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I’ve interviewed everyone from progressive Democrats in Florida to The Lincoln Project’s founder. This is what I learnt

The Lincoln Project’s co-founder Reed Galen recently told me members of the GOP have ‘sacrificed every Republican principle they might’ve once stood for’

Edward Hardy
New York
Friday 25 September 2020 18:49 BST

Run for political office like you’re going to lose. If there is one lesson I have learned from interviewing some of America's progressive political candidates over the last two years on The Hardy Report podcast, this is it.  

That sounds like a bizarre message to take from interviews with people who would not be speaking to me if they weren’t trying to get elected to public office. So, why would anyone put themselves through the enormous challenge of fighting an election while expecting to lose? Surely, anyone who stands as a political candidate wants to win, right?

Well, the reality is often a little more nuanced than that.

For candidates who are challenging the political status quo, the campaign isn’t about their success in the short-term. More importantly, they’ll be seeking to build a wider political movement by passionately fighting for what they believe in, regardless of the immediate outcome at the polling booths.  

These progressive candidates show how they will stand by their principles, behaving with honour and dignity. With the raging debate over the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, their decision to stand firm on their beliefs is in stark contrast to Republicans who have flip-flopped over a precedent they themselves set back in 2016. As The Lincoln Project’s co-founder Reed Galen told me, members of the GOP have "sacrificed every Republican principle they might’ve once stood for.”

The political challengers I've interviewed in recent months are often seeking to displace incumbents who’ve been in office for many years. They are significantly disadvantaged compared to their well-established opponents, lacking funds, personnel, and publicity. They don't have the name recognition that’s enjoyed throughout the constituency by the current office holder. Frequently, they don’t have the central support of their own political party. They are often promoting policies that are considered to be non-mainstream.

For Jen Perelman’s candidacy in Florida’s 23rd congressional district, she didn’t have the support of her party, and her policy ideas were considered to be too progressive. Having lost her campaign in the Democratic primary, she has continued to promote those policies because, as she claimed in her interview on the podcast, “what we are talking in terms of progressive policy would be mainstream in most other places.”

When each of the candidates I've interviewed were asked — both off the record before the interview and on the record for the broadcast — about the odds of winning their long-shot campaigns, they all responded with boundless optimism and enthusiasm. They patiently explained that, in their view, the issues they’re fighting for are just too important for them to sit on the sidelines and not engage in the political process. Adam Christensen, the congressional candidate for Florida's 3rd District, told the podcast listeners that politicians need to know “until you actually understand what it’s like for normal people, what it’s like for people like us, you will never be able to represent us.”

That’s the spirit I’ve witnessed time and time again, as these would-be politicians subject themselves to the trauma of fighting an election. Sometimes they have successful lives, both personally and professionally, and are all too aware of the cost of campaigning for themselves and their families.

Occasionally, people are motivated to stand for election because of the injustice they, or people they know, have experienced. In all cases, they’ve rejected the easier option of pandering to special interests and the political establishment, choosing instead to fight for causes in which they passionately believe. After all, as Lin Manuel Miranda’s eponymous character says in the musical Hamilton: “If you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?” It’s a catchy line for a runaway hit in the world of musical theatre, but it also embodies an important message for anyone seeking public office.

 After completing each episode with a candidate who might be considered to be struggling against the odds, I have found myself time and time again impressed by their determination. While they may not secure electoral victory this time around, they’re clearly doing everything possible to shift the political dial. This should give hope to all of us who believe in democracy.

Despite the likely lack of success for many of the progressive candidates in the current American elections, their more realistic aim is to create a positive impact, leaving a hopeful mark on a world that can too often feel chaotic and fearful.

The debates sparked by these campaigns — even the ones that are struggling — and the issues they highlight are changing the dialogue. One example is the conversation about Medicare-for-All. Only a few years ago, this was a fringe idea supported by Bernie Sanders and rejected by the majority of those in Congress. Nowadays, supporting Medicare-for-All has essentially become a litmus test for Democrats. Sanders might not have won the presidential primary, but his efforts have helped to normalize and legitimize a potential solution to America’s healthcare crisis. 

Another idea that is gaining increasing traction due to the persistence of progressives is Universal Basic Income, and I think we might hear more about that in the years ahead.

Ideas that were once considered radical are now accepted as mainstream. By promoting concepts they believe in, even when it isn’t politically advantageous to do so, candidates inspire others to campaign, volunteer, or, at the very least, to vote. And, occasionally, they might find themselves securing victory, as happened for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose 2018 success has provided a springboard for the efforts of others.

The campaigns being run by the candidates I've been fortunate to interview provide an inspiring lesson to us all. Put simply: Don’t be afraid about failing to achieve your immediate personal goal, because the long-lasting impact you have could be immense.

Edward Hardy is the host of The Hardy Report

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