Column: Eager Progressives May Have to Grin and Bear It

  • Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., talks during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus in Washington, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Walsh

For the Valley News
Published: 11/17/2018 10:30:04 PM
Modified: 11/17/2018 10:30:05 PM

In advance of the 2020 election a fascinating political debate is playing out in the Democratic Party and among political pundits. Is success more likely if the party swings sharply to the left or should liberals tack more toward the middle?

The striking success of some unapologetic progressives, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, leads many activists to implore the party to follow that lead. Some evidence that lukewarm liberalism has been an abject failure further persuades them. It is commonly believed that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was denied the Democratic nomination by insider machinations and that he would have prevailed if chosen instead of Hillary Clinton. That is plausible, but far from convincing.

As an unapologetic progressive, my heart is with the “damn the torpedoes” approach. The GOP, aided and abetted by big money and conservative media, has redefined politics to the extent that the moderate Democrat today is the moderate Republican of the past. Despite efforts to create a false equivalence of excessive partisanship on both sides, it is the Republican Party that has moved most dramatically from the center.

But my brain suggests otherwise. A clear-eyed view of the recent past informs that position.

One head-shaking reality confuses lots of people. The same country that elected Barack Obama twice then elected Donald Trump. How can that be? Yes, I know, Clinton got more votes than Trump, but let’s put that aside for the moment.

Many Obama voters who subsequently voted for Trump were attracted in 2008 to Obama’s eloquence, intelligence and dignity. I admire him for those reasons and more. But he had to be careful not to be “too black.” He was not divisive, not pressing for affirmative action, not in favor of same-sex marriage. He was “of color,” but, as offensively stated by Joe Biden, Obama was the “first mainstream African-American (candidate) who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In most ways Obama was, and is, a political moderate, not a progressive. Many folks projected their progressive aspirations on Obama for understandable reasons, but wishing him so didn’t make him so.

The dynamic that created Trump is backlash, including from some who voted for Obama, against what many white voters resented: same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter, so-called political correctness, feminism, out-of-control immigration.

Fueled by conservative media, many white voters became increasingly concerned that gay and transgender folks didn’t just want equal rights, they wanted special treatment including invading bathrooms; that Black Lives Matter meant white lives mattered less; that immigrants were not assets in our communities, but were taking our jobs and raping our daughters; that the response to sexual misconduct was an overreach and innocent men were really the victims.

When white, male, heteronormative privilege was intact, voting for a man of color was easy. When the privilege was questioned or threatened, many turned to Trump.

That’s the story of this political era.

We are in a cultural war, not a political one. The contrast is between Trump’s white nationalism and the possibility of a rich, diverse national community. Trump’s ugly impulse prevailed in 2016, albeit with considerable support from some folks who thought it was just a campaign act.

And now we are at risk of losing several hundred years of unsteady progress toward justice. Our most critical institutions are under assault. The most important goal must be to stop the bleeding. We can’t stop to quibble about the politics of the person who can best stanch the flow of blood and begin to stitch up the wound.

The analysis is not complicated. It is clear that a considerable minority of Americans would vote for Trump again. It is equally clear that many of us would vote for nearly anyone other than Trump. If Trump serves the next two years and is again his party’s nominee (neither of these things are certain), the key constituency will be those voters who have been repulsed enough that they will not vote for Trump again — unless we give them reason to do so.

And “reason to do so” might be a progressive candidate who can arouse great passion on both sides of the campaign trail. I hate to admit it, but some voters who can be drawn away from Trump, will run right back to him if the election is too explicitly about Black Lives Matter, single-payer health care, transgender rights, citizenship for undocumented immigrants or other issues they feel are excessive examples of political correctness.

On the other hand, there will be no Democratic candidate who can drive Obama or Clinton voters into the Trump camp. Many of us might feel frustrated at an incremental approach to social or economic justice, but that frustration may be what we have to bear for a while.

When your house is burning down, you don’t get too picky about the firefighters.

We just need to put the fire out.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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