My conception of who makes a good political candidate is changing, and fast. Until recently, there were certain people and certain positions I could never support. Candidates could not be evangelical Christians if they wanted my vote. They had to be pro-choice purists and for extensive gun control. No compromise was possible on these issues–and on others.
That’s all a luxury that, today, I am giving up. At least for now.
“Government is the art of compromise.” That line is attributed to William Gladstone and we often think of it, if we agree with it, as what politicians do, not what we need to be doing as we select them for office. Recently, most Americans seem to have decided they want nothing to do with compromise on any level, not in their own voting and not in what the politicians do in office.
“Hold the line,” we yell, and turn away with disgust when the people we supported bow to the realities of governing and compromise.
This has gotten worse since the rise of the Tea Party. By gaming the primary system in corrupt (gerrymandered) districts, the Tea Party managed to elect quite a few candidates with minority views, often because the rift between Republicans and Democrats has become so wide that many voters had become unwilling to vote for anyone from the other party. Once elected, those candidates have to toe the Tea Party line or risk being ‘primaried’ out of office themselves.
The reality is that our Congressional districts (along with the primary system) themselves now promote the success of ideologically pure candidates who can draw support in primaries where the few voters tend to be activists and ideologues. In some cases, this leads to defeat when the district itself is not dominated by one party or the other. In others, it gives added power to the far right, in particular (the gerrymandering is most egregious in Republican states, though Democratic hands are also dirty).
We on the left cannot counter this, not immediately, through the same strategy. It took years (and a great deal of Koch brothers money) for Republicans to come to dominate state governments; it would take another generation for Democrats to wrest control in the same fashion. The crisis in the United States is immediate and change needs to begin this coming November. If it doesn’t, the voice of the majority (Trump, remember, was elected with a minority of the total votes) will continue to diminish.
Working within a system stacked against us, only a plan that can turn that system from the intentions of those who created it can succeed. The Republicans in Congress walk in lockstep behind the president not because he is popular but because he is popular enough in the right places to win. They have been winning under the current corrupt system and expect to continue to, for they also expect Democrats to continue doing what they have been doing for a generation, choosing candidates based on the national stage, not the local.
That’s what the Democrats need to change.
In each Congressional district, candidates need to be found who can appeal to a majority–and not a majority concocted through schemes dependent on low voter turnout in primaries, where it is assumed that the party supporters will later fall in line. That has worked for Republicans but it will not (because of gerrymandering) work for Democrats.
The party has to stop looking for candidates who can win primaries but for those who can win general elections. The party has to stop looking for candidates who fall in line with national leaders on issues but finding instead candidates who reflect their constituency–but who are willing to work with others in the party for the good of the nation. The party has to stop looking at ideology and to start looking at ability to compromise.
The ‘big tent’ of the Democratic Party has to become real, or Republicans are going to maintain control of both the House and the Senate and Trump will be in a good position for re-election in 2020–and our very democracy may falter.
We need to generate a new kind of activism that can bring out voters in primaries, one based on restoring common-sense governance to the country. For me, that means calling myself a ‘practical Democrat’ rather than a ‘progressive Democrat.’ It also means putting much of my progressive agenda on hold–at least until the current crisis is over.
And crisis it is. The very foundations of the United States are under attack by an administration more dedicated to its leader than to the rule of law. We are not going to resolve this crisis by refusing to compromise with others who also want to retain the system of government that has served us for over two centuries but who have different opinions on various other issues.
In times of crisis, we must both narrow our focus and broaden our base. The focus today needs to be on electoral victory; the base needs to be all of us whose vision of America is based in the history of our nation and not simply those who always agree with us.