We’ve seen 3+ years of President Trump and the results include an administration continuously full of upheaval and vacancies; a Cabinet full of millionaires, billionaires, and other cronies; an escalation of racist and xenophobic rhetoric; a fast track for confirmation of federal judges thinly veiled in their prejudices and often incompetent; a tax cut that primarily favors wealthier earners; weakened protections for the environment and the LGBTQIA+ community; and a woeful response to the present threat of coronavirus/COVID-19 marked by political favoritism and hampered by a lack of due preparation. All the while, Trump, when not enriching himself, playing golf, tweeting, or watching FOX News, deflects blame, undermining a free press as “the enemy of the people.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president in the modern era than Donald J. Trump.
Returning to the question of the fallacy that not voting for the Democrat is a vote for the Republican and vice versa then, the only way this equivalency loses validity is if you consider that one candidate’s supporters are that much more likely to come out for their chosen nominee than the other’s. Such is potentially a big problem for Biden: enthusiasm. As recently as the end of March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed only 24% of those surveyed strongly support Biden over Trump, while more than half of prospective Trump voters surveyed indicated they are “very” enthusiastic about casting their ballots for the incumbent. That’s worse than what Hillary Clinton encountered in 2016 at this point in the race—and we all know how that turned out.
Why the lack of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe? Maybe because he’s—and I’m just spit-balling here—not that good of a candidate. Through all these proud endorsements by the likes of Obama, Sanders, and Warren, a lot has been said about his character, his lifetime of public service, and his leadership. On the other hand, little, if anything, has been said about his policy positions or a cohesive vision for America’s future, and talk of his supposed progressive credentials flies in the face of his actual record.
The image Obama et al. are creating is an idealized version of Biden, one designed to drum up votes and drive home the differences between him and Trump on dimensions like empathy. It does not consider Biden’s stalwart opposition to Medicare for All and other single-payer health insurance systems, even during a global pandemic that is seeing record numbers of Americans file for unemployment and get kicked off their employer-sponsored healthcare plans. It does not consider his halfhearted embrace of the Green New Deal which would see the United States miss a net zero emissions target date of 2030 recommended by progressives by two decades. It does not consider his support for student debt cancellation only for some income levels, not all, and not after siding with lenders on a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to file for bankruptcy and unable to discharge their student loan debt through bankruptcy. It’s revisionist history that re-characterizes Biden’s identity as the poster boy for political expediency as something greater than what it actually is.
All this hagiographic elevation of Biden also fails to consider limiting factors that would seemingly disqualify most other candidates. One is his cognitive decline, obvious to anyone who has eyes and ears. It’s why we have not seen or heard more of him since the coronavirus prompted a state of national emergency in the United States. It’s why he’s reliant on cue cards, notes, or teleprompters during all planned appearances, which are often short and have his wife, Jill, leading him along. It’s why we see clip after clip of him laboring with his speech, struggling to form complete sentences and thoughts. This is more than gaffes or a stutter—and it’s not a secret to Republicans either.
The other big problem with Biden as the candidate of a major party, particularly one that touts its inclusivity and its strong female leadership, is the list of allegations made against him by various women of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Most serious among them, and yet disappointingly underreported, is the account of Tara Reade, a staffer for Biden in the 90s, who claims that Biden sexually and verbally assaulted her.
Despite comparisons to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court and despite Reade seeming credible in her retelling of details about the alleged assault, many of the same people loudly calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal as a nominee are expressing their doubts about the veracity of Reade’s public statements. The primary difference herein appears to be not whether Reade is believable, but that Biden is a Democrat backed by the party establishment, while Kavanaugh was jammed through confirmation by Senate Republicans. He’s on our team, not yours. At least he’s not as bad as Trump. A victory for women and #MeToo, this isn’t.
Given all this, it’s no wonder enthusiasm for Joe Biden—the “white moderate” warned about by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is cognitively impaired, has no empathy for young people, has few clear policy goals, and may be guilty of sexual assault—is so low. Even after a term of President Trump, that Biden is a tough sell should be immediately concerning to Democratic Party leadership and the “vote blue no matter who” crowd all the same.
So what, you may be thinking. If you’re not voting to stop the madman in the White House, maybe you should be ashamed. You just refuse to accept that your guy is not the one going for the nomination. He didn’t have the votes. It’s over. Get over your privilege and get behind the winner. We’re ridin’ with Biden.
I get it—a second term of President Trump would not be felt as severely by all Americans, much as is the case now. The horror stories of migrants kept in detention, denied asylum despite the dangers they face in their countries of origin. The families negatively affected by the Muslim ban masquerading as a travel ban. The anti-Asian hate being fomented as a result of fear and misinformation about COVID-19. The administration’s attempt to erase trans people. It’s not something I like imagining.
Citing Pew Research Center data from 2018, Greenwald finds that 56% of nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election made less than $30,000 per year. More than half of non-voters were age 49 or younger or were high-school-educated or less, and nearly half of nonvoters were non-white. Moreover, while voter suppression efforts of these groups are both “real are pernicious,” the idea that nonvoters are frequently not registering because they are dissatisfied with their choices or don’t believe their vote will make a difference is significant. It would, too, seek to dispel “the outright, demonstrable falsehood that those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white, and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges — voters of color and poorer voters — are unwilling to abstain.” In saying this, Greenwald is fixated on the bubbles we find ourselves in when we subsist only on a diet of one-sided cable news and social media.
It is this understanding that begs the question: How many indignities are progressives supposed to endure in their earnest attempts to help reform the Democratic Party and to defeat the Donald Trumps of today and tomorrow? Bernie Sanders ultimately didn’t make the case to enough Democratic primary voters that he is the most “electable” and is the right choice to take on Trump and the GOP. His, like any campaign, was flawed.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has suffered from a lack of organization and funding throughout his run. He placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. It was because of his strong showing in South Carolina and the coalescence of the Democratic Party around Biden that he was able to vault to the lead for the nomination and never look back, further buoyed by a media narrative that celebrated his comeback uncritically.
To make things worse, Barack Obama has had more influence on said coalescence than he would lead or like you to believe. As reports have indicated, the former president was influential in getting Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to endorse Biden right around the time they bowed out of the race. Obama also held several conversations with Bernie to help “accelerate the endgame” before the Wisconsin primary results were made public.
Most chillingly, and regarding that Wisconsin primary, according to insider reports, Biden’s campaign was “eager” to have it run as originally scheduled or else they’d turn up the heat on Bernie to drop out, a notion Obama stressed in his conversations with Sanders. For all the “bad optics” of 2015 and 2016, this blatant favoritism of the establishment candidate over the progressive is yet harder to bear four years later. That Biden and his team would encourage people to go the polls during a global pandemic and despite widespread closures and poll worker shortages is all the more reprehensible. This was always about stopping Bernie and then beating Trump. Any pretense otherwise is beyond absurd at this point.
Joe Biden isn’t Donald Trump, and if you’re voting for the former to stop the latter, I understand completely. When people don’t share your enthusiasm for voting strategically and when they perceive that nothing meaningful will change regardless, though, trying to bully, demean, or insult them into voting is of questionable, if any, utility. So enough with the vote shaming already. You’d be better off making calls and trying to engage with disaffected nonvoters by understanding their points of view if you truly want to avoid disaster in November.
I’m not sure if you realized, but there’s some sort of virus going around.
By now, unless you’re living under a rock, you understand that COVID-19, a disease caused by the SARS/coronavirus 2 virus strain, is a global pandemic (and even if you do live under a rock, you might want to get tested if you can afford it). According to the Center for Disease Control, fever, cough, and shortness of breath are common symptoms.
As of March 12, the World Health Organization has confirmed over 125,000 cases of coronavirus disease, with upwards of 4,500 deaths across more than 100 countries, regions, and territories worldwide. What’s worse, as numerous authorities on the subject matter have emphasized, these numbers represent only what is known.
Depending on the availability of testing, those showing symptoms or suspecting they might have the disease after being in contact with people who have tested positive might not be able to confirm they’ve contracted it. Plus, there are those who may be asymptomatic but are still carriers of the disease. Regardless, the tallies stand to get much higher and the scope of the problem much worse.
In no uncertain terms, then, this is serious business and not, as some have suggested, a “hoax” or some elaborate conspiracy designed to bring down President Donald Trump. On that note, if anyone or anything can make Trump’s legitimacy as a leader seem questionable, it’s Trump himself.
It is painfully apparent that Trump and his administration are woefully unprepared for a health emergency of this magnitude. The president has repeatedly undercut his own advisers and medical professionals on the facts surrounding COVID-19, suggesting that a vaccine is nearing availability when the actual timeline points to such an intervention being a year or more away. Trump also has downplayed the gravity of the moment, opining that this coronavirus threat will be gone by April in concert with a rise in temperatures, despite having no evidence that the virus will be susceptible to warmer weather and otherwise failing to appreciate the notion that this strain could return in full force when the weather gets colder again.
Clearly, the United States’s response thus far is indicative of the disorganization and flippant self-servingness of its highest officeholder. For one, the Trump administration disbanded its global health security team after the sudden departure of Timothy Ziemer, the official designated as the country’s leader in the event of a pandemic. Trump has also authorized cuts to the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council, organizations which all play a role in helping the government respond to a major health crisis. If this weren’t bad enough, in its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, the White House has outlined further cuts to the CDC and, at this juncture, is sticking to its guns. You know, because we’re not having enough fun as it is.
Given every chance to seem remotely presidential, Trump has severely botched this aspect. From the first mention of COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” that “started in China” in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus disease, the xenophobic overtones and influence of Stephen “Richard Spencer Is My Homeboy” Miller were unmistakable. The haphazard announcement of a 30-day travel ban on most trips from Europe to the United States, aided by Trump’s inability to read a teleprompter because the man won’t admit he needs glasses, is also of questionable utility given that there are already so many cases here.
Speaking of confirmed cases, America faces a shortfall of available testing for the coronavirus, in large part because the Trump administration sought to drag its feet on its response so as to fudge the numbers and not make the president look bad. Instead of using the lag in the proliferation of the virus following its earliest reports from China, whose own initial response to the outbreak deserves admonishment, the Trump administration squandered that time, blaming, of all people, Barack Obama for this mess. Seriously, is there nothing Trump won’t blame Obama for?
In sum and to put it mildly, there’s a lot of noise and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 in America right now. I certainly don’t wish to add to it. More narrowly, though, I’d like to highlight the attitudes of Americans across the political spectrum in relation to coronavirus right now.
As one might expect, there are umpteen refrains from armchair political analysts and professional pundits alike that this health emergency isn’t political. We’re all affected by it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from China or the United States or Italy or the United Kingdom or South Korea or Iran or what-have-you. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and the loss of life and livelihood as a byproduct of this crisis are regrettable independent of where you live, what you look like, or how much money you have or make.
By the same token, as with calls for civility in a political climate marked by dramatic polarization and online interactions that often veer into the realm of personal attacks, abuse, death threats, and doxxing, these pleas are only as good as the intent of the person making them. Notions of “we’re all in this together,” made in good faith, are valuable and inspiring because they evidence a recognition that this pandemic is one we have the ability to address, particularly by working with one another and rejecting the distinctions and principles that might normally divide us. As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Pledges of unity are therefore double-edged swords, and when wielded in bad faith, serve only to silence conversations we need to be having, especially on behalf of members of marginalized groups. Defenders of President Trump are quick to hide behind the sentiment that in this time of communal suffering, we should put aside our criticisms of one another in service of a common goal in fighting COVID-19.
Discourse restricted in this way, though, deflects blame where blame should be assigned. The Trump administration’s actions and verbiage heretofore have been shameful. We are behind the curve on coronavirus testing and COVID-19 amelioration as a direct result of the president’s deliberate inaction and counterproductive rhetoric designed not to negatively impact the stock market and not make him look weak by proxy. As recent market plunges the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades manifest, meanwhile, we obviously have already crossed that bridge. With every new cancellation or shutdown and with the market gains accrued during Trump’s tenure effectively erased, now is the right time to scrutinize his job performance. It is in the crucible of an event like a global pandemic that we arguably can best judge a leader’s ability and temperament. Trump is failing this test miserably.
The fact of the matter is we’ve heard this kind of politically-motivated inertia before and it’s no less depressing. In the wake of innumerable mass shootings, America has yet to make substantive progress regarding gun control, even as far as the most basic reforms which most Americans agree on (e.g. universal background checks) go. To dismiss desires of Americans on the left, on the right, and everywhere in between to hold Trump accountable for his poor handling of the COVID-19 threat is to make eerily similar arguments against progress merely to cling to an ideology and to ignore the reality of the circumstances at hand.
Bringing former president Barack Obama back into this to illustrate a point, if he were primarily responsible for the systemic failure of our government to address coronavirus, he would be roundly criticized on FOX News and elsewhere in conservative circles for the quality of his administration’s response. Hell, the man once caught flak for using Dijon mustard on his burger. If the roles were reversed, do you have any doubt Obama would be lambasted by Americans from coast to coast? Trump seemingly gets a pass from some because he, under normal circumstances, screws things up and lies about it. It’s not that funny normally, however, and it’s certainly not a laughing matter now. It’s quite literally life or death.
Accordingly, it’s fair to make discourse about America’s response to the spread of COVID-19 political in nature because it already is inextricably linked to politics. Most of our world is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. In our own daily lives, we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) expect to get away with things because of our political affiliation or a particular agenda. The same applies to Donald Trump and exceedingly so given that he willingly signed up for the task of leading the country.
In their own addresses on coronavirus after President Trump’s debacle, Democratic Party presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders drew a marked contrast to their potential general election opponent by treating the occasion with the solemnity and measure it deserves.
On his campaign website and in his public remarks, Biden has emphasized the need for “decisive” public health and economic responses to the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting the importance of “trust, credibility, and common purpose” as well as “leadership grounded in science.” He has advocated for free and available testing; the creation of mobile and drive-thru testing sites and temporary hospitals; activating the Medical Reserve Corps; accelerating the production of medicines, tests, and vaccines; allocating resources for health and emergency services workers, including overtime reimbursements; ensuring paid leave for workers and reimbursements to employers; expanding unemployment insurance, employment relief, food relief, medical assistance, loans to small- and medium-sized businesses, child care, mortgage and student loan relief/forbearance, and union health funds; and other forms of mediation. It’s a rather detailed plan.
As for Sanders, he also was highly critical of the Trump administration in his address, stressing the urgency for declaring a national emergency (which Trump has since declared); convening a bipartisan coalition of experts to lead the coronavirus response; and caring for communities most vulnerable to COVID-19, notably nursing home residents/rehabilitation patients, immigration center detainees, and the incarcerated. Like Biden, he supports free testing for coronavirus as well as free vaccines when available.
Sanders too examined the need for funding for paid family and medical leave; expanding community health centers; facilitating private- and public-sector cooperation to ensure the availability of ICU units, medical professionals, and ventilators; establishing safeguards against price gouging, especially with respect to the pharmaceutical industry; augmenting unemployment insurance for employees and independent contractors alike, food assistance programs, and emergency loans to businesses; and placing a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs, among other things. As with Biden, there are policy specifics aplenty to be appreciated herein.
For both candidates, the proposed coronavirus response is much more developed than anything the Trump administration has or likely can come up with. As always, “better than Trump” is a low bar to clear. An important distinction to be found between the two, meanwhile, is in the call for structural reforms, the importance of which is magnified by the severity of the problems the United States and the world currently face. Regarding access to high-quality health care for all Americans, the expansion of public programs to meet the need at this juncture is evocative of Medicare for All, an idea certainly not lost on Bernie’s supporters.
The Federal Reserve’s move to inject $1.5 trillion into the markets to fight “highly unusual disruptions” related to coronavirus also eats away at the professed concerns about cost that Sanders’s opponents have used to try to discredit him. What is evidently lacking is not the ability to meet these costs, but rather the political will. As Sen. Sanders tweeted in response to the Fed’s decision, “When we say it’s time to provide health care to all our people, we’re told we can’t afford it. But if the stock market is in trouble, no problem! The government can just hand out $1.5 trillion to calm bankers on Wall Street.” Critics of the backlash to this intervention say it is unfair to call this a “bailout,” but it’s hard to view this as anything but socialism for the rich and for Wall Street speculators.
Following a string of disappointing primary losses on consecutive Tuesdays, Bernie faces an uphill battle in capturing the Democratic Party presidential nomination. While I wouldn’t wish COVID-19 on anyone, though, it draws attention to the necessity of providing health care to everyone as a right as well as the sheer absurdity of saying we can’t pay for things like the cancellation of student debt when we can provide the markets over a trillion dollars in cash infusions with a snap of our fingers.
So, electoral prospects be damned: Bernie Sanders is right on these issues and deserves to continue his campaign as long as he can shine a light on the problems we face as a nation and will face even when we can reasonably say coronavirus has been contained. Here’s hoping he hammers this point home in this weekend’s debate with Joe Biden.
Pete Buttigieg promises “a fresh start for America.” Joe Biden vows, in this new United States, there will be “no malarkey.” Evidently, the best remedy for this country is the equivalent of rebooting one’s computer, or in the case of the former vice president, to reset our abacuses. Or is that abaci? Are both acceptable? But I digress.
In supporting the centrist figures of Buttigieg and Biden, establishment Democrats and party supporters seek a return to how it was under President Barack Obama. In this respect, life under Donald Trump can be considered an aberration. When one of these men is in the White House, all the racists and xenophobes will go back into hiding and Republicans will magically come to their senses, ready to reach across the aisle and work together with their Democratic colleagues.
If this sounds absurd—which it should—we shouldn’t be surprised that these men’s platforms lack substance next to some of their primary competitors. Biden’s “vision for America” is little more than a love note to the Middle Class, the “backbone of the country.” (If you had the phrase “backbone of the country” in your presidential campaign drinking game, let this be a reminder to take a drink.) Buttigieg pledges to lead us to “real action,” someone who will “stand amid the rubble” and “pick up the pieces of our divided nation.” Presumably, he will also assemble all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
What is therefore evident is that these candidates are relying on something other than polished policy to elevate them to a potential showdown with Trump for the presidency. Mayor Pete admittedly talks a good game. He’s clearly intelligent and has charisma. Uncle Joe, well, really wants to remind you that he worked with Obama. Never mind the apparent decline of his mental acuity or his vague creepiness. He’s a good guy. Just ask Barack. Obama, Obama, Obama.
Speaking of Obama, it is in this context that we might consider who the closest logical successor to his political legacy is still left in the 2020 presidential race. After all, concerning candidates of color, Kamala Harris just bowed out of the race, Cory Booker may be next, and Julián Castro doesn’t seem to be tracking all that well in the polls. Also, Beto O’Rourke, who isn’t a person of color but is handsome, speaks Spanish, and rides a skateboard (so, um, cool?) has already dropped out. Is there no one young and articulate enough to pick up where his Barack-ness left off?
In his bid for unity, Buttigieg, who has enjoyed a recent surge in polling, most notably among prospective Iowa voters, seems ready to take on that mantle. Here’s the thing, though: America and its politics are a different bag than when Obama first got ushered into the White House. Freelance journalist Zeeshan Aleem, in a recent piece for VICE, asks the question, “Can someone tell Pete Buttigieg he isn’t Barack Obama?” To this effect, he avers that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana’s “quest for unity is about as naive as Obama’s.”
For Aleem, Buttigieg’s persuasiveness overshadows his blandness from a policy perspective. There’s also the matter of his seeming naivete, as outlined in a few examples. Buttigieg, for one, advocates for an impeachment process that goes beyond politics, evidently unaware that this matter is already and perhaps inextricably linked to partisanship. He also, in fighting the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on Medicare for all, appears to think Republicans are willing to compromise on health care. For that matter, Mayor Pete seeks to avoid any talk or policy directive that might be construed as “polarizing.”
Again, Buttigieg looks to be missing the mark. In this moment, congressional Republicans are as likely to compromise as President Trump is to voluntarily leave Twitter. Besides, despite his own charm and charisma, Obama wasn’t able to make much headway in working with the GOP—with Mitch McConnell among party leadership, it’s not hard to see why either.
As Aleem explains, moreover, when deals were struck, they weren’t necessarily a significant win for the average voter. The Affordable Care Act’s origins were steeped in conservative thinking, did not include a public option, and did nothing to challenge the power of the private health insurance industry. Obama’s economic stimulus package featured a concession to Republicans in the extension of the previous administration’s tax cuts and, as many economists and critics on the left argued, did not go far enough because it didn’t ask for enough.
So, here comes Mr. Buttigieg, ready to try a page from Mr. Obama’s playbook. If Obama couldn’t make his ideas work then, though, it begs wondering what chance Buttigieg has owing to a political environment that has only become more polarized. Aleem writes in closing:
Buttigieg’s talk about breaking the shackles of hyperpartisanship and coming together to save the republic is seductive, but nothing about the way politics has been evolving for decades suggests that it’s a sound strategy. Like Obama, he relies on charisma and optimism to make such a future seem possible. But the hard realities of polarization cannot be vanquished solely by good intentions.
In an age when widespread unity is a political impossibility, fear of being polarizing isn’t just out of touch—it could be an act of self-sabotage.
To say we are a divided United States is an understatement. Such a synopsis likewise ignores that it’s not just that we share different opinions depending on where we fall along the political spectrum or how much we engage with politics, but that depending on our immediate circumstances, we may as well be living in different countries. Add the magnifying effect residence in insular political “bubbles” has on polarization and the problem becomes that much worse, with discourse guided by mutual distrust and a failure to be able to agree on what is even factually accurate.
Mayor Pete wants a fresh start for America. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to grasp how fractured that America is, electorally speaking.
Looming over the ultimate decision Democratic Party primary voters will have to make is the concept of “electability,” a word underscored by red squiggles in my browser as if to showcase just how nebulous a concept it is. In the minds of voters and pundits alike, Joe Biden’s and Pete Buttigieg’s electability is key to understanding their prominence in the polls. By this token, “electability” is effective code for “ability not to alienate a wide enough portion of the constituency so as to defeat Donald Trump this coming November.” In other words, these men are the presumed safe bets.
If the last few election cycles in the United States have taught us anything, however, it’s that our ideas about electability may be built on faulty premises. How many people would’ve considered a relatively inexperienced legislator from Illinois—a man of color by the name of Barack Hussein Obama, no less—”electable” at the start of his campaign? Next to an unpolished outsider like Donald Trump, wouldn’t we have viewed Hillary Clinton a more “electable” candidate given her career in Washington, D.C. and her name recognition? That’s certainly not how the script played out.
Depending on how far we want to take our abstract notions of electability, we have the potential to talk ourselves out of plenty of good—if not great—candidates. Does it matter that Buttigieg is an openly gay man and, like, Obama, lacks the political tenure of other primary competitors? What about Bernie Sanders’s identity as a Jewish democratic socialist? Elizabeth Warren continues to be heckled for her claim of Native American heritage. Is she un-electable? Was Kamala Harris, a woman of color, too “tough” to be electable prior to dropping out of the race? Who decides these matters? And how do you reliably measure such a mythical quality?
As a progressive, I tend to feel I am more sensitive than most to ideas about who is “electable” and what is politically “feasible.” A majority of Democratic Party primary voters and delegates decided HRC was the best choice in 2016, a presumption of electability likely aided by major media outlets including superdelegate numbers alongside pledged delegate totals in delegate counts. As noted, the final outcome didn’t quite go to plan.
What if Bernie had won, though? Would we still have been hemming and hawing about his electability or would the Democratic National Committee have gotten behind him, exhorting prospective general election voters with full-throated cheers? With the role of superdelegates diminished and with Sanders in a real position to the capture the nomination this time around given his fundraising capabilities and his place in the polls, considerations of his viability are yet more relevant. Surely, in the name of beating Trump, establishment Democrats would be eager to support him as someone who consistently beats the orange-faced incumbent in head-to-head polls, right? Right?
Along these lines, policy positions continued to be argued about in terms of their pragmatism. Rather, time after time, what is apparent is that various progressive causes are not lacking the specifics or the public support to be “realistically” workable, but the political will. On the subject of climate change, facing a wealth of evidence that humans’ use of fossil fuels is helping accelerate a threat to the future of life on this planet, many Americans favor a Green New Deal or some comparable plan to address this catastrophe in a meaningful way. It makes political and economic sense. The biggest obstacle evidently is not our desire, but our fealty to the fossil fuel industry and other prime pollutors.
Therefore, when it comes to presidential candidates, we would do well to abandon thoughts of who “the best bet” is or which candidate preaches “political unity” the hardest. Both concepts are, at their core, illusory. A better tack is to identify the candidate who best elaborates our values and what is best for the country and the world—not just their careers.
Joe Biden wants a return to a fabled time when Democrats and Republicans worked arm in arm, pitching a vision in cringe-worthy fashion of an America that was problematic in his heyday and hasn’t aged well. Pete Buttigieg wants a fresh start to set America back on track, emphasizing a reboot (Reboot-Edge-Edge?) over substantive change, to a time when we weren’t embarrassed by our president, but when things weren’t as rosy as our retrospective glasses might reveal.
What America really needs, meanwhile, is more than either of those plans. We need a revolution inspired by someone like Bernie Sanders or at least someone with the reformist mindset of an Elizabeth Warren to level the playing field between everyday Americans and corporations/the wealthiest among us. Accordingly, and when we tell our children to dream big, we need to follow our own advice.
As a Bernie supporter dating back to 2016, many things stick in my proverbial craw, but one turn of phrase even today still grinds my likewise proverbial gears. When asked during a Democratic debate in October 2015 by Anderson Cooper whether she is a moderate or a progressive, Hillary Clinton remarked, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Ooh! Sen. Sanders, did you feel that sick burn?
Without wanting to delve into Clinton’s history and go tit for tat, pointing out all the things she may not have “gotten done”—like, for instance, actually winning the 2016 presidential election—the litmus test of getting things done remains problematic because of how unevenly and borderline disingenuously it gets applied, specifically as it concerns authentically progressive candidates.
For that matter, I’ve witnessed it being used by supporters of one progressive candidate against another. You probably have an idea about where I’m going with this. Anecdotally, I’ve seen some Elizabeth Warren fans take shots at Bernie, asking, for all his 28 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, what has he, you know, done? Presumably, some of these Warren supporters were Hillary supporters from the last campaign cycle, so the same line of attack about what the senator from Vermont has accomplished may yet be fresh in their minds. For a select few, there may additionally be some misdirected resentment in accordance with the notion Bernie is not a “true Democrat” and was a chief reason why Donald Trump won. Poor Hillary. It’s never her fault.
Key to the do-nothing-Bernie argument is a glance at his legislative record, particularly the legislation for which he was primary sponsor actually getting enacted. His objectors will point out that, in over two decades in Congress, Sanders has only had seven of his resolutions/bills ratified: four from his time in the House, three in the Senate. Five of these motions enacted are germane mostly to his home state, including two pieces of legislation which served to designate post offices after someone specific. Not altogether scintillating stuff. The other two specifically addressed cost-of-living adjustments for veterans and updating the federal charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Again, you may find yourself uninspired unless you were specifically impacted by these changes.
What this line of thinking fails to account for is the context in which these bills were introduced. After all, this is Congress we’re talking about here, an institution not exactly known for its prolific productivity. The very GovTrack.us showcase of Sanders’s sponsored legislation linked to above helps explain this reality.
Does 7 not sound like a lot? Very few bills are ever enacted — most legislators sponsor only a handful that are signed into law. But there are other legislative activities that we don’t track that are also important, including offering amendments, committee work and oversight of the other branches, and constituent services.
Right. There’s a bigger picture to be appreciated. On the subject of committee work, Bernie is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Budget and a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; and Veterans’ Affairs committees. So there’s that.
Such analysis also doesn’t consider the over 200 bills/resolutions signed by the president to which Sanders added his name as a co-sponsor since being sworn in as a U.S. Representative in 1991. As it must be clarified, not all of these are watershed legislative achievements. I mean, from my count, nine of these co-sponsorships were related to commemorative coins. Still, to imply inaction on Bernie’s part is misleading.
Moreover, this ignores all the times Sen. Sanders has shown leadership on a bill that, through no fault of his own, hasn’t been passed. Look at his recent offerings. Recognizing the “climate emergency” for what it is. College for All. Medicare for All. Social Security expansion. Raising wages. Lowering drug prices. These were all proposed this year. Just because this legislation is dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled Senate with a Republican in the White House doesn’t confer meaninglessness. It signals the individual proposing it is willing to fight for things worth fighting for.
This is before we even get to the issue of when political expediency “gets things done” but not necessarily in a way that is productive for all Americans. Back in June, Joe Biden touted his ability to work with the likes of James Eastland and Herman Talmadge to pass legislation, waxing nostalgic on the “civility” that could be afforded to all parties.
Beyond the obvious problem that Biden is touting his ability to work with Southern segregationists in—let me highlight this in my notes—2019, that communal effort may not be what it’s cracked up to be. The former VP has received his due criticism from Kamala Harris and other Democratic rivals for allying with segregationists in opposition of busing to integrate schools. Next to his legacy as “an architect of mass incarceration,” as Cory Booker put it, Biden’s willingness to compromise paints him in a rather poor light. It certainly clouds his purported credentials of being a champion of civil rights.
It’s not just with Bernie either. Across the board for Democrats, it seems instructive to view legislative efforts through the lens of what party controls each house and who is potentially waiting to sign a passed bill in the Oval Office. Republicans, led by shameless obstructionist and judiciary stacker Mitch McConnell, control the Senate. Donald Trump, who appears to have a death grip on today’s iteration of the GOP, is president. Should we fault Sen. Warren for watching Trump and Co. dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her eyes? Should we admonish Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of The Squad for voting their conscience only to see Senate Republicans or moderate Democrats in either house stand in their way?
Centrists like Nancy Pelosi may sneer at progressives who “have their following” only to see their votes outnumbered or their voices drowned out by appeals to civility and expediency. Absent the ability to lead, however, the progress they seek is all but nullified. There’s a reason why figures like Sanders and AOC are so popular when Congress as a whole is not. The policy positions they embrace are, by and large, supported by the American public. What’s not lacking is their commitment. It’s the political will to see their initiatives through.
Key to the Clintonian-Bidenesque “getting things done” mentality is a firm belief in the value of bipartisanship, of reaching across the aisle in the name of advancing legislation. Say the right things. Make the right amendments. Pull the right levers. Eventually, a workable bill will come out. That’s how things are supposed to work, in theory. Reasonable people making reasonable policies.
Amid the dysfunction of today’s Congress, this ideal still appears to hold water with the general public. How else to explain Joe Biden’s continued hold on the top of Democratic Party polls after two poor showings in the debates and despite a history of gaffes and poor decisions? Unless some voters are simply happy enough to have some semblance of Barack Obama’s presidency back. If we could just go back to the days before the era of President Donald Trump, everything would be back to normal, right?
Maybe, maybe not. Biden may reminisce fondly about the days when Democrats and Republicans could get along peaceably or believe that once “sensible” leadership is restored to Washington, the GOP will cut the malarkey and retake the mantle of responsible stewards of the country. He arguably both underestimates the polarization of the current political climate and overestimates his own deal-making ability in doing so, though.
Today’s Republican Party isn’t your granddaddy’s Republican Party, simply put. Not when the president is lashing out against his critics on Twitter daily, getting policy directives from FOX News, and putting the nation on the path to a dictatorship. Not when members of the party are actively denying the severity of our climate crisis or pretending that white nationalism doesn’t exist. Not when party leaders are defending the inhumane treatment of migrants at our border and are sharing derogatory memes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues with impunity.
For those of us who aren’t old enough to recall an environment like the one Biden envisions, this is all we know of the GOP, and based on how low it has sunk and continues to sink, there’s every reason to believe it has reached the point of no return—if things were even that good to begin with. Once we take off our rose-colored glasses and re-appraise past decisions from intersectional perspectives, we may come to realize just how devastating certain policies spearheaded by both parties have been for Americans outside the so-called ruling class.
In addition to his checkered civil rights record, Biden’s cozy relationship with the banking, financial services, and insurance industries contrasts starkly with his image as a blue-collar champion. Given a crowded Democratic primary field and ample resources with which to evaluate his overall record, this may turn out to be a liability. That is, even if he earns the party nomination, there’s still the matter of the general election. Trump seemingly defied the odds against Hillary Clinton, in many respects a superior candidate. Who’s to say doubling down on someone like Biden won’t backfire, leaving us with a second term of President Trump? If he’s doing and saying all these reprehensible things now, what will this mean when he gets re-elected and has nothing to lose?
Going back to the days of bipartisan cooperation under past administrations may have its superficial appeal to voters, especially moderate whites who can better afford to be casual political participants. Even that relative comfort may be illusory, however. The climate emergency is not going to fix itself. Nor is the student debt crisis or the health care affordability crisis or our crumbling infrastructure or any other serious dilemma facing our world. Simply put, the stakes are higher now and Obama-era notions of hope and change dissolving into incrementalism aren’t sufficient. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take real people power.
Let’s therefore put aside vague, top-down conceptualizations of “getting things done” in favor of mobilizing voters and encouraging citizens to get involved at various levels of government. We’ve got the people. We only need the conviction to see it through. If you’re not on board with a progressive vision for our future, don’t worry about what is politically “feasible” or what can get done. Worry about getting out of the way of those determined to lead.
Why does [INSERT NAME OF CABLE NEWS OUTLET] insist on giving air time to [INSERT NAME OF OFFICIAL]?
The above is a refrain I’ve seen countless times on social media in relation to the appearance of some political figure on a show like Meet the Press or Anderson Cooper 360°. Usually, the official is Kellyanne Conway or someone else for whom the commentator has little regard in the way of truth-telling or giving a straight answer. Deflect, pivot, or lie outright. I’m sure you can think of a few such examples.
In an era in which consolidation among media outlets or talk thereof is all but constant, and in which the desire for media output is such that traditional purveyors of the news must find new ways of competing with alternative sources, there seemingly has never been a greater need for scrutiny of the media’s stewardship of the day’s breaking stories. Who will watch the watchers?
An unfortunate byproduct of this state of affairs is the effort to appeal to “both sides” on a given topic. As it is with other forms of reporting (e.g. sports pregame shows), this lends itself to rather bloated collections of panelists. On-screen discussions begin to look less like conversations and more like the opening theme to The Brady Bunch. This is problematic for no other reason that, in a political climate already predisposed to name-calling and shouting matches, there is all kinds of cross-talk and people unable to get a word in edgewise. If at first you don’t succeed, just yell louder or cut off others while they’re speaking.
More importantly, though, the desire of news outlets to appear free of bias creates situations in which “experts” with diametrically opposed views “debate” matters in such a way that the dialog is less substantive discourse on relevant issues and more a manner of ceding a platform to individuals with objectionable policy stances based on false statistics and misleading narratives.
Duca’s Exhibit A in a long list of evidence in her charge against Carlson is a recent segment on his show when he denigrated Central American migrants and those who support their lawful entry into the United States, averring that letting them in “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” So much for those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, eh, Tucker? In response, Tucker Carlson Tonight lost over a dozen sponsors—and rightly so. The only downside is it took these companies so long to distance themselves from Carlson and his show.
As Duca explains, Carlson protests that his right to free speech is being disregarded, and while he’s right that he’s being “silenced” by boycotters who exert pressure on companies not to advertise on his show, this is not inherently unfair. Or as she puts it, “I keep Command-F-ing the Constitution, and can’t seem to find the place where our founding fathers guaranteed that a bigotry variety hour be sponsored by IHOP.”
Other critics advocating on behalf of Carlson—or specifically, against any boycotts—suggest there is danger in allowing customer protests to dictate advertisers’ decision-making. We might see corporate sponsors shying away from the political arena altogether unless to support a pro-corporate message. Or commentators who are also members of vulnerable minority groups might be attacked with strategic boycotts based on some vague conservative “moral” objection. Cue the slippery slope imagery.
It’s worth noting at this point that sponsors jumping ship is not censorship. This is not to say that the abstract idea of companies as arbiters of content is necessarily A-OK either; while we might revel in Carlson losing advertisers, we have seen what companies like Facebook have done in their negation of content that veers toward either political extreme and away from the corporatist mainstream vanguard.
Still, it’s not as if the long arm of the federal government is holding Tucker down. If businesses don’t wish to align themselves with your brand, that’s their decision. We might disagree if we feel their standards are being applied unevenly—or not at all. In any case, the free speech defense rings a bit hollow with FOX News’s boy wonder here.
Even if we frame the argument for or against Tucker Carlson in terms of constitutional liberties, though, the point Duca makes is that defending him on the basis of a “both sides” argument assumes he is a legitimate journalist with legitimate opinions. But he’s not, and his hate speech as deemed acceptable by corporate sponsors isn’t guaranteed by the First Amendment. Furthermore, it’s not as if his opinions are merely bad ones. They’re intentionally designed to dehumanize their subjects.
What makes this so troublesome is that views like Carlson’s are not based on facts. There is no preponderance of data which supports them. Duca similarly assails a Yahoo! News ad as part of the company’s “see all sides” campaign in which the statement “immigrants enrich us” is juxtaposed with “immigrants endanger us.” The implication is that the two ideas are on a par with one another, but the latter is, as one Twitter user put it, “racist garbage.” Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens—and are, according to multiple studies, statistically less likely—to commit dangerous crimes. It’s a false equivalency.
Duca closes with these thoughts on the immigration “debate” as it involves Carlson:
According to Carlson and those condemning the boycotts of his show, the right to empower white supremacy relies on the idea that all views deserve unbridled expression regardless of public will or their relative harm. This creates a perverted juxtaposition in which personhood is set on a level playing field with bigotry. The idea that a group who is being targeted has no right to self-defense is a patently absurd. You could fault Carlson’s line of thinking as a person with a soul, or just as someone who comprehends the basic principles of logic. If nothing else, we can thank Carlson for the egregiousness of this example, which reveals the fatal flaw at the core of “both sides” nonsense with stunning clarity. Carlson insists that his dehumanization of immigrants be heard based on the ignorance at the core of “both sides-ism” and the “free speech” hysteria that often surrounds it. Beneath his whiny white supremacy lies the ugly fallacy that somehow all opinions are equal, but all people aren’t.
There’s no context in which Carlson’s commentary is acceptable or correct, and therefore no use in “debating” him on the merits of his arguments. Boycotting his program is the most direct way of telling him that he and his rhetoric have limits—even if his employer doesn’t enforce any. To insist otherwise is to make it that much more likely his hate has a place in everyday conversations.
For many conscientious objectors to the way the Trump administration is handling enforcement of immigration law and its messaging on the need for border security, irrespective of what we think about illegal immigration or the efficacy of any wall/slatted steel barrier, what is striking is the heartlessness inherent in their attitudes and speech, as well as those espoused views of their supporters. If the parents didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed illegally. If they want to apply for asylum, they should do it at a port of entry. I mean, only two children died in federal custody. Um, that’s not that bad, right?
It shouldn’t be surprising that fundamental misunderstanding of how asylum/immigration works and what exactly families from Mexico and Central America are leaving behind accompanies this spirit of overall callousness. The insistence on applying for asylum at ports of entry doesn’t account for the delays in processing applications and the refusal of customs officers to even entertain asylum-seekers, as well as President Trump’s and Jeff Sessions’s modifications—attempted or otherwise—to make asylum or other lawful entry more difficult for those who would entreat it. Nor does it appreciate the seriousness of the threat of violence in the region related to the drug trade, a situation we have helped fuel.
As for the whole kids dying in federal custody thing, I’m not sure how this can really be deemed acceptable, but there are people who will defend it along the lines of my sample remark above. Kevin McAleenan, head of Customs and Border Protection, has claimed that federal agents did “everything they could” to avoid the deaths of two children age seven or younger while defending the administration’s agenda. So, what—we just chalk these up as “oopsies,” shrug our shoulders, and move on?
McAleenan also sought to defend not telling Congress about the death of the seven-year-old when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, so his judgment is already somewhat suspect. Either way, children shouldn’t just mysteriously up and die. And DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen should really have made more of an effort to know how many children had died in federal custody before her own testimony—not to mention not waiting until a second child died to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.
On the subject of separation of families and putting mothers and their children in cages, meanwhile, Donald Trump’s defenders will point to their trusty rebuttal of “Obama did it first.” As it bears constant reminding, however, while Barack Obama and his administration were not above reproach in their numbers of deportations and of prosecuting people who entered the United States illegally, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy stepped it up and then some.
Under Obama, at least initially, asylum-seekers and parents were only targeted in extreme circumstances (e.g. the father was carrying drugs). By contrast, under Trump, they were detained and separated as part of standard operating procedure, and with increased vigor. In Obama’s case, too, the administration was responding to a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border and a lack of resources leading to struggles in accommodating these numbers. That it sought to deter asylum-seekers by detaining and deporting them expeditiously was bad policy, but eventually, Obama put an emphasis on removing those who committed felonies or were otherwise considered dangerous. Besides, the courts checked him on the use of detention as a means of deterrence for more than 20 days, citing Flores v. Reno as precedent.
With Trump, on the other hand, his administration has aggressively sought to overturn the Flores settlement and to separate families, aiming to hold them indefinitely and longer than 20 days as well as take children away from their parents and treat them as “unaccompanied minors.” Trump has also bandied about the notion of ending birthright citizenship, whether or not he can actually achieve it. What’s more, even if this were Obama’s legacy—which it isn’t, noting the shift in us-versus-them rhetoric and the indiscriminate persecution of immigrants—that was then and this is now. Donald Trump clearly hasn’t learned any lessons from his predecessor—not that he really wanted to in the first place.
Coming from a man who began his presidential campaign with labeling Mexicans as rapists and other criminals with a broad brush, and who refuses to take one scintilla of responsibility for anything that happens during his tenure, it should surprise no one that an agenda predicated on fear and hate would be devoid of empathy. That it would resonate with those who voted for him and those who continue to stand by him is what continues to confound many of us not among them. It sounds almost silly, but we simply can’t wrap our minds around this sort of indifference to human suffering.
And yet, as Adam Serwen wrote about in a piece for The Atlantic from October of last year, the cruelty of it all “is the point.” Beginning with allusions to 20th century lynchings and other state-sponsored murders of blacks with the photographs of white men grinning alongside their bodies, Serwen makes the connection between the present-day cruelty of the Trump administration, a cruelty which includes the “ethnic cleansing” of the president’s anti-immigrant stances but also extends to the male-dominated laughter at Christine Blasey Ford’s expense (and that of all other survivors of sexual violence).
In all cases, there is a communion based on the shared enjoyment of others’ suffering, a perverse joy that, much as we might be loath to accept it, is part of the human condition. Worse yet, it is a communion built on hypocrisy. Only President Trump, his family, his inner circle, his supporters, and those people he himself supports deserve “the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it.” All others merit scorn, if not outright abuse.
Serwen concludes his article with these thoughts that echo Lauren Duca’s take-down of Tucker Carlson:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
To hear Serwen talk about Donald Trump in this way provides at least some comfort to those of us who oppose everything he represents. I personally have bristled at the notion Trump deserves credit for anything, even when it is pulling one grand confidence trick, because appealing to people’s baser instincts is generally not something I’d hold in any esteem. That Serwen would limit Trump’s talents to this questionable skill, though, reinforces the idea that Trump is not nearly as skilled as some would make him out to be save for his ability to connect with those of a like mindset.
It is through this lens that we can view Tucker Carlson’s hate speech and the futility of debate on its merits. When the narrative has no merit because it is built on the negation of the other’s humanity and on distortions of reality, what utility is there in trying to expose or rationalize this line of thinking away? Along these lines, when cruelty is the driving force behind a shared vision of America, what is the use of amplifying the voices that would coalesce this mentality?
For this reason and more, discussion of boycotting Carlson’s show and the Trump family’s business enterprises is well appropriate. As far as the mainstream is concerned, their message of division must not be normalized. While we should stop short of violence to achieve this purpose, coming out in support of marginalized groups and standing up to each white supremacist rally with vastly greater numbers where it may arise is essential. You can’t debate cruelty and hate with those that choose to make them their modus operandi, but you can show that they have no place among what can be deemed generally acceptable.
Not long after his near-miss in the race for a U.S. Senate seat for the state of Texas, people inspired by Beto O’Rourke’s performance were already prepping his 2020 presidential bid. This despite, you know, Beto’s own assurances on the matter that he wouldn’t be running in 2020. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to say one thing and do another. Never say never, eh?
The desire is apparently there for Beto, though. And I do mean desire. If there was one candidate this election cycle who inspired a legion of thirsty female fans, it was the gray-in-all-the-right-places Beto O’Rourke. Very curiously, the Texas GOP tried to make their opponent look foolish during the race by showing him getting arrested as a college student, or when he used to play in a band, or skateboarding in a parking lot. The strategy backfired, though, because as discerning observers submitted, Lone Star State Republicans only managed to make Beto look hot, hotter, and oh-so-dreamy.
Upping the sex appeal of the Democratic Party field isn’t to be undersold. Although how much sexier can you get when you already have John Delaney in the mix, amirite, ladies? Seriously, though, as impressive as Beto’s bid was in a state that Trump carried by nine points in 2016 and was won by Republicans in each of the last four presidential elections, it’s kind of amazing—and possibly frightening—that party supporters would be willing to throw everything behind someone they potentially know very little about.
So, yes, what do we know about Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, other than that he’s a fine hunk of meat? According to his campaign website, he’s a fourth-generation Texan, born and raised in El Paso. He went to school at Columbia, and worked in New York City doing different jobs before coming back home and starting Stanton Street, a web development company. Becoming involved in various civic and community-based organizations, Beto then moved on to the world of politics. He served two terms on the El Paso City Council and then ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. O’Rourke has served in that capacity ever since.
Perhaps his biggest—and best—moment making the Internet rounds, though, was his defense of players protesting racial injustice by kneeling during playing of the National Anthem. You can view his response here as highlighted by NowThis, a post since retweeted more than 200,000 times and liked more than 400,000.
All of this is all well and good, and Beto’s impassioned treatise on these players’ patriotism especially deserves to be lauded, but what about the issues? Besides swearing off PAC money, what does our bad boy who can shred in multiple senses stand for? Going back to the ol’ Beto for Texas site, his platform is actually pretty developed. His positions include:
Strengthening the safety net for farmers by bolstering federal crop insurance programs.
Defending the Affordable Care Act and opposing cuts to Medicaid and Social Security.
Promoting policies that encourage companies to invest in their surrounding companies.
Barring the use of public tax dollars for private schools.
Optimizing the use of current resources while incentivizing renewable energy sources.
Supporting the Equality Act, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and ensuring equal pay for equal work.
Imposing term limits, refusing money from political action committees, and ending partisan redistricting.
Requiring background checks for all gun sales and prohibiting the sale of military-grade weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Promoting universal health care.
Increasing funding for Pell Grant scholarships and the Federal Perkins Loan program.
Ending the militarization of our immigration enforcement system and closing private immigration prisons and for-profit detention centers.
Investing in apprenticeship, certification, and training programs that will help those without college degrees keep pace in an era of increasing specialization.
Ending the war on drugs and the federal prohibition of marijuana.
Defining “victory” in a military/diplomatic sense and outlining a strategy to achieve it
Exercising appropriate oversight of Medicare.
Improving access to care and housing for veterans.
Ensuring a woman’s right to choose and guaranteeing access to birth control and emergency contraception.
O’Rourke’s stances generally seem agreeable from a liberal standpoint. Accountability for gun sellers, campaign finance reform, legalization of marijuana probably stand out the most. Also, defending the ACA and so-called “entitlement” programs, protecting women’s health care and equal pay, and standing against GOP anti-immigration rhetoric is important. Other points on the agenda arguably don’t go far enough. The apparent hedging on use of fossil fuels at a time when urgent action is needed on climate change is disappointing, as is the refusal to more forcefully call for single-payer health care/Medicare-for-all. These positions may be tailored more to Texas voters than they would in a presidential election. However, could you really assume as much?
And for those suffering from a case of Beto-mania, how much of his platform is one with which you were familiar prior to reading? How distinguishable is it from the ones offered by the likes of Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Julian Castro, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren (and I know there’s people I’m leaving out)? Ignoring considerations of race—and that’s quite a thing to push aside—the comparison to Barack Obama is obvious. Beto’s a younger congressman who is well-spoken and measured in his political approach. He has that fabled “it” factor.
But will that be enough in 2020? Obama’s meteoric rise within the Democratic Party ranks occurred prior to the rise of Donald Trump. Now, with Trump the incumbent challenging established political norms (if not breaking them) and with other rising stars in the party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez giving voters a glimpse of what the Dems of the future might look like, the political landscape may not be what it was back in 2008—fresh-faced as Beto O’Rourke may be. At the very least, he or whomever Trump’s opponent will be will need a slogan to match “Make America Great Again.”
Evidently, the bar for political entry is a low one to clear these days. Whether it’s the need to satisfy an electorate desperate for novelty and voices outside the established vanguard, that someone like Donald Trump has already done gone blown up the whole system we thought we knew, or both, party supporters appear to need only to hear one inspiring speech from an individual before signing on for his or her presidential run.
Oprah Winfrey, for one, has been an oft-speculated-about figure ever since she made a stirring speech at the 2018 Golden Globes after accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award. The acceptance speech touched on various themes, including racial justice, the need to defend a free press, and female empowerment. It was a well-written, well-delivered speech, and Winfrey is clearly a people person and born entrepreneur.
Not only has she not expressed a clear desire to run for president in 2020, however, but we know very little about what she stands for apart from her stances on the aforementioned issues. Michelle Obama, an Ivy League-educated woman with a best-selling book out and a stadium tour soon to begin, has similarly raised consciousness about various topics, include healthy eating, women’s rights, and supporting military families, but has yet to affirm a bid for the White House and has indicated little about a developed platform along these lines. As with Winfrey, the belief in Michelle Obama as a viable presidential candidate lies heavily in that she talks a good game. With Obama in particular, it also probably helps that her husband spent two terms in the Oval Office and overall public opinion of him remains high.
Speaking of Barack Obama, prior to becoming President of the United States, he was a relatively young and untested senator from Illinois. He didn’t have all that much experience to his name before his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention helped vault him into the national consciousness. As many Americans would agree, he managed to do a fair job, and could’ve done perhaps an even better one if not for Republican obstructionism in Congress. If he, a neophyte of sorts, could fulfill the duties of the highest political office in all the land, why couldn’t Oprah or Michelle? Certainly, they’d be a better choice than Donald Trump, no?
While, again, this is not to say that they can’t or even shouldn’t run, it is worth wondering what it says about us that we’d be willing to go “all in” on them or someone like Beto O’Rourke despite such little exposure. In the case of Barack Obama, though I may have some misgivings about some of his policy directives, I submit he is of uncommonly strong character. The way he carried himself during his presidency was such that even at his worst, he still projected a certain sense of dignity and resolve.
Beto may have much of the same qualities as Barack Obama, but it would be unwise to expect too much of him, and at that, to expect that his candidacy alone would be enough to propel the Democratic Party in an exciting new direction. After eight years of Barack, we got Trump. Good as his showing in Texas was, Beto still lost. The party’s commitment must be more than just to one or a handful of candidates. It should be issue-driven and focused on the people to be affected by these stances rather than the names on the ballots. Even with the best men and women running for office, a weak party infrastructure is damaging to the cause.
As the weeks pass, the Democrats’ field for 2020 promises only to get more crowded, as does their desire to remove Donald Trump from office. For them and for us as voters, it bears questioning what we expect from a candidate for public office and what specific problems we want addressed by today’s political leaders. If this does not help narrow the pool of candidates, we are not doing our due diligence as political participants.
As we get closer and closer to Election Day 2018—which is Tuesday, November 6 in case you haven’t already circled it on your calendar or have voted or have made plans to vote—the factors that mediate voter turnout become all the more relevant.
As is so often talked about and lamented, a significant portion of Americans who can vote choose not to do so. It happened in 2016, as frustrated Hillary supporters and others not enamored with the current president are keen to remind everyone who will listen. It will likely happen to a greater extent this year. This is all before we get to the polls, where there’s no assurance we will even recognize most of the candidates listed.
Those who elect not to cast a ballot have their explanations. There’s work, school, and other responsibilities. They may believe they don’t know enough about the voting process or the candidates, or simply don’t feel inspired by their choices. Their district may not be a “competitive” one. Especially within immigrant populations, families may not have a robust tradition of voting in this country, with children of immigrants often not possessing a strong role model in this regard.
These explanations may not suffice as excuses, mind you. Barack Obama recently appeared in an online video designed to eat away at the most common justifications people give for not coming out. Not caring about politics. Not relating to the candidates. Not being well informed. Not knowing where to vote or not having time on Election Day. Feeling as if one’s vote “doesn’t matter” or that the midterms are “boring.” Obama addresses these ideas in a reasoned and amusing way. I personally could’ve done without the knowledge he doesn’t care about Pokémon (you’ll never be president of the Kanto region with that attitude, Barack!), but I appreciate the effort on his part.
Motivating potential voters is critical to achieving high turnout, of course. But working to overcome obstacles designed specifically to depress participation is important in its own right. As research suggests, voter turnout correlates in a statistically significant way with how easy the voting process is.
Christopher Ingraham, writing for The Washington Post, delves into a recent report by political scientists at Northern Illinois University and Wuhan University in China that measures voter turnout in each state against the relative “time and effort” needed to vote as a function of that state’s election laws. Researchers analyzed 33 types of laws that applied to areas like the ability of citizens under 18 to register in advance of reaching voting age, early and absentee voting permissibility, polling hours, registration deadlines and restrictions, and voter ID requirements.
The findings? Generally speaking, the easier it is to vote in a state—what the researching scientists term having a lower “cost of voting”—the higher turnout tends to be. For the sake of a comparison, the five states with the easiest voting profile (Oregon, Colorado, California, North Dakota, Iowa) averaged almost nine percentage points better turnout in 2016 than the corresponding pentad at the opposite end of the spectrum (Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas). The researchers also made sure to account for and control for potential founding factors including competitiveness of the race at the top of the ticket, education level, and income level. The trend in voting patterns held.
As with any correlation, there are outliers which prove counterexamples. Hawaii, despite being in the top 20 of easiest states to vote, owned the worst turnout rate from 2016 by far. Virginia, despite having some of the most restrictive election laws in the country, had turnout roughly equivalent to Oregon’s. Overall, though, the evidence is pretty compelling that expanding voting access leads to increased turnout. On the other hand, evidence is strong that intentional policies which make voting more difficult—Ingraham points to such efforts in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—are related to a lower turnout percentage.
As Ingraham relates, and as the Northern Illinois/Wuhan scientists submit, the easiest way to make voting, well, easier, is to allow same-day voter registration and, to boot, to permit people to get registered or re-registered at their polling place. This is not to say that other factors pertaining to the cost of voting can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. After all, what good is same-day registration when officials close polling locations? The idea remains, meanwhile, that simple changes which improve the voting process can have a material effect on producing better voting outcomes. With eyes already on Election Day 2020, voter ease of access is more than a passing concern.
As the scatterplot which accompanies Christopher Ingraham’s article speaks to, “red” states are more likely to be characterized by a high cost of voting. 4 of 5 and 9 of 10 of the hardest states to vote in by nature of their requirements went for Donald Trump in 2016. Returning to the notion of obstacles designed specifically to make voting more difficult, and as the very title of Ingraham’s piece indicates, this is no accident. To be fair, both parties have been guilty of trying to stack the deck, so to speak, especially when it comes to gerrymandering to try to get a political advantage.
Just because both parties have had their moments, however, doesn’t mean that all attempts to swing elections are created equal. Indeed, as attempts to suppress votes are concerned, Republicans are usually the worse offenders. All the more unnerving is the apparent phenomenon of the GOP aiming to disenfranchise voters and not being all that secretive about it.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has made news recently for his decision to suspend more than 50,000 voter applications—a majority of them from blacks—justified as part of an “exact match” voter fraud deterrent. He’s also come under fire for purging yet more voters from the rolls for not voting, and has been sued for failing to safeguard voting records against hacking.
On top of this, newly-leaked audio from a private Kemp campaign event reveals Kemp expressing concern about his opponent, Stacey Abrams, pushing to get voters to the polls and exercise their right to vote. These remarks may be fairly innocuous, but Kemp’s role as Secretary of State as well as his political stances (Kemp’s statements on Russian election interference have resembled those of President Trump) cast doubts about whether a conflict of interest is at work here.
There are any number of instances to which one can point to deliberate efforts to bar people from participatory democracy. Back in Georgia, some 40 elderly black residents were ordered off a bus in Cobb County on their way to the polls to cast their ballots during the state’s early voting. Not only is this a thinly-veiled intimidation tactic, but it is indicative of a pattern of voter suppression that disproportionately targets people of color. For a party in the GOP that seems content to try to deny projected population trends and a growing sense of multiculturalism in the United States in favor of appealing to working-class whites and older Americans fearful of change, while the strategy is no less appalling, it makes a lot of sense.
Assuming Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats (I am not treating these terms as mutually exclusive, but regard this term as you will), are interested in expanding and protecting the right to vote, what do they need to do? Honestly, probably the best thing they can do is win elections, and ay, there’s the rub. Republican efforts to suppress votes specifically target members of their base, making it harder for them to win elections and stop GOP officials from doing things like purging voters based on flimsy arguments and closing polling places, or nominating and confirming judges who uphold discriminatory election laws crafted by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It’s a vicious circle, and one the apathy of American voters only helps perpetuate.
For activists, meanwhile, advocacy for the expansion of voting rights and informing and educating the public about options designed to make the voting process easier seems like a meritorious course of action, and one that is beneficial in terms of the bigger political picture, at that. Especially for the activist groups that prefer remaining issue-based and not candidate-focused, as well as for the organizations that have struggled with attracting more diverse membership, working to eliminate barriers to exercising the right to vote can be an important step in breaking down barriers to positive change elsewhere.