History is a story told by the winners.
That is an old saw. It is understood by victims of racial/ethnic discrimination and women, who have found themselves written out of history books since time immemorial. When they ask, “What about us?” they are faced with hard-headed and hard-hearted men of the more powerful tribes, who scoff at the notion that their petty little complaints – and their trivial heroes – should possibly capture equal time.
Liberal people all understand and accept this now. At least when it comes to ethnic and gender issues. But where liberals have a blind spot is when it comes to battles over the souls of political parties. If, perchance, these liberals are center-left Democrats, the ones whose preferred candidates almost invariably win the nomination and frequently the general elections, they have no compassion whatsoever for the complaints of the folks to their party’s political left. Those complaints are known simply as whining, divisiveness, and the stuff by which Republican victories are made. Strong sentiments. But that’s what happen when compassion is gone.
Look at the data. From 1992 until 2000, the Dems were led by Bill Clinton, who campaigned as a “Southern Democrat” from the political center. He was succeeded by his handpicked successor, Tennessee’s Al Gore – Gore’s nomination was frankly inevitable, but it is safe to say that he wasn’t yet Mr. “Inconvenient Truth,” he was the heir apparent from the party’s center-left wing. In 2004, John Kerry beat back more progressive challengers to take the nomination -- remember “the Scream,” not the painting, but the yell that doomed Howard Dean? In 2008, the progressives had their moment – they pushed Barack Obama, who ran a truly inspired campaign, to the finish line, only to discover that he would allow centrists Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Joe Biden to serve as his chief lieutenants, not to mention his former foe named Clinton.
And that led us to 2016. The Democrats faced a surprisingly tough challenger named Bernie Sanders, who had a singular focus against economic inequity that resonated with much of the party’s base. But when Sanders threatened Hillary Clinton’s seemingly hereditary claim to the throne, she had the party’s leadership in her back pocket and was able to summon hundreds upon hundreds of Superdelegates. The party’s largest media outlets treated those Superdelegates as fully legit, and Sanders had no chance. Clinton prevailed.
Then came 2020. At that point, the progressives in the party who had given Bernie more than 40% of the primary vote in 2016 – especially the younger voters, who voted primarily for him – were feeling like those “losers” who were left out of the history books. What they experienced was that Joe Biden, the guy the media and the party elites originally thought was “due” (i.e., the successor to B. Clinton in 1996, Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2012, and H. Clinton in 2016), was failing miserably in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. And immediately after Nevada, Bernie appeared poised to lead the race. This, they thought, was their time – finally a real progressive seemed to be on top. Then what happened? The media and the party elites came down on him like a Mack Truck. I'm not referring to the other candidates, but rather the talking heads and op-ed writers. So negative. So gratuitous. Digging up stories about who he supported 40 years in the past. Just one hit after another. It was as if all the talking heads decided at the same time, "we better not nominate him or Trump will be President forever." And sure enough, he went down the tubes, Biden’s centrist competitors quickly cleared the road, and Biden drove right in to victory. All he needed was to do well in a single primary in a small state that never votes Democrat in the fall, and the race was effectively over.
I went through all of this to explain just how difficult it has become for a politician to unify the Democratic Party. There is not simply mutual disrespect between Dems and Republicans, there is a hell of a division within the Party – along ideological and largely age-based lines. This is why precisely one percent – that’s right, ONE percent of Democratic voters under 30 “strongly” approve of the job Joe Biden is doing. That number is as low as it is because of the above history and the resentment it creates. And Biden’s supporters are being tone deaf to this dynamic in a way that they would never allow themselves to be tone deaf to the cries of women or people of color.
It's a problem, one that takes truly inspired leadership to solve. I would love to find such a leader. Maybe my own Congressperson, Jamie Raskin, has the combo of smarts and integrity to make this happen. Does he have the temperament? The courage? I don’t know. But I’d love it if he tried. My one practical suggestion as to how to unify the party I have voiced before: a combination of ranked voting, to satisfy the centrists, and a commitment on the part of the centrist media/political leaders not to panic and turn on the progressive candidate should s/he appear poised to actually win a Democratic nomination, to satisfy the progressives. The Dems, in short, should run positive campaigns within the ranks – making their own case for themselves, rather than denigrating their opponents as commies or the alike – but it is also time for ranked voting, thereby actually making the party MORE democratic, which should be something all Democrats believe in.
And remember, all of this would be happening as part of the most righteous of causes – removing from power a party that has been taken over by Donald Trump and those who have, at one time or another, kissed his ring. Let the words of Trump’s former press secretary, Stephanie Grisham (printed in today’s NY Times), remind you of just who the Democrats are fighting: “I don’t think I can rebrand; I think this will follow me forever…. I believe that I was part of something unusually evil.” The only way to fight something unusually evil is with a force that is unified and potent. There is no time to waste.