11 (or, arguably, 14) Takes on the the 2020 Primary

Me: I can’t stand people who write long, self-important borderline-manifesto takes on elections.

Also Me: 11 (or, arguably, 14) takes on my decision-making re: the 2020 primary

(1) I think we are blessed to have a wealth of good candidates in the race, and by that I mean two.* I think both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have had robust progressive policy shops that have been a fountain of good ideas for how to move the country in the direction of equity, justice, democracy, and sustainability. I think their policy shops have had a mutually beneficial effect on each other, encouraging them to be bolder and to cover more territory. Not all of this will air on a debate or get the amount of media coverage deserved (given the inevitable focus on the horse race and the ephemera of the campaign trail), but it has played an important agenda-setting role. We’ve seen Sanders develop in policy areas where he had little to say in 2016 (K-12 education) and Warren grow across the campaign (housing). This is all very good. (*Even though they were never my candidates or going to be my candidates, a number of the also-ran candidates in this race have brought a lot of good to the debate and will continue to in future policy fights).

(2) There has been an implicit debate in the Democratic Party about whether Trump was an aberration or a culmination, that is, a one-off event or a symptom of a deeper disease. I believe he is the latter (as do Sanders and Warren) — the result of decades of constitutional norm erosion, a Republican Party willing to embrace racism and xenophobia to sell unpopular policies, a Democratic Party that sees itself as the arbiter between labor and capital rather than a champion of labor and thus relies on half-measures it isn’t even committing to selling, a cross-party elite failure to govern well and to hold major bad actors (from predatory banks to torture regime architects) accountable, a cross-party embrace of a neoliberal paradigm that seeks to shield the economy from the functioning of democracy, a hollowing of civic engagement, a growing of apathy, and a decreased sense of political efficacy. (NB: I think it’s also important to recognize that economic forces can exacerbate racism and xenophobia, but racism and xenophobia are not epiphenomena of such forces and cannot be obviated by changes in economic forces alone.)

(3) Any president — indeed, any politician — must have an actual understanding of how power works. Without that, you have no theory of change. When Joe Biden insists that Republicans will have an epiphany when Trump is gone and go back to working with him like in the “good old days” (when their deals were often bad…) or Pete Buttigieg bashes “Washington” with no deeper critique of why it is “broken,” they show no real understanding of power. If Washington is broken, who broke it? (Whispers: *It wasn’t “partisanship”*.) And if it isn’t “broken,” is it working exactly as intended — and then for whom? Of course, the issue here is the outsize role of corporate power, as alluded to above. The role of corporate power must be reduced in both the economy (increasing the number of non-market goods, breaking up monopolies, enforcing and strengthening regulations) and our democracy (anti-corruption legislation, campaign finance reform).

(4) I know many people for whom Warren’s 2012 campaign or Sanders’s 2016 campaign was a formative experience — perhaps their first campaign. Neither was for me, so I don’t come with rose-colored glasses. I didn’t move to Massachusetts until 2013 (and only volunteered for Warren’s guaranteed re-election), and the Sanders 2016 campaign in Massachusetts was rushed, leaving me without the breadth of lasting contacts that I made via other campaigns.

(5) No candidate is perfect. I can list off all the votes I know for which I disagree with either candidate (including some arcane ones no one probably even remembers — just ask) because I’ve followed Congressional roll call votes since 2013. My fear is that Sanders will dig in when he’s wrong, and Warren will backtrack when she’s right. Likewise that Sanders might hire people who are ideologically loyal but not very competent, and that Warren might hire people who are fiercely competent but not committed to her professed larger agenda. Indeed, I think both have an important role in accountability in this regard. And despite any and all of these flaws, I think they are far better than anyone else running.

(6) Although both (and especially Sanders) will get accused of being “my way or the highway,” that’s not borne out by reality. Both have voted for or helped negotiate good compromises, and both have, unfortunately voted for bad compromises (See #5 — I can name them). Overall, though, they are more likely than any other of their colleagues to say no to a bad deal, and I find that important. Yes, compromise is important to politics, but it is never a goal in and of itself. And if you have no dealbreakers, you have no principles.

(7) I think discussions of “electability” are almost always toxic because they reinforce preconceived notions of what a “candidate” should say and look like. Every election, people are challenging these images of what a candidate does, could, or should look like and how a candidate does/could/should act (“impossible things are happening every day…”), and conventional wisdom is rarely as wise as it is conventional. The job of a voter is not to play pundit, but to make the realities that we want to see. Someone is electable if we will work our hardest to elect them.

(8) As an addendum to the prior point, I think it’s important to recognize that no voter ever agrees with any candidate 100%. That’s just life. (Also, I’ve long recognized now that I’m part of a weird minority of the population that will actually spend a lot of time poring over candidates’ issues pages.) The way you win an election is convincing people that, for whatever % you agree, you’ll fight like hell for it.

(9) It’s interesting to reflect upon the fact that I’m the exact type of voter both candidates have staked their perceived path to victory on. Elizabeth Warren’s path has always been to pull in somewhat equal numbers supporters of both Clinton and Sanders — pulling Clinton supporters who still really want a female president and/or those who were always to her left on policy matters, and pulling Sanders supporters who might find her a better messenger for similar policies / want to elect a female president sooner rather than later / don’t want to live in the “long 2016 primary” forever. Sanders’s path has always been to hold onto at least half of his 2016 support and expand it with the Gen Z base that has aged into the electorate and with better outreach to non-English-speaking communities (where he was weak in 2016 but where there was/is a lot of potential — learning from past mistakes is exactly what campaigns should do). These both began as credible theories. EW’s seemed on track for success last summer, but fell under strain in the fall. Sanders’s has become more credible, and winning in early states has the bandwagoning effect needed for his theory to work out.

(10) Although “electability” is junk science usually, viability is a real phenomenon, and I decided a while ago that I wanted to vote strategically to best maximize the chance of a progressive nominee (because I could be perfectly content voting for either). For Warren, I’ve wondered: what is her path to victory? Which states does her team think she can win? Which also-ran candidates’ supporters can she bring in? How can she expand her base? For Sanders, I’ve wondered: is his team willing and able to be welcoming of people who share many, if not all, of the same values but backed another candidate first (and, indeed, most polls show that the vast majority of Democratic primary voters like Sanders, regardless of their first preference?) There are many wonderful people working for and volunteering for the campaign (indeed, most), but some of the loudest voices are, let’s say, the less wonderful (and often act in ways that are self-defeating). If there are simple things that you can do to not alienate people without sacrificing your values, you (expletive) do them.

(11) The past few weeks have led me to the conclusion that supporting Bernie Sanders is the best way to maximize the odds of a progressive nominee and minimize the odds of a long, drawn-out primary battle and a contested convention that leaves many people unhappy for too long (and will be voting for him on Tuesday, March 3). I think his campaign, if ultimately victorious (as I hope to see), will have the task of unifying the party without sacrificing values, and I think there are plenty of steps that he can easily take (and that the smartest people in his orbit understand — I’m thinking of folks like Pramila Jayapal, who I would love to see be Speaker one day, here). That does not mean playing nice with a donor class whose views are often out-of-step with the party’s actual base, but doing the work of coalition building that his campaign has been able to do in the primary so far — but on a broader scale.

I also think Warren would have an important role to play, whether in the administration (she brings great intelligence and solid values, and both are vital for the task of rebuilding the federal government after Trump) or as an ally in the Senate. And if she does go into the cabinet, then we have many excellent politicians in Massachusetts who could take her seat (and by that I mean Ayanna Pressley).

And I think that it is incumbent on Sanders to choose a female vice president if he is (as I hope) the nominee. I think far too many people left 2016 fearing that a woman is not electable at the highest level, and a female VP who would be a potential successor would help counteract this. (Also, I want to see Mike Pence really uncomfortable when he has to be on stage debating a smart, progressive woman for several hours, but that is, of course, a subsidiary point.) And I do think it’s important to reject the left criticisms of representation that jump too quickly to “Well, Maggie Thatcher was a woman”takes. If the US Congress consisted of 535 old white men with all of the best progressive policy positions, it would still have major blindspots.

Given that the convention will be held in Milwaukee, I hope Sanders (if he is the nominee — as I hope, to repeat) draws on Milwaukee’s history of “sewer socialism.” That term was originally intended as a pejorative by dogmatic Marxists who were mocking how much Milwaukee’s governing socialists praised their city’s sewer system. But the term captures something different: the essence of their governance was not, in fact, a rigid or dogmatic ideology, but a firm commitment to rooting out the corruption and power of monied interests in city government, strengthening the public infrastructure, and investing more in the health and welfare of the public to ensure that the basic needs of all were met.

Editor. Bibliophile. Gadfly. Environmentalist. Super-volunteer for progressive campaigns. Boston by way of Baltimore, London, NYC, DC, and Philly.