Democrats, Purity Tests, and a Certain Kind of Rigidity

A few days ago Barack Obama, at a “town hall” in Berlin, issued a warning against progressives and “purity” tests. “One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States — maybe it’s true here as well — is a certain kind of rigidity, where we say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. This is how it’s going to be,’” Obama said. All these purity tests are going to fracture party unity and cause circular firing squads.

I admit I sometimes find myself getting annoyed by people who will not accept even a shade of difference from their ideal policy proposal. But IMO such people are a minority, and such people are not the Democrats’ real problem when it comes to purity tests.

The landslide defeat of George McGovern in 1972 may have persuaded the Democrats to avoid the appearance of radicalism, but by the defeat of Walter Mondal in 1984 a rising faction of the Democratic party believed that even the legacy of the New Deal was too far from the mainstream.

The Democratic Leadership Council formed in the 1980s to give the party a new direction, and that direction was to the Right. The DLC proposed to reduce the role of unions, get tough on crime, cut spending, balance budgets, “reform” welfare, and promote free trade. The DLC’s best-known chairman was Bill Clinton, and when Clinton won the White House in 1992 it enshrined the DLC agenda as party orthodoxy.

The DLC closed its doors in 2011, citing lack of cash. At the time, this was seen as a sign that the Democrats were moving in a more progressive direction. Ben Smith wrote in Politico,

“With President Obama consciously reconstructing a winning coalition by reconnecting with the progressive center, the pragmatic ideas of PPI and other organizations are more vital than ever,” [DLC co-founder Will] Marshall said.

The DLC’s demise is, however, is bringing no mournful elegies from the liberal groups who made its name a synonym for everything they saw as wrong with Bill Clinton’s party: what they saw as a religion of compromise, a lack of principle, and a willingness to sell out the poor and African-American voters at the party’s base.

“One of the things that’s happening right now in Democratic politics is that progressives are winning the battle for the party,” said Progressive Congress president Darcy Burner. “The corporate-focused DLC type of politics isn’t working inside the Democratic party.”

Yes, that was written in 2011. Somehow, in spite of all these “progressives,” the spirit of the DLC managed to live on in the Democratic Party. Michael Corcoran wrote for TruthOut in 2017,

“I don’t think the people who ran the DLC ever really left,” said Norman Solomon, a coordinator for RootsAction, in an interview with Truthout. “It is the same product, different name.” Indeed, the DLC agenda is carried out today by think tanks like the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and Third Way, which push the same regressive agenda but under different labels, and with less public scrutiny. As the Boston Globe described in 2014, Third Way usually works “behind the scenes — in the White House, the corridors of Congress, and the office suites of lobbying firms in downtown Washington.”

Note that PPI began as an offshoot of the DLC and was founded by the DLC’s Will Marshall. Also note that although from his photo he is only about 12 years old, Cocoran’s anlysis is worth reading all the way through. I am going to move on, though.

In 1992, the DLC approach may have been justified as a pragmatic accommodation to the dominance of Reaganism and movement conservatism. An influential paper from PPI argued in 1989 that Democratic “programs must be shaped and defended within an inhospitable ideological climate, and they cannot by themselves remedy the electorate’s broader antipathy to contemporary liberalism.” In other words, the Dems had to acknowledge that “liberalism” was a dirty word and that they were playing defense on the Right’s field. This, too, became party orthodoxy.

However, as the Right grew more extreme and less capable of so much as tying its shoes, never mind governing, Democratic Party orthodoxy didn’t adjust. Even after the “blue wave” years of 2006 and 2008, and the election of Barack Obama, Dem leaders remained stuck in 1992 and offered no real alternative to the Right. Democrats were rigidly fixed to the idea that they were playing defense in the Right’s field, and the only policy ideas that they would countenance were those considered to be “safe” and possibly even attractive to centrist Republicans.

What irks me about Dems who whine that the leftie-progressive wing are “purists” is that it’s the centrist-DLC-Third Way crowd, which has dominated the party agenda for many years, that set rigidly narrow limits on which policy ideas were considered legitimate and which were out of bounds and could not be taken seriously. Why aren’t they the “purists”?

They call themselves “pragmatic,” but what they really are is blind. They are the ones who rendered the Democratic Party irrelevant to much of the working class. They are the ones who pissed away Rust Belt votes. They are the ones who made room for the right-wing populism that made Donald Trump president.

Recently Bhaskar Sunkara wrote of President Obama’s “purity” remarks at The Guardian,

Of course, Obama retorts, “You have to recognize that the way we’ve structured democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you, and that by definition means you’re not going to get 100% of what you want.” But the real problem the Democrats faced in 2016 wasn’t that they were too strident in putting forward a purist progressive vision. Rather, Clinton ran a campaign mostly about shielding Americans from the nightmare of Trumpism and not presenting dreams for the future. When people say they have been falling behind for the last 30 years and your retort is: “I can fix that, I’m experienced, I’ve been in politics for 30 years,” you might end up losing an election.

And that, my dears, is the most succinct explanation I’ve seen yet for why people just plain didn’t turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

This primary, Sanders and Warren are actually giving people a positive, comprehensible agenda to vote for, one that can speak to the justified rage of so many who are not willing to settle for a world destroyed by climate change, another year without basic healthcare, or continued precarious employment feel. For Obama, “We have to be careful in balancing big dreams and bold ideas with also recognizing that typically change happens in steps.” But incrementalism during the Obama years was small steps to nowhere, ones that far from cementing a new progressive majority actually helped open the door to the populist right.

Paul Waldman also addressed the “purity” remarks,

He [Obama] became a viable candidate in 2008 in no small part because the party’s base was so disgusted with Democrats who voted for the Iraq War, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, Charles E. Schumer, and Harry Reid. Obama, who had publicly opposed the war as a state senator in Illinois, was alone among the major candidates in being able to point to his opposition, satisfying a purity test that candidates such as Clinton and Edwards failed.

And that campaign was as hard-fought as nearly any in memory. When Obama won, there were some hard feelings to be soothed, but it didn’t stop the party from uniting around him.

And today?

And while it’s true that many of the Democrats running for president are embracing policies that are further left than what they may have supported a few years ago, they’re doing what presidential candidates always do: responding to their party’s voters. And it happens that the things they’re advocating, such as universal health care, a higher minimum wage, marijuana legalization or stronger action on climate change, are pretty popular.

One must also remember that the Democratic Party is not one thing. It has a range of voices in it, and even if figures from the left such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more prominent than their counterparts might have been at an earlier time, they’re doing what they ought to do: push the boundaries, challenge the status quo and force new issues and perspectives into the debate. Then the party as a whole can hash them out, which is what happens in presidential primaries. The resulting agenda will be the product of that process and hopefully something the whole party can get behind.

This is what political primary contests are supposed to do. Candidates put their ideas in front of the public, and the public votes. But for most of the 1990s and 2000s the  Democratic Party has functioned as a huge barrier that only allowed the most modest and unoriginal ideas to be promoted.

Even its one progressive signature bill, the Affordable Care Act, was a warmed over Heritage Foundation idea that had been tried out in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. I would be the first to say that, as hard as it was to pass the ACA, a genuine single-payer bill wouldn’t have been possible in 2009. But it was the Democratic Party itself that had helped establish the parameters of what was too “radical” and what wasn’t.

You think the old DLC crowd isn’t still trying to set the agenda? This was in the New York Times this morning:

Senator Bernie Sanders, in a rare and forceful rebuke by a presidential candidate of an influential party ally, has accused a liberal think tank of undermining Democrats’ chances of taking back the White House in 2020 by “using its resources to smear” him and other contenders pushing progressive policies.

Mr. Sanders’s criticism of the Center for American Progress, delivered on Saturday in a letter obtained by The New York Times, reflects a simmering ideological battle within the Democratic Party and threatens to reopen wounds from the 2016 primary between him and Hillary Clinton’s allies. The letter airs criticisms shared among his supporters: That the think tank, which has close ties to Mrs. Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment, is beholden to corporate donors and has worked to quash a leftward shift in the party led partly by Mr. Sanders.

“This counterproductive negative campaigning needs to stop,” Mr. Sanders wrote to the boards of the Center for American Progress and its sister group, the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “The Democratic primary must be a campaign of ideas, not of bad-faith smears. Please help play a constructive role in the effort to defeat Donald Trump.”

Of course, much of the sniping of Sanders coming from the old Clinton crowd is about their irrational belief that he, and not her own shortcomings as a candidate, cost her the election in 2016. And I don’t want this to be just about Sanders, or just about the presidential field in 2020. This is about a powerful minority faction that assumes it has the sole right to determine who is a “real Democrat” and to set the agenda of the Democratic Party. And they don’t. Not any more.

Please also see The Wrong Way to Rebuild the Democratic Party (Politico, February 2017) by Leah Hunt-Hendrix; Even in Power, Democrats Are Proving To Be Their Own Worst Enemy (In These Times, January 2019) by Miles Kampf-Lassin.

11 thoughts on “Democrats, Purity Tests, and a Certain Kind of Rigidity

  1. Sanders' made his complaint very graciously. If he gets demerits for that it's because the Dem establishment is still catering to its corporate overlords.

    The DLC way was to ask for the middle at the start of negotiations. That never turned out well. They're still afraid that the socialism tag or the middle-school Pocahontas taunt render the two leftiest candidates impotent against Trump.

    In two months, we'll go the longest since its 1937 inception without an increase in the minimum wage and the DLC can't see the need to carry that economic fight at all. Purity test indeed.


    • Democrats are running scared on "socialism" and working hard at undermining progressive members of congress and presidential candidates, once again taking the failed "centrist" approach of thinking this will somehow inoculate them against the charge from right.  In so doing they telegraph to the GOP that they are unprepared with no effective messaging to let the air out of their scare tactics, and are ready to help the GOP (inadvertently?) with its own work of driving a wedge between the democratic constituencies.  A recipe for failure in 2020.

  2. The DLC failed to counter the machiavellian culture propaganda of plutocrats, who were themselves well armed with a working knowledge of which voters they could transform to their cause, and how to do it.  IOW, they were outwitted and outplayed by those who knew they had to change cultural values first before capitalizing with tribal zombie votes.  The DLC was reacting to what the plutocratic think tanks were enabling. 

    Christians had to be led to tolerate wealth and warfare first before they would begin to cheer for such policies.  Academics, lawyers, scientists… people paid to think and analyze in dispassionate cause-effect ways… not so much.  The latter bunch had to be marginalized.

    So we wind up with retarded sociopaths like Dubya and Trump.

  3. McGovern lost because he allowed himself to seem not up to the job of running his own campaign, let alone a country at war, and because most Americans believed Nixon wanted a victorious end to the war just as they did, while McGovern appeared willing to simply walk away from it.

    Contrary to the way things usually go, that election really was about foreign policy.

  4. And that, my dears, is the most succinct explanation I’ve seen yet for why people just plain didn’t turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

    Well that and the Russians and the FBI and the corporate media's obsession with all things Trump. Bottom line is Hillary is not on the ballot this year? Besides if a person who normally votes democratic voted for Trump because they thought Hillary wasn't progressive enough than they are just plain fools. If a voter decided to vote for Trump or to vote third party or not vote at all because they didn't like Hillary, well then they have to live with the role they played in choosing the current buffoon who occupies the White House.

    • "Well that and the Russians and the FBI and the corporate media's obsession with all things Trump." A stronger candidate could have overcome that, especially running against the likes of Trump. The Russians et al. exploited Clinton's vulnerabilities, but they didn't give Clinton those vulnerabilities. They were built into who she was as a candidate. 

      • After observing elections from 1968 on, yeah, you defined the situation perfectly.

      • " The Russians et al. exploited Clinton's vulnerabilities "

        Really, what I saw was a smear campaign, were they lied about her health, mental state etc. I don't recall the Russian campaign where they painted her as not sufficiently liberal. I just don't buy the argument that people voted for Trump because Hillary wasn't liberal enough, it makes zero sense? Besides who cares, she's not running this year, what is the point?

  5. When you talk about avoiding a circular firing squad, there are two possible outcomes you are avoiding. One is dividing the party so bitterly that significant numbers of Democrats don't vote in November. This is a characteristic which the Russians exploited and you're entitled to your opinion about whether it turned the election – it can't be measured. I met the guy behind the 'Bernie or Bust' movement and he wanted Trump to win to punish the establishment Democrats. IMO, this was akin to amputation as a cure for a hangnail. This time out, I hope Democrats understand that the worst Democrat candidate running is way better than Trump.

    The other outcome, which Maha devotes much of the post to, is using 'unity' as a device to marginalize those candidates and ideas which aren't sufficiently 'moderate'. The strategy of unity goes hand-in-hand with 'electability', which we will soon hear Joe Biden has by the bucketful. The valid argument Maha makes, if I understand her correctly is to support and vote for progressive candidates in the primary. Ambitious plans are not a liability.

    The root cause of 'moderation' has everything to do with money. That's my opinion. Candidates are endorsed by both parties as 'reliable' because they've bought into institutional corruption, a system which guarantees a member of Congress will retire rich. Bucking the system is dangerous to your political health because you won't just be running against the opposite party – you will be running against your own if you embrace policies for the public good except when that policy makes a connected special interest rich.

    I've been criticized that my attitude is too simplistic – but it's largely that simple. The establishment wings of both parties are in it for the money. Take money away and the incentive for 90% of the shenanigans evaporates. You are still dealing with the differences in outlook between conservatives and liberals – but that's the ONLY force which prevents progress. Eliminate corruption and the gale force of greed is reduced to the strong breeze of ideological differences. 

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