Everyone is criticizing President Trump, and rightfully so, for the fact that he is so crude, belligerent and bullying to those he disagrees with. However, progressive people who are hesitant about the candidacy of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are getting similar reactions from fellow Democrats.
Culturally informed by Roman Catholicism’s expectation that regret must prompt an apology as well as penance, Western European tradition calls for a rhetorical journey by politicians who claim to have changed course. A chastened leader should explain why and how he came to his previous belief, explain the circumstances that changed his mind and make the case for his new, different policy. He must expend political capital in order to get changes enacted.
Charles de Gaulle, who wanted France to retain control of Algeria, had observed the popularity and ferocity of the Algerian independence movement during his frequent visits to Algiers. In 1960 the French president admitted that he’d long been mistaken. “The Algerians will have the free choice of their destiny,” he informed a nation stunned by his dramatic reversal. Speaking of political capital, some military officers felt so betrayed they tried to assassinate him. But he brought the Algerian crisis in for a soft landing and regained support.
A rare American example occurred in 1987. President Ronald Reagan first denied negotiating with Iranian hostage takers. Then he apologized to the public for Iran-Contra. Taking “full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration,” Reagan then admitted to misleading the public. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Reagan’s admission was a low point for his presidency but bolstered his reputation in the long run.
Atonement doesn’t play a frequent role in American politics.
Yet it works. After JFK accepted responsibility for the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs—he could have schluffed the fiasco off on Eisenhower, whose administration planned it—his popularity soared.
But it might not have worked for Ike. A study undertaken in 2017 in nine nations including the U.S. found that—especially in the U.S.—conservatives are less willing than liberals to apologize and that they’re less likely to accept an apology when one is offered.
Conservatives mocked Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for “apology tours” expressing regret over America’s role in the slave trade and Middle East interventionism, respectively. Being Republican means never having to say you’re sorry.
The fertile soil for a culture of atonement occurs on the left.
Joe Biden needs to unify the Democratic Party. He has the center-left Hillary Clinton wing in the bag. He leads in the polls but has an enthusiasm gap in progressives who supported Sanders and Warren. Neither Black Lives Matter nor progressives have forgiven the former vice president for supporting the police-group-written 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration. They’re angry that he voted for war against Iraq. A fulsome apology followed by substantial atonement—the way Sanders now says he shouldn’t have voted for the war against Afghanistan—could help Biden with activists.
So far, so tepid.
Biden hasn’t expressed regret, apologized or explained his change of heart, much less promised to do better when contemplating issues of law and order or wars of choice in the future. Why should the left forgive a man who hasn’t asked for it?
Kamala Harris is on the short list for the vice presidency. Her prospects are clouded by her history as a pro-cop prosecutor. She might consider that confession is good for the soul as well as the polls—especially among the progressive Democrats Biden needs. Harris could renounce her “lock them up and throw away the key” past as a attorney general. She could urge the release of Kevin Cooper, now serving on death row for murders that he may not have committed because she opposed DNA testing. Harris said she felt “awful about this.” Never mind the pabulum. Write a check to the Innocence Project.
Empty talk won’t save organizations either.
The NFL is trying to pivot away from its long-standing prohibitions against players expressing opposition to racism and police violence, a policy symbolized by blackballing Colin Kaepernick. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Goodell’s statement “has rightfully been met with skepticism from the masses,” Vincent Frank wrote at Forbes. “But if [Colin] Kaepernick remains unemployed once the 2020 NFL season starts in September, it will have been proven that Goodell’s words were nothing more than an attempt to appease the masses through a well thought out PR stunt.”
Biden, Harris and the NFL need to atone for their sins. We don’t want their words. We need action.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie,” updated and expanded for 2020. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Bernie Sanders is out of the race and with him goes the last chance for progressivism to take over the Democratic Party for a generation.
Now his supporters will decide what to do. Intransigent #BernieOrBusters will cast about for a third-party vote, write-in Bernie or sit out the election in November. Other left-leaning voters will hope against hope that Joe Biden will either pivot to the left himself or that Biden will appoint progressive-minded cabinet members, and maybe tap Elizabeth Warren as vice president, to run the country as he continues to fade into the dying of the light.
There is absolutely no reason to think that Joe Biden would appoint a single progressive to his cabinet or pick one as his vice president. Theoretically, of course, anything is possible. Biden could take up hang-gliding! But Biden hasn’t made the slightest hint that he would pick a progressive for any important position.
Biden has said that he would consider a Republican as his vice president. He has promised to choose a woman. He sends signals when he wants to. And none of those signals has ever been directed toward the left wing of the Democratic Party.
After he consolidated his delegate lead on Super Tuesday, Biden received a lot of media coverage for “reaching out” to Sanders’ supporters. But his message was worthless pabulum: “Let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you. I know what is at stake. And I know what we have to do.”
What exactly does Biden “know” he has to “do”? Nothing that progressives want. Bernie Sanders voters care about issues: Medicare For All, student loan forgiveness, free college tuition. Three days after his “olive branch,” Biden said he would veto Medicare For All if it somehow crossed his desk as president.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s some malarkey.
Yet many liberal voters are praying that Biden will do something to make himself palatable enough to allow them to vote for him against Donald Trump this fall. Like the victim of an abusive alcoholic parent or spouse, they will wallow in magical thinking and project good intentions upon a candidate who has given them no reason to think he has changed. Maybe dad isn’t drunk tonight. Maybe Biden is secretly liberal.
Victims of abusive relationships “don’t stay for the pain,” psychologist Craig Malkin observed in 2013. “Their desperate, often palpable hope, if you sit in the room with them, is that the abuse will go away. And they tend to block out all evidence to the contrary.”
Given the history of the last four or five decades, it’s hard to describe the relationship between progressive voters and the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party as anything better than abusive. From Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, progressives have been expected to donate money and cast votes for candidates who repeatedly broke their promises to fight for the poor and working class and, as time passed, felt so confident that they could get away with acting like jerks that they didn’t even have to bother to promise anything at all beyond not being Republicans—even though often they voted along with the GOP and signed their ideas into law.
2016 marked the first time that progressives stood up for themselves and demanded a place at the table, in the form of Bernie Sanders. Like any typical abuser, the DNC got angry at their victims, blaming progressives when their decision to cheat Sanders out of the nomination in favor of Hillary Clinton caused a catastrophic defeat to Donald Trump. Now it has happened again.
Though pathetic, it is not surprising to see progressives playing the role of the naïve victim who prays for his abuser to come to his senses and make nice.
With Joe Biden, there’s even more reason than usual to believe that nothing good can come out of standing by him. The man he served as vice president, Barack Obama, elevated the use and abuse of Democratic progressives to a diabolical art. He ran on Hope and Change and ending the Iraq war, only to prolong Iraq and expand Afghanistan with the backing of a cabinet that didn’t include a single progressive, not even a token like Clinton Administration labor secretary Robert Reich. Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was conceived of by the right-wing Heritage foundation.
If you’re figuring out whether to stay with the Democratic Party or quit them, there’s a simple way to decide: watch Biden. If he’s serious about picking a progressive as vice president or putting some of them into his cabinet, he will be willing to name names and do so soon. His silence on this topic—which is likely—probably means Vice President Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar and a bunch of Goldman Sachs wankers managing the economic crisis again.
Don’t be surprised if a lot of Democrats who have been let down by “their” party vote for it again this November. Abuse survivors “suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, one symptom of which is dissociation, which often creates such profound detachment from the reality of the abuse that sufferers scarcely remember being hurt at all,” Dr. Malkin wrote. “Dissociating victims can’t leave the abuse because they aren’t psychologically present enough to recall the pain of what happened.”
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Early in the Democratic campaign for president in 2020, former prosecutor and California senator Kamala Harris looked like she was up and coming. Her high point was challenging Joe Biden at a debate about his previous opposition to court-ordered busing in the early 1970s. Soon it became clear, however, that she was more of a troll than a real candidate with real issues. Even though the corporate media didn’t talk about it much, progressive Democrats didn’t have much use for the news that she had deliberately sent an innocent man to death row and then not wanted to talk about it afterwards. Now she is closing offices and laying off staff. Looks like the beginning of the end.
It’s the oldest debate within the Democratic Party: what to do about a progressive insurgent candidate? Whether it’s Ted Kennedy’s challenge against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Howard Dean against John Kerry in 2004 or Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, moderates and centrists always say the same thing: in order to win, you need those swing voters. That means you have to pick the moderate choice. The problem with that argument is that it never really works out in the general election. Kennedy and Dean’s voters stayed home in November. 3 to 4,000,000 Bernie Sanders primary voters never showed up for Hillary Clinton. Now the same argument is being floated again, this time in favor of Joe Biden.
Kamala Harris scored major points at the 2020 Democratic debates by going after Joe Biden for his relationship with segregationist senators during the 1970s. She also went after him about his positions on busing. But she is far from an impeachable when it comes to race issues.
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.)