Try to reform the Democratic Party from within or start a new party and overcome the two-party system of electoral dominance? It’s a fundamental question for leftists in the United States and one that hasn’t gotten any easier following Bernie Sanders’s now two failed bids for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Each option has its merits and demerits. Regarding an “insurgency” within Democratic ranks, progressives can, in part, utilize the existing party brand and infrastructure to help attract a following, though in doing so, they risk incurring the wrath of establishment members, notably the “elites” within. Re bypassing the two-party paradigm, progressives aren’t beholden to any “establishment,” but lose the clout a Democratic Party affiliation affords. It also means, in the specific case of forming a new party altogether, that time, money, energy, and people will have to be marshaled and put to work under a single vision. That’s no small task.
In the meantime, the debate rages on. Progressives are earning key victories in Democratic Party primaries, in some cases ousting entrenched incumbents of 10+ terms backed by party leadership. Thus far, however, the upsets have been fewer and further between than many on the left would like or perhaps even would’ve expected, signifying transformative change indeed can be difficult to achieve and slow to realize. The backlash primary challengers and their supporters have faced from party loyalists for merely daring to run against sainted incumbents, too, is a veritable cross for them to bear.
On a theoretical third-party alternative, at this point, a viable challenge to the Democrat-Republican binary is just that—theoretical. The Green and Libertarian Parties are reviled as potential spoilers more than valued as legitimate voting options, especially at the federal level. Meanwhile, the movement for a People’s Party has not translated to electoral gains despite support from notable figures in the entertainment and political spheres like Abby Martin, Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Jimmy Dore, and Oliver Stone. If reforming the Democratic Party from within is a slow burn, starting a party from scratch is downright glacial in its pace (note: this may not apply to the pace at which actual glaciers are melting).
In addition, and at the heart of this piece, while said debate is elaborated, leftists still don’t have a real home. Back in January, speaking an event honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated this outright, remarking, “We don’t have a left party in the United States. The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or center-conservative party.”
By now, if you’ve been paying attention to American politics over even the past five years, you understand ideas like those of AOC’s aren’t absurd and shouldn’t be controversial. Nevertheless, the first-term member of Congress (at least until she officially wins re-election in November) received flak from liberals when, earlier in the same month, she pointed out that, in any other country, she and Joe Biden wouldn’t even be in the same party.
However you perceive her comment—whether as a dig at Biden or not—she’s right. Because of the stronghold the two-party system has on U.S. politics, the likes of Biden and Ocasio-Cortez are forced under the same “big tent.” In Canada, for instance, AOC would at least have the safety valve of the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, rather than being simply lumped in with the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau. She’d be able to trade her Democratic blues in for NDP orange. Hey, I think she could pull it off!
Despite being a member, AOC has been among the most frequent critics of the Democratic Party and its leadership, particularly that of Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps her most salient observation, though, is not about who calls oneself a Democrat, but what the Democrats stand for. For Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive brothers and sisters, their efforts to reform the party from within aren’t about taking the Democrats in a new direction, but steering them back on course.
As AOC opined back in November, leftists aren’t pushing the party left—they’re “bringing the party home,” citing achievements like the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act as evidence of the Democrats’ past progressivism. To this effect, what they hope to achieve isn’t “radical,” but in line with professed Democratic values, and in certain respects, bringing America in line with the rest of the world (looking at you, single-payer healthcare!). In fact, their policy goals are in accord with what a growing segment of the electorate, chiefly Democrats, want to see their elected officials pursue.
At the end of the day, votes matter. Joe Biden ultimately beat Bernie Sanders in resounding fashion for the nomination before the latter suspended his campaign in April. As Bernie himself conceded, he and his campaign did not make a strong enough case for his “electability,” with primary voters opting for Biden because they perceived him as more likely to get his policy initiatives advanced, they were more likely to have confidence in his leadership, and because they felt he would be better capable of handling the ongoing pandemic (note: all very debatable points).
However, Joe Biden’s comeback victory/misgivings about Bernie Sanders shouldn’t obscure the reality that, in state after state, voters indicated they support policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. At the moment, the Democratic Party might be able to get away with pointing to Biden’s victory as a justification for denying the American people these things. As time wears on and as progressives start notching more victories on their belts, though, these calls for more-than-incremental change will be tough to ignore.
The state of the progressive movement in the United States really feels like an exercise in optimism vs. cynicism. If you look at primary wins against entrenched incumbents for progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, your glass is likely half full. If you look outside the House of Representatives (and with that, outside the state of New York), your glass might be half empty.
I can’t say I consistently feel one way or another, hovering somewhere between half-full and half-empty on the progressive enthusiasm continuum. That more and more people are embracing policy goals like M4A and student debt cancellation (and, more recently, defunding the police and reparations) as part of mainstream political discussion is encouraging, for instance.
On the other hand, that voters will support these initiatives and still vote for the other candidate vowing not to implement them is more troubling, a notion exacerbated by the often-fragmented nature of the progressive moment. In theory, progressivism is, by its nature, meant to be inclusive and intersectional in its applications. In practice, though, factions within leftist spaces can feel like competing forces rather than sympathetic moving parts of the same whole.
Of course, the choice of whether to reform the Democratic Party or watch it burn to the ground and form a new party from its ashes isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing enterprise. That is, there would appear to be room for progressive Democrats like AOC to try to “bring the party home,” and at the same time, for activists and organizers to pursue other avenues in the service of advancing progressive initiatives, working together on core issues in the process. Yes, that potentially means working with Green and Libertarian Party groups with the expectation that neither side is expected to “convert” the other to its way of doing business. It’s an alliance, not a takeover.
Despite my occasional bouts of bereavement, I ultimately believe progressives will win, broadly speaking. As the saying goes, the hardest part is the waiting. AOC is right: there is no party for the Left in the United States right now. But something has to give eventually and, through all the electoral defeats, the Left’s energy and passion puts it in a better position than the centrists of the present order would care or will allow themselves to admit.
A disciplined leader. A woman focused on specific policies that affect people’s lives. Someone who gets results. These are among Will Saletan’s characterizations of Nancy Pelosi as expressed in a largely laudatory recent piece written about her for Slate.
Before we get to the meat of Saletan’s article, titled simply “Trust Pelosi,” there’s the matter of a profile of Speaker Pelosi by Glenn Thrush that appeared earlier this month in The New York Times, of which Saletan’s essay serves primarily as a reaction piece. Thrush shines a spotlight on Pelosi’s stewardship of the Democratic Party, particularly as it intersects with notions of impeachment and taking back the White House in 2020.
As Pelosi would have it, impeachment is not the way to remove Donald Trump from the Oval Office. It’s beating him in the upcoming presidential election—soundly. Otherwise, Trump et al. might contest any Democratic victory as illegitimate. Impeachment proceedings are all but guaranteed to stall in the Senate and the ensuing confrontation would likely energize Trump and his supporters. Rather than risk alienating moderates, Pelosi believes in “owning the center left to own the mainstream” rather than “engaging in some of the other exuberances that exist in [the Democratic Party].” That is, more Affordable Care Act and less Medicare-for-All. Sorry (not sorry), progressives.
What about other elements of the current American political landscape? How does Ms. Pelosi feel about recent events which stand to affect the balance of power in Washington, D.C.? On the increasingly troublesome handling of the Mueller probe/report by Attorney General William Barr juxtaposed with the ever-erratic behavior of the president, while Pelosi finds it testing her commitment to no impeachment, she remains firm on this point, even if privately she thinks he (Trump) has earned this treatment several times over. On the field of potential Democratic challengers to Trump? Pelosi sees Joe Biden’s popularity in the polls as a symbol of voters’ familiarity and trust, dismissing concerns about his 90s-era treatment of Anita Hill. On working with Republicans? Pelosi is for it, notably if it can help Democrats retain or win hotly contested congressional seats.
There you have it. The communicator of a simple message. Tough as nails. Able to keep rogue members of the party from “hijacking” the House Democratic Caucus. Cordial when the occasion arises but willing to clap back (literally) when the circumstances invite such behavior. It’s Nancy, bitch. Deal with it.
This is the backdrop against which we view Saletan’s own analysis on Pelosi’s role as de facto party leader until a presidential nominee is chosen. As he views subsequent criticism by progressives related to her comments in Thrush’s feature, it is “overblown.” Along these lines, Saletan points to several reasons why Pelosi should make “liberals from San Francisco” (as she describes herself) proud:
She’s more “progressive” than you think
If we’re judging Nancy Pelosi simply as a function of her lack of support for the Green New Deal, describing her as a “leftist” or “progressive” is understandably problematic. As Saletan argues, however, her voting record suggests she is more in step with the left than her detractors might otherwise concede. She argues for affordable health care, education investment, environmental protections, equal pay, fair wages, gun safety, immigration reform, infrastructure investment, protecting Social Security, women’s rights, and other tenets of the party platform most people on the left can broadly agree on. Since Donald Trump took office and as of this writing, Pelosi has voted with the president’s position 18.6% of the time, as calculated and tracked by FiveThirtyEight. That’s not dissimilar from someone like Tulsi Gabbard (20.5%) and significantly lower than Beto O’Rourke (30.1%).
For Pelosi, it is more advantageous to defend policy stances that “are well understood and supported” against the other side’s attacks rather than advancing big ideas that might “alarm the other side’s voters more than they inspire yours.” Hence the focus on the ACA rather than Medicare-for-All and on elements of the Act for which polls already show broad support.
She focuses on policies, not ideologies
For Pelosi, the name of the game is connecting with undecided voters and on maintaining, if not further cementing, the Democratic Party’s control of the House. Concerning the former, she makes a point of avoiding belaboring talk about Trump in favor of highlighting the ways Democrats are fighting for everyday Americans, pointing to the tangible benefits of their policy goals (e.g. framing the climate change issue as a jobs issue). On the latter, Pelosi wants to make sure vulnerable Democratic incumbents in “purple” districts are protected, arguing that there aren’t enough deep-blue districts to approach things the way progressives might prefer. After all, if Republicans regain a House majority, the progressive agenda becomes moot, at least in a pragmatic sense.
To this effect, the speaker emphasizes values over movements. As Saletan underscores, for instance, she is much more apt to describe positions in terms of their purported “fairness” than evocative of “socialism,” a term which carries baggage and is used by the right to try to engender opposition and fear. Pelosi’s vision of the Democratic Party is one of an appeal to pragmatic reason and to voters in the center “abandoned” by the GOP.
She seeks to connect to voters’ values rather than demonizing the right
Continuing with the idea that Democrats can own the center Republicans have forsaken, Rep. Pelosi hopes to sway voters who lean Republican but may be critical of Pres. Trump to vote blue, contrasting his record with that of former presidents like Ronald Reagan. In making such a pitch, she stresses the importance of “values” as a practicing Catholic. The environment. Health care. Separating families at the border. These are values issues, ones that Americans who hold deeply religious views can consider as a subset of their faith. Moreover, by making appeals in this way, Pelosi is speaking to those who vote with their gut rather than based on a comprehensive understanding of policies.
She believes in impeachment,but wants the public’s support
To the extent that impeachment proceedings would die in the Senate or would be used to energize Trump’s base, Pelosi approaches such a move with trepidation. On this note, she favors continuing House committee hearings that build on what we know from the Mueller report and other investigations, hoping to turn public sentiment against Trump much in the way Americans turned against Richard Nixon in the wake of months of investigation into his (mis)conduct. Quoting Pelosi in the final moments of his piece, Saletan closes with these thoughts:
On the whole, the speaker has it right. “Public sentiment is everything,” she likes to say, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “With it, you can accomplish almost anything. Without it, practically nothing.” Pelosi schooled Trump in the fight over the government shutdown, and she’s patiently waiting him out in the standoff over who will propose taxes to pay for an infrastructure plan. The liberals of San Francisco should be proud.
While “schooling” Trump may seem an almost dubious achievement—the man’s penchant for malapropisms and spelling errors have become the stuff of legends in the age of Twitter—it seems certain that Pelosi is well-equipped to deal with him. You know, as well as anyone can reasonably deal with a man-child like Trump.
Anecdotally speaking, in my online discussions and in-person Democratic club meetings, Pelosi’s stature is that of a female legislative icon beyond her historic identity as the first (and only) woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Despite misgivings about her leadership in advance of this Congress, she has weathered that storm and is apparently not going anywhere anytime soon. For most rank-and-file Democratic supporters, that’s at least “somewhat favorable.”
The thrust of Will Saletan’s and Glenn Thrush’s articles may well agree with what they believe personally. In Saletan’s case, it is an opinion piece, so we would envision his views and Nancy Pelosi’s align somewhat closely. In Thrush’s case, this is a report that cites Pelosi directly, so the author’s personal inclinations are less clear, though there is very little if any pushback against her assertions within.
In a day and age in which memes are accepted as fact and in which publications are bidding to outdo one another in terms of clicks and exclusives that break before anyone else, though, the sources of the information we consume should be considered for potential bias. Slate, though fairly liberal among mainstream news outlets, has existed under the Washington Post banner since its acquisition in 2004. The New York Times, irrespective of accusations on the part of Donald Trump and other conservatives, also tends to promote an outlook that falls left of center.
Even so, these companies are part of a network of news sources backed at least in part by money linked to major corporations or wealthy patrons. The Washington Post, as of 2013, has existed under the ownership of Nash Holdings, a limited liability holding company established by Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. The New York Times is publicly traded and controlled by the Sulzberger family by means of two classes of shares, of which Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú is the largest single shareholder. Journalist Matt Taibbi notably criticized the Times‘s favoritism of Hillary Clinton over the grassroots-oriented candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. These purveyors of news may be left of cable news conglomerates and are certainly far removed from the likes of Breitbart, The Drudge Report, Glenn Beck, and InfoWars, but they still may reflect more of a centrist or elitist bias than their readers, hungry for content and subject to their own biases.
In the case of Nancy Pelosi, access to a politician of her stature and a desire to appeal to a readership fueled by anger at the president likely informs the essentially congratulatory tones of these features. With all due respect, Saletan acknowledges that Pelosi’s strategy “is open to dispute.” For one, the praise of Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders of yesteryear is fraught with complications; ask communities of color ravaged by the war on drugs or the LGBTQ community ignored during the peak of the AIDS crisis and see if they’re as charitable in their recollections.
There’s also the matter of not wanting to criticize Trump for fear of antagonizing those who voted for him, a tactic which Saletan indicates arguably plays better in deep-red districts than as a one-size-fits-all methodology. Other possible points of contention are her adherence to centrism in the hopes of warding off moderate Republicans challenging for House seats (“that might be playing it too safe”) and her harping on the likelihood that Trump will contest the results of the 2020 election if they go against him (Saletan suspects “she’s using that scenario as a scare tactic to motivate her troops”). Trump and his ilk routinely turn molehills into mountains or simply fabricate those mountains entirely. This sadly might be an inevitability.
Speaking as someone who ascribes to a progressive mindset, my biggest concern is that Speaker Pelosi seems to both overestimate the American people’s ability to handle worsening economic and environmental trends and underestimate her party’s supporters. Regarding her dismissal of Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, and other progressive policy goals, Pelosi’s positions belie the seriousness of various crises. We are in the midst of a climate crisis. Americans are saddled by medical, student, and other forms of debt. Income and wealth equality are widening, with far too many people in this country living in poverty or close to it. Defending the ACA and embracing incrementalism when warning signs abound conveys the sense you don’t feel the same pinch your constituents do, inviting accusations of being an out-of-touch elite, even if exaggerated.
As for the notion Democrats should prioritize policies “that are well understood and supported,” this assumes voters are not especially well-informed about or desirous of progressive policy designs. Some clearly are not. On the other hand, if the popularity of younger progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, these ideas are not far outside the mainstream and voters, particularly young voters, are quite knowledgeable about them indeed. I keep thinking back to the episode not long ago in which Dianne Feinstein lectured a group of young environmental activists about political realities and pointed to her legislative record. Thank you for your service to this country, Sen. Feinstein. But this is serious business and if you’re not going to lead on the subject of climate change, you need to get out of the way of those who can and will.
In all, what strikes me about Nancy Pelosi’s strategic mindset and that of other establishment Democrats is that they appear content to play not to lose rather than swinging for the fences, walking on proverbial eggshells in Donald Trump’s shadow. That didn’t work in 2016, prompting one to wonder what party leadership has learned exactly since then.
To be clear, I think Pelosi’s experience and shrewdness are assets in connecting with voters. I would tend to agree that it’s useful if not essential to be able to pitch parts of a platform in different ways to different voters and voting blocs. For better or worse, not everyone is swayed by considerations of morals and presidential ethics. That said, I’m not sure her deprecation of her party’s “exuberances” convey the right message. Not when aggressive centrists like Josh Gottheimer are making House Democrats and the party look bad by extension. But sure, keep siding with him over Ilhan Omar.
In Nancy we trust? On many issues, yes. But I have my doubts—and chances are you do as well.
Money in politics. Whether you’re a concerned citizen on the right or left, a majority of Americans seems to agree that the influence of moneyed interests on the workings of Congress and on the determination of elections up and down the card is a problem in this country. Perhaps most egregious—though that could just be the nefarious nomenclature talking—is so-called “dark money,” or money spent by politically active nonprofits that, owing to their structure, do not have to disclose the sources of their funds, and thus can essentially receive unlimited amounts from corporate, individual, or union benefactors. As a brief primer on dark money on opensecrets.org explains, in theory, the extent of these nonprofits’ political activities is supposed to be proscribed, but the IRS, whether because it has been hampered by cuts to its funding or because it hasn’t made enforcement a priority, has done little to enforce any limits. Accordingly, spending by these groups has been on the rise in recent election cycles. The amounts are not insignificant either—we’re talking tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in all. Dark money, ahem, casts a long shadow on American politics.
It is with this backdrop in place that we delve into recent reports that Americans for Prosperity, a political network backed by the Koch Brothers, is planning to spend upwards of $400 million in 2018 alone to help try to advance conservative policies. As Kathryn Watson reports for CBS News, “friends” of the network are optimistic about the prospects of conservative candidates in the 2018 midterms after what they deem to be successes in reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs concerning loosened restrictions on the ability of veterans to seek health care outside the sphere of government, as well as the more recent tax cut authored by Republican leaders, not to mention the addition of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Watson underscores the notion that these fundraising efforts are to be made with anticipated difficulties come November. For one, history dictates that the party in the White House doesn’t tend to do well in midterm elections. In addition, polling cited in Watson’s piece has Democrats beating Republicans by an average of about eight percentage points. And then there’s recent Democratic Party successes in Alabama, New Jersey, and Virginia. And then there’s the ever-popular Donald Trump (sarcasm intended).
And yet, spend these Koch Brothers-affiliated political organizations will, including some $20 million on trying to sell the public on the idea that the tax cut passed in late December of last year isn’t, you know, a flaming pile of horse manure. Plus, while the Koch Brothers did not personally spend anything on the 2016 presidential election—maybe because they were as disappointed in the final list of candidates as many of us were, though I could just be projecting—as Watson also indicates, they have apparently warmed to the idea of working with the Trump administration, and “want to protect what they consider significant accomplishments in the administration, and work to further them.” For the record, I wasn’t aware the Trump administration had any significant achievements thus far, but if the Kochs and Co. can find them, more power to them.
With this news about the Koch network pushing its proverbial chips to the center of the table to protect Republican interests (and majorities), it’s not long before the Democrats really start sounding the alarm on the need to counteract the planned record spending on the 2018 midterms. Of course, this means that the Dems will be doing so with one hand on the crank to the air-raid siren and the other pointing directly at your wallet or purse. Not-for-profit organizations, political or not, need to solicit money to operate—this is an unavoidable truth of our world. At the same time, though, who prospective donations will be funding—that is, how the party arrives at its eventual nominee in key races—is significant.
Going back to Kathryn Watson’s article, on the GOP side, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, and their ilk have not specified what they’d be looking for in candidates to back, but whether erring on the side of economic or social conservatism, it seems pretty safe to assume they’d be erring; the only thing mentioned within the span of the piece is that Koch Family network leaders issued a statement expressing vague support for President Trump’s path to citizenship for young immigrants, but not without concern for ending “chain migration.” “Concern” is an understatement. As the Baltimore Sun and other critics of Donald Trump’s recently-unveiled immigration plan insist, aside from the requirement of a border wall in exchange for protection for Dreamers being an absurdity, curtailing practices like chain migration and the diversity visa lottery not only distorts the facts on the numbers of foreign nationals who come to the United States in this way, but risks putting the country at a serious disadvantage by communicating an inhospitable attitude toward all immigrants, and depriving the nation of needed entrepreneurship, innovation, and vitality given an aging workforce. To be sure, these arguments can be extrapolated to the immigration discussion as a whole, but here, they are particularly relevant.
What about the Democrats, though? Should they stick to their guns and ride it out with their preferred centrist strategy, banking on history, polling, and Republican retirements to reclaim electoral momentum this year? Numerous outside observers would respond in the negative, and would rather see the Dems “go left to be right.” Sophia Tesfaye, deputy politics editor for Salon, indicates as much in her own reaction piece to the recent news regarding Koch-backed plans to boost spending by some 60% relative to 2016, and relates the additional number-crunching in terms of seats in Congress that explains why Republican donors plan to invest so heavily in the 2018 midterms. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, for one, believes 80 seats will be competitive this fall. Meanwhile, as Tesfaye explains, Democrats only need to net 24 seats in November to reclaim a majority in the House, and with some 16 Republicans set to retire and make their vacant seats liable to flip in favor of the Dems, as identified by the Kochs—and this is before Rodney Frelinghuysen from my home state made his own announcement about retirement—this leaves little margin for error, so to speak, for GOP leadership re the midterms. Tesfaye also cites the same “generic ballot” polling which suggests a decided overall advantage for Democrats over Republicans in hypothetical matchups between the two major parties, with the former enjoying an even more decided advantage among women. Based on this, 2018 could see the same “blue wave” experienced with the 2006 midterms during George W. Bush’s tenure.
Obviously, the above presents the Democratic Party with a rare opportunity. What is less obvious, Tesfaye argues, is that it also provides the Dems with a real chance to institute the kind of reforms that Bernie Sanders et al. would argue the party needs to make if it is going to compete with the Republican Party and thrive over the long term. From the article:
It’s clearly rough out there for Republicans in the House of Representatives, but what may be less obvious is how that provides a prime opportunity for progressives who want to push Democrats to the left. While five of the first six Republicans to quit during this term did so to accept jobs in President Trump’s administration, Democrats’ attempt to regain a House majority relies on a number of high-profile Republicans’ planned retirements. Freeing the field of an incumbent advantage allows not only a chance for Democrats to compete in the general election, but also an opportunity to nominate candidates who more accurately represent the most motivated Democratic voters.
Take, for instance, the seat vacated by veteran Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in the coastal suburbs of San Diego. Democrat Doug Applegate came within 2,000 votes of unseating Congress’ wealthiest member in 2016, as Hillary Clinton won the district by more than seven points. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by that same margin in the district. With Issa’s retirement, Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, is being challenged by progressive clean energy professional Mike Levin. Both Democrats are campaigning on a decidedly progressive “Medicare-for-all” platform.
In invoking the idea of primary challenges, it’s worth talking about whether primary challenges in the abstract are an important part of the political process and to selecting a congressional, presidential, or other candidate, or whether a competitive race in advance of the general election does more harm than good. Speaking of Bernie Sanders and his bid to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination for the 2016 election, if you ask staunch Hillary Clinton supporters, Sanders not only hurt her prospects of winning the whole shebang, but did lasting damage to the Democratic Party infrastructure in holding on as long as he did. If you ask Bernie’s faithful, meanwhile, as well as any number of independent commentators, the surprisingly and robustly competitive challenge he offered made Clinton a better candidate, and did well to engage younger voters who otherwise might not have been engaged or were simply disenfranchised with the politics of the moment, especially coming down from the highs of Barack Obama and “YES WE CAN!” Sophia Tesfaye, too, evidently sees merit in holding more than mere walkovers to the general election. Continuing with the sentiments about the opportunity developing before the Dems’ eyes, she writes:
Throw out the conventional wisdom that contested primaries hurt a party’s chances in the general election (which was likely never true anyway). A competitive Democratic primary could get more people involved in the process, boosting turnout in November’s general election. Look to Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2017 for the clearest example of how that might play out in the Democrats’ favor. Some Democrats feared that a primary challenge by progressive Tom Perriello in the Virginia race could fatally wound establishment favorite Ralph Northam, but the intra-party competition led to increased media coverage and intense voter interest. After beating Perriello in the primary, Northam went on to trounce Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points in an election most observers expected to be neck and neck.
In midterms, low voter turnout makes the size of the Republican base in many purple-to-red districts appear much larger than it actually is. Coupled with egregious gerrymandering meant to dilute the influence of the Democratic base and rampant voter suppression, midterms and other non-presidential elections have helped Republicans build what can seem an impregnable political power base.
More coverage. More interest. Bigger turnout. As Tesfaye frames this viewpoint, low turnout—whether as a result of apathy, active interference, or both—tends to benefit Republican candidates. It certainly benefited Donald Trump, who seemed to stun his own damn self by winning the 2016 election. In elections at the state level, where turnout is more likely to be subdued (“Wait, who’s running for governor again?”), anything that could help boost the profile of a candidate—particularly in a race that’s expected to be as close as Northam vs. Gillespie was—could be a difference maker. Besides, as some might argue, if a candidate can’t survive a tough primary, he or she may not be a great candidate for the general election outright.
As Tesfaye insists, however—and as I’d be keen to agree with—this moment beckons more than the Democrats simply embracing authentic primary challenges for its nominations in 2018 and beyond. It’s about the Democratic Party embracing an authentically progressive direction now and in the future. Or as she puts it, “A blue wave is coming. Electing more moderate, poll-driven, ‘blue dog’ Democrats to ride that wave would be a grave mistake.” For a party prone to repeating its mistakes, though, there is every worry they will do just that.
In an era of escalating political expenditures, the need for organized fundraising networks is a clear and present concern. At the same time, meanwhile, it distracts us or takes away from two separate conversations we could or perhaps should be having. The first is the viability of the two-party system—I myself voted neither for Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton in 2016. As Americans become increasingly frustrated with the direction of the two major political parties, public opinion would suggest that we should be seeing more people coming out to support the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and independent voting options. And yet, owing to their dissatisfaction, the preferred option for so many eligible voters seems to be to stay home. This, to me, is a travesty, exacerbated by the notion relief from the indifference of the Democratic and Republican Parties to change seems slow in coming, as well as the idea leading and organizing a legitimate challenge to the two-party system is a tremendous effort. It’s why Bernie Sanders has thus far eschewed invitations to run as a Green Party representative or to spearhead the creation of a “People’s Party” in favor of trying to instill reform within the Democratic Party. As admirable as the cause is, it’s a long-term project, to be sure.
The second conversation that could or should be happening goes back to the idea that started this piece: money in politics. As long as not-for-profit entities are allowed to skirt restrictions on the scope of their political activities and are not required to be more transparent about where and from whom they get their donations, and as long as many politicians and government officials allow themselves to be beholden to the whims of leaders of industry and other wealthy patrons, our system as is will be little more than a mockery of the concept of a truly representative democracy. As Sophia Tesfaye alluded to in her piece, the skewing of legislative districts along demographic lines or otherwise done so for an express political advantage—Tesfaye points to Republican gerrymandering as a deleterious force but both parties have been guilty of this practice—is part of the problem, and the precedent created by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC which allows, under the First Amendment, for-profit organizations, not-for-profit organizations, labor unions, and other associations to make independent expenditures essentially unrestricted by the government, is also a big bone of contention for liberals and conservatives alike. When someone like Sen. Sanders is able to generate more donations than someone entrenched in big-money Washington politics like Hillary Clinton in a given month, it’s both commendable and inspiring, but heretofore, it’s the outlier more than the norm, and even then, Bernie was fighting an uphill battle against the Democratic Party establishment in the primaries.
These are significant problems that the United States of America faces, and not to blame the activists that are doing great work on the behalf of so many important issues, but the fragmented nature of their efforts doesn’t seem to help counteract the way those with more money and clout are able to afford more political influence up and down party slates in our country today. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, those who advocate on behalf of Dreamers, Native Americans, and Mother freaking Earth—all are causes related to challenging the patriarchal hegemony of moneyed, profit-seeking whites over the working class, the poor, minorities, and every intersection therein. Accordingly, the solution is a complex one, but to be sure, it involves a concerted effort on the part of the everyday Americans, including direct involvement in the political process, even from those who would appear to lack the interest in politics or don’t see themselves as the political “type.” Thus, whether you believe that “love trumps hate” or merely that true grassroots organizing and fundraising can overcome the cash that wealthy executives can throw endlessly at political races, and even in the face of despair that individuals like Donald Trump are running amok in Washington, we must act and stand together. The Koch Brothers are all in for 2018. What are you doing to do about it?