The Heart of the Electability Debate: Coalition

LeBron James has a show on HBO titled “The Shop: Uninterrupted” in which he gathers some of his friends at the barbershop for a discussion that is more about life than sports. While James is busy playing basketball at the moment, his friend Maverick Carter is hosting the show and, in the most recent episode, gathered a group that was mostly women. Included in this discussion were: Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, Stacey Abrams, and Whoopi Goldberg, along with Malcolm Jenkins and Hasan Minhaj.

When Minhaj took up the topic of politics, Whoopi let loose and called him out.

Goldberg said that Minhaj’s characterization of the Democratic Party as being split into the “new woke” and “establishment” wings is a media narrative that is false. She rightly pointed to Joe Biden’s contributions toward ending apartheid as an example of the kinds of things that narrative dismisses.

The editorial board of the Washington Post is to be commended for challenging the conventional wisdom of that narrative as well.

It has become an unchecked assumption about the Democratic presidential race: The candidates are fighting an ideological war between “left” and “center.” This narrative is false, and it is hardly benign. It minimizes the bold policy ambitions of those in the mislabeled “centrist” lane and falsely characterizes those on the left flank as braver or more committed to reform…

[T]he fact that Mr. Sanders’s and Ms. Warren’s positioning puts them decidedly to the left of others in the race does not make their competitors “centrist.” All, in fact, have put forward ambitious, progressive platforms for reducing inequality and promoting access to health and education…

In fact, every major Democratic candidate is running on an agenda to the left of Mr. Obama’s.

Lest anyone think that Barack Obama would have a problem with that characterization, keep in mind that he recently said this.

“There is always kind of a battle in politics between hope and fear. You hope things get a little better, you are afraid that with too much change things might get worse, and there’s always that contest that’s taking place… if I were running today, I wouldn’t run the same campaign that I did in 2008.” Conversations around issues like climate change and criminal justice reform have completely shifted, he explained. And as a result, so should the policy pitches. The Affordable Care Act is a “starter home.”

The reason why Whoopi was right to call out the idea that the Democratic Party is in the midst of a battle between the “new woke” and the “establishment” is that the narrative is divisive at a time when bringing together a coalition is more important than ever. So rather than place individual candidates on that kind of spectrum, it is important to notice when they feed the divide.

As we speak, the two people in this race who appear to be the frontrunners in Iowa and New Hampshire are the worst offenders. Pete Buttigieg constantly contrasts the so-called “heartland” with the rest of the country. Over the weekend, he said that “we need Washington to look more like our small towns, not the other way around.” That is dismissive of the 80 percent of Americans who live in urban areas.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders recently said this.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, that is actually Buttigieg and Sanders sounding an awful lot alike in a way that divides the country. It is simply not true that the heartland is the only place where American values flourish or that urban communities are doing just fine.

What Democrats need is a candidate who can, as Stacey Abrams suggested, tell all of America, “I see you and I see the obstacles to you getting the things that all of us want: healthcare, economic security, educational opportunities.”

Similarly, Democrats need a candidate who won’t simply focus on the narrow goal of winning back the Midwest, but one who recognizes that a coalition carries with it the possibility of making strides in southern states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. Competing in all of those states isn’t just important for winning the presidency, it also helps candidates running in down-ticket races—be it anywhere from Michigan to Arizona.

Along those lines, take a look at this video recently released by Tyheir Kindred, a Dayton, Ohio rapper who goes by the name of YelloPain. He directly challenges the idea that “my vote doesn’t count” by schooling young people on the importance of those down-ticket races.

While beating Trump is a priority, it is equally important for Democrats to maintain a majority in the House and win one in the Senate. The way to reach all of those goals is not by dividing the country, but by building the biggest coalition of voters. That is what should be at the heart of the so-called “electability” debate.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.