Can the Democratic Party Be Saved from Itself?

2016 Democrats: Well, I don’t think we can find a candidate more unpopular than Hillary going forward.
2020 Democrats: Hold my beer.
(Photo Credit: Adam Schultz for Hillary for America/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Amid her 2018 take-down of President Donald Trump, members of his administration, media networks and their on-air personalities, and leaders of the Republican Party at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedienne Michelle Wolf took a brief moment to assail the Democratic Party. From the speech:

Republicans are easy to make fun of. You know, it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie. But I also want to make fun of Democrats. Democrats are harder to make fun of because you guys don’t do anything. People think you might flip the House and Senate this November, but you guys always find a way to mess it up. You’re somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor.

Wolf’s armchair prognostication didn’t quite hit the mark. Riding a “blue wave” of sorts, Democrats did manage to take control of the House of Representatives, gaining a net total of 41 seats. Conversely, they further lost ground in the Senate, with Republicans adding two seats to their advantage. Nancy Pelosi soon became the Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, tightened his grip on the role of Senate Majority Leader.

It’s 2020 now. Once again, every seat in the House will be contested as well as 35 Senate seats, with both parties likely to retain a majority in their respective houses of Congress. (Then again, this year has been so wacky who knows what’s in store.) The one that looms largest, however, is undoubtedly the presidential election. In a virtual walkover, Pres. Trump won the Republican Party primary, meaning he will officially be vying for a second term.

On the Democratic side, meanwhile? The presumptive nominee is Joe Biden, who is on pace to secure enough delegates to win the nod outright but at this writing has yet to do so. Following Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his campaign and endorsement of Biden (barring rule changes at the state level, Sanders will continue to appear on primary ballots and accrue delegates in hopes of being able to influence the party platform), the former senator from Delaware and vice president has fully pivoted to a prospective November showdown with the incumbent.

The Biden-Trump match-up is one many would have predicted in advance of primary elections. For a while, it looked as if Bernie might run away with the nomination with Biden struggling to stay relevant. Then came a big win for Joe in South Carolina and a winnowing of the moderate portion of the field, followed by a Biden romp on Super Tuesday and decisive wins on successive “Super Tuesdays.” In the end, the early forecasts were right.

In advance of the general election, meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to who would triumph in a theoretical face-off between these two men. Politico, for one, labels the race “too close to call.” The website 270toWin gives the edge to the Democratic Party nominee, but notes that critical states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are effective coin flips. Regarding polling, various survey sources give Biden a lead of anywhere to two to 10 percentage points nationally, with none of the recent polls referenced by RealClearPolitics giving Trump an advantage.

Of course, polling doesn’t necessarily translate to votes, much in the way support on social media doesn’t necessarily translate to votes (thank you, Bernie detractors, we get it). This is beside the notion that the Electoral College decides matters, not the popular vote, as any Democratic Party supporter ruefully recounting the 2016 presidential election can tell you. The 2020 election will be decided on a state-by-state basis.

And while, as with national polling, Biden is ahead in numerous cases, re swing states, his are not overwhelming leads. Factor in margin of error and these numbers are somewhat worrisome. Not merely to invoke Hillary Clinton’s infamous line, but why isn’t Biden 50 points ahead or at least better off than current polling dictates? As many would reason, Trump is a terrible president and the depths of his depravity and incompetence have only become more apparent in his administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. What gives?

With all due respect to the “blue no matter who” crowd and even noting how difficult the threat of spreading coronavirus has made traditional campaigning, Joe Biden is a terrible candidate, especially noting the pitfalls which led to 2016’s debacle. What’s more, at a time of great need for so many Americans, he hasn’t been nearly as visible as he could or perhaps should be.

Let’s start with the whole missing-in-action business. Sure, there have been various public appearances by Joe via cable news outlets and online town halls, but these have been fairly sporadic. Additionally, when they have occurred, they’ve been marked by Biden’s trademark gaffes, mental lapses, technical issues, or have otherwise been led by to a considerable extent by Dr. Jill Biden, his wife.

If anything, Biden and his team seem content to try to hide him rather than make him more accessible, concerned that he will do or say something to hurt his chances in the fall. His absences, sometimes spanning days, have prompted the creation and promulgation of the #WhereIsJoe and #WhereIsJoeBiden hashtags on Twitter, and speaking of Twitter, we can be reasonably sure Joe himself is not the one publishing those tweets. Facing the rabid army of supporters that is Trump’s following, this is not a strength.

As for why Biden is a bad candidate, ahem, how much time do you have? Though, in Biden’s defense, that he’s merely “another old white guy” gets perhaps unfairly dwelt upon in an era of seemingly increasing sensitivity to identity politics, his policy goals aren’t doing him many favors in countering the narrative that he’s out of touch. To this effect, most of us seem to be unaware what his actual policy goals are, an idea reinforced by his and his campaign’s insistence on his decency and leadership rather than specifics. Granted, not everyone is a policy wonk or needs to know the nittiest and grittiest of the details of a candidate’s stances on issues, but for younger and more idealistic voters, in particular, their omission is troubling.

Given a dearth of elaboration on what Biden would hope to accomplish as president, we have only his record and his ties to certain industry groups as a large part of his donor base to rely on. That’s not a good sign either. As a senator, Biden took numerous positions/cast votes that haven’t aged well. Voting in favor of the Iraq War. Leading the charge on a 1994 crime bill that helped accelerate mass incarceration. Favoring cuts to social safety net programs like Social Security in an effort to reduce deficit spending. Siding with credit card companies and predatory lenders on 2005 bankruptcy law reform.

Biden’s participation on these fronts suggests fealty to donors and lobbyists or at least acting in the name of political expediency rather than genuine concern for his constituents. What’s worse, in his run-up to the nomination, Biden has either defended a number of these positions or has sought to obfuscate his role in the passage of key legislation. True, he has apologized for certain elements of his record and has backtracked on specific stances that would put him at odds with the rest of the Democratic field, such as his support for the Hyde Amendment, which limits the ability of federal programs like Medicaid in paying for abortions. One gets the sense, however, that his admissions and his reversals are begrudging ones, forced by a recognition of the damage his electoral prospects might incur by refusing to accommodate voter reservations.

On top of what we know about Joe’s votes and past public statements, there’s also the matter of proven falsehoods he has stated as well as questions about his conduct. Biden is a serial liar who had a previous presidential bid derailed by accusations of plagiarism. Just this election cycle, he and his campaign repeated a fabricated tale of his arrest in South Africa en route to see Nelson Mandela and have trumpeted an inflated image of his involvement in the civil rights movement, one Biden himself has promoted over the past three decades and change despite a lack of corroborating evidence. For all the insistence of Biden as a “good guy,” he sure has a problematic relationship with the truth that speaks to his identity as a career politician.

And then there’s the Tara Reade scandal, an ongoing and apparently worsening development for Biden. Initially slow to be recognized if not outright ignored by major media outlets, Reade’s claims of sexual harassment and eventual assault have gained traction even from publications and other sources who tend to be sympathetic to Biden and the Democratic Party. Biden, for his part, vehemently denies the allegations. But his penchant for spinning a yarn as well as his exhibited proclivity for, well, touching girls and women in a manner definitely considered inappropriate by today’s standards casts at least the shadow of a doubt on his dismissal of Reade’s account. It’s circumstantial, yes, but in an era where optics matter more than ever, the associations voters might make are potentially damaging.

Other politicians have been asked to resign or have bowed out of races for less. Here we are, though, in 2020 and with the #MeToo movement firmly established, and Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee. All this despite the allegations against him, his checkered voting record, his fabrications, his obvious cognitive decline, and his sagging enthusiasm among younger voters. This is the face of the Democratic Party and the person who is supposed to usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation and be a bridge to a new era of Democratic leadership. This is the man who party leaders have hitched their proverbial wagon to and who party supporters are backing substantially in the primary.

Excited yet?


The question of “What should we do?” in both the short term and long term is one being bandied about at a fever pitch by progressives since Bernie Sanders’s suspension of his presidential campaign. How did we lose and so decisively? Who will run in 2024? Should we vote for Joe Biden? Should we endorse Joe Biden? Are we not focused enough on winning races at the local and county level? Is there too little organizing among similar-minded groups and too much infighting? Where have all the cowboys gone?

OK, that last one was a joke. (Anyone here remember Paula Cole?) In all earnest, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty on the left right now and a big part of it involves whether progressives can co-exist with the rest of the Democratic Party or whether an existing or new party needs to be built up to challenge the duopoly the two major parties currently have on the American political landscape.

Concerning the former, if Bernie’s late struggles in the primary and the tone of the party establishment following his dropping out are any indication, progressives have a long way to go. Sure, a few younger progressives have begun to make a name for themselves. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Ayanna Pressley. Ilhan Omar. Katie Porter. Pramila Jayapal. Rashida Tlaib. Ro Khanna. Despite the popularity of these figures, however, Democratic Party leadership still appears dead set on keeping them at somewhat of a distance.

Also, for every upset win like that of AOC’s, there are that many more blowouts in favor of the more moderate incumbent. By and large, Democratic voters are reasonably satisfied with their elected representatives. Either that or they are too afraid to take a chance on an alternative, too uninformed to make a decision on an unfamiliar candidate (primary voters tend not to be low-information voters but just raising the possibility), or simply convinced that no matter who they choose it won’t make a major difference in their day-to-day lives. The battle to reform the Democratic Party is one being fought tooth and nail by establishment forces and hasn’t yet caught on with a large enough subset of voters.

As for the state of the presidential race, if Biden’s camp and the DNC have made any meaningful concessions to progressives in hopes of winning their votes, er, most of us haven’t seen them yet. Lowering the age for Medicare enrollment to 60, for example, is a slap in the face to Bernie supporters, many of whom are younger and therefore nowhere close to qualifying. In fact, Biden’s refusal to even entertain a single-payer insurance system is, to many leftists, absurd given record numbers of people losing their jobs due to the spread of coronavirus and, with that, access to affordable healthcare.

Rumors of Cabinet appointments for people with ties to Wall Street and/or bailouts for “too big to fail” institutions. Virtual fundraisers starting at $2,800 to participate. Biden himself has been recorded saying that he “has no empathy” for younger generations and telling donors that “nothing will fundamentally change” if he’s elected president. On top of this, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other high-ranking Democrats have offered milquetoast remedies to the economic hardships facing the electorate, allowing Donald Trump, in all his bombast and cluelessness, to hijack the domestic COVID-19 conversation. I don’t doubt the Democratic Party is willing to win in November, but it seems unwilling to do so at the expense of its contributions from certain industries and lobbying groups.

Indeed, the playbook from Biden and Co. for 2020 is evidently to try to court white suburban voters and persuade Republicans to go against Trump while it all but ignores the insights from the energetic progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In doing so, they’re pitching a return to “normalcy,” trying to win without younger voters and independents, or otherwise trying to hector undecided voters into submission, throwing everything from kids in cages to the potential death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as reasons to vote for Biden and not against Trump. That didn’t work in 2016 and, for a segment of the electorate convinced the progressive option was screwed not once but twice, that’s arguably not going to cut it.

And yet, Joe Biden may still win! The closeness of the race as evidenced by polling lends itself to the notion Democrats are wedded to Joe for better or for worse. Take him or leave him. But if you’re a progressive being told that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are a discussion for “later,” that it’s OK that Biden may have committed sexual assault because “look at Trump,” and that top party brass would rather have someone who struggles to complete sentences versus a much sharper candidate in Bernie Sanders, one who isn’t beleaguered by scandal and who has an army of fanatics waiting to help turn out the vote for him, how are you supposed to feel welcome? Where is the moral compass of this party?

Bypassing the Democratic Party completely, meanwhile, has its own complications, namely that it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to establish a party. Granted, there are existing third-party options like the Green Party and Libertarian Party available, but so far, they have faced many of the same challenges progressives as a whole have faced in terms of funding, organization, and electoral logistics. Widespread voting reform including ranked-choice voting may help overcome this reality or at least mitigate the argument that “X cost us the election.” In the meantime, trying to draft progressives as Greens or Libertarians is a hard sell.

That brings us back to the notion of transforming the Democratic Party from within. As with fashioning a new political entity, it’s going to take time, money, hard work, and a vision forward. Simply put, it’s no small task, and with a party infrastructure in place that is specifically designed to check progressive momentum and stifle dissent, it begs wondering whether the Democratic Party, well, can be saved from itself or whether, even with the very real possibility of a second term of President Trump existing, the party has to fail and be dismantled for substantive progress to be made.

If letting the Democratic Party burn to the ground sounds crazy, as a reminder, in the midst of a pandemic, its presumptive presidential nominee, who has promised to veto M4A if it somehow clears Congress, has trouble navigating his way through an online forum and its congressional leaders have made more concessions to moneyed interests than average people. For a party that is ostensibly a working-class organization, it’s not living up to its mission.

In highlighting the different ways of addressing a broken political system, I don’t mean to dismiss reform efforts as worthless, but only to underscore the difficulties therein. Already, many of us on the left have seen the fight for recognition as the fight of our lives. The global pandemic has only intensified those sentiments.

I, for one, remain optimistic that changing the Democratic Party from the ground up is possible. At the same time and on the road to a more democratic Democratic Party, I feel it’s fair to wonder how many indignities progressives are meant to endure and whether establishment Democrats will ever learn their lesson from their electoral failures.

Enough with the Vote Shaming Already

It’s Joe Biden’s ultimate responsibility to sell voters on Joe Biden. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

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.

All the same, time and energy spent shaming people on social media is arguably misused when considering all the people who won’t vote even though they can and because they have been disenfranchised regardless of what party is in power. Glenn Greenwald, in a recent piece appearing on The Intercept, explores how nonvoters are disproportionately lower-income, nonwhite, and dissatisfied with the two major parties.

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.