Democratic leaders should think twice before crushing progressive primary challenges

Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Tuesday's Democratic primary in Ohio's 11th congressional district, for the November special election to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge, feels like an extension of the acrimonious 2016 presidential primaries between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. That's because one of Sanders' most prominent allies, former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, is seeking the nomination. And because her sometimes acerbic style alienated senior Democrats with very long memories, leading Democrats including Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-N.C.), the Congressional Black Caucus' PAC, and Clinton herself, have thrown their considerable weight behind Turner's opponent, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairwoman Shontel Brown, who has since erased Turner's early lead. Even Marcia Fudge's mom has gotten in on the anti-Turner action.

What is it about this extremely safe Democratic seat that has drawn the attention of the party's heaviest hitters? Like many of the most prominent Sanders supporters, Turner's rhetoric in both 2016 and 2020 sometimes seemed designed to alienate the kind of normie Democrats who, let's remember, delivered the party's presidential nomination to Clinton in 2016 and then Biden in 2020. She was also the co-chair of Sanders' unsuccessful 2020 run for the nomination, so it's not like she was some surrogate gone rogue on a talk show. Last summer she told an Atlantic reporter that voting for Biden in the general election was like if "You have a bowl of s--t in front of you, and all you've got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing."

That Turner drew a strong opponent in this race is not a DNC conspiracy, and the depictions of Brown as some kind of neolib puppet in the left-wing press are not especially persuasive. There's no law of political thermodynamics that says the party's progressive wing is entitled to this seat, and Hillary Clinton, who is a private citizen, can continue to wage guerrilla war on everyone she blames for her loss in 2016 if she wants to, and that definitely includes Bernie Sanders and his top allies. In What Happened, the post-2016 book she wrote trying to make sense of her loss to Donald Trump, Sanders loomed large. She blamed him for wrecking her public image by "impugning my character" in ways that caused "lasting damage" in the general election.

Clinton almost certainly holds a particular grudge against Turner, who was barred from delivering a speech nominating Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Unlike Sanders himself, Turner never endorsed Clinton in the general election. She was offered the Green Party's vice presidential nomination that summer but declined. "I'm a Democrat, and that's worth fighting for," she said at the time. Video that recently surfaced of Turner with Green Party grifter Jill Stein in July 2016 didn't help smooth over relations with the party establishment.

But Democratic leaders are losing sight of the bigger picture here. Throughout modern American history, the two parties have warded off third party challenges in two ways. One is by co-opting their policy ideas. You can draw a straight line from Ross Perot's 1992 independent campaign for the presidency and the GOP's 1994 Contract With America, which endorsed several of Perot's ideas, including a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and congressional term limits.

When he ran again in 1996, Perot's vote share collapsed by more than half and his Reform Party exists today mostly as a website. Political scientists Shigeo Hirano and James M. Snyder also argued persuasively in a 2007 paper that the overall decline in third party congressional representation was mostly due to the Democratic Party moving left in the 1930s and hoovering up the policy ideas of left-wing third parties like the Farmer-Labor Party.

Appropriating insurgent ideas is one way the major parties keep third party candidates from acting as spoilers. Another is holding party primaries themselves. The potential to gradually transform the party from within, rather than mounting a ruinous challenge from outside the two-party system, gives the Sanders/AOC rank-and-file strong incentives to stay and fight for their vision within the Democratic Party. It means that even if you lose the party leadership fight, like progressives did in 2016 and 2020, there are still pathways to power that offer the hope of future change.

If Democratic leaders think Turner-style firebrands won't cut it in swing districts, that's one thing. But this is a Democratic landslide district that Fudge (now Biden's secretary of Housing and Urban Development) won by more than 60 points in 2020. By weighing in so ostentatiously for Shontel Brown, what party leaders are saying, in effect, is that it's not about defending this seat. It's that they don't think Turner or anyone like her belongs in Congress at all. And that's not really a message you want to send to younger Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, whatever you might think of Turner.

The longstanding generational divide in American politics is well known, with voters under 29 supporting Joe Biden over Donald Trump by more than 20 points. But Democrats have their own issues with the TikTok set. In state after state, Biden's primary wins were powered by older voters, while younger Democrats went overwhelmingly for Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In the decisive Super Tuesday contests that effectively ended the Sanders campaign, the Vermont senator won an estimated 63 percent of 18-29 year olds and 42 percent of voters between 30 and 44. These voters want sweeping change and aren't necessarily as put off as older voters are by the progressive left's broadsides against the Democratic establishment.

Most people worry about millennials and Gen Z marching off to the right, but the real threat is that the party's septuagenarian leadership maintains its grip on Democratic Party policies indefinitely and leads radical younger voters to form a credible progressive alternative. Ask your nearest Canadian how much fun it is to have two different parties representing the left in our shared electoral system, Single Member District Plurality, which awards most offices in Congress to a single winner, even if that person lacks a majority. Dividing the left is a Republican dream come true, and could rescue the GOP from its own potential demographic oblivion as the party's core supporters die off.

If those young activists feel like the Democratic Party as an institution circles the wagons with a siege mentality every time a progressive gets near Congress, they'll be much easier prey for third parties. And the health of the Democratic Party rises in importance every day that the Republican Party drifts further and further toward conspiracy-driven authoritarianism. If Democrats — left, right, and center — can't keep their focus on the gathering far-right threats to our political system, they might find that whoever wins this race will spend the rest of their career sifting through the ashes of American democracy rather than making policy.

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