Like a child keen to move on to dessert before they’ve eaten their greens, the Democratic Party has started wrangling over who would make the best presidential candidate before the midterms are even over.
As I write, California Senator Kamala Harris is on her way to Iowa, two weeks after New Jersey Senator Cory Booker headlined the party’s fall gala there. Since her visit comes only a few days after she went to South Carolina, Harris has apparently mapped out an electoral strategy that goes after California and the South via Iowa and cedes New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile, journalists parse Sanders’s words to divine whether he is making a progressive pact with the Massachusetts senator. In a recent Politico story headlined “Sanders hints at reckoning with Warren over 2020 ambitions,” the Vermont senator acknowledged that he and Warren talk nearly every day, but not about 2020, although “I suspect that in the coming weeks and months, there will be discussions.” Julian Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, was also recently spotted in Iowa and says he’s “likely” to go for it as well. And whatever the outcome of the current contest between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, his Democratic challenger, “Beto 2020” T-shirts and beach bags are already on sale.
The indecent haste with which the punditocracy moves from horse race to horse race, obsessed by who will win rather than what will change, is infuriating but hardly new. The credulousness that allows so many progressives to be distracted by that obsession is equally familiar but more frustrating.
It’s not difficult to see how this happens. Elections are a multibillion-dollar industry; so, too, are the media. And politics is much more easily sold as a never-ending reality show with a rotating cast of characters than as a constantly evolving power struggle in which actual issues are involved.
At the best of times, this can be written off as the kind of irritating obstacle that we simply have to navigate and negotiate: meeting people where they are in the hope that you might persuade them to go to a better place.
The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, these are not the best of times. Small children have been taken from their families at the border; a rapey, shouty, partisan frat boy was just confirmed to the Supreme Court after lying under oath; a president has privileged arms deals with a theocracy over the torture, murder, and dismemberment of a journalist. And despite the appalling clarity of this moment—the brazen bigotry and misogyny of President Trump, the moral deficiency of US foreign policy, the growing budget deficit caused by Republican tax cuts for the rich, the broken promises to “drain the swamp”—Democrats still anticipate little more than a modest majority in the House of Representatives. After the first two years of the Trump presidency, and four of the five largest demonstrations in American history (all of them progressive), the Democratic Party has become merely the inadequate electoral beneficiary of people’s anger, rather than the vehicle through which it might be channeled to emerge as strategy and policy.
The second problem is that concentrating on candidates and their personal qualities in this moment is no longer meeting people where they are. By saying and doing a number of things that would have ordinarily sunk another candidate—boasting of sexual molestation, advocating violence at his rallies, calling for the jailing of his opponent, indicating that he would refuse to accept the election’s result if he lost—Trump has effectively changed the rules of engagement.
“Character” was once a key factor in US presidential elections. True, this perception of character was usually shallow, mediated, and easily manipulable: In 2000 and again in 2004, George W. Bush was the candidate that people most wanted to have a beer with—even though he was a teetotaler and a recovering alcoholic. But that perception of character still mattered.
That no longer holds true in the same way. During the 2016 election, I reported from Muncie, Indiana. A year after the inauguration, I went back to see what people were feeling. Republicans, for the most part, said they didn’t like President Trump personally. One supporter said she wouldn’t socialize with him; another told me, “He completely embarrassed the United States.” But when it came to taxes, deregulation, anti-abortion judges, and the economy, they thought he was getting the job done. “I would take an asshole doctor who was going to fix me over a nice guy who wouldn’t,” said Jamie Walsh, a mortician trainee in her mid-30s. “The nice guy doesn’t always get things done.”
This same phenomenon has been seen on the left, where candidates who are not remotely telegenic, like Bernie Sanders (crotchety) or Jeremy Corbyn (bumbling), have nonetheless proved popular. (Though even if it’s unclear what the new rules are, it’s safe to say that they don’t apply to candidates who are not white, straight, or male, so that hasn’t changed.) It’s arguably too soon to know where all of this is going, but it’s enough to understand that when it comes to character in politics, we are not where we were.
The fact that the Democrats have not yet decided on the “who” shouldn’t concern us. If progressives keep on building movements and making compelling arguments, an electoral champion will emerge who is willing to embrace them. Since Corbyn’s Labour Party has proved itself electorally viable, it is amazing how many MPs have suddenly found their conscience and their progressive principles. If liberal opinion keeps shifting to the left, the candidates will follow.
What is far more urgent at this moment is the “what” and the “why.” If the left wants people to turn out, it has to stand for something more than power; and if it wants to prevail, it has to do more than simply hang on to that power once it’s achieved.