On Lefty Gatekeeping

I’m really not ready for 2020 elections talk yet. There’s a lot of work to do just to get that far while remaining a democracy, and watching the hyperfocus on the presidency at the expense of all other politics is like sleeping on 100-grit sheets. With Biden and Sanders.

Still, the 2018 election is done. There are myriad implications to be talked over and contrasted and turned into feelers for this or that potential candidate. So I’ll talk about this now and again as warranted, if reluctantly.

Today’s political thoughts are brought to you by this look at Beto O’Rourke’s voting record.

But Sanders actually did not amass the most left-wing voting record in the 115th Senate. That distinction belongs to Elizabeth Warren. Kamala Harris was No. 2, Cory Booker was No. 3, and then Sanders and Tammy Baldwin are basically the same. Kirsten Gillibrand is closer to the middle of the pack but still more liberal than 76 percent of Senate Democrats.

A rough equivalent to O’Rourke’s record would be Amy Klobuchar, who in the most recent Senate was more conservative than 72 percent of Senate Democrats. She has had a voting record that’s a bit to the right of the median Democrat’s throughout her time as a senator.

What does this mean for what we want in a presidential candidate? That depends on what kind of relative importance you place on campaign contributions vs. turning out minority voters vs. turning out the undecided middle vs. blah, I’m bored now. I’m not here for making big predictions for the future. There are, however, a couple of points I want to make related to this.

First, this seems as good a time as any to talk about why I’m not enthused about the idea of Klobuchar as president. She wouldn’t be terrible for most people. She’d be far better than anyone who still considers themself a Republican. She might even be the “safe” choice for a Democratic candidate, as she is here in Minnesota.

Klobuchar, however, is a centrist, demonstrated in part by her voting record. She’s not merely a pragmatist. She has actively made a career of working with Republicans in the Senate to pass non-controversial, nuts-and-bolts, keep-the-administration-functioning legislation. That’s been great for a lot of people, particularly “respectable” people. She’s done some good and prevented a bunch of suffering. If she’s the candidate, I’ll vote for her with a clear conscience and focus on getting her legislation she’ll sign but would never sponsor.

She’s why I don’t focus much on “electability”, though. Beyond ethics scandals (still looking at you, Jane Sanders) and basic qualifications, we quickly get into chaos theory if we’re trying to do the math. Then our biases run wild amid the uncertainty. But more than that, I’m still not interested in compromising before I have to. The right will dig their heels in and pull. I consider it my duty to do the same for the causes I believe in, even knowing I won’t get everything I want. Guessing which candidate will turn out how many of which voters, for or against them, is doing my opponents’ work instead of my own.

Mock up of traffic light with red, yellow, green, and dotted yellow left-turn arrows.
“New permissive left-turn signal” by Oregon Department of Transportation, CC BY 2.0

The other point I want to make about this article is something it touches on but doesn’t lay out. Determining who is how far left or how progressive is no simple thing. It’s easier on the right, because they comprise a much simpler coalition. Their interests are smaller and more uniform.

As you look forward to 2020 and think about which candidate(s) you want to support for the Democratic nomination, remember this. Your best economic lefty choice might not want or be able to talk about racial justice or economic security for those who can’t work. Your best feminist or anti-war candidate might be part of a coalition with anti-Semitic ties. Your best LGBTQ-friendly or education candidate may have great relationships with corporations that championed the issue.

One of the things I love about, particularly, the WoC in the incoming House is the fact that they all come with different issues they’re ready to champion. They’re going to provide leadership that moves us forward on several fronts at once, though not as far or as fast as they would with a different Senate or administration, of course.

When it comes to the presidency, we don’t get to benefit from that. We have to choose the issues we prioritize, along with the understanding and skillset we think will advance them the most using administrative powers. That isn’t a question of “Who’s more progressive?”, much less “Who’s the real progressive?” It’s far more complicated than that.

So when people try to flash progressive bona fides or start pissing contests, remember that they can’t. “Progressive” means too many things. They can tell you which issues and constituencies they place ahead of others. They can tell you which issues their preferred candidate has experience with. They can tell you which issues they draw lines in the sand on. They can tell you which issues other candidates are weak on.

But they can’t define “progressive” simply and play gatekeeper. Progressives are a coalition. We don’t work that way. We can’t.

On Lefty Gatekeeping