Are Democrats making an enemy of the good?

The Thinker by Rodin

My wife and I rarely disagree but lately we have been disagreeing on Senator Bernie Sanders. I’m pretty sure we both voted for Bernie in last year’s Massachusetts Democratic Primary, as in fact did most of my neighbors. (Bernie signs were everywhere.) Of course, Sanders ultimately lost the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Sanders has hardly gone away, which doesn’t surprise any of us who have been following Bernie. He’s as opinionated as ever and remains basically the point on the spear of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. This is in spite of the fact that Bernie is not a Democrat anymore and is back to being an independent senator from Vermont who happens to caucus with the Democrats.

Still, when Democrats campaign for public office, they are usually trying to get Sanders’ endorsement. This is no surprise because even as an ex-candidate Sanders can pack them in. When he endorses a candidate, legions of Bernie fans contribute small amounts of cash to that candidate. In April as part of a joint “unity tour” with DNC chair Tom Perez, Sanders campaigned for Heath Mello, the Democratic candidate for mayor in Omaha, Nebraska.

Sanders and Perez took a lot of heat for their endorsement of Mello. While a member of the state senate Mello supported a 20-week abortion ban. He also supported restrictions on telemedicine that affected rural access to Plan B, an over the counter abortion drug. This disgusted many Democrats, particularly those Democrats that are prochoice. One of them is my wife, who sees it as sexist. By supporting Mello, Sanders and Perez appeared to give tacit endorsement to his antiabortion views, at least in the eyes of many Democrats.

Mello went on to lose handsomely, which was not a big surprise in a red state. It’s not too surprising that Mello would be opposed to abortion, as he is a devout Catholic. So perhaps the real issue is whether opposing abortion should be disqualifying to any Democratic candidates. For my wife, it appears to be a red line that no Democrat should cross. That turned out to be true for Tom Perez, who subsequently said that all Democratic candidates should be pro-choice. Not all Democrats agree. My senator Elizabeth Warren took exception, as did Bernie Sanders. Neither Warren nor Sanders are antiabortion, but both believe the Democratic tent should be big enough to welcome views that many inside the tent don’t approve of.

So do I. It may be true that as Will Rogers said that Democrats are inherently disorganized. The same is less true with Republicans, although it is not obvious that they are as factionalized as they are. Still, all parties draw boundaries somewhere and those boundaries can be murky. Many progressive Democrats like me are uncomfortable with the many Wall Street Democrats inside our party. But I would not kick them out, just as I could not kick out Heath Mello for his views either.

There are a couple of reasons why I feel this way. First, to govern you need a majority, and to get a majority usually means that you have to include groups of people that you would prefer not to include. Within the Republican Party, the fiscal conservatives tolerate the evangelicals for this reason. Second, it’s not necessarily true that ideological purity is a good thing for any party. Ideology tends to block common sense and hearing alternative points of view, views that might be entirely valid if you can keep off the ideological blinders and have real discussions. By putting some like Heath Mello outside of the Democratic Party those discussions aren’t possible. In addition, you lessen the likelihood of gaining a governing majority.

I can certainly understand why my wife like most women would find it hard to stomach a Democrat that would restrict their reproductive choices. I’d likely not vote for Mello if I lived in Nebraska and there was a more progressive alternative on the Democratic Party primary ballot. On the other hand, Mello does live in Nebraska where liberals are very hard to find. His chances were slim to begin with, but they would have been slimmer had he campaigned as a prochoice progressive. Moreover, while Catholics have a few bees up their bonnets (exclusively male priests and abortion views, to name a few), overall Catholics are reasonably progressive and champion the needs of the poor in ways that most Protestant denominations ignore. That’s good!

Every party struggles between its inherently selfish desire to want to govern and ideological purity that tends to leave a party in permanent minority status. The primary reason why Republicans are governing now is not because they represent the majority of voters, but because they have disenfranchised so many voters who would vote for Democrats. When in a majority status again Democrats could try a similar strategy. They could try gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws to try to maintain their lock on power too. It would be wrong for the obvious reason that the broadest principle among Democrats is that voting should be as wide and inclusive as possible. Excluding citizens with sincerely held beliefs about the sanctity of life from governing is no way to govern. Reaching out to them and finding areas of common overlap and exercising powers in those areas amounts to effective governing, because such actions tend to embrace a widely-shared public consensus.

In my mind the true difference between Democrats and Republicans is Me vs. We. “We” means that Democrats aspire to be a party that lifts all boats by recognizing that we are all interdependent and empowering this philosophy through government action. We support policies that reduce misery, try to give everyone equal opportunity and in the words of our constitution “promote the general welfare”. Republicans are all about “me”. They want the government to lift the boats of people exactly like them, and no one else. Effectively they do this by taking resources away from those not like them. This is written all over their version of health care: the so-called American Health Care Act. There is nothing in the bill that really makes health care better for anyone, but it does give huge tax windfalls to the richest.

I don’t see this in Heath Mello. I see a man who is very much in favor of lifting all boats. He has areas of sincere disagreement, but Democrats are better with him in the party than out of it. Out of the party, Mello really has only one party to turn to. Do we really want to turn him into a Republican? Granted, it’s a party that needs huge doses of humanity. Maybe if it got it, the party would resemble the respectable party I voted for in 1976, but not since then. I do think if ideological purity is going to be the test for being a true Democrat, we as a party are hacking off our own limbs and making Republican rule that much likelier to hang around.

Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let us Democrats disagree at least among ourselves without being disagreeable. Maybe in doing so we will more truly represent the values to which we aspire as a party.