Posted tagged ‘Karen Handel’

07.02.17 Purity or victory: What’s a progressive to wish for?

July 2, 2017

So much hand wringing in the Democratic Party, ever since Trump unexpectedly beat Hillary Clinton! The intensity of the anguish only increased after Democrat Jon Ossoff failed to beat Karen Handel in Newt Gingrich’s former Georgia district in June. This put the Dems’ record at 0 for 4 in special elections this year. The sky must be falling more rapidly than ever.

After last November, many argued that Democrats failed to capture the White House because they hadn’t run on a clear economically populist message. This view continues to hold sway despite subsequent polling showing that Clinton lost not on economics*, but on her own failures and how culturally alienated (not economically alienated) Trump voters were. (You can read “culturally alienated” here as racist; though other cultural memes such as guns and religion certainly played a part.)

Some commentators have jumped on this latter bandwagon, lecturing Dems that it’s time to give up on “identity politics” (the right wing’s term for giving a shit about minorities and women) and abortion rights. That is, if only Dems would sell their souls, they’d start winning: Without the Neanderthals on your side, you’re toast!

Leftier Democrats (including most Bernie Sanders supporters) buy the economic argument lock, stock, and barrel. The solution, in their view, is to go whole hog for single payer, more regulation, and higher taxes on the rich. Your blogger fits well within this policy camp, but, as we shall see, not wholly with the proposition that this approach is a panacea for electoral woes.

The first thing required of Democrats at this point is some perspective:

  • The Democrats didn’t lose the presidential election. Our candidate won the popular vote by over three million votes. She lost the electoral college by only 70,000 votes in three states. And, of course, she was a terrible candidate and a certain foreign power put a thumb on the scale against her.
  • Compared to previous results in the districts the Dems have lost this year, their totals have improved dramatically. All four special elections thus far have taken place in deep-red places. We should be encouraged by the results, rather than discouraged.

So, my proposition is that Democrats do not need to renounce social and racial justice, or even economic centrism, to win at the presidential level. I don’t believe, in fact, that die-hard racists – those who would rather give up their own health care before seeing any of “those people” get any – can be won over in any case.

Nonetheless, Democrats were wiped off the map across most of the country at the local and state level during the Obama years. As admirable as the former president is in many ways, he was a terrible politician – he paid no attention to the fate of the party and the party, for its part, utterly lacked integrity and competence. This has been and remains an unmitigated disaster for at least three reasons:

  • State office holders (legislatures and governors) create electoral districts. In our horribly flawed democracy, when the GOP controls those levers, it assures that Democrats can’t win at any level.
  • Local and state offices are the bench from which candidates for Congress (and the presidency) emerge. If you have few Democrats holding these offices, you’ll have fewer ready to run for Congress.
  • Losing begets losing: Local voters who only see Democrats as losers or as incompetent or as out of touch with their issues become accustomed to rejecting them.

A progressive neighbor of mine (almost all my neighbors are progressive) asked me to comment about abortion rights, in this context. This question gets to a struggle in most political parties: which is more important, purity or victory? The GOP has certainly struggled with this question and has answered it by booting all the moderates out of their party. This has not hurt them – yet – because our system is tilted in their favor (the built-in advantage for less-populated areas), because they already control most of the levels of power, and because of Democrat incompetence.

So, should Democrats accept anti-choice politicians (or gun nuts) as the price of winning?

Recently, Democrats who were never particularly comfortable with Bernie Sanders to start with, along with many progressive women (for obvious reasons), excoriated Sanders for assisting the mayoral campaign of an anti-choicer in Oklahoma City. This particular struggle has also played out in venues like January’s Women’s March, where anti-choice women’s groups were made personae non gratae.

Abortion rights, gay rights, immigration rights, and the importance of black lives are litmus test issues for me. But I’m here in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I will never be faced with a dilemma in choosing a Democrat over a Republican.

How about in Oklahoma City? Or the suburbs of Atlanta?

There is a moral dilemma. If we insist that our party be pure, we may be hurting a Democratic candidate who could win and do a lot of good for people who need it. Think that if a somewhat distasteful Democrat wins over an evil Republican: they may help lift more black folks out of poverty and devote more resources to the needs of single moms and their infants and the schools those kids will go to. Is it moral to, in effect, facilitate the victory of a Republican, who will help only the wealthy and, most likely, be even worse on social issues than the flawed Democrat?

I also think purity is bad strategy. Progressives cannot win the school board seats, the city halls, and the state legislatures everywhere with an identical message or set of priorities. And, we have to understand that the only thing that matters in January of a new Congress is the numbers of Ds (and Is aligned with them) vs. Rs. It’s the votes for Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader that determine everything that follows. There must be more Ds than Rs, even if I don’t love every single D.

We also have to be practical in our thinking: how much difference is the mayor of Oklahoma City going to make on reproductive freedom? He (it is a man) doesn’t have any authority on that issue and lives in a state where even a solid pro-choicer would have zero influence.

Another example worth considering is Joe Manchin, the Democratic – but rather right-wing – senator from West Virginia. He only votes with other Democrats about 60% of the time. He is wrong on guns and coal and numerous other issues. But, the key question is: if we “primary” him and beat him with a reliable progressive, can that progressive win in November?! Remember, Manchin is standing with Dems right now in opposing Trumpcare. And he will vote for a Democrat to lead the Senate in 2019.

(I’m not declaring absolute opposition to a race against Manchin. I am saying that this is not the no-brainer purist lefties may proclaim.)

Democrats in blue states and counties have a responsibility to move the party left. There should be no room in Montgomery County for Democrats who favor powerful, wealthy development interests. There should be no room in Maryland for Democratic state legislators (or governors) who support the bail bond or gambling industries or downplay racial injustice.

But, if we are to stop the GOP agenda and the party’s racist and xenophobic acolytes across the country, we have to beat them at the ballot box! Maybe if Dems were politically dominant right now, I would be fine with kicking out every Wall Streeter and abortion opponent. But protest marches and candlelight vigils are not going to take our country back. The only thing that can do that is winning elections. Towards that end, we need to temper the virulence of our internecine battles and tolerate some politicians we’d rather not. The Democratic Party must be a big tent.

So, to answer the neighbor who asked me to address this question: I can live with a mayor in Oklahoma City whom I disagree with completely on abortion. And I can live with a Joe Manchin in one of the most racist, Trump-friendly states in America. I feel this at the same time I feel it is past time to kick the right wing Dems out of Montgomery County and Maryland.

As a college football coach famously put it in 1950: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” That needs to be progressives’ and Democrats’ mantra for at least the next few years.

*It was apparent that within days of the election that Trump voters, on average, were more wealthy than the rest of the country.

(c)2017 Keith Berner