During the Democratic Debates Beto O’Rourke reacted to a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso by calling for the abolition and confiscation of assault rifles like the AR-15 and AK-47. Now Democrats are freaking out that Republicans might accuse them of wanting to take away people’s guns, which of course they’re going to say anyway.
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.
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.)
Some of the major Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination still haven’t bothered to articulate cohesive policy promises, yet are receiving significant support and campaign contributions. Remember the old days, when politicians had enough respect for voters to lie to them?
Americans vote their pocketbooks. It’s the economy, stupid. Absent a war or recent terrorist attack, conventional wisdom believes that voters prioritize domestic issues. Right now, conventional wisdom is correct. According to the latest Pew Research poll, the five most important issues for Democrats are healthcare, education, Medicare, poverty and the environment.
So it’s not surprising that the major Democratic presidential contenders’ campaigns are focusing on economic and other America-centric issues. Nor is it shocking that the news media, never more anemic or less willing to question the candidates, is ignoring their stances on foreign policy. You could watch 5 hours and read 50 pages of news every day and never learn where a top Dem stands on issues of war and peace, defense spending, assassination drones, Guantánamo, NSA surveillance of Americans, foreign adventurism or human rights. Trust me, I know.
Still, voters deserve to know the would-be presidents’ positions on issues that extend beyond U.S. borders. Here’s what I found.
The Democrats on Our Crazy Defense Spending
The military sucks up 54% of discretionary federal spending. Pentagon bloat has a huge effect on domestic priorities; the nearly $1 trillion a year that goes to exploiting, oppressing, torturing, maiming and murdering foreigners could go to building schools, college scholarships, curing diseases, poetry slams, whatever. Anything, even tax cuts for the rich, would be better than bombs. But as then GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in 2015, “The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” If you’re like me, you want as little killing and breaking as possible.
Unfortunately, no major Democratic presidential candidate favors substantial cuts to Pentagon appropriations.
Current frontrunner Joe Biden (33% in the polls) doesn’t talk much about defense spending. He reminds us that his son served in Iraq (so he cares about the military) and that we shouldn’t prioritize defense over domestic programs. Vague. Though specific programs might get trimmed, Lockheed Martin could rest easy under a President Biden.
“Since he arrived in Congress, [runner-up] Bernie Sanders [19%] has been a fierce crusader against Pentagon spending, calling for defense cuts that few Democrats have been willing to support,” The Hill reported in 2016. “As late as 2002, he supported a 50 percent cut for the Pentagon.” Bernie is still a Pentagon critic but he won’t commit to a specific amount to cut. He wouldn’t slash and Bern. He’d trim.
Elizabeth Warren (8%) wants “to identify which programs actually benefit American security in the 21st century, and which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors — then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts.”
Neither Pete Buttigieg (8%) nor Beto O’Rourke (6%) have articulated any firm foreign policy positions whatsoever. Buttigieg brags about having served in the Navy Reserve. Unlikely that either man would change much.
Kamala Harris (5%) has not weighed in on military spending. She has received substantial campaign contributions from the defense industry, though.
The Democrats on Wars for Fun
Sanders voted to invade Afghanistan. His comment at the time reads as hopelessly naïve about the bloodthirsty Bush-Cheney regime: “The use of force is one tool that we have at our disposal to fight against the horror of terrorism and mass murder… it is something that must be used wisely…and with great discretion.” Sanders voted against invading Iraq, favored regime change in Libya (albeit nonviolently) and voted to bomb Syria.
There have been no major new wars since 2013, when Warren joined the Senate so her antiwar bona fides have not been tested. Like many of her colleagues, she wants an end to the “forever war” against Afghanistan. She also wants us out of Syria.
Harris too is new to the Senate (2017). Statements on various conflicts indicate that she is a foreign policy hawk in the Hillary Clinton mold. Harris favors the U.S. bombing campaign against Syria, blank-check approval for Israel and sabre-rattling against North Korea. She buys into the discredited Russiagate narrative.
Warren is the only high-level antiwar candidate but she could be BSing.
Democrats on Drones
The assassination drone program begun by Bush and expanded upon by presidents Obama and Trump have killed thousands of innocent people in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, almost all innocent. Drone strikes have demolished America’s moral standing. “Just about everywhere else in the world, opposition to drone strikes is sweeping,” The Washington Post reported in 2014. Anti-American terrorists often cite drone strikes as justification for attacking the U.S. It’s only a matter of time before other countries, and non-state actors like Hezbollah and ISIS, use them against us.
Though generally skeptical of large ground invasions like Iraq, Biden is a fan of drone assassinations. Sanders acknowledged in a 2015 interview with me that drones make killing “too easy” but nevertheless said he would continue terror-by-air as president. Warren doesn’t talk about drones. Neither does Harris.
None of the major Democratic candidates would cancel the drone program.
Democrats on Gitmo
Opened shortly after 9/11, the U.S. concentration camp at Guantánamo is a nasty blotch on America’s human rights record that terrorists use to justify killing Americans and put the lie to every pronouncement the government issues about human rights abuses in other countries. Torture, rape and even murder are routine at this notorious facility.
Kamala Harris always refuses to comment—a stance that speaks volumes.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the only two who have consistently argued that Gitmo should be closed. “We look like hypocrites and fools to the entire world,” Sanders said in 2016.
Democrats on NSA Spying Against Americans
The mass surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden continue to scoop up every email, text message, phone call and every other form of communication you can think of within and into the United States. Whether the NSA and other agencies will be allowed to continue will determine whether we can avoid an Orwellian dystopia.
Joe Biden, though to the right on other foreign-policy issues, was a critic of NSA spying for years, going back at least to 2006. Under Obama, however, he backtracked. Even worse, Biden called the president of Ecuador in 2013 to request that he deny asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Bernie Sanders alone would end warrantless mass surveillance and said Snowden “did this country a great service.” Warren doesn’t discuss it much except to say it would be nice to have “an informed discussion.” Harris favors some limits but generally keeps quiet.
Except for Biden, the Democratic presidential field is dominated by progressives and progressives-come-lately—on domestic issues. When it comes to foreign policy, there isn’t as much difference as progressive voters would like between the Democratic and Republican parties.
(Ted Rall, the 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.)
More and more, the media seems especially enraptured with political candidates whose policy positions are vague to the point of being nonexistent. It helps if you are somewhat good-looking, young, and have a certain charisma if you want to appeal to today’s journalists. But no one cares about what you want to do to actually help people.