By Jessica Valenti, Medium
01 August 19
There’s no such thing as ‘the middle’ anymore — only those who can tolerate injustice and those who can’t
Twenty candidates, three moderators, two nights of debate, and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the state of politics, and the second presidential debate, hosted by CNN, didn’t do much to alleviate that stress.
From the network’s embarrassing lead-in, a spectacle better suited for a WWE match than a political debate, to the fact that one of the candidates believes you can positive-think away cancer, it was hard not to see the last two nights as a direct response to Donald Trump’s presidency. So much felt crass and surreal.
More so than any bizarre theatrics, it was candidates’ insistence on appealing to “the middle” that revealed Trump’s lingering shadow over the Democratic primary. Again and again over the course of two nights, the CNN moderators and candidates alike insinuated that fighting for real change — like “Medicare for All” — would alienate moderates who don’t like Trump. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of the country supports these policies.
Politicians and pundits need to get over the idea that the middle will save us. White supremacist terrorism is going largely unchecked, states are trying to make abortion punishable by prison time, and we are running large-scale baby jails and concentration camps on the border. There’s no such thing as moderates anymore — only those who can tolerate these injustices, and those who can’t.
Besides, it’s Trump’s extremism that the American people don’t like. The majority of people polled by Quinnipiac University this week think Trump is a racist; another poll showed that most Americans felt his disparaging tweets about members of the “squad” of four Democratic congresswomen of color were overtly racist.
Why are we letting the Republicans who would support such a person set the terms of the debate?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg noted as much on the first night of the debate, when he chided his fellow Democrats for worrying constantly about how they would be perceived by members of the rival party.
“If we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” Buttigieg said. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there, and defend it.”
Indeed, that’s all Democrats can — and should — do. The truth is that there’s no clear line to beating Trump. There’s no magic formula and no sure thing — a terrifying prospect for all of us, and particularly troubling for those who consider themselves experts in voting trends and politics. But if 2016 showed us anything, it’s that political expertise and polls cannot always be trusted.
Democrats need to let the fact that we can’t predict what’s going to happen in 2020 free us to fight for what the country actually needs, instead of what we think a certain group of voters in a swing state will like.
There was one moment in particular that captured the dangers of this tepid approach to campaigning. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, responding to John Delaney’s insistence that her policies were “impossible promises,” quipped, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
And that’s the rub: Why spend one more minute compromising a vision for a just America?
“The middle” is a fairytale for Democrats who want to believe it can save us from Trump, and a lie conservatives need to stop us from fighting for what’s best for Americans. But we don’t have time for fantasies, and the stakes are too high to let Republicans tell us what to talk about and what to fight for.
At the end of the day, I’d like to think that the Democratic sweep in 2018, where we elected a record number of women of color, is more indicative of where the country is at than anything else. But, like everyone else, I really don’t know.
What I do know is that we need to leave behind the theatrics, the fear, and the idea that moderation will do anything other than hold us back.