The Democratic left is licking its wounds today after former state senator and Bernie Sanders campaign stalwart Nina Turner’s defeat in a special election for a congressional seat in Ohio.
Turner was the subject of an intense, multi-million dollar smear campaign funded by some of the worst people, from outright Republicans to Democratic pro-Israel fanatics. (Brown made sure to return the compliment, praising Israel and thanking her “Jewish brothers and sisters” in her victory speech.) The Democratic elite, from the Congressional Black Caucus to Hillary Clinton, converged en masse to boost her more right-wing opponent, Shontel Brown. These were definite factors in Turner’s loss.
But Turner was also vulnerable for a simple reason: she talked shit about Joe Biden, literally. Speaking to The Atlantic last year about the choice between Biden and Donald Trump, Turner said, “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.”
This is true. The two-party system sucks! But the other truth, as the Democratic left keeps finding out, is that Democratic voters like their party and the people in charge of it. Joe Biden currently has 90+ percent approval ratings among Democrats. They love the guy! Shontel Brown’s camp understood this, and acted accordingly, turning the race into a referendum on Turner’s anti-Biden stance.
That’s pretty clear: voters literally did not want to elect someone to “hold Joe Biden accountable.” They wanted someone to be on Biden’s team. That’s what American politics is, especially these days: team sports. Anyone who has dipped a toe into the political scene in recent years, even in the most indirect way, has encountered the hardcore tribalism of so many voters. They don’t want to spend their time scrutinizing their elected officials—they want to cheer for their people, even if those people break their promises and fail time and again and prop up the systems that have sent the world spiraling into doom.
Any putative leftist looking to storm the Democratic battlefield has to contend with this. Running within the Democratic Party is an inherently small-c conservative thing to do, because American politics are deeply conservative. You are setting yourself up to be a part of a fundamentally counterrevolutionary system, even if the implementation of your political goals would do a great deal of good.
Different members of the Democratic left have dealt with this in different ways, but they all have to make some kind of choice about what to do. Bernie Sanders—always more of an institutionalist than his public persona would suggest—is firmly on the Biden team. He’s even running defense for Biden on core issues like the filibuster:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez strikes a more antagonistic position towards Biden, but she has also formed something of a mutually beneficial buddy relationship with Chuck Schumer. Ilhan Omar has been constantly betrayed by the Democratic leadership, but the two camps still circle each other uneasily. I could go on.
The left is gaining power within the Democratic Party, but the establishment is the establishment for a reason: they have some big things kind of figured out. Democratic elites may be lousy at doing much of anything for ordinary people, but they are more than capable of maintaining their grip on their own institutions, including through quite ruthless and nefarious means. And Democratic voters, even as they push the party’s center of gravity to the left in many ways, keep proving that they don’t have much of a problem with that. It’s not fun, but it is what it is.