Are “Progressives” Becoming the Debasers of National Conversations?
Geoff Campbell and Anthony K. Rogers-Wright
“Calm, open debate, and logical thought drive strength to its maximum effectiveness.” These words were once offered by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist and founder Billy Corgan. At a time when our electoral process and, arguably, our entire state of democracy is increasingly ossified, the time has never been more critical to implement an equation of strength, efficacy and transparency in our political theater.
That an artist like Corgan seems to grasp the delicacy of the issue more than lawmakers should not necessarily come as a surprise — artists, it could be argued, have demonstrated among the greatest influence in the shaping of societies from the Eugene Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple, through the emergence of Hip Hop as the most dominant form of music in the world. What should come as a surprise, and be equally troubling to anyone who pursues justice and an open electoral process, is that the suppression of debates and a prolific exchange of ideas is not due solely the practice of GOP bogeymen or the DNC establishment.
We are already witnessing, in the young 2018 electoral season, “progressive” candidates and frontrunners complicit with the atrophy of an open exchange of ideas. And in the process, these anointed social justice champions are robbing the people of a chance to make complete and informed decisions — some might even refer to the situation as melancholy and infinite sadness.
And while there is warranted excitement about the potential for vanquishing two standing lawmakers, whose tenures in office represent some of the more execrable pronouncements of what holds this nation back from realizing accessible and full justice for all, it can be argued that the process leading to their defeat is not one rooted in justice, transparency, nor the format for the way we must conduct our elections.
Operation Cruz/Ryan Out
Paul Ryan is a candidate that the majority of Democrats, Green Party members, and Independents agree must be defeated. The polarizing Republican Speaker of the House (SOH) has created a growing list of adversaries during his time in office, and since being elevated to SOH. His latest tax plan, that will see most of the gains go to the wealthiest in society, will certainly add to the list of people questioning his leadership. His entire approach to economics, influenced by Ayn Rand, is problematic enough. This combined with the turmoil brought to the Republican party by a Trump Presidency, has many electoral analysts agreeing that his seat, the Wisconsin 1st Congressional District, is very much in play, and could even be flipped.
Senator Ted Cruz may be arguably more polarizing than Paul Ryan. From his positions on racial justice, to reproductive justice, to gun control, to his profound denial of climate disruption, Cruz is a living anathema to progressive values and platforms. And like the Wisconsin 01 Congressional race, there are more and more analysts who view his Senate seat in play this year. In fact, a recent analysis by the Cook Report shifted the Texas Senate race from “Solid Republican” to “Likely Republican.”
Democratic Primary “Front Runners” are Not Jedis Yet
No one can forget the epochal scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke first faces Darth Vader in Cloud City. Vader immediately reminds Luke, “The Force is strong with you young Skywalker, but you’re not a Jedi yet.” This mode of thinking should be applied to all candidates who have primary opponents. Unfortunately, perhaps in an effort to quickly sure up support, and perhaps for self-serving and surreptitious reasons, leading front runner candidates in multiple races are all but ignoring their challengers and acting like they’ve already vanquished them in primaries that have not yet occurred. And by refusing to debate their opponents, or even acknowledging their existence for that matter, these front runners are conducting themselves in a way that is nefarious to an open and transparent electoral process, which could result in their hands being cut off when they face Sith Lord Republicans.
The two races that perhaps showcase this scenario the most are the Wisconsin 1st Democratic Primary for Congress between Cathy Myers and Randy Bryce, and the Senate Democratic Primary in Texas between Sema Hernandez and Robert Francis O’Rourke, aka “Beto.”
In Wisconsin, the Democratic candidate who’s drawn the most attention, thus far, is Randy Bryce. He’s pitched as a progressive working class, everyday man with the best chance to defeat Ryan. Known for wearing a construction helmet and sporting a fine trimmed mustache, Bryce has captured national attention, due largely to being backed by big names like Chelsea Handler, and he was recently endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders. Bryce has fortified his position through his appearances on national television shows, which has led to his securing of a large amount of donations (nearly $1.2 Million), that have given his campaign viability. (More on that later).
The Lone Star State, where O’Rourke hails from, has generated even more money and just as much buzz. Recent news reports revealed that the El Paso-area Representative has raised as much as $8 Million, and even outraised Cruz, who would be his opponent in the General. O’Rourke has enjoyed national coverage similar to Bryce, including features in the New York Times and Washington Post.
What could be better than progressive and well funded candidates set to take on Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz? How about two?
Cathy Myers is another, lesser known, candidate vying for the vote of Democrats in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. Myers is an experienced teacher, who has been elected to the Janesville school board twice. She entered the race with no celebrity endorsement, but with a message that has slowly drawn attention across the State.
Sema Hernandez, a former healthcare worker and Democratic Socialist is the daughter of immigrants ran on a radical platform that calls for breaking the cycles of systemic racism, income inequality and injustice across the board. Ironically, Hernandez, by her account, was called and convinced to run by the Sanders-backed Our Revolution. Her candidacy is actually historic, as she was the first Latina woman ever to run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in the state’s history.
“Progressives” and the electoral organizations who support their candidates have all evoked the need for more women, especially women of color, in elected offices. So the question that emerges is why have Bryce and O’Rourke, two white men, one who himself is a millionaire and the 22nd wealthiest member of the House of Representatives, received more attention and monetary support than two progressive women, and, specifically, one woman who is a member of an ethnic group that the “Left” must appeal to in order to secure electoral success?
Before we can answer this question, we must first follow the money — for when we do, the situations in Wisconsin and Texas become quite elucidated. So cue the oompa loompas, because they are going to be singing a few ditties as we dig deeper.
The “Revolution” will NOT be Funded by a “Hollywood PAC” or Corporate Cash
It’s one thing to reject PAC money, this indeed is a noble sentiment and a practice that seems to be catching on as more and more Democrats have pledged not to take money from these institutions. But to reject PAC money, on the one hand, and accept donations from powerful interests on the other is not necessarily righteous. Bryce and O’Rourke have both been bankrolled by corporate donations from 1% corporations including Amazon, Apple, Time Warner, Google and Raymond James. Accepting corporate cash is profoundly antithetical to the platform of the Justice Democrats PAC, who endorsed Bryce while appealing for, “a strong Democratic Party that doesn’t cater to corporate donors.”
Additionally, both Bryce and O’Rourke’s campaigns have been bolstered by a who’s who list of Hollywood celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow, to Charlize Theron, to Rosie O’Donnell who all live thousands of miles away from Wisconsin and Texas, and likely not fully informed of the specific challenges faced by the people who live in both states. This is why it’s important that the people of Wisconsin and Texas be the ones who ultimately decide which candidate will represent them — candidate fundraising should reflect this, especially when at the local/state-level.
Increasingly, there are calls from the people and even more centrist lawmakers alike to take money out of politics. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was defined by its people powered support, not that of big corporations or mega donors. People were inspired, because they felt they had a voice in the political process. Sanders was seen as the underdog who was defying all odds. He refused to take the money of Super PACs and was mostly ignored by the mainstream media. His supporters saw Hillary Clinton’s corporate money as a suppression of the people’s voice. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Bryce and O’Rourke received the memo, because as we see in the graphic above, some of their donations lack transparency and, therefore, could be characterized as “Dark Money” — with warrant.
It’s of course a good thing for anyone and everyone to participate in the political process — some do this by volunteering and knocking on doors, some make phone calls and some make donations. But if these actions are occurring without full disclosure, and without debates that allow for the best primary candidate to emerge, it could lead to a perilous result in the general election. How many of the celebrities that donated to Bryce and O’Rourke even knew about Hernandez and Myers before making their donation? We may never know the answer to this question -but what’s more troubling is that we may never know who the best candidates are if some refuse to debate the others. And this is pernicious for our democracy and political discourse. Will this strategy backfire? A look at the last few years for Democrats seems to be pointing towards yes.
A Competitions of Ideas, Not Fundraising Competitions
Back in 2015–16 there was warranted frustration within the Bernie Sanders camp when the DNC establishment, lead by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, scheduled a limited series of debates between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. A large number of Sanders supporters felt that the lessening of debates was done to limit his exposure and saw it as evidence that the Democratic Party was actively suppressing his candidacy. Furthermore, the lack of debates and exposure for the Party may have ultimately hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances against Donald Trump, who garnered more media attention due to the greater number of debates between Republican candidates.
This was not the only instance where Democrats limited debates among candidates. Later that year, Democrat Tim Canova experienced an eerily similar situation running against Wasserman Schultz for Congress in Florida District 23. Wasserman Schultz refused to debate her challenger until late in the campaign, when she agreed to one debate, tucked away on Sunday morning at 8 am. When that race too was lost, It was yet another moment of disappointment and division. Canova supporters, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders, felt cheated by the Democratic Party.
With the lack of transparency creating division and confusion in 2016, one would think that Democrats running in 2018 would do everything they could to quell the fears of a voting population weary of political tomfoolery. The only logical step would be to promote debates and in doing so promote the party and its candidates, while remaining true to democracy.
If we are to put the money and celebrity exposure aside, the next logical step should be a robust debate schedule for the people of the Wisconsin 1st, the people of Texas and the people period. We must always, in every single election, at every level, showcase an exchange of ideas and policy propositions, so that the people can make as informed a choice as possible. A series of debates is the only way for this to occur, because elections should not be competitions based on who raises the most money, they should be a competition of ideas. The people of Wisconsin and Texas deserve to hear, in real time and in person, the ideas of all candidates, which requires that they take questions from the people they seek to represent and serve.
Debasing the Debate Process
To date, Bryce has ignored his Democratic challenger, Myers, instead focusing solely on Paul Ryan, a candidate he easily fundraises off of. He has even gone as far to completely ignoring Myers saying at one point, “I’m focused on Paul Ryan, that’s my opponent.” Meanwhile in Texas, it’s unclear if O’Rourke ever uttered Hernandez’s name, while rejecting invitations to debate her due to a lack of scheduling availability. But something does not add up here, because O’Rourke was able to find the time to gallivant to Los Angeles for an interview with Cenk Uygur of TYT Politics last Fall. And, during his appearance on the show, he specifically and ironically stated that he looks forward to debates with Sen. Cruz.
The roundtrip flight time from El Paso, TX to Los Angeles is approximately three hours — not including the time it takes to get from LAX to anywhere in the City (which could have actually been longer than the flight itself). So to quote the brave students from Parkland, FL, “We call BS!” This was not about scheduling, it was about overlooking Hernandez and a lack of desire to face her. With his primary win yesterday, Robert Francis was able to get away with circumventing a debate with Hernandez (though she made a very impressive showing for a first time candidate with little to no national coverage of her campaign)- for now.
We’ll have to wait and see if this comes back to haunt him when/if he debates Cruz as he hopes to do. And based on exit polls, which reveal that 40% of Texans voted from someone other than O’Rourke in the primaries, despite all of his national attention, it’s clear that he has his work cut out for him.
In Wisconsin, Bryce has at least acknowledged Myers — but still refuses to accept her challenge to debate him six times, as she’s called for, in each county of the 1st District. In a recent interview, Bryce stated that he is waiting to see who is on the ballot before he commits to debating anyone. This reasoning is completely meretricious and a common tactic of establishment frontrunners who are simply waiting for the early voting process to conclude when they assume their lead will be insurmountable. While this may make sense strategically, it’s far from righteous and quite antithetical to the Justice Democrats PAC platform, which in part states, “The marketplace of ideas should be embraced. A vibrant debate is healthy for democracy…” We must embody our understanding that there is no such thing as arbitrary, part-time or convenient justice, lest we render forgotten the sage words of John F. Kennedy, “There’s something immoral about abandoning your own judgement.”
Refusing to debate a political opponent is like blocking someone on social media simply because you disagree with them and their paradigm. That is the imperative of Becky/Brad Individual, but for an electoral candidate, it’s a very craven approach to social and political discourse. One of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz’s myriad great qualities is that he would debate anyone rather than silence or ostracize those he disagreed with. This reflected his confidence in himself and his paradigm — he believed he had better ideas and was always ready and willing to demonstrate that through public discussion. But it also reflected his confidence in his audience, because he trusted them, also, to embrace the better ideas he believed in.
“Justice without power is impotent, power without justice is tyranny.” Candidates who refuse to debate their opponents, risk being seen as supporters of political censorship. And a censorship of ideas is antithetical to any revolution, political or otherwise. In fact, the moment that any “revolution” censors or circumvents different ideas is the moment that it embarks on a trajectory towards tyranny. And we must never underestimate the impact that the perception of flawed/unfair primaries have on general elections. We saw this all too well in 2016, when the DNC were unable to galvanize party unity after the Sanders/Clinton contest, because too many suspected (and were vindicated) that the primaries were rigged. This reality most certainly contributed to the outcome of the last Presidential election.
When corporate and dark money are added to an equation of unfair elections that result in unequal exposure and the disruption of the people’s ability to make informed choices, we run the risk of the political revolution quickly becoming everything it sought to fight against — something George Orwell knows as well as anyone.
Orwellian Farms and The Rise of The “Progressive” Establishment
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” — George Orwell, Animal Farm
Throughout history, we have seen the dissipation of integrity when everything from art, to social movements become corporatized, tainted by a desire for money over a desire for righteousness, and inching ever closer to that which they pledged to stand up to and never become. No one can forget what happened to Metallica’s music after they released the “Black Album,” or Drake’s when he started doing Sprite commercials, or the Democratic Party when influenced by the Democratic Leadership Council to prostitute itself to Wall Street and corporations.
On the so-called “Left,” we are seeing more and more celebrities and celebrity “activists,” and their ability to bundle cash and reach more people via social media, start to get more face time with candidates and politicians than the people struggling every day to work, eat, raise their children, make any ends meet and simply stay alive. These overtures are starting to infect a “movement” still attempting to find its footing and its message -if we’re being honest. A “progressive” establishment is emerging right under our noses, and it must be measured, weighed and dispatched of before so much of what has been achieved is nullified, and we can no longer distinguish ourselves from a Democratic party that has since forgotten what it claimed to stand for and be — “The party of the People.”
Refusing to debate primary opponents, flat out ignoring their campaigns, and pronouncing ostensible reasons for refusing to face them should be viewed as warning shots and admonishments of the emergence of a new kind of establishment. Rationalizations for taking corporate money, dark money and money from potentially uninformed Hollywood elites are demonstrations of a troubling transmutation that could result in the abduction of a people’s campaign by Orwellian pigs — and nothing ruins gumbo and jambalaya more than tainted and co-opted pork.
May we never forget one of the greatest leaders in history, Nelson Mandela, who declared, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”
Geoff was born in Miami,Florida. He attended the University of Florida, where he graduated with honors in History & Jewish Studies. His passion for history led him to an interest in politics and socioeconomic justice. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMiami.Geoff is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.