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State of Disunion

Political In-Fighting Won’t Win Elections

Debating Hillary vs. Bernie and pointing fingers at one another will only divide us further. It’s time to stand united in the only goal that matters: Taking back Congress and ousting Trump.

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If those to the left of today’s extremist GOP are going to have any chance of winning the midterms and ultimately, the presidency in 2020, we have to stop the constant fighting about who is responsible for the results of Election 2016. We have to stop attacking each other for how we voted or didn’t vote; we must stop the endless demands for expiation and apologies that will never come. Because we are alienating one another when we need to focus on the central, urgent, shared goal of taking back Congress. The country is at stake, and winning seats is more important than knowing whether you or I or someone else was more prescient during the last presidential election, or whether the current crop of candidates is cut in the mold of also-rans from 2016.

For nearly two years, many of us have been watching the Hillary versus Bernie grudge match being replayed, in various forms, on Twitter and Facebook (not to mention in the mainstream media, which loves nothing more than looking at every Democratic primary though that same tired prism). How many times have you seen posts that read, “HEY Stein/Sanders/HRC/non-voters: YOU DID THIS!” in response to the latest Trump/GOP atrocity? (Funny how no one ever calls out Gary Johnson voters.)  

Sometimes the post demands the reader’s acknowledgement of fault or it will include a: “If you had voted [the way I think you should have], we would not be here right now.” Bernie Sanders supporters still rail against the Democratic Party for nominating a candidate “as flawed as Hillary Clinton,” insisting that if the DNC had not “sabotaged” their candidate, Sanders would not have lost the primary by 4 million votes and that he would have easily smacked down Trump. They are certain that his “democratic socialism” would have resonated enough to overcome the attacks from the Right in red and purple states, and at least his place on the ticket would have removed misogyny and corruption from the equation.

Hillary Clinton supporters point to Sanders’s relentless demonization of the Democratic Party, which electrified a new set of young voters against the only one of the two parties that comes anywhere near Sanders’s own ideals and priorities. They also point to statement after statement that Clinton made during the campaign—each of which has turned out to be true—warning of the dangers of electing a man who can be baited with a tweet and in thrall to Putin; of the racism of Trump’s base (which Sanders denies); the risk to our civil liberties and other rights if Trump were given the opportunity to pack the courts. They rage against the attacks on Clinton by Jill Stein and Susan Sarandon, who falsely claimed Clinton was “more dangerous” than Trump. (Many conveniently forget that Bernie Sanders said in an early primary debate that “on her worst day, Hillary Clinton will be an infinitely better candidate and president than the Republican candidate on his best day.”) And those same supporters ignore the fact that approximately 90 percent of Sanders’s supporters voted for Hillary, and, when they unleash their rage, make no distinction between the Bernie-or-Busters and the Sanders supporters who did vote for Clinton. Both sides decry the non-voters, usually without acknowledging the successful voter-suppression tactics on the right, and without knowing how these non-voters would have voted if they had, in fact, voted, or acknowledging that the decision not to vote may be a product of a complex set of circumstances including disillusionment and lack of education.  

Since the 2016 election, I have cringed watching the Democratic Party try to navigate the Bernie-Hillary divide. It seemed like every day they were doing something to appease Bernie voters, but that appeasement enraged and alienated the Hillary voters. The press eagerly fomented the divisions and wrote (and still writes) about them breathlessly—but, admittedly, not without reason. Things were no better on a personal level. The wounds were raw and ugly, and every time I thought a scab was forming, someone would rip it off. I had vowed never to talk about the Bernie-Hillary issues again because all they did was invite recrimination. But sometimes I got sucked into it despite myself—and every time, I regretted it. No one’s mind was ever changed, nor would it be.

We have to find a way to get past this festering bitterness. If we don’t, we will lose the midterms, and 2020 will be a pipe dream. I have been thinking about this in the wake of the Democratic primaries, as I’ve seen a resurgence—and it is not letting up. With nearly the same fury and frequency as in the 2016 election, arguments unfold about what should have happened two years ago and the (conflicting) lessons everyone is so sure must be learned: We cannot run an Establishment Dem. We must tack left. We must reject “identity politics.” We must stop the “purity tests.” We must recapture the white working-class male. We must run moderates who can appeal to red and purple voters; we cannot run moderates. We cannot compromise. We must compromise. And every argument ends with each side accusing the other of being the culprit for why we have Trump and, if we do not accept the other person’s point of view as the correct one, it’ll be the reason we will lose in November. There is still so much anger, all on our own side, that seems to be directed at others on our own side, rather than channeled and harnessed to fight the person and party actually responsible for the corruption and abuse of power and evil happening now.  

Last month, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional primary in Queens/the Bronx, I witnessed multiple Hillary Clinton supporters express disgust over the fact that she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. When a photo surfaced of her with Susan Sarandon, a number of Clinton supporters wrote off Ocasio-Cortez entirely because of her association with the actress, whom they despise for her incendiary comments during the election about Clinton—not least of which, the false equivalencies Sarandon made between Clinton and Trump in her zeal to get traction for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. I share the distaste for Sarandon, but the actress is not running for office. Ocasio-Cortez is, which is one reason I found this reaction short-sighted and actually dangerous. Here is a young, vibrant Latina who won in a diverse, liberal New York City district where her message resonated with constituents—a fact to be celebrated, not lamented merely because Sarandon also celebrates Ocasio-Cortez’s success. I don’t see much difference between this attitude and the attitude of Republicans who reject views they formerly espoused the moment Barack Obama embraced them.

At the same time, Ocasio-Cortez has made some decisions since her election that I have seen many people get upset about and I have had to work though. She decided to support a primary challenger to representative Steph Murphy, the first Vietnamese-American woman  elected to Congress, in a district in Florida that is evenly red/blue and that Murphy won in 2016 over a long-time Republican incumbent. I understand she knows the (male) challenger personally, but I cannot help wonder why she thinks this is a good use of her influence or how it is remotely helpful to the larger project of taking back the House. She is also campaigning in the third Congressional in district Kansas, which for the first time in years has a crowded field of young, progressive candidates, which include a Native American lesbian, Sharice Davids. She is there with Bernie Sanders on behalf of Brent Welder, a white guy; Welder appears to be a progressive candidate worth supporting, but so does Davids. (Although his website has significantly more detail about the issues than hers; the lack of substance to her website dismays me, as I love her narrative). It is hard to discern whether Ocasio-Cortez investigated the details of this race before deciding to jump in, or considered whether it is a good idea for her to leverage her newfound celebrity to assist Welder over Davids and the others in the race.

What I do know is that I am seeing a mounting anger toward Ocasio-Cortez—her support for these two candidates is being portrayed as her trying to undermine women of color, as if she is not also a woman of color and has not endorsed people of color in other races. I am seeing a need and desire to see her every choice as an affront, evidence that she is simply a Sanders surrogate, and therefore someone to oppose rather than support—irrespective of her actual ideas.

In fact there seems to be a concerted effort going on on Twitter that is bent on destroying her before she is even elected; I won’t give these posts air but they remind me forcibly of how certain Bernie Sanders supporters in 2016 would take to Twitter to try to discredit anyone who criticized him (me included). Only now, the unhinged conspiracy theories are being repeated by Hillary supporters determined to view anyone associated with him as suspect—gobbling up Cenk Uygur–esque hit pieces like candy. (You would think that after watching their favored candidate be ravaged by this sort of attack when credulous Sanders supporters ate it up and propagated it, Hillary supporters would recognize when those same tactics are used on them to turn them against Ocasio-Cortez. But, no, the Bernie-Hillary divide is still being exploited and so many are blind to it!)

Of course, Bernie Sanders, even in the face of the catastrophic threat that Trump and the GOP represent, has chosen to respond to a vibrant six-person Democratic field for a single congressional district in Kansas by harping on the Democrats’ “political malpractice” from the prior decade in which they did not run competitively in many red districts. Never mind that that mistake has now been rectified; he will not alter his anti-Democratic stump speeches because that is who he is. His continuing minimization of the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans still has the capacity to send many Democrats into paroxysms of anger, especially given how bad things are and how hard we are working to take back Congress; it makes the healing and unity we so badly feel really elusive. And when outlets like The Intercept go on to attack Davids for accepting support from Emily’s List, falsely suggesting that an organization that helps identify and fund Democratic female candidates for office is somehow the equivalent of “big money” or “the Establishment,” they dredge up all-too-fresh, bitter memories of Sanders writing off women’s rights and civil rights organizations, as well as black and/or female politicians as the “Establishment” merely because they declined to endorse him.

What do we do with these nonstop replays of 2016?

Well, for one thing, we need to stop assuming that supporting a candidate in the primary means that if that candidate loses, the supporter will not support the victor in the general. These are primaries, where we are supposed to sort out competing visions and policy priorities. A competitive primary should not be a cause for rage. For another, it does not bode well for our ability to win elections generally if some Democrats cheer every time a Sanders-associated candidate loses a race (as I have seen repeatedly, in races across the country). And if the Sanders’s wing’s goal every time is to get rid of “Establishment” Democrats without regard to whether their favored candidate has a chance in the general and without regard to the fact that a moderate Democrat is better than any Republican any day of the week, that does not bode well, either, for our ability to come to together to win more broadly. Third, the two “sides” are not going to convince each other to back down and neither is going to admit the other was/is right. We have to stop demanding or expecting that from each other.  Is the grudge match and the need to be right really more important than our shared goals? Than people’s lives? Than the choices made by the constituents themselves?

Yet this will not stop happening!  By way of example (and I have many others), just the other day in a 15,000-person FB group I was added to, someone posted that Davids is a progressive candidate backed by Emily’s List who could use the group’s support. The immediate response was:  “If ‘progressive’ means she is a Bernie supporter, you just turned me off.” Writing off candidates because Sanders supports them is as short-sighted as writing off “Establishment Democrats” for not being part of “Our Revolution.” It reflects an ugly tribalism that is divorced from principle, enshrining personal distaste over results, an emotional need to hang on to our anger over the well-being of the voters themselves—and for those turning on Ocasio-Cortez, it privileges lingering fury over Clinton’s presidential loss two years ago over the specific needs of a diverse community, and helps undermine a powerful new Latina voice (as the activist Gabriel Valdez noted in several impassioned FB posts on the subject).  

Do the people dropping Ocasio-Cortez over her association with Sanders ever say they disagree with her message, or hate her ideas based on substance?  No. And they assume that her support for Welder is an attempt to take Davids down—even though he is the candidate in that race whose positions are closest to hers and even though there are four other candidates in the race and even though his platform is full of positions they agree with.

But among some Bernie supporters, I see the same bitterness toward Hillary Clinton (almost always with a nice juicy bit of self-denying misogyny baked in) for running at all in 2016, and at “other corporate/Establishment Dems” for daring to run anywhere, since then. Any time a Democrat wins who is not anointed by “Our Revolution”—regardless of the qualifications and platform of the challenger or the demographics and political leanings of the district, the reaction is one of anger at the “neoliberals” and their supposedly corporatist agenda. And among them I also see ongoing rage against “Establishment” Democrats without any acknowledgement or recognition of historical fact, the districts they represent, or their accomplishments—but instead reflexive dismissal and assumptions of corruption and nefarious intent.

And everywhere, I see a constant burning fury against the Democratic Party writ large—at the “leadership,” the “lack of leadership,” at the DNC, at Barack Obama for not saying or doing enough, at Hillary Clinton for speaking or not speaking, at Tom Perez, at Nancy Pelosi, at “the party” for its inability to coherently articulate a simple message that resonates or for not having a propagandistic media equivalent of Fox News.

I often share this fury even though I know elements of it are irrational; I see it as a combination of rage and powerlessness and fear and anxiety. But we are also projecting onto the minority party a set of assumptions that there is So Much More They Could Be Doing, unaccompanied by viable suggestions of what it is that they can and should be doing other than “Do better!”  We are quick to attribute politicians’ failure to do exactly as we want to corruption or to cowardice; we often seem incapable of recognizing that while those may indeed play a role, the broader the elected’s constituency, the more calibrated the politician’s response may need to be to balance the various interests of those constituencies. And in the fevered, anguished cries of “we need leadership,” and the incessant media coverage of the supposed fault lines on the left and the potential 2020 candidates who all seem facially inadequate, we seem to be looking for some kind of soaring magical Savior to appear with perfect oratory that will break the Trump fever-cult and the third-party self-certainty and the GOP cancer, who will save us from everything—including our own penchant for self-sabotaging recrimination against each other.  Surely someone will have a perfect message and get everyone to realize the error of their ways and we will win! But wishing for our own cult leader is no answer. The truth is that we have to save ourselves.

While I know we have the power, there is still is such rage, bitterness, blame, and invective directed less at Trump and the GOP, and instead at other factions on the left. We do this even though we share most of the same policy priorities and values, and differ from each other primarily in terms of practicalities (incremental versus radical change? full government program or a quasi-market-based approach?) and strategies (message based on civil rights, or economics?), not substance. We magnify minor differences and tear apart every candidate who does not perfectly mirror our own opinions. It’s self-defeating. And it’s going to be our undoing if we cannot get past it.

The fact is, there are differing views within the party, and that includes those who are not formally affiliated as Democrats who are trying to make the party more progressive, and that is healthy. It is okay to have these debates and disagreements.  We need to remember that passionate disagreement over strategies and priorities within the same largely shared set of goals is not a weakness and should not be a source of mutual hatred; it should be a strength.  Diversity of opinion is strength. We must leverage it, and recognize that the seemingly trite concept of “there is so much more that unites us than divides us” is founded in truth.

We simply can’t take back Congress and put a check on this administration’s abominations if we are screaming at each other over Hillary and Bernie and Susan Sarandon and Jill Stein; if we are willing to withhold money and support and effort from candidates merely because they do not share our particular grudges. All that rage, all that angst, all that bitterness are self-indulgent luxuries that we cannot afford; wasted energy that would be much better directed outward at the targets actively inflicting harm. Whoever wins each primary, wins it; we must support whoever it is in the general. And that is the message we need to underscore when we talk to each other. We need to swallow our lingering bile about 2016, stop engaging and infuriating each other on that question, and focus on supporting every Democratic candidate—whatever their label—in the general.

November is coming. Whether it comes for the GOP in a giant blue wave, or we drown ourselves in bitter tears is up to us.

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