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Why Media Pundits Are Wrong To Suggest Voters Rejected Socialism In Recent Primaries

Several pundits in the media fully adopted the narrative that the results of Democratic Party primaries on August 7 show democratic socialism was soundly rejected. The outcome proves candidates with socialist politics cannot win in “heartland” districts, particularly in middle America.

Right-wing media, such as The Daily Caller, Townhall, American Thinker, and PJ Media, were ecstatic to see candidates endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders lose races.

Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host and blogger, appeared on CNN. He argued, “When the Republicans were battling the Tea Party activists in 2010 against the conservatives, they [were] running in areas and in states that tended to be more conservative already. The progressives who are doing this, they’re trying to battle in heartland states that aren’t necessarily as progressive as California or New York where they would have better success.”

“They need to do a better job, the progressive wing the Democrats do, of matching up their territories. They’ve really got into their head that more people agree with them. In certain areas of country, yes, but not in these areas,” Erickson maintained.

Right-wing pundits were not the only ones pushing this argument. The Washington Post published a report, “Democratic Party’s liberal insurgency hits a wall in Midwest primaries.” CNN’s Chris Cuomo latched on to this talking point in his interview with Ocasio-Cortez on August 8.

Essentially, it rapidly became consensus that voters are not as into democratic socialism and Ocasio-Cortez or Sanders claimed. In fact, voters in these states prefer moderate Democrats because they think they can beat a Republican in the midterm elections in November.

But the losses particular candidates experienced did not prove voters reject socialist politics. All it proved is what pundits already should know: Democratic Party candidates, whose campaigns are flush with cash from political action committees, are immensely capable of defeating insurgent candidates.

As Ocasio-Cortez said in her interview with Cuomo, “It’s no secret that while grassroots campaigns absolutely have their place and are very strong in voter turnout when they are able to turn out voters, money does win elections. And so, when you have, you know, PAC groups that are able to pour in half a million to a million dollars per race, that absolutely makes an impact.”

“We do live in an environment, where money and unlimited money wins a lot of elections. And so, when you have organizations that are able to, you know, write a blank check, that absolutely has an impact on races.”

That reality went largely ignored in analyses of why more insurgent candidates did not win.

“Down Goes Socialism”

One truly awful take that overlooked this dynamic was titled, “Down Goes Socialism,” by POLITICO’s Bill Scher. Some of his greatest hits include, “How Bernie Could Cost Hillary The Election,” and, “Why Does The Left Hate Hillary?“, and this one certainly deserves to be considered a hit as well.

First, Scher frames his piece around this statement, “If you thought that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win over Rep. Joe Crowley meant the Democratic Party was poised to go socialist, think again.”

Scher never bothers to mention who had this wild notion prior to August 8. He does not mention who pretended like the Democrats were no longer run by people who fervently believe they must defend capitalism and small businesses, “the engine of our economy,” whenever they are confronted with socialist politics. Or that any of these candidates who lost were poised to win. Nevertheless, Scher puts this out there as a frame for his commentary.

He label’s Abdul El-Sayed‘s loss the “most glaring defeat,” perhaps showing that the Rust Belt does not really want candidates like Sayed. What he overlooks is how Sayed was never ahead in polls, lacked endorsements, and did not have the kind of funds that former state Senate Democrat, Gretchen Whitmer, had.

Whitmer was encouraged to run for Michigan governor by Dan Loepp, the current president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan. Her father is also Richard Whitmer, who was presidnet and CEO of BCBS Michigan from 1988 to 2006. In March, as the Detroit Metro Times reported, “Dozens of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan employees ventured from their downtown Detroit offices to a nearby restaurant for a fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer.” She received more money from Blue Cross than any gubernatorial candidate in the past decade.

Crain’s Detroit Business reported on how Whitmer greatly benefited from dark money donations. These reports raised questions about the extent to which the health insurance corporation may have used “pass-through entities” to help Whitmer defeat Sayed.

Also, Crowley was the only candidate Ocasio-Cortez had to contend with in the primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Sayed faced Whitmer and Shri Thanedar, who won 17 percent of the vote. Thanedar masqueraded as a progressive who paid lip service to the idea that Michigan deserved single-payer healthcare.

“In two other House primaries in Michigan, candidates backed by the party’s official campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, coasted against supporters of Sanders’ signature Medicare for All proposal,” Scher adds. But was that not expected?

More importantly, Scher never points out how most Democrats in Michigan likely support Medicare for All and are open to the plan Sayed put out for single-payer health care in the state. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans are for a national insurance system operated by the government. Fewer and fewer Americans favor the system that was further entrenched by the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

So why not address how Whitmer and her corporate backers are defying what is popular among Americans instead of sneering at democratic socialists who fail to compete with corporate Democrats?

Centrism Loses In Kansas

Next, Scher contends Brent Welder’s loss in Kansas is “far more politically significant” than Sayed’s defeat. Welder is a labor attorney and former campaign staffer for Sanders’ presidential campaign. By four percent of the vote, Welder was defeated by Sharice Davids, who is a lesbian Native American, ex-mixed martial arts fighter, and former fellow in President Barack Obama’s White House.

He takes a cheap shot at Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez for backing “the white guy” over Davids. But given Davids’ progressive politics, it is reasonable to suggest that many voters who supported Davids probably would support Welder’s politics.

Scher ignores the fact that Welder was up against Tom Niermann, Mike McCamon, and Sylvia Williams, who presented themselves as centrists who were “capable of attracting moderate Republican voters in the general election.” Altogether, they were only able to win a little more than 25 percent of the vote (14.3 percent, 6.9 percent, and 4.7 percent respectively).

In essence, the Democratic Party strategy of nominating centrists who can run against Republicans in red states failed because voters did not want to support either of the centrist candidates.

Incorrectly Reporting Outcome Of Washington State Primary

That brings us to Washington state. Scher writes, “In Washington state’s ‘top-two’ primary, Susan Smith received less than half the votes of Representative Adam Smith and failed to make the cut.”

Her name is Sarah Smith, not Susan. She did not fail to make the cut. Around 45,000 additional ballots were counted after the primary. As of August 9, Sarah Smith is ahead of Republican Dean Basler (25.52 percent to 25.21 percent). So saying she failed to make the cut on August 8 was clearly incorrect—or what many liberals might call an alternative fact.

She was endorsed by the grassroots organization, Justice Democrats, and campaigned as a peace candidate, which distinguished her from many progressive or democratic socialist candidates who do not incorporate foreign policy into their campaigns.

“We have spent our entire lives at war,” Sarah Smith states on her campaign website. “I was 13 years old when we went to war in Afghanistan and to Iraq for the second time. I’m about to be 30 and there’s still no end in sight. Millennials like me have known more days that our nation’s been at war than at peace.”

“The military-industrial complex in our country is horrifyingly bloated, and our continued military interventionism has destabilized entire regions of the world. We spend more on our military than the next eight countries combined yet necessary social safety nets for everyday Americans are slashed every day.”

Rashida Tlaib will likely be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. She will represent a congressional district in Detroit. Scher minimizes her victory by obnoxiously quipping, “When Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth snarked that Ocasio-Cortez represented the future of the Democratic Party “in the Bronx,” she was mistaken. It’s the future of the Bronx—and Detroit.” Then, he acknowledges it is a “cheap shot,” and one can practically visualize him slapping his knees as he wrote it and thought he was super clever.

The Moral Priorities (Or Lack Thereof) Among Establishment Democrats

Scher neglected to cover how voters rejected “right to work” legislation that the Missouri state legislature passed. Nor did he point out that Democrats increasingly find it impossible to defend accepting funds from corporate political action committees.

“Most Democratic nominees in competitive House races—not to mention incumbent Senate Democrats fighting for their political lives in red states—are not embracing single-payer or calling for the abolishment of ICE. They are mostly calling for improvements of the Affordable Care Act and a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented,” Scher concludes.

Yet, this is the issue. Single-payer healthcare and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is something Democrats could offer voters to generate enthusiasm against Republicans. It would help with turnout among the base, which is essential if Democrats wish to achieve a “blue wave” in November.

Bland centrist ideas, like tax credits for small businesses or apprenticeship programs to train workers, are not enough to counter President Donald Trump or Trumpism. A vision that addresses the material conditions, which many Americans endure and struggle to survive, would resonate in the midterms.

Republicans, centrist Democrats, and even liberal-leaning media organizations, have tried to spread fear about how much “democratic socialism” would cost the United States. However, under a single-payer health care system, the government would likely spend less than private insurance companies do on health care because the government would not be seeking to turn a profit.

As Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on CNN, “We write unlimited blank checks for war. We just wrote a $2 trillion check for that tax cut, the GOP tax cut, and nobody asked those folks how are they going to pay for it.”

“So, my question is why is it that our pockets are only empty when it comes to education and healthcare for our kids? Why are our pockets only empty when we talk about over 100 percent renewable energy is going to save this planet and allow our children to thrive?”

“We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do. But when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires and when it comes to unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money very easily.”

Not only that, there seems to be no limit to the amount of energy the Democratic Party leadership will put in to fighting candidates, who would like to see government enact moral policies. Corporate donors and PACs that regularly support Democrats continue to partner together to stunt efforts to develop the party into an actual opposition party that can meaningfully challenge Trump.

Establishment Democrats protest insurgent candidates and snobbishly claim they will spoil the midterm elections for Democrats in tight races. They, and pundits who help defend the status quo with utter nonsense, need to be asked why they resist an agenda for working people. They are standing in the way of movements for economic, environmental, racial, and social justice, and the voters propelling candidates like Ocasio-Cortez to victories will eventually force them to reckon with their casual or reflexive obstruction of progress.

Wall built on the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. Photo by bobistraveling on Flickr
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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