Let’s get this out of the way up top: I hope Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, wins on Tuesday. I hope he beats Ed Gillespie, the loathsome “populist” Republican who has taken a page from Trump’s book in waging a dirty, fear-mongering, xenophobic, Bannon-approved campaign against his opponent. I hope we’re not seeing the same exact story play out, where a close race in a purplish state inevitably tilts to the Republican because the Democrat refuses to inspire anything more positive than apathy—the story of Hillary Clinton, the story of Jon Ossoff, and the story of the party’s woeful performance in Congress for more than a decade. I hope Northam pulls out a squeaker, because no matter his flaws, he will be far better for Virginia and the country at large than Gillespie. I hope this entire column leads to the Internet mocking me in two days, a la “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
And it might! But I know, deep down, this hope is probably misplaced. Like Clinton, like Ossoff, and like so many before him, Northam is demonstrating a total inability to close. He’s collapsing under the pressure, watching his lead vanish, and making terrible decisions to exacerbate a growing disaster. Two weeks ago, we wrote about how Northam actually removed his black running mate, Justin Fairfax, from fliers in northern Virginia, apparently due to Fairfax’s refusal to support the construction of potentially dangerous oil and gas pipelines across the state. Then, late last week, Northam said he’d support a ban of sanctuary cities, in the event that a sanctuary city ever came to exist in Virginia.
It’s a little confusing as to why this happened, but it began in February last year, when Republicans in Virginia essentially forced Northam—then lieutenant governor—to cast a tiebreaking vote on a sanctuary cities ban. He voted against the ban, which paved the way for Gillespie to attack him on immigration during the election. That led to predictably disgusting attack ads like this one:
At this late stage, with polls tightening and Gillespie’s tactic showing signs of apparent success—to the usual chorus of shock and horror from the mainstream media, who apparently haven’t internalized the obvious truth that racism sells in America—Northam had a choice to make. And just like when he was challenged on the pipeline issue, he capitulated. It’s the same old thought process—give ground to the right on certain issues like sanctuary cities, and maybe the left can steal some “white moderate” votes and head off the right-wing challenger at the pass.
How did it work out? Well, like it always works out—Breitbart led a conservative media chorus condemning him as a “flip-flopper,” WaPo credited Gillespie with successfully backing Northam into a corner, and far from consolidating a wavering constituency, Northam now looks like a coward even beyond Virginia’s borders. As you might guess, progressives didn’t take it well—here’s what the PAC Democracy For America had to say, publicly announcing that they were pulling support:
“After seeing Northam play directly into the hands of Republicans’ racist anti-immigrant rhetoric on sanctuary cities, we refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running,” Charles Chamberlain, DFA’s executive director, said in a statement Thursday night.
The fight for racial and economic justice are core Democratic values, not talking points for convenient moments. This isn’t some arbitrary purity test either. Public dithering on basic issues of racial justice, like the need to protect immigrant families targeted by a bigoted Federal government, isn’t just morally bankrupt, it’s precisely why many Black, brown, and progressive white voters that should make up the base of reliable Democratic voters don’t believe Democratic candidates have their backs and sit out elections.
Northam’s decision looked strategically unwise, to put it mildly, and when outlets like Fox News gleefully announce that the move was “costly,” it’s hard to argue with them.
There’s an old saying that applies here: Never argue with an idiot, because they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. Forget the word “idiot,” because whatever else you think about Republicans, they’ve proven themselves strategically smarter than Democrats time and again, to the point that no reasonable person can call them politically stupid without hurling worse invective across the aisle. Yet the broader principle applies—when Democrats like Northam engage Republicans on their own terms, and tacitly agree to fight in the mud, they lose. It never, ever goes well.
To an outside observer, the situation can look deeply unfair. Gillespie’s sins are far greater than Northam’s, and yet somehow he, like Republicans all over the country, manages to define the terms of battle. He can be resolutely racist and xenophobic, and engage in outrageous and deceptive tactics, without much in the way of blowback. Meanwhile, Northam’s sins look relatively minor—tiny capitulations, done in the name of convenient politics, without real malice behind them. Cowardice seems like a lesser crime than Gillespie’s malevolent strain of conservatism, so why on earth does Northam receive the greater punishment?
The answer, I think, is that American voters value a quality that I’ll call “decisiveness.” It’s not the same as honesty, because they’re smart enough to know that people like Gillespie are playing a dirty game. But the truth is that among his constituency, and among moderates, underhanded tactics—up to and including dog-whistle racism and, hell, even overt racism—are not dealbreakers, as long as the purveyor of these tactics appears strong and unyielding. Gillespie has a game plan, he’s pursuing it relentlessly and without remorse, and, as Trump showed, the old rules of political civility are out the window.
Northam, on the other hand, has committed the unpardonable sin of indecisiveness. For people like Gillespie and his Virginia Republican allies, the point was never to get Northam to concede on sanctuary cities, but to get him to shift positions. The mere suggestion that he was affected by Republican tactics is enough to demonstrate their power, and his weakness. He is dancing to their music now, and the American electorate, left and right, despises the appearance of internal impotence. And as far as Democrats go, they’re right—it just happens to be a strange historical anomaly, and a sad result of endless right-wing propaganda and a two-party system, that the beneficiaries tend to be morally repugnant.
On this unbalanced playing field, how can a Democrat succeed? The answer is simple—by showing the same resolute, unflappable qualities as their opponents, but coupling it with a progressive agenda that might actually help people. If voters get the sense that a Democratic candidate is a spineless centrist who serves corporate interests and will change with the wind, enough of them will vote Republican to shift the balance. And no, it emphatically does not matter if the Republican is worse for their economic interests, or racist, or if he represents a threat to democracy.
However, if both candidates are equally ironclad in their beliefs, people will vote for the candidate who offers them free heathcare, and cheaper education, and a social safety net, and subsidized child care, and a higher minimum wage. These are policies that are intrinsically popular, and become more popular the worse the economy gets. The problem is, there is nobody representing these policies in most major elections around the country. That’s changing, but the control of the Democratic party still belongs largely to the neoliberals and centrists, and as long as that pattern holds, voters will sense their inherent hypocrisy. At best, it will lead to close elections. At worst, they will continue to lose seats and cede ground to the Republican agenda.
Unfortunately, this very simple principle still is not widely understood. In a well-meaning but utterly misguided piece in The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky argued that DFA’s statement against Northam was “the most self-righteous political act of 2017.” After acknowledging Northam’s cowardice on the sanctuary cities issue, and correctly assessing that it would have been smarter for Northam to prove he had a “backbone,” Tomasky retreats to the “the stakes are too high for anything but total loyalty” argument:
The question at hand is what “principle” DFA thinks it’s advancing by making this kind of showboat move less than a week before an election? I know what they’d say. Here on planet Earth, the only principle they’re advancing is the demand for impossible purity in a state where a man running an openly pro-Confederate campaign (Cory Stewart) came within 1.2 points of beating Gillespie in the GOP primary.
It’s already possible to see how the aftermath of a Northam loss would play out—people like Tomasky would blame the left, and take all the wrong lessons from the latest embarrassing defeat. It would be DFA who was responsible for the disaster, not Northam’s weakness—not the ease with which he sacrifices important principles. To Tomasky’s way of thinking, it’s worse for DFA to stand up for immigrant rights in Virginia than it is for Northam to abandon them in the name of political expediency. But this kind of backward thinking has become standard among pundits like Tomasky.
Here’s the truth—leftists are never going to have the thoughtless, unquestioning loyalty of the right. That may be a tough reality for certain politicians, but it’s actually a positive quality. Only an an autocrat would desire a constituency motivated by hatred and brainwashed by the media into marching in lockstep with a harmful agenda. The left isn’t just more diverse racially—it’s more diverse in thought, too. It is harder to win an enthusiastic following on the left, because it requires more than just running ads about how scary Hispanic people are. That’s all it takes for Gillespie, but why would anyone want that for the left?
It’s likely that someone, or many people, will criticize this article for attacking Northam on the eve of election day. If recent history is any indication, I might even be accused of collaborating with the Russians. (Yes, seriously.) That’s okay—in order to make electoral inroads in America, it’s necessary for Democratic politicians to espouse true progressive policy, and to stand firm behind these policies when they’re attacked from the right. These politicians will win the left because they are honest, and they will win moderates because they are unwavering.
That day is coming. Until then, centrists need to accept an inconvenient truth—when a politician abandons his principles because he is thirsty for a win, that politician deserves to lose. Even when the other guy is a monster.