Will Democrats Tear Themselves Apart In The Quest For Ideological Purity? Considering The Case of Mayor Pete


Rory Brown

Few can doubt the notion that tectonic shifts are occurring in politics globally. Once inconceivable ideas, like concurrent Trump and Bolsonaro presidencies, a Corbyn-led Labor party, a Scomo-Prime Ministership, or a presumptive Bernie Sanders nomination, are reality. The last decade has been marked by escalating cycles of polarization, spurred on by the escalating threat of climate catastrophe, financial disaster, terrorism and refugee crises. One of the most obvious manifestations of this cyclically expanding societal divide is the Tea Party-ing, and then the Trumpening, of the Republican Party. What were once pillars of the Republican platform – free trade, family values, small government – have been abandoned in favour of tariffs, executive overreach and support for a serially dishonest and unfaithful bully. Republicans have fallen in complete lock-step behind the President. By contrast, the Democratic Party has no leader. This is a problem for a number of reasons. We know how ineffectual rudderless parties are. Think of the resentment generated by the internal infighting in Canberra; think of the chaos Westminster has seen with a fatally weakened Theresa May in charge of the Brexit process, and Corbyn in charge of a parliamentary caucus that openly despises him. The time has come for the Democratic Party to select a leader. This coming primary process will  shape the future of the party, the country, and the world, for decades to come.

Due to the nature of the American political system, the process of selecting a party leader is inextricably painful and divisive. The coming primary process represents a unique opportunity for the Democratic Party to rise above this – to welcome and reward a plurality of thought in its candidates, in so doing comforting and satisfying a divided base haunted by the sight of the Republican Party transforming into an almost unrecognizable, but nevertheless domineering, political force. The Democratic Party must expand its appeal, and to do this it must abandon safe, mundane, moderate, but consequently incremental and boring, policy positions. The key to this lies in the process of selecting the party leader. If voters can relate to a leader, and feel able to participate in discourse with the party, they won’t feel driven to vote for a party led by a serial adulterer and violently hateful draft-dodger. The narrative being spun by right-wing media in the US is that “the left” is exclusionary, destructive and snarky: look at this SJW, losing their temper at the calm and reasonable Jordan Peterson. Look at Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are so incendiary and dishonest. Whilst such narratives are exaggerated beyond recognition and made with poisonous intent, certain patterns of behaviour lend them credence. Not only should these patterns be avoided, but the alternative would bring a welcoming atmosphere to the Democratic Party, where individuals scorched by the apocalyptic battles fought over Donald Trump can find refuge.

The patterns of behaviour I’m referring to are the scourges of disdain levelled by leftists against any Democratic candidate for the Presidential nomination not named Bernie Sanders (and, I suppose, Andrew Yang). Before I proceed, I’d like to add the disclaimer that this is not a criticism of Bernie Sanders – but of fanatical supporters who refuse to waiver in their unequivocal veneration of the 77-year-old Senator. The left needs to approach the primary process in a reasonable, realistic manner – tearing each other apart in the quest for ideological purity does nothing hut help Trump. It contributes to the right-wing narrative that leftist politics are best characterised by an atmosphere of rigid, dogmatic arrogance.The significance of the 2020 Democratic primaries cannot be overstated. If the Democratic primaries are pervaded by smug condescension, instead of warmth and tolerance, how can the eventual winner unify the party? Those on the left who wish to discard candidates out of hand must resist the temptation to do so. They must be open-minded and recognise the value and strengths of all candidates for the nomination. We haven’t even reached debate season yet, and we are already deeply divided.

At a time where class-based and racial divisions are being exploited so readily by the President, ensuring there is space for voices of calm and tolerance in the Democratic Party is crucial. I believe there is one question Democrats must answer in the primaries: who will their leader be? And I believe this question should be answered only through careful, considered, kind, and welcoming debate. To quote Frank Bruni of the New York Times: ”To turn the Democratic primary into a nonstop apology tour when the nominee will be going up against a president never expected to apologise for anything is a risky strategy. It obsesses over the flaws in candidates who have many strengths, defining them in terms of what they seek forgiveness for.”

What inspired me to write this article was a series of absurd left-wing criticisms made of Peter Buttigieg. The notion that Peter Buttigieg is opposed to the BLM movement, or isn’t a true progressive, because of his use of the words “all live matter” prior to its popularization as a subversive right-wing refrain, is ridiculous. Mayor Pete has repeatedly expressed support for the movement and is dedicated to criminal justice reform and reparations. As mayor of South Bend, he made vast quantities of police records public in order to increase police transparency. He has advocated for a Justice Department that supports local departments attempting to eradicate racial bias and punishes departments that refuse to do so. He advocates for the reform of the prison system, expressing his strong opposition to private prisons and support for reinstating the voting rights of former felons. He has called for an end to the disastrous War on Drugs and the legalisation of marijuana. Any vestigial complaints that he doesn’t support the struggle of black Americans should be discarded when considering his stance on reparations: Buttigieg openly agrees with the principles underpinning the push for reparations and supports policies like increasing black entrepreneurship and allocating more funding to areas where historic red-lining occurred. It’s worth noting that Buttigieg is amongst the few candidates openly willing to discuss reparations and meaningful criminal justice reform – Bernie Sanders has a poor track record for flubbing multiple questions on his stance regarding reparations, and Kamala Harris and Joe Biden deserve criticism for their histories strengthening the prison industrial complex.

Other criticisms of Mayor Pete have been equally incoherent. There already exists an element on the fringe, lunar left that have attempted to undercut Buttigieg’s struggles as a gay man; they have argued that because he lacks some of the optics people stereotypically associate with homosexuals, his  struggle hasn’t been significantly public enough to warrant respect. I think the best response to this is to point out where and when Pete Buttigieg came out. Pete Buttigieg came out whilst seeking re-election in 2014, in Indiana, the state that Mike Pence was governor of at the time. Mike Pence – a supporter of conversion therapy, workplace discrimination against homosexuals, and opponent of same-sex marriage and gays in the military. At that time, Mike Pence was fighting to legislate a state constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Buttigieg was just 33 years old at the time, and he has talked openly about the struggle he faced, denying himself a love life for fear of public condemnation. His story demonstrates courage and integrity and deserves our respect.

To my mind, the only fair criticism levelled against Buttigieg from the left has been his stance regarding Israel. But even this criticism cannot stand up to scrutiny. Buttigieg is strongly in favour of a two-state solution: he’s gone on record saying he doesn’t believe that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state without a peace agreement that recognises Palestinian sovereignty. He has refused AIPAC funding and made himself known as a strong critic of Netanyahu. Buttigieg’s ‘pro-Israel’ comments amount to little more than support for Israel’s existence as a state, alongside a Palestinian homeland. He hasn’t strongly condemned Israel, but neither has he expressed any hawkish pro-Israel sentiments. Labelling Buttigieg a staunch ”pro-Israel” supporter is misleading. 

These examples serve to illustrate the ways in which debate within the Democratic Party has been debased and distorted by those obsessed with ideological purity. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that any one candidate is the only way forward, to the exclusion of others: it leads to a political atmosphere of distorted half-truths and hostility between factions. Instead, engage with each candidate and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses with care and consideration. This is the way to welcome people into the party and encourage them to participate in the democratic process. Their preferred candidate might not achieve victory, but if they feel their views and concerns have been honoured and treated with respect,  they will feel welcomed by the party and won’t be driven away into apathy or outright hostility.

Like it or not, elections are won by swing voters. Many Obama voters supported Trump in 2016. If the Democrats wish to vanquish the current president, they mustn’t lose these voters again – and conducting the primary process with respect and kindness is critical to that end. If the debate is conducted respectfully, the next leader of the Democratic Party will be conferred legitimacy and popular support – qualities integral to the leader of a political party in this turbulent era.

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