Purity Tests and Fractured Voting Blocs

I have not published much lately. Work has been crazy. I finally took a vacation for the first time in years. But more than anything, every time I sit down to write I get about 1200 words in and start thinking about the conclusion I just feel completely depressed. Who wants to write endlessly sad stories of what is happening and where we are going? Politics and culture feel so inescapable and toxic that I just can’t force myself to write about it. After subjecting myself to part of the 9th (or 900th) Democratic primary debate last night, drinking a metric fuckton of coffee, and feeling bored sitting in the waiting room at a doctors office I thought I’d take another shot at getting back on the horse.

Part of what has discouraged me so much from writing recently is the way both parties are hurtling towards oblivion. Political social media is a non-stop rage machine that endlessly targets friend and foe alike. Liberals turn on NeverTrump conservatives for having the audacity to not like Indian food or on other progressives for failing to have perfectly progressive records on every issue for all of time. Conservatives blast other conservatives for daring to say the President has done anything wrong and liberals for being upset when conservative activist intentionally show up in places to antagonize “snowflakes.” It is all so pointless and exhausting.

To whit, Conor Friedersdorf has a piece in the Atlantic this week wondering if the callout culture of our age actually provides cover for toxic men like Donald Trump and Mike Bloomberg. The passage below comparing how Black Lives Matter activists respond to Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg is instructive.

Why Callout Culture Helps Mike Bloomberg

“But you’d never discern the huge difference between Buttigieg and Bloomberg if you merely saw one of the flyers passed out by Black Lives Matter protesters in Iowa that declared, “Mayor Pete Has a Black Problem.” Buttigieg was also heckled as “antiblack” by Black Lives Matter protesters during a campaign visit to Los Angeles. “Racist police or racist Pete?” one sign declared. Kat Redding, a Black Lives Matter activist, said to the Washington Times, “To me, Mayor Pete is the equivalent of [Donald] Trump. I feel like Trump is very aggressive with his racism, and I think Mayor Pete is very passive with his racism. They are just two of the same people.” If that is the tenor of rhetoric against Buttigieg, what language is left to distinguish someone with Bloomberg’s record?”

This is the Democratic primary in a nutshell. All transgressions are equally awful and disqualifying. The faithful lieutenant of America’s first black President can be painted as no different than Strom Thurmond– after all, he once opposed forced busing, which is basically the same as wanting to continue Jim Crow!

This is hardly new. In fact, it is basically the same movie we saw when the Tea Party hijacked the GOP (and then was subsequently gobbled up by Trump) simply running on 1.5 speed. The conditions in both parties have been ripe for such exploitation for decades now. I’ve been writing for over five years about how tenuous the coalitions that make up today’s Republican and Democratic parties are. Centrists, who statistically make up the majority of both parties, have been fractured along their various internal faultlines and left both parties open to being hijacked by demagogues and extremists. This unshakable 35% of each base, previously fringe characters who acted out on the edges of the party, represent the most stable bloc in each party as the various centrist factions bicker over the “best” candidate to unite the party against both the insurgents and the general election.

There are a lot of complicating factors. Among the most important is the collapse of the party as an institution. The RNC and DNC are little more than support networks at this point. They wield little to no power over the platform or candidates. They simply exist to recruit volunteers and fundraise. The GOP watched hopelessly in 2016 as a candidate the majority of Republicans did not want (and the establishment 100% did not want) took the nomination, overturned decades of conservative policy, and remade the party in his image. Not to be outdone, the Democrats watched all this happen and said, “you know we should really take all the guardrails off our primary as well.”

The candidates’ campaigns themselves seemed to have learned nothing from 2016. Sanders, like Trump before him, is escaping most debates and campaign rally speeches relatively unscathed as the various moderates attack each other over their often minor (and sometimes completely manufactured) differences. Commentators (particularly on the NeverTrump right) scoff at this foolishness– why would they repeat the same mistakes Rubio and Cruz made? The reason is simple: the voting public (much like the 2015 GOP), has been conditioned to apply purity tests to candidates and fanatically support their “team” (or attack their opponents).

To win the centrist lane requires navigating a series of conflicting and at times mutually exclusive priorities. It isn’t enough to be a champion of racial equality– you have to use the language of critical race theory while doing so. It isn’t enough to support a woman’s right to choose– you have to accuse any opposition of abortion as misogynistic in nature. Support for developing renewable energy resources is pointless if you don’t call for the outright dismantling of all fossil fuel-based energy sources and companies (ignoring that most of these energy providers are also the largest investors/owners of renewable energy sources, like solar farms). And that is just the purity test WITHIN an issue. It also breaks down horizontally. How can you think racial equality is more important than trans rights? Or that climate change is a bigger threat than guns?

Bernie Sanders campaign is focused on a full-scale reordering of the global economic system. You do not need to manufacture charges that he is a misogynist, is somehow anti-union, or has a race problem to oppose him. There are plenty of good faith arguments against him (or any other candidate). For example, his agenda seems stillborn to me without sweeping victories in the House and Senate that look completely out of reach. Claims by his supporters that he will use executive orders to achieve sweeping change are every bit as anti-democratic and un-American as Trump’s fantasies about using them to build his silly wall. That will not work. Sanders has never really spearheaded actual change at the national level in the Senate and seems as disinterested as Trump is in making the sorts of compromises that make American democracy function.

So why are the centrists resorting to lame attacks like these on Sanders and their centrist opponents? I suspect it is because substantive disagreements on the economy, immigration, or foreign policy open them to the sort of attacks Buttigieg and Biden have faced over M4A. In large part, it has to do with the moment that progressives think they have in front of them. Despite the fact that M4A is unpopular with centrist voters and a total non-starter for conservatives, progressives have made it a central plank of their revolution. They view the unpopularity of Trump– historically remarkable for an administration overseeing a period of economic prosperity and relative diplomatic stability– the weakness of the GOP in the 2018 midterms, and the lack of any real conservative agenda beyond tax cuts as a moment for massive change. From Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, to gun control, the progressive wing of the Democratic party thinks that they can fundamentally alter the economic and political order. And if you run afoul of any of these sacred cows the social media mob will come for you.

The progressives started with two front runners– Warren and Sanders. Sanders had a rock-solid core from 2016 and built-in fundraising and ground game advantages. Warren never figured out a way to attack Sanders before 2/19. While Sanders supporters were questioning Warren’s progressive bonafides and syphoning off support she just sort of stalled. When Warren started to faltered she accused Sanders of saying a woman couldn’t win the Presidency, which brought out the nasty Bernie Bros of the last election cycle, but did little for Warren’s standing. In desperation, she finally seems willing to punch back at the fantasy elements of the Sanders platform, but I suspect it is too late.

Amongst the centrists, there has never been substantial policy disagreement. They paid some lip service to progressive policy ideas until Biden broke against them and then rolled out their own versions of similarly moderate proposals. Biden provided the cover and his relative weakness as a candidate provided the motive for others to slide in under that cover. If there are few real political distinctions then the contrast they seek to create had to be more personal than political. For months, this meant mean-spirited attacks on Joe Biden’s age, mental capacity, and “energy.” Biden has never been a great speaker or performer on a wide debate stage. He is at his best in one-on-one settings with quick back and forths. If you make him talk for more than 15 seconds you are likely to end up with a little nonsense. This has been true of Biden for decades and has nothing to do with his age or “his heart being in it.”

Then it was Pete Buttigieg’s turn in the barrel. The inexperienced thing never landed– little surprise given we live in the era of a know-nothing President and where the entire GOP was overthrown by a “revolution” whose rallying cry is “I’ve never worked in Washington!” So the narrative seems to have settled on Pete has a race problem. What is his race problem, you might ask? It is because in his short time as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana he did not manage to figure out how to solve a national problem of over-policing minority communities. Pretending this rises to the level of disqualifying is nonsensical. If Mayor Pete has a race problem then so does every other candidate on stage who did nothing to decriminalize non-violent drug offenses or systematically change the culture of how we police our communities. This is a silly argument. How well has it worked? So far, not too well. Despite what mainstream outlets and social media want you to believe, he seemed to have the momentum coming out of strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Klobuchar hasn’t had the guns trained on her yet, but last night was a preview of where they will go. Like Kamala Harris before her, she will be called to task for her record as a prosecutor. Is that fair? Maybe– prosecutorial misconduct and culture has been a major problem in this country for decades now– but not in the way I suspect the media will cover it or her opponents will use it.

None of these candidates are like Mike Bloomberg. “Stop and Frisk” was a racially discriminatory police state policy and his boorish behavior is far beyond that of any other current Democratic candidate. Yet, Mike Bloomberg is NOTHING like Donald Trump. Neither is Bernie Sanders or any other Democratic candidate. But in our current discourse, they have to be. Purity tests do not care by what degree you missed the mark. There are no grades. It is pass/fail. And in such a highly cobbled together political caucus, no candidate is going to pass every purity test. Like voters, they have different focus areas and different blind spots (or worse).

To be clear about mine, I think Bernie Sanders will be a complete and total failure as President even if he manages to beat Trump. I think he will further entrench a binary “us versus them” mentality that has turned our national elections into zero-sum games that tilt the field in favor of the candidate who is least willing to give quarter to our fellow Americans on the other side of the aisle. I do not want someone who “fights,” as Trump and Sanders’s supporters so often say of their guy. I want someone who tries to move us forward through careful analysis and tough compromises.

Call me an incrementalist. Call me a squishy centrist. I have issues I care deeply about and others that I am openly hostile towards. Socially, I will always believe in advocating for racial justice. Things I saw and experienced growing up burned that into my soul and my work as a historian crystalized my views on the subject. I suspect I shall never move very far on that issue. On abortion, I have mixed feelings. I support the right to choose, not because I think abortions are “great” or pose no ethical quandary (quite the opposite), but because the issue is complex and I think our government should stay out of legislating on things we are so clearly split over. I don’t really care about gun control. It seems hopeless to me. Gun violence is clearly a problem. Gun owners and advocates will not give an inch. Any movement on this issue is going to have to come from the right. There is no sense wasting time or political capital arguing over it. The Green New Deal is an absolute non-starter for me. Any environmental legislation that places the burden of change on American midwesterners while asking little of densely populated coastal areas that create most of the nation’s pollution is a non-starter for me as an Ohioan (and none of it matters if we cannot force international cooperation). However, I believe deeply in having clean air and water (and that we should hold companies who abuse these public trusts accountable). Like most Americans, I think we tax the wealthiest Americans too little, middle-class Americans too much, and that we allocate our tax dollars poorly. I think America has been at its strongest when it invested heavily in education and entrepreneurship rather than in tax-breaks for monopolies. Above all, I believe that a pluralistic democratic society necessitates moderation and cooperation. The alternative is authoritarian rule by whichever side can cobble together a slim and temporary electoral majority. And if you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.


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