Editor’s Note: Nayyera Haq is a host on SiriusXM Progress and CEO of an international communications firm. She served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser in the State Department and a senior director in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
In Berlin, the city famous for once dividing itself in two with a wall, former President Barack Obama tackled the issue of division in politics and his worries for the Democratic Party’s future: “Among progressives in the United States … is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Uh, I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be.’” Obama argued, at an Obama Foundation event on Saturday, that party infighting usually leads to the weakening of a movement by “creating 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.”
He’s not wrong when it comes to the traditions of governing in a democracy, where, as he put it, you have “to take into account people who don’t agree with you.” Democrats, who represent the party of diversity, have historically been challenged when it came to herding cats in their coalition, even as the public discourse has been one of tolerance for a variety of ways to help working families. But the Democrats’ Big Tent is teetering as the party sees its left flank publicly bucking leadership to primary their own seated members.
The Twitter takedown — a harsh online reckoning meted out for those who stray from the performance of progressivism — has translated into a very real takedown in the field. The goalposts for campaigning have shifted since Obama’s era, leaving the former President and his cohort grappling with a party that might not nominate him today.
The purity test Obama references is not an easy points system to navigate. It is one in which your past behavior is always up for scrutiny and weathering the test of time is not a virtue. It’s the same system that rallies feminists against both Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Sen. Al Franken, with the former gaining the Supreme Court because Republicans don’t hold the same standards, and the latter resigning in disgrace because of criticism from his fellow Democrats.
And now this scorecard is being used to ding two people close to Obama — his own former vice president, Joe Biden, who just can’t seem to stop touching people and then cracking jokes about it; and one of Obama’s earliest supporters and current aenator, Kamala Harris, whose record as a prosecutor supporting “three strikes” laws has called into question her ability to confront racism in the criminal justice system.
The rise of the progressive left is just as much a reaction to Republicans as it is to Obama. The millennials who grew up under Obama don’t see the election of a black man to the White House as earth-shattering, it is simply the reality of how they grew up.
What millennials do see is crippling student loan debt that prevents them from becoming homeowners, a social safety net they pay into but may be bankrupted by the borrowing of older generations, and incarcerations for weed smoking but not for rape. This cohort has come of political age with the reality of being the first generation that possibly will not out-earn their parents and a wealth gap the likes of which our country hasn’t seen since the 1920s.
These progressives blame incrementalism — the willingness to compromise around the edges — for their current plight. They see in Obama a president who had the health care policy of Mitt Romney, the foreign policy of John McCain, and the rhetoric of Reagan and still could not get Republicans in Congress to work with him.
We can debate what the rise of the tea party has done to the norms of our democracy, but this generation is looking at Republicans as a model for success in achieving core policy objectives: seating judges across the board who will reject any social engineering, passing tax cuts that benefit corporations and the top 1% of the country, limiting women’s abortion rights in dozens of states, and implementing draconian immigration policies.
While this iteration of the Republican party has made no gains in battles for civility or kindness, it has won the war of changing the landscape of the country.
It is no surprise then that progressives are looking to think like Democrats and play like Republicans when it comes to eliminating corporate welfare, changing gender norms, and correcting for systemic racism. This is not the era of the beer summit, where a Democratic leader can respond to a black intellectual elder getting arrested for trying to get into his own house with a diplomatic coming together of both sides. This is the era of “both-sides-ing” being The Problem.
Lines have been drawn for the 2020 nomination and progressive voters are not looking for compromise; they are looking for the nominee who will take no prisoners.
The challenge in following the tea party’s example of gaining seats or a nomination is converting enough people to the cause to make governing viable without making millions of people miserable in the process. Tradition holds that an elected official is responsible for representing all of their constituents and governing accordingly; Trumpists have taken the easy way out and thrown those traditions of civil society out the window.
Progressives have an opportunity to be better — to be diplomats and not destroyers — but the work of peace-building and stabilization is much harder than tearing things (and people) down. By holding true to basic principles of equal opportunity and access; by accepting that people don’t wake up woke but evolve; by bringing the passion for politics to new voters, Democrats have the opportunity to bring people along with them to implement progressive social change.