Hillary Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/ Flickr

Are they going to whine four years from now, too?

Let’s say that in 2020—four years after Donald Trump has used the Constitution as a placemat, ignored incident after incident of police brutality, gutted every last element of President Obama’s carbon-cutting efforts, proclaimed that Vladimir Putin was virtuous and pure, and allowed corruption to contaminate the country—the Democratic presidential primary comes down to another contest pitting a perceived “establishment Democrat” against an undisputed progressive. Let’s say that, due to missteps, gaffes, lack of coverage from the mainstream media, or just plain old bad luck, the progressive hopeful fails to secure the Democratic nomination.

Will the same folks who went on and on about Hillary Clinton’s alleged flaws, her supposed cautiousness, her “uninspiring” nature, and her ties to the “Establishment” resurface to again assail the Democratic nominee as “not progressive enough?” Will they again exaggerate the nominee’s perceived policy flaws? Will they again suggest that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democratic nominee and the demagogic incumbent?

As I noted in February, back in the summer of 2013 I was horrified by the rhetoric of progressive radio host Sam Seder, who chased after then-Democratic US Senate aspirant Cory Booker with a rhetorical chainsaw. Seder was repulsed by the prospect of Booker defeating then-Rep. Rush Holt in an August primary to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg in an October special election. I also preferred Holt’s vision, especially his strong advocacy of a federal carbon tax to combat climate change, but it was fairly obvious that Holt was not going to win the primary–and I could not figure out why Seder kept on promoting the idea that Booker was only marginally better than Steve Lonegan, the Koch Brothers-backed Republican contender for Lautenberg’s former seat.

The same reasoning Seder used in that 2013 New Jersey Senate primary was on display during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary–and beyond. How many times did you have conversations with nominally progressive acquaintances who insisted that Clinton was a crypto-Republican, that her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a hoax, that she couldn’t wait to sell out to Big Fracking and Big Pharma and Big Ag and Big Big?

If a Democrat who has, by some odd metric, been deemed “not progressive enough” wins the presidential primary in 2020, we’ll likely hear this same rhetoric again. Nothing will have been learned.

You’d figure that the confederacy of deplorables Trump has rolled out would cure some folks of the disease of perfectionism; one cannot logically argue that Clinton would have selected a skinhead as a chief strategist, a fossil-fuel magnate as Secretary of State, or an opponent of the EPA to run the agency. Yet, if a supposed non-progressive wins the Democratic nomination, he or she will inevitably be assailed as a traitor-in-waiting to the cause, someone whose actions would effectively urinate on FDR’s grave.

The logical lesson of Donald Trump is that power matters and political constituencies matter. The reason why Trump will never take action on climate change is that it is not politically advantageous for him to do so; his constituency vehemently opposes such action, and if he did take steps to curb carbon pollution, he’d face a potentially successful–or, at the very least, politically weakening–primary challenge from a more fossil-fuel-friendly Republican in 2020. A Democrat in Trump’s position, however, would push aggressively on carbon pollution, because that President’s constituency would insist upon such action as a prerequisite for turning out in force in a re-election campaign.

There’s a devil’s-advocate argument that a Democratic presidential candidate does not necessarily have to be a down-the-line progressive, so long as that candidate will, as president, listen to and respond to (a majority of) progressive demands. The point should not be perfection but the possession of political power–keeping that power out of the hands of reactionaries, using that power to defend the dignity of the disadvantaged, privileging the priorities of Democratic constituencies, responding to progressive calls. Instead of being once again obsessed with virtue, wouldn’t it make more sense to be obsessed with who can ultimately emerge victorious over White House viciousness?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.