There is a maxim in the Democratic Party that in order to win an election, you must “move to the center.” While it’s undoubtedly true that one cannot run the same campaign in the primary as he or she does in the general, this fact is betrayed by the Democratic Party’s humiliating loss in 2016. We did track to the center and the voters did not definitively vote for a center-left platform. The 2018 midterms proved that this is a maxim that can be applied selectively (to purple districts, mostly), but the idea that politics should function this way broadly is just wrong.
If you adhere to this maxim, Ralph Northam is (was) your guy. He voted for George W. Bush twice and used to be a registered Republican before winning the Virginia governors mansion as a Democrat in 2017. This safe, white man checks all the boxes on the “middle-of-the-road electability” argument made by so many Democrats.
So where did that get us? Per The Washington Post:
Over the past several days, [Northam] has even toyed with the idea of leaving the Democratic Party and governing as an independent — a sign of the degree that he is isolated from every political ally, from his state party and from the national party.
The reason why he is isolated from the party is thanks to a yearbook photo that Northam initially said was of him, where one medical school student was dressed up like a KKK member and the other was wearing blackface. The very next day, Northam called a press conference and gave an explanation so utterly insane that it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump making an unforced error like this. Northam explained that even though he said less than 24 hours ago it was him, actually it wasn’t, and also, he wore blackface another time to dress as Michael Jackson, and therefore everything is okay now.
Matt Stoller, fellow at the Open Markets Institute, said on Twitter that this kind of milquetoast centrism espoused by folks like Northam functions as a way for stupid politicians to hide their stupidity. By creating an ideology where every solution to our problems is either tacking towards the center and/or just throwing more capitalism at it, it allows simpletons like Northam to mask their ignorance.
There is a kind of Democrat who cares more about someone being a Democrat than being a liberal. The contrast between “Bernie’s not a Democrat!” and “we need to run centrists even if they are former Republicans who voted for George W. Bush twice” could not be starker. The financial interests of the Democratic Party prefer to punch left than right, given that the left is full of people who want to take their money, and that is how we arrive at a moment where there is more outrage over Bernie Sanders refusing to play third party spoiler than the Virginia Democratic Party electing a Republican governor.
This mess in Virginia is not totally the fault of Democrats’ “move center at all costs” maxim. This is a special case of sheer tone-deafness, arrogance and abject stupidity combined with the systemic racism prevalent throughout this country, but especially in the state which once held the capital of the Confederacy. Arlen Specter switched parties from Republican to Democrat in 2009, and while he still maintained plenty of conservative views, he didn’t have any scandal remotely as insane as the one playing out in Virginia between Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface photo, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring’s blackface photo and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s sexual assault allegation and subsequent mishandling of the fallout (that said, Mark Herring’s apology was pretty good, and he is the only one who has publicly demonstrated any kind of sense throughout this whole mess).
But Northam’s threat to become an Independent because the Virginia and national Democratic Parties had the audacity to back him into a corner over this mess is instructive of the drawbacks to this “middle-of-the-road electability” mindset. Herring owned his blackface, while Northam seems to think that blackface is fine just so long as you’re dressing up as Michael Jackson. Northam is only a Democrat through sheer convenience, and if George W. Bush was still the standard bearer for the GOP, he would not have switched parties. The Democratic Party is liberal, and appointing conservatives to run on our platform is counter-productive to fixing the gigantic problems we face. As Ralph Northam is demonstrating, these conservatives are far less loyal to the Democrats than the Democrats are to these conservatives. It’s time for that dynamic to change.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.