Politics is Not a Game

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb

Democrats hoped for a blue wave in the election. Instead, they lost ground in the House and, unless the Georgia run-offs go well, they won’t win the Senate, setting off a new round of sniping between moderates and progressives. While there are a number of flaws in moderate arguments against progressives, the one they make repeatedly is treating the Democratic party like a sport’s team. In politics, where people’s lives are on the line, this doesn’t make sense.

The key points of the moderate argument are captured in Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb’s interview in The New York Times: “…the rhetoric and the policies and all that stuff — it has gone way too far … It needs to be rooted in common sense, in reality, and yes, politics. Because we need districts like mine to stay in the majority and get something done for the people that we care about the most.”

Step 1. Ditch Progressive Policies because they are Impossible (or at least very hard)

The interview singles out The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and Defund the Police as key progressive stands that are virtually impossible. They are not. It is not set in stone that police departments must receive a certain percentage of funding from municipal budgets. It should not be all that hard for a country as wealthy as the United States to have universal healthcare. Countries across the world provide it. Despite this, Lamb works to put these policies out of bounds, not only insisting that they are “not rooted in common sense”, but that they are impossible.

Lamb’s dismissal of The Green New Deal helps to show the power of his stance. The Green New Deal is not a bill with specific policy recommendations, but rather a resolution to be accomplished over ten years with goals such as “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” and “to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible…” Its goal is to seriously tackle climate change while stimulating the economy. There is plenty of room for debate, for adding specifics. One could take issue with the time frame. Perhaps it isn’t the best way to help our country. And this is the best part — the resolution is specifically designed to create this type of discussion, to move public opinion towards aggressively tackling climate change. If Lamb were to engage with The Green New Deal on a policy level, this discussion would happen. Instead, he dismisses it out of hand, sidestepping any discussion with progressives. A clear limit is established for what is possible in politics.

Step 2. Progressives don’t get that politics is about Winning

Lamb goes further: Progressive policies are not only impossible; they are bad politics. According to Lamb, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was not being a “team player” when she tweeted out that fracking was bad in contrast to Biden’s more moderate take. Lamb does get at a fundamental difference here. AOC and other progressives want to win and insist that their strategies are most effective at winning. However, their work advocating for progressive policies is more important than winning. They are in politics for change. For them, the Democratic party’s chief goal should be creating change and this supersedes the team mentality.

Centrists seem to increasingly prize winning over policy. Cedric Richmond, a moderate representative from Louisiana and co-chair of the Biden campaign, said as much: “We have to make sure we can win first and govern second.” This could be read as a simple statement of fact. If you don’t win, you can’t do much of anything. Therefore, winning should be prioritized above all else. However, I believe this sentiment represents a larger problem and runs counter to the goals of progressives where working for positive change takes precedent over winning.

Step 3. Progressives don’t really want to Help People (Conclusion)

Lamb’s final sentence, “Because we need districts like mine to stay in the majority and get something done for the people that we care about the most,” doesn’t really make sense as an attack against progressives in isolation. Progressives obviously want to help people. However, the world of many moderate Democrats is defined by steps 1 and 2. (1) Progressive policies are impossible and trying to get people on board with them is futile. (2) To best help people, politics should prioritize winning. Their conclusion is that progressives value ideals and rhetoric over helping people. In this world, before progressives can even debate the merits of policy, they must justify their existence in the political discourse.

So Why Can’t Progressives just be Quiet?

The bottom-line is that politics has effectively been turned into a sport. There are rules to play by. If you break them, your team could lose. So why do progressives keep actively working against the rules and hurting their team?

The first reason is that progressives like Bernie Sanders and AOC were elected specifically because they are vocal progressives. For them to be quiet would be a betrayal of the people that elected them. If you run an unapologetically progressive campaign and win — that means the people you represent want you to be a progressive.

Secondly, and more importantly, politics isn’t a game of basketball. You can’t expect everybody to simply be satisfied when the blue team wins. Climate change, poor and overly-expensive healthcare, and police brutality cost — and will continue to cost — people their lives. The ever-increasing number of Covid-19 deaths has brought this into sharp focus. If the Democrats win, but don’t do enough, people will die. Progressives feel that moderate Democrats do not do enough. Asking them to stop their criticisms is to ask them to watch their constituents die without comment. This will not happen. Nor should it.

Progressives want to move the United States in a specific direction. They participate in politics not because they want Democrats to win, but because they want to bring about change. It will never work to tell them to fall in line with the team. It’s not about the team. It’s about helping people. It is time to ditch the sport’s team mentality so governing can be about what matters: people.

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