The Democratic Party Shouldn’t Push Progressives out of Races

Yesterday, I read an article from The Intercept about how a Colorado Democratic House candidate, Levi Tellemann, met with Minority House Whip, Steny Hoyer, who was trying to persuade him to quit the race because the party establishment in Colorado and DC had chosen his opponent. Tellemann had suspected for a while that the party was supporting his opponent, but this meeting confirmed it. The reason this was even news, was that Tellemann actually taped the conversation and made it public. While I haven’t listened to it, and I have my misgivings about someone releasing a recording of a private conversation, it reveals a gritty, unpleasant reality of party machinations that disquiets me.

I am a progressive, in every sense of the word. I believe the government has a vital role to play in increasing opportunity and economic security for Americans, and that includes a vigorous social safety net and regulatory regime that reigns in corporate excess and malfeasance. Because I am a progressive, I am also a Democrat. Not all Democrats are progressives, though many more are today than in the past. But in order for the values and policies I support to have a chance of passing, governments at all levels must be controlled by Democrats.

The Democratic Party also understands this but seems to believe, with insufficient evidence that progressives should only run in safely Democratic districts, ceding more competitive districts to pro-business moderates who might attract more moderate Republicans and independents. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has taken to intervening in such races, where in at least one instance, it may have backfired, elevating progressive activist Laura Moser into a runoff election in her TX-07 primary. Given the rifts that formed between liberal activists and the DNC over its treatment of Bernie Sanders, it is utterly perplexing to me that the DCCC would attack or try to subtly take out candidates they perceive as too liberal, but are otherwise qualified.

I understand that many of the seats that need to be won are in historically Republican leaning territory, though Clinton won 23 Republican-held seats. But Dems have the wind at their back right now, flipping 40 seats in special elections since Trump was elected, a governor’s seat in my home state, as well as electing Ralph Northam in Virginia, who campaigned hard for a Medicaid expansion, a massive progressive priority in the state. Even the places where Democrats lost, they massively over-performed based on historical voting patterns. Democratic wins have been fueled by moderates, some cross-over Republicans, but especially by base voters, particularly women and African-Americans.

Democrats shouldn’t risk kneecapping their momentum by intervening in primaries in which there are many electable, enthusiastic, and qualified candidates, including a record smashing number of women. The party ought to trust Democratic primary voters, who are nowhere near as rabid as Republican ones: very rarely do we nominate awful candidates like Roy Moore and Todd Akin, nor do we force them to pledge fealty to the party’s leader. Perhaps the only similarity they share is that neither Republican nor Democratic primary voters like being told who to vote for.

I fervently believe that the best candidates will be the ones who best connect with and inspire voters, as well as those with strong connections to their communities. Otherwise, who will donate to their campaigns, make calls, knock doors, and eventually vote for them? In some cases these will be moderates, and in others it will be progressives. I have more faith in Democratic primary voters in swing districts, who are likely conscious of the moderate or Republican leaning-bent of their districts, than of the DCCC, who has a vital role to play in making sure the eventual nominee has the support they need to win. (The only caveat I have to this is in California, where the large number of Democratic candidates, running in the state’s top-two jungle primary system, creates a risk that Democrats could split the vote between their numerous candidates and accidentally nominate two Republicans. In this case, party involvement could be beneficial).

In contrast, I appreciate the work that groups like Swing Left are doing, whose sole goal is to build an infrastructure to elect whoever is nominated to run in competitive house seats. The party should focus on building its grassroots, rather than trying to keep a lid on it, and that means letting the chips fall where they may in primaries.


I Stopped Writing After the Election. That’s Over Now.

I’ve been away a while.

Not in the geographic sense, but it’s been a while since I’ve published anything on Reasonable Creature.

Despite my history of writing, I’ve been conflicted about the value of blogging and words more generally, given how siloed and entrenched everyone is in their own online ecosystem and in their own beliefs. Just posting on social media or talking isn’t really doing anything. Writing without acting made me feel like a hypocrite. Writing accomplishes nothing, I thought.

So I began volunteering, knocking doors for Hillary Clinton in the two months before the election. An initially terrifying experience, I gained my footing with the help of fellow volunteers and the many wonderful (and not so wonderful) people I spoke to. The end result left me devastated, but I gained a renewed sense of purpose that left me feeling stronger and more confident in myself and more connected to the issues and people I had professed to care about. After taking a short break from volunteering (mainly because there were no apparent candidates or races to get involved in) I started canvassing for Democrat Jim Johnson, a former treasury undersecretary and chairman of the Brennan Center for Justice, running for governor of NJ this year. (If you live in NJ, totally check him out!)

But in not sharing my thoughts, which felt pointless after November, I was neglecting an essential part of my identity. Writing is how I make sense of the world — morally and emotionally — and try to make it a little better. And if I’m not being too self-serving, I imagine at least a few people who’ve read my work have been wondering what I have to say, given the shit-show we’re living through. I’ve struggled to get myself to write again, partially due to working two jobs and taking an online course, as well as my general anxiety. (Mostly that.) But after the last several months, I’ve decided that I have something to contribute; my voice matters, if only so that no one confuses my silence with apathy or approval. Perhaps I can even inspire you to take action, whether it’s attending a town hall, knocking on doors for a candidate, or donating to an organization doing work you find valuable.

Either way, there’s a lot of work to do, and it’s good to be back.

On Hope in a Complicated, Horrifying World

On Hope in a Complicated, Horrifying World

The following is a guest post by Daniel Knipp.

This has been a difficult year for civility. Civility and its pals, decency and respect, have had a hard go since the election season started. The news is discouraging, options seem limited, and social strife is being magnified by a certain demagogic campaign driven by misinformation and subjugation. It used to be that I went on Facebook as a break from my work; now, as an active and socio-politically engaged user, Facebook is becoming the work that I need a break from.

I’m sure many of you can relate. It’s hard to be confident in one’s own views, even deeply held beliefs and solidly supported principles, when the complexity of the situation (some necessary, some fabricated) seems to refute one’s argument, whether by articulated thought or by dumb brute force.

For those of you who are terrified of this rising tide of tension and hateful words between groups of different race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and class, I offer these two notes of potential comfort, which I find it useful to fall back on when I feel the same way.

First: the long arc of history at this point is bending toward equality. Make no mistake – we are the people who must make certain that it continues to do so…all of us, united against hatred and ignorance of many kinds and sometimes startling amounts. But yes, those who hold power unfairly and oppress the “other” cannot do so forever. Truly, something does have to give, and it will…let’s make sure it gives, in the direction of equality, justice, and peace.

Second: children cry loudest over change and novel experience just before they realize and accept that they have been wrong, or have been going against the wishes of the majority. Either that, or they take a nap. These loud hateful people are just that: fearful, confused, petulant children, throwing tantrums over whatever they can point to as the source of their discomfort, with no regard to fact, logic, reason, or moderation.

Our fight to maintain homeostasis, that human drive to rebel against the unfamiliar, is part of what keeps us alive, but it can also prevent us and others from living – from experiencing the world to its fullest, and from sharing in the bounties of this new and evolving world that we all create together. But these are big ideas with broad consequences – not easily grasped by children with not only limited knowledge and experience (as we all have), but limited insight, patience, and wisdom.

I do not necessarily blame only these people for their words and actions – if we had a more comprehensive and equitable education system, perhaps we would all be better informed, better adjusted, and better able to discern fact from fiction, citation from rhetoric. And once again, we all start out uninformed and influenced by the cognitive components of survivalistic instincts; I certainly remember being that way, so I cannot help but feel sympathetic toward those who still are, to an extent. But the point is this:

Discomfort is something we all have to live with – discomfort from experiencing difference, and uncertainty, and being wrong. And the good news is that the more we live with it, the better we can cope with it. But those who do not accept this inevitable truth will yell and cry and stomp their feet, and shout that they do not want to share their world, or watch their language, or apologize, or play nice with others. Because unfortunately, until the coping starts, the discomfort remains; and some, either by choice or by subconscious neuropsychological programming, allow their homeostatic drive to build up fear and frustration to such a degree that they start to panic, flailing and screaming.

As with many things we go through in life, the process of acceptance and justice can be likened to a Chinese finger trap: even though our first instinct is to flinch hard and fast to get ourselves out, sometimes the only way out is through – and that requires patience, reason, peace of mind, and the willingness to see others not as default obstacles, competitors, or enemies…but as compatriots, or maybe even friends. Progress will happen, and justice will prevail: A) because oppression will collapse under its own weight as it has before, and B) because we will be there to make sure that it does.

Now go forth, and save the world.

Daniel Knipp is a graduate student of sociology and social psychology at the University of Iowa. He is active on YouTube (SC13TheShades) in the areas of sociology, psychology, education, and politics. He is a long-time friend of the editor. Two of his latest videos are two parts of an in-depth look at the broadest philosophical implications of the 2016 election, examined in terms of sacrifices made by the candidates and the voters. They are available, respectively, at these links:

The “Rigged Election” Narrative Is About Maintaining White Supremacy

The “Rigged Election” Narrative Is About Maintaining White Supremacy

Over the past few months, Donald Trump has claimed that the 2016 election will be rigged. He has urged his supporters to monitor polling places in “certain areas” and said the election could be stolen by “other communities.” He has on many occasions alluded to or directly referenced Philadelphia and other Democratic cities particularly prone to these kinds of machinations. If it’s not clear who Trump is referring to, check out the quotes of some Trump supporters in this recent Boston Globe article:

His supporters are heeding the call. “Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” said Steve Webb, a 61-year-old carpenter from Fairfield, Ohio.

“I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American,” he said. “I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Also this:

“We’re going to have a lot of election fraud,” said Jeannine Bell Sm

ith, 65-year-old longtime teacher in a red Trump shirt with a bucket of popcorn under her arm. “They are having illegals vote. In some states, you don’t need voter registration to vote.”

You may be seeing a pattern here. Non-white (Democratic) voters pose a unique threat to the integrity of our electoral system that only armed, Trump-voting whites can mitigate. This same attitude is prevalent in Republican controlled states like North Carolina, which have passed strict voter ID laws, which a federal court found targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Their claims of frequent in-person voter fraud never hold up to scrutiny; expert Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School, found 31 incidents of voter fraud in over a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. But that’s never been the point. Republican politicians tapped into the prejudices of their supporters that non-whites were more likely to cheat and have been milking it for years, under the guise of “protecting the integrity of our elections” through strict voter ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements.

Years of voter-fraud hysteria has led to a Trump candidacy suggesting that his voters go out in packs to polling places where blacks and Hispanics vote and make sure they are not breaking the law. Imagine if a Democratic politician told his black and Hispanic supporters that white soccer moms from Franklin Lakes, NJ or hedge fund managers from Westchester, NY were voting multiple times as dead people. That would be ridiculous. Such a politician would very soon be out of a job and be seen as dangerously ignorant by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The reverse is acceptable because in America, because the ideal citizen has always been and still is white. I look forward to a time when that is no longer the case, but when unarmed black men are still being killed by police at extraordinarily higher rates than whites, non-whites make less on the dollar, live shorter lives, are incarcerated more frequently, and face greater barriers to the polls, it is clear we have a long way to go. For all its flaws and failures, the Democratic Party understands this.

When Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Muslims, and Jews overwhelmingly support the Democratic nominee this November, it will not simply be a matter of “goodies.” They know this election is fundamentally about who has the right to call themselves American. When Trump and his supporters decry a rigged election, they are really denying the legitimacy of non-white Americans not just as voters, but as citizens and potential citizens, Americans and potential Americans.

I can think of nothing more destructive to our democracy than the idea that American identity is unchanging, that we cannot contain multitudes, that we are somehow diminished by the presence of people who look, talk, or think differently from us. The people newest to our democracy and those who have been victimized by its historical injustices are among the most vibrant and active members of our society. We would be less safe without them defending us in uniform, less prosperous without their businesses, and less American without their votes.

Without Respect and Compassion, We Won’t Have a Country

I read a book recently that does not mention the specific details of the 2016 election but reflects our current political and cultural environment very well. It’s called “The End of White Christian America” by Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. He defines White Christian America (WCA) as white Protestantism, and argues that what was once the dominant national culture and ethic is effectively dead – fractured between mainline and evangelical whites, with both groups in decline and in various stages of mourning. Jones writes with a deep respect for WCA’s positive contributions to American institutions and identity, while equally critical of WCA’s complicity in slavery and segregation and its inability to build substantive bridges with other faiths, races, and ethnicities.

I’ve never been a member of WCA. I’m the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, and was brought up Armenian Apostolic, only to reject it as a teenager. Nonetheless, WCA is an essential part of my political and cultural inheritance. I try to put myself in the shoes of people who feel like they’re losing their country and that their past was better than their present and future. Whether or not I succeed is debatable, but when I read about the anger driving many Republicans, who have taken up WCA’s mantle, I do try to listen and understand. (I found sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s brilliant article on the five years she spent with Trump supporters to be invaluable in that regard.)

But I’m starting to hit my limit. WCA could not have chosen an uglier person to carry its banner. His latest revelation, the Access Hollywood tape where he bragged about sexually assaulting women (and yes “grab ‘em by the pussy” is sexual assault) makes me further embarrassed and ashamed that my fellow citizens would elevate him. For those supporters dismissing it as a joke, two women have just come forward saying he sexually assaulted them.

Trump depresses me for so many reasons, but most of all, because he encourages the people I love to be crueler, less trusting, and more afraid. When he says Mexicans are “rapists,” mocks the disabled, insults women, says we should ban Muslims, especially Syrian refugees, exaggerates crime statistics and amplifies immigrant homicides while ignoring that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans and start businesses at higher ones, he does incalculable damage to the country and to his own supporters.

When asked about his behavior at the debate, Trump quickly pivoted to ISIS: “You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.” This is a common theme of his campaign: respecting non-whites and women is a waste of precious time we could be using to punish our enemies; if you aren’t a white male, you’re useful only so far as you condemn the crimes of your peers and never complain about being mistreated.

It’s why Trump dismisses bragging about unwanted sexual contact as “locker room talk” without any consideration of the abuses women face every day.

It’s why, when the uncommitted Muslim voter asked the candidates how they would address Islamophobia, Trump responded that Muslims needed to start cooperating with law enforcement, which they already do.

Respect and compassion are not luxuries. They are necessary for any society to prosper. To hate is easy but futile and exhausting; to listen and love takes work but is invigorating. WCA understood that once. White Christians helped build a country that welcomed my great-grandmother, a teenage orphan who fled the Armenian Genocide, and my Italian and Jewish ancestors. America didn’t need to let them in; the nations they came from were violent and filled with crime. But America let them in and is better for it.

The end of white Christianity as the dominant national group will require a renewed commitment to expanding the circle of concern to all Americans and a more inclusive notion of American identity.

It means taking institutional racism seriously – in education, criminal justice, employment, and housing, and resisting the urge to think “well, I’m not racist, so it’s not my problem.” It is your problem.

It means taking women’s problems seriously regardless of their relationship to men and accepting that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be.

It means talking about immigrants and refugees as doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, taxpayers, and potential citizens – not moochers and rapists.

It means protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination and violence, while treating ignorance as an opportunity to educate, not name-call.

It means opposing any effort by any party or political figure to make you crueler, less trusting, and more afraid.

Above all, it means treating all people as worthy of dignity and respect. There will always be excuses to treat people as subhuman, and they will always be bullshit.

Millennials: You Owe It to Your Country to Prevent a Trump Presidency.

Millennials: You Owe It to Your Country to Prevent a Trump Presidency.

In order to be heard, you need people in power who are willing to listen.

Without that, nothing else matters. I don’t care how obvious you think your cause is – voting rights, climate change, money in politics, inequality, economic growth – you name it. Protests, social media rants, blog posts, petitions – all of it is useless without allies in state legislatures, governorships, Congress, the courts, federal agencies, and the presidency.

No one is happy with the two major parties, including me, but “the two party system” exists because the Constitution created a plurality voting system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. The two party system is written into the DNA of this country. I’m all in favor of ranked-choice voting, which would help change that, but voting third-party in this election won’t accomplish that goal. For reference, Maine is holding a referendum on whether to institute this method for down-ballot races, likely because they keep electing the bigoted and emotionally unstable Paul LePage in three-way races.

In the meantime, you have two flawed, realistic options, and millennials, when you look at the issues, the difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is the difference between a rash and organ failure. If what you hope for is to be heard when you demand a more inclusive society, more widely shared prosperity, and dignity for all Americans no matter their religion, skin color, gender, or sexual orientation, opposing Donald Trump is not enough. You have to vote for Clinton.

Even if you think Hillary Clinton believes in none of those things, the fact that she claims to matters. Voters overestimate the importance of a politician’s perceived “genuine” beliefs, which privilege the loudest, charismatic people over the quiet but productive ones. What should matter is their ability to listen to voters and deliver solutions that genuinely improve their lives.

For all her flaws, Hillary Clinton played a crucial role in improving people’s lives no matter where she’s served:

Where Donald Trump seeks to divide and enrage, Hillary Clinton seeks build and befriend. Yes, she is awkward, unexciting, intensely private, too friendly with Wall Street, and too comfortable using the military. But she is capable of learning and listening to others – of balancing competing concerns, making informed judgments, and changing her mind when presented with new facts. Those capacities are essential for any president and Trump lacks all of them.

Further, Clinton knows this is not the 1990s, and that her party has turned against financial deregulation, mass incarceration, and cutting the social safety net. She’s running on the most progressive platform in the Democratic Party’s history and knows that we expect her to enact as much of it as she can.

The temptation to vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is an understandable one, especially for millennials, who greatly value freedom of choice. But American presidential elections are not marketplaces, but hugely consequential decisions that mean acceptance or oppression – even life or death for many Americans. Voting to punish “the two party system” or because you think a third-party candidate best fits your views will condemn many of your fellow citizens to Trump’s wrath and the world to an uncertain and unstable future.

We’re obligated to protect and defend one another – in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and yes, in our elections. Voting for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is forsaking that duty.

What One of My Favorite Movies Taught Me about Humility

What One of My Favorite Movies Taught Me about Humility

I had a conversation with my dad recently about the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a man who has aroused both our passions for many years. As always, I took issue with Scalia’s textualist judicial philosophy – basically, his commitment to interpreting the constitution and laws based solely on the text, ignoring context, changing social mores, and new information gained from social science and psychology. I hammered what I considered to be an overly rigid view of interpretation – one that left little room for judges to adjust to a nation’s evolving understanding of long-held rights and recognition of rights that should always have existed.

My dad played devil’s advocate, in effect asking, “what makes something a right?” He challenged me to confront my expansive view of rights and how the courts should interpret them. At the end of our conversation, my dad said something I take to heart: Scalia’s exceptional intelligence (or anyone’s) didn’t make them right, but it meant that we needed to be humble about our own views. No matter how sure we are that we’re right, there will always be someone out there way smarter than us who believes the opposite.

The conversation reminded me of Inherit the Wind, the 1960 Stanley Kramer film, inspired by the 1925 Scopes Trial, where a Tennessee high school teacher was put on trial for violating the state’s statute against teaching evolution. (This post will contain spoilers.)

The film begins with the town leaders of fictional Hillsboro, Nebraska, arresting high school biology teacher, Bertram Cates (real-life John Scopes), in front of his students. The town leaders fear the case will bring bad press, but are hopeful when it’s announced that three-time presidential candidate, former Secretary of State, orator, and fundamentalist Christian, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) will appear on behalf of the prosecution. To defend Cates the Baltimore Herald sends legendary defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), along with reporter E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken) to cover the trial. Drummond faces an angry town, including a fire-and-brimstone reverend, who just happens to be the father of Cates’s fiancée, Rachel.

After the judge throws out his witnesses vouching for the scientific validity of evolution, he puts Brady on the stand as a Biblical expert. Calling attention to some of the Bible’s internal inconsistencies, he accuses him of imposing his religious beliefs on students and humiliates him in front of the town. The next day, the jury convicts Cates, but the judge fines him a measly $100; Brady objects and tries to make a speech, but drops dead in the courtroom.

Like “The Crucible,” the film is an allegory about McCarthyism. It is heavily fictionalized, adding characters that never existed and personal conflicts that never happened. But the juiciest parts, the courtroom showdowns between Drummond and Brady are mostly taken from the real trial’s transcript.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but I was only vaguely aware of its historical inaccuracies and the influence of McCarthyism. Needless to say, I fell in love with it. It is sweet, passionate, and, at times, utterly ruthless. The acting, particularly Spencer Tracy’s embodiment of gentle empathy and fierce conviction, along with his razor-sharp wit, is some of the best in any film I’ve ever seen. His character (and real-life legal giant) articulated a view of the world very similar to my own – that religion and progress are not mutually exclusive, but that we must be open to new facts.

As I matured and kept watching, I gained more historical context. The film portrays Brady as good-natured and deeply caring, but an often overzealous buffoon. The real Bryan was a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State when President Wilson took a hard-line against Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania, fearing it would lead to war. He opposed Darwinism on humanitarian grounds, as well as religious, viewing social Darwinism, a then-popular perversion of Darwin’s theories, as a threat to the moral foundations of society; he saw social Darwinism as promoting callousness toward the poor. He even opposed policies, like the gold standard, that squeezed the currency supply and kept the poor trapped in debt.

With all this in mind, I began to see Brady/Bryan in a kinder, more nuanced light. I still didn’t agree with him; almost all of the scientific community accepts Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection and has resoundingly rejected social Darwinism. But his struggle against modernity was rooted in compassion for the downtrodden, something that motivates me as well. While Inherit the Wind can be heavy-handed and stack the deck against Brady/Bryan, watching it forces me to confront my initial reaction to him as an ignorant dope. He may have been on the wrong side of history, but his conscience led him to advocate for working people at a time when economic security was non-existent.

If I learned anything from Bryan, it’s that none of us is ever fully right. But wrongness can often be grounded in a greater truth worthy of our consideration and respect.