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Daily Beast’s Jonathan Alter: Democrats Need Less Democracy To Win 2018 Midterm Elections

There is a genre of commentary from liberal pundits that persistently appears like crab grass, and it involves scolding progressive or left-wing voters for their activism around elections. Jonathan Alter, a columnist for The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst, is the latest pundit to pen a nauseating lecture.

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, even though the “odds” favor flipping the House of Representatives, Alter expresses concern about Democrats who are already banking on a victory.

Alter is correct to worry. After all, Democrats lost over 1,000 seats at the federal and state level while Barack Obama was president. But what Alter proposes to stave off another disappointing election cycle is rather feebleminded.

“To flip the House, Democrats and other concerned Americans will have to dig deep in their pockets, subordinate their particular concerns to the cause of winning, and do what it takes to protect democracy,” Alter proclaims.

In other words, in order to “protect democracy,” there must be less democracy in the Democratic Party.

“A remnant of lefties are still living in Jill Steinland—acting as if midterms are in the bag, and they can indulge in expensive primary fights over minor policy differences that drain resources from the constitutionally critical task at hand,” Alter argues. He notes activists are upset that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and other Democratic Party outfits continue to push moderates or centrist politicians.

Alter insists activists do not understand the “mechanics of actually winning elections, which require party discipline and rejection of the narcissism of small differences. Nominating the most liberal Democratic candidate in a Republican district may feel principled but it reeks of moral vanity.”

The virtue signaling continues, “Democrats with their heads screwed on right are reviving an old ethic: party and country over personal preference. In swing districts, that means often resisting the natural inclination to support the candidate they like best in favor of the one who can win in November. In Trump’s America, pragmatism is a moral imperative.”

Alter proposes Democrats focus on candidates “who will help rescue the country from Trump,” like “moderate military veteran[s] or business[men],” who might not be activists’ “dream Democratic candidate but will do just fine in these circumstances.”

Recall, prior to the thumping Republicans delivered against Democrats in 2016, Senator Chuck Schumer boasted, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

Democrats attempted to appear as if they were smarter, better, and more polite Republicans to appeal to those like former FBI director James Comey, who say they no longer recognize the Republican Party. They focused on suburban voters and offered very little in the way of an alternative vision to citizens, and this strategy failed. But Alter would have Democrats pursue this failed strategy once again.

Justice Democrats, a federal political action committee, which supports the kind of Democratic candidates that frustrate Alter for running primary campaigns in red districts, put out a report [PDF] that highlighted the problem with this strategy:

A study by political scientist Seth Hill finds that, “Swing voters contribute on average 4.1 percentage points to change in party vote shares, while change in turnout influences outcomes by 8.6 points.” In other words, the impact of mobilization on the electorate is about double the impact of persuasion.

In a paper analyzing 49 field experiments, political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Broockman have shown parties have little capacity to persuade, but that campaigns can do much to mobilize voters, noting that, “our partner canvassing organization had effects of nearly 2.5 percentage points on turnout in the 2016 Presidential election.” The path to victory then, is energizing and delivering to the base. Yet far too often, Democratic campaigns are designed to win over mushy milquetoast (and mythical) moderates, rather than excite the base.

A Cooperative Congressional Election Studies 2016 survey showed the extent to which people who did not vote in 2016 preferred Democrats over Republicans. They vastly supported a focus on reducing inequality, raising the minimum wage, bank regulation, and welfare and community investment that would help poor and working class Americans.

These voters, with little-to-no income, outnumber wealthy voters and would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats if the party made appeals to them that involved strong progressive policies.

Alter mentions in 2014 that voter turnout fell to 37 percent, “the lowest in 70 years, with the steepest falloff among Democrats.” He does not raise the issue of voter suppression and how there are several states that make it harder for poor and working class citizens to vote with ID laws. Nor does he mention it is difficult for these voters to justify waiting in line for several hours, especially if their bosses will not allow them to miss any time from work.

“Litmus tests—on support for a single-payer health care system or even gun safety—are unaffordable luxuries in this year’s primaries,” Alter writes. Except it is exactly this kind of policy position that can energize voters in a midterm election and give them something to fight for in an extraordinarily bleak political climate.

The Democratic Party has attacked and pressured progressive, socialist, or left-wing candidates to drop out so moderates can easily secure primary victories and potentially win in November. Yet, Alter is not troubled by this conduct, which alienated many voters when the party engaged in these tactics against Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. He believes the party is standing up for “well-funded moderates with a better chance of winning.”

Do not accuse Alter of having contempt for democracy. He claims he is not against primaries but opposes “wasting money in primaries when it’s needed for the crucial task of taking back the House and protecting democracy.”

Who is wasting money?

Groups backed by Sanders, like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, or other progressive organizations promoting candidates supported by activists are not wasting money. There are polls that show the platforms of their candidates have majority support when broken down issue-by-issue. It is the Democratic Party that is wasting money attempting to sabotage campaigns of candidates with politics that the party establishment does not wish to promote.

Alter attacks Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia Nixon for running in primaries in Ohio and New York because he believes Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, are the best candidates to beat Republicans. But no one is entitled to a primary, even though the DNC may zealously work to anoint someone the base barely supports.

He does not bother to recognize the extent to which the very activists he opposes have managed to win in red districts and flip them. Last year, Christine Pellegrino, a former Sanders delegate, flipped a New York state assembly district where Trump won 60 percent of the vote. Natalie Vowell, who was also a Sanders delegate, won a school board seat in St. Louis. Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

Consider Representative Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, who is no longer seeking re-election. Democratic candidate Randy Bryce commissioned a poll of 400 voters that showed when read “short positive profiles” that introduced them to Speaker Ryan and Bryce, Ryan’s six percent or more lead dissolved. Bryce was favored by 10 percent.

Bryce is a veteran and working class candidate, who advocates for expanding protections for unions, a $15/hr minimum wage, Medicare for All, paid medical and family leave, a tax on Wall Street, expanding social security, and a Green New Deal. He opposes building additional fossil fuel pipelines and backs tuition-free colleges and universities.

Of singular focus to Alter is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump and alleged Russian collusion or interference in the 2016 presidential election. He is terribly bothered by the prospect of Republicans shutting the investigation down if the Democrats do not win the House.

This is far from a top issue for most Americans, and the DNC would do well to run candidates who will offer something that could improve the material conditions that voters live in instead of relying on political stunts, like the lawsuit in Manhattan against Trump, Russia, and WikiLeaks.

On top of that, it is rather incredible how pundits like Alter will scold activists who promote the democratic socialist politics of Sanders, when he is possibly the most popular politician in the United States. He is definitely one of the only elected officials with a positive favorability rating.

Each election cycle, the United States is pulled further in a right-wing authoritarian direction. Moderate Republicans express feelings of alienation. Democrats move to capture them while forsaking their base. They lose their support and depress turnout. Then they flail and scream at activists for “costing” them elections when it is their fault for pandering to the center-right and abandoning progressive politics, which greatly diminishes the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates and makes voters feel apathetic about choices.

This kind of politics aids the influence of elites and corporations, resulting in deregulation that impacts the environment and the most vulnerable populations. The budget is balanced on the backs of poor and working class citizens, and minorities are disproportionately affected. Racism is wielded to divide and pit the poor against each other. Fear of the other is amplified, and that leads to harsher immigration policies and closed borders. Mass incarceration may be deployed to deal with the burgeoning population of poor people, especially Black Americans. Wars rage on in several countries to the benefit of the military industrial-complex and at the expense of investment in social welfare.

The only way to combat this devastating reality is to support activism that challenges this dynamic or back campaigns of left-wing or left-leaning candidates, who will attempt to pull the country in a completely opposite direction. Instead of recognizing that, Alter would rather have Democrats play into the very forces which are tearing this country apart at the seems.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."