Blindly Smearing “Establishment” Democrats Is Counterproductive
When self-identified Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, was it for better or for worse for the Democratic Party?
That remains a contentious question among Democratic leadership and voters alike. Sanders’ campaign brought ideas like universal health care, support for Palestine, and tuition-free public college — once widely deemed as fringe and radical — to mainstream dialogue. He played a significant role in crafting the Democratic Party’s most progressive platform in history and arguably made the country’s political landscape more welcoming of young people.
But in a manner that was oft compared to then-Republican candidate Donald Trump’s message of an America failing its “real people,” in the process of fighting for his ideas and fighting for legitimacy, Sanders also brought dangerous levels of divisiveness into the fold with his “us vs. them,” “anti-establishment vs. establishment” rhetoric. Any Democrat who didn’t endorse him and instead sided with Sanders’ rival, Hillary Clinton, was an out-of-touch “cosmopolitan.”
Lawmakers with years of experience in crafting applicable policy in polarizing and divisive settings, with D.C. connections forged over years of dealmaking and pragmatic compromises to provide for real, meaningful change, now watched as those years and connections were to be weaponized against them. Sanders even responded to Planned Parenthood’s endorsement of Clinton by critically identifying the most maligned and attacked women’s health organization in the world as “establishment.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we should recognize the role of his rhetorical talking points in helping to doom Clinton in the general election, of his hand in sidelining identity-based issues as purported distractions from “real,” hard economic issues, and approach his message with scrutiny. Because while Sanders ultimately lost the nomination, his ideology of packaging experience and Washington political networking as inherently evil, holds as much clout — if not more — than at the peak of his presidential campaign. And with midterm elections already underway, this has powerful implications.
Last month, in her 26th year of serving as the U.S. senator for California, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was not able to win the endorsement of the state Democratic Party. Instead, delegates favored her rival Kevin de León, a Sanders-esque progressive hailing from the overwhelmingly blue California state Senate. The vote was 54 to 37 percent, in de León’s favor. Neither candidate received the endorsement having failed to win a necessary majority, but the vote was a jarring rebuke to the Democratic “establishment” nonetheless.
Earlier this month, Sanders declined to endorse Feinstein, and of her failure to win California Democrats’ endorsement, said, “California Democrats are hungry for new leadership that will fight for California values from the front lines, not equivocate on the sidelines.”
Feinstein is the very image of a Clinton-esque, “establishment” Democrat; she is moderate and pragmatic in comparison to de León’s ambitious projects on environmental justice and education. But perhaps it’s time for us to understand what “moderate” really means, beyond its relatively recent status as a Sanders-wing dog whistle.
In the current national political landscape, what we’re witnessing is an existential battle for the bare necessities, for protection of the Affordable Care Act so that some 32 million Americans don’t lose their health care and thousands of children and adults don’t die because they can’t afford basic medical services. Legislators with the slightest semblance of decency are fighting tooth and nail for basic legislative protections and civil rights for marginalized groups, for the funding of basics like public school, essential family planning resources, the right to not be fired by an employer for being gay or being a sexually active woman.
As much as the self-identified “anti-establishment” wing seems unwilling to acknowledge this, the reality is that in the face of so much and such powerful opposition, the political fights for these most basic, foundational rights and resources necessitate experience. They require expertise and existing connections and relationships that the likes of de León and other hyper-progressives may lack. We have to ask ourselves what the real, practical use for utopic ideas and dogged, ideological purity may be, if we can’t even protect low-income women’s access to birth control or the right of people with pre-existing conditions to access affordable health care.
The truth is that universal health care is an ideal that we very well should be having conversations about. But universal health care isn’t necessarily the only model to ensure that everyone has access to affordable health care, and as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said, it shouldn’t be a litmus test for Democratic politicians.
President Donald Trump and his increasingly extremist party are not the only threats to marginalized peoples’ rights in this country. Regardless of their well-meaning ideas and colorful visions for the future, electing people who lack the fundamental experiences and skill sets to fight for the basics place already vulnerable Americans further at risk.
The demands of the progressive, far-left are going to take time, gradual progress and immense foundational work. If we fail to fight for the basics, today, by electing people who lack the requisite experiences and skills to fight for them, we could not only forfeit these basics but also lose even more ground. And more than anyone else, the marginalized people whom the Sanders wing may claim to care about would suffer most.
Feinstein’s credentials include her status as one of two senators to receive direct briefing from former FBI Director James Comey about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Not only is she the ranking member of both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, but she also has a long record of bipartisan dealmaking, upholding key relationships and experience in public service in a politically diverse landscape like Capitol Hill that these times require. One key legislative victory by Feinstein has been her work in passing the 1994 assault weapon ban, especially relevant amid ongoing conflict about Congress’ present inability to pass meaningful gun safety legislation, even in the wake of multiple mass shootings. Far be it to say that she or her ideas are perfect, but her skill set is far more applicable in Washington than those of her rival, and her values and receptiveness to her constituents’ needs have remained steady throughout her tenure.
In many races across the country that feature experienced, well-connected and well-versed moderate Democrats pitted against idealistic candidates hailing from the far-left, this may also be the case. When there is as much to lose — particularly for people of color, immigrants, women, low-income people, disabled people and LGBTQ people — as there is, taking chances on people with new ideas and little else backing them up is a risk our democracy may not be able to afford.
And yet, none of this is to say that Democrats should never embrace change of any sort. In cases like the race of incumbent, notably anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski against progressive, liberal and notably female challenger Marie Newman, there are times when Democrats with dated, damaging values threatening to democracy and human rights simply have to go.
You can't be a D rep in a D district, vote against what we want, & then say that we're not welcoming you into the tent anymore. @RepLipinski – you're not rep'ing us anymore. You can believe what you want (anti-gay, anti-equality), but you can't vote that way on our behalf.
But there is a significant difference between upholding basic standards of decency for our lawmakers and ruling out and smearing Democrats solely for their experience and connections.
The idea that those who care enough to forge connections, educate themselves and develop literacy in policymaking and dealmaking, rack up years of experience, and align themselves with party leadership, are somehow unable to understand and work on behalf of “real Americans” because of this proven dedication is baseless and damaging. The election of the least qualified president in U.S. history over the most qualified candidate in U.S. history, and all of the unspeakable costs to basic decency and human rights this presidency has already seen to in its 14 short months, speak volumes about this reality. And if we don’t learn from our mistakes, we’re bound to repeat them.
And, of course, I would be remiss to conclude without acknowledging how this phenomenon disproportionately affects women in positions of power. So many of us across the political spectrum have internalized that the only way women could possibly achieve power is through corruption and dishonesty, rather than merit and leadership qualities that we’ve long been taught to separate from our patriarchally derived concepts of femininity.
Clinton, of course, is just one gleaming example of this. Feinstein, Pelosi, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and any other female politician who rises in the ranks of our national consciousness, follow in her footsteps. And generations could be deprived of strong, highly capable female leadership because of the lasting attitudes of the Sanders insurgency.
With midterm elections upon us, we have a lot of choices, and our democracy is enriched by this fact. But with basic decency, competency, progress and foundational Democratic values at stake, the onus is on us to make both the right choice, and the smart choice.