With the Ohio District Twelve special election returns still in doubt but looking as if the Republican candidate, Troy Balderson, has beaten his opponent, Danny O’Connor, the Democratic Party once again is left to ask what happened. The fact that the results are so close is itself a kind of victory — if we are in the business of giving trophies to everyone — since the district has gone mostly Republican since before America entered the Second World War, having been, for example, represented by John Kasich from 1983 till 2001. But second place, no matter how close to winning it may be, still means did not win, and being pleased with how close the Democrat came is not going to save us from Trump and his followers.
I had to resist the urge to commit a No True Scotsman fallacy by putting quotation marks around Democrat. O’Connor is a centrist — he calls himself a pragmatist — and does not support the key planks of Medicare for all and tuition to state colleges funded by taxes in the current progressive platform. But he does hold the positions that Hillary Clinton held — at least for a few minutes during the 2016 election, anyway — and we know how that worked out.
In short, if we run diet Republicans, we lose. As much as I disagree with the right-wing agenda, I cannot blame Republicans when they reject faux versions of their party when they have one of their own to vote for.
The argument that gets repeated over and over is that in purple districts, we have to run centrists. But when Democrats pretend to be a fuzzy copy of Republicans, that tells Republican voters that we accept their agenda while being too scared to go all the way with it. Why vote for the imitation?
The party hacks leapt immediately to a microwaved response: It’s the Green Party’s fault. Alyssa Milano, the current favorite celebrity of the establishment, tweeted, “You know what sucks? Because of our unwillingness to pass policy that protects our election integrity, I immediately think the Green Party votes tonight are Russian meddling. Why else would anyone cast a protest vote in Ohio when there’s so much at stake? #OH12.” That is but one of many such cases of lashing out to be seen on Twitter.
I understand the stakes, but I am also sick of the arrogance of a party, of candidates, and of my fellow citizens who keep telling me that I am obliged to support each new bad choice because the other guy is worse. Is the Democratic Party really this unimaginative?
Why did Donald Trump win in 2016? The easy answer is that racism and resentment beat stability, but when his opponent was the definition of an insider whose belief that she deserved the office kept her from attending to the states that do not do as they are told, the easy answer may not be sufficient.
I am going to sound like Cato the Elder, ending every speech with “Carthago delenda est,” but at some point, the left must stop allowing the right wing of American politics to define who we are and instead explain how we are different — not just that we are not Trump — and why what we have to offer is better.
It is not enough to say that we want to abolish ICE. We have to explain what we will replace it with. Rather than sneering that opposition to immigration is racist, we need to take seriously the concerns raised by people who struggle to survive at minimum wage. Legal immigrants do not drive down wages, and immigrants generally are not taking away jobs from citizens. Medicare for all would cut our health care spending in half, and contrary to the fears about death panels and condemned infants, the outcomes and patient satisfaction would be better.
I have been over this ground repeatedly. But pounding home the message is what our politics require. The Republican Party discovered that technique decades ago when they stopped being a kind of country club for the wealthy of our northeastern states. Rather than speaking in paragraphs — I have John Kerry and Barack Obama in mind here — we need simple messages, backed up by evidence and sound reasoning on demand, that we can state in a way that does not sound like a lecture. Rather than wasting time on things that sound like a philosophy seminar — something that the Green Party and many progressives, myself included, love to do — we have to pick a small number of specific programs that will make life better for ordinary Americans.
And then we have to explain how our platform is consistent with freedom, a value that is at the core of what America means. Are we more free when we are sick or healthy? Are we more free when we are ignorant or educated? Are we more free when minority groups are placed at structural disadvantages or when each of us who are minding our own business should be treated equally? Fairness is also an American value, after all.
The problem here is that at the heart of right-wing thinking is the unstated belief that we all can be wealthy with a little bit of hard work, and once we arrive at that coveted status, we would not want to pay the taxes required to bring opportunity to all. But as my history teacher in high school liked to say, some people choose their parents better than others, and initiative by itself is not enough, and while there are self-made billionaires in this country, twenty percent of Americans own eighty-seven percent of the wealth, the top one percent holding 35.5% of it.
That reality will not be driven home by blocking a street with your friends and banging on improvised drums. We have to come to the fight prepared to fight. And joining that fight requires us to bring the right tools. Olive branches are for harvesting olives.