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Democrats Should Embrace a Few Purity Tests

Voters can have a little certainty about what the party stands for, as a treat.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Depending on the year of your birth and your streaming media habits, you may have a different point of reference—Bill Murray or Natasha Lyonne—for the phenomenon of living the same day of your life, over and over again. Either way, it is becoming harder to avoid the feeling, as the Democratic nomination process drags on, that it’s going to be 2016 for the rest of our lives. The plot twist is that the characters in this real-life endless loop are not trying to escape the trap; they seem content to rehash their arguments now and forever, until the heat death of the universe.

If you want a searing example of how resentment takes precedence over learning from past electoral mistakes, consider the fact that it is only January and the chorus of liberal heavy hitters warning of the horrors of the Democratic Party being subject to “purity tests” is already warming up. The hot takes from noteworthy players and pundits abound: Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Hill, an endless supply of Twitter wags. Not that you needed reminders from the top to “vote blue no matter who!” In contrast to the dreaded talk of purity tests, it is all but impossible to discuss electoral politics anymore without this credo being repeated like a Gregorian chant.

Liberals and the Democratic Party overall appear never to have considered that, given the ideological incoherence and powerful sense of policy agnosticism that reigns in the New Democrat era, a “purity test” or two might not hurt. In addition to its being a basic, logical component of party politics (seldom is it recognized that the Republican Party and its stringent purity testing is doing pretty well), clarity on what exactly Democrats are and what core, sacrosanct policy positions Democrats hold could do wonders for its messaging during elections.

As it stands, the current Democratic presidential field of candidates emphasizes the degree to which total ideological indifference and an “anything goes” attitude have been normalized in the party. In addition to mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar—each of whom is indistinguishable from 1990s Republicans on most policy positions—this year’s field also features dyed-in-the-wool Business Roundtable-style conservatives (John Delaney, Michael Bloomberg), some sort of Libertarian-tinged tech-dude populist (Andrew Yang), and “definitely not a fascist, just really popular with right-wing fascists for no reason” Tulsi Gabbard.

Perhaps the fact that anyone, regardless of what positions they take on any issue, can throw his or her hat in the Democratic Party’s presidential ring is a sign that the core ideology of the party has become a bit too flexible. True, none of these off-beat candidates appear poised to claim the nomination. But in that wild mishmash of a presidential field, the only candidate who routinely finds himself on the receiving end of indignant “Not a Democrat!” accusations is Bernie Sanders. Who is more of a Democrat, the Senate “independent” whose ideology aligns perfectly with traditional, New Deal Democratic liberalism, or Bloomberg, a Republican who woke up one morning and thought, “How about I just change the R to D?”

This emphasis of label over message is a consequence of the shift the Democratic Party underwent, beginning in the late 1980s, toward the now-familiar Bill Clinton brand of liberalism that was not only open to embracing Republican priorities but was totally agnostic on policy. It didn’t matter how goals were achieved, only that they were achieved. Sounds great, right? It makes sense. It’s also why tax incentives, “public-private partnerships,” and means testing are now the only viable tools left in policymaking.

Are there not even a handful of basic positions that would-be voters could expect Democratic candidates to take as nonnegotiable? What, really, is the point of having a one-seat Senate majority when that majority depends on a Joe (then Lieberman, now Manchin) who can’t even be counted on to vote against Brett Kavanaugh? Why should voters, especially the Democratic base and the ideological left the party takes for granted, be expected to support candidates who cannot even promise a few basics? Here are just four purity tests—reasonable, bare-minimum expectations—that we are repeatedly told are just too much for the Democratic brand to guarantee:

  • Defense of abortion rights. Abortion access is popularly supported. Democrats who have a personal or moral opposition to abortion should at least be able to commit to refusing to help Republicans turn personal beliefs into public policy.
  • Refusal to “reform” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. If the holy trinity of Democratic welfare-state programs is on the chopping block to appease higher earners who don’t care to pay taxes, what isn’t?
  • Funding the Green New Deal or similarly aggressive climate change mitigation policy. None of these political issues matter if we render the planet uninhabitable.
  • Universal health care that does not depend on the vagaries of state legislatures and the for-profit insurance industry. Every single American should have health insurance that provides the level of benefits offered under Medicare or better, period.

All of these basic positions have public support, yet Democrats are forever arguing that they can’t win elections with such “radical” policies. The stock-character White Working-Class Hard Hat Guy won’t go for them, we are told. Oddly, the real opposition to these policies comes not from lower-income or working-class people but from the highly educated, better off Democrats Bill Clinton worked so hard to woo in the 1990s.

Political parties, especially in a two-party system, must be “big tents” with some ideological diversity. That does not exclude, however, the need for some core ideology that unites the disparate factions. Again, the Republican Party imposes stringent litmus testing on both its candidates and its rank and file, and it does not appear to have hurt its quest to dominate politics at every level in the twenty-first century.

Democrats often conclude from that success that being more like Republicans—that is, more conservative—is the answer. They have it halfway right: Democrats do need to be a bit more Republican in their outlook, but not in terms of finding points in common on the ideological spectrum. Rather than adopting positions that drift ever further to the right, they should consider the way Republicans practice politics. The GOP insists that its partisans—at a minimum—commit to lower taxes, privatization, and policy devolution to state governments. In this way, it provides a North Star to voters, in the form of principles to which it’ll always be true. Given its success, it may be worth considering whether offering voters some amount of fundamental certainty might be a good thing.

The dire warnings of the dangers of purity tests are laying the groundwork for another nominee—Biden, who is and has been leading the primary field all along. The central idea of his campaign is that he will find a way to work with Republicans, and he has gone to great lengths to stress his long history of forging compromise. He is of the mind that wooing Trump voters and “moderate Republicans” with Diet GOP policy promises is the path to victory.

But Republican voters know what they’re getting from the Republican Party and likely can’t comprehend why they’d need a Joe Biden in the mix, facilitating the GOP’s enterprise. If voters from the Democratic base and the ideological left don’t receive the same firm commitments, it could bring about another election in which wooing this cohort will again be a matter of intense scolding and lowering expectations. It doesn’t have to be this way: This can be the year when it finally dawns on the Democratic galaxy brain that its voters might be more strongly drawn to a candidate who actually makes it clear that they stand for a few basic things that are not negotiable.