Over the past two nights of Democratic debates among 20 candidates, a key question has been introduced to this clown car of a primary, namely: Do we want “big, structural change” — as Elizabeth Warren put it, setting the tone on Wednesday evening — or would we rather go back to the way things were before?
All of the candidates are united in their belief that Democrats need to defeat Trump in 2020, but they differ on the reason why. The essential question is whether Trump is a one-off disaster that can be removed from the White House like hazardous waste, or simply the most grotesque symptom of the greed that is ailing our democracy. It’s a matter of whether Americans want to overthrow the status quo in pursuit of a truer, more equitable society, or tinker around with the great American dumpster fire, salvaging whatever hasn’t been gobbled up in flames.
At the most visible level, this is the face-off between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 campaign played a critical role in bringing economic inequality into mainstream consciousness. Sanders was short on policy specifics last night, but his Occupy-inspired rhetoric remains an effective snapshot of the need for systemic change: It’s the millionaires and billionaires verses the 99 per cent.
Whether candidates accept this framing is not a binary, so much as a stance that occurs on a spectrum across the issues. For example, during Wednesday night’s debate, the former Congressman John Delaney summed up the moderate approach while rejecting the need for a single-payer healthcare system. Democrats, he argued, should aim to be the party that “saves what’s working, and fixes what’s broken.” In terms of an overall approach, that sounds a lot like trying to clean up a murder scene with a Lysol wipe. (In this analogy, Amy Klobuchar has come prepared with more aggressive cleaning supplies, and a plan to use them which may or may not might involve an intern scrubbing floors with a toothbrush.)
In broad strokes, the key divide at stake in the Democratic primary is between incrementalism and progressivism, and also the extent to which we will continue to be dictated by the norms and values that say the old white man with the establishment pedigree is necessarily the safest choice in this race. I see no valid reason to assume that is the case.
From the moment he announced his campaign, Biden’s electability has been assured through self-fulfilling prophecy built upon a foundation of “because they said so” nonsense. If you believe Biden is the best bet against Trump, I am compelled to ask, what is that belief based upon exactly? If your answer is dependent on polls and talking heads, well, perhaps you’ll recall that those same polls and talking heads told us that Donald Trump was never going to be president.
Joe Biden is offering the country an invitation to the way things were. He would like us to travel back to the Before Times, when too many of us — myself included — were comfortably numb enough to think political engagement meant sharing a photo of the Vice President eating ice cream. The neoliberal myth of progress has long been shattered, but Biden would like to tell you we can have it back now. Indeed, a version of “The Matrix” starring Biden ends about 22 minutes in, when he says, “The blue pill for me, thanks,” and then tosses it back with a milkshake.
Except that’s not really an option. America is in the midst of a political awakening moment, and it is irreversible.
Over the past three years, I have been working on a book which studies this shift among young people who have gone from passively navigating a broken system to actively seeking to change it. Based on my findings, I believe the revolution will be led by a paradigm shift in the concept of citizenship among the youngest generations, but the epiphany is available to everyone, and perhaps the most concise way to sum it up is this: “If Donald Trump is president, you really have to ask who the hell makes the rules.”
Were Chuck Todd to ask me to describe the debates in two words or less, I would go with “anything’s possible,” (and then, obviously, I would keep on talking, because I really believe that anything’s possible, and also see no valid reason to listen to anything Chuck Todd has to say).
The potential of this primary was reflected in the stunning ease with which Kamala Harris commanded national attention on Thursday evening, setting the bar for what it means to be presidential; or the precision with which Julián Castro cemented the criminalization of immigration as an essential litmus test on the first night of debate. There are new parameters for what is possible in the political conversation now. In short, we have the chance to create a new future together, so why would we opt for a quick repair on the broken-down mess that got us here in the first place?
We are in a moment of social experimentation that offers the opportunity for a caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation, truly beyond what we can conceive is possible, and it would be a shame if we screwed it up in the chrysalis. This metamorphosis must extend well beyond the person we pick for office to a lasting change in the way we practice democracy as a nation. This is not an argument for any particular candidate, but an insistence on keeping an open mind to the rich marketplace of options on display. Our opportunity here is to participate in the primary as a contest of ideas, in which we are all undecided, high-information voters, who deserve to be wooed with a detailed vision for America’s brightest possible future.
Don’t let the old stories limit what you hope for. “The way things are” doesn’t exist anymore, and, anyway, it turns out, it was BS all along.
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