Should We Primary Every Democrat?

Three views on left electoral strategy ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

In These Times Writers March 12, 2018

Illinois State Rep. Will Guzzardi’s 2014 victory helped inspire a crop of new progressive candidates in 2015. (PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DILTS)

Chal­lenge, But Don’t Divide

By Dan Cohen

The 2018 mid-terms afford Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry vot­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sup­port pro­gres­sive lead­ers with the cred­i­bil­i­ty both to inspire the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base and to restore the con­fi­dence of the many dis­af­fect­ed, frus­trat­ed vot­ers who sat out or swung to Don­ald Trump. Politi­cians like Trump and Illi­nois Gov. Bruce Rauner aren’t elect­ed based sole­ly on enthu­si­asm for their ide­olo­gies; they’re elect­ed because vot­ers lack con­fi­dence in a polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment that they view as cor­rupt, or elit­ist, or blithe­ly uncon­cerned with their needs.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers believe that they can side­step this cri­sis of faith with the mes­sage that they are stand­ing up to Don­ald Trump.” But as long as they are vot­ing with the GOP to reau­tho­rize war­rant­less domes­tic spy­ing and mil­i­tary spend­ing while refus­ing to put for­ward a bold domes­tic agen­da, they are block­ing the solu­tion and the lead­er­ship we need. The par­ty seems to be torn between coun­ter­ing the GOP with a bold pro­gres­sive agen­da or with the not-so-inspir­ing 2017 par­ty slo­gan A Bet­ter Deal” (trans­la­tion: We might suck but they suck worse”). We need Demo­c­ra­t­ic elect­ed lead­ers who will actu­al­ly lead, and who embody a true com­mit­ment to social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, inclu­sion and respect.

That means we need con­test­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries: on every lev­el of gov­ern­ment, in near­ly every dis­trict, as often as pos­si­ble. We should be chal­leng­ing not only con­ser­v­a­tive or cen­trist Democ­rats, but any Demo­c­rat fail­ing to act so as to restore con­fi­dence in our par­ty and in government.

Today’s polit­i­cal cli­mate enables can­di­dates to take pro­gres­sive stances that would have been unthink­able not long ago. Occu­py, Black Lives Mat­ter and the Bernie Sanders cam­paign have shift­ed pub­lic think­ing left. The more that peo­ple run on issues of social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice and win, the more that oth­er can­di­dates will fol­low suit. More peo­ple who have checked out of pol­i­tics might have a rea­son to get back in, too

But there’s a caveat. If we are run­ning to trans­form the par­ty in a more pro­gres­sive, inclu­sive direc­tion, we must fos­ter a cul­ture of respect for those with whom we, at least for now, dis­agree. Self-pro­claimed pro­gres­sives who hurl insults at their oppo­nents fre­quent­ly jus­ti­fy the tac­tic with, The oth­er side does it.” But the GOP doesn’t have the same objec­tives that we do. The GOP ben­e­fits from people’s loss of con­fi­dence in gov­ern­ment, while we need to restore it.

Like­wise, our pri­ma­ry oppo­nents are not the ene­my, nor are the vot­ers who put them in office. We need not com­pro­mise our val­ues, but there is a world of dif­fer­ence between say­ing, My oppo­nent is a cor­po­rate shill,” for exam­ple, and say­ing, I respect my oppo­nent and we agree on some issues, but we dis­agree on the need for a liv­ing wage now.”

And while the Sanders cam­paign helped inspire the cur­rent pro­gres­sive elec­toral turn, we can­not fall into the trap of relit­i­gat­ing that pri­ma­ry. Clinton’s pri­ma­ry vot­ers are not the ene­my, either. In fact, many agree with most Sanders vot­ers on most issues. That means when a Clin­ton vot­er says they hat­ed Bernie for such-and-such rea­sons but agreed with him on the issues, the answer should be, I respect that, let’s talk about how to advance those issues.” Too often, though, the answer is, What is wrong with you?” Not helpful.

We must remem­ber that we build move­ments over a longer time frame than one elec­tion cycle. Many of our chal­lengers will lose, at least their first run. My first Chica­go cam­paign as a strate­gist after mov­ing to the city was the 2012 state rep­re­sen­ta­tive pri­ma­ry chal­lenge by pro­gres­sive Will Guz­zar­di against a machine incum­bent. We were told Will couldn’t win. And he didn’t: He lost by 125 votes. But two years lat­er, he won by 21 per­cent. More than that, his cam­paign demon­strat­ed the cracks in the Chica­go machine and inspired a crop of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates in the 2015 munic­i­pal races. An even larg­er num­ber of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates are already plan­ning runs for City Coun­cil in 2019.

If we had a strong pro­gres­sive in every leg­isla­tive dis­trict on the fed­er­al and state lev­el in 2018, we would force thou­sands of cor­po­rate Democ­rats, at min­i­mum, to adopt some of our pol­i­cy posi­tions. What’s more, if we don’t beat them this time, it gives us lever­age to hold them account­able. All of which helps move the par­ty left, because when politi­cians pub­licly endorse pro­gres­sive poli­cies, it tells vot­ers, That’s what Democ­rats are about.”

Dan Cohen has been a poll­ster and strate­gist for pro­gres­sive elec­toral and issue cam­paigns for almost 20 years. He is pres­i­dent of Blue Sun Cam­paigns, and splits his time between Boston and Chicago.

When Not To Primary

By Jane Kleeb

We all love our local beer. We go to the farm­ers mar­ket and buy local beef and veg­gies. The toma­toes in Nebras­ka are dif­fer­ent than the ones in Flori­da, and we cel­e­brate that diver­si­ty. Yet when it comes to pol­i­tics, for too many pro­gres­sives, the basic the­o­ry of local seems to go out the window.

Pri­ma­ry­ing con­ser­v­a­tive and mod­er­ate incum­bent Democ­rats sim­ply because they are not as pro­gres­sive as oth­er Democ­rats, as Dan advo­cates, has nev­er made much sense to me. Call me what­ev­er label you want, but I would rather have a Demo­c­rat who is with us 70 per­cent of the time than a Repub­li­can who is against us 100 per­cent of the time. Even more than that, I firm­ly believe that diver­si­ty is a strength — not just diver­si­ty of race, or reli­gion, or nation­al­i­ty, but also of ideas. A Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that has both Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Hei­di Heitkamp makes us stronger. For exam­ple, when a farmer with a rur­al per­spec­tive on how health­care improve­ments could impact their com­mu­ni­ty sat at the table with an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor, those per­spec­tives joined togeth­er to make Oba­macare stronger.

Amer­i­ca is a coun­try of 330 mil­lion dif­fer­ent peo­ple, each with dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences, back­grounds and ideas. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs to reflect and embrace those dif­fer­ences. Just as a banker in Oma­ha, in my home state of Nebras­ka, will have had dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences than a teacher in Scotts­bluff, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor from Indi­ana will have a dif­fer­ent world­view than a con­gress­woman from New York. If we define being a Demo­c­rat” as hav­ing only one valid opin­ion about each of the many issues fac­ing our coun­try, that makes us weak­er, not stronger. As Democ­rats, we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to broad­en our base, which does not mean aban­don­ing our val­ues. I come from the grassroots.

Whether it was work­ing in Nebras­ka to help pass Oba­macare, or tak­ing on the Key­stone XL pipeline, my back­ground is in the streets, at kitchen tables, in com­bines with farm­ers dur­ing har­vest, on con­fer­ence calls with young activists across the coun­try, and at ral­lies with Native allies. We each had dif­fer­ent ideas at dif­fer­ent times and did not always come to con­sen­sus. I learned that diver­si­ty made us more resilient, more endur­ing and, yes, stronger. There was a rich­ness in hav­ing a ranch­er come togeth­er with a Native elder, both tak­ing dif­fer­ent paths but work­ing toward the same goal.

Democ­rats in red states have no oth­er choice. Vot­ers expect lead­ers to work for the peo­ple, and that means reach­ing across the aisle to actu­al­ly get leg­is­la­tion over the fin­ish line, even when we do not agree with every­thing in the bill. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sens. Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, both up for reelec­tion in 2018, rep­re­sent Mis­souri and Mon­tana, and the local issues fac­ing their com­mu­ni­ties are dif­fer­ent than those fac­ing West Coast Democ­rats such as Sens. Kamala Har­ris or Ron Wyden.

Nei­ther McCaskill nor Tester votes with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty 100 per­cent of the time. Nor should we expect them to. As Democ­rats, we do not act like Repub­li­cans, who ignore the fun­da­men­tal fact that their job is to rep­re­sent the peo­ple who elect­ed them. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is stronger for it. And so is, inci­den­tal­ly, any leg­is­la­tion we hope to pass as the major­i­ty par­ty. Democ­rats in red states make our bills more durable because they are reflec­tive of the broad vari­ety of peo­ple across our coun­try that the laws will impact.

A good exam­ple is the sup­port for ethanol and bio­fu­els by Democ­rats in red states. Some pro­gres­sive Democ­rats argue that divert­ing land to bio­fu­els will under­cut the food sup­ply. How­ev­er, those of us who live in agri­cul­tur­al states see the pos­i­tive eco­nom­ic impacts and the obvi­ous fact that bio­fu­els com­pete with Big Oil in the marketplace.

As a par­ty, we should be encour­ag­ing more voic­es to par­tic­i­pate rather than few­er. Vig­or­ous debate is a very good thing. I under­stand pri­ma­ry­ing con­ser­v­a­tive and mod­er­ate incum­bent Democ­rats is a path some will take. But to pri­ma­ry peo­ple not as part of a well-thought-out strat­e­gy, but sim­ply because they do not hold the pro­gres­sive line 100 per­cent of the time, is short-sight­ed and ulti­mate­ly weak­ens us as a nation­al par­ty. I pre­fer to walk the road of build­ing the par­ty so our bench is broad and we put an end to the cur­rent one-par­ty rule gov­ern­ing many of our states and our country.

Local is good. Local builds our par­ty. Local cel­e­brates the diverse ideas that Democ­rats bring to the table, cre­at­ing a win­ning coali­tion for our families.

Jane Kleeb is the founder of Bold Nebras­ka, chair of the Nebras­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s Uni­ty and Reform Com­mis­sion, and an Our Rev­o­lu­tion board mem­ber. She lives in Hast­ings, Neb.

Why the Left Must Contest 

By Day­ton Martindale

For some of us fire-breath­ing rad­i­cals, it’s hard not to bris­tle at the argu­ments above. Dan scolds us on what we can and can­not say. (“But some of them are cor­po­rate shills,” part of me argues.) Jane goes fur­ther, telling us those we dis­agree with can help make the par­ty stronger. This seems not only wrong­head­ed but baf­fling: Jane has been one of the most effec­tive voic­es against the Key­stone XL pipeline, so why put in a good word for Hei­di Heitkamp, the Senate’s third most con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­rat and a sup­port­er of Key­stone XL?

I think both pieces, in dif­fer­ent ways, are guid­ed by an admirable prin­ci­ple: Meet vot­ers where they’re at. Yes, a win­ning coali­tion must include Clin­ton vot­ers and Heitkamp vot­ers, peo­ple skep­ti­cal of big gov­ern­ment,” peo­ple who have read nei­ther Marx’s nor Piketty’s Cap­i­tal.

As a response, then, I look to my Catholic upbring­ing and say: Hate the sin, love the sin­ner.” By this I mean: We should reach out to and com­mu­ni­cate with red-state Democ­rats, not think less of them. We should avoid call­ing our oppo­nents names. I am swayed that this rep­re­sents a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, humane and effec­tive approach to politics.

But when Dan says, for exam­ple, Our pri­ma­ry oppo­nents are not the ene­my,” I wor­ry we aren’t talk­ing about the same fight. In a close gen­er­al elec­tion, sure, hold your nose and vote for what­ev­er cor­po­rate Demo­c­rat you need to if it keeps out the Repub­li­can. Even knock on doors. But in a pri­ma­ry, a Demo­c­rat who advo­cates for Key­stone XL or arm­ing Sau­di Ara­bia, or who oppos­es sin­gle-pay­er health­care, is sup­port­ing a world in which more suf­fer and die. It is impor­tant to be hon­est and up front that these aren’t rea­son­able allies with whom we hap­pen to dis­agree on a few mat­ters. They’re a seri­ous threat to a whole lot of people.

The dif­fer­ences between, say, a pro-frack­ing can­di­date and an anti-frack­ing can­di­date, one who wants to end the Drug War alto­geth­er and one who just wants to soft­en its edges, can have life-or death reper­cus­sions. We must con­vey this urgency if we want vot­ers to care. Our desire for mutu­al respect shouldn’t keep us from com­mu­ni­cat­ing the dras­tic dif­fer­ences in our visions. In fact, if we Marx­ists, anar­chists and rad­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal­ists are seri­ous about our pol­i­tics, we should chal­lenge pro­gres­sive incum­bents, too, even Bernie himself. 

As Dan points out — and as Bernie proved — pri­ma­ry chal­lenges pro­vide an incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty for pub­lic edu­ca­tion. They allow us to expose the bank­rupt­cy of the sta­tus quo, to com­mu­ni­cate to our fel­low cit­i­zens that not only is there a bet­ter way, but a much bet­ter way.

Of course, care must be tak­en to engage peo­ple in a way that’s demo­c­ra­t­ic, respect­ful and non-con­de­scend­ing, that incor­po­rates their con­cerns rather than lec­tures them from above. Jane is right: In some con­texts, rad­i­cals must nego­ti­ate and com­pro­mise, among them­selves and with oth­ers, and learn to work in a polit­i­cal land­scape that con­tains diverse points of view. But where vot­ers are at” is dynam­ic terrain.

Points of view are not sta­t­ic; democ­ra­cy requires not only incor­po­rat­ing dif­fer­ent val­ues but con­test­ing them.

In 1858, some Repub­li­cans sup­port­ed the slav­ery-agnos­tic Demo­c­rat Stephen Dou­glas over Repub­li­can Abra­ham Lin­coln in Illi­nois’ Sen­ate race. This was a gen­er­al elec­tion, not a pri­ma­ry, but the race shows that run­ning a prin­ci­pled cam­paign against a mod­er­ate can empow­er a movement.

In the debates, writes Brook­lyn Col­lege pro­fes­sor Roy Tsao, Lin­coln mock[ed] Dou­glas as the only man in the coun­try with­out an opin­ion” on slav­ery. After Dou­glas won and took office, Lin­coln not­ed that his oppo­nent nev­er lets the log­ic of prin­ci­ple, dis­place the log­ic of suc­cess.” In an April 1859 let­ter, he wrote:

Of course I would have pre­ferred suc­cess; but fail­ing in that, I have no regrets for hav­ing reject­ed all advice to the con­trary, and res­olute­ly made the strug­gle. Had we thrown our­selves into the arms of Dou­glas … the Repub­li­can cause would have been anni­hi­lat­ed in Illi­nois, and, I think, demor­al­ized, and pros­trat­ed every­where for years, if not forever.

One year lat­er, he was elect­ed president.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is an assis­tant edi­tor at In These Times.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH