Tanden’s idea that we shouldn’t “attack Democrats” when Trump is in the White House is bizarre. We’re supposed to be having a primary here! The whole point is to select a candidate, which means deciding whether a politician is good or bad. Shaun King tries to distinguish between “critiquing records” and “demonization”/ “destructive conversation” but I think that distinction can very easily be used to avoid dealing with legitimate criticism. In fact, that’s exactly what has happened here—instead of actually responding to the strongest version of the case made by the critics, Hamby et. al. suggest that the act of criticism itself is a problem. Don’t attack politicians! I mean, maybe a few mild critiques of their policy platforms. But don’t dare suggest that a Democrat could be an untrustworthy empty shell! Even if they are.
The headline I’ve chosen here is a bit cheeky—I’m sure all those offended by the left “attacks” on Beto will huffily reply “Of course we should criticize politicians!” I didn’t say we shouldn’t. Yet there is a pernicious rhetorical tendency that does add up to “for the sake of the Party, do not criticize the Party.” There was a popular image that went around online back, that said something like: In 2020, the nominee won’t be perfect. They will probably have a lot of positions you don’t like. But you’re going to have to set aside your purity politics and vote for them, so get ready. It’s funny to me that Democrats already know they’ll have a nominee that people don’t like, that people will have to choke their vomit down to vote for. But it doesn’t need to be this way! If we actually vet candidates, if we do apply litmus tests in the selection process, then we might actually end up with someone we like!
When is the right time to criticize candidates? When the nomination has already happened, we will be told that we shouldn’t undermine the Democrat by pointing out their bad qualities, because then we’ll be helping the Russians and Trump. It would seem that the perfect time to “attack” Democrats is long before the actual primary begins, because that’s when we can afford to hash out our intra-party debates without destroying the possibility of achieving ultimate “unity.” …
There is a common misunderstanding about Bernie Sanders supporters. People believe it’s a kind of “cult of personality”—the “BernieBros” are irrationally emotionally obsessed with Sanders and therefore unfairly dismiss equally good progressive candidates like Warren, Gillibrand, and O’Rourke without giving them a fair hearing. That’s not what’s going on, though. If Bernie announced tomorrow that he was a staunch capitalist who thought millennials just needed to work harder if they wanted to get out of debt, all of us who like him would drop him like the hottest of hot potatoes. I have no loyalty to him, except to the extent that he continues to champion the causes I believe in. If Elizabeth Warren stopped talking about how she was a “capitalist to her bones,” and showed some better political instincts, I can see myself strongly supporting her!
But I’m truly afraid about 2020 and I think it’s critical that the Democrats get this right. It would be terrible to nominate a candidate that made a lot of progressive-sounding noises, but then was incapable of actually fighting for policies like free college and a Green New Deal. My friend Ben Studebaker even thinks that it would be worse to have Beto O’Rourke as president than a second term of Donald Trump, because O’Rourke would get absolutely nothing done, inequality and climate change would worsen, and then a real fascist would take over in 2024. I do not agree with Ben at all on this—I think it’s always far better to have a boring Democrat than a right-wing lunatic. But his argument is worth engaging with. If a do-nothing Democrat presides over calamity, the prospects for building a lasting progressive coalition may be irreparably damaged. It’s important to nominate an authentic champion of working people in 2020, which is why I think Sanders is the only obvious option. Every other candidate who has been floated seems only weakly committed to substantive political change. I don’t trust that they actually care about ordinary people except to the extent that it helps their careers.