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Middle America: The Danger for Democrats

To insist that not coming on too strong is what’s needed in 2020 is to miss the whole lesson of the rightwing populist rise of Trump.

It’s too late to turn back the page to the soft, centrist, consensus politics of the era before Trump. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It’s too late to turn back the page to the soft, centrist, consensus politics of the era before Trump. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The debate among pundits in Washington, D.C., over which Democratic candidate should run against Donald Trump has come down to an argument over who is less appealing to Midwestern voters—the increasingly out-of-it, gaffe-prone Joe Biden, or scary socialists Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (To be fair, Warren says she’s not a socialist, but that doesn’t mollify her critics, who are alarmed by her calls to regulate the banks, tax the rich, and offer health care to everyone.)

Not surprisingly, the establishment types in Washington are more comfortable with Biden—although many still hope Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris will surge in Iowa and save them from this dreadful choice. 

“Drawing a four-hour selfie line in New York does not equate to winning Michigan,” sniffs Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, in an opinion column that takes aim at Warren. She argues that nominating Warren “is a much bigger risk for Democrats (and the survival of our democracy) than is Biden.”

Whoever the Democratic nominee is will be called a socialist—and far worse. Better to have a candidate with the courage of her convictions than one who equivocates and appears unsure of what to do.

Rubin points to a series of state polls released by The New York Times that show Biden beating Trump by an average of just two points among registered voters in battleground states. The same polls show Trump beating Warren by two points, and Sanders and Trump in a dead heat.

Those couple of polling points—drawn from surveys of 3,766 voters, with the general election still a year away—are not exactly a slam-dunk. For most voters, it’s still early. Biden, as the former Vice President, has a huge advantage when it comes to name recognition. Sanders also has a bit of an edge there, after his 2016 run. 

Most voters are not watching the marathon Democratic debates. Not only have they not picked a favorite, they have not taken a close look at Biden lately. His senior moments, his odd tangents, the sense that he is always missing a beat, have not registered with the electorate at large. If the Democratic establishment insists on forcing him on the country as the only “viable” candidate based on name recognition and institutional backing, as they did with Clinton in 2016, we may be in for another nasty morning after Election Day in 2020.

Furthermore, it’s a mistake to assume that the independent-minded, populist voters of the Midwest are inclined to support a safe, centrist Democrat. Somehow, even after 2016, that’s still the assumption many Democrats make.

“A super-progressive nominee who relies on super-progressive white voters,” states the authoritative Rubin, “is not a profile of a victorious candidate in the upper Midwest states.”

So what exactly does that victorious profile look like?

In Wisconsin, where Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by thirteen points in the 2016 primary and a significant number of rural voters switched from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to voting for Trump in 2016, it’s not at all clear that Joe Biden is the Democrats’ best bet. 

Tammy Baldwin, who won her Senate race in 2018 by a healthy ten-point margin, is an unabashed progressive and a proponent of universal health care—the policy issue that most worries Rubin.

“Warren is running by spurning even moderate Democrats, promising to ‘fight’ rather than compromise and insisting (along with Sanders) on the most radical health care plan ever proposed by a major-party nominee,” Rubin points out.

That may sound revolutionary, but it is also exactly the formula Baldwin has used to win repeatedly in Wisconsin—supporting universal health care and fighting the establishment politicians whom voters don’t trust to defend their interests. As Baldwin explains, “People across Wisconsin want solutions to their challenges and are not all that interested in Republican versus Democrat. They’re interested in who you’ll stand up to, and who you’ll stand up for.”

To insist that not coming on too strong is what’s needed in 2020 is to miss the whole lesson of the rightwing populist rise of Trump.

The real risk of nominating Sanders or Warren is not that disaffected Midwesterners won’t like them (and the old “likeability” bugaboo of female candidates is another strike against Warren in The New York Times poll). The real risk comes from the enormous headwind that progressive candidates face from what Midwestern populists used to call “the moneyed interests.”

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Warren’s merciless grilling of Wall Street executives who defrauded ordinary Americans and laughed all the way to the bank has earned her the permanent enmity of bankers—and the loyalty of her thrilled supporters. 

Likewise, Sanders made his impressive run to near-nomination in 2016 based on his willingness to speak truth to power.

Power doesn’t like that. 

It is both courageous and dangerous to take on institutional power in America. It always has been.

In his brilliant, tragic, and readable book The Edge of Anarchy, which I review elsewhere in this issue, Jack Kelly explores the rise of Eugene Debs as the champion of the common man during the Gilded Age. At the time, the entire political and economic system was rigged in favor of corporate greed and against labor—to an even greater degree than it is now.

It took years of strikes, marches, clashes with police that killed innocent workers, and the imprisonment of Debs and other labor leaders, before the legislative reforms of the Progressive Era began offering protections to workers and rooting out the most flagrant forms of political graft and corruption.

The people who drove those reforms were not establishment politicians. They were thrilling, dangerous reformers—people like Debs, who embraced socialism as a fundamentally American idea, centered on equality and fairness, against a corrupt, moneyed elite.

Socialism, it so happens, is back in favor among young people who are not feeling optimistic about their prospects in our increasingly unequal capitalist economy. And that has spurred a predictable backlash. Rightwing politicians, from Trump to Paul Ryan to former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, have revived Red Scare language to warn about the dangers of the rise of a new American socialism.

None of this is meant to say that a socialist candidate will win the Democratic primary or the general election. But the basic ideological battle has already been joined. It’s too late to turn back the page to the soft, centrist, consensus politics of the era before Trump.

The fact of the matter is that times are hard in the heartland. A historic farm crisis, the hollowing out of manufacturing, and the cynicism and despair of a generation mired in college debt and depressed about their prospects in a winner-take-all, rigged economy have created a lot of dissatisfaction, and an appetite for populists on both the left and right. 

Whoever the Democratic nominee is, you can be sure that person will be called a socialist—and far worse. Better to have a candidate with the courage of her convictions than one who equivocates and appears unsure of what to do about the tremendous challenges we face.

The headwinds are no joke. Debs, who was wildly popular in his day, never garnered more than 6 percent of the vote in his five runs for President. There is both a deeply held cultural suspicion of socialist ideas and a well-funded business lobby that works hard to discredit those ideas.

But the worse people feel about their future, in the Upper Midwest and across the country, the less likely they are to settle for pablum and hollow assurances in place of real solutions to their very real problems. To insist that not coming on too strong is what’s needed in 2020 is to miss the whole lesson of the rightwing populist rise of Trump.

A plainspoken candidate who genuinely represents the interests of ordinary people is the Democrats’ best bet—whether it’s Warren, Sanders, or candidates, including Harris and Buttigieg, who are more palatable to political insiders. 

To go with Biden, who has been put on his heels by his fellow Democrats in debate after debate, and whose son Hunter traded on his father’s name to get a cushy spot on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch—the subject of a Trump campaign ad that is surely already in the can—would be, by far, the more dangerous choice.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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