In Defense of Purity Tests

Image result for ivory soap pure

            Supporters of center-right Democrats like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have a response to left progressives who criticize their candidates for cozying up to Wall Street banks and trying to execute innocent men: stop with the purity tests!

            The term is everywhere these days. “In the political world,” Alan MacLeod writes for FAIR, “the term ‘purity test’ has a very specific meaning, largely used by elites to chastise and attack the left, or to gaslight them into supporting more centrist or right-wing policies.”

Progressives should not fall for the purity-test smear. Voters have every right to demand certain standards of behavior and policy positions in exchange for their support. And so far, lefties have not asked for much: $15-an-hour minimum wage, Medicare For All, free college tuition, eschew donations by corporations. Yet even these modest attempts to nudge the needle to the left go too far for the Third Way/Democratic Leadership Council/moderates clinging to control over the Democratic Party.

Barack Obama is leading the charge. The former president and self-described “moderate Republican” recently argued that Democrats “sometimes creat[e] what’s called a ‘circular firing squad’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues.” The word “allies” is interesting. Is someone who disagrees with you on important issues really an ally?

Here’s a typical use of the term from the June 6th edition of that most elitist of establishmentarian power-sucking publications, the New York Times: “In a contest where purity tests on the left have already propelled leading campaigns to disavow super PACs and reject money from federal lobbyists, is [accepting] tech money still politically acceptable?” The corrupting influence of super PACs is well-documented yet the Times wants us to think a politician can take their cash without being bought.

Framing is everything in politics and the “purity test” trope is one of the cleverest reframes in recent history. Describing the world as complicated—well, duh—the purity test narrative portrays politicians who fall short of the progressive Puritans’ impossibly high standards as victims of a shrieking mob. Virtuous attackers become fanatic Javerts, persecutors of minutiae. Corrupt, bloodthirsty scoundrels deserve our sympathy—and our votes.

Screw that.

Everyone—left, right, center—assesses candidates based on their personal metrics. Some are demographic: Is Mayor Pete too young? Is Bernie too old? Some are relatively arbitrary: Is Amy Klobuchar too mean of a boss? Is Beto too spazzy?

What right-wing Democrats call “purity tests” are what used to be called “standards.” They’re about ideology. And they’re valid.

Eighteen years into the losing war against Afghanistan, left-leaning Americans have good cause to question militarism and its enablers. Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War. He’s never even apologized. Bernie Sanders voted no when it was unpopular to oppose Bush. Why shouldn’t progressives conclude that Sanders is closer to them—not to mention smarter? Biden voted to kill more than a million Iraqis for no reason whatsoever; being held accountable for contributing to one of the biggest mass murders in history no more constitutes a purity test than voting against Charles Manson for mayor.

The Democratic tent has long included officials who oppose abortion. Now that states are passing bans against abortion that don’t even include exceptions for incest and danger to the life of the mother, however, Democratic presidential candidates like Harris and Julián Castro say that all Democrats should be pro-choice. Given how strident the pro-life movement has become and the fact that Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned, it’s hard to dismiss this as an inane “purity test.”

Don’t be fooled, progressives. You have the right to vote for, or against, any candidate you want, for any reason you want. Personally, I can’t support anyone who doesn’t oppose drones, Gitmo, torture, militarism, wars of choice and doesn’t support huge cuts in defense spending. I can’t support someone who doesn’t think saving the planet from ecocide is our top priority. I can’t support a person who doesn’t want to tax the hell out of the rich and eradicate poverty.

Center-rightists tell me that my standards are too high, that none of the current field of 24 presidential candidates can pass my test. They’re probably right. But it’s not my problem. It’s theirs.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Purity Tests

  1. Excellent, Ted.

    I’d urge you to check out, and report on, the platform of the Green Party to see if it conforms to your list of essential planks.*** I think it does and I don’t remember the Dems or any other party ever offering a similar program (since ’68 & ’72 after which the Dems had efficiently and viciously killed any US “left” that may have tried to rear its
    peace-seeking head.)

    As is clear from the Obumma bait-and-switch, a candidate may well make progressive-sounding promises only to ultimately (and immediately, in his case) violate them. (Publicly demeaning those who noticed and justifiably objected.)

    But no progressive actions will ever be taken unless progressive actions are promised.

    However, there is one iron-clad guarantee: those who execrably, proudly and arrogantly fail the so-called “purity tests,” will NEVER drop their corporate, reich-wing agendas in some post-election, political surprise.

    It was precisely HRC’s “I will work with Republicans” boast (!?!) that got His Hairness
    elected via the “why vote for GOP-lite when hi-calorie GOP is on the ballot” phenomenon
    the Dems are either 1) too stupid to recognize or 2) actually utilize to reap all the financial benefits of being in congress, as the minority, without having to deal with the total bother and bore of governing.

    *** Quote: “Personally, I can’t support anyone who doesn’t oppose drones, Gitmo, torture, militarism, wars of choice and doesn’t support huge cuts in defense spending. I can’t support someone who doesn’t think saving the planet from ecocide is our top priority. I can’t support a person who doesn’t want to tax the hell out of the rich and eradicate poverty.”

  2. Yes, let’s actually administer a purity test – properly. Parkinson has made a suggestion to that effect in his classic Parkinson’s law [apologies for the overt sexism]:

    “Let us suppose that the post to be filled is that of Prime Minister. The modern tendency is to trust in various methods of election, with results that are almost invariably disastrous. Were we to turn, instead, to the fairy stories we learned in childhood, we should realize that at the period to which these stories relate far more satisfactory methods were in use. When the king had to choose a man to marry his eldest or only daughter and so inherit the kingdom, he normally planned some obstacle course from which only the right candidate would emerge with credit; and from which indeed (in many instances) only the right candidate would emerge at all.”

    “[…] the successful candidate must be the most energetic, courageous, patriotic, experienced, popular, and eloquent man in the country. Only one man can answer to that description and his is the only application we want. The terms of the appointment must thus be phrased so as to exclude everyone else. We should therefore word the advertisement in some such way as follows:

    Wanted — Prime Minister of Ruritania. Hours of work: 4 a.m. to 11.59 p.m. Candidates must be prepared to fight three rounds with the current heavyweight champion (regulation gloves to be worn). Candidates will die for their country, by painless means, on reaching the age of retirement (65). They will have to pass an examination in parliamentary procedure and will be liquidated should they fail to obtain 95% marks. They will also be liquidated if they fail to gain 75% votes in a popularity poll held under the Gallup Rules. They will finally be invited to try their eloquence on a Baptist Congress, the object being to induce those present to rock and roll. Those who fail will be liquidated. All candidates should present themselves at the Sporting Club (side entrance) at 11.15 A-M- on the morning of September 19. Gloves will be provided, but they should bring their own rubber-soled shoes, singlet, and shorts.

    […] If the advertisement has been correctly worded, there will be only one applicant, and he can take office immediately — well, almost immediately.”

  3. Ted,
    I think you’re committing a fundamental error. It could just be misreading it.
    Back when I was a journalist (and when I was a journalist, the training was for something a lot more meaningful than tweeting out things about the six weird tricks the government doesn’t want you to know about belly fat), the error would be pointed out as one of not defining a term precisely.
    “Everyone—left, right, center—assesses candidates based on their personal metrics. Some are demographic: Is Mayor Pete too young? Is Bernie too old? Some are relatively arbitrary: Is Amy Klobuchar too mean of a boss? Is Beto too spazzy?
    What right-wing Democrats call ‘purity tests’ are what used to be called ‘standards.’ They’re about ideology. And they’re valid.”
    Although you’re right about people assessing via personal metrics (including demographics and ideology), they aren’t “valid.” The Nazis had lots of personal metrics, and almost all of them were not “valid.” (The dislike of cigarette smoking was spot on, so I’ll give Hitler that.)
    Example: RIght now, there’s a new outbreak of measles. For those readers who are unaware of it, measles killed off the Indians (or at least enough of them to guarantee societal collapse). Or was it chicken pox? Doesn’t matter. A highly communicable disease swept through a population with no natural resistance and no inoculations and laid waste to it. Most of the American Indians who died in the first waves of disease never even saw a white man. The R-value (reinfection co-efficient) was so high the diseases simply raced across the population. And now various groups of uninformed people proudly stand there and swell their chests with the self-appointed arrogance of those who “know better” because they’re informed by a D-list celebrity blog post, or a religious text, or homespun folk wisdom, or their gut (“I’m her mama, I know best”) or whatever.
    And every one of them would say the same thing: “My opinion is valid.”
    But it is not. The opinion in question is “wrong” not “valid.” Assessment by personal metric rather than hard, deliberate consideration is almost always wrong. Just ask the people who’d like to have a beer with Dubya. The opinions are just as wrong as the “relatively arbitrary” ones but in a different way.
    According to fundamental Republican ideology (at least one flavor of it), everyone who isn’t self-sufficient at all times is a worthless parasite-leech on the Body Politic. You want to send your kid to college? “I waited tables to get through college. These freeloaders need to stop demanding handouts and start rolling up their sleeves,” is what the Republicans used to say to rooms filled with applause …
    … Until it became unavoidably obvious that the cost of college had grown so much faster, relative to wages, that a college student would have to wait tables 20 hours a day to be able to cover tuition. And the Republicans stopped using that horseshit. Ideology was forced to yield to facts.
    Not to the INTERPRETATION of facts, but to the facts. Opinion stopped being valid or plausible because it was simply too grossly out of step with reality.
    I’m voting for Bernie Sanders. I’m doing that because his policies make sense; they conform, most closely, to what I perceive as reality: wages aren’t going up like they should, the planet’s getting hotter, home ownership is a fantasy for most, etc. His policies have rational, logical frameworks. Bernie wants to give everyone medical care (just like in those hellholes we call Sweden, Germany, Canada, Japan, etc.). He doesn’t just wish that single-payer healthcare into existence. He offers a framework that explains how to pay for it, how to implement it, and so forth. And his numbers can be checked.
    When I check out the other candidates, the rational jaded editor in me quickly hamstrings them. “Liz Warren,” I say to myself, “was a Republican until just a few years ago. She didn’t back Bernie Sanders, but now, suddenly, she’s seen the light. Why would I consider someone who has only recently converted to a political platform plank that makes sense? She’s still taking money from all the people who have huge reasons to want to control politicians (Exxon, Amazon, Facebook, etc. They all want to get the government to give them carte blanche to just go nuts) and in the end she can’t make a more compelling argument than Bernie Sanders simply by copying his playbook.” (It’s a similar monologue for all the others; Sanders is the one to beat, and copying isn’t beating.)
    I agree with your main point, but I think that the concept of voting (and all the run-up to it) requires that the vote be used in a logically defensible fashion. And arguments about feel-feels as justification never sell me.
    (I like the contradiction of the Ivory Soap ad for a purity test essay. The slogan of 99 44/100% pure is simply ad copy nonsense, an appeal to emotion. The Ivory Soap people thought such a precise fraction was more believable. It has no empirical basis. Also, the soap floats only because a worker left a batch mixing for too long, making it less dense. The company shipped it rather than lose the money. People wrote in to praise them for their new floating soap as it was much easier to find in the bathtub.)

    • @Alex –

      > He offers a framework that explains how to pay for it, how to implement it, and so forth. And his numbers can be checked.

      Thanks, Alex – I was about to argue with you on this, as in the past I’ve found Bernie to be a bit vague, but I wisely hit Google and found this: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/options-to-finance-medicare-for-all?inline=file

      Okay, it’s got numbers and specifics and stuffs. Good move, Bernie!

      One thing that the conservatives always miss is that we are ALREADY paying for it – and by “we” I mean “people who work for a living.” That’s where the wealth of this country comes from. It’s simply a matter of changing how that wealth is distributed. We could use the same wealth to provide health care to those who created said wealth rather than to enrich the already-wealthy (big pharma CEOs, Insurance CEOs, etc.)

      • “One thing that the conservatives always miss is that we are ALREADY paying for it – and by “we” I mean “people who work for a living.” That’s where the wealth of this country comes from. It’s simply a matter of changing how that wealth is distributed. We could use the same wealth to provide health care to those who created said wealth rather than to enrich the already-wealthy (big pharma CEOs, Insurance CEOs, etc.”

        Nice!

  4. 98.6% agreement – we have a right, no, an obligation to vote for those who best represent our interests.

    The other 1.4% is for those who take it too dang gone far. You’re never going to find a candidate you agree with 100%, so you have to learn to live with it or you’ll never find anyone to vote for.

    If they scratch five out of your six biggest itches: great! If not, ask yourself whether your own purity test is worth (electing Hillary / re-electing Trump) We saw that in the last presidential election, the Sanders Supporters split – some voted for Jill and some voted for Hillary according to how they saw their best interests.

    But some voted for Trump out of spite, while some others refused to vote at all. Those aren’t “Sanders Supporters” or “Bernie Bros” they are “Bernie Bratz” – probably the first presidential election they were eligible to vote in and they invented a whole new political strategy, “If you won’t let my guy win, I’m not going to play”

    If you’ve got that kind of attitude, you’re going to sit out a lot of elections.

    • “Bernie Bratz”

      Spoken like a true right-wing, scolding Democrat, spouting the kind of crap that passes for wisdom in their own echo chamber.

      The same kind of people who criticized Occupy Wall Street people for not putting on the harness and taking the bit in their mouths in a corrupt system.

      If you keep on voting for what you don’t want don’t complain when you get it. (And you won’t complain if it’s what you really wanted all along but couln’t come out and say it.)

      • > If you keep on voting for what you don’t want don’t complain when you get it.

        That’s not at all what I said. Fill in the blanks, little ballerina:

        I am perfectly happy to defend anything I do say, but I have no obligation to defend the _____ you pull out of your _____

        ?

        Last I heard, your plan was to not vote and complain when you don’t get what you want. Somehow that just doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to me.

  5. Ted’s link to Kamala Harris:

    “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent.

    “Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”

    Need I show the link https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/opinion/kamala-harris-criminal-justice.html again?

    I will not ever vote for a piece of shit like this, nor will I vote for anyone from a party that won’t call her out on this.

  6. Well, Ted, as the saying goes, Ivory Soap ain’t the only thing that floats. And while, as I’ve said before, I think Mr Sanders should talk and do more about US militarism and the country’s interminable wars of aggression abroad (and, may I add, do less blaming of others (read : those dastardly Russians and those nefarious Chinese) for the predicament in which his country finds itself, he’s the one that’s got the credibility ; as the saying goes : 路遙知马力, 日久见人心 (the length of the road tests a horse’s strength ; time tests a person’s heart). I’d like to see a Sanders-Gabbard ticket – but then again, I confess to being a foreigner interfering in your elections (even if I don’t have a Facebook account), just, I might add, as your government interferes in ours….

    Henri