The party is not some cabal that controls who gets elected and who doesn’t
I recently wrote a post discussing the potential harm a Tulsi Gabbard Presidential candidacy could do to the Democratic party if she and her supporters behaved the way Bernie and his supporters behaved in 2016. Russell Meyers and others criticized the post for focusing on the damage her candidacy could do to the party, and not arguing for a progressive candidate to lead the party. These criticisms and others led me to ask, just what is the Democratic party?
Is Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign for President a problem for Democrats?
Are her foreign policy positions the only problem for the party?
I have spent most of my life involved in the Democratic party. Most of my efforts have gone unrewarded. The party has broken my heart more times than it has thrilled me. But that has not stopped me from continuing to support it.
Why do I do so? Well for starters, unlike in other countries where parties are bound together by deep philosophical ties, our parties are part of the process. The two-party process dates back almost to the founding of our country. You may recall that George Washington, in his farewell address, warned the nation against the power of political parties.
In truth, Washington’s warning was taken to heart despite the emergence of parties with the very next President, John Adams. Parties in the United States help us organize a chaotic process that brings together diverse people from many backgrounds. As such, they don’t “stand” for anything. They are the process through which someone gets themselves elected to office.
It used to be that there were “party bosses” who held sway over who would be the candidates for office. Those days are long gone, however. Instead, we have open processes that allow just about anyone to get involved and have a nearly equal impact upon the selection of nominees. For all intents and purposes, the primaries and even most caucuses that select candidates are just elections that virtually anyone who shows up can vote in. Proof of that is how well Bernie did in 2016 despite the fact that he was not a Democrat.
These are not parties like in Europe, where many parties vie for seats in Parliament, the National Assembly or the Bundestag hoping to elect their leader to the top position. These parties have strong ideological underpinnings that bind them together. No such ideologies underpin the American political parties.
Consider the following. Not so long ago, the South was considered solidly Democratic. Now it is solidly Republican. The very issues that drove the South to the Democratic side now propel it into Republican hands, and these issues have to do with the original sin of our nation: slavery and subsequent racism.
Similarly, the north was solidly liberal Republican, but that all changed as the conservative movement and the Christian evangelicals took it over. As a result, the areas that had once been solidly blue-blooded Republican are now strong Democratic areas.
We talk about realignment, but in reality the parties shift constituencies as different groups of activists become big players in the party process by simply becoming active in it. It’s hard to imagine, but Jimmy Carter won the evangelical vote. Reagan was able to pull that group over to the Republican party. Johnson won the “solid South,” but Nixon turned that around with his race-baiting “Southern strategy.” Thus the issues were not defined by the parties. Instead, the issues were simply defined by the people who were involved in the party.
I can tell you that had I grown up in a different era, I would likely have been a committed Republican. I would like to think that in the 19th century, I would have been a “radical Republican” fighting for emancipation. Those days are long gone. So now I’m a Democrat.
People sometimes scratch their heads wondering how the Republican party could have become so different today from its original mission. But that mistakes American parties for something different. Our parties are just part of the process, and the issues they “stand for” simply reflect the make-up of the people involved in that process at the time.
Frankly, it peeves me to hear the accusation that the party would rather lose than have a progressive leading it. That ignores the fact that in 2020, the top of our ticket will almost certainly be a progressive, whether it be Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, or any number of others who are lining up to run. Even the potential “moderates” are far to the left of Democratic candidates just a few years ago, including Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and others. The concern I raised with Tulsi Gabbard is whether she would enthusiastically support the party’s nominee whether she was it or not. All the other candidates I mentioned, among others, have previously shown their willingness to do so.
This is not some theoretical question. I desperately want Trump defeated and his agenda undone. Doing so requires me to make use of the system we have, which means supporting the Democratic party. Doing anything else only helps Trump.
Don’t believe me? I remember arguing to Jill Stein supporters in 2016 that they needed to vote for Hillary Clinton because of the Supreme Court. They poo-poohed me. Jill Stein won five times more votes in Michigan than separated Clinton from Trump here. As we all know, had Clinton not lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin narrowly, she would be President now and we would have a progressive Supreme Court majority.
The critics of my post have taken particular issue with my use of the word “purity” to describe certain candidates and activists who want an ideologically pure candidate. The problem is, first, that there is no ideologically pure candidate. If you take ten progressives and put them together, soon enough they will find issues that make one group claim the other is not progressive enough. The purity I was referring to, however, is the attitude that the party has to adopt your candidate or you will essentially pick up your toys and leave. There is no place for that attitude anymore. No candidate is perfect. I certainly had my differences from Obama, though I enthusiastically voted for him twice. But look at what disunity after the 2016 primaries resulted in: President Trump.
I am not saying a diverse group of candidates should not run. In fact, I hope we have a good crop to choose from. My only demand is that when it is all over, we put it behind us and commit ourselves to taking back the White House and Congress. The way to do that is through the party process, and it is up to us to use that process to accomplish our goal. There is no group of cigar-smoking party bosses in Washington who take that power away from us.
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