Bring the fire

Last week’s debates featured a pack of twenty Democratic candidates for president. All these men and women deeply care about the United States and all would be an improvement over the incumbent. Regardless of the number of warts and blemishes I have already counted, I am almost certain that I will be canvassing door-to-door for whichever of these people ends up the Democratic nominee in 2020.

The debates were chaotic, with contenders interrupting and constantly talking over each other. Nevertheless, it was a valuable opportunity to see wits and bits of policy on display. To my thinking, only Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren survived the first night’s debate. And of the second night’s participants, only Kamala Harris and Pete Buttegieg came out relatively unscathed.

Neither of the two leaders in the polls — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — seemed up to the job. Biden is a gratuitous gift to Republican voters, has more baggage than an airport, and he deserved the thrashing he got from Kamala Harris. Twice Biden, outmatched or unprepared, saved himself by stammering “my time is up” — ironically defining his own fitness for the job.

And it breaks my heart to say this, but Bernie is who he has always been, with a message that never changes with the wind or polls. His policy prescriptions are wise and bold. But as the oldest presidential candidate ever, and without the ability to connect with a diverse electorate, Bernie is probably un-electable in 2020. Like Moses, Bernie has brought millions of progressives to Canaan, but he himself will never step foot in the Promised Land.

I am left with the mental image of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg or Julian Castro running circles around Trump in a debate. I can also picture Kamala Harris cleaning off the ice pick she just shoved into Biden’s neck — the same one she used on Barr — and plunging it into Trump. I’m not alone in believing that the defense of what’s left of our democracy will have to be accomplished with some degree of ruthlessness.

I have already said what I think of Bernie Sanders’ chances of being elected, but for many white Americans electability is almost the only criterion for selecting a president. Both parties have forever preferred tall white males who say all the right things about Capitalism and the military.  But when all is said and done, it’s race that really matters to White America. Michael Harriot, writing in The Root, notes that working-class, soccer moms, rural voters, NASCAR dads, the religious right, moderate and suburban voters all “may sound phonetically different, [but] those categories all refer to white people.” With no one to represent them, it is little wonder that so many people of color sat out the last election. The next election had better address this failure.

Now is also not the time for the faint-hearted to abandon principles. Democrats can’t give in to the delusion that the so-called “never-Trump” Republican or the mythological swing voter will be swayed by sacrificing Main Street to Wall Street or by once again failing to address immigration and racial injustices. If these unlikely voters are truly worried about Trump — as they should be — then they’re just going to have to suck it up and vote for the lesser evil. Isn’t that what Democrats always tell the progressive wing of their own party? Universal health care won’t be half as painful as concentration camps and whatever follows that. Eugene Robinson, in his July 1st column in the Washington Post, nailed it when he wrote:

“Anyone who watched last week’s two-night candidates’ debate should be confident that the eventual Democratic nominee is virtually certain to support universal health care, comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform, reasonable gun control, measures to address climate change and bold steps to address income inequality. No, this is not a Republican agenda. Outcasts from the GOP will have to decide whether to accept it, in the interest of ending our long national nightmare, or reject it and stick with a president who kowtows to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.”

This week a progressive Democratic Congressional delegation faced a snarling MAGA mob and aggressive Border Patrol agents in Texas when they went to visit a camp where there was no tap water and prisoners were being told to drink out of toilets. In the midst of hostility that concerned even their security details, these mostly young progressive lawmakers stood up and denounced the abuses they had just seen. The visit closely coincided with the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ famous oration, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?,” in which Douglass intoned:

For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Newly-elected Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who many Democrats initially thought was politically indistinguishable from the [white] man she replaced, showed voters on Monday just what the difference was when she directly addressed the MAGA mob, almost appearing to channel Douglass’ words:

“I learned a long time ago that when change happens it’s either because people see the light or they feel the fire. We’re lifting up these stories in the hopes that you will see the light. And if you don’t, we will bring the fire.”

It’s going to take a lot of Democratic soul-searching, courage and fidelity to principle, and a heaping scoop of ruthlessness to win the next election. Everything depends on it.

Bring the fire.