Looking Back: Is Conor Lamb’s Win a Victory for Moderate Democrats (and an indictment of progressive ‘purity tests’)?

Democrats around the country recently celebrated the narrow victory of Conor Lamb over Republican Rick Saccone (49.8%-49.6%) in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th. As Lamb wouldn’t be described as a rank-and-file “Progressive” – holding personal, although not legislative, pro-life views, a number of more moderate Democrats on social media have argued that Lamb’s victory, like Northam’s victory in Virginia, indicates that turning toward the center is the key to winning elections. NPR also addresses the “purity test vs. big tent” debate.

I would argue, however, that there really isn’t even a correlation. Centrists like Lamb and Northam have won. Centrists like Clinton and Ossoff have lost, with many attributing their losses to a general anti-Establishment tide, (and in Ossoff’s case, ties to Pelosi and the DNC proving fatal). Progressives have lost fair-and-square in primaries (such as Perriello’s loss to Northam in the Virginia primary), but progressives have also come out on top (like our own Jamie Raskin).

The election results since 2016 suggest a much stronger (though not exclusive) trend in rejecting Trumpian AND DNC establishment politics. The failed campaigns of Gillespie and Ossoff can be attributed to a Trumpian campaign and a deluge of DNC establishment support, respectively.

Now, enter the craze to condemn progressive challengers as “purity test” advocates who (and this is my favorite) want “ponies and unicorns” because they don’t take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

The Democratic Party doesn’t have to host an internal struggle between the “big tent” camp and the “purity test” camp – it can be inclusive, while also pulling for the best candidate, who, it may turn out, could happen to be progressive.

In order for this to be the case, we need to level the playing field, however. Being a “big tent” part does not have to mean accepting the candidate that the party establishment’s loyal donors and consultants push on you.

Are progressives likely to lose general elections because they veer “too far left” on issues? It depends on what you attribute to the “left.” If doubling down on identity politics, “intersectionality,” and esoteric terms such as “cis-hetero-patriarchy” used as epithets is what defines the “left,” the  the answer is, unfortunately, yes.

As a side note – it would serve us well to reclaim “intersectionality” as a positive concept – that different minority groups can pull for each other’s equal rights. Unfortunately, I see the term being used in battle cries for contestants in the Oppression  Olympics.

The focus needs to shift back towards constructive solutions in cases of discrimination, not a witch hunt-type search to find various things “offensive.”

An example I gave in a Facebook argument highlighted the difference between someone saying “I’m a disabled woman of color, and I’m oppressed” and saying “Knowing what I know about our discriminatory and convoluted healthcare system, these are the problems I see and here are the solutions I propose…”

Now, back to Conor Lamb. Despite some socially conservative personal views, Lamb did campaign on some progressive ideas, such as appealing to unions and supporting background checks for gun owners. 

The key takeaway here is that Lamb’s platform fit his district. Lamb’s victory didn’t come down to campaigning as a centrist, but to honing in on the issues voters care most about. This would be classic representation of one’s constituents. Go figure.

Is this to say the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party loses because they focus too much on identity politics? To say so might be an oversimplification, as this critique of Mark Lilla’s analysis of identity politics points out. Did Hillary really over-focus on out-of-touch interpretations of identity politics?

Not exclusively, but yes.

Her high-profile supporters, like Lena Dunham certainly did.

Then, of course, there are the Clinton supporters who call those who backed Sanders “sexist” and “Bernie Bros” who stole the election from Hillary because she’s a woman. Or those who called Sanders supporters “White Privileged.”

If this isn’t identity politics gone haywire, I don’t know what is.

There is a fundamental difference between the aim to represent interests of minorities and advocate for equal rights – and to assign an entire mandatory set of political views on groups based on immutable characteristics. The latter is prejudice. Democrats NEED to understand this.

Does this mean racial/gender/class/LGBTQ rights should not be addressed? Of course not. As in, of course they should be addressed – but the focus needs to be on “solution,” not “oppression.”

Like Conor Lamb, successful Democratic candidates, whether progressive or centrist, need to focus on the issues that constitute to care about.

One wrinkle in this theory could be climate change. A recent poll found environmental issues to rank fairly low in priorities of Maryland voters. Millennials may iron out this wrinkle, though, as studies show that climate change concerns increasingly define the vote of our growing constituency.

This idea of not running towards the center, but honing in on the appropriate issues also applies to Maryland and MoCo politics, we don’t merely have a choice – for council or Exec or state Delegate, – between progressives and centrists. We have the chance to evaluate which candidates’ platforms and knowledge bases best apply to what concern residents the most.

Will Rose Kransnow bring up more sexism allegations, as Seventh State reported, against her opponents in attempt to win over sympathetic women voters? Will George Leventhal’s having an immigrant wife and ability to speak Spa ish win him the Latino vote? Will the MCDCC move forward in holding separate elections for male and female seats? Identity politics could very well be at play in Montgomery County and it’s up to voters to decide where this priority lies.

My opinion as an observer is that identity politics is not going to win elections. Instead, opposing identity politics of the right may strike back, as it has already in some places. Unfortunately, this is the fallback for establishment Democrats. You can find lobbyists within these identity-based interests, and donors are less scared of identity politics than they are of business regulation or single payer healthcare. I’d like to see a more scientific study of the focus on identity politics versus economic population among candidates as it correlates to influence of private interests.

My theory could be proven wrong, but I would like to throw it out there.


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